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William Golding: The Spire

People who hear voices from God telling them to do something are often, of course, mad but in the meantime they can do untold harm. This is the case in this novel, set in the fourteenth century, where Dean Jocelin has been told by God to build a 400 ft spire onto his cathedral. His master builder, the aptly named Roger Mason, has doubts, feeling that the foundations of the cathedral will not support such a large structure, while his colleagues have very natural concerns about the cost. The people of the town – many of whom are still pagan (Jocelin sees them worshipping their pagan gods) – are also critical of Jocelin’s Folly.

While the book is primarily about the price of one man’s vision for everyone else, there are other issues. The spire might seem to be the symbol for Jocelin’s folly but it is also a phallic symbol. Jocelin is in love with the wife of the sexton, the impotent Pangall (whose name, of course, recalls that of Pangloss), though he does not realise it. Indeed, in order to keep Mason working, he allows Mason, who is also in love with her but is aware of it, to have an affair with her, with disastrous consequences. But Jocelin is blind to everything – his duty, other people, the risks he is taking. Only building the spire matters and, as we have seen elsewhere, sacrificing everything for a dream based on the word of a god is very, very dangerous.

Publishing history

First published 1964 by Faber & Faber