Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

By the end of the 1940’s, Graham Greene had written several major novels dealing with Roman Catholicism, but “The Hint of an Explanation” is the first of his many short stories to focus on Roman Catholic subject matter.

The central theme of David’s story is that God works in mysterious and ironic ways to win the faith of his subjects. In the light of such irony and of the religious role played by the adversary of Christian providence, Greene’s atheistic character, Blacker, functions with a significant ambiguity. From the child’s point of view, Blacker is a simple villain, an oppressive force that threatens both the boy and the sanctity of the host. As an unwitting instrument of God’s providence, however, he becomes the catalyst of the boy’s faith. He is thus portrayed with a muffled sympathy. Catholics in Blacker’s village did not patronize his bakery because he was a freethinker. Furthermore, he was ugly, having only one walleye and a turnip-shaped head, and he had no family. When the young David swallowed the host, the reader sees Blacker break down and hopelessly weep like a child.

It may be that Blacker was possessed by Satan (or the “Thing,” as David prefers to call him), which would allow the reader to see him as pure evil, but his grotesquely flawed body and mind and his outcast position in the largely Catholic community permit the reader also to pity him, especially in light of his unwitting service to the God whom he denied.