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William Golding: Darkness Visible

The book, Golding’s first for fifteen years, gets its title from Paradise Lost – Yet from those flames/No light, but rather darkness visible. The image is that of the flames of Hell and that is the image that runs through this book – flames, burning and Hell. We start off with a fire following a German bomb attack on London during World War II. A burning child escapes the flames. No-one claims him. He is badly burned and remains disfigured. Inevitably, society spurns him. He is christened Matty. He grows up in a school in the town of Greenfield and eventually becomes the groundsman there, all the while asking himself who he is. He reads the Bible and keeps a diary and clearly is, by our normal standards, not normal. In his diary he mentions that he is visited by elders who tell him that he has a great purpose.

We then meet Sophy Stanhope and her sister, Toni. Sophy is beautiful, brilliant and evil. Toni has been trained by Arab terrorists. The pair, with accomplices, enjoy drugs, kidnapping, firebombing and other anti-social behaviour. Meanwhile Matty has become a prophet and we follow his effect on three old men in Greenfield, including Sam Pedigree, a former teacher of Matty and a child molester. But Sophy and Co are intent on kidnapping a helpless child and this is where Matty’s purpose is revealed, being sacrificed to save another in a Christ-like manner, consumed with fire. He even appears to Pedigree after death and burns up. This is a very intense book, influenced, obviously, by the Bible and Milton by also but the classical Greeks whom Golding was reading. The message is bleak – the powers of darkness are taking over and only the fires of Hell can save us.

Publishing history

First published 1979 by Faber & Faber