Graham Greene Biography

At a Glance

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.


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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 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...

(The entire section is 2410 words.)