Graham Greene

Start Free Trial

Graham Greene Biography

Graham Greene would likely be the poster boy for “Catholic Espionage” if such a literary genre existed. Both his deep religious convictions and his penchant for international intrigue manifest themselves in his writing. In his novel The End of the Affair, a romance is doomed due to a very Catholic promise made to God in prayer. Conversely, The Quiet American typifies the weary disillusionment that permeated many of his spy stories. In addition to his short fiction and novels, Greene also wrote poetry (though largely unsuccessful) and the screenplay for the silver-screen classic The Third Man. With a terse and economic writing style, Greene captured in very real detail the internal angst that tormented so many of his generation.

Facts and Trivia

  • Despite his later literary career, the primary focus of Greene’s studies as an undergraduate was history.
  • Along with his fiction, Greene wrote journalistic articles and reviews throughout his early career.
  • Greene was reprimanded by the Catholic Church for his novel The Power and the Glory and pressured to change its content. Even after an audience with the Pope, Greene remained resolute and did not change the book.
  • Greene’s fruitful life and prodigious output have been documented in no less than three full-length memoirs by biographer Norman Sherry.
  • Public acclaim came easy to Greene, but his private life was a different matter. The author suffered from bipolar disorder throughout his life.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Article abstract: Combining a fascination with the nature of good and evil in the contemporary world and a masterful ability to develop exciting plots about complex yet believable characters caught in real-life situations, Greene created a body of fiction which enjoys a critical and popular appeal unique in twentieth century literature.

Early Life

Graham Greene was born October 2, 1904, in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England, the fourth of six children in a large upper-middle-class Edwardian household. His father, Charles Henry Greene, was a history and classics master who, in 1910, became the headmaster of the Berkhamsted School. In his memoir, A Sort of Life (1971), Greene recalls his early childhood as pleasant. Although he appears to have seen little of his father and mother, he enjoyed the company of a large number of aunts, uncles, and cousins who lived nearby.

In 1912, Greene was enrolled in Berkhamsted School where he was to spend the next ten years. His adolescence, however, was marked by the passage from a state of security and joy into one of fear and depression. At age thirteen, Greene entered the senior part of his father’s school. Now required to board in the “hated brick barracks” of the English public school with the older boys, he was bitterly unhappy. His manic-depressive tendency became acute during this period. Feeling homesick and betrayed, tormented by conflicting loyalties—the headmaster’s son was cruelly shunned by the other boys—Greene was plagued by nightmares; he developed a terror of birds and bats and an obsessive fear of drowning which survived as a recurrent motif in his fiction. By 1920, Greene’s behavior was so eccentric and suicidal that his father sent him to London for psychoanalysis. The treatment was moderately successful, and Greene returned to Berkhamsted with renewed self-confidence, but his horror of living among strangers and enemies endured, later influencing the characterization of the protagonists of his novels.

In 1922, Greene entered Oxford University to study history. By 1923, his depression had returned, and on six occasions he played a deadly game: Slipping a bullet into his brother’s revolver, he would spin the chamber, point the gun into his right ear and pull the trigger. In this gratuitous gambling with his life, Greene found what he called “an extraordinary sense of jubilation” which assuaged his terrible feeling of emptiness. Although he soon gave up these suicidal experiments, his desperate need to experience danger in his “life-long war against boredom” persisted. His later excursions into Africa, Mexico, and Vietnam in the midst of wars and revolutions may owe something to this compulsion.

After leaving Oxford, Greene embarked on a career in journalism. In 1926, he became an unpaid film reviewer for the Nottingham Journal. He also met Vivien Dayrell-Browning, a Roman Catholic. They were married in 1927 and later had two children. Greene himself was formally received into the Catholic Church in 1926, the same year he left the Nottingham Journal for The Times, where he worked for the next four years as a subeditor. In 1929, the distinguished publisher William Heinemann accepted Greene’s first novel, The Man Within (1929). Although the novel did well in England, selling more than eight thousand copies, a remarkable success for a first novel, it failed in the United States. Still, Heinemann was sufficiently pleased to offer Greene six hundred pounds a year for three years in return for a promise of three more novels. On the strength of this encouragement, Greene gave up his position at The Times to pursue a career as a novelist.

Life’s Work

The first two novels in Greene’s Heinemann contract, The...

(This entire section contains 2410 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Name of Action (1930) and Rumour at Nightfall (1931), were awkward and undeveloped action stories which Greene later withdrew from his bibliography. In the 1930’s, he began to distinguish between entertainments and novels. The novels were serious works in which the characterization was both complex and ambiguous. The entertainments were conceived as thrillers designed to satisfy his publisher and generate an income for his growing family. Stamboul Train (1932) was just such an entertainment. Published in the United States as Orient Express, the book catapulted Greene to popular success. The English Book Society chose it as a selection, thereby ensuring sales of at least ten thousand copies, and Twentieth Century-Fox purchased the film rights. Most notable among the entertainments that followed were A Gun for Sale (1936), which appeared in the United States as This Gun for Hire; The Confidential Agent (1939); and The Ministry of Fear (1943).

A prolific writer, Greene was already at work on his next book before Stamboul Train had been published. It’s a Battlefield (1934) was not well received. Undaunted, Greene wrote England Made Me (1935), later reissued as The Shipwrecked (1953), a pessimistic portrait of a doomed society. While employed as the film critic for The Spectator from 1935 to 1939, Greene produced books that were heavily influenced by cinematic effects. Indeed, a measure of Greene’s success is the great number of his novels which have been made into films.

A tireless traveler, Greene ranged widely in Africa, Mexico, Asia, and South America during his lifetime. In the winter of 1934-1935, he undertook an arduous walking tour of Liberia with his cousin Barbara Greene; he published an account of this experience as Journey Without Maps: A Travel Book (1936). At about the same time, Greene began work on the novel, Brighton Rock (1938), that was to mark a significant watershed in his career: It established him as a major novelist and signaled, to some readers, that he was a Catholic writer. Although Greene had been a Catholic since his conversion in 1926, Brighton Rock was the first of his religious novels—which include The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948), The End of the Affair (1951), and, to a lesser extent, A Burnt-out Case (1961)—in which Catholicism was both a significant narrative principle and an object of scrutiny. Commissioned to report on the persecution of Catholics in Mexico, Greene spent the winter of 1938 in the provinces of Tabasco and Chiapas, Mexico. The record of his observations was published as The Lawless Roads: A Mexican Journal (1939), appearing in the United States as Another Mexico. The Mexican expedition also provided him with the background and inspiration for one of his most compelling novels, The Power and the Glory. Published under the title The Labyrinthine Ways in the United States, the novel is considered by some to be his best. In 1941, it was awarded the prestigious Hawthornden Prize. Because of wartime economy measures, the first edition was limited to thirty-five hundred copies. Only two thousand copies of The Labyrinthine Ways were sold in the United States. After 1945, however, the novel was a huge success in France, in part the result of the enthusiastic praise of the novelist François Mauriac. The American director John Ford made the novel into a film titled The Fugitive (1947), with Henry Fonda in the leading role, and by the 1950’s the novel had won wide critical acclaim in the United States. The story of the “whiskey priest” with the illegitimate daughter, however, also brought a strong condemnation from the Vatican.

In 1941, Greene joined the British Secret Service and spent much of the next five years in Africa. Among both Europeans and Americans, Greene’s reputation as a Catholic novelist was spreading quickly. When he published The Heart of the Matter in 1948, his first serious novel in eight years, Catholic critics debated whether its hero, Major Scobie, was saved or damned. A married middle-aged police officer in British West Africa, Scobie falls in love with a nineteen-year-old girl and finally, because of a series of events, decides to commit suicide. For years after the novel appeared, Greene was hounded by the religious public on both sides of the Atlantic for his counsel on marital or spiritual questions. Greene said that he had grown weary of the “reiterated arguments in Catholic journals on Scobie’s salvation or damnation.”

As a novelist and a journalist, Greene was particularly active in the 1950’s and 1960’s, often accepting dangerous assignments to visit regions of political or civil unrest. After publishing The End of the Affair in 1951, he traveled to Malaya for Life magazine. Between 1951 and 1955, he spent winters in Vietnam covering the French Wars for the Sunday Times and Le Figaro, and he also reported from Kenya at the height of the Mau Mau uprising for the Sunday Times. He subsequently traveled to Stalinist Poland, Cuba, the Belgian Congo (to study life in a leper colony), and Haiti. The journeys inspired at least four novels: The Quiet American (1955), Our Man in Havana (1958), A Burnt-out Case (1961), and The Comedians (1966).

In the 1970’s, Greene visited Chile, Argentina, and Panama. The significant novels of the decade included The Honorary Consul (1973) and The Human Factor (1978), the latter based on the sensational defection to the Soviet Union of Kim Philby, Greene’s former boss in the British Secret Service. With the publication of The Human Factor, Greene, now seventy-four, assumed his “writing days were finished.” Then, on Christmas Day, 1978, in Switzerland, a new book came to him. He published that book, the bizarre novel Dr. Fischer of Geneva: Or, The Bomb Party (1980), another volume of autobiography, titled Ways of Escape (1980), Monsignor Quixote (1982), a short novel about a priest who journeys across Spain in the company of his friend, a Communist ex-mayor, and The Tenth Man (1985).


Graham Greene was one of the most remarkable writers of the twentieth century. His novels won for him enormous popularity among Catholic and non-Catholic readers, both in America and elsewhere, as they dramatize in contemporary political settings such universal themes as the struggle of innocence against evil and the hope of redemption in a fallen world. For example, his fiction offers vivid pictures of the Mexican religious persecutions of the 1930’s, the demise of French power and the growing involvement of the Americans in Vietnam of the early 1950’s, and the horror of life in Haiti under François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Although Greene’s reputation rests principally on his novels, he contributed to a wide variety of genres; his canon includes short stories, travel books, essays and literary criticism, autobiography and biography, children’s books, plays, and film scripts.

Greene had an undeniable impact on the shape of American fiction and film (all the major American film companies have made films from his novels), yet his relationship with America was characterized by mutual ambivalence. In 1954, Greene was refused a visa to enter the United States because of his brief association with the Communist Party when he was an undergraduate at Oxford University thirty years before. The following year, he published The Quiet American, which portrays the true villains of the French colonial war in Vietnam as neither the French nor the Vietnamese but the covertly interfering Americans. The novel was attacked by American reviewers for its anti-Americanism, and Greene was accused of caricaturing Pyle, a young idealistic American, through the eyes of Fowler, a British journalist, in order to express his antipathy for America. Yet in 1961, Greene was named an honorary member of the American Institute of Arts and Letters. A year after the appearance of The Comedians in 1966, in which Greene presented a somewhat unflattering portrait of the Americans Mr. and Mrs. Smith and their naïve politics, he wrote in a letter to The Times that if he were forced to choose between life in the Soviet Union and life in America, he would choose the Soviet Union. In 1970, Greene resigned from the American Institute of Arts and Letters to protest American involvement in Southeast Asia.

Greene’s political views, however antipathetic to American foreign policy, do not detract from his accomplishments as a novelist. A consummate storyteller of outstanding technical ability, he wrote of fear, pity, violence, and man’s restless search for salvation in a highly readable prose which offers moments of poignant intensity.


Adamson, Judith. Graham Greene and Cinema. Norman, Okla.: Pilgrim Books, 1984. A study of the transformations of Greene’s novels and entertainments into films as well as a consideration of Greene’s own film criticism. Includes a useful appendix listing all the films in which Greene had a hand to 1983.

Allain, Marie-François. The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene. London: The Bodley Head, 1981. An indispensable aid to any serious study of Greene. The novelist is witty and charming as he answers questions about his craft.

Boardman, Gwenn R. Graham Greene: The Aesthetics of Exploration. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1971. A sensitive discussion of Greene’s interest in the theme of lost innocence in the major novels before 1967.

DeVitis, A. A. Graham Greene. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1964, rev. ed. 1986. A lucid survey of Greene’s books and the major themes, although with a bias to read Greene principally as a religious novelist.

Greene, Graham. A Sort of Life. London: The Bodley Head, 1971. The first volume of Greene’s autobiography, from his childhood to the 1930’s. Most interesting for the insights which it provides to the mind of the mature writer as it describes the peculiar mix of joy and pain which characterized Greene’s childhood and adolescence.

Greene, Graham. Ways of Escape. London: The Bodley Head, 1980. The best criticism available on Greene is his own. This fascinating if somewhat circumspect volume continues the memoirs of A Sort of Life and offers excellent musing on Greene’s work, politics, and travels.

Kelly, Richard. Graham Greene. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1985. A workmanlike study of both the man and the major writings. Attempts more biographical information than other sources, although it draws heavily on Greene’s two published autobiographical volumes.

Smith, Grahame. The Achievement of Graham Greene. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1985. Close studies of individual works as well as analysis of the major themes. Argues that Greene’s appeal to a wide popular audience is a crucial part of his success as a serious writer. Attempts to shift attention away from Greene as a religious writer by focusing on his involvement with politics.

Spurling, John. Graham Greene. New York: Methuen, 1983. A short but useful examination of the mind of the novelist as it is revealed in the published writings. A good general introduction to Greene’s fiction.

Stratford, Philip. Faith and Fiction: Creative Process in Greene and Mauriac. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1964. Examines the works of Greene and Mauriac individually and then considers the religious milieus from which these authors drew their fictions. A scholarly study of the relation of religious faith to the act of writing fiction.


Critical Essays