Does anyone know how I can apply "new historical criticism" to Graham Greene's novel: The Comedians?  Or maybe apply it to the topic of Papa "Doc" Duvalier and the Haitian Government during the...

Does anyone know how I can apply "new historical criticism" to Graham Greene's novel: The Comedians?  Or maybe apply it to the topic of Papa "Doc" Duvalier and the Haitian Government during the 1950s?  

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Graham Greene’s 1965 novel The Comedians is particularly well-suited for dissection from the perspective of the school of New Historical Criticism.  Greene, like his still-living (and still publishing) contemporary David Cornwell (aka, John le Carre), was a former operative for British intelligence whose passion for writing would draw heavily from the occasionally sordid details of those years spent in the world of espionage.  Also like Cornwell/le Carre, Greene harbored an intense dislike for what he viewed as an overbearing and ill-informed role in world affairs by the new global superpower, the United States.  Both of these authors’ bodies of work are reflective of the enduring bitterness born of visibly observing the decline of their own country’s prominence in the world while the young, dumb upstart, America, bumbled its way through one foreign policy mishap after another. (Note, these are not the views of this educator, but are the views of the authors being discussed.)

In The Comedians, Greene is able to give full-weight to the theme of the deleterious ramifications of American naiveté in its conduct of foreign policy.  In this sense, application of Historical and New Historical Criticism is a fairly straightforward matter.  The 1950s and 1960s were turbulent periods in global affairs, with the Cold War machinations of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. playing havoc with a so-called “Third World” undergoing the chaotic and transformative processes of decolonization.  Greene’s personal biography and background as a member of the British social and cultural elite, and as an observer of British and American conduct in the lesser developed regions of the world, provided a particularly cynical perspective that, tinged with the often-condescending and arrogant perspective from which the British upper-classes and diplomatic and intelligence services viewed the world, allows for considerable room for criticism through the prism of New Historicism. 

Greene’s antipathy towards the American way of the world is best personified in The Comedians in the person of Mr. Smith, the former American presidential candidate whose second act in life is to export his and his wife’s nutritional preferences to Haiti, a nation in which much of the population was fortunate to have anything to eat, let alone the vegetarian fare the Smith’s envision making available to these economically destitute masses.  As Mrs. Smith describes her husband’s unsuccessful presidential campaign early in the novel, “He’s an idealist.  Of course, for that very reason, he stood no chance.”  The Smiths represent for Greene the more benign but no less destructive American influence in global affairs, the well-intentioned idealistic amateurs who will only make matters worse before it’s all over.  When the local regime is dominated by an autocratic sociopath like Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, with his loyal and infinitely brutal house guard, the Tonton Macoutes, one can only contemplate the old proverb “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  

Now, a key component of “New Historical Criticism” is, of course, the perspective of the critic.  That would be the student assigned to read Greene’s novel.  The contemporary critic of today has the benefit of hindsight in examining the political and social contexts in which The Comedians was written.  The passage of time, however, has not made Greene’s writings less relevant, as major powers continue to meddle or intervene in the affairs of smaller countries, and ignorance and naiveté are constants of the decision-making processes of the former.  The “great power” prism through which foreign policy decisions were made for half-a-century may have diminished greatly with the end of the Cold War, but the basic dynamics remain largely the same, even more so with the reemergence of Russia as an active player in world affairs and the Chinese as a rapidly emerging regional power.  Whether and how to become involved in the problems of a smaller, less-developed country continues to confound American decision-makers, with the detachment characteristic of uncertainty and/or moral ambivalence arguably the greater danger.  As the conscience and wisdom of Greene’s story, Dr. Magiot, writes late in The Comedians,

“Catholics and Communists have committed great crimes, but at least they have not stood aside, like an established society, and been indifferent. I would rather have blood on my hands than water like Pilate.” 

Read the study guide:
The Comedians

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