How does Graham Greene use foreign settings and transplanted characters to comment on human values in his short story "Across the Bridge"?

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Much of the late British author Graham Greene's fiction depicted Europeans and/or Americans attempting to navigate the occasionally rocky shoals of less-developed nations, especially those subject to occupation by colonial powers. Such is the case with Greene's short story Across the Bridge. Joseph Calloway is a fugitive British businessman hiding in a small, desperately poor Mexican border town. By employing his usual instrument of the transplanted, wealthy but clearly out-of-place Westerner immersed in native culture in some far-away Third World hellhole, Graham is, again, commenting on the false nobility, pretentiousness and unfounded arrogance of the West. Calloway has absconded with a great deal of money from the investment fund for which he had worked, and passes him time aimlessly while avoiding arrest and extradition. His wealth means nothing here, as there is nothing worthwhile to purchase. All he can do is gaze longingly across the bridge connecting this Mexican town with its American counterpart across the river, assuming that, if only he could find refuge there, his life would be better. As one reads Across the Bridge, it becomes increasingly apparent that Graham's story is intended as a parable, an indictment of Western notions of human existence. The story's narrator, a simple resident of this town who, along with others, speculates regarding the foreigner's life and intentions, reflects midway through about a previous experience in which the contrasts between the two towns connected by the bridge are surpassed by their essential symmetry:

"I'd stayed across there a couple of nights waiting for a man a tourist bureau said was driving down from Detroit to Yucatan and would sell a place in his car for some fantastically small figure--twenty dollars, I think it was. I don't know if he existed or was invented by the optimistic half-caste in the agency; anyway, he never turned up and so I waited, not much caring, on the cheap side of the river. It didn't much matter; I was living."

As the narrator had noted, the American town was cleaner and more expensive, but otherwise bore little difference from the Mexican version south of the border. The materialism endemic to the wealthy Western behemoths mattered little in the broader scheme of things, as one could be just as content poor as rich. Western misconceptions regarding "exotic" foreign locales is a major theme of Greene's story, as when the narrator recounts a conversation with one of the detectives visiting the town to find and extradite Calloway:

"I ran into one of the policemen in the Bar Antonio. He was disgusted; he had had some idea that when he crossed the bridge life was going to be different, so much more colour and sun, and--I suspect--love, and all he found were wide mud streets where the nocturnal rain lay in pools, and mangy dogs, smells and cockroaches in his bedroom . . ."

Greene repeatedly places his socially and culturally "advanced" Westerners in such locales to emphasize their arrogant misconceptions and the damage they inflicted through well-intentioned efforts at saving the less advantaged from themselves. The author's own experiences as a foreign correspondent and intelligence officer for the British secret service left him with an exceptionally jaundiced view of these cosmopolitan 'babes-in-the-woods.' These Western interlopes aren't superior, Greene observes, merely different.

Read the study guide:
Across the Bridge

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