Greene, Graham 1904–
A British novelist, short story writer, editor, children's writer, essayist, and playwright, Greene is a highly respected and widely read author. Greene's literary world is one of paradox and seediness where the sinner is often the saint, the idealist a destructive agent, and evil is everywhere while innocence is suspect. Greene's Catholicism figures prominently in his fiction, providing him with a system of concepts, situations, and symbols that he uses to dramatize human nature. (See also, Graham Greene Criticism and volumes 1, 3, 6, 14, 18 and 125.)
"Le pécheur est au coeur même de chrétienté…. Nul n'est aussi compétent que le pécheur en matière de chrétienté. Nul, si ce n'est le saint." ["The sinner is at the very heart of Christianity…. No one is as competent as the sinner in Christian matters. No one, unless it is the saint."] As a general proposition these words of Péguy are highly suspect, not to say offensively slick. Naked paradox can be self-defeatingly clever. But when Graham Greene attaches this paradox, as epigraph, to The Heart of the Matter, then indeed we must test Péguy as seer and Greene as novelist. In my opinion Greene's book succeeds triumphantly as fictional case in support of Péguy's generalization. Major Scobie (quite apart from his view of himself) is a fine example of good and evil interwoven and interdependent—so fine an example as to demonstrate the need for Purgatory, realm or condition of salvation-with-a-difference. (p. 711)
My own contention, which still needs urging despite our level of critical sophistication, is that some knowledge of Catholicism is legitimately required of anyone reading this book, but that, whereas knowledge may or may not be joined to religious belief, the only area wherein people can understand one another as literary critics is that region wherein the believer suspends belief and the nonbeliever disbelief, even as each brings his knowledge critically to bear upon the text. (p. 712)
[The] trouble is that some readers overreact to the real need to apply Christian knowledge, hence inadvertently prejudge what ought to be found in the book, and then devalue the book as literature because of the supposed gap between fictional elements and an extraliterary notion of Christianity.
The terrain is slippery because, together with the necessity of starting out with some knowledge of Catholic Christianity, goes the attendant responsibility for allowing the fiction to reshape or force attention upon some perhaps obscure corner of that theoretical knowledge. It is worthwhile to point out that Scobie is asked about Christianity and happiness (as if Greene were anticipating some questions), that he distinguishes on one occasion between "happiness and love," that he sees no chance for happiness in a miserable world …, and that for him happiness and peace are always impressionistic dreams of solitude, of quiet, changeless, cool darkness—whereas his waking world is cluttered, torrid, complicated, impermanent, and sad. But while he despairs of ever reaching peace himself, the novel is the psychological account of his efforts to gain it for others. Joy (happiness, peace) is decidedly at stake, then, by virtue of its conspicuous absence; and Scobie's relationship to it is conditioned by character and peculiarly tied to his sense of God, Louise, Helen, and his own creatureliness. Perhaps a shorter answer is that, while joy may indeed be available to the Christian, his belief alone is no guarantee of joyfulness—any more than lack of joy need point to heterodoxy. (p. 714)
[We] should notice a frequent complaint that Scobie's dilemma is artificial and thus fails of sufficient force. The objection is that if Scobie loved God he would bring himself to end his affair (if indeed he could have begun it), and that continuing in it proves that he cannot love God but is merely using God in order to enjoy his own guilt and make Helen Rolt suffer in his masochistic toils…. And Helen Rolt herself … tells Scobie, "'If you really believed you wouldn't be here'" [i.e., with her]. Scobie's answer is the only one he can give: "'But I do believe and I am here…. I can't explain it, but there it is'."… His insistence does not prove itself, of course, but it does show him aware of an obvious accusation. As "proof" that he believes in and loves God, even while he keeps a mistress, nothing can be offered except a close look at his behavior and intentions. That is, he does not fully "explain" his motives (and, as we shall see, the narrator's distance compels us to see Scobie's motives differently from the way Scobie sees them), but his actions show the mixed motives without which his choices make no sense. (pp. 714-15)
Just as George Tesman and Judge Brack are ironic victims of their own conviction that "people don't do such things," and are left to reconsider what people will do (and why), many a reader of The Heart of the Matter is left either to consider motives he may not be familiar with, or to abandon the book as incompatible with his own way of reading. My point is that anyone making the second choice should be aware of the comment he thus makes upon his own limitations, rather than upon a book's own terms.
Among this book's own terms is that omniscient point of view which, though it can give us the introspections of Helen, Harris, or Wilson, spends so much of the narrator's time rendering Scobie's attitudes that many readers take the book straight, very nearly as Scobie's account of how the novel's events add up. Such a confusion destroys one's experience of the novel, although we must certainly attend carefully to Scobie's self-reading as we get it from the narrator and from Scobie's first-person letters and diary. It is one thing to refer to this loosely as "Scobie's novel," and another thing to allow ourselves to ignore that distancing point of view which should make us contrast Scobie's awareness and the insights of others. To miss this opposition is to suppose Scobie's knowledge of Catholic Christianity complete, to overlook his ironic misreadings of his own character and motives, and inevitably to flounder about wondering what to do with the post mortem ending.
Scobie's views and the narrative point of view not only differ, but call attention, at least by implication, to different points of Catholic doctrine. This is the main reason why literary point of view must be kept straight in the present instance. To take Scobie at his own estimate leads to several erroneous conclusions: that Father Rank's last words—to the effect that Scobie perhaps loved no one but God—are only a collapsing agreement with Louise in her bitter accusation that Scobie's love of God was a self-loving devotion preventing his loving anyone else; that Father Rank finally therefore thinks Scobie's damnation more likely than he had just been arguing; that the unhappiness of both Louise and Helen indirectly testifies to a sinner's inability to achieve anything good for anyone, and indirectly supports Scobie's conviction that suicide would damn him. But it seems clear that narrative omniscience militates against accepting Scobie's view just as it prevents any other character's view from being solely final. We have to balance attitudes—Scobie's, Louise's, Helen's, Wilson's, Father Rank's, the Church's (the last two are of course compatible, but are related as particular interpreter to general legislator)—as omniscience requires. And when we do so, we find both that Scobie makes some important mistakes unawares and that some of these are a sound basis for supposing him ultimately saved.
A look at his mistakes is, in fact, a useful way to see his character and motivation, apart from what he may think both to be. What the narrator makes plain is that Scobie, for all his thoughtfulness and sensitivity, is not a reader of books. What needs adding is that he is not intellectual and not even especially intelligent, in spite of his insights and his spontaneous invention of an adventure story for a young boy. In being very nearly anti-intellectual, Scobie is not only like some other of Greene's protagonists—the whiskey priest, Pinkie, Mr. Brown—but is also one who proceeds by feeling and intuition, and whose knowledge of doctrine and whose ideas in general he himself will often tend to distrust (as he distrusts God) and discard (as he generally strips his life bare of all save feelings for others, God included). (pp. 716-17)
He is, however, a fictional character named Scobie, and one whose important oversights and other mistakes—such as those just mentioned—are perfectly motivated by his being a simple man (simple both deliberately and indeliberately) and are supported by a number of other plausible miscalculations. He reminds himself briefly and self-surprisingly that no human can plan another's life …, but because this is an idea he typically forgets it and continues to follow feelings…. Moreover, his reason for assuming himself beyond the pale is his conviction that he knows what he is doing at all times and hence is beyond being pitied. This is one of his root mistakes, this presuming upon his own knowledge and hence upon virtual exemption from what he regards as the universal human condition; and, as will become clearer, this gross mistake is the best evidence of what is called invincible ignorance and thus of eventual redemption.
There are other mistakes, of quite different kinds, on which his characterization is heavily based. His habit of seeking justice, for example, cannot be readily broken; that is, he is not adept at crookedness (an observation bearing to some extent upon Scobie as sinner). He imagines himself clever at covering his affair with Helen, though in fact Louise and others know of it. He is a dupe in Yusef's effort to frame a case against Tallit. He finds it hard to believe in Wilson's duplicity. He cannot even manage the deceitfulness required to fake his diary entries convincingly and thereby cover his suicide. Importantly, he quite miscalculates the effect of his death upon Louise, Helen, and (I argue) God. Such mistakes are sometimes thrown up as evidence that Scobie is too weak to hold a big theme together, or to serve as the character demanded by Péguy's paradox, or to represent anything important in God's plans. But it seems to me that Scobie is beautifully designed to deny all such charges, and that his very mistakes testify to his real devotion to justice and to his genuine desire to die for others. Only such a confusedly simple man could miss so much; could push himself ahead on such limited evidence; could believe in the efficacy of his acts as unshakably as this oddly innocent man does.
How may such innocence be reconciled with what Scobie does to Louise, Helen, Ali, God? The question may be posed in various ways, but what it usually means is that innocence does not sin, does not violate those it professes to love, and only seems to inhere in a character bathed in romance or sentimentality. Such accusations must be faced, and we will do well to see how facing them involves us in the sins Scobie commits.
By "innocent," then, I mean ignorant; but of course Scobie is ignorant only after reaching a certain level of awareness. (pp. 717-18)
The book achieves its sinner-saint tension by making vivid the terrible consequences of sin—consequences which should prevent our seeing Scobie as sentimentally conceived and portrayed, and which should demonstrate that the book earns its right to borrow Péguy's words by hammering away at the ruin all around Scobie. Ignorance, then, can save a sinner; but even invincible ignorance is measured and relative, and therefore blocks neither sin nor the consequences thereof.
Among Scobie's mistakes lies the believably unintelligent supposition that Louise, Helen, and God will soon forget him when he's dead, and will cease to be pained. This no doubt can seem an unlikely supposition, given Scobie's awareness that, alive, he means enough to all three of them to be tormenting them in their various demands for his love. But the book makes fine use of this seeming improbability to drive home yet again the fact that Scobie really thinks little of his own value. He is a genuinely humble man, the more so because he would no more think himself humble than he would be able to see himself as the hubristic God-player of a standard theological textbook. Innocence again (i.e., something he cannot know) operates in his favor. As always, the intention makes the difference, and Scobie's intention is not to escape a mess or to relieve his own pain, but to relieve the pain he causes others—to relieve it even as he goes to what he thoroughly believes will be unending pain for himself…. (p. 720)
But what of Scobie's treatment of Ali? This is clearly not an intentional betrayal (and thus in a sense not a betrayal at all), but at the same time the book carefully places the event—both in contrast to Ali's earlier role in Scobie's dream of peace, and after Scobie's sacrilegious reception of the Eucharist—to demonstrate the grounds of Scobie's sense that the devil is now taking care of him since he has sinned against God…. All of Scobie's sins are betrayals in some sense, certainly; but the prominence of this particular sin is in Scobie's seeing it so clearly for what it says of his vision of peace, of Ali's trust, of his own exercise of responsibility. The event is powerful, as it must be to waken Scobie from lethargy that could indeed carry him into mere self-pity, and to intensify his sense of the pain he continues to cause those who, unlike Ali, survive in their trust of him.
Ali's death is the most important evidence for the probability of Scobie's choosing suicide, precisely because Scobie can from here on see no future but a painful one for anyone who trusts him. But would he do this to God, of Whom he is intensely conscious? This is inevitably the first and last hurdle to the book's exemplifying Péguy's paradox, and the narrative clears this hurdle despite a certain weakness here.
The weakness is in the barest suggestion that Scobie supposes himself to be contemplating a death that is no more the sin of suicide than was Christ's crucifixion for others…. This brief suggestion that perhaps there may be an acceptable "out," together with Scobie's telling God that he was deterministically created with a sense of responsibility …—these two points to some extent weaken my argument for invincible ignorance, since they seem to say that Scobie knows and thinks more than the rest of the book allows, and that perhaps O'Faolain is right to say that Scobie gambles on God's being merciful to him. But, while these two occurrences are embarrassing to the rest of Scobie's psychology, they by no means outweigh the poignance and frequency with which Scobie takes all the blame, characteristically, upon himself and suffers finally the sure conviction that his despair assures damnation….
Once this inconsistency is admitted, we can concentrate more levelly on Scobie's abiding attitude toward God. For Scobie, God is dominant and omnipotent not so much by virtue of being Creator or lawgiver as by virtue of His crucified helplessness, humiliation, suffering for others, and supreme need signified by public exposure on Golgotha. God's infirmity is a measure of His powerful appeal to Scobie…. And in fact Scobie's discussions with God, after he receives the Eucharist in sin, are clear evidence, not only that the God Scobie innocently plays is another version of his own character, but that only Scobie's brand of naiveté could leave untouched an underlying goodness which that naiveté firmly believes itself to be destroying…. Scobie's vivid awareness of the crucified Christ (an awareness that the narrator emphasizes in juxtaposing broken rosary, dead servant Ali, and servant-God now betrayed by servant-Scobie,… drives him to despair of entrusting his problem to the divine helplessness and of presuming to increase God's burden; and despair leads to suicide. But despair and hence suicide are rooted in a pity so convincing and so preposterously beyond any human's prerogative consciously to exercise that it is transformed into love (charity) which in turn is motivation sufficiently intense and dominant to alleviate Scobie's sinfulness and thus to argue his need for purgatorial suffering rather than his damnation. Most briefly, then, Scobie's sins are real and not to be wished away; but what looks to him and the textbooks like the gravest sin of all is precluded by love. Scobie kills himself for love of God and of creatures made and seen in God's image. And the crowning evidence of extenuation is his very inability to imagine such a case as the omniscient narrator is making or to see anything but damnation for himself. Thus, if betrayal (like any serious sin) requires full knowledge and consent, it is clear that Scobie does not betray God: he only thinks he knows all that the book enables us to know of his choice and its basis, when in fact it is that invincible ignorance which preserves him. He must pay for sins and he pays a great deal all through the book; but his sins are not what he thinks. He intends both more and less than he can know. (pp. 721-23)
What this omnisciently narrated book does is force readers to see that Father Rank, who we have no reason to think knows more of Scobie's case than he says, and who certainly knows less than we do, has the literally last and thematically perfect word…. We are not to assume that Father Rank is aware of more than he says. He is a good priest making a necessary distinction between a general teaching and man's inability to apply that teaching to any particular case. But what Father Rank does not know has filled this book, so that we know how to take his words. Father Rank does not know that the novel makes sense of the advice to "love God and do what you will," but we must know this, just as we must see that only invincible ignorance of any glib presumption underlying the advice is the final clue to Scobie's motives and his destiny as an "obscure saint."… (pp. 725-26)
The details of Scobie's moral career reinforce and make meaning for his final "Dear God, I love …"…. This inadvertently finished sentence says what Father Rank implies at the end: "charity (i.e., love) covers a multitude of sins." Scobie's love is not without objects, but, being the love of God and embracing God's creatures, it has so many objects that no one can presume to supply a predicate for him. (p. 726)
Joseph Hynes, "The 'Facts' at 'The Heart of the Matter'," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language (copyright © 1972 by the University of Texas Press), Winter, 1972, pp. 711-26.
At the end of The Symposium, Plato reports that Socrates was heard to insist "that the genius of comedy was the same as that of tragedy, and that the writer of tragedy ought to be a writer of comedy also." Socrates' comment here has been variously interpreted and much disputed, and so seems a proper introduction to a discussion of the genre of Graham Greene's The Comedians (1966). Written by an author who has tried more than half a dozen genres … The Comedians was reviewed widely and has received scattered commentary more recently; but there has been much indecision as to its generic nature. The novel's title suggests classification with comic spirit, but its action argues for a darker category. (p. 139)
[The] emphasis upon localizing the novel within the bounds of a specific genre distorts what in fact Greene seems to me to be doing: The Comedians is not so much a novel based upon the decorum of a specific genre, as, rather, a parody of two genres, farce and comedy.
This parody of the farcical/comical parallels Greene's normal method of parodying melodrama…. Indeed, The Comedians contains all the technical equipment of melodrama: murder, assassination, suicide, revolutionary activity, flight-for-freedom, grotesque setting, miraculous rescue, and so forth…. Greene shifts somewhere in the course of his novels to a parody of the tragic mode. Since what Greene does with farce and comedy is similar to his handling of melodrama and tragedy, some discussion of these latter two modes is justified.
Now melodrama is, of course, tragedy stripped of its serious dimensions; melodrama is ultimately not serious. Melodrama emphasizes wild action, contrived scenes, rapid pace, sentimental situations—all in and for themselves and their emotional appeal, and not to disclose any "deeper truth." The villain is categorically evil, and the hero outrageously good. Moreover, in melodrama there is no moment of tragic vision, no insight into life: in short, no recognition scene. What Greene does by parodying melodrama is to show us what the world is (a dangerous place to live in) by showing us what it is not (simply melodrama: danger that is not really dangerous). That is, the real danger appears in disguise, for Greene hangs his serious comments upon the scaffolding of the pot-boiler. The reader picks up quickly the melodramatic formula, then is jolted somewhere along the line by the realization that it is all really a very serious matter once one scratches the surface. And because it is serious, it is not really melodrama at all. The real dangers of the world are made to seem all the more dangerous for their appearance in the mask of the non-serious, so that Greene by his use of parody duplicates for the reader the disguised form of the world's dangers.
And at this point, with the realization of elements of high seriousness in the novel, the reader begins to suspect that he is in fact confronted with a tragedy. But when he comes to the recognition scene, he is inevitably faced with a baffling ambiguity, so that it is impossible for him to decipher for sure if the protagonist is successful or not. The "resolution," in brief, consists of a parody of tragic recognition, and the reader is never certain whether or not the protagonist has achieved insight. This pattern can be traced in novel after novel of Greene.
Understanding this, it is not difficult to understand Greene's parody of farce and comedy. Farce, of course, stands in the same relation to comedy that melodrama does to tragedy. For farce too is stripped of serious meaning. It employs many of the same devices used in melodrama—emphasis upon wild action, plot contrivances, rapid pace, caricature; but whereas melodrama evokes tension from these devices, farce evokes laughter. Now comedy takes over from farce elements that evoke laughter and provide them with serious underpinnings. In the end, the foolish and deceitful are unmasked, and the equilibrium of society is set aright once again. What Greene does in The Comedians is to have Brown, the narrator, establish an essentially farcical pattern through which the serious elements of the story eventually penetrate to transform the farce into a grim comment upon Brown's life. (pp. 139-40)
Brown's use of farce becomes … a sort of unintentional parody, and it is made clear after a while that the "joke" is not a joke pure and simple, that hiding behind it is a very serious matter, made all the more serious by its being hidden within the seemingly meaningless. Yet the devices of humor continue; it begins to appear that we are perhaps witnessing a comedy, and we are given all the trappings of a successfully resolved comic plot in which the life-inhibiting forces are unmasked and cast out all ends "as you like it." But this, of course, is precisely what does not happen, for Greene's parody of the comic formula reverses the normal mode of resolution. This is not really comedy, for the ludicrous and meaningless rampagings are not corrected in the end, and in fact are made all the more ludicrous and meaningless by being cast into the comic mode, which suggests that they will be transformed into something good and happy.
Before the development of Greene's parody in The Comedians can be traced in greater detail, the character of the narrator, Brown, must be understood. For it is Brown who uses farce and comedy as pat metaphors for his view of the world. Brown's difficulties are said by himself to go back to his loss of religious belief instigated by his role as Frère Laurent in a college production of the French version of Romeo and Juliet…. The actor's urge to play a role, however, is something he can never replace with a true conception of self. Lacking a clear notion of his mother's background; not knowing who his father is or even if his name really is Brown; feeling that having been born in Monaco "'is almost the same as being a citizen of nowhere'" …; Brown is a case-study of the so-called identity crisis. Brown notes that the dramatic director at the college "taught me adequately enough the secrets of make-up" …, and his life since that time consisted of little else than shifting roles to meet the particular situation of the moment. Indeed, Martha refers to Brown as a "prêtre manqué"…—a "failed priest"—as if Brown had never really gotten himself untangled from the role of the foiled Friar Lawrence.
Lacking orthodox religious belief, Brown accepts the Manichean heresy …, and sees God as "an authoritative practical joker."… Brown's own life is thus conceived by himself as being nothing really serious, as being, rather, a farce or a "confused comedy" (… Brown throughout uses the two words, farce and comedy, interchangeably), and not the "very serious affair" it was in childhood, when God was "incarnated in every tragedy"; and the Haiti setting is the "extreme point of comedy."…
Again and again Brown returns to his pet metaphor. His affair with Martha, he feels, is not serious, it is only "a subplot affording a little light relief" to the "tragic theme" of Haiti politics…. Their affair is nothing beyond an "act" belonging "too closely to the theatre of farce."… Unlike Marcel, neither Brown nor Martha "would ever die for love…. We belonged to the world of comedy and not of tragedy."…
But not only does Brown deny any significance to love, he conceives of virtually the whole of his life as consisting of a "game" whereby he peddles a particular version of himself for the right price and can therefore call himself a "comedian."… Brown's view of the world as a sort of farcical/comedy is itself, however, only a thinly masked disguise for avoiding commitment to responsible action. (pp. 141-42)
What Greene will do is to have Brown, the narrator, render his own story in such a way as to bring the farcical/comical elements to the fore. Brown will try to convince the reader that his lack of involvement is justified due to the non-serious nature of his existence, and he will do this by presenting his life as a combination farce-comedy. But Brown's own narrative mode, we shall see, undercuts itself; for the ultimate seriousness of the story slices through the veil of comedy, and what emerges is a grim parody that is really not funny at all. As comic narrator, then, Brown is only failing at another of the roles he has been unable throughout his life to pull off successfully. (p. 142)
As narrator, Brown attempts to create a facade of comedy over his own interpretation of life. The nightmare of the outer world—the Haiti background never far off throughout the book; but if Brown, looking back over a period of his life when "I still regarded my future seriously" …, can convince the reader that his life is in fact a sort of joke that should not be taken seriously, he can justify his failure to engage in the wider troubles of the world. Brown's narrative technique, then, will be to emphasize those comic elements which lend a non-serious air to his personal existence….
Brown throughout the narrative sustains use of metaphors of drama to give the impression that he is really only involved in a stage play, a fiction we should not take seriously. Time and again Brown conceives of his own actions as if they were determined by the script of some unnamed playwright. (p. 143)
All of these elements of the comic spirit Brown brings to bear to certify his early point, "Life was a comedy, not the tragedy for which I had been prepared."… This delusion is, as I have argued, the foundation for Brown's belief in an uncommitted way of life. As a "comedian," then, Brown can slide into detachment on the basis that "I am not a hero" and "I was never brave."… Nothing less than virtually the whole of the story of Brown's own wretched existence, however, works against the validity of this belief. Brown has tried to trick life into becoming something it is not, a low-grade comedy, but he has tricked only himself. Martha, who at times seems the novel's most morally lucid character …, turns Brown's own drama metaphors against him in a perceptive attack that exposes Brown's ugly mental habit of projecting onto others roles that do not coincide with their personal natures:
Darling, don't you see you are inventing us? …You won't listen if what we say is out of character—the character you've given us…. To you nothing exists except in your own thoughts. Not me, not Jones. You're a Berkeleyan. My God, what a Berkeleyan. You've turned poor Jones into a seducer and me into a wanton mistress. You can't even believe in your own mother's medal, can you? You've written her a different part. My dear, try to believe we exist when you aren't there. We're independent of you. None of us is like you fancy we are. Perhaps it would not matter so much if your thoughts were not so dark, always so dark….
Brown has turned others into what they are not—fictions of his own twisted intellect; he has turned life into something it is not—a meaningless joke; he has turned himself into something he is not—a comedian. (pp. 144-45)
The parody of the farcical/comical, however, is not contained solely within the deluded mind of the narrator, Brown. His own methods, as story-teller, of characterization and plotting seem to be attempts to reinforce his mental viewpoint as "comedian." That is, Brown as narrator attempts to create for the reader the stock characters and the essential plot-devices of comedy. But his efforts backfire: a comic interpretation of the characters and of the plot is blocked by the action containing them, reducing to unintended parody the very devices by which Brown is trying to thrust upon the reader his twisted perspective.
Perhaps the most obvious character-type in The Comedians is the miles gloriosus—the braggart soldier, represented by Jones, whose model may be Shaw's Bluntschli…. Traditionally, of course, the boaster is exposed and held up for ridicule. This normal pattern is maintained temporarily; for Jones eventually admits that in fact he was rejected by the army due to flat feet, his only contact with the military being as a checker of "transport and travel vouchers for third-class entertainers."… Indeed, Jones has never seen a dead man, and he vomits when he finally does see one…. Yet in the end, Jones achieves heroic status. He receives a stone monument, which, Philipot says, "will be a place of pilgrimage" …; further, Philipot will not only contact "the British ambassador, [and] perhaps a member of the Royal family" … about Jones's heroics, but he will even "write about him to the Queen of England" …: all this even though Jones has died an apparently meaningless death because his flat feet failed him…. Indeed, his death seems itself to parody the grandly romantic ending of Hemingway's Robert Jordan: Jones "could hardly move because of his feet. He found what he called a good place. He said he'd keep the soldiers off till we had time to reach the road—none of them were anxious to risk himself very close. He said he would follow slowly, but I [Philipot] knew he would never come."…
Another stock comic character is the tyrant-figure, the usurper of power. Usually this unruly figure controls the state of affairs at the start of the action, but in the end he is unmasked, stripped of power, and replaced with a more benevolent ruler. The Tontons Macoute—Duvalier's bogey-men—represent a group of tyrant-figures. Especially interesting here is the nefarious Captain Concasseur (French, concasser: "to break or crush"), who tells Brown, "You have a sense of humour. I appreciate humour. I am in favour of jokes. They have a political value. Jokes are a release for the cowardly and the impotent."… The bogey-men have typical disguises, their sunglasses, which they wear even at night. They are shorn of their power, first psychologically, by Mrs. Smith's incredible rescue of Brown …, then physically, by means of Philipot's equally incredible rescue of both Brown and Jones …—here, Concasseur receives the traditional unmasking when his sunglasses are smashed. Yet even though Concasseur is killed, Philipot's revolutionary activities fail and nothing has really changed.
The Smiths seem to be a parody of the young lovers from romantic comedy. They have about them an air of the courtly: Smith, for instance, "looked around the saloon before he stood aside so that his wife could enter under the arch of his arm, like a bride under a sword. It was as though he wanted to satisfy himself first that there was no unsuitable company present."… Their relationship is greatly admired by Brown: "I have never known in Europe a married couple with that kind of loyalty."… Yet unlike the traditional young lovers of romantic comedy, who are associated with Spring, the Smiths, aged and childless, seem to represent Winter-figures. (pp. 145-47)
Northrop Frye has distinguished a recurring comic figure he labels the "plain dealer, an outspoken advocate of a kind of moral norm who has the sympathy of the audience." In The Comedians this "plain dealer" would be represented by Dr. Magiot. He is drawn throughout the story as a benevolent man who speaks out against the suicidal activities of the revolutionaries even though he supports their goals: "Go on living with your belief, don't die with it" …; the revolutionaries "may be heroes, but they have to learn to live and not to die."… His final letter to Brown states an idealistic desire to wed Communism to Catholicism…. And yet upon second look Magiot appears to be less than a model of right thought and action. He is presented as a man out of his own time and place, thrice associated with the world of ancient Rome…. Magiot's sitting room is described as "Victorian" …, and his garden contains a tree that looks "like an illustration in a Victorian novel."… This sense of removal from the present indicates that, for all his espoused commitment, Magiot is really a man detached from current realities…. His attitude toward Marxism is extremely sentimental: he speaks of "the Marxist dream of a far far future…." And not only does he slither away for cover in a moment of possible danger, leaving Brown exposed …, he dies a martyr's death in direct violation of his own credo that one must live if one is to be an effective agent of good.
A liberal sprinkling of minor characters are also to be found in comedy—the clever servant, for example, represented in The Comedians by Joseph, who is able to mix the finest rum punches anywhere. Joseph seems also to have affinities with the tricky slave of Roman comedy, for the Smith's continually prattle their disapproval of Brown's treatment of Joseph, "as though [Brown] were a southern plantation-owner."… The tricky slave is traditionally a hatcher of plots, yet Joseph's "plot" to help Dr. Philipot escape goes awry when Joseph mistakes Brown for the Tontons Macoute, a mistake that motivates the doctor's suicide….
Another typical comic figure is the buffoon. Luis, the cuckold, would seem to fit this role: "'let us all be comedians together,'" he chants. "'Perhaps even Papa Doc is a comedian…. We mustn't complain too much about being comedians—it's an honourable profession'."… Yet Luis himself generates little comedy (the normal function of the buffoon), and even recognizes that he is a "bad comedian."…
The stock comic rogue finds its type in The Comedians in the ship's purser, a ribald fellow whose life centers around jokes, sex, liquor, and a petty power struggle to match the ship's captain. He is, however, perhaps more grotesque than he is comic. His use of prophylactics for balloons has already been mentioned. When Brown asks him about a certain prostitute, the purser answers, "'I always eat off the same plate. How are Mr. and Mrs. Smith?'"…
As for the comic nature of the plot, it turns upon the most antique formula of all, "lover's gifts regained": boy wins girl, loses girl, regains girl. The parody in Greene's novel of this type of plot is not difficult to perceive. To begin with, the lovers are hardly young: Brown is sixty and Martha about thirty-five…. The plot may be viewed, additionally, as a parody of the plight of the senex-figure—an aged man who is in some way renewed in the course of the action even though he must lose the love game to youth; but Brown, of course, is anything but renewed by story's end.
The resolution of the comic plot generally involves detailed, intricate plotting, schemes of all sort, and what not. This pattern of resolution is suggested in the complicated escape of Jones, which will break the "triangle," allowing Brown and Martha to be together. However, Brown's plotting carries with it lurid overtones. Motivated by Brown's own senseless jealousy, the escape is conceived of by Brown as a "trap" … with which to get rid of Jones even if it ultimately means death for Jones. Jones does escape (only to be killed shortly thereafter); but Brown is forced to flee to Santo Dominico, so that his plotting only ends with his separation from Martha.
In comedy, if one device fails, decorum allows for the implementation of further contrivances to unite the lovers. Hence, in The Comedians, the coincidental meeting of Brown and Martha in Santo Dominico. Yet this meeting concludes with the final separation of the lovers. Further, it seems to be a grim parody upon the traditional wedding ceremony that brings all together at comedy's end. Here the final setting is indeed a church, but the occasion is a funeral. Martha takes Brown "by the hand and led me into a side chapel: we were alone with a hideous statue of Saint Clare…. 'We had reached an end [Martha says], hadn't we, you and I?'"… Death of body and of love, then, and not rebirth of love, ends all as the final curtain falls on The Comedians.
Besides these traditional elements of structure, comedy includes a significant social dimension. Frye has observed that in comedy, the theme is the "integration of society, which usually takes the form of incorporating a central character into it."… That is, comedy is a mode in which at work's end the morally divergent characters are included into the social body so that the life-promoting forces triumph. But at the end of The Comedians, Jones is dead, Martha is headed for Lima, and Brown is employed as an undertaker, a servant of the forces of death. Undertaking, Smith asserts, is a "'valuable social service'" …, and so the parody of the theme of inclusion into society of the comic protagonist is brought to the fore.
Moreover, laughter is seen by Bergson as a "social gesture," a "corrective" by which society transforms death-promoting forces into life-promoting ones; laughter is society's tool for setting itself aright once its equilibrium has been tilted…. Yet in The Comedians it is clear that there is, in fact, no power capable of redeeming the destructive impulses at work both within man and within society.
By way of concluding remarks, we may consider Brown from the perspective of the traditional view that perceives an inability on the part of the Englishman to ridicule his own follies. (pp. 147-150)
What Brown, as narrator of The Comedians, attempts is to follow this tradition. He will, that is, try to present himself as a laughingstock, and he will do this not in self-ridicule of traits in need of correction, but in self-defense of his fear of "involvement." But, like his other strategies, this one too ends in unintended parody; for Brown, like his fellow Englishmen (although Brown's ethnic background is uncertain, he is counted as a British subject in Haiti) …, is really hiding his true self from both his own conscious mind and from ourselves as audience. Illusion, and not reality, has triumphed in The Comedians, and the joke really is on Brown. (p. 150)
Michael Routh, "Greene's Parody of Farce and Comedy in 'The Comedians'," in Renascence (© copyright 1973, Catholic Renascence Society, Inc.), Spring, 1974, pp. 139-51.
Graham Greene divides his work into serious literature and 'entertainments' and I, for one, have always preferred his entertainments to his serious literature, largely because the former are free from the Catholic shop-talk of the latter. The 'entertainments' also reflect Graham Greene's passionate interest in old crime and spy stories, those humble but vastly pleasurable and unpretentious types of straightforward story-telling which could often serve as models for more ambitious but also more boring forms of literature. It was a splendid idea of Graham Greene's to follow the [recent triumph of] Sherlock Holmes with a revival of E W Hornung's counterpart to the great detective, that equally great gentleman amateur cracksman and test cricketer, A J Raffles. If Holmes had returned from the Reichenbach Falls, why should not Raffles rise from the dead of Spion Kop?
William Gillette's Sherlock Holmes was melodrama seriously meant; Graham Greene's Raffles is nostalgic pastiche, but none the worse for that. For lovingly tongue-in-cheek parody is a far more conscious, deliberate genre than naïve melodrama, it operates on more and subtler levels of irony and reflectiveness. And certainly Graham Greene is a better writer and a more accomplished artist than William Gillette could ever have been.
By lovingly reconstructing the late Victorian milieu, moreover, Graham Greene is enabled to say a great deal, indirectly, about his own time by contrast as well as tragic irony. In the figure of the ageing Prince of Wales on the eve of becoming Edward VII he finds a brilliant spokesman for much that needs to be said about the virtues of his society and, by implication, the barbarisms of ours. And at the same time he enables us, enlightened, liberated denizens of a 'permissive' age to laugh about the barbarisms of that period, its naïve patriotism, imperialism, love and sport and stuffiness.
Greene's Raffles is a far more sophisticated character than E W Hornung's; he is a philosopher, albeit a hedonistic one, as well as an elegant thief. And Graham Greene has put him into the world of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, so that he becomes part of a fin de siècle aesthetic circle….
The plot is secondary to all this…. If the plot had been more ingenious, the play would have been less frothy, less light-heartedly rambling, less of the delightful entertainment which it triumphantly proved to be. (p. 30)
Martin Esslin, in Plays and Players (© copyright Martin Esslin 1976; reprinted with permission), February, 1976.
In "In Search of a Character" Greene has referred to "the abiding temptation to tell a good story"; a temptation fully indulged in ["The Human Factor"], as in its predecessors, "The Confidential Agent," "The Ministry of Fear" and "Our Man in Havana." But the story is not the point, it is told only for the sake of the characters, to give them something to do and many things to suffer so that we may come to know them. Character, Greene's abiding concern, is disclosed in thoughts, attitudes and feelings more accurately than in deeds. "We are saved or damned by our thoughts, not by our actions," Greene writes in "The Lost Childhood," where his text is the fiction of François Mauriac. If Greene's fiction has a moral, it is that our ethical judgments are inept if they are directed upon a man's actions. By their deeds ye shall know them? No, not by such things, mere external appearances, false clues. Maurice Castle [the central character of "The Human Factor," a British double agent leaking information to the Russians,] is a traitor. Nevertheless, he is a good man because his motives are selfless, his feelings are pure.
Greene's fiction has a design upon the reader to make it impossible for him to condemn Castle. Castle's mother condemns him, but she knows nothing of mercy, charity, love. In Greene's "The Heart of the Matter" Scobie says that he liked West Africa because "here you could love human beings nearly as God loved them, knowing the worst." Greene admires only the kind of love which is animated by that knowledge. The purpose of his fiction is to tempt us with characters whom it is easy to dislike, despise, patronize, condemn. But we indulge these responses only when we hold ourselves aloof from Greene's art. When we yield to his rhythm, we accept his characters, knowing their worst. If we do not accept them, the reason is not that they are beyond redemption but that our moral judgment is premature; we are not sufficiently patient, we are too eager to see our judgments enforced.
But all this raises a problem. How does Greene avoid the limp conclusion that we are all innocent, a conclusion not much more convincing than that we are all guilty?… Greene deals with [this problem], as an artist, by reducing the list of sins and withholding punishment. But one sin remains, and is unforgivable. The cardinal sin is not to care. (p. 1)
The epigraph to "The Human Factor" is a text from Conrad …: "I only know that he who forms a tie is lost, the germ of corruption has entered into his soul." By such loss, we live; by that germ of corruption, we are purified. Castle has formed a tie with [his wife] Sarah. The tie is likely to destroy both of them…. "The Human Factor" is concerned with ties, connections, lines, limits. One of Castle's code-books is "War and Peace," and he refers to a passage about the line between Denisov's troops and the French, a line which "one dreads to cross, and longs to cross." The Conrad who suffuses Greene's imagination is the author of "The Shadow-Line" and "Victory" and "Heart of Darkness," fictions about the terrible crossing of lines between security and terror, and the need to cross them.
Some people care; in Greene's fiction these are saved, or at least made worthy of damnation. Logic would say that those who do not care cannot be saved, and must be cast into outer darkness. But Greene is not intimidated by logic, and loves to show its force refuted by pity. In "The Lost Childhood" he sees the logic refuted not in Conrad but in Henry James. "The final beauty of James's stories," he writes, "lies in their pity. 'The poetry is in the pity.'" Not pity for those who deserve it: no effort of imagination, patience or care is required in such cases. Whether we are of God's fraternity or the Devil's, we are punished in our own way: this is the source of James's pity. "It is in the final justice of James's pity," Greene asserts, "the completeness of an analysis which enabled him to pity the most shabby, the most corrupt, of his human actors, that he ranks with the greatest of creative writers."
Greene says nothing of James's analysis except that it is complete, but his implication is that a moral analysis is dismally inadequate, esthetically incomplete, until it is brought to the point at which pity is lavished upon everyone. If there is a question of judgment, James allows his characters to judge themselves, and he pities them for their severity. If they are incapable of punishing themselves, or unable to know the worst of themselves, he pities them for their poor disabilities. Writing of James's achievement, especially in the short stories, Greene is also writing of himself and of the morality he intends.
It is not difficult to pity Castle: what else could one do with him, a victim of care, devotion, love? The minor characters are harder to pity…. [We] have to deal with Cornelius Muller, a sinister chief of the secret police in South Africa, who tried to blackmail Castle by threatening him with the Race Law. (pp. 1, 43)
Muller is one of Greene's most impressive achievements in this novel: a mere thriller writer would have kept him sinister in the old way, even in London and Berkhamsted….
"The Human Factor" is the work of an old master in a genre congenial to his interest and talent. Greene has done many other things, more exacting fictions of crime and punishment, sin and redemption. This is the kind of book he could now write with one hand tied behind his back. But he has chosen to use both hands and to do it with finesse. It is not meant to be "War and Peace," or even "The Heart of the Matter." Twenty years ago Greene would have called it an entertainment rather than a novel, making a distinction which he has recently given up. It is simply, but not too simply, a good story, a novel about the void between thought and action. Winners take all, but the all is nothing. Losers lose all, but the loss is providential, a form of grace. (p. 43)
Denis Donoghue, "A Novel of Thought, Action and Pity," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 26, 1978, pp. 1, 43.
Maurice Castle, [The Human Factor's] protagonist, exists in the relative freedom of London, but as a prisoner of loyalties at odds. The dilemma for Greene's heroes has remained consistent: how retain integrity when the very nature of the word posits "oneness," isolation? His men do well enough alone. But such self-protective isolation is threatened in the novels—drastically, disastrously—by the force of love. The individual can battle a system, perhaps, but his battle-line will be breached by compassion….
The plot here is well-made as always; Greene digs up what he plants. Chocolates that figure in the first chapter are sure to figure elsewhere; Castle's incidental-seeming bulldog is central to a later incident. A series of literary referents wind through the text; Tolstoy and Browning recur…. Reality and fiction meld so that Kim Philby and James Bond can complement each other; the tedious details of spywork create an exploded cliche. "We've never been very James Bond minded here. I wasn't allowed to carry a gun, and my only car was a secondhand Morris Minor."
This absence of permission is one hallmark of Greene's world; his celebrants are dutiful, and a marriage celebration ends in argument over the hostesses' shattered china owl. (p. 32)
Castle is a fortress of rigid defenses, yet pinned. The chess terminology is intentional here; we are very much in the world of double agenting, encoded messages and the mirror image….
Importantly among Greene's gifts, I think, is the ability to express "doubt and even denial," to play both sides of the game. It's why he commended Bishop Blougram's chessboard—wherein a contestant must do just that—and why he writes so readily of the double agent's role. Yet the book does seem flattish and faded; corruption is routine. There is a sense of weary manipulation throughout; the "kings" and "bishops" of this game are hemmed in by regulations also—behaving at country shoots and funerals and clubs with much the same enjoined precision as do their threatened "pawns."… Everywhere we sense this weariness, nor is it necessarily intentional….
Perhaps it's that Greene has written of such sacrifice before, or that the genre of which he's past-master has a present master as informed as Le Carré. Or possibly it's the echoes of those incisive earlier efforts. Yusef of The Heart of the Matter is a more persuasive villain, say, than Dr. Percival or Muller here, and the love of Maurice Bendrix for his Sarah in The End of the Affair seems both more baffled and comprehensive than that of the present Maurice. To one who takes pure pleasure in the oeuvre entire, however, such recapitulation is a gift.
Graham Greene should long since have been accorded the Nobel Prize. He is "integrity's" laureate, whether Stockholm accepts him or not. What living English author can lay claim to greater eminence or to have interested more readers in more ways?… In this half-a-century, Greene has been both an unstinting craftsman and the unswerving advocate of decency. If The Human Factor cannot take its place with masterpieces such as The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory, or The Comedians, it nonetheless is first-rate work—an instruction as well as "entertainment," an artful spy story and publishing event. (p. 33)
Nicholas Delbanco, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 11, 1978.
Did this raise a question for you?