Written in 1951 but not published until 1960, when it appeared in the magazine Encounter, “Miss Pulkinhorn,” by Nobel Prize–winning author William Golding (1911–93), was published in book form only after a dramatized version was broadcast on BBC radio in 1960. The Miss Pulkinhorn of the title is a witchlike spinster with fanatically strong but conventional Anglican beliefs who devotes her time to cleaning and guarding Salisbury Cathedral. Bigoted and uncharitable, with a strong sense of her own righteousness, Miss Pulkinhorn is endured but not popular with anyone, including the narrator, Sir Edward, who studies Miss Pulkinhorn from the vantage point of the organ loft. As he explains caustically, “She was a great one for the cathedral and I don’t suppose she ever missed a service, but sat out the lot, simmering with disapproval” (100). Miss Pulkinhorn regards herself as the cathedral’s guardian, exorcising anyone she regards as undesirable or morally suspect. The result is not pleasant. “[B]elieve me,” announces the narrator, “when so much bigotry and ignorance gets mixed up with jealousy on however high a plane, it curdles into a poison that can turn a woman into a witch.” (101).
Miss Pulkinhorn’s dislikes extend to the showiness of High Church practices, notably the Reservation of the Sacrament in the chapel of St. Augustine. In Holy Communion, the sacrament is the consecrated bread (the body of Christ), some of which may be kept after the service in a designated place in order that those who did not attend can commune with it later. The narrator explains that whenever the sacrament is reserved in the chapel, a light is lit; when it is not, the light is put out.
Miss Pulkinhorn’s special hatred is directed toward a bedraggled old man who comes to worship the sacrament every day. It is not clear whether the old man is mad or a mystic. He prays devotedly in front of a stained-glass window that depicts the Biblical father and son Abraham and Isaac in spectacular colors, and in doing so he imitates Abraham’s gesture of revelation: “God appearing from a great burst of colour, smiling in a friendly, fatherly way, and Abraham below in the right-hand light, smiling up with face and hands lifted” (102). These extravagant displays infuriate Miss Pulkinhorn. “She came to hang all her feelings on his alleged superstition; and I think she was jealous—jealous of his simplicity and fervour; jealous of his devotion with all the dreadful energy of childless and ignorant women” (102). Matters come to a head one night when the narrator, fi lled with foreboding, returns to the cathedral. As the caretaker makes his rounds, the two men fi nd the old man praying as usual. However, although the light is on, the cupboard that holds the sacrament and to which he has been praying is empty. The old man, feeling that his gestures have been revealed to be meaningless, collapses and later dies. The narrator thinks he can see Miss Pulkinhorn in the darkness of the cathedral and suspects that she has managed to break into the cupboard using the pin of her brooch and remove the sacrament in order to teach the old man a lesson, destroy his illusions, and end his joyfulness. Miss Pulkinhorn cannot cope with the fact that the narrator knows her secret and dies soon after, telling Sir Edward that her conscience is clear.
On one level, the story is about fanaticism and the desire for control. Miss Pulkinhorn, as Joasiane Paccaud- Huguet notes, is “ghoulish fi gure possessed by the desire for mastery over the worldliness of life that escapes her grasp[;] she perversely uses the tramp to confi rm her own authority. . . . By lighting the candle in the absence of the Sacrament she diverts the symbolic meaning of the light, traps her victim into a parody of revelation which leaves him scandalously exposed—the effect being not humility but humiliation and death” (66). But also in evidence is the narrator’s own mastery over Miss Pulkinhorn. By knowing her secret, he gains a godlike power over her. The story is also about the loss of innocence—the narrator’s misogynistic jibes at Miss Pulkinhorn’s unmarried state, together with the descriptions of the tramp’s ecstatic poses, suggest that as in the Bible there is a link between knowledge and sexual innocence. There is also the gap between image, reality, and the value placed in the life of the church on symbols, whether the communion bread or Abraham’s gesture. Critics have suggested that the work taps into other common ideas within Golding’s work as a whole. According to Steven Metcalf, these include “the unreliability of our understanding of our own motives, the vulnerability of the more innocent, and the totality of self-deception in the less innocent.” Golding told an interviewer, “I am treated as a philosopher, as a theologian as a historian, as a psychologist, if not a psychiatrist, but, in fact, what I am at bottom is a storyteller and . . . what I am really interested in is what gives power to a story” (quoted in Regard, 18).
Bradbury, Malcolm, ed. Penguin Book of Modern Short Stories. London: Penguin, 1988.
Metcalf, Steven. “Island Skies,” Times Literary Supplement, 2 September 2005.
Paccaud-Huguet, Josianne. “Rites of Perversion in Miss Pulkinhorn.” In Fingering Netsukes, edited by Frederic Regard, 63–81. London: Faber, 1995.
Regard, Frederic. Fingering Netsukes. London: Faber, 1995.