How can New Historical Criticism be applied to the novel, The Comedians by Graham Greene, or to Haiti during the reign of Papa "Doc" Duvalier?
New Historical Criticism places a novel in context and requires an understanding of the author's background, motivations and intent together with an appreciation for the setting and the culture in which events take place. In The Comedians by Graham Greene, Greene is quick to point out that he is not personally the character represented by Mr Brown, the narrator, despite any similarities. However, Greene's own political leanings and even his personal conflict are revealed when Brown refers to the "great crimes" committed by Catholics and Communists, whom he defends, "but at least they have not stood aside, like an established society, and been indifferent." The reader cannot help but be influenced by a very 1960s sense of liberation as many people in the Western world were involved in their own personal revolution as free will and basic rights became particularly relevant.
Greene is equally prompt to point out that the events around which the novel is centered, and "Papa Doc" Duvalier's treatment of the people of Haiti, is very real. Greene wrote this politically-charged novel with a purpose and with the distinct intention of exposing Duvalier's tyranny. Duvalier's reaction to the novel, and the banning of The Comedians in Haiti, speaks to the truth as he tried to discredit and shame Greene after the release of the novel. It would not be possible, Greene assures his readers, to intensify or worsen the situation for the purposes of creating a more exciting novel, as the true circumstances are already the most dire and terrible.
Greene traveled to Haiti for the first time in 1954 and uses this knowledge and his personal interpretation of this and other cultures in writing this book. There is nothing more contextual than when Dr Philipott is discovered, having committed suicide to escape the wrath of Duvalier and his Tontons Macoute, being dressed "for burial in his neat grey suit” (the epitome of Westernized civilization)and having not only cut his wrists but slit his own throat to ensure his death rather than face the consequences alive. Interpretation is key in new historical criticism and events are perceived according to the environment in which they occur. This leaves the novel open to subjective criticism as readers place themselves in the novel according to their own experiences or outlook and political viewpoint.
Landmarks from the era are still identifiable - or their remnants - and the reader therefore has a certain expectation of historic correctness. However, in applying new historical criticism, the reader becomes absorbed according to his or her own understanding and based on his or her own point of view. As the characters in The Comedians are fairly vague and remain flawed and apathetic, the reader is allowed to immerse him or herself in the occurrences rather than the characters' lives and their own lack of commitment. In terms of characters, only Jones rises to the cause, although almost inadvertently. Brown remains unmoved, “Once I might have taken a different direction, but it was too late now.”