Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 730
Considered by many critics to be the greatest British writer of the twentieth century, Graham Greene was made a British Companion of Honour in 1966 and awarded the Order of Merit in 1986. In a literary career that spanned sixty years, he published twenty-five novels, dozens of short stories and plays, two autobiographies, and countless critical and journalistic pieces. Unlike many great writers, Greene enjoyed not only critical acclaim but also popular success. Many of his fictional works were made into films, and a great number were best sellers. Upon Greene’s death in 1991, William Golding proclaimed him “the ultimate chronicler of twentieth-century man’s consciousness and anxiety,” and Sir Alec Guinness hailed him as “a great writer who spoke brilliantly to a whole generation.”
During his long and varied career, Greene was a journalist, a film critic, and, for a time, a British spy. In 1926, he converted to Catholicism, and many of his works have Catholic themes. Important, also, to Greene’s fiction were his endless travels throughout the world, often to places of political unrest. With the journalist’s eye for character and detail, Greene exposed the dark side of political intrigue in places such as Papa Doc’s Haiti and Vietnam at the start of the conflict between Vietnam and the United States. For Greene, external political and religious conflicts were a reflection of the greater conflict within the human soul. Greene’s characters—particularly in his later novels—struggle to find their identity in a ravaged and alienating world and fight to find meaning in lives where none is apparent.
Like most of Greene’s later novels, A Burnt-Out Case is strong on characterization, rich in symbolism, and heavy with irony. Greene’s third-person omniscient narration offers readers insights into each character’s motivation, making the characters seem authentic and compelling. Greene’s skillful use of symbol and metaphor gives the story emotional and psychological depth, and his masterful use of irony lends the story poignancy and immediacy.
In A Burnt-Out Case, Greene develops the theme of the individual’s search for identity and for meaning by using two controlling metaphors, the “journey” and the “burnt-out case.” As the story opens with Querry’s river voyage, the narrator refers to Querry as “the cabin passenger”—a nameless, faceless traveler on an unknown journey. On the trip, Querry speaks little, insulating himself from the other passengers and wallowing in his self-imposed isolation. The boat travels far down the river, deep into the jungle, stopping finally at the leper colony. On a literal level, the river voyage is simply Querry’s means of escape from his sad and sordid past. On a metaphorical level, however, Querry is seeking death, trying to “bury” himself in the jungle. Like the leper who loses his extremities and suffers from numbness, Querry is numb to joy and pain and longs to withdraw from a world he finds meaningless.
When he arrives at the leper colony, Querry disembarks because the boat “goes no farther.” Metaphorically, though, his journey has just begun. On the deeper symbolic level, Querry’s river voyage is a journey of self-discovery. The farther he travels into the jungle, the deeper he delves into himself. With an irony characteristic of Greene’s work, what Querry finds at the end of his journey is not the death he seeks but a symbolic rebirth he once thought impossible. Surrounded by the peace and the safety of the colony, Querry begins to lose his fear of the world. Strengthened by his friendship with Dr. Colin and his affection for Deo Gratias, he begins to think of others before himself. Stirred by compassion for Marie Rycker, he travels the long road back to the world of the emotionally alive. Once burnt out, Querry eventually regains the ability to feel, to care, and to love. Once a stranger to himself and the world around him, Querry learns to find meaning in the human community. Traveling to the Congo, Querry wants to lose himself in darkness and anonymity; paradoxically, he finds himself and his life’s meaning by doing so. Having lost the ability to feel, he seeks symbolic death and burial; paradoxically, he finds a rebirth of interest in life. In one of Greene’s fine ironic twists, Querry finds literal death at the moment he is reborn into the world of those who feel and care.