"A Tragic Accident" is a humorous story about a tragic incident. It is told from the point of view of a boy named Jerome who grows into adulthood and gets married by the time the story ends. Jerome is only nine years old when he is called into his housemaster's room at "a rather expensive preparatory school." Mr. Wordsworth has the difficult job of breaking the news to young Jerome that the boy's father is dead. What makes the job especially difficult is that Mr. Wordsworth has to keep from laughing while he explains what happened. He has to be serious and sympathetic when the incident seems so ridiculous that it is hard for anyone, including the reader, to visualize it without laughing.
The boy's father, whom Jerome idolizes, is a writer who does a lot of traveling. He writes books about his impressions of the various places he visits, rather in the manner of Robert Louis Stevenson; and he has a fairly good following and a comfortable income in spite of the fact that he is obviously only a mediocre writer who probably appeals mostly to housebound old ladies like Jerome's aunt. The titles of a couple of his books suggest what kind of a writer he is. They are Sunshine and Shade and Ramblers in the Balearics. No doubt they focus on the picturesque and exotic aspects of the places he chooses to visit and include factual information about food, hotel accommodations, and transportation, along with some poetic descriptions. Graham Greene himself did a lot of traveling in order to stimulate his creative imagination by seeing new places and encountering new people. Some of his novels are set in the Far East, in Africa, in South America, and in the Caribbean. He may be making fun of himself in "A Shocking Accident."
After some preliminary small-talk, Mr. Wordsworth is forced to explain what happened.
'Your father was walking along a street in Naples when a pig fell on him. A shocking accident. Apparently in the poorer quarters of Naples they keep pigs on their balconies. This one was on the fifth floor. It had grown too fat. The balcony broke. The pig fell on your father.'
Mr. Wordsworth left his desk rapidly and went to the window, turning his back on Jerome. He shook a little with emotion.
Mr. Wordsworth doesn't want Jerome to see that he is having a hard time keeping himself from laughing at the ridiculous aspect of the "shocking accident."
As Jerome grows up he finds that people can't help laughing when he tells them about his father's death. What makes it especially funny is that his father was a sort of neo-romantic would-be Byronic type of man. Jerome is often forced to tell about the incident because his father was a fairly well-known writer who had published many books and articles. Jerome tries to tell the story in such a way that it won't evoke irrepressible laughter, which pains him when it happens because he doesn't find it funny at all.
The chief danger of laughter in such a story was always surprise.
So Jerome, as he grows older, tries to tell the story in such a way that the ridiculous aspect of a sensitive writer being killed by a falling pig will not come as a surprise. Here is a sample of his version of the shocking accident.
'You know Naples and those high tenement buildings?....You''d be surprised in the poorer quarters what things they keep on the balconies of those sky-scraping tenements--not washing, you know, or bedding, but things like livestock, chickens or even pigs. Of course the pigs get no exercise whatever and fatten all the quicker.' He could imagine how his hearer's eyes would have glazed by this time. 'I've no idea, have you, how heavy a pig can be, but these old buildings are all badly in need of repair. A balcony on the fifth floor gave way under one of those pigs. It struck the third floor balcony on its way down and sort of ricochetted into the street. My father was on the way to the Hydrographic Museum when the pig hit him. Coming from that height and that angle it broke his neck.' This was a masterly attempt to make an intrinsically interesting subject boring.
Finally Jerome falls in love with a girl because she apparently has no sense of humor at all and finds his story of his father's death tragic rather than absurd.
'How horrible,' Sally said. 'It makes you think, doesn't it? Happening like that. Out of a clear sky.'
Jerome's heart sang with joy. It was as though she had appeased his fear for ever.
The reader's feelings throughout Graham Greene's tragic-comic tale are similar to those of most of the people who hear about the so-called "shocking accident." The reader can sympathize with poor Jerome, who not only loses his beloved father but is stuck with a ridiculous story of how it happened. At the same time, the reader cannot help laughing at the thought of an enormous pig falling five stories and landing on top of a travel writer who is out looking for local color. The most dramatic incident on his whole trip is getting killed by a falling pig--but he doesn't live to write about his misadventure.
"A Shocking Accident" might be seen as a sort of satire on travel writing in general. There is a strong tendency among writers of such escapist books to focus on the pleasant aspects of the places they visit and to ignore the ugly realities which are a part of life anywhere and everywhere in the world.