Graham Greene

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Graham Greene Long Fiction Analysis

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In an address he called the “Virtue of Disloyalty,” which he delivered at the University of Hamburg in 1969, Graham Greene contended that a writer is driven “to be a protestant in a Catholic society, a catholic in a Protestant one,” or to be a communist in a capitalist society and a capitalist in a communist one. Whereas loyalty confines a person to accepted opinions, “disloyalty gives the novelist an extra dimension of understanding.” Whatever the reader may think of Greene’s theory, it is helpful in explaining most of his own novels. From The Man Within in 1929, which justified a suicide in the face of Catholic morality’s abhorrence for such an act, to The Human Factor forty-nine years later, which comes close to justifying treason, Greene practiced this “virtue of disloyalty.”

Most of Greene’s obsessions originated in his childhood. Where did the desire to be “disloyal,” to play devil’s advocate, arise? Certainly his serving in MI6 under the authority of Kim Philby was a factor. Greene admired the man in every way except for what appeared to be a personal drive for power. It was this characteristic of Philby that caused Greene finally to resign rather than accept a promotion and become part of Philby’s intrigue. Greene later came to see, however, that the man served not himself but a cause, and all his former admiration of Philby returned. Greene continued his friendship even after Philby’s treason became known. As he saw it, Philby had found a faith in communism, and he would not discard it because it had been abused by Joseph Stalin, any more than Catholics would discard a faith that had been abused by the Inquisitors or the Roman Curia.

Clearly, however, Greene’s “disloyalty” or sympathy for the rebel did not originate here. It too must be traced to his childhood, to his isolation at school, where neither the students nor his headmaster father could treat him unambiguously; it can be traced also to his love of poet Robert Browning, who very early instilled in him an interest in the “dangerous edge of things,” in “the honest thief, the tender murderer.” It was an influence more lasting, Greene said, than any religious teaching. Religiously, however, Greene’s fierce independence manifested itself when, upon conversion to Catholicism, he took the name Thomas, not after the angelic doctor but after the doubter.

Although Greene wrote in many genres, the novel is the form on which his reputation will rest. His strengths in the genre are many. Like all novelists who are more than journeymen, he returns throughout his oeuvre to certain recurring themes. Another strength is his gift for playing the devil’s advocate, the dynamics that occur when his character finds himself divided between loyalties. In Greene’s first novel, The Man Within, that division was handled crudely, externalized in a boy’s attraction to two different women; in later novels, the struggle is internalized. Sarah Miles of The End of the Affair is torn between her loyalty to God and her loyalty to her lover. Fowler of The Quiet American cannot decide whether he wants to eliminate Pyle for the good of Vietnam or to get his woman back from a rival. The characters are shaded in, rendered complex by internal division.

Brighton Rock

Because he was a remarkable self-critic, Greene overcame most of his early weaknesses. He corrected an early tendency to distrust autobiographical material, and he seemed to overcome his difficulty in portraying credible women. In his first twenty-four years as a novelist, he depicted perhaps only two or three complex women: Kate Farrant of England Made...

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Me, Sarah Miles of The End of the Affair, and possibly Ida Arnold of Brighton Rock. His later novels and plays, however, feature a host of well-drawn women, certainly the best of whom is Aunt Augusta of Travels with My Aunt. If there is one weakness that mars some of Greene’s later novels, it is their prolixity. Too often in his late fiction, characters are merely mouthpieces for ideas.

Brighton Rock was the first of Greene’s novels to treat an explicitly religious theme. Moreover, in attempting to play devil’s advocate for Brighton Rock’sprotagonist, Pinkie, the author had chosen one of his most challenging tasks. He made this Catholic protagonist more vicious than he was to make any character in his entirecanon, yet Greene demonstrated that Catholic moral law could not condemn Pinkie, could not finally know “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”

Pinkie takes over a protection-racket gang from his predecessor, Kite, and must immediately avenge Kite’s murder by killing Fred Hale. This murder inspires him to commit a series of other murders necessary to cover his tracks. It also leads to Pinkie’s marrying Rose, a potential witness against him, and finally to his attempt to induce Rose to commit suicide. When the police intervene, Pinkie takes his own life.

Vicious as he is, with his sadistic razor slashings, his murders to cover murders, and his cruelty to Rose, Pinkie’s guilt is nevertheless extenuated, his amorality rendered somewhat understandable. Pinkie’s conscience had not awakened because his imagination had not awakened: “The word ’murder’ conveyed no more to him than the word ’box,’ ’collar,’ ’giraffe.’The imagination hadn’t awoken. That was his strength. He couldn’t see through other people’s eyes, or feel with their nerves.”

As with so many of Greene’s characters, the explanation for Pinkie’s self-destructive character lies in his lost childhood: “In the lost boyhood of Judas, Christ was betrayed.” In a parody of William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” (1807), Greene said that Pinkie came into the world trailing something other than heavenly clouds of his own glory after him: “Hell lay about him in his infancy.” Though Wordsworth might write of the archetypal child that “heaven lay about him in his infancy,” Greene saw Pinkie in quite different terms: “Heaven was a word: hell was something he could trust.” Pinkie’s vivid memory of his father and mother having sexual intercourse in his presence has turned him from all pleasures of the flesh, tempting him for a while with thoughts of the celibate priesthood.

When Pinkie is seventeen, Kite becomes a surrogate father to him. Pinkie’s lack of conscience, his unconcern for himself, his sadomasochistic tendencies, which early showed themselves as a substitute for thwarted sexual impulses, stand the youth in good stead for a new vocation that requires unflinching loyalty, razor slashings, and, if necessary, murder. His corruption is almost guaranteed. To say this is not to reduce the novel from a theological level to a sociological one on which environment has determined the boy’s character. Rose survives somewhat the same circumstances. Pinkie’s guilt is extenuated, never excused.

Pinkie, however, is not the only character in the novel on whose behalf Greene invoked his “virtue of disloyalty.” Rose is a prefiguration of the unorthodox “saint” that Greene developed more subtly in his later novels, in the Mexican priest of The Power and the Glory, in Sarah Miles of The End of the Affair, and to some extent in Scobie of The Heart of the Matter. Like Scobie, Rose wills her damnation out of love. She is not so well drawn as Scobie, at times making her naïve goodness less credible than his, but she is motivated by selfless concern for another. When she refuses to reject Pinkie and when she chooses to commit suicide, Rose wants an afterlife with Pinkie. She would rather be damned with him than see him damned alone: Rose will show “them they couldn’t pick and choose.” This seems unconvincing, until one hears the old priest cite the actual case of Charles Peguy, who would rather have died in a state of sin than have believed that a single soul was damned. In her confession to the old priest, Rose learns of God’s mercy and also of the “saintly” Peguy, who, like Rose, preferred to be damned rather than believe that another person had been.

One is asked, then, to be sympathetic both to a character who has willed her own damnation and to one who leads a life of thorough viciousness, to believe that the salvation of both is a real possibility. In asking for this sympathy, for this possibility, Greene is not doctrinaire. As an effective problem novelist, Greene makes no assertions but merely asks questions that enlarge one’s understanding. Greene does not equate the Church with Rose’s official moral teaching, suggesting that the old priest in this novel and Father Rank in The Heart of the Matter are as representative as the teachers of Rose and Pinkie. Still, the moral doctrine provided Greene with the material that he liked to stretch beyond its customary shape.

The Heart of the Matter

In The Heart of the Matter, Greene achieved the genuine tragedy that he came close to writing in many of his other novels. His protagonist, Major Scobie, is a virtuous man whose tragic flaw lies in an excess of pity. In Scobie, pity exceeds all bounds and becomes as vicious as Macbeth’s ambition. His pity wrecks a marriage he had wanted to save, ruins a lover he had hoped to help, kills his closest friend—his “boy,” Ali—and brings about his own moral corruption. Compared to Aristides the Just by one character and to the Old Testament’s Daniel by another, Scobie becomes guilty of adultery, smuggling, treason, lies, sacrilege, and murder before he kills himself.

A late edition of the novel restores to the story an early scene between the government spy, Wilson, and Louise Scobie. Greene had written it for the original, then withdrew it since he believed that, told as it was from Wilson’s point of view, it broke Scobie’s point of view prematurely. When this scene is restored, Louise is seen in a more sympathetic light, and one can no longer see Scobie as hunted to his death by Louise. Though the reader still likes Scobie and is tempted to exonerate him, it is difficult to read the restored text without seeing Scobie’s excess of pity for what it is.

The novel’s three final, anticlimactic scenes effectively serve to reduce the grandeur of Scobie’s act of self-sacrifice, showing the utter waste of his suicide and the fearful pride contained in his act. It is not that the final scenes make Scobie seem a lesser person. On the contrary, his wife and Helen are made to appear more unworthy of him: Louise with her unkind judgments about Scobie’s taking money from Yusef when that very money was borrowed to send her to South Africa as she wanted, and Helen giving her body to Bagster immediately after Scobie’s death. Nevertheless, the very criticism of these women makes Scobie’s suicide more meaningless and even more effectively shows the arrogance of his action.

Scobie’s suicide, then, is not meant to be seen as praiseworthy but rather as the result of a tragic flaw—pity. In this respect, it differs from Elizabeth’s suicide in The Man Within. Still, though his suicide is presented as wrong, the final fault in a good man disintegrating spiritually, the reader is compelled to feel sympathy for Scobie. Louise’s insistence on the Church’s teaching that he has cut himself off from mercy annoys the reader. One is made to see Scobie through the eyes of Father Rank, who angrily responds to Louise that “the Church knows all the rules. But it doesn’t know what goes on in a single human heart.” In this novel’s complex treatment of suicide, then, Greene does not use the “virtue of disloyalty” to justify Scobie’s act but rather “to comprehend sympathetically [a] dissident fellow.”

The Human Factor

The epigraph for The Human Factor is taken from Joseph Conrad: “I only know that he who forms a tie is lost. The germ of corruption has entered into his soul.” Maurice Castle’s soul is corrupted because a tie of gratitude exists between him and a Communist friend.

The Human Factor may, in part, have been suggested by Greene’s friend and former superior in British Secret Intelligence, Kim Philby, although Greene had written twenty-five thousand words of the novel before Philby’s defection. When Philby wrote his story, My Silent War (1968), Greene put the novel aside for ten years. In any case, Greene anticipated the novel long before the Philby case in his 1930 story, “I Spy,” in which a young boy watches his father being whisked off to Russia after the British have detected his spying.

The Human Factor was Greene’s first espionage novel since Our Man in Havana in 1958. Greene’s protagonist, Maurice Castle, works for the British Secret Service in London and has, the reader learns halfway through the novel, become a double agent. He has agreed to leak information to the Russians to help thwart “Uncle Remus,” a plan devised by England, the United States, and South Africa to preserve apartheid, even to use nuclear weapons for the purpose if necessary. Castle has not become a Communist and will not support them in Europe, but he owes a Communist friend a favor for helping his black wife, Sarah, escape from South Africa. Also, he owes his wife’s people something better than apartheid.

Castle’s spying is eventually discovered, and the Russians remove him from England. They try to make good their promise to have his wife and child follow, but the British Secret Service makes it impossible for Sarah to take the boy when it learns that Sam is not Castle’s boy, but the boy of an African who is still alive. The novel ends in bleak fashion when Maurice is permitted to phone from Moscow and learns that his family cannot come. He has escaped into a private prison.

The Human Factor exemplifies again the “virtue of disloyalty,” but even more, it demonstrates that Greene does not merely flesh out a story to embody that disloyalty. Though he does everything to enlist the reader’s sympathies for Castle, demonstrating his superiority to those for whom he works, Greene ultimately condemns his actions as he condemned Scobie’s. As Scobie had been a victim of pity, Castle is a victim of gratitude. In chatting with his wife, Sarah, before she learns that he has been spying, Castle defends his gratitude, and his wife agrees it is a good thing “if it doesn’t take you too far.” Moreover, as Scobie had an excessive pity even as a boy, Maurice Castle had an exaggerated gratitude. At one point, he asks his mother whether he was a nervous child, and she tells him he always had an “exaggerated sense of gratitude for the least kindness.” Once, she tells him, he gave away an expensive pen to a boy who had given him a chocolate bun. At novel’s end, when Castle is isolated in Russia, Sarah asks him in a phone conversation how he is, and he recalls his mother’s words about the fountain pen: “My mother wasn’t far wrong.” Like Scobie as well, Castle is the most appealing character in the book, and many a reader will think his defection justified.

The Power and the Glory

The novels considered above are perhaps extreme examples of Greene’s “virtue of disloyalty,” but the same quality can be found in most of his novels. In his well-known The Power and the Glory, for example, Greene sets up a metaphorical conflict between the powers of God and the powers of atheism, yet it is his “disloyalty” that prevents the allegory from turning into a medieval morality play. The forces of good and the forces of evil are not so easily separated. Although his unnamed priest acquires a real holiness through suffering, the author depicts him as a much weaker man than his counterpart, the atheistic lieutenant. The latter is not only a strong man but also a good man who is selflessly devoted to the people. His anti-Catholicism has its origins in his boyhood memory of a Church that did not show a similar concern for its people.

Perhaps Greene’s fairness to Mexico’s dusty rationalism, which he actually despised, is made clearer through a comparison of the novel with its first film version. In the 1947 motion-picture adaptation of The Power and the Glory directed by John Ford, which was retitled The Fugitive, the viewer is given a hero, the priest, played by Henry Fonda, opposed by a corrupt lieutenant.

The Quiet American

That writer’s judgment so firmly founded on “disloyalty” also helped Greene to overcome his tendency to anti-Americanism in The Quiet American. While Greene is critical of the naïve and destructive innocence of the young American, Pyle, he is even more critical of the English narrator, Fowler, who is cynically aloof. In the end, Greene’s “disloyalty” permits him to show Vietnam suffering at the hands of any and all representatives of the Western world.

Greene’s painstaking attempt to see the other side, and to be as “disloyal” as possible to his own, animated his fictional worlds and gave both him and his readers that “extra dimension of understanding.”


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