Graham Greene

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Graham Greene World Literature Analysis

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Greene’s exciting, fast-paced narratives have an illusive transparency about them, as if one can see and hear the characters and visualize their surroundings without the distractions of the author’s presence or stylistic mannerisms. This authorial invisibility may derive from Greene’s experience in writing film scripts and from the many years he spent in reviewing motion pictures. It is interesting to note, in this connection, how few of his novels are written from the first-person point of view, a perspective clearly unsuited to a screenplay.

Although many of his novels are based on topical events—whether in England, Mexico, Vietnam, or Haiti—Greene’s personal involvement in those events as a reporter and as a student of human nature allows him the perspective of an insider. It is almost as if he would not ask his characters to do or think something that he himself had not done or thought. Life, to Greene, is a series of risks and moral choices; the dangers are betrayal, corruption, and failure. The central quest of his obsessed heroes is for the peace and innocence of their lost childhood, an adventure that is characterized by great tension and suffering, and one that often ends only in death.

Greene’s fiction offers a unique vision of the world, a vision derived from his obsession with certain themes, characters, and events. Feeling that his childhood innocence was savaged at Berkhamsted School by the psychological bullies Carter and Wheeler, Greene became obsessed with the theme of lost childhood, a theme that dominates most of his novels and short fiction. Greene is like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who burns with a constant passion to tell the passerby his story; like the Mariner, he can hold his audience with the hypnotic eye of a true believer and weave his obsession into a compelling fiction. In fact, Greene acknowledged that his writing was a form of therapy that enabled him to escape the madness, melancholy, and panic inherent in the human condition.

Greene’s obsessions and fascinations are many and evolve into themes focused on innocence, evil, pity, hatred, the isolated and hunted individual, betrayal, suicide, dreams, seedy and decadent surroundings (“Greeneland,” as some critics call it), violence, carnal sexuality, and failure. His characters fall into four categories: the sinner, the innocent, the pious, and the humanist.

All of these obsessive figures, themes, and subjects are circumscribed by Greene’s fatalistic and pessimistic vision of the world. There is little healthy humor or laughter in most of his novels, but rather a sense of inevitable failure, pain, and suffering. There may be a God in Greene’s world, but the focus is almost always on the twisted world itself: its nightmarish oppression, its squalor, and its seeming hopelessness.

Greene’s Catholicism and his obsessions supply much of the strength of his novels. They are the muscles that make the body of his fiction work, but they should not be viewed in isolation from the total performance, which concerns itself with the human condition and the fundamental theme of much great literature: the struggle of innocence against evil and the hope of redemption. Greene’s fiction appeals to the reader’s profound urge to avenge an imperfect world that has betrayed his or her own youthful fantasies and ideals.

Brighton Rock

First published: 1938

Type of work: Novel

The young leader of a gang of racetrack hoodlums finds his world disintegrating as he is relentlessly pursued by a self-righteous avenger.

Brighton Rock is the story of a seventeen-year-old brutal criminal named Pinkie Brown, who has recently assumed the leadership of a gang of racetrack hoodlums working out of Brighton, an...

(This entire section contains 3112 words.)

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English seaside resort. A man named Hale, an advertising agent who is in Brighton to promote his newspaper, has betrayed Kite, the former leader of the gang now run by Pinkie. Hale knows that Pinkie has recognized him and is planning revenge. The pursuit and murder of Hale are set against a background of fun-seeking holiday crowds, band music, flower gardens in bloom, and a warm summer sun.

While seeking refuge from his would-be killers, Hale takes up with a vulgar, sensual woman named Ida Arnold. After Hale is murdered, Ida takes it upon herself to seek revenge. In the meantime, Pinkie befriends a young waitress named Rose, whose knowledge of his gang’s involvement in Hale’s murder makes her a threat to his safety. He then marries her because he knows that a wife cannot testify against her husband in court. Ida, delighting in her role as detective and avenger, begins to focus more clearly on her suspects, harasses Rose, and begins to frighten Pinkie with her constant inquiries about Hale.

Pinkie panics and kills one of his fellow gang members whom he feels he can no longer trust. Then, in a desperate attempt to rid himself of Rose, who in his mind has come to represent the horrors of sexuality and entrapment, he lures her into a suicide pact with him. His plan is to let Rose take her own life, which, out of reckless love for Pinkie, she is willing to do, and then escape. After they drive to the coast to consummate the pact, Dallow, a member of Pinkie’s gang, arrives to inform him that the police know who killed Hale and that there is no hope for any of them now. As Pinkie reaches for the bottle of vitriol, which he always carries with him, to hurl at Dallow, the acid flies back into his face. He runs screaming over the edge of an embankment and plunges to his death in the water below.

The novel ends on a note of terrible irony. Rose’s only consolations are the possibility that she will have Pinkie’s baby and will enjoy playing for the first time a gramophone recording that he had made for her earlier on the Brighton pier. He had told her that he had put something “loving” on the record; what he had actually said was, “God damn you, you little bitch, why can’t you go back home forever and let me be?” The novel ends with Rose walking toward her room in the hope that Pinkie’s love for her will be expressed and confirmed on the recording.

Pinkie Brown is the embodiment of depraved innocence. Greene visualizes Pinkie in realistic detail, but his metaphorical language elevates the young killer’s character almost to the level of a morality play or a parable. On one level Pinkie may be a common thug from Brighton in the 1930’s, but on another level he is a fallen angel, a tragicomic hero who, on an irrevocable course of self-destruction, transcends time and space.

The theme of lost or betrayed innocence is central to this novel. The neighborhood in which Pinkie was born and reared is called Paradise Piece and is now reduced to rubble. Pinkie’s fear of sexuality is directly related to the theme of lost innocence. When he believes that he will soon be inextricably bound to Rose as her husband, he feels as if he were shut out from an Eden of ignorance.

Pinkie’s only real choice in life is suicide. That is his only way of escape from human contacts and other people’s emotions. Other people make Pinkie’s world a hell, but at least he understands hell, whereas heaven is just a word to him. When they christened him, he asserts, the holy water did not work, and he never howled the devil out. His faith is in Satan, not in God.

The Power and the Glory

First published: 1940

Type of work: Novel

During the persecution of Catholics in Mexico, a hunted, alcoholic Catholic priest overcomes his human failings to achieve martyrdom.

The setting of The Power and the Glory is Mexico during the late 1930’s, when President Plutarco Elias Calles, in the name of revolution, was closing down the churches and murdering or exiling priests and practicing Catholics. The hero is an unnamed whiskey priest who is pursued through the countryside by an unnamed lieutenant. The fact that the protagonists are not named gives the novel the form of a parable. The priest represents a human, Christlike figure persecuted by the lieutenant, who embodies the ruthless, secular ideals of socialism.

In his continuous search for safety and food, the priest takes refuge in a barn owned by Captain Fellows, an English banana planter. His thirteen-year-old daughter, Coral, risks her and her family’s safety in attending to the priest’s needs during his stay. She stands in vivid contrast to the priest’s own illegitimate daughter, Brigita. Coral is still an innocent and later appears to the priest in a comforting dream moments before he is executed. Brigita, on the other hand, despite her youth, has lost her innocence amid her squalid poverty. The priest is overcome by his guilt for having brought a hopeless child into the world and prays that God will take his faith and life in exchange for the salvation of his daughter. Along his travels the priest meets up with a mestizo, a grotesque Judas figure who leads the priest to his capture by the lieutenant. Awaiting execution in prison, the priest reveals a profound contrition for his sins, especially for the damage he has done to his child, and in his final moments selflessly prays for her redemption.

One of the little boys in the town, Luis, who earlier had admired the machismo of the lieutenant, now spits on him, the spittle landing on the lieutenant’s revolver. Through this scene Greene suggests that the execution of the whiskey priest thus has a moral impact on the next generation. The novel concludes with a mysterious stranger knocking at the door of Luis’s home. He identifies himself as a priest and Luis kisses his hand. The fugitive church, the reader is reassured, is still a vital presence and will survive the violence of socialist oppression.

The theme of the hunted man establishes an exciting and nightmarish atmosphere that makes this novel a first-class thriller. There is much more here, however, than a simple manhunt. Greene has created characters that are at once human and symbolic. The priest and the lieutenant embody the extreme dualism of the human spirit: godliness versus godlessness, love versus hatred, spirituality versus materialism, concern for the individual versus concern for the state. The symbiotic relationship between the two men is brought out after the priest’s death, when the lieutenant feels that his vitality has been drained from him and that he no longer has a clear purpose in life.

The Ministry of Fear

First published: 1943

Type of work: Novel

In war-torn London, an innocent man unwittingly finds himself hunted down by a network of spies.

Set in London during the height of the German Blitzkrieg, The Ministry of Fear: An Entertainment develops the theme of pity as an isolating and self-destructive force. The hero, Arthur Rowe, has poisoned his wife because he could not bear to watch her suffer from an incurable disease. Although the court finds him innocent of any crime, he nurses a powerful sense of guilt for his actions and continues to be driven by a disproportionate sense of responsibility for the suffering of those around him.

The novel opens with Rowe entering a local fair. He is drawn to the fair because it reminds him of his lost innocence. Despite the war raging around him, the fair affords him lush gardens and sweet smells from his childhood. Ironically, his attendance at the fair leads to his becoming a hunted man. He wins a cake that, unknown to him, contains a microfilm of secret naval plans placed there by a spy ring. When he returns home, one of the Nazi agents who constitute the Ministry of Fear visits him in an attempt to poison him. Recognizing the smell of the poison (the same one he used for his wife), Rowe realizes that someone wants to kill him for no apparent reason, turning his sense of reality into a Kafkaesque nightmare. Later, while Rowe is attending a séance, one of the guests is murdered with Rowe’s knife and Willi Hilfe, a young Austrian relief worker (who pretends to be Rowe’s friend but who actually masterminds the Nazi spy ring) advises Rowe to go underground. The murder, however, is merely a contrivance to drive Rowe into hiding. He is seriously injured when, upon opening a case supposedly containing books, a bomb goes off.

The second part of the novel finds Rowe a victim of amnesia from the bomb blast and a patient in a nursing home run by Dr. Forester, one of the spies. Through an act of crippling violence, Rowe, remembering nothing from his past, is ironically returned to a more innocent world. His amnesia allows him to enjoy an Arcadian existence for a time, unaware of the war in London, his murder trial, and his fugitive past.

When Rowe challenges Dr. Forester for his cruelty to one of the patients at the home, the doctor retaliates by revealing Rowe’s real name and showing him a newspaper clipping of his murder trial. This sudden illumination marks the beginning of Rowe’s rebirth and return to the sordid, complex world from which he enjoyed only a temporary retreat. He gradually puts the bits and pieces of his past back together again and moves closer to becoming a whole man. He still, however, does not know the details of his murder trial.

The novel ends with Rowe’s confrontation of Willi Hilfe. After Rowe disarms him, Willi offers Rowe a deal: He will complete Rowe’s memory about the death of his wife and turn over the microfilm in exchange for Rowe’s revolver and a single bullet with which to commit suicide. Rowe refuses but Willi insists on revealing the details of Rowe’s trial anyway. His curiosity satiated, Rowe feels himself a whole man once again and, in still another act of pity, allows Willi to commit suicide.

Rowe’s anguish over the suffering of others leads him to become a sinister force of violence himself. His sense of pity leads to the murder of his wife and to the suicide of Willi Hilfe. He is hunted by the Ministry of Fear, the reader is told, because he loved, but Rowe misleads one here. His selfishness and quiet arrogance are the forces that actually motivate his most important actions and shape his emotional commitments to others. Thus the victim of the Ministry of Fear is actually the victim of his own pity, the most terrible passion Greene allows his characters.

The Heart of the Matter

First published: 1948

Type of work: Novel

A middle-aged police officer in British West Africa is driven to suicide in order to protect his wife and his mistress from suffering.

Major Scobie, the hero of The Heart of the Matter, is a middle-aged police officer in British West Africa. During his fifteen years of service he has acquired a reputation for unfailing integrity. His wife, Louise, is a nagging and restless woman who plans a holiday trip to South Africa to escape the languid, oppressive atmosphere of Sierra Leone and the embarrassment caused by her husband’s failure to be promoted to commissioner. Scobie, whose love for her has long been replaced by an obsessive sense of pity and responsibility, borrows the money for her vacation from a Syrian smuggler and usurer named Yusef.

During his wife’s absence Scobie falls in love with a nineteen-year-old girl named Helen Rolt, who has been widowed in a shipwreck off the coast. When Louise returns, Scobie still feels morally bound to live up to his private vow to see to it that she is always happy. Complicating matters further, Scobie writes Helen a letter reassuring her of his love for her. This letter winds up in the hands of Yusef, who blackmails Scobie into helping him smuggle some diamonds out of the country.

Shortly after her return home, Louise asks Scobie to go to Holy Communion with her. He goes to confession but cannot promise the priest that he will not see Helen again and so cannot be absolved of his sin. In order to ward off any suspicion of his adultery, however, he receives Communion in the state of mortal sin. He willingly risks his eternal damnation rather than inflict pain on Louise. At the same time, his love and sense of responsibility for Helen are so strong that he cannot bring himself to end the affair. He thus tells God that he will accept eternal damnation in exchange for the happiness of these two women.

Tormented by his religious hypocrisy and by the certain knowledge that his dilemma will lead him to inflict unnecessary pain on Louise or Helen, Scobie decides to commit suicide. Both women, he reasons, will forget him after his death and will regain their happiness. He studies the symptoms of angina pectoris so that his death may appear to be natural then poisons himself with tablets prescribed by his doctor for the pretended illness.

Scobie is a sympathetic figure, demanding the reader’s pity and respect. His sense of pity and responsibility for the happiness of others, however, is excessive and demonstrates an almost monstrous pride that leads to his self-destruction. The reader feels sorry for Scobie because he cannot help himself. Watching his fall from grace is like watching the hero of a drama who, flawed by a critical blindness in his character, seeks peace and happiness but ironically and irrevocably brings upon himself and others pain, suffering, and death. The novel conveys a strong sense of fatalism as a chain of interlocking events that combines with Scobie’s obsessive personality to diminish his freedom and finally makes suicide the only means by which he can resolve his overwhelming dilemma.

During Scobie’s last moments he begins a prayer to God that he fails to finish. The reader is inclined to believe that this tragic man, who has suffered deeply, will at last be awarded the peace of God, but Greene characteristically denies the reader the restful certainty of that conclusion. Strictly speaking, suicide is a mortal sin that cannot be repented, and thus, according to Catholic doctrine, Scobie’s soul is damned to Hell. Afterward, Scobie’s priest, Father Rank, points out that the Church does not know what goes on in a single human heart, thereby leaving the door open to the possibility that Scobie’s final state of mind might have made his salvation possible.


Graham Greene Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis


Greene, Graham