Jocelin, Dean of a medieval cathedral, has had a vision which he believes reveals that he must add a four hundred foot spire to the cathedral. The decision is a controversial one, especially as the work proves disruptive and the master builder, Roger Mason, discovers that the building lacks the requisite foundations to support the spire. Jocelin is insistent that faith will be sufficient and accuses the master builder of being timid, and of playing for time in order to keep himself and his men in employment. Jocelin is maintained in his belief that the spire will stand by the news that his bishop is sending a Holy Nail (from the crucifixion) from Rome to protect the spire.
The cathedral’s caretaker, Pangall, hates the disruption and the workmen’s mockery which he suffers. There are early hints that he is impotent. Jocelin is horrified when he notices that Roger and Goody, Pangall’s wife, are sexually attracted to each other. However, he realises that, if he does not intervene, their adultery will prevent Roger from leaving. Roger’s wife Rachel reveals that she and her husband are childless because she finds sex makes her laugh.
Jocelin climbs to the roof to inspect the work and finds it exhilarating. However, he has what is eventually revealed to be tuberculosis of the spine, and this illness gradually becomes worse. He is also increasingly troubled by sexual dreams relating to his own attraction to Goody.
A pit has been dug in order for the master builder to look for foundations, and there is a crisis when the earth in it is seen to be creeping. The stones start to make a high-pitched whine and to splinter. Roger wants to stop work, but Jocelin forces him to continue. The result is that the anxious workmen become a mob and – as only later becomes apparent – they pursue and murder Pangall, burying his body beneath the cathedral pavement as a pagan charm to keep the spire from falling.
Jocelin becomes increasingly obsessed with the spire, shutting out all other concerns. However, he feels guilty about Goody and tries to speak to her. When she sobbingly rejects his approaches, he climbs the spire to seek solace. It is revealed that Goody is pregnant.
Roger becomes increasingly sullen and unpopular and the singing of the stones becomes worse, so that the master builder again begs Jocelin to halt the work. He paints a persuasive picture of the spire’s collapse, but Jocelin resists and makes him continue. Shortly after this, Jocelin climbs the spire and witnesses Roger and Goody having sex.
A steel brace is made and fitted to the spire. While this is going on, Jocelin secures a place for Goody in a local convent. But when Rachel discovers Roger’s infidelity, she attacks first Goody, then Roger, and Goody dies in childbirth. Jocelin becomes more unwell and is tormented by remorse and sexual feelings, although he is relatively happy when helping the workmen. Roger becomes an alcoholic and has a breakdown. At midsummer, Jocelin realises that the workmen have left their work to attend pagan festivities.
More Summary of Devil at My Heels
The spire nears completion as the Holy Nail approaches. Jehan, Roger’s second-in-command, now in charge of the work, miscalculates and damages the spire. An official from Rome, referred to only as the Visitor, interviews Jocelin and relieves him of his authority. In a raging storm, Jocelin climbs the spire and hammers the Nail in place, after which he has two mystical visions of Goody.
Jocelin’s aunt, Lady Alison, visits him and reveals that he was only appointed Dean thanks to her. The dumb sculptor, Gilbert, shows Jocelin that the pillars supporting the cathedral roof are not solid but filled with rubble. Father Adam reads aloud Jocelin’s sermon describing his original vision of the spire.
The process of Jocelin’s disillusionment continues when Anselm – Jocelin’s former teacher but now his junior as the Sacrist of the cathedral – denies that they were ever really friends. Jocelin goes to seek Roger’s forgiveness, on the way having two mystical revelations inspired by an appletree and a kingfisher. He is briefly reconciled to Roger before the master builder becomes angry and throws him out. On the street, Jocelin is set upon by a mob.
Nearing death, Jocelin has his effigy sculpted, and finally has several intimations which seem to explain his past experiences, and perhaps the whole of life itself. His dying thought is of the appletree, but the priest attending him, Father Adam, chooses to believe that Jocelin was in his dying breath murmuring the name of God.
On one level this is a novel about the building of a spire upon a cathedral, the foundations of which are nothing but marsh and brushwood. It is about the resilience of those foundations against all odds; they hold a spire some four hundred feet high when, by rights, this shouldn’t be possible.
It follows the lives of a range of people involved in the building project, from the anonymous army of labourers who do the actual work at one extreme to the man who believes that God has chosen him to bring this work to a conclusion at the other. The spire stands at the end of the novel but it has destroyed the lives of Dean Jocelin, whose vision was the inspiration for its building; of Roger Mason, the master builder; of Roger’s wife, Rachel; of Pangall’s wife, Goody and the child she bears to Roger Mason.
The reader is never confident whether the spire is the work of God or the work of the devil; what is clear is it is built upon human misery, upon argument and dissension within the cathedral’s community, and upon the deceit of Dean Jocelin who holds high office in the church. As the spire reaches upwards the Dean feels its weight upon his back until he ends bent double; though he isn’t aware of it, Jocelin suffers a crippling spinal disease – tuberculosis of the spine – which eventually kills him. Throughout the building of the spire he believes that the early physical manifestations of his condition are the visitations of his own guardian angel.
The novel is also concerned with sexuality. It is about two men’s desire for a simple woman who remains unaware of her own attractions; one, the Dean, suppresses his desires and suffers because of it, the other, Roger Mason, fulfils his desires, gets her pregnant and also suffers by it. Goody Pangall dies in childbirth; her husband is bullied mercilessly by Roger’s men and finally driven cruelly to his death; Roger tries to kill himself and ends his day in madness; Rachel is left desolate, tending to her husband as if he were the baby they never had; Jocelin dies in both physical and spiritual agony.
Finally the spire is left, a symbol but a very ambiguous one. Of the power of God to work miracles? Of a bargain with the devil? Or of the skill and endurance of man? Golding doesn’t tell us.
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