Darkness Visible is the most mysterious of all Golding’s novels, and he famously refused to discuss it during his lifetime. It is an astonishing achievement, and is his most modern book, with themes of terrorism, spirituality, multiculturalism and sexual politics. Darkness Visible is divided into three parts, although these are joined together in a subtle but deft manner.
The novel opens in a flash of fire at the Isle of Dogs, London, during World War II. The streets are aflame following a bombing and the onlookers are frightened and confused in the chaos. But the brightness of the fire has a curious effect: ‘there was so much light […] there was if anything too much clarity, too much shameful, inhuman light where the street ended.’ (pp. 6–7). The firefighters and volunteers are shocked to see someone walking out of the fire. Badly burned on the left side of his body, it is a child that walks towards them. Nothing is known about the child: ‘His background was probed and probed without result. For all the most painstaking inquiries could find, he might have been born from the sheer agony of a burning city (20). They called him number seven, before renaming him Matthew, known as Matty.
And it is Matty who we follow in Part One, taking us from the end of the War into the 1970s. Matty is sent to a school for foundlings, where he comes across Mr Pedigree, an odious teacher, who behaves inappropriately to the boys in his care. Matty is confused by Pedigree and desires to please him – Matty’s inherent goodness, and limited understanding prevents him from realising Pedigree’s true character. The death of one of the boys leads to Pedigree’s arrest, and Matty too leaves the school by association, to work at Frankley’s Ironmongers, as a delivery boy. He remains haunted by Pedigree’s screams of ‘It’s all your fault’ and he fails to find anyone who will treat him like a human being. Matty has a crush on a girl who works at Frankley’s, but has a devastating realisation that his ‘unattractive appearance’ would mean he would never find anyone who loves him. He leaves England for Australia, where he struggles to understand himself, asking ‘who am I?’, and then ‘what am I?’.
The truth about Matty, or what he actually is, is never revealed, but Part One concludes with extracts from his journal, which he is writing to show he is not mad. The journal does help the reader to understand Matty a little better, but it is never clear if the events he writes about actually happen, or whether, despite his protests, he is insane. At this point in the book, Matty has returned to England, where he sees ghosts, and is ‘visited’ by mysterious spirits. They convince him that he must save a child, and he returns to London to seek out Pedigree.
Part Two shifts the focus to Sophy Stanhope in London, although Matty, unknown to Sophy, crosses paths with her on a number of occasions. Sophy and her twin, Toni, live with their father in London, after their mother leaves him for another man. Mr Stanhope is not interested in his daughters, and they are made to live in a building at the bottom of the garden, while he has a succession of girlfriends. As Sophy gets older, she realises her intelligence and beauty give her a certain power over men, which she uses to her advantage. Although a more straightforward character than Matty, Sophy also struggles with her identity – there is the polite Sophy that is presented to the world and the misanthropic self that is inside her who controls the ‘Sophy-doll’. After dabbling in crime, Sophy persuades her boyfriend Gerry, and his friend Bill, that they need to do something ‘big’ for maximum reward. She proposes they kidnap a child from the school where Matty now works.
Part Three ties Matty’s and Sophy’s stories together in a stunning climax. Toni Stanhope has returned from overseas where she has been engaging in acts of terrorism, to join in with Sophy’s kidnapping plot. The opening of this section focuses on local residents Goodchild and Bell who find themselves caught up in Matty’s spiritualism and they take part in a strange ritual of holding hands, which Matty later explains is to ward off evil spirits. There are evil spirits in Sophy and Toni’s stables – ‘green and purple and black’. We move back to Matty’s diary in this third section, where he writes about the need to be ‘a guardian to the boy’. He is also still trying to save Pedigree, who refuses Matty’s help. His diary also recounts Sophy’s ‘finding’ of her engagement ring, and his role in perpetuating the lie. Once again, Matty’s journal is helpful in confirming the way in which the two narratives have intersected, which are only hinted at in the third person narration. In the book’s finale, Matty appears to Pedigree in the park, golden, loving – and terrible.
Despite such dark themes, Darkness Visible has moments of delicious humour. Sophy’s annoyance at her ‘fiancé’ Fido’s obsession with his deltoids in a phone conversation is good fun, and Goodchild and Bell’s ritual with Matty becomes a source of nationwide derision when it is shown on television. Their bumbling explanations are just as cringeworthy.
Perhaps the novel’s most important discussion is the relationship between appearance and reality, of outer disability and inner torment. Matty’s deformed face is set against the inherent goodness of his soul, while Sophy and Toni’s pleasing and powerful beauty masks monstrous truths. Matty spends his life being ostracised from society and withdraws into himself – whether this withdrawal causes madness or spiritual transcendence is never clear. Golding leaves many mysteries for the reader to unravel; a further puzzle between appearance and reality.
Darkness Visible won the James Tait Black Prize in 1979 and is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. In his introduction to the 2013 edition, Philip Hensher writes that it is ‘one of the great masterpieces of the twentieth-century English novel’.