“Goodness has only once found a perfect incarnation in a human body and never will again, but evil can always find a home there. Human nature is not black and white but black and grey.” So said Graham Greene in his essay “The Lost Childhood,” and the statement as well as any defines the worldview manifested in his fiction. The “perfect incarnation” is Jesus Christ, and it is against this backdrop of the divine-made-human that Greene draws and measures all the actions of his stories. Whether the stories are explicitly religious in theme, such as “The Hint of an Explanation,” or not, or whether Greene chooses to view humanity in a tragic or comic light, the basic vision is the same: human nature steeped in evil and struggling with the fundamental problems of egotism, love and hate, responsibility, innocence and guilt.
As a result of this vision, the central action in Greene’s fictional world is invariably betrayal—the Judas complex—betrayal of one’s fellow human beings, of one’s self, or of one’s God. For Greene’s heroes and heroines there is no escape; they fall by virtue of their very humanity. Yet their flawed humanity is not presented and then judged from the standpoint of any simplistic orthodoxy. As a thinker and as a fiction writer Greene was a master of paradox, creating a world of moral and theological mystery in which ignobility and failure may often be the road to salvation. Indeed, in Greene’s world the worst sin is a presumed innocence which masks a corrosive egotism that effectively cuts human beings off from their fellow creatures and from God.
“The Hint of an Explanation”
Greene’s paradoxical treatment of his major themes within a theological perspective is best evident in “The Hint of an Explanation.” The story develops in the form of a conversation between the narrator, an agnostic, and another passenger, a Roman Catholic, while the two are riding on a train in England. Although he confesses to have occasionally had intuitions of the existence of God, the agnostic is intellectually revolted by the whole notion of “such a God who can so abandon his creatures to the enormities of Free Will ‘When you think of what God—if there is a God—allows. It’s not merely the physical agonies, but think of the corruption, even of children.’” The question posed by the agnostic is the mystery of evil—why an omniscient God permits it. In response, the Catholic reminds him that the limitations of human understanding make a full answer impossible for human beings. Nevertheless, he insists, there are “hints” of an explanation, hints caught by men when they are involved in events that do not turn out as they were intended—“by human actors I mean, or by the thing behind the human actors.” The suggested “thing” behind the human actors is Satan, and it is the Catholic traveler’s conviction of Satan’s ultimate impotence and defeat, derived paradoxically from an experience of evil in his own childhood, that provides the underpinning for his own belief in divine providence.
As a child, the Catholic son of a Midland bank manager was tempted by the town freethinker to steal a consecrated Host while serving Mass and deliver it to him. The tempter, a baker named Blacker, is corruption incarnate; he both entices the boy by letting him play with an electric train and promising to give it to him, and at the same time threatens to bleed him with a razor if the boy will not do his bidding. The boy is conscious of the eternal consequences his actions will have: “Murder is sufficiently trivial to have its appropriate punishment, but for this act the mind boggled at the thought of any retribution at all.” Still, driven by fear of Blacker, he steals the communion wafer—the Body of Christ—and prepares to deliver it to the baker. Nevertheless, when Blacker appears that evening under the boy’s bedroom window to collect the Host, his diabolical purposes are defeated when the boy abruptly swallows the communion wafer rather than deliver it into the hands of the Enemy.
As he now recalls this episode from his childhood for the agnostic stranger, the Catholic sees in it a “hint” of the manner in which the mystery of the divine will operates, for that episode was the “odd beginning” of a life that eventually led him to become a priest. Looking back on it now, he sees in his struggle with Blacker nothing less than the struggle between God and Satan for the human soul, and the inevitable defeat of “that Thing,” doomed to hopelessness and unhappiness.
Although the story is clear in its religious theme, any danger of its being merely a tract disguised as fiction is skillfully circumvented both by the paradoxical quality of Greene’s thought and by his technical skill as a writer. For one thing, Greene undercuts the threat of dogmatic rigidity by creating enormous compassion for the malevolent figure of Blacker, imprisoned in his own misery, at the same time leaving the door open for his eventual redemption through defeat. Moreover, much of this compassion derives from the reader’s awareness that, as a human being, Blacker is as much the victim of satanic forces working through him as he is agent of his own fate. Greene sustains a delicate dramatic balance between man’s free will and responsibility on the one hand, and on the other, the suggestion or “hint” of supernatural forces at work in human affairs. Greene leaves the reader with a sense of the ineffable mystery of reality, and even the rather hackneyed and mechanical surprise ending of the story—the discovery in the last paragraph that the Catholic is indeed a priest—is consistent with the dramatic logic of the story.
“The Hint of an Explanation” bears many of the trademarks that made Greene one of the most important and widely read artists of the twentieth century, earning him both popularity and high critical esteem. His technical skill and sheer virtuosity as a storyteller stemmed equally from his mastery of the high formalist tradition of Henry James and Joseph Conrad and from the conventions of the melodramatic thriller, with its roots in classical, Renaissance, and Jacobean drama. Mastery of the themes and devices of the thriller—love and betrayal, intrigue, unexpected plot turns, the use of the hunt or chase, danger and violence—gave him a firm foundation upon which to base his subtle explorations of the spiritual condition of human beings in the twentieth century. In short, one of his most important contributions to the short story lies in the way in which he took the conventional form of popular fiction...
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