Dust is a vital element that supports the overall themes of innocence and sin in The Golden Compass, connecting to the religious and moral philosophy in the world and how it may be more harmful than beneficial to humanity. Throughout the story, it is argued whether Dust is valuable to their society, or if its existence is unjustified, and these contrasting perspectives symbolize issues in the real-world.
Within author Philip Pullman’s fantasy world, Dust is an invisible residue that has been ignored by most but is now frightening scholars and magical creatures. It is classified as an elementary particle, such as neutrons, protons, and electrons, and though nobody truly knows what Dust is, its importance is undeniable. The most intelligent and important scholars dedicate their lives to this subject and even they are unable to solve the mystery. In The Golden Compass, a girl named Lyra embarks on a treacherous journey to find the truth behind Dust. While Dust is not physically present in this book, the concept of Dust is thought provoking and used not only as a plot device, but as a powerful symbol.
Dust in this story represents the innocence in humans, and the controversy over this mysterious substance represents the differing opinions regarding purity in humanity. Early in the story, one man informs Lyra that adults attract Dust while children do not (89). However, it is only towards the end of the story when Lord Asriel, Lyra’s father, informs her that Dust is, “…physical proof that something happened when innocence changed into experience” (Pullman, 373). Dust represents the loss of innocence, which is why it only accumulates around grown-ups who have lost their childhood naivety. While in this universe, Dust is an invisible residue, in our world, dust is a dirty product of lack of cleanliness, therefore representing all that is impure. Consequently, characters such as Lord Asriel are determined to cleanse Dust from the world and restore the innocence in all people. However, at the end of The Golden Compass, Lyra has a moral crisis, questioning whether she should be fighting for or against Dust. She argues, “We thought Dust must be bad too, because they were grown up and they said so. But what if it isn’t? What if it’s…Yeah! What if it’s really good…” (Pullman, 398). By questioning whether Dust is truly destructive, the author is challenging the idea that growing out of innocence truly causes corruption. Pullman pushes readers to consider that a part of being human is gaining knowledge, and forever remaining in a state of innocence would stunt the ability to grow from experience.
In this version of the story, the Church claims that Dust is physical proof of original sin. According to the Bible, Dust was first created when Adam and Eve disregarded God by consuming the forbidden fruit, causing them and their descendants to lose their innocence forever. As Lord Asriel tries to explain this concept to Lyra, he states, “Somewhere out there is the origin of all the Dust, all the death, the sin, the misery, the destructiveness in the world. Human beings can’t see anything without wanting to destroy it, Lyra. That’s original sin. And I’m going to destroy it” (Pullman, 377). When the Church reaches the conclusion that Dust is the root of all their issues, followers such as Lord Asriel feel obligated to destroy the source of Dust, eliminating evil in the world. He views humans as cruel individuals unable to show kindness and accept peace. In the end, Asriel goes to great lengths to achieve this goal, and he ends up sacrificing the soul of one of Lyra’s best friend, Roger, betraying Lyra in the process. After watching Roger suffer through indescribable amounts of pain, Lyra claims that “…she could have killed her father; if she could have torn out his heart, she would have done so there and then for what he’d done to Roger. And to her: tricking her: how dare he?” (Pullman, 397). By trying to adhere to the Church’s ideals, Lord Asriel loses any sense of morality, and his malicious actions reflect his obsession. When Lyra witnesses this situation, she reasons that the Church’s position may not be as reliable as she once thought. This concept relates to the underlying attack on organized religion. Pullman chose this path because according to His Dark Materials website, he is an atheist and as an atheist, he does not believe in the existence of gods. These personal, religious beliefs transferred into The Golden Compass. Throughout this story, the obsession with Dust symbolizes the tyranny of faith where religious people do not question the beliefs that are being preached. By the end of the story, Lyra reaches the conclusion that Dust is not so detrimental to society, but Lord Asriel has been blinded by expunging Dust and pleasing the Church.
In The Golden Compass, the physical presence of Dust is less of a literal concept, and more of a theoretical and moral philosophy. It is a unique symbol that contributes to the overarching themes evident throughout the story of the dangers of having blind faith and using religion as a weapon to hurt those who do not share the same beliefs. The meaning behind Dust applies to how people in the real-world should always question the motives behind their actions and what the consequences will be if they do not do so.