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The Spire is a 1964 novel by the English author William Golding. "A dark and powerful portrait of one man's will", it deals with the construction of the 404-foot high spire loosely based on Salisbury Cathedral; the vision of the fictional Dean Jocelin. In this novel, William Golding utilises stream of consciousness writing with an omniscient but increasingly fallible narrator.
First edition cover
|Cover artist||John Piper|
|Publisher||Faber and Faber|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||223 pp (hardback edition)|
Jocelin, the Dean of the cathedral, directs the construction of a towering spire funded by his aunt, Lady Alison, a mistress of the former King. The project is carried on against the advice of many, and in particular the warnings of the master builder, Roger Mason. The cathedral has insufficient foundations to support a spire of the magnificence demanded by Jocelin, but he believes he has been chosen by God and given a vision to erect a great spire to exalt the town and to bring its people closer to God. As the novel progresses, Golding explores Jocelin's growing obsession with the completion of the spire, during which he is increasingly afflicted by pain in his spine (which the reader gradually comes to realise is the result of tuberculosis). Jocelin interprets the burning heat in his back as an angel, alternately comforting or punishing him depending on the warmth or pain he feels. Jocelin's obsession blinds him to reality, as he neglects his duties as Dean, fails to pray and ignores the people who need him the most. The pit dug to explore the foundations at the Cathedral crossing becomes a place where chthonic forces surge, as the four tower pillars begin to 'sing'.
Jocelin also struggles with his unacknowledged lust for Goody Pangall, the wife of the crippled and impotent cathedral servant, Pangall. Jocelin seems at first to see Goody as his daughter in God. However, as the novel progresses, and Goody's husband is tormented and ridiculed as their 'fool' by the bullying workmen, Jocelin becomes tormented by sexual desire, usually triggered by the sight of Goody's red hair.
Comparisons between Goody and Rachel, Roger Mason's wife, are made throughout the novel. Jocelin believes Goody sets an example to Rachel, whom he dislikes for her garrulousness and for revealing that her marriage to Roger remains unconsummated. However, Jocelin overestimates Goody's purity, and is horrified when he discovers Goody is embarking upon an affair with Roger Mason. Tortured by envy and guilt, Jocelin finds himself unable to pray. He is repulsed by his sexual thoughts, referred to as "the devil" during his dreams.
The Cathedral building, its ordered life, and the lives of the people around Jocelin are disrupted because of the intractable problems arising from the construction of the spire, but Jocelin continues to drive his dream to its conclusion. His visions and hallucinations, hence his denial of the reality of the situation, mark his descent into irrationality. As the true costs, financial and spiritual, of the endeavour become apparent, the story moves to its tragic conclusion.
Pangall disappears; although his fate is never made explicit, it is clear from the clue of the mistletoe that he was a pagan sacrifice buried at the Crossing by the builders to secure their luck against the stupidity of continuing the work. Goody Pangall dies in childbirth, bearing Roger Mason's child. Roger becomes a drunkard and at the end Jocelin dies of his illness, though only after first hearing from his aunt that his appointment was due only to her sexual influence, not to his merits. Before he dies, the phallic imagery of the Spire is displaced by the mysterious symbol of the tree. The spire is incomplete at the end of the story, and there is a growing sense of impending disaster due to the instability of the over-ambitious structure.
Dean Jocelin is the character through whom the novel is presented. Golding utilises the stream of consciousness technique to show his, Lear-like, descent into madness. The novel charts the destruction of his self-confidence and ambition. As the construction of the spire draws to an end, Jocelin is removed from his position as Dean and his abandonment of his religious duties is denounced by the church Council. Ultimately, he succumbs to his illness which he had personified as his guardian angel.
Roger Mason, a medieval Master Mason is, in direct contrast to Jocelin, physically powerful and a rationalist. He is associated with the imagery of a bull and a stallion. Roger contends with Jocelin, arguing that the cathedral foundations are insufficient to support the spire. He is forced to continue with the project because Jocelin makes it impossible for him to work elsewhere. After the death of Goody, Roger becomes an alcoholic. In a moment of clarity, Jocelin visits Roger and we eventually learn of his suicide attempt.
Rachel Mason is Roger's wife. She reveals to Jocelin the reason why they cannot have children as attempts at sex result in fits of giggles.
Pangall is the crippled and impotent cathedral servant. He is mocked because of his impotency by the workmen.
Goody, who acts as an important object of love and lust, ultimately dies while giving birth. Jocelin initially sees her as the perfect woman.
Anselm is largely critical of the developments concerning the spire, arguing that it is destruction of the church. Jocelin had been prepared to lose his friendship with Anselm as part of the cost of the spire, but we learn by the end of the novel that they appeared not to have had a friendship in the first place.
Father Adam is dubbed by Jocelin as "Father Anonymous", indicating Jocelin's feelings of superiority. Until the end of the novel, when Father Adam becomes Jocelin's caretaker, he is largely a minor character who is surprised by how Jocelin was never taught to pray, doing his best to help him to heaven.
A wealthy mistress of the late King, we learn how the money funding the spire was a result of this affair. With the appearance of a "tiny woman – not much larger than a child", she is plump and pale, wearing a black dress, black hair, eyes and make-up, with mainly small features. Her wealth and sexuality is presented through her pearls and perfume and she takes care of her appearance, having smooth skin with fine lines, despite her age.
The workmen are referred to as "an army" and Jocelin is confronted numerous times by those who disagree with the disruption they cause. Pangall is their eventual sacrifice, buried "beneath the crossways" with mistletoe between his ribs. The mistletoe can be viewed as a metaphor in terms of horror and the word “obscene” occurs several times (the Druids' idea that the berries were the semen of the Gods may well contribute to Jocelin's revulsion). "The riotous confusion of its branches" is alarming as well as is Jocelin's disgust at the berry on his shoe. Golding weaves the mistletoe as a pagan symbol into the naturalistic treatment of it as a sign of a physical threat to the spire. Mistletoe grows on living oak trees – if the wood used in the building is unseasoned, the mistletoe will continue to grow on it, revealing a scientifically explicable danger.
Goody's red hair can be seen as symbolic for a number of things. Sexual dreams, female sexuality, the devil, lust and desire being some of the possible ideas around it. Constant animal symbolism between Roger and Goody (referred to as a bear, a bull and a stallion or a stag at various points in the novel) are also a possible indication of Jocelin's lack of social awareness, his childlike qualities and his naivety. However, Goody is said to wear a green dress, which contrasts Rachel Mason's red dress – the green can perhaps symbolise nature (a recurring paganistic theme in the novel) and the red represents Rachel's undesirable "fiery" personality. Goody is portrayed as a quiet "good woman" by Jocelin (whose view is the platform for this novel) and Rachel is not. The irony being that Goody's unfaithfulness is hidden by her hat, and only occasionally do we spot her flame red hair (and infidelity).
The spire Jocelin wishes to raise in itself can be seen as a phallic symbol, as Jocelin initially views the model of it as a man lying on his back.
Religious imagery is used towards the end of the novel, where Jocelin lies dying. Jocelin declares "it's like the apple-tree!", making a reference to the Garden of Eden and Humanity's first sin of temptation but also perhaps the pagan ideas that have been constantly threaded into Jocelin's mind as he spends more and more time up in the Spire, raised above the ground (and further away from his church and his role as God's voice on earth).
Jocelin's degrading spine can be seen as a micro-macro analogy to the unstable spire. He believes the former manifests as the presence of his angel on his back whereas the latter is the will of God. His narcissism is belied by these failing structures he reinterprets to maintain his worldview.
The Spire is subject to critical analysis by Steve Eddy in the York Notes Advanced series and reviews by Frank Kermode and David Skilton are included in William Golding: Novels 1954–1967.
Don Crompton, in A View from the Spire: William Golding's Later Novels, analyses the novel and relates it to its pagan and mythical elements. More recently, Mark Kinkead-Weekes and Ian Gregor cover all of William Golding's novels in William Golding: A Critical Study of the Novels.
"A most remarkable book, as unforeseeable as one foresaw, an entire original... remote from the mainstream, potent, severe, even forbidding." – Frank Kermode, New York Review of Books, 30 April 1964.