Graham Greene Greene, Graham - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Graham Greene 1904-1991

(Full name Graham Henry Greene) English novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, critic, autobiographer, travel writer, and poet. See also Graham Greene Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 1, 3, 6, 9, 18, 125.

One of the most prolific and widely read English novelists of the twentieth century, Greene is known for both his best-selling suspense novels and for his more serious works of fiction, particularly the novels Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, and The Heart of the Matter. Greene has also been lauded for such short stories as "The Basement Room," "The Destructors," and "Under the Garden," all of which are generally considered classics in the genre. The protagonists of Greene's fiction are typically people torn by personal struggles with Roman Catholic concepts of sin and salvation, reflecting the author's concern with religious and moral questions. Greene also frequently addressed such themes as lost childhood, dreams, literature and art, and politics. In addition to writing fiction, Greene experimented with many other genres, including drama, film criticism, and travel writing. Grahame Smith has written that Greene's diverse writing career testifies "to a creative energy that. . . sought to explore the forms open to literary imagination, and to the fact that Greene [was] a writer in the deepest, as well as the widest, sense of the term."

Biographical Information

Born in Berkhamsted, a village northwest of London, Greene was one of six children. His father was the headmaster at Berkhamsted school, where Greene was educated. The regimented life and lack of privacy at the school, along with his father's constant moralizing on the sinfulness of sex, deeply affected Greene. A withdrawn child, he complained of terrible boredom, attempted suicide several times as a youth, and suffered a nervous breakdown at the age of sixteen. Despite a period of psychoanalysis in 1921, Greene attempted suicide six more times during his years as a student at Balliol College, Oxford. After graduating from Balliol in 1925, Greene worked as a subeditor on the Nottingham Journal and the London Times, later serving as a film critic and then literary editor for the Spectator. He married Vivien Dayrell-Browning in 1927, and the couple later had two children. While in Nottingham, Greene converted to Roman Catholicism. In his memoirs, he explains he did so partly to satisfy his wife and partly "to kill the time," but the Roman Catholic religion would later become a powerful force in both his life and literary works. Greene published his first novel, The Man Within, in 1929; he achieved popular success with his fourth novel, Stamboul Train, published as Orient Express in the United States. Greene separated from his wife in 1966, and shortly after he established permanent residence in Antibes on the French Riviera. Over the rest of his long and prolific career, Greene would continue to produce almost one book per year. He also traveled to such places as the Tabasco and Chiapas regions of Mexico, French Indochina, the Belgian Congo, Haiti, and Cuba during periods of social and political unrest to gather details for his works. Greene died in 1991 in Vevey, Switzerland, of leukemia.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Greene's first short story collection, The Basement Room, was published in 1935, but he did not receive critical attention for his short fiction until Nineteen Stories appeared in 1947. The pieces in this work were written between 1929 and 1948 and many originally appeared in such journals as the New Yorker, Harper's, and the Commonweal. In the preface to this collection, Greene noted: "I am only too conscious of the defects of these stories. . . . The short story is an exacting form which I have not properly practiced: I present these tales merely as the byproducts of a novelist's career." Although at the time Greene was somewhat unsure about his talents as a short story writer, this volume contains some of his best-known stories, including "The Basement Room" and "The Hint of an Explanation." "The Basement Room" centers on a seven-year-old boy, Philip Lane, who is left by his parents with Mr. and Mrs. Baines, the butler and the housekeeper. Philip comes to learn that Mr. Baines is having an affair with a young woman, and this knowledge inadvertently causes the accidental death of Mrs. Baines. Narrated by Philip sixty years after the event, "The Basement Room" addresses such themes as childhood innocence, betrayal, trust, and the nature of evil. "The Hint of an Explanation," which first appeared in the American edition of Nineteen Stories and was later included in Twenty-One Stories, is often called a moral drama because of its focus on such religious concerns as temptation, compassion, and the origins of faith. The story begins when two men meet on a train. One of the men, David, relates to the narrator of the story a childhood experience that caused him to enter the priesthood. As a young altar boy, David was persuaded by the village baker, Blacker, an atheist, to steal a consecrated communion host from his church. In return, Blacker would give him an electric train set. Although David does steal the host, he foils Blacker at the last minute by swallowing it. Another of Greene's most highly acclaimed works of short fiction, "The Destructors," appeared in Twenty-One Stories. Set in London's Wormsley Common, much of which was destroyed or damaged during the German bombing of World War II, this story centers on a local gang of boys. After two of its members, Trevor and Blackie, struggle for leadership of the group, the boys decide to systematically gut one of the last standing houses in the neighborhood, a building designed by famed English architect Christopher Wren. Exploring such themes as class structure, politics, creation, innocence, and depravity, "The Destructors" is considered one of Greene's most disturbing short stories. A Sense of Reality contains only four stories, with "Under the Garden" comprising more than half of the book. This story focuses on William Wilditch, who, suffering from lung cancer, returns to the house where he spent his boyhood holidays in order to confront a childhood memory that has obsessed him throughout his life. In this work, Greene examines lost childhood, memory, innocence, dreams, and the art of fiction writing. This collection also contains the story "A Visit to Morin," which relates the story of a man who meets a French Catholic writer whose works he admires. After their accidental meeting during mass in a village church, the two men share a drink and discuss faith and belief. May We Borrow Your Husband? contains twelve stories, many of which are set in the south of France and focus on marital relationships. The pieces in this collection are often described as being more humorous and playful than Greene's other short stories; Greene himself once noted they were written "in a single mood of sad hilarity." "Cheap in August," for example, relates the experiences of an English-born woman, Mary Watson, who is on vacation in Jamaica while her husband is conducting research in London for his book on James Thompson's The Seasons. Mary, looking for sexual adventure, has an affair with an older, overweight, and uncouth American man. "May We Borrow Your Husband?" tells the story of two homosexual interior designers, Tony and Stephen, who attempt to seduce a young husband from his wife while the couple is honeymooning in Antibes. The Last Word, which appeared in Britain and the United States a few weeks before Greene's death, collects works written from 1923 to 1989, with only four of the stories previously appearing in book form. This work varies greatly in subject matter and addresses such themes as corruption, disillusionment, failures of communication, and death.

Critical Reception

Greene has been the source of much contention among critics. He has been lauded as a master novelist who examined the place of religion and morality in twentieth-century society; he has also been decried as a melodramatist who relied too heavily on coincidence and metaphor. Although the majority of critics agree that Greene was an able storyteller, particularly in his delineation of setting and his skillful plot constructions, opinions vary widely concerning his ability to create believable characters and artfully communicate themes. Some of the most contentious critical debate has centered on Greene's depiction of Catholic concerns, even though Greene noted that Catholicism marked only "one period" of his career. Reaction to Greene's short fiction, which has received relatively little scholarly attention compared to his novels, reflects the general critical ambivalence toward Greene's work, with some reviewers dismissing his stories as mere preparatory sketches for his novels or simple burlesque pieces. Some have also stated that Greene used his short stories only as vehicles to work out traumatic events from his childhood or to didactically present a single theme or idea. Others, however, have called some of his short stories genuine masterpieces, and such works as "The Basement Room" and "The Destructors" have been widely anthologized and studied. Greene himself stated in the introduction to his Collected Stories: "I believe I have never written anything better than 'The Destructors,' 'A Chance for Mr. Lever,' 'Under the Garden,' and 'Cheap in August'." Although earlier critics tended to focus on moral themes in Greene's works and characterized him as a "Catholic writer," more recent scholars have commented on his political, social, and aesthetic themes and his use of myth, psychology, and symbolism. Recent critics have also placed more emphasis on Greene's short stories, underscoring the important role they played in the development of his writing, and have suggested they will garner wider and more serious scholarly attention in the future. Richard Kelly has concluded that Greene's short stories, "when reviewed in their entirety, . . . reveal a lifelong psychodrama that reflects his addiction to excitement, travel, and writing itself. Further, these tales reveal his persistent battle with the demons of his youth and his ability to transform them into characters and themes and later to shape them into religious, political, and social issues."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

The Basement Room 1935

The Bear Fell Free 1935

Nineteen Stories 1947; also published as Twenty-OneStories [enlarged edition], 1954

A Sense of Reality 1963

May We Borrow Your Husband? and Other Comedies of the Sexual Life 1967

Collected Stories 1972

The Last Word, and Other Stories 1990

Other Major Works

Babbling April (poetry) 1925

The Man Within (novel) 1929

The Name of Action (novel) 1930

Rumour at...

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Donald Barr (review date 1949)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Graham Greene's World," in New York Times Book Review, February 13, 1949, pp. 3, 28-9.

[In the following positive review o/Nineteen Stories, Barr provides an overview of Greene's career and states that the stories in the volume reflect Greene's development as a novelist.]

"I present these tales," says Graham Greene at the beginning of this new collection of his short stories [Nineteen Stories], "merely as the by-products of a novelist's career." There are eighteen stories and a fragment of an abandoned novel. Most of them are very good in themselves—two of them brilliant—but it is not only for their solid virtues as English short...

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David Burnham (review date 1949)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Nineteen Stories, in The Commonweal, Vol. XLIX, No. 1, March 11, 1949, pp. 546-47.

[In the positive assessment of Nineteen Stories below, Burnham discusses stylistic and thematic elements in the short stories.]

The variety of mood in these stories [19 Stories] of Graham Greene, the first of which was written in 1929 (Greene was born in 1905) and the last in 1948, will surprise readers acquainted only with Greene's best-known works, The Heart of the Matter, The Labyrinthine Ways, Brighton Rock. A list of American magazines in which some of the stories appeared gives a good hint of this variety: The New Yorker,...

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Isaac Rosenfeld (review date 1949)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Twenty-Seven Stories," in Partisan Review, Vol. XVI, No. 7, July, 1949, pp. 753-55.

[In the following mixed evaluation of Nineteen Stories, Rosenfeld praises Greene's honest depiction of childhood but faults his attempts at confessional writing.]

Graham Greene, who writes two kinds of books, serious novels and entertainments, is never as serious or entertaining a writer as when he writes a simple story about childhood, leaving out crooks, spies, confidential agents and his own brand of Anxiety. There are several such stories in the present collection [Nineteen Stories] and they are the best in the volume (three of them, in fact, are good),...

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William Barrett (review date 1962)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Master Craftsman," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 209, No. 6, June, 1962, pp. 109-11.

[In the following mixed review of Twenty-One Stories, Barrett praises Greene's craftsmanship but faults his inability to present realistic characters.]

Graham Greene has never particularly favored the short story, yet it turns out that in his mastery of this form he is as sure and accomplished a craftsman as in the departments of drama and the novel. Twenty-One Stories gives us all the tales that Mr. Greene seems to want to preserve from his long and prolific career, and they bring out in very sharp relief all of his literary qualities, positive as well as...

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Brian Wilkie (review date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stories by Greene," in The Commonweal, Vol. LXXVIII, No. 6, July 12, 1963, pp. 432, 434.

[Below, Wilkie presents a positive assessmenet of A Sense of Reality, discussing Greene's use of myth, fantasy, and psychology in the work.]

In this new collection of short fiction [A Sense of Reality] Graham Greene does something he has not done before. In his previous work Greene has treated the world, if not his people and themes, naturalistically; his heroes have generally been morality-play figures, but his settings and plots have been matter-of-fact, circumstantially realistic. In fact, one of the most characteristic notes in Greene's serious...

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Hilary Corke (review date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Strong Smell of Fish," in The New Republic, Vol. 149, August 31, 1963, pp. 31-3.

[In the following mixed review of A Sense of Reality, Corke comments on the four stories in the volume, praising Greene's professionalism and faulting his use of paradox.]

Although the blurb describes it as his "main occupation" during the past two years, Mr. Greene's new collection (his first since 1949) contains only [A Sense of Reality] 119 smallish pages and only four stories—half of which the first occupies more than half the book, so that we may not unfairly concentrate our attention upon it. "Under The Garden" begins with a doctor explaining to...

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Carolyn D. Scott (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Witch at the Corner: Notes on Graham Greene's Mythology," in Graham Greene: Some Critical Considerations, edited by Robert O. Evans, University of Kentucky Press, 1963, pp. 231-44.

[In the essay below, Scott examines Greene's use of myth in his short stories, focusing in particular on his depiction of the myth of childhood within the context of African and primitive themes.]

In the short story often lies the microcosm of an author's total vision, and for Graham Greene that medium has provided the emblem for both "the power and the glory" of his longer works. Indeed, the volume Nineteen Stories (1949), the best but by no means the only...

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Gwenn R. Boardman (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Greene's 'Under the Garden': Aesthetic Explorations," in Renascence: A Critical Journal of Letters, Vol. XVII, No. 4, Summer, 1965, pp. 180-90, 194.

[In the essay below, Boardman examines Greene's treatment of aesthetic concerns, including faith, belief imagination, and moral consciousness, in "Under the Garden."]

"Under the Garden," first published in Greene's A Sense of Reality (1963), might well have been written as a commentary on his own explorations, his aesthetic discoveries that have invariably been tied to actual journeys, whether to Africa, Mexico, or Indo-China. It is a mythic rendition of his recurrent themes of lost childhood, of a...

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Walter Allen (review date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Greene Thoughts in a Greene Shade," in New York Times Book Review, April 30, 1967, p. 5.

[In the following mixed review of May We Borrow Your Husband? Allen states that the stories vary in quality but show "the author at play."]

There is an element in writing that critics (by and large, a more serious-minded race of men than the creators whose works they discuss) give altogether too little attention. This can best be called the element of play, the writer's delight in his own cleverness and virtuosity, his ability to make bricks without straw and to do so simply for the fun it provides. It is a naive pleasure—and, for some writers, perhaps a...

(The entire section is 1031 words.)

Warren Coffey (review date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of May We Borrow Your Husband? in The Commonweal, Vol. LXXXVI, No. 1, August 25, 1967, pp. 527-28.

[In the following mixed evaluation, Coffey faults the unevenness and lack of emotional power in May We Borrow Your Husband? but praises five stories for their shrewdness and craftsmanship.]

Graham Greene will be raising sixty-three this year, a remarkable old stager altogether and still doing a stint of writing every day and doing it, on the whole, very smartly, as the twelve stories in this collection [May We Borrow Your Husband?] show. Though three of them are skip and four are fill, that leaves five stories as shrewd and...

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A. R. Coulthard (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Graham Greene's 'The Hint of an Explanation': A Reinterpretation," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. VIII, No. 4, Fall, 1971, pp. 601-05.

[In the following essay, Coulthard reexamines common interpretations of "The Hint of an Explanation," focusing on Greene's depiction of the character Blacker.]

Good fiction, as the saying goes, lends itself to a number of interpretations. But a generation of readers brought up on irony, ambiguity, and levels of meaning has been uncharacteristically eager to accept Graham Greene's widely anthologized "The Hint of an Explanation" as merely a simple moral drama and enthusiastically to praise it as such.

On the...

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Jesse F. McCartney (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Politics in Graham Greene's 'The Destructors'," in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. XII, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 31-41.

[In the following essay, McCartney discusses the political implications of "The Destructors," concluding that the story is "essentially a reflection of twentieth-century British politics."]

Although Graham Greene's fiction has been widely praised and widely circulated, critics have focused rather narrowly on two exclusive features of it. Noting Greene's distinction between novels and "entertainments," they have provided genre studies; or, noting his Catholicism, they have discussed the religious themes in his fiction to the exclusion of...

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John Bayley (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Graham Greene: The Short Stories," in Graham Greene: A Revaluation: New Essays, edited by Jeffrey Meyers, The Macmillan Press, 1990, pp. 93-103.

[In the essay below, Bayley provides a thematic and stylistic overview of Greene's short stories.]

"The Miracle of Purun Bhagat" is a story by Kipling that comes at the end of The Jungle Book, and Graham Greene thought it his best. It is not hard to see why. An Indian administrator in the British Raj, of such high rank that he has had bestowed on him the rare honour of a knighthood, abandons his former way of life to become a hermit in the Himalayas. One night in the Rains the animals come past his hut, having...

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R. H. Miller (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Short Stories, Plays, Essays," in Understanding Graham Greene, University of South Carolina Press, 1990, pp. 149-76.

[In the excerpt below, Miller analyzes three of Greene's short stories, including "The Basement Room," "The Destructors," and "Under the Garden," which the critic believes represent the themes and techniques of Greene's short fiction as a whole.]

Graham Greene is one of the most successful short story writers of all time. Very few writers achieve the ability to rivet readers' attention to a dramatic situation, turn it into meaning through ingenious manipulations of plot, and in the end leave them astonished, breathless. His range is extensive,...

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Daniel Stern (review date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ever Greene," in New York Times Book Review, February 24, 1991, pp. 13-14.

[In the following mixed review, Stern states that even though The Last Word does not reflect his best works of short fiction, Greene is nevertheless a masterful short story writer.]

In the introduction to his massive 562-page Collected Stories, published in 1972, Graham Greene writes: "I remain in this field a novelist who has happened to write short stories, just as there are certain short story writers (Maupassant and Mr. V. S. Pritchett come to mind) who have happened to write novels."

About Maupassant and Mr. Pritchett, Mr. Greene may be right,...

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Richard Kelly (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Loosing the Devils," and "The Last Word" in Graham Greene: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne, 1992, pp. 3-16, 70-87.

[In the following excerpt, Kelly examines Greene's early short stories, written during his years as a student, stating that in these works Greene worked out the "terrors and frustrations" of his youth. Kelly then discusses The Last Word, a work he feels "conveys a synoptic view of the stages of [Greene's] life as a writer."]

Rarely has a writer been more obsessed with his lost childhood than has Graham Greene. In this respect he is clearly the child of the romantic period, whose poets, such as Blake and Wordsworth, celebrate the bright...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Cassis, A. F. Graham Greene: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1981, 401 p.

Thorough bibliography of works about Greene through 1979. Includes annotations and indexes.

Miller, Robert H. Graham Greene: A Descriptive Catalog. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1979, 73 p.

Gives descriptions of the first editions of Greene's books, pamphlets, radio scripts, and letters in the collection of the University of Louisville.

Wobbe, R. A. Graham Greene: A Bibliography and Guide to...

(The entire section is 1132 words.)