William Golding's diverse, complex and haunting trilogy of novels -- Rites of Passage, Close Quarters and Fire Down Below -- charts a dazzling and hazardous sea journey from England to Australia in 1812 and 1813, as experienced through the eyes of one young Englishman, Edmund Talbot. Talbot goes through his own rites of passage from youthful bravado to maturity, from arrogance to humility.
Plot Revealed Below!
Episode One: Rites of Passage
Edmond Talbot is on his way to Australia to take up a government post secured for him by his rich and influential godfather. Talbot is young, witty and naive, and all set for adventure and bravery in the face of whatever a long sea voyage might throw at him. He is also immature, vain, haughtily cocksure in his perception of the world, and ripe for certain lessons, both emotional and intellectual.
The vessel is an outdated and decrepit 18th century wooden warship which 'renders like an old boot.' There is nothing in the least bit romantic about it. It is crammed with a disparate assortment of officers, seamen and passengers (made up of gentlemen like Talbot and few ladies) and a 'cargo' of poor emigrants.
Presiding over this little society is the irascible Captain Anderson, who is positively hostile to Talbot until he learns of the young man's powerful patron, which makes him grudgingly respectful. Notable among the crew are Lieutenant Summers, a consummately professional sailor who has come up through the ranks, and the dashing Lieutenant Deverel, whom Talbot admires for his cynicism and masculine flair. Among the passengers are a Republican called Prettiman, a severe governess called Miss Granham and a drunken and verbose painter called Brocklebank, who appears to be enjoying a mŽnage a trois with two women he claims are his wife and daughter. There is also the timorous and fawning young parson, Colley.
The voyage is rough and shattering, relentless and wearisome. Out of monotony and claustrophobia there soon grows a need for distraction and mischief, which results in the wretched death of the parson. Appalled at his own entanglement in Colley's victimization, Talbot is forced to participate in a whitewash of the case when there is an inquiry. Chastened by this black event and made altogether wiser by the realization that he doesn't yet understand the world he inhabits, Edmund continues on his journey.
Episode Two: Close Quarters
Tensions continue to grow within the close confines of the ship. The safety of the passengers on board the increasingly dilapidated ship is by no means assured and the situation is made worse when the foremast is damaged.
The ship is becalmed in the doldrums; another vessel is sighted in the fog. The assumption is that it is French, and excited preparations are made for imminent engagement, but to the disappointment of all those who were hoping for the thrill of battle, the other ship, the Alcyone, turns out to be English. From the commander of this ship it is learned that the war with France is over. The two ships are fastened together and passengers from each vessel are introduced. A ball is planned and preparations generate much excitement. Talbot meets Marion Chumley, with whom he falls instantly in love. They flirt and his hopes are raised. But Deverel, again drunk, also pursues her.
When the time comes for the ships to part, Talbot is distraught at the thought of never seeing Marion again. With the Alcyone gone Talbot can only pine. The troublesome Deverel has also gone, exchanged for one of the Alcyone's officers, Benet, who is handsome and urbane and something of a risk-taker. Edmund grows closer instead to the more cautious Summers.
The sea is up again. Gloom and terror pervade the ship as there is now a serious danger that it will break apart. A rivalry begins between Summers and Benet as to the best method of preventing the ship from disintegrating. Benet has become Captain Anderson's favorite and his plan is adopted. The radical thinker Prettiman has had a bad fall in the storm and is tended by an unlikely nurse in the shape of the governess, Miss Granham. Talbot sails on, wondering if he will ever see Marion again.
Episode Three: Fire Down Below
Edmund is obsessed by memories of the beautiful Marion. He agrees to be a witness at the wedding of Prettiman and Miss Granham with whom he has established a friendship. Having despised Prettiman previously for his radical opinions, he now finds himself being converted to a more liberal understanding of the world.
Benet's scheme to mend the broken foremast involves pouring molten metal into its' base. Though approved by Captain Anderson, this plan fills everyone else with terror. All are now convinced that they will die, either by drowning, burning, or starvation, as supplies are running low.
However despite this, and other perils, Australia is at last reached and the ship docks in Sydney Cove. Through Edmund's influence Summers is given his longed for captaincy. A delayed reaction to Benet's molten metal experiment causes the docked ship to catch fire. Edmund races to save his friend but Summers chooses to stay with his ship and burns to death in the conflagration. Marion arrives unexpectedly on the Alcyone. To his joy Talbot discovers that his love for Marion is shared, and they, at least, have a happy ending.