In an address he called the “Virtue of Disloyalty,” which he delivered at the University of Hamburg in 1969, Graham Greene contended that a writer is driven “to be a protestant in a Catholic society, a catholic in a Protestant one,” or to be a communist in a capitalist society and a capitalist in a communist one. Whereas loyalty confines a person to accepted opinions, “disloyalty gives the novelist an extra dimension of understanding.” Whatever the reader may think of Greene’s theory, it is helpful in explaining most of his own novels. From The Man Within in 1929, which justified a suicide in the face of Catholic morality’s abhorrence for such an act, to The Human Factor forty-nine years later, which comes close to justifying treason, Greene practiced this “virtue of disloyalty.”
Most of Greene’s obsessions originated in his childhood. Where did the desire to be “disloyal,” to play devil’s advocate, arise? Certainly his serving in MI6 under the authority of Kim Philby was a factor. Greene admired the man in every way except for what appeared to be a personal drive for power. It was this characteristic of Philby that caused Greene finally to resign rather than accept a promotion and become part of Philby’s intrigue. Greene later came to see, however, that the man served not himself but a cause, and all his former admiration of Philby returned. Greene continued his friendship even after Philby’s treason became known. As he saw it, Philby had found a faith in communism, and he would not discard it because it had been abused by Joseph Stalin, any more than Catholics would discard a faith that had been abused by the Inquisitors or the Roman Curia.
Clearly, however, Greene’s “disloyalty” or sympathy for the rebel did not originate here. It too must be traced to his childhood, to his isolation at school, where neither the students nor his headmaster father could treat him unambiguously; it can be traced also to his love of poet Robert Browning, who very early instilled in him an interest in the “dangerous edge of things,” in “the honest thief, the tender murderer.” It was an influence more lasting, Greene said, than any religious teaching. Religiously, however, Greene’s fierce independence manifested itself when, upon conversion to Catholicism, he took the name Thomas, not after the angelic doctor but after the doubter.
Although Greene wrote in many genres, the novel is the form on which his reputation will rest. His strengths in the genre are many. Like all novelists who are more than journeymen, he returns throughout his oeuvre to certain recurring themes. Another strength is his gift for playing the devil’s advocate, the dynamics that occur when his character finds himself divided between loyalties. In Greene’s first novel, The Man Within, that division was handled crudely, externalized in a boy’s attraction to two different women; in later novels, the struggle is internalized. Sarah Miles of The End of the Affair is torn between her loyalty to God and her loyalty to her lover. Fowler of The Quiet American cannot decide whether he wants to eliminate Pyle for the good of Vietnam or to get his woman back from a rival. The characters are shaded in, rendered complex by internal division.
Because he was a remarkable self-critic, Greene overcame most of his early weaknesses. He corrected an early tendency to distrust autobiographical material, and he seemed to overcome his difficulty in portraying credible women. In his first twenty-four years as a novelist, he depicted perhaps only two or three complex women: Kate Farrant of England Made Me, Sarah Miles of The End of the Affair, and possibly Ida Arnold of Brighton Rock. His later novels and plays, however, feature a host of well-drawn women, certainly the best of whom is Aunt Augusta of Travels with My Aunt. If there is one weakness that mars some of Greene’s later novels, it is their prolixity. Too often in his late fiction, characters are merely mouthpieces for ideas.
Brighton Rock was the first of Greene’s novels to treat an explicitly religious theme. Moreover, in attempting to play devil’s advocate for Brighton Rock’sprotagonist, Pinkie, the author had chosen one of his most challenging tasks. He made this Catholic protagonist more vicious than he was to make any character in his entirecanon, yet Greene demonstrated that Catholic moral law could not condemn Pinkie, could not finally know “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”
Pinkie takes over a protection-racket gang from his predecessor, Kite, and must immediately avenge Kite’s murder by killing Fred Hale. This murder inspires him to commit a series of other murders necessary to cover his tracks. It also leads to Pinkie’s marrying Rose, a potential witness against him, and finally to his attempt to induce Rose to commit suicide. When the police intervene, Pinkie takes his own life.
Vicious as he is, with his sadistic razor slashings, his murders to cover murders, and his cruelty to Rose, Pinkie’s guilt is nevertheless extenuated, his amorality rendered somewhat understandable. Pinkie’s conscience had not awakened because his imagination had not awakened: “The word ’murder’ conveyed no more to him than the word ’box,’ ’collar,’ ’giraffe.’The imagination hadn’t awoken. That was his strength. He couldn’t see through other people’s eyes, or feel with their nerves.”
As with so many of Greene’s characters, the explanation for Pinkie’s self-destructive character lies in his lost childhood: “In the lost boyhood of Judas, Christ was betrayed.” In a parody of William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” (1807), Greene said that Pinkie came into the world trailing something other than heavenly clouds of his own glory after him: “Hell lay about him in his infancy.” Though Wordsworth might write of the archetypal child that “heaven lay about him in his infancy,” Greene saw Pinkie in quite different terms: “Heaven was a word: hell was something he could trust.” Pinkie’s vivid memory of his father and mother having sexual intercourse in his presence has turned him from all pleasures of the flesh, tempting him for a while with thoughts of the celibate priesthood.
When Pinkie is seventeen, Kite becomes a surrogate father to him. Pinkie’s lack of conscience, his unconcern for himself, his sadomasochistic tendencies, which early showed themselves as a substitute for thwarted sexual impulses, stand the youth in good stead for a new vocation that requires unflinching loyalty, razor slashings, and, if necessary, murder. His corruption is almost guaranteed. To say this is not to reduce the novel from a theological level to a sociological one on which environment has determined the boy’s character. Rose survives somewhat the same circumstances. Pinkie’s guilt is extenuated, never excused.
Pinkie, however, is not the only...
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