The young dean of an old cathedral, Jocelin, has a vision: God demands that he builds a spire on top of the cathedral that will be a massive symbol of his glory. Jocelin sets to work, but the vision is not so easily accomplished: the cathedral, it seems, has not been built on a foundation but on the bare earth, and as it grows higher and higher, it threatens to topple and destroy the very church it is meant to adorn. Jocelin demands that those around him--his subordinates, the workers, the churchgoers--retain their faith in the vision:
"...It's senseless, you think. It frightens us, and it's unreasonable. But then--since when did God ask the chosen ones to be reasonable? They call this Jocelin's Folly, don't they?"
"I've heard it called so."
"The net isn't mine, Roger, and the folly isn't mine. It's God's Folly. Even in the old days H never asked men to do what was reasonable. Men can do that for themselves. They can buy and sell, heal and govern. But then out of some deep place comes the command to do what makes no sense at all--to build a ship on dry land; to sit among the dunghills; to marry a whore; to set their son on the altar of sacrifice. Then, if men have faith, a new thing comes."
But as another priest notes, "The solid earth is against us." What Jocelin believes is vision and faith quickly are revealed as blindness and delusion. The angel that he believes stands at his back turns out to be the onset of tuberculosis. The lust he feels for one of his parishioners, Lady Pangall, is repressed and repurposed as priestly care and love. In fact, few books are as clear in making the statement that religious belief is a kind of self-fooling as this one; even modernists seem to have a good deal of regard for the spiritual impulse. Jocelin, on the other hand, is merely a fool.
And his foolishness is destructive. At the end of the novel, a procession comes from Westminster bearing, he thinks, a holy nail from the True Cross to adorn his cathedral. Instead, he finds that he has been put on trial, because in order to build the spire, he has ceased to carry out the basic functions of the cathedral--worship, mass, charity. No one remains but the workers, hundreds of feet in the air, and the empty church whose pillars "sing" under the strain of the spire.
This is the third of Golding's novels that I've read, after Lord of the Flies and Pincher Martin. I found that, here, like in those novels, nothing really lived up to the intriguing promise. Golding's prose is often obscure--a lot of ambiguous pronouns--and while that doesn't always bother me, I never get the sense that there's something worthwhile behind the obscurantism. At the end, Jocelin takes ill and the prose becomes increasingly matched to the fever dreams of tuberculosis. What happens to the spire is never clear--does it fall? Does it stand? And that is, I'm sure, on purpose. But what happens to Jocelin wasn't clear to me either.