The End of the Affair

by Graham Greene
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 346

Graham Greene dislikes being labeled a Catholic writer and prefers to be thought of as a writer who happens to be a Catholic. Nevertheless, six of his novels deal specifically with Catholic theology. Among them, Brighton Rock (1938) and The Heart of the Matter (1948) are about damnation, though it is possible that Scobie in the latter is not damned but in purgatory. The Power and the Glory (1940) and The End of the Affair are about flawed protagonists who achieve salvation and possible sainthood. Much of The End of the Affair consists of a kind of inverse Christian apologetics; through their disbelief and then hatred of God, Sarah and Bendrix and perhaps Smythe and Henry are drawn toward reluctant belief in and then love of God. Such faith is not easy; Greene’s is no superficial, sentimental Christianity but that of a rigorous intellectual. For him, one way to God is through pain. Bendrix observes that “As long as one suffers one lives,” and Sarah says that God has mercy, “Only it’s such an odd sort of mercy, it sometimes looks like punishment.” As for hatred of God, Sarah realizes that one cannot hate a fable, such as Hansel and Gretel and the sugar house, and she wonders why Smythe should hate the good fairy tale rather than the wicked one.

For Greene, Christianity is not simply a good fairy tale: It is a fact and requires a commitment. As Bendrix thinks, after Sarah seems to have performed several miracles, if these things were true, then he would have to believe in and love her God. If that were the case, “I’ve got to do something about it.... One can’t love and do nothing.” Yet he resists, while conceding of Sarah, “if you are a saint, it’s not so difficult to be a saint. It’s something He can demand of any of us-leap! But I won’t leap.” Yet the reader is left with the feeling that he may and that like Sarah, he too has been in purgatory rather than in hell.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 744

Love and Hate
The opposing themes of love and hate run throughout The End of the Affair as Greene sets them up to shed light on each other. Ultimately, he demonstrates that hate can be the surprising precursor to love. At the same time, he depicts the cruel realities often associated with love and hate. After all, Sarah chooses love (divine) and dies, but Bendrix chooses hate (earthly) and is still alive at the end of the novel. The choices these characters make represent the two kinds of love in the novel: divine love, which is selfless; and romantic love, which is selfish and can easily turn to hate.

Bendrix knows only romantic love, and he knows it only for Sarah. After she ends their relationship, he does not seek a new woman for his life. Instead, he alternates between love and hate for her. When they are involved, he loves her, but when she stops seeing him, he hates her. Then when he thinks he has a chance to win her back, he loves her again. When she dies, he claims to love her, but his actions tell a different story. His love is so confused by romantic selfishness that he ignores what he can infer about her burial wishes and insists that she be cremated, which according to Catholic faith, would be unpleasing to the God who took her from him.

Sarah, on the other hand, sacrifices romantic love for divine love. Although she began the affair in pursuit of romantic love, even at the cost of her morality, she is surprised to find herself giving it up to fulfill a desperate promise made to God.

Sacrificing the affair leads Sarah to the other kind of love presented in the novel, divine love. After an intense spiritual struggle to truly give up her romance with Bendrix, she finds herself at peace because she has accepted the love of God. She finds that this love renews her, whereas her love for Bendrix was sinful and unhealthy. In fact, she concludes that her love for Bendrix was merely a stop on the way to the divine love that awaited her. In her diary, she writes:

Did I ever love Maurice as much before I loved you? Or was it You I really loved all the time?... For he hated in me the things You hate. He was on Your side all the time without knowing it. You willed our separation, but he willed it too. He worked for it with his anger and his jealousy, and he worked for it with his love. For he gave so much love and I gave him so much love that soon there wasn't anything left, when we'd finished, but You.

The Divine
Whether or not they are aware of it, the divine plays a role in the characters' lives. Sarah prays to God in a panicked moment, pleading for Bendrix's life and promising to abandon her immoral ways in return. When Bendrix walks into the room, she is convinced that her prayer has saved him and she makes good on her promise. For Sarah, this incident is unquestionably a moment of divine intervention. The spiritual struggle that follows is also an example of the divine shaping her life. She realizes that she cannot attain spiritual peace alone, and she submits to the will of God and feels the change in her life.

After Sarah's death a series of miracles occurs, seemingly because of her status in heaven. In the Catholic tradition, a person is not canonized (declared a saint by the Catholic Church) unless a miracle is attributed to him or her. This implies that Sarah is a saint or is eligible for such divine status. Her ability to perform miracles after her death represents her divine influence in the lives of the people she once knew.

The presence of Bendrix's demon also alludes to the divine world. As a devout Catholic, Greene is likely familiar with the position of St. Augustine a first-century bishop and theologian whose teachings are regarded as among the most important in Catholic theology. Augustine taught that evil is present in the mere absence of God. This is relevant to Greene's novel because Bendrix makes repeated references to his demon, which seems to appear and talk him into doing and saying things that are hateful. According to Augustine, the intervention of this evil presence would be evidence of Bendrix's separation from God.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 310

Greene explores the unconventional possibility that physical love can be transformed into divine love, as evidenced by Sarah's pact with God that she will not continue the affair if he saves Bendrix. Whereas Sarah cannot help but thank God for saving her lover, Bendrix, on the other hand, hates God for taking Sarah from his immediate physical and psychological needs.

In exploring male-female relationships, Greene really addresses issues of trust. Bendrix easily distrusts Sarah because of their own adulterous affair. Bendrix cannot easily imagine a psyche different from his own jealous, hating, fearful petty heart.

Even at the crematorium service for Sarah, Bendrix resists his grieving by picking up a younger woman who had accompanied an interviewer but ditched him in the interest of finding Bendrix a more feasible ticket to a new life. In believing that Sarah intervenes to save this young woman from his lack of feeling for her personally, Bendrix begins to see hints of Sarah's love.

That Henry, upon Bendrix's pressure, decides to cremate Sarah might first be read as Bendrix's desire to banish any physical reminders of Sarah. More importantly, however, his insistence indicates his resistance to the growing possibility that Sarah would have wanted a proper Catholic burial.

Greene repeatedly questions the church's intervention between God and any individual. The Catholic priest with whom Sarah had been conversing with before her death disdains the men of her life. The tension between him and Bendrix, when they discuss the final arrangements for Sarah, indicates how human nature continues to try to possess others.
The individual's necessary passivity to resist the grace of God is one of the strongest themes of the story. Try as he might to make his own decisions, the individual is drawn to the power of God. Bendrix, however, remains in a strong sense of denial at the end of the book.

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