The Basement Room by Graham Greene

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Left by his parents in the care of their butler and housekeeper, seven-year-old Philip Lane excitedly anticipates exploring the large Belgravia house while learning something about the adult world. Philip loves Baines, the butler, whose adventurous tales about Africa entrance him, but he dislikes and fears Mrs. Baines, whose very presence terrifies him in the same way that the demons that people his nightmares do.

Once his parents leave the house on their holiday, Philip seeks out Baines in the basement room, entered through a green baize door that separates the family rooms from the servants’ quarters. In the basement room, Philip’s fear and dislike of Mrs. Baines are reaffirmed as he watches Baines efface himself in her presence. Philip begins to appreciate the conflicting claims of adulthood in a world he yearns for yet fears to enter. He begins to understand fear and coercion and to intuit the meaning of evil. He suspects that undiluted joy, his feeling for Baines, can be threatened by the very presence of those such as Mrs. Baines.

Philip asks Baines to take him for a walk, but Mrs. Baines interferes. The boy escapes alone into the world beyond the Belgravia mansion rather than witness their disharmony. Too timid to venture far, he begins to retrace his steps. In a tea shop he sees Baines, not the cowering individual he recently left but a concerned and affable lover pressing jars of discarded cosmetics, rescued and then rejected by Mrs. Baines from the upstairs rooms in the process of housecleaning, on a young and unattractive girl. Philip thinks that it would be amusing to intrude on Baines and his “niece” in Mrs. Baines’s voice. He invades their moment of happiness, returning them to reality with a fearful thud. Baines introduces Philip to Emmy, offers him a cake with pink icing, and asks him to keep Emmy a secret from Mrs. Baines.

Later, in the nursery, Mrs. Baines manages to trick Philip into revealing the secret he shares with Baines. She bribes him with a Meccano set. The pressures of adult responsibility invade his innocent sphere of love and trust, and he wonders about his place within the adult world. “Baines oughtn’t to have trusted him; grown up people should keep their own secrets,” he thinks. He betrays Baines by failing to tell him about Mrs. Baines’s invasion of his dreams.

Mrs. Baines devises a simple plan to trap her husband and Emmy. She pretends to leave London to care for an ailing mother, then sends a telegram saying that she is delayed and will return...

(The entire section is 662 words.)