What is the writing style of Graham Greene?

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The phrase most often associated with Graham Greene ’s writing is “moral ambiguity.” A prolific and successful writer, especially in novels and film, Greene delved into issues of conscience for a wide variety of protagonists. Many of his works consider the moral conundrums of faith, emanating from his Catholicism and...

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The phrase most often associated with Graham Greene’s writing is “moral ambiguity.” A prolific and successful writer, especially in novels and film, Greene delved into issues of conscience for a wide variety of protagonists. Many of his works consider the moral conundrums of faith, emanating from his Catholicism and doubts. Complex psychological profiles and evocative atmosphere, both carefully crafted with concrete details, also characterize his work. Writing for film affected his penchant for smoothly flowing prose, but the psychological dimensions often interject contradictory effects, as when characters engage in lengthy interior monologues.

While many of Greene’s novels were adapted into successful films, including The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair, one of his most well-known novels actually took the other route. The Third Man was originally the screen play for the Orson Welles film, and later adapted into a novel. With its exploration of the corruption and profiteering of late World War II-era, it in many ways prefigures the Cold War era novels such as The Quiet American.

In considering their attention to the characters’ crises of conscience, often stemming from their entanglement in uncontrollable political forces, the mid-century works are often cited as precursors of later espionage fiction. The Human Factor, in particular, uncannily anticipates John LeCarré’s multi-layered “spy” novels. Greene, however, also dabbled in the lighter side of these weighty issues. The title character of Our Man in Havana, drawn begrudgingly into intelligence work, fabricates defense-equipment reports by providing vacuum-cleaner schematics.

Numerous writers have acknowledged his multiple influences, both of content and style, and during his lifetime and after. Notably, Paco Iyer in 2012 published an entire book devoted to Greene’s influence on his person and his writing.

Iyer, Paco. 2012. The Man Within My Head. New York: Random House/Vintage.

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Graham Greene usually wrote in a fast-moving, dramatic style, reflecting to some degree his experiences as a journalist and script-writer. Most of his novels are adventure/thrillers. Brighton Rock for example deals with the world of gangsters, while The Power and the Glory is a chase thriller. Many of his stories are set in far-flung places: The Heart of the Matter in Sierra Leone, The Quiet American in Vietnam, and so on.

Despite the exotic locations of many of his stories, though, Greene generally tends to stress the mundane, and indeed the seedy, elements of life. His style combines thrilling elements of plot with a pervasive downbeat mood, as he concentrates on enormous problems and complexities facing his characters. Many struggle with issues of religion, and specifically Catholicism (Greene himself became a Catholic convert). Most notable of these, perhaps, is Scobie in The Heart of the Matter. Yet although he often inserts some authorial commentary, Greene never judges his characters. His characters struggle with moral problems but his style is not moralistic.

An important aspect of Greene’s style is his frequent use of similes and metaphors to increase the visual impact and vividness of his writing, as illustrated by the following two examples from one of his best-known novels, The Power and the Glory. The central character, a fugitive priest, is early on described as a ‘black question mark’ (Part 1, chapter 1), an image which concisely captures the sense of uncertainty and furtiveness that hangs about him. When he is finally hunted down and executed by firing squad, the sense of spectacle that this provides, and the anticlimax that follows, is effectively portrayed:

 This was an arena, and the bull was dead, and there was nothing to wait for any more. (Part 4)

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