Graham Greene

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Donald Barr (review date 1949)

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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 stories, their quietness and lucid ease, that they are important. It is also for the light they throw on one of the most interesting novelists of our generation.

The stories give us fresh glimpses of Greene's special world: the world of peeling billboards and jerry-built houses, of "dying jungles," of harassed and frightened, vainglorious and peevish, hungry and unlikable men, each with his own clumsily hidden burden of futility, damnation, or flabby love, scuttling or lounging through eternity.

Greene is now 45, and has been writing novels, "entertainments," and travel books—and these stories—for twenty years. But until the publication last year of his novel, The Heart of the Matter, his American readers were limited to a comparatively small coterie. Many of his books were filmed, and most of the films were bad and not Greene. In fact, The Fallen Idol, based on the longest of the stories in this volume, "The Basement Room," and soon to be released here, is the first real Graham Greene movie: a very characteristic account of a little boy who too suddenly discovers that life means sin and responsibility and retreats from it forever.

It is easy to misunderstand Greene in either of two ways, by taking him as a superior writer of spy and murder thrillers, or as a St. Augustine condescending to the novel. Greene makes a distinction between his novels and his entertainments—a distinction the reader might find it hard to make for himself, but the author obligingly puts labels on each book: The Confidential Agent and The Ministry of Fear, for example, are entertainments. The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter are novels. The next thing to know about Greene, then, is that the novels are serious studies of the human soul going about the business of eternity; they often have melodramatic plots as vehicles. The entertainments are melodramas, made tense by the cheerless Greene psychology.

Greene has been criticized on his novels (it shows what serious fiction has come to) for using coincidence too freely; in other words, for being a storyteller. Coincidence is just what the reader enjoys most directly of a plot. The entertainments, on the other hand (it shows what crime fiction has come to), have been accused of pretentiousness; and it is still rarely noticed how they have served as rehearsals for the novels.

Several of the pieces in Nineteen Stories are closely related to the novels in substance and spirit. "A Drive in the Country" is a brilliantly unpitying treatment of suicide. "A Chance for Mr. Lever" is a story of that choking West African forest through which Greene himself walked 350 miles without maps to look for a "seedy" (it is an important word for Greene) society nearer to our ancestral innocence than "the smart, the new, the chic and the cerebral." This trip is the basis also of "The Other Side of the Border," the 1936 fragment with which the...

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collection closes, and of the astonishingJourney Without Maps a travel book which records the voyage of a soul.

A few of the stories, like "Alas, Poor Maling" and "When Greek Meets Greek," are lighter and more playful than anything else Greene has written, yet even they are peculiarly astringent.

Now why does Greene's world, this criss-cross of tired intrigue, of flickering eternal motives, fascinate us? First, it is darker and so makes us feel that we have got deeper into the human soul than the well-lighted case histories can take us. Second, the crimes seem more wicked: they are more shocking than a dozen murders in a detective story, or the cheap mechanical swaggering sadism of the Cain-Hammett school.

To some extent, these effects are tricks of an extraordinary style. Greene's style seems bare and dry, but in reality it has the rich concentration of poetry. Perhaps he strains too hard to make every adjective a fresh observation. Sometimes the mental processes of his characters are lost in new metaphors. After all, the conventionality of a metaphor saves the reader the work of abstracting its meaning. But Greene will be neither conventional nor abstract; the sharpness of his sight and sound images reminds us that he was for years a film critic. And his images not only describe but interpret; and sometimes the reader is not sure how deep a comparison is meant to go. For instance, in his novel, England Made Me (1935), Anthony Farrant carried his smile "always with him as a leper carried his bell; it was a perpetual warning that he was not to be trusted." That is clear enough. But in The Heart of the Matter, Father Rank laughs and "swung his great empty sounding bell to and fro, ho, ho, ho, like a leper proclaiming his misery." Here we are not sure what is being said about the jovial priest; and this is a mannerism of Greene's which his readers must work to master.

Greene is a paradox. He is born a modern psychological novelist and a Roman Catholic. Catholicism, especially in the English-speaking world, has emphasized the edifying and the wholesome in literature, but Greene is preoccupied with sin. He is obsessed with the seedy, the weak and the hellish. It is difficult to express the force of that obsession. It pervades everything he writes. In his travel book, Another Mexico, Greene tells how, as a boy at his father's school, faith came to him—"shapelessly, without dogma, a presence above a croquet lawn, something associated with violence, cruelty, evil across the way. One began to believe in heaven because one believed in hell. . . ."

"Literature," says Greene, "has nothing to do with edification." With Cardinal Newman, he believes that a sinless literature of sinful man is impossible. Greene is an almost unique figure in his milieu, in some ways seeming to belong to the French scene; he disturbs his co-religionists; he shows Catholics as sinful and Catholicism as difficult. He is much too unlike Chesterton. Chesterton's picture of sin was scarlet, as bright as a child's paint box; Greene's sin is black, gray—all the colors of human nature.

If being a modern psychological novelist gives an unusual tinge to Greene's Catholicism, certainly his theology accounts for much of the literary shock. It is, in fact, the key to Greene. Greene is as fully aware of social evil as any of his contemporaries; his story, "Brother," written in 1936, shows that he can even feel the idealism of the Communists. He is aware of everything the Freudians are aware of; the earlier stories, like "I Spy," show it. But Greene believes in Free Will and in Original Sin. He believes that human actions are caused—up to a point. And then, at that point, the will is involved. He escapes the great, softening folly of the modern psychological novel, that we are the neutral victims of our circumstances; that to understand all is to forgive all. The better we understand some of Greene's characters the more corrupt we see them to be. Pinkie, the adolescent gangster of Brighton Rock, one of Greene's best achievements to date, wills his own damnation; he worships evil as his Catholic parents worshiped good. The "modern" reader who cannot understand this deliberate choice of evil cannot understand Graham Greene.

There is one final difficulty about Greene's thought. But the most recent story in this collection, "The Hint of an Explanation," does hint at an answer. Since Brighton Rock in 1938, Greene has concerned himself with the distinction between knowing good from evil and knowing right from wrong. Pinkie knows good from evil; he chooses evil. The good-natured, blowzy Ida, his Nemesis, knows only right and wrong. They are on different planes; their shadows fall on one another, but they cannot touch. Scobie, in The Heart of the Matter, is both a policeman, a professional distinguisher of right from wrong, and a Catholic; and he chooses sin again and again, knowing what he is doing, sure he will be damned, rather than do wrong to his wife and mistress. Is he damned? In the short story about a "free-thinker" who tries to make a little boy sell God, Greene seems to go further in explaining the relations of an evildoer and his Lord than he has yet gone.

If the reader mentally rearranges these stories in chronological order, he will find them a reflection of Greene's development as a novelist. He begins with the personal emotions, especially the emotions of family life in childhood. "I Spy" and "The Man Within" give us a boy's conflicting love and identification with his parents; later Greene turns increasingly to open didacticism as in "The Hint of an Explanation"; the slight, topical satires of the war years correspond to a period of silence in the larger frame. This over, with The Heart of the Matter he will continue to seduce us into more satanic intimacies.


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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, TheMan 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."

David Burnham (review date 1949)

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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, Harper's Magazine, Esquire, Tomorrow, Town and Country, The Commonweal (Cosmopolitan has also printed him but, perhaps for copyright reasons, the story is not included in the American edition of 19 Stories).

The Esquire story, "When Greek Meets Greek," is a genial account of how two wily old frauds outsmart themselves in the attempt to outsmart one another. The New Yorker story, "Men at Work," is a burlesque, somewhat reminiscent of early Evelyn Waugh, of wartime operations in the British Ministry of Propaganda. There are other humorous stories, in one of which, "Alas Poor Maling," the humor is on the level of slapstick. The Harper's story, "Proof Positive," and also "The Second Death" and to a degree "The End of the Party," involve the miraculous. One of the stories, "A Day Saved," is in the Kafka tradition. The remainder, more typical, deal with various degrees of moral weakness and corruption. The style varies from the succinct, packed manner of Greene's best novels to anecdotal (sometimes, with disconcerting effect, within the same story).

In a note prefacing the collection, Greene acknowledges: "I am only too conscious of the defects of these stories. . . . The short story is an exacting form which I have never properly practiced: I present these tales merely as the byproducts of a novelist's career." His modesty is justified by stories which exhibit him as not quite sure of himself, whereas in his novels he is always in complete mastery. Yet some of his stories are hauntingly perfect. "The End of the Party," for example, a tale of identical twins whose shattering climax is followed by a climax even more shattering—a device which Greene used with like effect in Brighton Rock and several other of these stories: a double-twist one might say, where "twist" must be given a double meaning, the second being the twist of the knife in the wound. This, yes, is a device, but no more so than false rhymes in a poem, asymmetry in a painting. The validity of an artistic device depends upon its success and purpose. O'Henry's twist endings succeed but are usually as shallow as a practical joke; in the best of Greene, the twist provides a sudden illumination of the symbolic meaning of the whole story or novel; or else sharply intensifies the meaning, anchoring it in one's mind.

Graham Greene cannot, however, entirely be absolved of using his devices for inferior purposes. For example, his "entertainments" (thrillers) take on a special intensity from several causes, of which the significant one in this connection is his use of language and especially his syntax which causes every sentence to seem packed with meaning even when it may not be so. Several critics have complained of the monotony of his style, but this very monotony, like his monotony of atmosphere, has a cumulative force of its own and also a symbolic force: it expresses the spiritual poverty, the fear, the seediness, the obscure guilt, the disorientation of his characters better than any words of theirs could do, especially since inarticulateness or else a conscious or endemic inability to see and speak truthfully usually accompanies these qualities. Sometimes, though, the stylistic elements become virtuosity: the compression, the vivid original metaphors, the photogenic intensification of reality, too far outrun the meaning: manner becomes mannerism.

The most memorable stories in the collection have children as protagonists. This is today a hackneyed theme, but Greene gives it a deeper meaning (meanings, I should say) than the usual death-of-innocence, escapism, or routine allegory. I have already cited "The End of the Party," primarily a study of fear vs. convention with overtones of adult incomprehension, the mystic bond between twins (a theme Greene treats in another of these stories and at book length in England Made Me): so many of these stories appear minor rehearsals for his novels), and as a final fillip, a guess about the nature of immortality. "The Innocent," until its ending, is a fairly routine although unusually vivid and compressed contrast of the innocence of childhood to the heedless corruption of adulthood; the final paragraphs qualify (and yet illuminate) innocence in a manner typically Greene.

"The Basement Room," soon to appear on the screen as The Fallen Idol, comprises without sacrifice of central effect a remarkable variety of important and suggestive themes. On the surface it is the story of a childhood trauma which causes a boy to betray the one person he loves and to retreat forever from the terrible responsibility of involvement with other lives. The deeper meaning is suggested in Greene's story which appeared several weeks ago in this magazine. The agnostic narrator states: "Intellectually I am revolted at the whole notion of a God Who can so abandon His creatures to the enormities of Free Will." The title of the story is "The Hint of an Explanation." Does not this phrase perhaps offer the hint of an explanation of Greene's own obsession? Greene himself tells us (in Another Mexico) that he arrived at the belief in Heaven through the belief in Hell. He too, it might seem, is intellectually and also (perhaps most of all) humanly revolted by the enormities of free will. But he cannot wish free will out of existence. Terrestrial evil, his works seem to teach us (more and more explicitly), springs chiefly not from the conscious willing of evil, but from the failure to accept the basic, frightful responsibility of knowing good and evil—far more devastating than original sin because it caused original sin, together with all the sin which has occurred since.

Principal Works

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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 Nightfall (novel) 1931

Stamboul Train (novel) 1932; published in the United States as Orient Express, 1933

It's a Battlefield (novel) 1934

England Made Me (novel) 1935; published in the United States as The Shipwrecked, 1953

A Gun for Sale (novel) 1936; published in the United States as This Gun for Hire, 1936

Journey without Maps (travel essays) 1936

Brighton Rock (novel) 1938; revised edition, 1947

The Confidential Agent (novel) 1939

The Lawless Roads (travel essays) 1939

The Power and the Glory (novel) 1940; published in the United States as The Labyrinthine Ways, 1940

The Ministry of Fear (novel) 1943

* Brighton Rock (screenplay) 1946

The Fallen Idol (screenplay) 1948

The Heart of the Matter (novel) 1948

The Third Man (screenplay) 1949

The Third Man (novel) 1950

The End of the Affair (novel) 1951

The Last Childhood, and Other Essays (essays) 1951

The Living Room (drama) 1953

Loser Takes All (novel) 1955

The Quiet American (novel) 1955

The Potting Shed (drama) 1957

Our Man in Havana (novel) 1958

The Complaisant Lover (drama) 1959

§Our Man in Havana (screenplay) 1960

A Burnt-Out Case (novel) 1961

In Search of a Character (travel essays) 1961

The Comedians (novel) 1966

#The Comedians (screenplay) 1967

Collected Essays (essays) 1969

Travels with My Aunt (novel) 1969

A Sort of Life (autobiography) 1971

The Pleasure-Dome: The Collected Film Criticism, 1935-40 (essays) 1972

The Honorary Consul (novel) 1973

The Human Factor (novel) 1978

Doctor Fischer of Geneva, or the Bomb Party (novel)1980

Ways of Escape (autobiography) 1980

Monsignor Quixote (novel) 1982

Getting to Know the General (memoir) 1984

The Tenth Man (novel) 1985

The Captain and the Enemy (novel) 1988

Yours etc.: Letters to the Press, 1945-1989 (letters) 1989

*This screenplay is an adaptation of the novel Brighton Rock.

†This screenplay is an adaptation of the short story "The Basement Room."

‡This novel is an adaptation of the screenplay The Third Man.

§This screenplay is an adaptation of the novel Our Man in Havana.

#This screenplay is an adaptation of the novel The Comedians.

Isaac Rosenfeld (review date 1949)

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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), because they were written without the intention of distilling from the steam of the pot boiler a moral critique of our age. Which is to say that Greene is at his best when he is least himself.

For once the perspective is immediate. We come directly to the unhappy child and his trouble without having to make the usual detour through the secondary symbol formations of flight and pursuit, etc., of the thrillers. Childhood, for Greene, is the time of the innocence and horror of sex. The innocent, in the story by that name, is the young boy capable of leaving a love message for his sweetheart in the form of a crude drawing of a man and a woman in the sex act. The grown man, returning to the scene with a prostitute for a one night stand, discovers the message still intact in its hiding place and realizes, ". . . later that night, when Lola turned away from me and fell asleep . . . the deep innocence of that drawing. I had believed I was drawing something with a meaning unique and beautiful; it was only now after thirty years of life that the picture seemed obscene." In "The Basement Room" (a parable of the unconscious), young Master Philip finds not a unique and beautiful meaning but something from which he spends the rest of his life in a frozen recoil; and this again is sex, now linked with murder and guilt. "The Hint of an Explanation" is the story of how a man found happiness and security in the Catholic Faith; which he would not have found, had he not been strongly tempted by the perverted village anti-Papist to commit a sin against the Host; which he would not have had the strength to resist, had he not had so strong a sense of sin; which he would not have had—Greene does not carry the matter so far, but there's no way out—had he not been an unhappy child. Where again, sex . . . etc.

An unhappy childhood is a writer's gold mine, and one valuable thing Greene gets out of it is an honest basis for his stories. When he faces himself, as he makes some attempt to do here in the figure of the child, he finds he can get along without antisemitism (Orient Express) and the rest of the vicious trash of his entertainments. Also the arrogant moralism disappears, the gratuitous (for him) Baudelairean will to damnation and the unearned Catholic eminence from which he sees Protestantism—when the Jews don't get in his way—at its demon's task of bringing sexual ease into the world. He is much better off for the chance childhood gives him to feel sorry for himself. But though childhood themes do him good as a writer, he fails to return the favor and leaves the scene bare and devoid of quality; it is reconstructed in the adult manner, and the distance between man and child is not overcome. This is the fault, it seems to me most likely, of his desire to write confession. Accordingly, his child exists only at the moment of encountering sex, and his life has meaning only as it provides the material of sin and fosters the adult's need of believing in sin. But this is confessional writing at its worst; it not only conceals, it obliterates. Only that which has been touched by guilt survives in the memory; everything else of the child's world is lost—and the loss is not even noticed by the man.

But why confession? It is only a man with a neurotic distaste for life who can find something to confess (in the sense distinct from telling a story) about childhood. This has made him suffer as a writer; it has robbed his scenes of richness and given his style a puckered quality, with neither warmth nor a generous rhythm. (His characteristic use of the colon, which is meant for crispness but suggests something withered, is a half stop for a pinch of alum to keep his writing wry and dry.) Save for a few unconscious lapses into vitality, Greene's whole manner is a courtship of death, and he must support himself in it only because it suits both an inherent unease of soul and an acquired one, laid on himself in a need to overcome mediocrity. He would very much like to show a depth of anguish in his work, and on his forehead the star of the damned. He succeeds in doing neither. For all his concern with morality, sin, guilt, crime, retribution and Catholicism, he remains a middlebrow with a good location—a frontage on Crisis Theology.

William Barrett (review date 1962)

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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 negative.

The very conciseness of the short-story form, indeed, can give a greater intensity—like a harsh black-and-white drawing—to the macabre side of Mr. Greene's imagination.

In "The Basement Room," a boy's glimpse into the marital tragedy of his beloved butler's life, is far more bleak and grim in its mood than the fine motion picture that was made from it some years ago by the distinguished English director Carol Reed. But the story, in its compression, has also more bite and power than the picture.

When the comic mood is upon him, Mr. Greene can be very funny, but the humor is never relaxing. "A Chance for Mr. Lever" tells the absurd tale of a middle-aged salesman chasing through the heart of Africa, swatting at flies and swearing at native bearers, in order to get a mining engineer's signature on a contract. He finds the engineer at last, dead of fever, and forges the signature. Does justice triumph? Of course—the once down-at-the-heels but righteous salesman, now prosperous but damned, leads the pleasant life of a bon vivant through all the capitals of Europe.

These stories are not evocations of mood, moment, or character, in the manner of Chekhov; they always revolve about some definite and very well plotted narrative idea. When they deal with children (as three of them do), the world of the child is never evoked; Mr. Greene is seeing the child's world through his own eyes and not through the eyes of the child. This, I think, is the clue to the final limitations of this extraordinary writer; Graham Greene never gets outside of Graham Greene, despite the range and intensity of situations and plots that his imagination can contrive. In "A Drive in the Country" an unemployed ne'er-do-well, hopeless for the future, proposes a suicide pact to his girl; she refuses, and while running away hears the fatal suicide shot behind her; calmly hitching a ride back to town, she steals unobserved into her father's house—the affair over. The story is absorbing; but halfway through we begin to feel uneasily that we are sitting in the dark watching upon the screen a melodrama in which the characters have their backs to us and never once turn around to show their faces as real people.

Further Reading

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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 Research. New York: Garland, 1979, 440 p.

Primary and secondary bibliography that covers publications and some manuscripts through 1976.


Sherry, Norman. The Life of Graham Greene, Vol. 1: 1904-1939. New York: Viking, 1989, 783 p.

Greene's authorized biography. This volume, the first volume in a projected two-volume work, details Greene's life from his birth through the beginning of World War II.


Clarke, Peter P. "Graham Greene's Th e Destructors': An Anarchist Parable." English Language Notes XXIII, No. 3 (March 1986): 60-3.

Relates historical anarchism to "The Destructors," focusing in particular on the theme of leadership in the story.

Colburn, Steven E. "Graham Greene's 'A Day Saved': A Modern Tale of Time and Identity." Studies in Short Fiction 29, No. 3 (Summer 1992): 377-84.

Analysis of "A Day Saved," in which Colburn concludes that "more than in anything else he ever wrote, [this story] comes closest to dealing with the concerns of more recent novelists . . . in whose works questions of epistemology assume a central concern in the narrative structure."

Davidson, Richard Allan. "Graham Greene and L. P. Hartley: Th e Basement Room' and The Go-Between." Notes and Queries 13, No. 3 (March 1966): 101-02.

Comparative review of L. P. Hartley's novel The Go-Between and Greene's "The Basement Room." Davidson states "Greene's story is thematically almost a microcosm of Hartley's novel."

Degan, James. "Memory and Automythography in Graham Greene's 'Under the Garden'." Literature and Psychology XXXX, Nos. 1-2 (1994): 81-107.

Asserts "Under the Garden" is a mythic retelling of traumatic events from Greene's adolescence.

"Greene's Th e Hint of an Explanation.'" The Explicator XIX, No. 4 (January 1961): item 21.

Brief commentary on "The Hint of an Explanation" in which the critic discusses the theme of evil in the story.

Farrelly, John. "Becoming Modesty." New Republic 120 (February 21, 1949): 25-6.

Negative review of Nineteen Stories in which Farrelly calls Greene a "skilled professional entertainer" but faults his romanticism and his victimization of his characters.

Feldmann, Hans. "The Idea of History in Graham Greene's Th e Destructors'." Studies in Short Fiction 19, No. 3 (Summer 1982): 241-45.

Discusses Greene's treatment of history in "The Destructors," stating that the story should be read "as a judgment on the condition of Western civilization, a judgment that reflects an unorthodox view of history."

Gorecki, J. "Graham Greene's Th e Destructors' and Paradise Lost." Papers on Language and Literature 21, No. 3 (Summer 1985): 336-40.

Comparative analysis of "The Destructors" and John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost in which Gorecki discusses the treatment of the theme of evil in each work.

Junker, Howard. "Greene's Grotesqueries." Newsweek 69 (May 8, 1967): 107.

Negative review of May We Borrow Your Husband? Junker concludes: "What is sad about these desperate little fables is their reduction of Greene's dramatic, spacious novels, with all their melancholy music, to such tiny, tart grotesqueries."

Review of The Last Word, and Other Stories, by Graham Greene. Kirkus Reviews LVIII, No. 22 (November 15, 1990): 1556.

Mixed review in which the critic identifies some outstanding stories in The Last Word but calls the rest "filler."

Kunkel, Francis L. "The Theme of Sin and Grace in Graham Greene." Graham Greene: Some Critical Considerations, edited by Robert O. Evans. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1963, pp. 49-60.

Examines the themes of grace, sin, and the flesh in Greene's novels and in the story "Visit to Morin."

Liberman, M. M. "The Uses of Anti-Fiction: Greene's 'Across the Bridge'." The Georgia Review XXVII, No. 3 (Fall 1973): 321-28.

States "Across the Bridge" is an example of anti-fiction, a type of work in which the author interjects himself into the narrative in order to shatter illusion and comment on the writing of fiction.

Mayne, Richard. "Where God Makes the Scenery." New Statesman 66 (August 2, 1963): 144.

Mixed review of A Sense of Reality. Mayne praises Greene's "immense power to master the reader's attention and to pervade his mind" but faults him for being too obsessive, mannered, and facile.

O'Brien, Conor Cruise. "A Funny Sort of God." New York Review of Books 20 (October 18, 1973): 56-8.

Mixed review of Collected Stories.

O'Donoghue, Claire. "Greene's 'May We Borrow Your Hus-band?'" The Explicator 53, No. 3 (Spring 1995): 177-78.

Suggests the equestrian imagery in "May We Borrow Your Husband?" reveals homosexual themes.

Pitts, Arthur W. "Greene's Th e Basement Room'." The Explicator XXIII, No. 2 (October 1964): item 17.

Refutes critics who have interpreted "The Basement Room" solely as a theological tract.

Stinson, John J. "Graham Greene's 'Th e Destructors': Fable for a World Far East of Eden." The American Benedictine Review XXIV, No. 4 (December 1973): 510-18.

Examines the elements of fable in "The Destructors," concluding the story provides "a parable-like comment on man's inborn depravity and the primacy of evil in the world."

Taylor, Marion A. and John Clark. "Further Sources for 'Th e Second Death' by Graham Greene." Papers on English Language and Literature 1 (1965): 378-80.

Discuses biblical sources in "The Second Death," including the Gospel of St. Luke and the Gospel of St. Mark.

"Autumnal View." Time 84 (April 21, 1967): 104.

Mixed review of May We Borrow Your Husband? that calls the stories mainly "down-to-earth escapist fare."

Wassmer, Thomas A. "Faith and Belief: A Footnote to Greene's 'Visit to Morin.'" Renascence: A Critical Journal of Letters XI, No. 1 (Autumn 1958): 84-8.

Examines the speculations of character Pierre Morin on faith and belief in "Visit to Morin."

Willig, Charles L. "Greene's The Basement Room'." The Explicator XXXI, No. 6 (February 1973): item 48.

Refutes critics who view "The Basement Room" as an examination of evil, stating that theme of the story could more accurately be described as "moral ambivalence."

Young, Vernon. Review of Nineteen Stories, by Graham Greene. The Hudson Review 2, No. 2 (Summer 1949): 311-18.

Mixed review in which Young faults Greene's style, particularly his use of negative simile, but praises the author's depiction of English city life.

Zambrano, Ana Laura. "Greene's Visions of Childhood: 'The Basement Room' and The Fallen Idol." Literature/Film Quarterly 2, No. 4 (Fall 1974): 324-31.

Compares "The Basement Room" to Greene's film adaptation of the work, The Fallen Idol. Zambrano concludes that in the film, Greene "shifts his emphasis, making the formative pressure Philip experiences secondary to the problem of discovering truth."

Additional coverage of Greene's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1945-1960; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed., 133; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 35; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 9, 14, 18, 27, 37, 70, 72; Discovering Authors; Discovering Authors: British; Discovering Authors: Canadian; Discovering Authors: ModulesMost-Studied Authors Module; DISCovering Novelists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 13, 15, 77, 100, 162; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook 1991; Major 20th-century Writers; Something about the Author, Vol. 20; and World Literature Criticism.

Brian Wilkie (review date 1963)

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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 fiction (melodrama and whimsy have always had some place in his "entertainments") has been the contrast between the sense of circumambient grace and the ridiculously shabby world in which grace operates. This literal-minded concern with dreary, commonplace reality, on which Greene seems to have hung the sign "Out of Order," has been important for him, since through the literal shabbiness of the world he has been able to attack the illusion of material well-being which men use in order to conceal from themselves the fact that they live in a fallen, evil world.

In A Sense of Reality, however, two, perhaps three, of the stories lean heavily on myth, fantasy, or other forms of narrative mannerism. (The very appropriate title, incidentally, is a general one and not borrowed from one of the individual stories.) In many other authors these currently fashionable techniques might seem to have been dictated by fad or to be stridently arty. They do not seem so in this book. This is true partly because Greene does not simply translate traditional themes into contemporary terms; he takes elements from such widely varied sources as the Bible, classical mythology, psychology, and (one is tempted to suggest) personal dreams and combines them into an original, dream-like pattern. That is, the myth itself is Greene's invention, not just its application. Furthermore, Greene imprints his mythos with the familiar stamp of his own sensibility; in his myths we find the familiar broken-down, pain-filled world with which he has made us familiar: twisted bodies, obscenity, old toilet bowls.

"Under the Garden" is the longest and best of the stories. In it Greene explores once more his old theme of the "lost childhood." Wilditch, the protagonist, under a medical death sentence, returns to his early home to exorcise a haunting childhood memory, part fact and part dream, which has dominated his life. The memory concerns a sojourn in the underworld wherein he had learned about life from a subterranean dweller named Javitt (Jahweh?), seen a wondrous treasure, and been inspired with love for Javitt's elusive and sensually beautiful daughter, whom Wilditch decides to seek in the world.

At first it seems that the old memory can be easily exorcised, for the "lake" and "island" which had been the setting for the remembered experience turn out to be little more than a puddle with a few bushes in the middle of it. But the strange discovery on the "island" of a chamber-pot which had figured in the "dream" experience convinces Wilditch that he cannot rid himself of the dream and that "there was a decision he had to make all over again." Life (or the after-life?) may have meaning after all; perhaps, after all, "Absolute reality belongs to dreams and not to life."

One cannot so briefly do justice to this complex and thematically rich story, which in ideas and techniques has a specific gravity much greater than one has learned to expect from Greene. The story is moving and acutely painful, especially in those parts which convey the adult's grotesquely shrunken world now void of the mystery of childhood wonder. And a good deal of its emotional power arises from the obscure but eerily convincing psychological myth which takes up about half its length.

The last piece in the volume, 'À Discovery in the Woods," is even more macabre; in it Greene takes the story of Noah and the Ark and relates it to the discovery of a wrecked transatlantic steamship high on a wooded mountainside by four stunted, pitiable children in a post-atomic age. The story can be read on a number of levels; for example, it is not only an imaginative rendering on the aftermath of atomic war, but also a kind of commentary on the Biblical story and its message.

The brief story called "A Visit to Morin" will undoubtedly be read as a comment by Greene on his own career and reputation. Morin is a novelist who was once in vogue because of his daring treatment of religious themes. This story is so much in Greene's familiar vein that, in its present company, one almost suspects it of being sardonic self-parody or some similar literary joke—especially when one hears Morin say, "Long after I ceased to believe myself I was a carrier of belief, as a man can be a carrier of disease without being sick." Could parody of Greene go further than that?

Hilary Corke (review date 1963)

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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 William Wilditch, in a more or less breezy impersonal way, that he has cancer of the lung. The scene is in Mr. Greene's best flat sad manner, especially appropriate for the conveying of quiet horror. Before deciding whether or not to accept the operation, Wilditch revisits the house in which he spent his boyhood holidays—it has belonged to his brother for the past thirty years but he has always hitherto avoided it, as he was disappointed that it was not left to him. Everything (surprise, surprise!) seems much smaller than he had remembered it. We are made aware that something cataclysmic happened to the boy William on an island in the lake in the garden of this house, something that determined the whole future course of his life, something that has made him now return, under the sentence of death. (The lake turns out, of course, to be a mere pond, and the few square yards of the island can be reached with a flying jump.)

At dinner the conversation conveniently turns to this "something" and his brother informs him, what he himself has forgotten, that he once wrote an account of it for his school magazine. Even more marvellously conveniently, in his bedroom is the bound volume of this magazine and from it falls a letter from his then-headmaster concerning this very story, which he finds and reads. It is couched in a Treasure Island style, and the mature Wilditch is outraged by its falsifications of what he remembers really to have been the case. He sits down and passes the whole sleepless night in committing the true facts to paper.

This account of his boyhood dream (for it has to be a dream, although he would like to believe it reality) shows how he goes down a tunnel on the island and reaches an underground cavern, in which live two timeless creatures called Javitt and Maria. Javitt has only one leg (he was born that way) and a big white beard: he sits always on a lavatory seat and engages in an endless stream of gnomic conversation—"There was a kind of reason in most of what he said, as I came to realize later." The hole under the lavatory seat goes down into the center of the earth, apparently. Maria, on the other hand, is very dusty-fusty and has no roof to her mouth and can only say "squawk, squawk." They have lived down here together for goodness knows how long, but these two ugly rogues have produced a highly glamorous daughter, one who has become a beauty-queen under the soubriquet of Miss Rams gate.

After imbibing a great deal of Javitt's cosmic earthy half-nonsensical wisdom (the recording of which appears to be the nub of the story), the boy William escapes, taking with him "golden po" that has been lent him, out of Javitt's fabulous treasure, to do his business in. Here the written account ends, it is dawn, and the man William goes downstairs and out into the garden, where he first meets the old gardener, who has certain evident Javitt-elements about him, and then gets onto the island. Here to his astonishment he finds evidence to support him in his wish-belief that it was not all a dream: for here, under a stump, is the golden po—a battered object with most of its yellow paint flaked off it, but a golden po all the same. His reaction—which would flabbergast one if one were not prepared for every possible assault upon one's reason and sense of fitness by Mr. Greene in his capacity of Catholic writer—is that he has been wrong to live a life without religion and that there is a definitive decision that he has to make in this department also.

It will be seen that I have to regard this tale with a mixture of qualified admiration, and puzzlement plus exasperation. Admiration—because it is well-written and professional and compelling to read. Qualified—because, as I hope to show, it is not very well written and because "professional" has its pejorative senses too. As to the puzzlement, there is no puzzle about that. This is, within its rather creaking mechanical frame, or frames, simply an account of a dream, and we all know the breakfasttable horror of that. So that when a writer takes over we expect, not just the free association of a dream, but more. Anything less is self-indulgence, not literature. What in fact, to put it with a naïveté of crudity, does Mr. Greene mean? Who, or what, is Javitt? For, if he is nothing meaningful at all, then the story is nothing meaningful at all.

I don't want to make this question a wilfully uncomprehending one. This is a story, not a treatise. Javitt can be a whole lot of things, indeed the more the merrier, and the more mixed up the merrier too. For instance, he is partly simply the old gardener, transformed by the usual alchemy of dream. He is also, as I reckon it, Mr. Samuel Whiskers, villain of Beatrix Potter's The Roly-Poly Pudding, known to every rightly brought-up British child. (Tom Kitten gets lost in the black chimney-flues of the old house and eventually falls into the rats' den, whereupon Mr. Samuel Whiskers screams out "Anna Maria! Anna Maria!" just as Javitt roars "Maria, Maria!" And I wonder whether this was conscious on Mr. Greene's part, or just his subconscious keeping its eye splendidly on the ball.) And we can also make other systems to accommodate Javitt. But all efforts of this sort leave so much detail artistically inexplicable that we are forced to search for some much profounder symbology than this. And here the exasperation begins.

For, if we press this question resolutely, I am afraid that we are inescapably driven to the conclusion that Javitt equals God: or more precisely, when we consider his name and his sempiternality and his beard, that Javitt equals Jehovah. It is inescapable because the detail is so arbitrary otherwise. For instance, in the tunnel, "scrawled with the simplicity of ancient man—done with a sharp tool like a chisel—was the outline of a gigantic fish." And if that doesn't place us in the catacombs, Mr. Greene is deceiving with intent. Or how about this? "[Javitt] rose on his one leg, and now that he had his arms stretched out to either wall, he reminded, me of a gigantic crucifix." And above all, this identification is the only one that doesn't make utter rubbish of the tale's conclusion.

But, if Javitt is Jehovah, then what of Maria? Alas, is she, this hideous squawking crone, the queen of heaven? And Miss Ramsgate, their child who "went upstairs," the beauty-queen for whom Wilditch says he has been searching vainly all his life? The Lamb of God? We are caught between the inexplicably arbitrary and the inexplicably squalid: and, knowing the way that Greene tends constantly to identify the deeply horrid or the deeply holy, we suppose despairingly that we must cleave to the second. And I for one, speaking as a non-religious person, find it no more than an ingenious exercise in the unnecessarily nasty. The religious on the other hand, or some of them, will doubtless find this attitude pathetically squeamish.

But no, I don't see that I have to lie down under that. It is not the nastiness that offends, it is the unnecessariness. Nor is it that, over-rational, I am offended by puzzles without solutions—Pale Fire is fine with me, and I'll play crosswords with the rest of them (is the hero named for his wild itch or because he will ditch himself?). But simply, I feel that here the mystery, whether consciously posed or not, is of its very nature pointlessly unpleasant. Two of the characteristics of Mr. Greene's curious mind are that it is lavatorial and that it is grossly paradoxical. This coupling of divinity and excrement here satisfies both of them.

In "A Visit to Morin," paradox is rampant. This supposed interview with a Catholic writer who has lost his belief concludes with a piece of sophistry so hair-raising as to verge on the comic. (The novelist has not been to mass or confession for twenty years. As a result he has lost his belief. This proves that "the Church is right and the faith is true," for, "if a doctor prescribed you a drug and told you to take it every day for the rest of your life and you stopped obeying him and drank no more, and your health decayed, would you not have faith in your doctor all the more?" I stopped looking for fairies in the grass 38 years ago, and now I don't believe in them anymore, which doesn't, however, seem to me an altogether valid proof of their existence.)

In "A Discovery in the Woods," a post-atomic fable which is much the best thing in the book, it is the Mr. Grim Grin side of things again:

Liz tied (her skirt) up, with a knot behind just above the opening of her small plump buttocks.

She squatted on the ground with a bare buttock on each heel.

Anyway they wouldn't bash a girl. "Pa does," Liz said, twitching her buttocks.

Her thighs and bottom were scratched with briars and smeared with blood the color of blackberry juice.

She sat squatting on the thighbones of the skeleton, her naked buttocks rocking to and fro as though in the act of possession.

This brings us, space as ever pressing, to the question of professionalism.

Whatever one says against Mr. Greene—and I for one have always found him aggravating and unrewarding in the light of his obvious talent—he remains compellingly readable. Why? The quick answer is that he is a professional, that he constructs well, writes clearly and employs all the age-old tricks of the story-teller's art. But recently I have begun to wonder. Professionalism can easily go stale, until it becomes the mere tired academicism that, in painting, we expect of a Royal Academician. When you peer into it more closely, the writing doesn't look all that good, more a sort of slickness rubbed over cracks to conceal them. That "buttock"series isn't merely nagging, it is also plain careless:

He did not leave it at that or allow himself to get involved in a theological debate. He went on to indicate that. . . .

Where evidently what is meant is "He neither left it at that nor allowed himself," etc. Apparent exactness turns out to be a mere gloss of pseudo-exactness:

The water in which he landed was only a few inches deep. . . . He sloshed ashore, the water not even penetrating his shoes.

Some shoes! Or the opening sentence of "A Discovery in the Woods":

The village lay among the great red rocks about a thousand feet up and five miles from the sea, which was reached by a path that wound along the contours of the hills.

Which leaves me wondering whether or not that five miles was as the crow flew, and how a path that winds along contours can also manage to drop a thousand feet.

We can entertain similar doubts about the constructions. The first story begins with a doctor breaking it to a patient that he has cancer, and the third story with a doctor breaking it to a patient that he has leprosy: and two out of four seems an outrageously high score for this hoary old opening. The second story employs the ancient device of the "confession to a chance-met stranger," who tells the tale—a convention from which Mr. Somerset Maugham extracted the last drop of juice years before most of us were born. The creaking mechanics of "Under the Garden" I have indicated in my précis of it.

As I see it, there was a time when one was prepared to overlook the superficialities and shallownesses in Mr. Greene's view of life (and for that matter in Mr. Maugham's too) because of the readability, the golden knack. But now the readability sticks in the throat, and familiarity with it gives the knack away. I do not mean that Mr. Greene is deteriorating: on the contrary. But that ever good, Greene no longer seems good enough—at the theological level, though at the thriller level I dare say it is still all right. It begins to look pompous and old-fashioned. For me the writing will no longer "carry" things like this typical sample of Javitt's wisdom:

People are afraid of bringing May Slossom into the house. They say it's unlucky. The real reason is it smells of sex and they are afraid of sex. Why aren't they afraid of fish, then? you may rightly ask. Because when they smell fish they smell a holiday ahead and they feel safe from breeding for a short while.

—a typical gallimaufry, since most people aren't afraid of sex, and most sex doesn't smell of fish, and most people do "breed" on holiday like mad. (That is, if we take the text au pied de la lettre. If, on the other hand, we accept the malodorous double-entendre—as I dare say, Mr. Greene being Mr. Greene, we must—then it makes better sense, but God help us all. If that's all the smell of fish reminds him of, he'd better take a long, long dip in the sea.) Either way, I prefer to retire to the truer profundities of Tom Kitten—which are, incidentally, really well-written.

Carolyn D. Scott (essay date 1963)

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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 collection of Greene's shorter fiction, contains more than a "hint of an explanation" toward a fuller realization of his world view. Few critics, however, have perceived the significance of the short stories to the whole of Greene's work. Furthermore, those who discuss the short fiction often err in not recognizing the thick web of consciousness surrounding the hero's actions and read them as if they expressed only the conventional Christian dichotomy between good and evil. George Silveira's "Greene's 'The Basement Room,'" [in The Explicator XV, December 1956] for example, searches the Catholic Encyclopedia to discover the relation between the Church's designation of man's seventh year for attaining the age of reason and the age of Philip when he rejects responsibility in the world. Vernon Young's review of the whole volume ["Hell on Earth: Six Versions," Hudson Review II, Summer 1949] practically diagnoses a sort of Augustinian neurosis as the core of Greene's creation. "His flights across the threshold of the occult, of the theological," writes Young, "are impelled by fear of physical being rather than by visions of the power and the glory." And Sean O'Faolain in The Vanishing Hero strongly allies Greene with "antihumanists" like Mauriac and Bernanos who encourage a return to a medieval world. In fact, nearly all Greene's works have at one time or another been considered as Christian allegories, dialogues between the body and soul, and even as Manichean tracts. But surely a man of Greene's stature, a man who most unquestionably belongs to the 20th century and not the Middle Ages, cannot wholly depend on the Baltimore Catechism for thematic structure. Like Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Faulkner, Tolkien, and even his personal favorites, Saki and de la Mare, Greene has created his own myth, one that reconstructs tradition and ritual yet speaks with the immediacy of the modern dilemma. Explicitly, Greene's central symbol is the heart of Africa, seat of our fall, and the whole myth first takes shape in his autobiographical travelogue, Journey Without Maps. It is continued and brought to fruition within the short stories.

Just as Henry James found in Europe the "thickness" and "roundness," the "fairy-tale side of life," so Greene found in Africa a myth of lost childhood, or "Pendélé," as he calls it in his latest work, A Burnt-out Case. He wishes to find, by simply penetrating into the African heart, at what point we went astray—where man fell. No critic can escape the childhood theme in Greene, for it is the one obsession out of which his tragedies grow. But, as in Catharine Hughes' discussion of this matter [in "Innocence Revisited," Renascence XII, Autumn 1959], Greene's view of childhood has been thought to include a Wordsworthian innocence. This is too simple. It cannot explain the knowledge of death that Francis Morton in "The End of the Party" possesses, nor Pinkie's early instinctive distaste for his parents' tawdry Saturday nights in Brighton Rock. These distinctly unromantic elements, however, are placed in perspective by "The Lost Childhood," an essay in which Greene both celebrates and laments his discovery of the creative endeavor in Marjorie Bowen's The Viper of Milan. Before this intellectual awakening, says Greene, he had lived his first fourteen years in a "wild country without a map" where his only recognition was the ancient witch Gagool of King Solomon's Mines whose power haunted his nursery dreams, as we shall see. But inevitably the hand must move along the bookshelf, one must grow up to the moral world, selecting a job, a taste, a death, as surely as Eve's hand moves toward the apple or Oedipus guesses the sphinx's riddle.

So in the childhood of Africa what Greene found was not a prelapsarian Eden, but Eden at the moment the apple is to be plucked: neither guilty nor innocent of the forces of evil. There the childhood of the race is indeed acquainted intimately with the devil, the witch of our dreams; yet in that intimacy it has still not lost the instinctive, ritualistic terror, the imagination which comprehends the supernatural. Thus, for Greene, our civilization has exchanged "supernatural cruelty" for a secular depravity. We have lost a creative sensitivity to witches and angels, the understanding that permits man to create and build a brave new world out of the ruin he placed on nature at the Fall. Our seedy, chrome civilization has made a Manichean sense of evil unfortunately possible.

In Africa, where there is a potential yet unrealized civilization—"the graves not opened yet for gold, the mine not broken with sledges"—Greene discovered the compelling ritual of the Liberian bush devil. These men of power govern the supernatural and natural activities of the community and with raffia skirts and carved masks, go about the countryside both terrorizing and delighting the folk. In an unconsciously erotic ritual, which Greene likens to Europa and the bull, children dance before them, courting that power who leers beneath the carved mask. These bush devils are the initiators of the young, executors of justice, and demigod priests all in one; yet in reality they may be merely the harmless village blacksmith. Greene discovered that their "power" contains that simultaneous quality of good and evil, the essence of black magic that has been lost in most of our civilized theology. He writes:

"Devil," of course, is a word used by the English-speaking native to describe something unknown in our theology; it has nothing to do with evil. One might equally call these big bush devils angels—for they have the angelic properties of alacrity and invisibility—if that word contained no element of "good." In a Christian land we have grown so accustomed to the idea of a spiritual war, of God and Satan, that this supernatural world, which is neither good nor evil but simply Power, is almost beyond sympathetic comprehension. Not quite: for those witches which haunted our childhood were neither good nor evil. They terrified us with their power, but we knew all the time that we must not escape them. They simply demanded recognition: flight was a weakness.

Here Greene's myth allies itself with the archetypal recognition of evil which has absorbed the studies of Freud and Jung. In Freud this dream of the witch, which haunts Greene's heroes through several works, is part of the "archaic heritage which the child brings with him into the world, before any experience of his own, as a result of the experience of his ancestors." Indeed Freud is on Greene's mind as he leaves Africa. "Freud has made us conscious as we have never been before of those ancestral threads which still exist in our unconscious minds to lead us back." Unlike those of Freud, though, the ancestral threads which Greene has come upon are not regarded as sources of neurosis. They are rather a "dread of something outside that has got to come in." Unlike Marlow's descent into hell which culminates in "the horror" of primitive barbarism, the whole journey into the African bush confronts Greene with a "sense of disappointment with what man had made out of the primitive, what he had made out of childhood." But Greene, for all this, does not see in childhood the "clouds of glory" which surround the child of The Prelude who, unappalled by the drowned man's face, innocently recognizes evil from fairy tales he once read. Greene's "something in that early terror" is perhaps best described in Jacques Maritain's Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry as the "spiritual preconscious" which, unlike the "automatic Freudian unconscious" that merely embodies physical behavior or misbehavior, acknowledges the awareness of the primitive as part of the poetic activity. Thus the "something outside that has got to come in" is for Greene, as it was for James in the dream of the Gallerie d'Apollon, the comprehension, the recognition of appalling power, neither good nor evil, but a haunting, compelling synthesis of both. And thus Greene cannot espouse the conventional Christian view of the dichotomy between good and evil. In his comments on the air of evil in James's The Turn of the Screw, Greene says: "That story . . . belongs to the Christian, the orthodox imagination. Mine [the witches and preternatural personae of his dreams] were devils only in the African sense of beings who controlled power."

The Christian mythos cannot be fully adequate for Greene's highly particular spiritual experience. The comment that Greene "believes in God because he believes in Satan" can only ride on the surface of his works. And so his concern, his obsessions, which, in his own words, makes "every creative writer worth our consideration," is to pursue those symbols which haunted his and all our nursery dreams: the Princess of Time, the poisoned flowers, an old Arab, Tibetan warriors, and the inevitable witch. They pursue, they persist; and his body struggles only to find they survive, not only in his own childish dreams, but also the dreams of a wailing child who cries for the dance of the bush devil. To triumph we need only to find and recognize this power; flight is weakness. This choice of triumph or weakness is the dilemma of Greene's heroes.

The struggle for and recognition of power is the theme of several of Greene's more significant short stories. After the African experience, his first descent into the spiritual underworld was "The Basement Room," written in 1936 on the boat back from West Africa. In this work, a power—which is only amoral, not immoral, in fact that power which is associated with the ritual of initiation before the African bush devil—operates in child Philip's dream world to confront him with the moment of choice in what will become a moral situation. Left by his parents with the butler and housekeeper, Mr. and Mrs. Baines, Philip must choose, at the early age of seven, between the nursery and the cellar, between fruition or defeat. But he is determined not to be drawn into the adult world of secrets, love affairs, and jealousy. "For if a grown-up could behave so childishly, you were liable, too, to find yourself in their world. It was enough that it came at you in dreams: the witch at the corner, the man with a knife." However, those powers which work upon us in every situation "demand recognition," and "flight is a weakness," a weakness that Philip does not overcome.

There are two worlds in "The Basement Room," which Philip must recognize and choose between, separated by a green baize door, an image Greene used elsewhere to separate the world of innocence from the world of knowledge, the world of love from the world of hate, the world of the child from the world of the adult. Cross the threshold and you have committed yourself to ruin or triumph. Greene's own fascination with this image appears later in his Mexican adventures, The Lawless Roads, when he recalls the baize door between his school and home, between hate and love; and again in The Ministry of Fear when Arthur Rowe, beginning to wake up from his dream world and amnesia, passes through the green baize door of the insane asylum to discover the source of evil that has beset him. In his nursery, Philip, burdened with Baine's secret love affair, "strained his ears for Mrs. Baines's coming, for the sound of voices, but the basement held its secrets; the green baize door shut off that world."

Philip's inadequacy also lies in his terror of the dark, of the now unfamiliar rooms of the house where dusters cover the furniture, when nurse and family are away. He too is making a journey without maps. Vivid is the terror he feels for the knock, knock, knock at the door, the bleeding head and glittering eyes of the Siberian wolves, all waiting to be recognized in his dreams. Floating up from that world is the witch, Mrs. Baines, who like the witch with Hansel, plies Philip with jam and pudding, then tricks him into telling the secret. She is like old Gagool, ancient and musty. Her very being is secret as the bush devil; she is "darkness when-the night light went out," and is "flowers gone bad." When Philip's eyes open from the dreams, the terror is real, too real for him to face. The witch with her musty hair, her breath hot, leans over his bed in an unexpected visit to ask, "Just tell me where they are." The doors and windows are wrenched open in a breath, and, wretched, he cries out, "Baines, Baines," and the witch falls in a black heap. He cannot escape on a jeweled swan as did the children of Grimm's fairy tale. Philip is not prepared to accept this violent facing of the adult world he cannot understand. He rejects loyalties and unwittingly "tells on" Baines in his reluctance to face that black heap ever again. "He'd spent it all, had been allowed no time to let it grow, no years of gradual hardening; he couldn't even scream."

Philip, in withdrawing from the dream world, surrenders the initiation to life. To use the metaphor of Greene's mythology, the secret school of the bush devil here has failed to prepare Philip for the adult, moral world. For in that primitive kindergarten which Greene once witnessed, the bush children attend lessons given by the devil for two years. They feel terror and awe for this harsh instructor, but knowledge of him prepares them for a rugged life in the bush. Failure to thrive under his fierce spell may cause one to end as a lifeless heap of clothes at the parents' door. It is best to be thrust into the power of the devil and not resist. This is an African child's baptism and rebirth. "They brought a screaming child up to the devil," writes Greene, fascinated, "and thrust him under the devil's muzzle, under the dusty raffia mane; he stiffened and screamed and tried to escape and the devil mouthed him." And so it is with Philip's own initiation under the dusty hair of Mrs. Baines, only he cannot be reborn because he resists.

The same baptism of terror is performed in "The Hint of an Explanation" except that here the child survives the ordeal. Acting in the role of the bush devil, Blacker, the baker, tempts and ironically instructs for the priesthood, young David by forcing a moral commitment upon him. Even though Blacker asks David to commit sacrilege, we must not interpret this request in any conventionally diabolical sense. Blacker's action betrays much the same "supernatural cruelty," the fusion of love and hate as is found in the bush devil's ritual. This reading of young David's temptation coheres with his own adult observation about the inadequacy of Satan in theology: "The word Satan is so anthropomorphic." We are instead tried by a "Thing" or power, says the priestly narrator. He hesitates to say who or what Blacker really serves. Blacker, whose intense hate becomes permeated with a curiosity close to love, is viewed by David with the awe of the supernatural similar to that of the villagers of Mosamboluhun to the local blacksmith-devil. "It is not the mask that is sacred, nor the blacksmith who is sacred; it is the two in conjunction . . . ," observes Greene. Blacker's appearance is as terrifying as the devil's mask: one wall-eye, turnip head, smears of chalk and pastry. His secret knowledge of bleeding people and opening doors in the night like the devil who says to the bush child, "I'm going to swallow you," terrifies the boy into nearly surrendering the Sacred Host. In the spell of Blacker's professed powers, David fears not to remove the Host from his mouth and place it aside. Like Mrs. Baines, Blacker is the witch who plies his victim with toys to insure his moment of success. Yet, at this moment, the full force of that power shatters into disappointment. Through Blacker's hate for, yet fascination with the Host, that recognition of power which is neither good nor evil intervenes, and the realization of this "Thing's" value for the pulp which is "God there on the chair" saves David and thus prepares him for a new, priestly life. The school of the evil has been his salvation.

This knowledge of a Thing, a power, is almost prophetic in "The End of the Party" when Francis Morton's dream of death comes like a big bird swooping in the darkened house. Francis has dreams which reveal to him that darkness and death are real, dreams that hold secret knowledge to which the adults are cold. These unfeeling adults, Mabel Warren and Mrs. Henne-Falcon, flutter like hens and chickens about the darkening rooms enjoying the hide-and-seek game that is a real and present terror to Francis. Like the bush villagers, the ancient joke of "frightening the child with what had frightened them" governs their unconscious actions. The spiritual terror that leads to death and a powerful realization of the essence of death are but impersonal games to the grownup, civilized world, as impersonal as the nurse's cold torch making a beam through the darkness towards Francis's death. But after death, the power of his terror, conveyed like an electric impulse to his elder twin's hand, overcomes all seedy civilization, all set programs at the birthday party. One is reminded of the significance of this in the later work, England Made Me, where twins also have the power of conveying their awe for death. Kate contemplating her quarrel with Tony, who unknown to her has just been killed, compares it to childhood disputes. "In childhood one had been more careful, death was closer; one hadn't this hard grip on life." Even before the African venture then, Greene in these two stories had decided that the racial childhood held understanding of the darkness of man's heart, of the surety in death. He later confirms:

Oh, one wanted to protest, one doesn't believe, of course, in the "visionary gleam," in the trailing glory, but there was something in that early terror and the bareness of one's needs, a harp strumming behind a hut, a witch on the nursery landing, a handful of kola nuts, a masked dancer, the poisoned flowers.

In lesser works, "I Spy," and "A Drive in the Country," the adolescent, too, comes in contact with this power. For example, Charlie Stowe, reversing the Wordsworthian theme, finds the father "doing things in the dark which frightened him." In the second story, the young girl, disillusioned with her father's meticulous dullness, runs off in a wild ride to the dark woods with reckless Fred. In this action she is like the child swaying in the erotic dance before the old bush devil. In her childish dream, she is courting an adult action. In the cold woodsy fog the British girl finds she must flee back to her father's cheap bolted door in terror from a suicide pact that would implicate her with a man who is damning himself. She has awakened from the dreamy dance with the devil to find the leering eyes of an adult blacksmith beneath the painted mask. And too, the man in "The Innocent" discovers an obscenity he drew as a child in painful, intense desire, hidden, waiting for him in a hollow tree. It reveals the loss of that finer taste, keener pleasure, and deeper terror that must inevitably end in seedy civilization, typified by his slatternly friend, Lola.

So Evil creeps into the later dreams: "The man with the gold teeth and rubber surgical gloves; the old woman with ringworm; the man with his throat cut dragging himself across the carpet to the bed." Greene's adult heroes are struggling with the body as is Craven in "A Little Place off the Edgware Road," who is reminded by a religious placard of a dream he had in which there are no worms and dissolution, the body does not decay. His only waking comfort is that it was just a nightmare. Then evil creeps in, dropping upon him the fine bloody spray from the living corpse of the "man with his throat cut" who haunted the author's own dreams. But in "Proof Positive" Greene reaffirms the power in the unity of the body and spirit and the rottenness in their separation when the dominant spirit, robbed of its bodily connection, "decays into whispered nonsense." Metallic civilization has created this separation of body and soul. Adult life directs what childhood instinctively knew. Religious signs are not enough. The sound of music and the drum are silent. We must go to Africa again to embrace the leper who alone can tell us of Pendélé.

Pendélé is that mysterious land of childhood which Querry, in Greene's newest work, A Burnt-out Case, came to Africa to seek, where in his dreams he wishes to go after death. The tawdry, seedy level of the secular, adult world has betrayed him as it betrayed Philip in "The Basement Room." He cannot build and create any more. His architectural skill, like Philip's Meccano set, has been stowed away somewhere. Querry goes to Africa to seek a word that falls from the lips of Deo Gratias, the leper, who whispers the secret of "Pendélé" in the darkness of the bush, very like the forest Greene stumbled through in Liberia many years before. Pendélé, a childhood place of dancing and singing, becomes the central obsession in Querry's view of his new life. Like the bush devils who speak in foreign dialects, Deo Gratias (indeed the name parody cannot be ignored) mutters all night in unintelligible mixtures of French and bush language, except for one word, "Pendélé." Dr. Colin's answer to Querry's inquiry into the meaning is a facile, unimaginative translation—"pride." This is the sort of impersonal judgment about the world which Querry has been fleeing from all his life. He insists, rather, it is this place of our childhood, where there is singing and dancing and games; where we can sleep in a single bed without the responsibilities of adults. Our mortal sins do not explain our hunger, our flight through labyrinthine ways, our exposure to evil and death.

When Querry elaborates this meaning of the word to the Superior of the hospital force, the father answers, "People have to grow up. We are called to more complicated things than that." Querry recalls the ancient initiation, ". . . surely there's something also about having to be as little children if we are to inherit. . . . We've grown-up rather badly. The complications have become too complex." For belief also belongs to the cave man; Christians do not have the corner on faith. What Querry really is looking for is at what point in our childhood we went astray; the Eden Deo Gratias cannot and will not reveal.

So intense is the impact of the metaphor about the lost childhood that later Querry, figuratively, translates his questioning life into a fairy tale about a country boy and a king. Mme. Rycker, his listener, says in disbelief, "You and I are much too old for fairy-stories." "Yes. That in a way is the story, as you'll see," Querry returns. Both have lost the way to Pendélé. The meaning to Querry's little story may be found, I think, in the lines from A. E.'s [George William Russell, 1867-1935] poem, "Germinal," often quoted by Greene: "In the lost childhood of Judas, Christ was betrayed." The little unformed face of Philip hardens, as does Querry's heart for the world.

Querry's fairy tale is not even a very good story, not so thrilling as Grimm, nor so penetrating as Perrault, but it represents Querry's coming to grips with what was missing in the civilized world, why he came down the river to the leper colony. He is too old for fairy tales, for believing that the King, or God, has sent "a bull, a shower of gold, a son." In a tawdry world where cheap statues and neo-Gothic churches abound, he can no longer cherish the ancient symbols of creativity; he can only recall and be troubled by the memory of them. He envies the unconscious devotions of his parents to the King much in the same way Greene envies the child swaying before the devil—Europa swaying before the bull, unaware of the leering adult beneath who knows of the fall, the forgetfulness.

And Querry, as he steps into the dawn, reflects on the epigram "The King is dead, long live the King." Perhaps in the new life and new country, away from the seemingly impersonal rules of the (man-made, after all) Church, he can find the King of Pendélé, the bush devil who will mouth him and dance for him.

Unlike Querry, Greene sees in primitive ritual and myth-making something which can potentially revitalize our own civilized institutions, most of which have their origins in ancient rites. Greene's own jungle discovery thus refreshes and fulfills his long journey as he comes to realize the relation of the whirling, demanding devil and his own European religious longing. Suddenly recalling a childhood experience where he witnessed the ancient Jack-in-the-Green rites at a quiet crossroads, Greene writes:

It wasn't so alien to us, this masked dance (in England too there was a time when man dressed as animals and danced), any more than the cross and the pagan emblems on the grave were alien. One had the sensation of having come home, for here one was finding associations with a personal and a racial childhood, one was being scared by the same old witches.

The search and discovery of myth seems to bring order from external or internal chaos. The fact that myth fails to distinguish the everyday act from symbolic performance encourages the modern hope that a supernatural power can permeate all things. In this realization Greene hopes for a coherent ritual not incompatible with modern institutions.

His fascination for the primitive, of course, would not exclude such an establishment as the Catholic Church. He finds for himself, as he claims for Henry James, "the treatment of supernatural evil," "the savage elementary belief in prowling evil spirits to be adequate vehicles for expressing the "struggle between the beautiful and the treacherous." In its concept of sacrament the Church preserves those precious remnants of our childhood—the supernatural elements by which "human nature is not despicable." The life within the Catholic Church provides a quality of vision truly catholic in its absorption of the pagan and the primitive. It is not reducible to moral formulas which bind M. Rycker to his sanctimonious practices, Mme. Rycker to her spouse. The struggle for the beautiful and the treacherous in Greene's heroes and heroines requires a judge whose creative, fruitful powers of synthesis can unite the good in evil, the evil in good. Greene's myth provides that judge and judgment, and that power is God, the hound of heaven, the bush devil.

After his childhood discovery of evil, in The Viper of Milan, Greene remarks, "Human nature is not black and white but black and grey." It is from this assumption that Greene's mythology can take shape. In Liberia he reaffirms this basic conviction about life as he uncovers the aboriginal terror in the "grey" visage of the bush devil. Such an impact did this revelation have upon Greene that we are forced to qualify any comment we make on the seeming Manichean qualities of his fiction as well as our thinking about his concept of Hell. As R. W. B. Lewis implies, Hell does lie about Pinkie, Philip, Francis, David, and even Querry in their infancy, but the sterile, chrome, unimaginative boredom of that Hell is not found in Liberia. Rather, Hell is the civilized perversion of the primitive. With the comprehension of what the witch at the corner means to the children of Greene's fiction, with the understanding that these children are like the Liberian boy being initiated to the terror of the bush devil, we find Greene's fiction more intelligible, and even more flexible in its concept of the human act. For the myth opens up to Greene a whole spectrum of possibilities between the theological poles of good and evil, and thus it both extends the range of his ethical sympathies and sophisticates his artistic technique.

Gwenn R. Boardman (essay date 1965)

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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 universal "journey without maps," and a quest for "the heart of the matter." As counterpoint to these thematic variations, there are echoes of familiar episodes, characters, and symbols from Greene's other writing.

As far back as 1936, Greene wrote of ". . . legend, figures which will dramatize the deepest personal fantasy and deepest moral consciousness of a man's time: this . . . is the only thing worth attempting." In "Under the Garden" he has provided his own form of legend and figures (Javitt and Maria) who do indeed dramatize both personal fantasy and moral consciousness. This fifty-nine page story could serve also as a commentary on Greene's theory and practice of the craft of fiction. At first the reader may see little evidence of the questing artist in a boy's record of exploring a dark passage with hieroglyphics on its wall. Rather than tracing a path to the creative process, Wilditch appears to discover only the way to a world smelling unpleasantly of cabbage, watched over by a dirty old woman saying "Kwawk." Moreover, the lord of this under world seems unimpressive: a big old man with a white beard sitting on a lavatory seat. Yet Javitt's words include many of Greene's own statements about the novelist's task. Like Greene, he looks at the familiar world with an unconventional eye. In addition, he and Maria are prototypes of Power, the supernatural or spiritual force whose loss from the modern world Greene has so frequently mourned.

He himself sought this ancient Power on his journey to "the heart of darkness" in 1934-35, when he followed the ancestral threads back to African "innocence." This was not a romantic journey, in spite of Greene's acknowledgement (in In Search of a Character) of Conrad's influence on his early work. He was not looking for the noble savage, but for the primitive, unspoiled vision: the purer pleasure and the purer terror of sharpened artistic sensibility. It was in Africa that Greene tried to discover "at what point we went astray." He emerged from his Journey without Maps to chart new fictional paths, beginning with Brighton Rock. Wilditch also "goes back"—first to the scene of his boyhood vacations, to a time before he had learned that "imagination was usually a quality to be suppressed." He too tries to discover a lost vision.

Wilditch's experience in rediscovering this lost childhood dream is a neat parable of Greene's artistic theory. Greene has written continually about the world of childhood, alluding to its cruelties and to its innocence again and again in his book reviews, novels, and film criticism. Metaphors drawn from his own schooldays recur in texts as varied as The Heart of the Matter and Brighton Rock. Repeatedly, Greene uses the phrase "lost childhood," an allusion identified in his volume of essays, where he quotes from A. E.'s [George William Russell, 1867-1935] "Germinal":

In ancient shadows and twilights
Where childhood had strayed,
The world's great sorrows were born
And its heroes were made.
In the lost boyhood of Judas
Christ was betrayed.

It is worth noting that this poem opens with the line, "Call not the wanderer home as yet." Its final verse suggests: "Let thy young wanderer dream on: / Call him not home. / A door opens, a breath, a voice, / From the ancient room, / Speaks to him now . . ."

The ancient room to which Wilditch wanders in "Under the Garden" gives new depth to Greene's theme of the artist as wanderer, explorer, map-maker. He has said, "The explorer has the same creative sickness as the writer or the artist. . . ." To fill in the map, as to fill in the characters or features of a human being, requires the urge to surrender and self-destruction. Although Greene writes, "It was plain that the young Wilditch's talents had not been for literature," the adult Wilditch is well aware that the author must "order and enrich the experience," and he examines that original experience, translating the childhood vision with the aid of his years of wandering in quest of Beauty.

The questing artist of Greene's creation is not simply a traveller and map-maker, however. He must look at the world with the eyes of childhood as well as the mind of maturity. Like the narrator of "The Innocent," working out and reinterpreting a childhood memory as he lay in bed beside a pickup, Lola, Wilditch revisits the scenes of innocence, remembering and re-forming the child's experience in order to reinterpret the present. In "The Innocent," the narrator recognized the distortions introduced by the cynicism of adult perception: the child's "uniquely beautiful" picture seemed momentarily more like an ugly drawing on a lavatory wall. Wilditch finds the meaning of his experience not in terms of a lavatory scrawl but in a tin chamberpot flecked with yellow paint. Even as he perceives its meaning, Wilditch recalls that the child found that "golden pot" uniquely beautiful, as beautiful as the drawing in "The Innocent."

Describing the early formative years of a writer, Greene has spoken of the "innocent eye dwelling frankly on a new unexplored world, the vistas of future experience at the end of the laurel walk." The vistas at the end of Wilditch's laurel walk eventually opened the way to his years of future experience travelling in search of Beauty (Javitt's daughter): "The purpose of life had suddenly come to me as it must have come to some future explorer when he noticed on a map for the first time an empty space in the heart of a continent."

Again, Wilditch's words clearly echo Greene's in Journey without Maps. Wilditch entering the heart of darkness below the tree resembles Greene, who described himself as "a complete amateur at travel in Africa . . . [with] no idea of what route to follow or the conditions he would meet." Greene even referred to his African journey as "a smash-and-grab raid into the primitive"—an amusing foreshadowing of Wilditch's experience with the treasure, which reminded him of the display in a jeweller's window. In spite of the finer artistic consciousness which Greene demonstrated after his journey, he was at first able only to see Africa in terms of such romantic adventures as King Solomon's Mines. The boy Wilditch also thought of "romantic explorations" and Treasure Island when he named the landmarks of his discovery. Yet the romantic storybook world does have something in common with actual exploration. Both belong to "the region of the imagination—the region of uncertainty, of not knowing the way about."

In the course of exploring the region of his own imagination, Greene found his way about four geographical areas that have come to serve as symbols in his artistic development. Liberia, Mexico, Indo-China, and the Congo in turn exposed new levels of artistic consciousness, which Greene expressed in psychological terminology. Liberia was the world of childhood "innocence," a beginning, "before we began to go wrong." Yet these children were in a "spiritual Limbo." He then went to Mexico, where he found "adolescent" violence that yet revealed a dramatic picture of secular power superseding religious glory and suggested "the appalling mysteries of love moving through a ravaged world." After his novels of love and hate, Greene travelled to Indo-China, where he discovered the representative adult of our "chromium-plated" civilization, that cliché-ridden "innocent" American Pyle, whose "writers and lecturers made a fool of him." But he also discovered that "Under the enormous shadow of the Cross it was better to be gay." After he had been suitably gay in his delightful self-mockeries Loser Take All, The Complaisant Lover, and Our Man in Havana, Greene went to the Congo "In Search of a Character." Here he finally identified the character of the adult Querry—perhaps his response to Camus' view of the Absurd Man as traveller, and certainly an artist returning to life (and death). Yet the "truth" which Greene says he sought on his journeys—one he defines as "a question of style" rather than any kind of philosophical probing—is also one of "eternal values," the relation of man's soul to God. Like T. S. Eliot, Greene sees in today's lost religious sense a loss to the world of fiction, a reduction of characters to "cardboard," without the "solidity and importance of men with souls to save or lose." Unlike Wilditch, who denies that he is religious, Greene admits of his own position, "Quand on est catholique, il ne faut pas chercher à faire du 'catholicisme.' Tout ce que l'on dit ou écrit respire inevitablement le catholicisme."

Primarily, however, Wilditch expresses the problems of a writer. He learns the way to artistic truth. Entering an unknown region and determined to draw a map Wilditch, like his creator in this and many other seemingly deliberately teasing respects, is alternately attracted and repelled by the conditions of Javitt's world of mysterious Power, a world oddly touched by traces of civilization. Reading his boyhood story, a tale published six years after the original action, Wilditch is irritated by details he had omitted or altered. He wonders whether the boy had forgotten or was afraid to remember the actual experience (Greene has spoken of the novelist's need to "face his fears"). Yet Wilditch clings to the "fact" that he dreamed. Concluding, "A dream too was an experience," he begins to write an account of what he had found—or dreamed that he had found—when he first descended into the darkness under the garden.

In his essay, "Analysis of a Journey," later rephrased and incorporated into Journey without Maps, Greene spoke of the effect of Africa and its ancient Power upon the unconscious mind of the writer: "A quality of darkness was needed, of the inexplicable, something which has to be taken as a symbol because it has no obvious meaning for the conscious brain." He also quoted Kurt Heuser's The Inner Journey: "The interior: that might signify the heart of the continent, but also the heart of things, the mystery: and finally, the comprehension of himself in nature and in Time." That could be a description of Wilditch's journey, which continually echoes Greene's comparison of journey and dream. Wilditch says, recalling the details of his adventure, "Absolute reality belongs to dreams and not to life. . . . What seems is."

Wilditch travelled away from the "reality" of his mother's world, where the poetic imagination had always to be "rigidly controlled" and "speculation was discouraged." He found his own reality, as any writer must establish values for himself. His mother with her "very decided views" about any mysteries "wanted everything to be very clear." She could only tolerate "puzzles," the kind of mystery found in detective stories, where there is always an answer. But she could not approve the mysteries of imagination, of fairy stories, or of religious faith. When she wrote to the school about the "religious" feeling she was certain existed in her son's story, they responded with the comforting thought that his "little fantasy" was probably related to young Wilditch's school reading program, for the treasure of his story "is only too material, and quite at the mercy of those who break in and steal." His mother, a staunch Fabian (described in terms reminiscent of those used for Smythe in The End of the Affair), was not convinced; she retained a dislike for the laurel walk and the garden. Finally she hid the magazine containing the story, rather as the family for whom "God was taboo" tried to suppress the religious mystery of young James's experience in The Potting Shed. Yet—as this mystery was finally solved, or Sarah's hidden baptism became effective in The End of the Affair—the mystery of the garden could not be suppressed. Wilditch returned to the dark hidden room of his dream-reality, where the treasures of language and thought had not yet been contaminated by the clichés of popular culture or dulled by the stock responses typified in George Wilditch's lack of understanding.

George and his brother "seemed to be talking about different places and different people." George unawareness of the hidden treasure beneath his garden is an extension of his refusal to take imaginative flight. He chides Wilditch for calling the pond a lake, for referring to "treasure" in an old quarry that actually contained only "iron stuff." Although he "had been in occupation" of the house for many years, George "had no idea of what might lie underneath the garden." It remained only a problem in taxation, management, and plumbing. For George is a member of the "chromium-plated" civilization of the west that Greene continually holds responsible for the clichés of popular entertainment.

Wilditch's flight from this stifling reality leads him into the realm of darkness, without maps, where he can discover the heart of things for himself. But the boundaries of dream and reality are as uncertain as the earlier geographical frontiers. We are never quite permitted to discover the source of Wilditch's story, in spite of Greene's careful separation of adult re-creation and childhood vision by shifting from a third-person narrative to Wilditch's. For even as Artist-Wilditch separates his "corrected" version from the schoolboy fiction, he continually comments on the impossibility of separating dream from life. "A dream can only contain what one has experienced, or, if you have sufficient faith in Jung, what our ancestors have experienced." Yet even as he "explains" the story, Wilditch observes that it is no more than a pale imitation of the original action. He doubts that the boy could have been aware of the "simple facts" which keep bringing his dark experience "back to ordinary life." He cannot decide, however, whether he is dealing with child's invention, with "real" adventure, or with experiences that have "accumulated like coral around the original dream."

Thus Wilditch's story becomes an exercise in creative mapmaking for the reader. As Greene has said in another context, "The writer's task is the correct setting of a question." The writer must stimulate the reader to wonder, and to choose. He must create a world of sympathy (for "gray and black characters alike"); communicate a mood or atmosphere, as Wilditch communicates the cabbage odor and the strange routine of the dank underground passage; suggest moral values without ever sinking to pious homily, as Javitt's pronouncements demand re-weighing of conventional commandments. He must avoid sentimentality—hence the detachment of Wilditch's viewpoint, the repeated reminders of his "story," and the attempts to separate the primary reaction from the later judgment and rewriting of experience.

Thus the map metaphor is an appropriate symbolization of the artistic vision confronting the world that has been labelled (unsatisfactorily) by others, by men using the dead language of convention. By walking each path for himself, as Greene walked through Africa, and as Wilditch crawls and walks through the world below the familiar garden, the writer examines experience at first hand instead of accepting such clichés as Ida's identification of "right" and "wrong" in Brighton Rock or the confusion of "love" and "hate" in Bendrix's interpretation of The End of the Affair. Too often, as Greene observes, the popular novelist substitutes sentimental clichés and distorting commonplaces for "life as it is and life as it ought to be."

Arthur Rowe in The Ministry of Fear also found himself through experiences in a garden, although he too at first had "the wrong map." Like Rowe, and like the psychoanalyst of Greene's early essay, Wilditch pieces together the fragments of the past, examining these fragments in a manner that suggests the epigraph of Journey without Maps: "The life of an individual is in many respects like a child's dissected map. If I could live a hundred years . . . I could put the pieces together until they made a properly connected whole." Faced with death, and the vague consolation that "there's always hope," Wilditch seeks the fragments from the past of his dissected life while he attempts to answer his question.

Wilditch's question is the decision, "Whether I want my particular kind of life prolonged." He adds that he isn't a religious man and that he has "no curiosity at all about the future." He also knows that the past is "different." About the Dark Backward he is endlessly curious, although he compares himself to a Civil War leader mortally wounded and attempting to rid himself of illusions by "seeing them again with clear and moribund eyes, so that he might be quite bankrupt when death came." Instead of bankruptcy, however, he discovers the richness of restored perception: "Curiosity was growing inside him like the cancer." The artist is alive again, as Querry was, and like Querry Wilditch is faced with death. Nevertheless, there is hope, for—again as in A Burnt-Out Case—"The man who starts looking for God has already found Him."

Wilditch's creator is Catholic and the religious overtones of the story cannot be denied. But the story is not a narrowly religious parable. Christ's injunction to the sinner wishing to enter God's kingdom to become a child, is also advice on the craft of fiction, expressed through Greene's familiar theme of "lost childhood." Greene has repeatedly praised the "admirable objectivity" of childhood—the time when we are not yet conditioned by other people's judgments. Childhood is a time of "virgin sensibility," and as Greene notes in "Herbert Read," the creative spirit is tied to innocence, the "stock of innocence" is essential for a writer. This unspoiled quality is quite different from that false innocence of Pyle, whose "writers and lecturers made a fool of him" in The Quiet American. "The undimmed window of the innocent eye" is the child's eye; but as noted above, in "The Innocent" Greene shows that the eye can only perceive the truth when it has an adult's powers of judgment.

Greene discovered the significance of "childhood innocence" in 1935, during his journey into the heart of darkness. Returning to England, he heard its loss symbolized in the cry of a tenement child—a symbol made flesh in the ensuing entertainment and novel: Raven in This Gun for Hire and Pinkie in Brighton Rock. Wilditch returns to the innocent dream of childhood, journeying back in time and in memory (again like the narrator of "The Innocent"), in order to re-create the myth, to restore the dulled imagination, to purge the crippling effects of his mother's response to the boy's fictional imitation of a dream action. He discovers the purpose of life, the significance of his lifelong quest, by following the dark threads of memory deep underground.

Such a dark place frequently offers enlightenment in Greene's work. The enlightenment may be religious—as in The Power and the Glory, where the dark prison cell brings to the whisky priest an awareness of "the convincing mystery—that we were made in God's image." Yet Greene's use of "the heart of darkness" and "the heart of the matter" is usually no more than "the hint of an explanation," phrases combined in The Heart of the Matter to describe the forty-day survival ordeal of a child in an open boat. Greene writes of another mystery: "J'ai toujours été préoccupé par le mystère du peché, il a toujours été à la base de mes livres." Neither God nor sinner can claim exclusive rights to this dark center, however. Like Bendrix's discovery, it may be the transformation of hate into love; or like Wilditch's, the discovery of the existence of Beauty.

"Beauty" sprung from a one-legged old man on a lavatory seat and a dumb hag in faded blue and sequins is as ambiguous a term as others in Greene's fiction. The questions raised by Greene's use of such labels as "justice" in It's a Battlefield, "belief in The Third Man, "faith" in "A Visit to Morin," or "love" in The End of the Affair, are asked again by Javitt. Javitt's use of language stresses the need for new words and different meanings. Not only do his riddles challenge young Wilditch. He also takes such familiar terms as "white elephant stall" at a garden fête and converts the words to "royal beasts" and man's fate—word-play that is perhaps symbolic of the linguistic traps awaiting writers. In Javitt's world, Time has "a different meaning"; the world's time is unrelated to that of the dark underground, and the ruins of time become transformed into phallic pillars. Javitt challenges Wilditch's conventional use of language with practical, cryptic, and even poetic comment, although the boy does not immediately understand. This advice is "stored in [Wilditch's] memory like a code uncracked which waits for a clue or an inspiration." Javitt, the dirty old man on a lavatory seat, is the New Muse.

Behind this role lies Javitt's resemblance to the ancient Power, which might be loosely identified with the creative force. He is also clearly associated with concepts of godhead, in spite of Wilditch's observation that Javitt resembles Darwin's carrier pigeon (reminiscent of Greene's opinion of "Darwinian materialism"). Like the Hebrew Yahweh, he has another name: one too sacred to be spoken. His symbolic value is continually hinted, whether in his knowledge of "the first name of all," his resemblance to a crucifix, or his promise of forgiveness "seventy times seven." Lest we are tempted to confuse Javitt with God Himself, however, we are told of his resemblance to an old tree-trunk, thus setting him back in the fictional world of A Burnt-Out Case by means of the implied resemblance to the natural man, Deo Gratias, the leper who helped to restore the dulled perceptions of the artist Querry.

Javitt challenges the boy, "Haven't I given you a kingdom here of all the treasures of the earth and all the fruits of it"—an echo of the King in Querry's parable. He adds, "You go and defy me with a spoon laid the wrong way," hinting again at the obedience demanded by God, an obedience not always understood by the suffering Catholic heroes of Greene's fiction. Wilditch writes: "For all [Javitt's] freedom of speech and range of thought, I found there were tiny rules which had to be obeyed." That these rules include the method of folding a newspaper and the placement of a spoon should not preclude their serious interpretation.

On the other hand, the satirical hints of these rules, of the golden po's "sacramental" quality, of Javitt finding portents in tea leaves, should not be taken as evidence that Greene has begun to satirize religious belief or that he is mocking the spiritual dimension of his fictional world. "Under the enormous shadow of the Cross it is better to be gay."

The parable of the Jeweller in A Burnt-Out Case described an artist whose treasure had been reduced from great cathedrals to golden letters of Marque. But the treasure in "Under the Garden," in spite of the adult Wilditch's "skepticism of middle-age"—the comparison of the jewels with the artificial display of a cheap store window— is a symbol of promise. It would, however, be a mistake to limit the treasure to religious meaning, in spite of its setting in an egg-shaped hall, where the swinging lamp resembles a censer, Javitt makes ceremonial preparations, and Maria dons a hat. And to dismiss these or the "sacramental" golden po as Greenean whimsy, as further examples of his too-rarely recognized sense of humor, is no more satisfactory than to read them as a religious riddle. Taken as symbols of artistic quest and discovery, however, they do contribute a number of footnotes to Greene's literary intentions. Javitt chides the boy: "You think you can just take a peek . . . and go away." This suggests a criticism of the superficial writer. It is also a precise description of the attitude of so many of Greene's critics. In the interview "Propos de table avec Graham Greene" he observed: "Quant aux incroyants, ils ne sont pas scandalisés, mais montrent une incompréhension presque totale, même les critique les plus intelligents. Ils sont si loin de toute vue chrétienne de l'homme qu'ils ne peuvent entrer dans mon univers." These critics and other writers should not be content to just "take a peek" at the varying worlds created by questing authors. Critic and reader must enter into the fictional world, encouraged by the creation of a writer who has carefully explored the mapless paths of the world about him and faced its flaws and inconsistencies, what Greene calls the "gray and black" of our existence.

The keeper of the key to Javitt's treasure, the literary inspiration, is Maria. She is Woman—"sister, wife, mother, daughter. . . . What difference does it make?" Her name places her in the complex family of Greene's recurrent character, Anne-Marie. (It is worth noting that three Christian names: Mary, Virgin or Magdaline; Anne, mother of Mary; and Rose, symbol of Christ's pain; are frequently at the center of Greene's novels.) Her appearance suggests the mysterious Power, the power Greene felt in Africa and recalled in terms of a witch that haunted his childhood. Like the witch-voiced Mrs. Baines in "The Basement Room" and the dark devils of Greene's African villages, Maria inspires fear in Wilditch. Yet it is her force which ultimately propels him back into the real world. She forces Wilditch back to the world where he must interpret the clues provided by the oracular Javitt.

Javitt's riddles provoke thought; Maria's actions rouse primitive instincts. Once again, Greene hints at the dual nature of the artist's inspiration. This duality is further stressed in what Wilditch calls "a strange balance"—the continual tension between fear and happiness or laughter. Most important, however, is Javitt's admonition: "Be disloyal. It's your duty to the human race. . . . Be a double agent—and never let either of the two sides know your real name. The same applies to women and God. They both respect a man they don't own, and they'll go on raising the price they are willing to offer. Didn't Christ say that very thing . . . The obedient flock didn't give the shepherd any satisfaction or the loyal son interest his father."

In spite of Greene's identification as a "Catholic" author, it is the first part of Javitt's advice that he regards as most important. When Javitt says, "Be disloyal," he might be Greene himself sending a potential writer out into the world. In Why Do I Write? Greene had said that belonging to the Catholic Church would present him with grave problems as a writer if he were not "saved by my disloyalty . . . Literature presents a personal moral, and the personal morality of an individual is seldom identical with the morality of the group to which he belongs." In a second letter of this exchange of views between Greene, Elisabeth Bowen, and V. S. Pritchett, he repeated his emphasis on the "importance and the virtue of disloyalty," claiming that disloyalty encourages the writer to "roam experimentally through any human mind: it gives to the novelist the extra dimension of sympathy"—the ability to communicate a sympathetic comprehension of good and evil characters living in this world. Greene again stressed that the writer should be disloyal to the emotional and ideological clichés of his time, in order to avoid writing the sort of popular novel that substitutes cliché for truth.

Yet whatever fancies Javitt encourages in the boy, Wilditch notes that the odd adventure-dream always "kept coming back to ordinary life with simple facts." As in Greene's own works, the story should keep its characters in this world, its narrative set in the actual world, its plot related to "the way men really act," instead of being confined to the individual waves—the thoughts and fantasies of the cardboard characters Greene has so often attacked.

Javitt is not a sentimentalist. Whether he is discussing beauty or sex, monkeys or women, his conversation with Wilditch suggests the kind of author-reader dialogue which Greene so admires. Instead of sentimentalized sex and violence, the tired phrases of popular "entertainment," Javitt offers Beauty spawned by Maria in the dark room and the monkeys' view of death as an "accident." When he tells Wilditch, "Forget your mother and your father too," or "Forget all your schoolmasters teach you," he is again urging the fresh vision, the "disloyalty" of Greene's own creations.

There are, of course, hints of theological interpretation in Javitt's advice. The liturgical elements already noted, whether of Catholic ceremony or Christian symbol, are bound to remind any Greene reader of similar phrasing in his novels and stories. Although the experience was scarcely a religious one to the small boy, his mother had feared the worst, and the reawakened Wilditch, faced with the reality of his gold-flecked po, notes "She had reason to fear." For the whole context of this "dark mystery" is drawn from religious dialectic.

Like Javitt, Wilditch occasionally speaks with Greene's own voice, or assumes his creator's familiar mannerisms. His brother describes Wilditch as a "restless man," and adds terms reminiscent of Greene's allusions to his own restlessness and need to travel. Wilditch's curiosity about the world of darkness under the tree echoes Greene's own interest in Africa's creative heart of darkness. When Wilditch hears of Beauty he becomes like an explorer noticing a blank place on the map. When he finally becomes "achingly tired as though at the end of a long journey," he repeats Greene's experiences in Journey without Maps, an idea recurring in contexts as varied as The Lawless Roads, The Man Within, and Our Man in Havana.

The story suggests a myth through which Greene can express his preoccupation with the mystery of Faith, the difficulties of belief, the loss of "mystique" from today's religious life. It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that Greene's myth refers, at least obliquely, to Jung's opinion of religious failure in the West, the vision of God's underground counterpart, the nameless subterranean God. Javitt, "less interested in conversation than in the recital of some articles of belief," is indeed the ancient oracle, the guardian of the treasure. Appropriately, the jewels are hidden—even the boy must wait for the privilege of revelation—for as Green had written thirty years before in Stamboul Train: "We have been for a thousand years in the wilderness of a Christian world, where only the secret treasure was safe." For the author, the religious sense is important in terms of his craft. Though he does not share Jung's confidence in fantasy as a successor to Christian Faith, his personal faith is something different. The "air" of Catholicism inseparable from Greene's work or the "disloyalty" he advocates carry equal weight in the ultimate fiction, so long as the awareness of Good and Evil is there. Wilditch's growing curiosity may be a question of fiction or of faith, but it comes only after experience. His imaginative encounter with the jewels and the sources of language sends him in search of Beauty. Yet "it was only years later, after a deal of literature and learning and knowledge at second hand" that he could record a "true" version of his story. He could not remain in the underground world of darkness and sequins, canned sardines and cabbage broth, lavatory seats and old newspapers. Although his first glimpse of the treasure had made him feel that he must give up "all the riches of the world, its pursuits and enjoyments," he had to return to "the world he knew." In that world he could record for the dull George and the faithless Mother the world of mystery and imagination "Under the Garden."

Walter Allen (review date 1967)

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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 fundamental one.

On the face of it, it is not one readily associated with Graham Greene. The great theme of his fiction has been that of "Man's first disobedience, and the fruit of that forbidden tree." Yet no close inspection is called for to see that, from the beginning, his work has been informed by a strong element of play. It is there in his prewar "entertainments," especially in the best of them, This Gun for Hire. It appears, too, in his wartime "entertainment," The Ministry of Fear. One suspects, indeed, that these books were devised almost as much for his own enjoyment as for his readers'. But after The Ministry of Fear there were no more entertainments for more than a decade. Instead, there were the wholly serious novels, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, The Quiet American, in which he turned everything that's made into a Greene thought in a Greene shade.

Not that, in these years, Greene's will to play, his sense of virtuosity as a source of fun, was in total abeyance. It manifested itself in his admirable children's stories. In 1958, it came into full flowering in Our Man in Havana, surely one of the most delightful light novels of our time.

The sense of the author at play dominates his new collection of stories, May We Borrow Your Husband? For Greene, the short story has always been an occasional form, and the stories in his new volume vary greatly in merit. Two or three of them, "The Overnight Bag," "Dr. Crombie" and "The Invisible Japanese Gentlemen," are no more than good macabre jokes. They appeared first in London weeklies and read here as though they had not quite succeeded in escaping from their original contexts. Yet in a story no longer than these, "Beauty," which recounts what might be called the secret life of a prize Pekingese, a rich woman's pet, he produces a chilling parable on the theme of human vanity and mortality.

Elsewhere—and he is unlikely to take this as praise—he seems bent on showing us that he can take on Maugham at his own game and do it better. The comparison arises not merely from the fact that many of these stories are set in the south of France. It stems also from the nature of the narrator, the elderly author, his sensual appetites attenuated to the appreciation of good wine and good cheese, who observes the passing scene and records it with a sort of romantic cynicism. So, in the title story, the narrator (working out of season at Antibes on a biography of the Earl of Rochester) watches two extremely unpleasant homosexuals seduce the male half of a honeymoon couple and make all the necessary arrangements for the taking over of their lives.

One of these Antibes stories, "Mortmain," which describes through the eyes and ears of the narrator—"like most writers I have the spirit of a voyeur"—the seduction of a newly deserted wife by a Lesbian, is very good indeed. Nevertheless, these first-person stories seem to me too relaxed, too undemanding of their author, to show him as the major writer he is. We are interested in them not for their own sake but because Greene wrote them. To find the real Greene in this collection we must turn to a story called "Cheap in August."

It relates the experience of a faculty wife, English by birth, on vacation in Jamaica while her New England husband is researching in London for his book on James Thomson's The Seasons. The choice of subject indicates a certain thin-bloodedness in her husband, which Greene associates with New England—and which, for him, differentiates it from the rest of America. At any rate, after 10 years of contented marriage, Mary Watson is mildly looking for sexual adventure outside it, but Jamaica in August, the cut-price season, proves anything but exciting. And then she meets Mr. Hickslaughter, a remittance man from the United States, old, fat, uncouth and terribly lonely.

He is not at all the sort of man she has dreamed of having an affair with. Indeed, "affair" is the wrong word for their brief relationship, in which her actions are prompted by pity. All the same,

it was as though she were discovering for the first time the interior of the enormous continent on which she had elected to live. . . . Here, stretched on the bed, dressed in striped pyjamas which Brooks Brothers would have disowned, failure and fear talked to her without shame, and in an American accent. It was as though she were living in the remote future, after God knew what catastrophe.

This, wrenched out of context, will no doubt seem old, familiar Greene. In context, it isn't quite so. Pity for the human condition has always been one of his favorite subjects, but often it has seemed an abstract pity, not always united with sympathy or charity. It was this union that makes The Power and the Glory still, after more than 25 years, his finest book. It appears again in his most recent novel, The Comedians, especially in the affectionately drawn characters of Robinson and the Smiths. It suggested that The Comedians could mark the beginning of a new phase in Greene's development. "Cheap in August," in which the accent is on purely human pity, the pity of a woman for a man on the surface grotesquely ill-suited to her, is further evidence that this may be so.

Warren Coffey (review date 1967)

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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 funny as any being written today. And five for twelve makes .416, and who else is hitting .400 this year?

The three skip stories are "Beauty," about a rich American woman and her pekingese dog; "The Over-night Bag," about a citizen who carries a dead baby back to England from France in his luggage; and "A Shocking Accident," about a young man whose father is killed in the street by having a pig drop on his head. As one ready to concede that many rich American women and all Pekingese dogs are deplorable, I nonetheless found "Beauty" over-charged with the nastiness that Greene can fall into when he starts carving up comfortable people. Stories about dead babies and about people killed by falling pigs, on the other hand, are a kind of national specialty of the English, and I was more surprised than anything else to find Greene, that most un-insular and un-English of authors, serving them up. It is a little like learning that somebody you like thinks Alfred Hitchcock is funny. But scratch an Englishman and you are likely to find something of Hitchcock, the boy who will tell you about the terrible and of course very droll things he has been doing to the cat.

The four fill stories—I call them fill because they're so flat I cannot believe Greene much believed in them and only threw them in in the Falstaffian way, "Tush, man, they'll fill a pit as well as better"—are "The Invisible Japanese Gentlemen," "Awful When You Think of It," "Doctor Crombie," and "The Root of All Evil." The last-named of these seemed to be a parable. Of the others, I remember nothing at all. But here the body count stops because the rest of the stories have a remarkable life in them, with action and characters that move not only on the page in the reading but in the eye and mind and affections long after that.

"May We Borrow Your Husband?," though not the best of these stories, best represents the way they are put together and work. An English couple are honeymooning at Antibes. She, Poopy by name, is comely and likable but not very bright—Greene tells us that she thinks Sir Charles Snow is a writer. Her young man, Peter by name, is handsome but has more than a touch of pansy in him. Two interior decorators, Tony and Stephen, also English, undertake to steal him away from the bride, while William Harris, "the William Harris," a worldly-wise old author watches from the sidelines and helps the girl as much as he can.

If the girl knows what is going on, Greene writes, her story is a tragedy because of the pain of that knowledge. If she doesn't know, it's a farce. But partly she knows, and partly she doesn't know, so the story resolves itself as a wonderfully shrewd comedy by mixing pathos and ribaldry. A lot of Greene's recent writing has used this tragedy-farce tension and got comedy from it, The Complaisant Lover, for example, and Carving a Statue, among his plays.

Greene's stories in [May We Borrow Your Husband?] work a number of variations on the basic pattern, the almost straight farce of "Chagrin in Three Parts," for example, in which two French ladies, one widowed and one thrown over by her husband, meet for dinner and talk, sadly at first, about their lost husbands but then by wine and food and bawdy reminiscence fall into gales of Gallic laughter and go home tipsily together. "Two Gentle People," on the other hand, by the pitiable mis-marriages it sketches in, arrives at something like the terror of tragedy.

"Cheap in August" touches both tragedy and farce and manages to fill up all the ground between. It's a great story. Set in Jamaica, it involves the thirty-nine-year-old wife of an American professor of English looking or half-looking for romance on her vacation. She and her husband are beautifully observed and typed, she in her sexual yearnings, he in his getting out the bumf, a book on James Thomson, to advance his career. The wife ends up in bed with a gross and sinister seventy-year-old remittance man from St. Louis who spends most of his nights crying and drinking whiskey because of his fear of dying alone in a hotel room. It's the best story in the book, by three furlongs. And "Mortmain," except for some slickness in the conception and plotting, might have been almost as good.

On the whole, Greene seems in these stories to have written his way back to comic North Temperate Zone, away from the heat and the emotional intensity of his theological thrillers. He has perhaps lost something of range and emotional power along the way, but he has certainly gained in control of his matter and even in mellowness, and for knowledge of the world, who can touch this man?

A. R. Coulthard (essay date 1971)

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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 surface, the story is simple. A chance traveling companion of a priest retells a story that the priest told him while on a train trip. There is little dramatic interplay between the priest and the narrator. The traveler's retelling of the priest's story is objective, consisting almost entirely of a restatement of the priest's own words.

The priest is as subjective as the narrator is objective, and herein lies the problem of a one-level interpretation. The cleric not only tells the story, but explains its meaning to his fellow traveler. If the reader accepts the priest's interpretation of his childhood experience, the story is elementary. Its theme is that God sends saving signs, or hints, to his chosen. These hints of God's power often come in the form of evil which, with God's help, the tempted resists and eventually thwarts.

As his name suggests, Blacker is ostensibly the embodiment of evil in the story. When the priest was a young altar boy, Blacker, by threats and bribery, persuaded him to steal a consecrated wafer from his church. Blacker supposedly wanted the wafer for evil purposes. However, just as he was about to lay hands on it, the boy found the strength and courage to foil him by swallowing it down. As a mature adult, the priest sees this event as the turning point in his life. Foiling Blacker convinced the boy of God's power to defeat evil and eventually led him into the priesthood.

The temptation is to accept the priest as Greene's spokesman and regard his interpretation as the one that the reader is supposed to share. But such a simple reading of the story raises several questions. Should the reader uncritically accept the priest's interpretation of an experience in which he is obviously quite emotionally involved—an experience which, in effect, his entire life rests upon? Is the priest, simply because he is a priest, immune from error? William E. Buckler and Arnold B. Sklare [in Stories from Six Authors, 1960] seem willing to take the priest at his word:

In the priest's apologia, the hint of an explanation stems from living proof that infinite good may rise out of abysmal evil. Blacker is clearly an embodiment of black evil—he deliberately chooses to trap a child barely beyond the age of reason into sinning against himself and God. But the boy, by his capacity to resist, is for the first time able to understand good. This happiness launches him on his religious life, for he has begun to sense the power of God—how God works and the nature of life. His self-realization in the priesthood—his recognition of God—is the infinite good through God which has resulted from his encounter with the diabolical man. . . .

However, if the reader chooses to interpret for himself the meaning of the priest's story (as the traveling companion, an agnostic, seems tacitly to do), he might arrive at an explication quite different from that of the priest (and Greene himself?). First of all, there is the problem of Blacker's character. Although the obvious label name tends to stack the deck against him, the fact is that Blacker doesn't seem all that black. Even in the priest's biased account, Blacker seems at least as much sinned against as sinning. The priest admits that although Blacker was one of only two bakers in the town, "'I don't think any of the Catholics patronized him because he was a free-thinker.'" And if the priest considers the baker's "'one wall eye and a head the shape of a turnip, with the hair gone on the crown'" to be outward signs of inward evil, the gentle reader might merely deem Blacker's ugliness all the more reason to pity him. Certainly Blacker's ugliness and reputation for "free-thinking" do not justify the Catholics' excluding him from their community of worship. But the priest says, with complete aplomb, "'It would have been no good, you understand, in a little town like that, presenting himself for communion. Everybody there knew him for what he was.'" Quite opposite a demonic hatred of good, Blacker has valid reasons for disliking the Catholics of the community.

A second interpretive problem concerns Blacker's motives. The priest assumes them to have been totally and simply evil: "That poor man was preparing to revenge himself on everything he hated—my father, the Catholics, the God whom people persisted in crediting—and that by corrupting me.'" Let us ignore the egotism of this statement for the moment and examine the possibility that the priest mistakes Blacker's motives—that Blacker, because of his ostracism, could not with self-respect express an interest in Catholicism and that what the priest regards as Blacker's diabolical scheme was really his clumsy attempt to reach out for God. Blacker was familiar with the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and seems to have been struggling with it. In the priest's account, Blacker feigns cynicism to the boy by saying, "'I can bake the things you eat [wafers at Mass] just as well as any Catholic can,'" but he immediately gives himself away by blurting "with sudden intensity, 'how I'd like to get one of your ones in my mouth—just to see. . . .'" It is at this point that Blacker persuades the boy to agree to steal a consecrated wafer for him. Blacker's statement, "'I want to see what your God tastes like,'" has the ring of a sincere, if grotesque, interest in communion.

As Blacker instructs his young accomplice, the boy is surprised at how well the free-thinker knows the routine of Catholic Mass. '"How carefully he had been studying the ground,'" the priest comments later. "'He must have slipped several times into Mass at the back of the church.'"

But, surprisingly, it does not occur to the priest that a knowledge of the ritual of Mass would have been of no use to Blacker in stealing a wafer and that maybe Blacker had slipped into the back of the church to worship. This interpretation is given weight by the fact that just as the boy is about to steal the wafer, he sees Blacker "watching from the back of the church. He had put on his best black Sunday clothes.'" Surely if Blacker were the blasphemer the priest makes him out to have been, he would not have felt compelled to dress appropriate before entering the church.

Later that night, Blacker furtively came to the boy's home to fetch his hard-earned wafer. Intentionally or not, Blacker is depicted in decidedly sympathetic terms in this last scene. The boy hears Blacker's whistle and opens the curtains to find him in an attitude of supplication: "'If I had reached my hand down, his fingers reaching up could almost have touched mine.'" Symbolically, Blacker is reaching out for some form of human communion, for something to cling to and dispel the meaninglessness of his life. But the boy does not reach back. Instead, in a moment of what he later considers to have been divine inspiration, he swallows the wafer in order to keep it from Blacker. Then Blacker, that archvillain and agent of the Fiend, that miscreant who had promised the boy that he would slit his throat if he failed to cooperate, "'began to weep—the tears ran lopsidedly out of the one good eye and his shoulders shook.'"

As a mature adult looking back on this incident, the priest, instead of feeling compassion for Blacker, sees the whole affair as a sort of moral allegory designed for his own benefit. "'When I think of it now, it's almost as if I had seen the Thing weeping for its inevitable defeat,'" he says. The agnostic, who serves the dual dramatic purpose of listener and, later, narrator of the priest's story, is not so sure. "'It's an interesting story,'" he tells the priest. "'I think I should have given Blacker what he wanted.'" When the agnostic wonders aloud what Blacker would have done with the wafer, the priest's response is superstitious and vague—almost, it may strike the reader, ignorant: "'I really believe that he would first of all have put it under his microscope—before he did all the other things I expect he had planned.'"

As has been suggested, the priest is so wrapped up in what the experience did for him that he virtually ignores what it did to Blacker. The agnostic's parting remark to the priest may be intended as an ironic suggestion. "'I suppose you think you owe a lot to Blacker,'" he says. "'Yes,'" replies the priest, '"you see I am a very happy man.'"

In attempting to explain just what Graham Greene intended to communicate in this story, two possibilities arise. The first is that, as Buckler and Sklare and other critics suggest, the priest's interpretation of the experience should be taken at face value. Implicit in this interpretation is the premise that, in effect, the priest speaks for the author and that Greene's intention and the priest's interpretation are one and the same. If this be the case, then the story is weak artistically, because it forces an interpretation upon the reader, and dialectically, because Greene asks the reader to believe that God would save one man by destroying another.

Another possibility, however, is that Greene intended for the discerning reader to weigh the priest's conclusions against the facts contained in his own account. If priest's and reader's conclusions do not agree, then the story may be seen as an understated satire on a proud, complacent priest who deigns to believe that God, for all His infinite mercy, would lead him into the priesthood by having him trod down a helpless, pitiable creature such as Blacker. In this interpretation the story is enriched by the unconscious irony of the priest's account.

Several elements in the story point to this second interpretation. Blacker lacks the power of the conventional villain, and Greene constantly plays off the priest's complacency against Blacker's helplessness. For example, juxtaposed with the pathetic picture of Blacker's abject misery over his failure to obtain the wafer is the priest's puffy statement, "'you see, I am a very happy man'" [my italics]. The priest's sense of superiority over Blacker pervades the story. If Greene had favored the priest's point of view, surely he would have depicted his protagonist more sympathetically. Moreover, Greene's choice of an agnostic as the priest's audience invites a skeptical look at the priest. One can't help but wonder how the priest's story strikes this uncommitted listener.

Adding to the irony of the priest's conclusions is the fact that even he seems to sense that he might have been wrong about Blacker. He admits, for example, that Blacker's nature "'did contain, perhaps, a certain furtive love.'" Recalling how Blacker, "'looking so longingly and pleadingly'" up at him, tried to coax the wafer from him by saying "'It's only a piece of bread,'" the priest muses: "'even as a child I wondered whether he could really think that, and yet desire it so much.'" But the priest has too much at stake to dwell long on such misgivings.

If Greene had intended for the reader to share the priest's interpretation of his childhood experience, would he have thrown so many obstacles in the way of that interpretation? Two inescapable facts of the story are that Blacker was a man cut off from both God and humanity and that both as a boy and as an adult, the priest responded with a singular lack of compassion. Greene's story, therefore, may be read as a "hint" to complacent Christians that one of Jesus' best known teachings, "Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, my brethren, you did it unto me," is a two-sided coin.

Jesse F. McCartney (essay date 1978)

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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 other considerations. Such biases have resulted in oversights and distortions in the criticism of his work. For example, despite the genre studies just mentioned, critics have largely ignored Greene's short stories or deemed them unworthy of critical study. Greene himself relegated his short stories to an insignificant place in his canon (maintaining at most that he was a novelist who "happened to write short stories"), and scholars have taken him pretty much at his word.

In addition, their intense interest in Greene's religious theme has distracted them from a careful consideration of the social and political conflicts which are so often the source of the basic conflicts of his plots. As James L. McDonald asserts: "For far too many readers and critics, Greene is a 'Catholic' novelist." McDonald cogently argues [in "Graham Greene: A Reconsideration," Arizona Quarterly 27, 1971] that Greene's "deepest, most abiding concerns . . . have always been social and political, and only by recognizing them can we find a true unity and continuity in his career." Yet scholars have consistently failed to notice Greene's persistent concern with social and political issues, and the political substructure of Greene's writing remains largely unexplored.

In sum, then, scholars might have read Greene more closely, and they might have begun with his short story "The Destructors." It is a work rich in political implications, and Greene himself has recently said of it, "I believe I have never written anything better than 'The Destructors'. . . ." Nevertheless, many readers of the story are puzzled by it.

Obviously, a plot which involves the paradox of the artistic destruction of a fine work of art is strange, but it is considerably less so if one places the story and the characters in a more precise political and economic context. To do so reveals the story to be essentially a reflection of twentieth-century British politics—particularly the politics of blitzed England as Greene observed it from 1945 until his writing of the story in 1954. The Wormsley Common Gang epitomizes democratic socialism in conflict with privilege and conservatism, and "The Destructors," though certainly no mere political allegory, depicts a blitzed world in which the traditional values of beauty, grace, individualism, and class distinctions are succumbing to the new values of materialism, efficiency, democracy and group activity.

The story can be better understood when one recalls that the period from 1945 to 1951 witnessed the emergence of the Labour Party and sweeping social and economic reforms which represented the culmination of the decline of privilege. The First Reform Act of 1832 seriously called into question the privileged status of the aristocracy. King Edward's threat to create enough new peers to pass Lloyd George's "People's Budget" of 1909 if the House of Lords rejected it signaled another dramatic shift in the power structure of England. But the coup de grace came in 1945. The defeat of Churchill and the Conservatives in that year not only resulted in the formation under Attlee of the first majority Labour government but also marked a triumph for democratic socialism and a stunning blow to privilege. The nationalization of the Bank of England and other industries and the passage of the National Health Service Act of 1948 and other socialist programs marked a point of no return for England which Greene and other observers noted with mixed feelings. Out of this dynamic political situation "The Destructors" grew and developed in Greene's mind.

The "destructors" of the title are the members of the Wormsley Common Gang, a group of adolescent boys who presumably adopt a name for their gang from the geographical area of London where their activities are centered; but, of course, the name suggests both worms and commoners. The image of worms is picked up later in the story as Trevor explains the manner in which the gang would destroy Mr. Thomas's house: "'We'd be like worms, don't you see, in an apple. When we came out again there'd be nothing there, no staircase, no panels, nothing but just walls, and then we'd make the walls fall down—somehow.'" That the gang consists of commoners who scorn the upper classes is apparent in the attitude of its members toward the name and background of the newest member, Trevor:

When he said 'Trevor' it was a statement of fact, not as it would have been with the others a statement of shame or defiance. . . . There was every reason why T., as he was afterwards referred to, should have been an object of mockery—there was his name (and they substituted the initial because otherwise they had no excuse not to laugh at it), the fact that his father, a former architect and present clerk, had 'come down in the world' and that his mother considered herself better that the neighbours.

Thus, by joining the gang and, like more recent revolutionaries, changing his name, Trevor repudiates the class system.

The gang, however, is no rag-tag band of lawless revolutionaries. Indeed, as they work from the inside destroying Old Misery's house, they also, in many ways, conform to establishment traditions, as did the Labour Party. For example, though Trevor escapes the procedure somehow, the gang apparently sometimes accepts members through an "ignoble ceremony of initiation." Thus they follow establishment traditions of ceremonies and inaugurations, but these "ignoble ceremonies" parody those long-honored by the nobility. Indeed, the gang punctiliously observes its rules and operates in a decidedly democratic fashion. Trevor is required by the "rules to state his name." Though the gang is sceptical of Trevor's reasons for entering Old Misery's house, there is "nothing in the rules against it." Trevor, however, while in Old Misery's house, has missed voting on the day's activities; and Blackie informs him, "'You can't vote now. You know the rules.'" This observance of rules and democratic procedures—particularly of voting—is stressed thus several times in the story.

As always in politics, the question of leadership of the party becomes crucial. Indeed, the entire first section of the story is given over to the characterization of Trevor and Blackie and to their struggle for leadership of the gang. The opening line of the story appears to be an offhand remark that "it was on the eve of August Bank Holiday that the latest recruit became the leader of the Wormsley Common Gang." However, in the context of the story, with its emphasis on the democratic rule of the gang, the remark takes on more significance. It reveals that Blackie's fall and Trevor's rise to power are in accord with the tenet of democracy that there is no inherent or permanent position of rank or privilege and that even a neophyte can rise to leadership by demonstrating skill or charisma.

What qualities characterize Blackie's leadership? Generally, Blackie is serious, responsible, disciplined, but unimaginative. He is essentially the doer, the worker, and is miscast as theorizer. He customarily presided when the gang "met every morning in an impromptu car park, the site of the last bomb of the first blitz" and proposed each day a "plan of operations" on which the gang voted, generally such uninspired plans as snatching free bus rides from unwary conductors. Blackie and the gang show no awareness of the future or the need for long-range planning; similarly, they are ignorant of the past, as is evidenced by their reaction to Trevor's announcement that Mr. Thomas's house was built by Wren. An anonymous and representative voice of the gang responds:

'Who's Wren?'

'The man who built St. Paul's.'

'Who cares?' Blackie said. 'It's only Old Misery's.'

Blackie sees the house merely as property belonging to a privileged individual, not as an emblem of the continuity of the human race, not as a creation of artistic significance for the heritage of England. Like the whole gang, he is cut off from consecutive and humanistic values of the past, is temporally isolated in a modern blitzed world to which he responds on a day-to-day, "impromptu" basis in reaction to the conservative values of the past.

Indeed, Blackie wishes to spurn Old Misery and everything associated with him, but he assumes his responsibility as leader when the gang is confronted by the old man. Significantly, this confrontation is full of ambiguities, mistrust, and failures of communication or understanding. Old Misery accosts Mike, Blackie, and Summers as he returns from a trip to the market:

He said glumly, 'You belong to the lot that play in the car-park?'

Mike was about to answer when Blackie stopped him. As the leader he had responsibilities. 'Suppose we are?' he said ambiguously.

'I got some chocolates,' Mr. Thomas said. 'Don't like 'em myself. Here you are. Not enough to go round, I don't suppose. There never is,' he added with sombre conviction. He handed over three packets of Smarties.

The gang was puzzled and perturbed by this action and tried to explain it away. 'Bet someone dropped them and he picked 'em up,' somebody suggested.

'Pinched 'em and then got in a bleeding funk,' another thought aloud.

'It's a bribe,' Summers said. 'He wants us to stop bouncing balls on his wall.'

'We'll show him we don't take bribes,' Blackie said, and they sacrificed the whole morning to the game of bouncing that only Mike was young enough to enjoy. There was no sign from Mr. Thomas.

In their responses, the gang members epitomize the cynicism and self-righteousness so often manifested by opponents of political conservatives. Unable to believe that Old Misery is capable of genuine charity or generosity, they suspect him of having found or stolen the candy; but as children of the blitzed world, their understanding of sleazy politics based on the cash nexus leads them to conclude that the candy is a bribe, a conclusion in which Blackie quickly acquiesces and on which he formulates his policy of demonstrating through a juvenile game an unwillingness to compromise.

The gang's suspicion of the upper classes extends to Trevor also, even after he has been accepted as one of the gang. The boys question his motives for visiting Old Misery's house, conceding that the only possible reason one might do so would be to "pinch" something. When he denies having pinched anything, they gather around him: "It was as though an impromptu court were about to form and try some case of deviation." The reference to "deviation" and the formation of a kangaroo court remind the reader of the rhetoric and the show trials of various (though not exclusively) Marxist regimes of this century.

Blackie's plodding steadiness as well as his lack of imagination is reflected in his cool response to this situation. He did not wish to exclude Trevor because of his activities: "He [Blackie] was just, he had no jealousy"; but Trevor is expected to conform to discipline, and any hint of elitism is suspect. It was Trevor's use of the word beautiful to describe Old Misery's house that worried Blackie; it was a word "that belonged to a class world that you could still see parodied at the Wormsley Common Empire by a man wearing a top hat and a monocle, with a haw-haw accent."

Blackie's rigidity and isolationism, however, are precisely his limitations in Trevor's mind. As political philosopher, Trevor sees that knowledge is power and defends his consorting with Mr. Thomas by saying, "I found out things." As the only member of the gang who fully understands that Mr. Thomas's beautiful house, with its spiral staircase which is two hundred years old, is the very emblem of privilege and elitism, Trevor alone conceives of the significance of destroying the house. When he explains that Old Misery will be away on the Bank Holiday and that the gang can then break into the house, one of the boys again assumes that, in their customary way of combating the establishment, they will pinch things from the house. It is against such corruption by things that Blackie and Trevor must continually fight. Blackie, ever the pragmatist, objects, saying that they want no trouble with the law. Trevor, the idealist, objects on other grounds: "'I don't want to pinch anything. . . . I've got a better idea. . . . We'll pull it down. . . . We'll destroy it.'" Again, the pragmatic Blackie objects: "'There wouldn't be time. . . . I've seen housebreakers at work.'" Trevor responds with the timeless cry of the disestablished or disenfranchised: "'We'd organize.'" He also asserts that he has the knowledge necessary for accomplishing this destruction. Having presented this challenge to Blackie's leadership, Trevor even uses British political terminology in forcing the issue: "'You can stand down, Blackie, if you'd rather. . . .'"

In the portion of the story that follows, the dénouement of part one, the political implications are made even clearer. Blackie is voted down; he becomes a political cast-off. At first, as the gang pays "no more attention to him than to a stranger," Blackie is angry; but his pragmatism and his fidelity to the party win out over his personal depression. He realizes that the gang just might succeed in wrecking Old Misery's house, in which case "the fame of the Wormsley Common car-park gang would surely reach around London. . . . Driven by the pure, simple and altruistic ambition of fame for the gang, Blackie came back to where T. stood in the shadow of Old Misery's wall." Moments later, "Blackie realized he had raised his hand like any ordinary member of the gang." Ultimately, Blackie resumes a position of leadership within the gang, and the democratic process comes full circle in the story as, indeed, it did in Churchill's ouster and subsequent re-election; and surely this important contemporary political event must have lurked in Greene's consciousness as a kind of model for Blackie's career, though Blackie otherwise represents Churchill's antithesis and I would again caution against an allegorical reading in favor of a symbolic one.

This scene not only portrays Blackie as the committed worker, but it also portrays Trevor once more as the political theorist, the Trotsky of the group. In addition, it demonstrates the necessity of collaboration between worker and intellectual for the success of the group's schemes. Trevor conceives of the plan in the abstract and maneuvers politically to bring about its implementation. Moreover, he is at pains to preserve the purity of the concept. He insists later in the story that no one will take anything from the house, but that it will be destroyed absolutely; and when a gang member fears that each member will have to contribute to a collection to buy tools, Trevor reveals both his naïveté and his idealism in his arch reply: '"I don't want your money. But I can't buy a sledgehammer.'" Significantly, the pragmatic Blackie steps forward and says: "'They are working on No. 15. I know where they'll leave their stuff for Bank Holiday.'"

Section two of the story describes the beginning of the destruction of the house in such a fashion as to stress the commitment and the organization of the gang as they all share the labor of implementing their carefully-laid plan. Blackie, joining the group belatedly, "had at once the impression of organization, very different from the old happy-go-lucky ways under his leadership."

This section again reiterates the image of opposite forces working to sustain the project—i.e., the image of the pragmatic politico balanced against the party theorist. After all the other boys have left, T. discloses to Blackie a bundle of pound notes he has found in Old Misery's mattress. Immediately, Blackie asks, "'What are you going to do? Share them?'" Such a proposal seems practical and in accord with general socialist principles of sharing the wealth confiscated from the rich and privileged; but Trevor is the artist, the idealist, the theoretician, and here, at least, he thinks in terms of aesthetic rituals rather than pragmatic ends. He responds: "'We aren't thieves. . . . Nobody's going to steal anything from this house. I kept these for you and me—a celebration. . . . We'll burn them . . . one by one.'" However, Blackie cannot comprehend the intellectual theorizing of Trevor except in terms of simple vengeance. As the ash from the burning notes falls on their heads, Trevor says:

'I'd like to see Old Misery's face when we are through. . . .'

'You hate him a lot?' Blackie asked.

'Of course I don't hate him,' T. said. 'There'd be no fun if I hated him. . . . All this hate and love . . . it's soft, it's hooey. There's only things, Blackie,' and he looked round the room crowded with the unfamiliar shadows of half things, broken things, former things. 'I'll race you home, Blackie,' he said.

These things, in Trevor's mind, do not represent material wealth to be redistributed; rather they become material symbols of the established classes and of privilege, objects to be ritually destroyed in preparation for a new era.

This same emphasis on things and the absolute destruction of things as well as an emphasis on democratic procedures arises again in part three of the story when, as the boys convene for the second day of destruction, Summers protests that the activity is too much like work. Trevor responds sharply: '"You voted like the others. We are going to destroy this house. There won't be anything left when we've finished.'"

In this section, too, Trevor appears as the dreamer, Blackie as the worker. This characterization develops particularly out of the crisis which occurs when the boys discover that Old Misery is returning early from his holiday. Trevor momentarily panics as he begs for time to consider how to finish the project. As Blackie learned earlier in the story, Trevor now learns that "his authority had gone with his ambiguity. He was [now] only one of the gang."

Blackie—the doer, actor, worker—rescues the intellectual in distress. "T. stood with his back to the rubble like a boxer knocked groggy against the ropes. He had no words as his dreams shook and slid. Then Blackie acted before the gang had time to laugh, pushing Summers backward." Blackie whips the gang into line and then asks Trevor for his plan of action. Blackie "was the leader again," but now he merely implements Trevor's ideas and sees that the commands are executed.

Greene finally makes quite clear that the initial conflict has been fully resolved through collaboration. Caught up in the group enterprise, "the question of leadership no longer concerned the gang." However, Blackie's practicality remains useful; it is emphasized once again in passing in the concluding section of the story. The boys began to loosen the mortar between the bricks, but "they started too high, and it was Blackie who hit on the damp course and realized the work could be halved if they weakened the joints immediately above." Trevor is not mentioned at all in this last section of the story, his work—the planning of the destruction and the enactment of the ritualistic burning of the notes—presumably having been completed.

"The Destructors," however, is not merely a story about the struggle between two personality types for leadership of a gang any more than it is merely a story about the destruction of an old house by delinquent boys. That fact is made clear by the introduction of Old Misery as owner of the house that Wren built: "Old Misery—whose real name was Thomas—had once been a builder and decorator. He lived alone in the crippled house, doing for himself." The nickname given Mr. Thomas by the boys suggests not only the personal emotional state of the old man but also the unpleasant aspect of English traditions built on privilege and class distinctions—the old misery inflicted on the masses by the conservative ruling classes. Mr. Thomas's house, like the landed and hereditary houses of England, indeed the House of Lords itself, is "crippled," debilitated, and weakened: "Since the bombs fell something had gone wrong with the pipes of the house and Old Misery was too mean to spend money on the property. He could do the decorating himself at cost price, but he had never learnt plumbing." In like manner, the Conservatives had been builders and decorators; particularly in the midst of war, Churchill and the Conservatives had stood for outer strength, appearances and form, but they failed to understand the inner problems of the nation brought about by the war and could not mend them. A man living in the blitzed world depicted by Greene was no longer capable of "doing for himself; and the Labour Party's plans for nationalization and government assistance through democratic socialism pulled Churchill's house down around him.

Mr. Thomas, of course, never expects any accommodation with the Wormsley Common Gang. In a passage cited earlier, he approaches the gang "glumly." He voices "with sombre conviction" the conservative view that "there never is . . . enough to go round," the traditional assertion and complaint against Labour policies of providing welfare services such as those provided by the National Insurance Act of 1946 and the National Health Service instituted in 1948.

It is in section three of the story, however, that Old Misery most clearly epitomizes privilege and conservatism. The boys devise a scheme to lure Mr. Thomas to his outhouse and imprison him there so that they can complete the destruction of his house. (Incidentally, in the revised version in Collected Stories, Greene deliberately emphasizes the modernity of the boys by having them refer to the outhouse as the "lav" whereas Mr. Thomas consistently refers to it as the "loo"; in earlier versions, both the boys and Mr. Thomas use only the term "loo.") In leading him to the loo supposedly to rescue a boy who has gotten stuck there, the gang forces Mr. Thomas to climb his own garden wall, thus revealing to him that they have sometimes climbed it. His response is reactionary, possessive but traditionally polite, quaintly displaying the native courtesy of the privileged as well as the crotchety, authoritarian instincts which insist on deference and protocol.

'I'll have the wall built up,' Mr. Thomas said, 'I'll not have you boys coming over here, using my loo.' He stumbled on the path but the boy caught his elbow and supported him. Thank you, thank you, my boy,' he murmured automatically. . . . 'I'm not unreasonable. I don't mind you playing round the place Saturday mornings. Sometimes I like company. Only it's got to be regular. One of you asks leave and I say Yes. Sometimes I'll say No. Won't feel like it. And you come in at the front door and out at the back. No garden walls.'

The incongruity of Mr. Thomas's insistence on tradition and regular procedures at the very moment when he is about to become a political prisoner and when the final destruction of his house is going on a few yards away is overwhelming. He shares the naïveté of Churchill and other Conservatives who failed to grasp fully just how far England had come in 1945. Later, after being locked in his own loo, he "felt dithery and confused and old."

In the last scene of the story, Mr. Thomas is pictured as a pathetic old man who is outraged at the abrogation of his personal property rights. Conversely, almost everyone else in the last section views the destruction quite impersonally, including the unnamed representative of the gang who addresses the imprisoned Mr. Thomas:

'There's nothing personal,' the voice said. 'We want you to be comfortable tonight.'

'Tonight,' Mr. Thomas repeated increduously.

'Catch,' the voice said. 'Penny buns—we've buttered them, and sausage-rolls. We don't want you to starve, Mr. Thomas.'

The impersonal nature of this act is echoed by the lorry driver who unwittingly pulls down the house, not knowing that the boys have attached a line from the house to his lorry. After pulling down the house, the driver rescues Mr. Thomas from the loo, only to be confronted with the indignant and outraged old man who keeps reiterating "'My house'" (italics mine). The lorry driver apologizes for laughing at the incongruous scene of destruction as Mr. Thomas upbraids him:

'I'm sorry,' the driver said, making heroic efforts, but when he remembered the sudden check to his lorry, the crash of bricks falling, he became convulsed again. One moment the house had stood there with such dignity between the bomb-sites like a man in a top hat, and then, bang, crash, there wasn't anything left—not anything. He said, 'I'm sorry. I can't help it, Mr. Thomas. There's nothing personal, but you got to admit it's funny.'

Thus Trevor's prophecy that "not anything" would remain is fulfilled. The simile used to compare the dignity of the house to that of a "man in a top hat" is the final identification of the house with the privileged class, and it is, of course, the same image which comes to Blackie's mind when Trevor uses the word beautiful earlier in the story to describe Mr. Thomas's house. In addition, the lorry driver's echo of the nameless boy's earlier plea that "there's nothing personal" not only reflects the impersonal nature of modern life but also reinforces Trevor's earlier disdain for human emotions and his insistence that there are only "things." Thus the gang symbolically destroys not only class distinctions and privilege but also dehumanizes "itself" in the process by stressing neither beauty, individuality, love, nor grace but efficiency, democracy, collaboration, and unemotional commitment to group action.

As Mr. Thomas's house falls, the story stands—complete, unified, closely woven. Yet it remains puzzling to many readers; and in conclusion, it seems worthwhile to consider the source of this effect. I should like to suggest tentatively that the source of that puzzlement resides both in Greene's own ambiguity regarding the changing political guard and also in the distance between his own religious conservatism and the general secular liberalism of most of his readers today.

As an artist, Greene certainly must be aware that art and beauty traditionally have been the private province or concern of the aristocratic classes in Europe, and he naturally enough values the grace and elegance preserved through that conservative tradition as in Wren's architecture or other esthetic monuments. Yet as a modern intellectual very much in touch with contemporary politics, he certainly must be equally aware of the social inequities often fostered by that conservative tradition. However, the irony of that paradox is doubled, for the system which purports to correct those inequities—especially as the Labour Party attempted to correct them in England—too frequently substitutes a New Misery for an Old Misery, a blitzed, impersonal world without any esthetic sensibility or any sense of history. Thus, the ambiguous effect of the story lies partly in this double paradox inherent in the spirit of the author.

Secondly, Greene's Catholic bias tends to make him sceptical of any temporal order; and though many contemporary readers may instinctively identify with the democratic procedures and the collaborative efforts of the Wormsley Common Gang, Greene himself is much more ambivalent toward worldly reformers or revolutionaries as is evidenced in many of his works—The Power and the Glory, Brighton Rock, and The Honorary Consul, to name but three. This distance between the world-view (or other-world view) of Greene and the Weltanschauung of the contemporary secular reader is also, then, a source of the puzzlement often produced by "The Destructors."

Finally, however, the story satisfies the close reader by its perfect balance of one political viewpoint against another as the image of the spiral staircase held in suspension by "opposite forces" epitomizes the story, and these political viewpoints are much better understood when seen in the light of English politics of the decade immediately preceding the writing of the story.

John Bayley (essay date 1990)

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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 lost all fear of men, and he realizes that a big landslide is on the way. All his old instincts of responsibility return, and he warns and saves the local villagers. For Kipling the story's moral is obvious—indeed rather glib—but as with many of the best short stores the atmosphere is much more important than the anecdote, and the atmosphere in the tale is that of the Hills, and the peace and liberation they confer. There is something genuinely transcendental in the feel of it.

Greene would have felt this. In his own story "The Hint of an Explanation," written in 1948, he tried for the transcendental by a rather different route, a variant on the route taken by G. K. Chesterton in the Father Brown stories. But Chesterton was coy about how he did it, in a way that Greene would never be. Greene, like a good party member, hardly ever wrote a paragraph that did not contain a statement, or at least an implication, about Catholic Truth. And this is particularly true of his stories, where, in the tradition of De Maupassant and Somerset Maugham, a point can be made, a truth about society or human nature exhibited, with essential force and economy. Greene's stories give the impression of being thrown off in the course of a busy writing life, with money as the main object, but perhaps for this reason they also seem like candles lit in church in the course of a brief routine visit.

Like most Greene stories "The Hint of an Explanation" makes no attempt to evade the time-honoured routines and conventions of the tradtional short story; in this case the long train journey, the cold, the two men huddled in their overcoats beginning to exchange conversation; the abrupt revelation in the concluding sentences. As always, Greene makes spare and economical use of these, and adds to them his own peculiar stamp of originality. As one might expect, the discomfort of the journey is emphasized, with Greene details like the stale buns bought hurriedly on the platform, the residue in its paper bag being pushed under the seat. Also stressed is the inarticulacy of the fellow-traveller, who tells the story within the story. His expository power and vocabulary are quite inadequate, as are those of most people when they start to talk about religion ("to me there seems to be a hint. That's all. A hint"), although this in itself is a convention, for naturally he tells the story well and with graphic effect.

"I had soon realised I was speaking to a Roman Catholic." The "I" who is the narrator, and who finds himself tête à tête with the other internal narrator, has a strong interest in the religion, from which he feels his own intelligence excludes him. As in Somerset Maugham stories, he is the persona chosen by the author, and thus partakes of at least a part of his author's nature. The Greene narrator is hungrily looking in, from outside, on some mystery that is humble, yet magical. The story quietly emphasizes, as is usual with Greene, the unredeemed and fallen nature of the world around, as it appears to the narrator and reader. The dereliction and grey contingency usual in a Greene setting here applies to an England exhausted by war ("The great useless conflict") and is stressed in details like the feeble lights in the railway carriage going out when the train rocks into a tunnel. The exclamation of Mephistophilis in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus—"Why, this is Hell, nor am I out of it"—applies as usual to the Greene world. In his review of a life of Rider Haggard, one of the most interesting critical things he wrote, Greene noted the story of Haggard and Kipling trout-fishing together on the Kipling estate in Sussex, and seriously agreeing together that hell was this world, and no other.

The story the second narrator tells is in a sense predictable, for Greene is too able a writer, with too shrewd a sense of effect, to try to make it striking or original. The internal narrator sticks to the point, and the paucity of information he gives about his childhood is turned to advantage, so that the story acquires the artificial simplicity of a morality play. The villain, a baker named Blacker, is desperately anxious to get the boy to steal a consecrated wafer while he is helping to serve at Mass, and tries to bribe him with the highly desirable gift of a toy electric train set. The boy agrees, and manages to leave the altar area to slip the wafer from under his tongue between the leaves of a church magazine; but when the baker calls that night he refuses to give it up, and sees the man slink off into the dark like a defeated representative of the Evil One.

The baker's motives are evil, in that he hates Catholics and wishes to discredit them, but his frantic wish to get hold of God in the wafer argues a misery and a sense of emptiness which he longs to fill. More important for the story, however, although subtly connected with this, is the way in which Greene gets across his hint of the transcendental, the thing that must have struck him in Kipling's story of Purun Bhagat. The trick of the tale comes when the internal narrator—the man within—gets up at the end of the journey.

"Oh, well," he said vaguely, "you know for me it was an odd beginning, that affair, when you come to think of it," but I should never have known what he meant had not his coat, when he rose to take his bag from the rack, come open and disclosed the collar of a priest."

I said, "I suppose you think you owe a lot to Blacker."

"Yes," he said. "You see, I am a very happy man."

It is a good instance of how Greene's skill as a narrator works on a miniature scale. The trick of the priest's collar, although effective, is virtually predictable, but what he says is not. We may hardly have noticed, or now forgotten, the recollection of the external narrator at the beginning of the story. He had been giving his views to the other man on how the concept of God revolts him ("When you think what God—if there is a God—allows.") and the whole notion of a creator who can abandon his creation "to the enormities of Free Will." The internal narrator "listened quietly and with respect."

He made no attempt to interrupt—he showed none of the impatience or the intellectual arrogance I have grown to expect from Catholics; when the lights of a wayside station flashed across his face which had escaped hitherto the rays of the one globe working in the compartment, I caught a glimpse suddenly of—what? I stopped speaking, so strong was the impression, I was carried back ten years, to the other side of the great useless conflict, to a small town, Gisors, in Normandy. I was again, for a moment, walking on the ancient battlements and looking down across the grey roofs, until my eyes for some reason lit on one stony "back" out of the many, where the face of a middle-aged man was presented against a window pane (I suppose that face has ceased to exist now, just as perhaps the whole town with its mediaeval memories has been reduced to rubble), I remembered saying to myself with astonishment, "That man is happy—completely happy." I looked across the compartment at my fellow-traveller, but his face was already again in shadow.

In praising Kipling's story of Purun Bhagat, Greene singled out the small embedded bits of clear description, aspects of height and space, which—at least by implication—let a new dimension of silent meaning appear in the story. In this passage something rather the same is happening, lurking behind the syntax and even the punctuation—the two "hanging" dashes for example—and emerging like the face itself in the baldness of the exclamation, "Completely happy." The rumours of the world and its activities—the battlements, the middle ages, the recent war—drop away into non-existence, and become no more important than the cleverly unemphatic propaganda unconsciously deployed by the external narrator ("he showed none of the impatience or intellectual arrogance I have grown to expect from Catholics"). The reader believes in this happiness because of its arbitrary nature, and its necessary lack of contact with the point and moral of the tale. The success of the story pinches out its propaganda, like fingers extinguishing a candle. As Blacker longs for the Host, so the external narrator thinks he once recognized this amazing state of being happy on a single face, once seen. (The story makes ingenious use here of all but invisible contrasts and incongruities: the battlements, and the idea of a "back," the gloomy dead-end view of small houses seen from a train; the face pressed to the glass like a child's to a sweet-shop window, or like Blacker's in pursuit of the Host, and yet in this case looking at nothing and with nothing to look at. Happiness is like expectation without a goal or a point.)

As in the case of "The Miracle of Purun Bhagat," the story has, so to speak, sidled past the success of its own specification, and achieved something much more difficult, but something only to be done in terms of the short-story form. Another example would be James Joyce's "The Dead," which is about life, and whose miracle of meaning celebrates the livingness of the daily moments that lead up to bed and to sleep—itself a guarantee of continued livingness. "The Dead" needs its subject, which its title declares in a manner both grave and ironic, but its epiphany transcends this subject. In "The Hint of an Explanation" the title leads us both away from and towards the revelation of happiness, a state which the external narrator recognizes, as Blacker the baker recognizes the mystery of the consecrated Host, and whose meaning in relation to the story can only appear through its anecdotal context.

Greene, like Kipling, and unlike Somerset Maugham, seems robustly indifferent to the quality of his tales. In his later years especially, Kipling would publish in a collection masterpieces of the genre alongside pieces merely slight or vulgar, and seemingly with no pretension to be anything else. Greene has evidently done much the same. In the Introduction to his Collected Stories he observes that the form bothered him when he began to practise it in the late 1920s, at the time when he was writing his first novel to be printed, The Man Within—"and a little bored me." He suggests, however, that it was the writing of short stories which taught him "the qualities which all my first novels so disastrously lacked—simplicity of language, the sense of life as it is lived." None the less "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." He also throws light on the success of a story like "The Hint of an Explanation" when he remarks that when it came to writing "scraps," as he called them, he knew too much about the tale before he began to write it, and hence had "days of work unrelieved by any surprise." When writing a novel "the unexpected might happen." Near the beginning of a novel, "for no reason I knew," he "would insert an incident which seemed entirely irrelevant, and sixty thousand words later, with a sense of excitement, I would realise why it was there. But in the short story I knew everything before I began to write—or so I thought."

There is indeed a sharp contrast between the "scraps," whose point was known from the beginning, and the comparatively few stories which seem to work in the same way in which Greene suggests his novels do. But, naturally enough, the stories still do things in their own way which the novels cannot, even though the technique, as the author here describes it, may be rather similar. The "surprises" inside "The Hint of an Explanation" are of a different order to any that come in the novels. Indeed I would say that none of the novels has a hidden subject in the sense that the story does, and that the particular effect the story achieves is remote from anything in the novels. This can be tested by comparing it with "A Visit to Morin," one of the collection published in 1963 under the title A Sense of Reality. A narrator with a similar persona to the one in the earlier tale is greatly taken with the novels of a French Catholic writer called Morin, who sounds a bit like a real novelist such as Bernanos or Mauriac. He is distrusted by some orthodox Catholics but to others makes a strong appeal. A serious-minded bookseller in Colmar tells the narrator that he sounds even better in German than in French, because the former language "has a better vocabulary for the profundities."

This seems the standard irony about the Church, and about spiritual matters generally, to which we are accustomed in the novels, and, however effective there, it might seem to have no place in the art of the short story. It condemns the tale to its own significance, without any escape into the unexpected and unforeseen effect which Greene in his Introduction describes (characteristically) as "cool drinks to a parched mouth." The story has something wearisomely predictable about it. The narrator encounters Morin at a Midnight Mass in a local village, where he and the writer are the only members of the congregation who do not take the sacrament. Afterwards he introduces himself and is invited back to Morin's house, where the pair drink brandy and discuss faith. Morin distinguishes it from belief, which he no longer has. The books he has written have helped to remove it. He is like a poet who writes of his feelings, "and when the poem is written he finds his love dead on the page."

Morin is a burnt-out case, with a lot of Greene in him. Like one of his characters he clings to the precisions of orthodoxy, while at the same time standing outside it. Like Greene he has used his predicament in his novels, and the self-dramatization involved has left him with a legacy of deadness and disgust. Like one of Greene's novels, the story is clever in the propaganda it makes for the Faith while seeming to reject it. Morin knows what human need is and requires. He knows that what the Church teaches is true, because he has kept away from it for twenty years, on account of a much-loved mistress, and, because he has been cut off, his belief has withered. Now his mistress is dead, but he dare not go back for fear his belief should not return. Only faith is left to him, for belief depends upon keeping the prescriptions of the Church, which he has deliberately avoided doing.

It is a nice point theologically, and it makes a nice little spiritual drama as it would in one of Greene's novels, but as a story it is a failure. It knows too well what it is about. And the little touch which ends it serves only to kill it more effectively. The non-Catholic narrator is a wine merchant, and Morin gives him a glass of excellent wine, promising to give him the grower's address before he leaves. But after Morin has described his "strange faith," which depends on the conviction that the Church must be right because his belief died when he left it, he drives the narrator back to his hotel. The narrator is rather relieved to find that Morin is not a "carrier" after all, one who infects others, without knowing he does so, with a sense of the possibility of belief. "He had forgotten to give me the address of the vineyard, but I had forgotten to ask him for it when I said good night."

Discreet as it is, the irony in those concluding sentences fails to move. Nor does the hint of a parable. At the end of Kipling's story "The Gardener," a woman at a military cemetery in Flanders asks a man working there where she can find her nephew's grave. He tells her to come with him and he will show her where her son lies. Having seen the grave she goes away, "supposing him to be the gardener." The symbolism clinches what the story has already told us: that the woman has an illegitimate son whom she has brought up as her nephew, concealing the secret from everyone in her life, almost from herself. It is still a secret when she goes away, for she has not grasped what the man said. It spite of its clever conclusion Kipling's story is moving, and does come off, because its real subject is not what is devised and constructed as an epiphany, but the horror of the cemetery itself—graphically brought home—and the sense of a perpetual, unchangeable lie which hangs over it, the lie not only of the woman but of the war and its dead. Kipling did not intend that discovery.

No doubt writers, more especially writers of Greene's calibre, take a different view of their work from the one taken by their public; but even so it is a surprise to read what Greene has written about his own stories, and the contrast they make, in his own eyes, with the novels. To his readers, I should think, they must seem just the same, only more so. With the exceptions so far noted they make the same points as his novels, in the same way. Greene speaks of himself as a "writer" in very much the way that Somerset Maugham used to, as if it were some odd and involuntary vocation, like being a priest, only of course very much more profitable. As a novelist he becomes "encrusted" with characters—Greene's very typical image is of a corpse in the Caribbean he had been told of, which came up from the sea so covered in lampreys that you could not tell it was a man's body. "A horrible image, but it is one which suits the novelist well." Is not this just what his adoring public—and Greene's public is as large and as various as Maugham's was—want to be told about their maestro? How he lives and suffers in the parts he creates from day to day, becoming his character as Flaubert developed in himself the "destructive passion" of Madame Bovary, picking up from his hero "his jealousies, his meanness, his dishonest tricks of thought, his betrayals"? Just the thing for an audience to smack their lips over, but is not it all, like so much about Graham Greene and his writing, curiously unreal, as if the writer were seen as a kind of damned soul who took upon himself the sins of his characters? No doubt the audience enjoy being told that the short story is a form of escape for this writer—"escape from having to live with another character for years on end"—but they must also enjoy the sense that their hero is just as present in his stories as in his novels, and in even more concentrated form.

The more so since his sense of release and relief, in doing a "scrap" of a story instead of toiling away on a novel, communicates itself to the reader. In many of the tales writer and reader seem to be able to be, as it were, wicked children together, let out of the grey responsibilities of school or church. Two of Greene's own favourites are "The Destructors" and "Under the Garden." In the first a gang of children under the leadership of a boy called Trevor—known as T because Trevor sounds soppy to himself and the gang—contrive to get inside an old man's house in his absence and destroy it entirely from within. The second is a long and elaborate childhood fantasy about a secret place under a garden lake, which in middle age is found to have diminished to a pond, hardly more than a puddle. Greene's access to childhood is far more direct and more disconcerting than in the case of most writers who return to it. And the same lurking hilarity infects the stories of May We Borrow Your Husband?, a collection "all written during what should be the last decade of my life," which Greene would no doubt be sardonically content to see as the product of a second childhood. These "comedies of the sexual life" have the same air of release as the childhood tales, or Kipling's elaborate little farces, but many of them pass the most stringent test of a short story: they seem even better made, and reveal more, at the second or third reading. "Two Gentle People" is a story that Somerset Maugham could not have written, although Greene invokes in it, almost as if deliberately, the "guide lines" of his stories, and shows how they can be transformed into something altogether more understanding.

In these late stories Greene abdicates from his earlier personae into a relaxed good nature, no doubt designed intentionally to surprise his fans. The feeling of wariness, of a perpetual anxiety, which hangs over the earlier ones, for all that they were intended to be a release from the strains of novel-writing, has disappeared. So has the itch to point a moral, or at least to make a point, the tone of propaganda which energizes and unifies all Greene's writing, even the "entertainments." It seems hardly possible that the author of "Brother," "A Drive in the Country," "Across the Bridge," and "A Chance for Mr. Lever" (another of Greene's own favourites) could much later have written some of the stories in May We Borrow Your Husband? But where stories were concerned Greene was a professional, getting the feel of an assignment, rather than a writer who has created a world of his own. "Brother," written in the 1930s, is almost a parody of the contemporary tale "of social significance," with a little Greene expertise and dropping of the right local place-names: Combat, Menilmontant. The atmosphere of the Front Populaire and the attack on the bourgeoisie is effortlessly conveyed, with something of that almost "camp" bravado which reminds the reader both of school stories and of the contemporary cinema, to which Greene had a strong if eccentric attachment. (In his memoirs Anthony Powell remembers Greene's film reviews in the short-lived magazine Night and Day, and his rhapsodies about Erich von Stroheim climbing the stairs in full uniform "to an innocent bed.") The scenarios of the early tales have the cinematic power of "focusing" on the action, while leaving the background and the minor properties of the story ignored or barely suggested. It is indeed a striking paradox that a writer as obsessed as Greene with the Catholic themes which appear—or used to appear—in almost every context of his work, has also been able to give it such a virtuosity and variety.

In one sense, but in another not. Greene the professional, like a dramatist or film-writer, always goes to the heart of his matter, ignoring everything else. The economy is a weakness as well as a strength, for oddly enough the best short stories (Greene himself refers almost wistfully to Chekhov's "The Lady with the Dog") have the air of infinite apparent leisure, as if there were room to fill in every detail of the lives presented, and find room for every irrelevance. Greene would never write a story like Chekhov's, or like Joyce's "The Dead." His stories have no place for the poetry of the supper laid out that snowy evening at the Misses Morkans, or for the water-melon of which Gurov slowly eats a slice after his seduction of the lady with the dog. These are the mysterious ingredients of the short story at its most magical. With Greene, on the other hand, every detail has to tell, and tell they do. We know that the boy in "The Hint of an Explanation" is tempted beyond endurance by Blacker's offer of the model railway in exchange for a wafer of the consecrated Host, because he especially covets the turntable of the little model set—"so ugly and practical and true." And in "A Drive in the Country" we know that the girl leaving home really loves the young man she is going with because she loves the smell of the whisky on his breath—"his smell."

Such touches in a Greene story are unobtrusive, but they are the signs of a master at work. A master in his late period will often make a virtue of an obvious defect—one such appears in "May We Borrow Your Husband?," where the narrative contrivances of the tale—in themselves sufficiently implausible—depend on the narrator always breakfasting with the honeymoon wife, because her husband is titivating himself and regularly appears downstairs fifteen minutes after her. This processional regularity stresses the artificiality of the tale, as if it were a drawing-room comedy (Maugham again) and effectively defines the mode in which it is to work. The story, as it turns out, is all the more successful because of its impossibility: campness has taken over, and delivered through its own conventions its own kind of sour sharp insight. In these masterly tales Greene makes a positive asset of the point that he has always been "a little bored" with the short-story form. By letting the form know it, he releases a new kind of candour in the writing.

R. H. Miller (essay date 1990)

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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, moving from the introspective to the bizarre to the shocking. Greene's output is contained in five collections, issued from 1935 through 1967: The Basement Room and Other Stories (1935), Nineteen Stories (1947), Twenty-One Stories (1954), A Sense of Reality (1963), and May We Borrow Your Husband? and Other Comedies of the Sexual Life (1967). These were subsequently brought together into one volume, Collected Stories (1972). In addition, several uncollected stories have appeared. Eighteen of the stories were filmed for the series Shades of Greene, produced by Thames Television in 1976 and shown over the Public Broadcasting System in the United States, with the simultaneous publication of a collection by that title. Three of the stones may suffice to reveal the prevailing techniques and themes of Greene's short fiction: "The Basement Room," "The Destructors," and "Under the Garden." All three were made into films for the Shades of Greene series.

"The Basement Room" first appeared as the lead and title story in Greene's first published collection, in 1935. In 1948 it was released as a film, and a highly successful one, under the title The Fallen Idol, directed by Carol Reed, who also directed The Third Man. "The Basement Room" serves as a guide to the major themes of many of Greene's novels: the innocence of childhood and its subsequent corruption when it confronts the adult world; the insidious nature of evil and its mixture with good; the relative impotence of good in the face of evil; and, most significantly, the inevitability that trust will be rewarded with betrayal, no matter how unintended that betrayal might be.

Greene chooses to narrate this story from a third-person-limited point of view, from the vantage point of the main character Philip's deathbed, sixty years after the events of the story, and to focus subtly one's attention on the lifelong impact of this episode on Philip, who has never forgotten it and who must live with its effects until his dying day. In "The Basement Room" the situation concerns then seven-year-old Philip and two household servants, Baines and Mrs. Baines, to whom he has been given over during "a fortnight's holiday." Philip is isolated from his parents and "between nurses," which means that he must, from the context of childhood, deal prematurely with an adult world of marital hatred, duplicity, and adultery, and must make crucial choices as to how to maintain allegiances that the adults require of him.

With its five sections the story is reminiscent of Renaissance tragedy, carrying its construct of rising action, crisis, falling action, and catastrophe, out of which a new awareness, however dim, arises for both protagonist and reader. The story focuses on one crucial event, the accidental death of Mrs. Baines, and its test of Philip's loyalty and his ability to interpret the event within the context of adult morality. The crisis occurs with the surprise return of Mrs. Baines to the house, where she catches Baines and Emmy in flagrante. It only remains for the catastrophe of Philip's betrayal to occur, and its result: the misinterpreting of Mrs. Baines's death by the police and the downfall of Baines and Emmy.

The focus of the story is on Philip; its narrative technique binds the readers to him, although they do not discover fully the narrative situation until the close of the story. What happened there on that day succeeded in some unconscious way of killing all Philip's innocence and destroying his childhood love of life. His innocence has no difficulty dealing with Mrs. Baines's clearly malicious nature; it fears it, while it betrays Baines both at the end of the story and earlier, when Mrs. Baines discovers the crumb of pink sugar on his lapel. Emmy, the young girl who is Baines's lover, is a great mystery to Philip throughout his life, and he dies with the question on his lips he has asked himself over and over again for the past sixty years: Who is she? The answer is that she is, like her descendant Rose in Brighton Rock, the potentiality for love and happiness, but she is so frail and identityless that she cannot survive in a world in which the force of evil is so strong that it traps the good (Baines) and subverts the innocent to its own cause (Philip). Philip dies an old, loveless man, never having created anything, and carrying with him the unforgettable memory of Mrs. Baines's shrill voice, a voice he could mimic with devastating effect.

The story closes with the death of innocence, the powerful sickness of the heart induced by Philip's betrayal, and foreshadows future stories to be written: Brighton Rock and Rose's goodness, that also of Sarah Miles in The End of the Affair and of Bendrix's opacity; of Scobie's innocence in The Heart of the Matter, and that of Pyle in The Quiet American, the deadliest innocent. Philip, too, as a child foreshadows all Greene's children, from the childlike Pinkie and Rose, to Coral Fellows and the Mexican boys, to the shrieking child in The Third Man, who almost does in Rollo Martins.

"The Destructors" first appeared serialized in two parts in Picture Post, July 24 and 31, 1954. Its first appearance in a collection was in Twenty-One Stories in 1954. Perhaps no story since Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" appeared in The New Yorker in 1948 has produced such a disturbing effect on readers. Next to "The Basement Room" it has attracted more critical attention than any other story by Greene, and is his most frequently anthologized story. "The Destructors" may be Greene's best story and perhaps one of the finest in the language. It has all the qualities that have come to be expected in the short story: focus, compression, pace, and that element of surprise, that epiphany that brings one to recognizing a powerful truth. It works as both parable and allegory, parable in the sense that it is a narrative in a relatively contemporaneous setting that makes a clear moral point, allegorical in the sense that it "signifies" on several levels.

As parable the story is a mirror of experience which reflects the condition of England during the immediate postwar period, at a time when England was only gradually recovering from the destruction of the blitz and the ravages more generally of the war. The locale, Wormsley Common, has been bombed, and the house of Mr. Thomas (a.k.a. "Old Misery") sticks up like one last sound tooth in a rotten mouth. More significantly, the house symbolizes the traditions of civilization, having been designed and built by the distinguished seventeenth-century English architect Christopher Wren; yet these traditions have not been upheld over the years, and readers know that Old Misery has been sadly remiss, as have others before him, in their obligation to maintain the edifice in its proper style. The young protagonist, Trevor, or T., as he prefers to be called, sees the rude absurdity of the grand house, and he persuades his gang of boys to set themselves the task of reducing it to rubble, not by destroying it but rather by systematically gutting it and weakening its structure, so that at the close of the story it only requires the tug of the lorry at one corner of the foundation to bring the whole structure down. Old Misery, locked in his outdoor toilet, emerges to find complete destruction. It is a horrendously cruel trick to pull on an old man, but the lorry driver says at the end, "There's nothing personal, but you got to admit it's funny." The younger English generation has succeeded in extending the actions of the older to their logical conclusion, and the landscape of Wormsley Common has rational consistency now that the Wren house is gone.

At one level readers, especially older readers, with their powerful sense of the sanctity of property, react in horror to what the gang achieve. But a deeper reading of the story reveals that much more is at stake here than property; it is the loss of a work of art, the destruction not just of a building but of a wonderful idea poorly stewarded, the loss more generally of an entire culture, not to war alone but to the wanton destructiveness of a new generation who are products of that war and have no understanding of and little stake in preserving that which they do not love.

What is perhaps more appalling than the destruction is the manner in which it is carried out. T. is caught up in both a struggle for and an exercise of power and in a rejection of his heritage, of his father, a former architect, and of his mother, with her class snobbery. Politically the story is a microcosm of the acquisition and uses of power as T. succeeds in wresting control of the gang from Blackie and shapes it and motivates it to carry out his plan. What is most unsettling is that such skill and intellect are exercised by the gang in carrying out their plan. The dinnertime harangues from parents about the value of work and of dedication bear ironic fruit in their efforts.

Most powerful in the story's impact is its multilayered allegory that allows readers to see this not only as a parable on the bitter fruit of the postwar generational struggle; in a broader context it represents the death of property in a class struggle between the custodians of that property and a newer generation that sees the absurdity of that concept. On a political level it is an allegory on totalitarianism and the fruits of power, and the way in which that power, once unleashed, is difficult to control and assumes a life of its own. In another sphere it is the corruption and destruction of the good by a Manichean evil that is present in the world, ready to use those who have some small impulse toward harm and to assume a power even greater than that of those who pursue evil ends. In "The Second Coming" Yeats says, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." Greene's story is saying much the same thing here. "The Destructors" will remain a disturbingly powerful story and take on even more significance as time passes.

"Under the Garden" is Greene's longest story and, given its length, ought perhaps to be thought of as a novella. It first appeared in 1963 in A Sense of Reality. This story is as seminal a piece of Greene's fiction as any he has written. It brings together motifs of childhood and adulthood, of the meaning of literature and art, of the interplay of the conscious and unconscious life and the significance of dreams as clues to a character's nature, of the nature of myth and its meaning in real life—all major concerns in Greene's work. Additionally, it combines the strategies of three of Greene's favorite works, two of them, appropriately, children's books: the geography of Alice in Wonderland, the escape motif of Henry James's "The Great Good Place," one of Greene's favorite stories, and the romance of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. It is at the same time one of Greene's most puzzling stories and one of his richest.

Structurally the story is multilayered. It relies on three separate narrations: that of the writer Greene, following his character William Wilditch through the trauma of learning that he has life-threatening, probably terminal lung cancer and his escape to his brother's estate, Winton Hall; that of Wilditch as a thirteen-year-old, recapturing and romanticizing a childhood dream through his story "The Treasure in the Island," printed in his school magazine The Warburian under the nom de plume "W. W." (for which one may surely substitute "G. G."); and that of Wilditch as an adult as he rewrites the childhood story into a new version, the product of accretions over the fifty years since the time he had the original dream about his subterranean experience. Three separate voices, three separate stories, all drawn from one source: a dream of a most compelling kind, one that has drawn its dreamer back to it time after time, since the age of seven to the present, when he is now past fifty-seven.

The geography, taken as it is from Lewis Carroll's story, provides a parallel to the dream, for it is a journey into a new land, a timeless underground world that exists below the estate garden, accessible only by squeezing into an entrance beneath a tree root on an island in the middle of a lake. It is also an escape in the Jamesian tradition because it represents a release from the pressures of the world above, where life sucks out vitality and where, in the final version of the story, Wilditch, like his author Greene, looks back over a life of travel to escape and confront certain realities, only to wonder if he has lived at all.

In the original story—that is, the childhood story of part 1, section 5—W. W. Moves quickly through the experience to the discovery of treasure, but in his later version the treasure Wilditch discovers is of little avail. The "golden po" turns out to be an old chamber pot, painted yellow. In the second story the adventure of the cave far overshadows the treasure. The cave is inhabited by primeval parents, Javitt and Maria, both eternal but both maimed physically and symbolically, Javitt by being partially immobilized because he lacks one leg, Maria lacking the power of speech because of her lack of a palate. The one sits and speaks wisdom from his toilet seat, as Wilditch says, like a great prophet; the other races about screaming nonsense. And all this is the product of a childhood dream, written up some years later by the dreamer, mulled over during a lifetime and then rediscovered and written up again. What began as a relatively straightforward but imaginative adventure story has turned into a Freudian fable of significant proportions. Wilditch, facing what seems to be his imminent death, after a lifetime of travel in all parts of the world returns to this single experience to find meaning in it. What he discovers is that he has taken the "facts" of reality and converted them into a new reality for himself. Ernest the gardener becomes the source for much of Javitt, the garden becomes the world, and Friday's Cave and Camp Indecision become efforts on Wilditch's part, at two separate times in his life, to analyze his life and re-create that analysis as narration.

Efforts have been made to unravel this seemingly slightly disguised roman à clef, and most certainly will continue. What is more important to one's understanding of it is its way of dealing with reality and the reconstitution of reality through art. What Greene does here is remarkably similar to what one sees in the allegorical layerings of his best novels. To put it in Wilditch's own words (hence Greene's): "A puddle can contain a continent, and a clump of trees stretch in sleep to the world's edge." In other words, one can sense a truth as broad as the world in a story as confined as Wilditch's. More importantly, it is the life of art and the making of it that is most important, as the story proves its own point. Wilditch's mother, determined to kill all vestiges of the imaginative impulse in him, failed miserably, where the gardener Ernest succeeded by providing him with a character, and the pond and the little hillock provided a place for a powerful creative experience. And at the end of the story Wilditch, having returned to his island and found the old chamber pot, is overcome by a curiosity that can only be satisfied by rethinking and rewriting his story, yet again. A new understanding and new experiences demand a new narration. "Across the pond the bell rang for breakfast and he thought, 'Poor mother—she had reason to fear,' turning the tin chamber-pot on his lap".

Daniel Stern (review date 1991)

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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, but there is also a whole other subset of writers who are equally at home in the short story and the novel (Bernard Malamud and Flannery O'Connor come to mind). It is in this group, in spite of his demurrer, that I would place Graham Greene. So much for placement. The real trick is understanding this astonishing author at the stage of the writing life he now occupies. He is 86, has written more than 60 books—and is the world's most conspicuous nonwinner of the prize many, including this reviewer, think he clearly earned years ago, the Nobel.

From 1940 on, Graham Greene, in an unequaled display of productivity and creative originality, produced book after book that enriched our sense of what the modern novel could do in the hands of a quiet master of style and suspense (who also happened to be a tormented Roman Catholic convert and a left-wing sympathizer). That mixture produced narratives replete with irony and pity for the weak and the lost. It was the irony that saved the pity from becoming sentimental, as well as the fact that no one stood safely beyond it, not lovers, certainly not principalities and powers, not even Mr. Greene's extremely personal and ambiguous god. The result was a series of powerful novels: The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, The Quiet American, A Burnt-Out Case, The Honorary Consul, to select just a few. For generations Graham Greene has been a central source of the literary air all of us breathe.

In addition, there is the achievement of the "entertainments" such as The Man Within, This Gun for Hire and Brighton Rock, starting in the 1930's and continuing with The Third Man, Our Man in Havana and others—each reader will, undoubtedly, have his or her favorite. This distinction between "entertainments" and "serious" novels, which Mr. Greene famously invented for himself early in his career, has become less and less useful; the serious novels were all entertaining in the richest sense, and the entertainments (they were frequently subtitled as such) often have a depth many a "serious" novelist would envy.

All the while Mr. Greene was producing a steady stream of short stories, including a minor classic, "The Basement Room" (from which the Carol Reed film The Fallen Idol, starring Sir Ralph Richardson, was made). The copyright dates for his stories start in 1935 and go to 1990, lastly, The Last Word: And Other Stories. This is a collection of stories that, for one reason or another, the author did not wish to include in previous collections. They date from 1923 to 1989 and only four have ever appeared before in book form, none in the Collected Stories.

The reasons Mr. Greene gives for the original exclusions range from several of them being too derivative from some of his novels, to concern over a new generation's understanding of some World War II events. His reason for including one story dating from 1929, "Murder for the Wrong Reason," was that, on rereading it 60 years later, he found he could not guess the identity of the murderer.

Only one of these additions to the canon, the last in the volume, called "An Appointment With the General," reads like vintage Greene. It has all the familiar hallmarks: the bitter beauty of language that keeps doubling back on itself in irony, the despair worn like a comfortable old suit, the unsentimental scorn when dealing with the left and the right. A French journalist is sent to interview a South American general of ambiguous politics and ambitions. She leaves on the eve of her marriage's collapse, and that personal event delicately colors her interview with the general. It is a small gem. Interestingly, it is a recent work, published in 1982. Like so many of Mr. Greene's works with an exotic locale—and like his nonfiction book Getting to Know the General—this story may be based on direct experience, in this case Mr. Greene's regular visits to Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera of Panama.

The vintage "Murder for the Wrong Reason" is interesting mainly because it prefigures Mr. Greene's enduring interest in the mystery story—but also because it contains, in miniature, every convention of that genre. Like the author, this reviewer could not tell who the murderer was until the very end. "The News in English" is a touching minor effort with a major backdrop; a Briton who is marooned in Germany at the war's outbreak broadcasts apparent propaganda for the Germans to the English back at home. The story is filtered through his wife's shame, an emotion altered by the revelation that something other than treason is afoot. The ending has a dying fall and Mr. Greene's voice is eloquently sustained throughout.

Less satisfying is the title tale. "The Last Word" is the story of the last Christian in a world in which a totalitarian proto-Communist order—in some Orwellian way—has completely eradicated the church. The hero of the story, a confused old man, turns out to be the last Pope, kept alive until the moment when even he is no longer necessary to the global regime. Though written with skill and style, this tale demonstrates the folly of second-guessing history. Since the churches of Europe have for the most part survived their former Communist oppressors, the final effect of the tale is one of a naïve, nostalgic backward look on Mr. Greene's part.

The group of stories written with a humorous, lighter effect in mind do not succeed so well here. At least they are not in a class with May We Borrow Your Husband?, Mr. Greene's brilliant execution of the light touch in story form. But if we follow the author's guidance (he says in his introduction to the earlier volume of Collected Stories: "I have never written anything better than 'The Destructors,' 'A Chance for Mr. Lever.' 'Under the Garden' and 'Cheap in August'") then the picture is made whole. On rereading Mr. Greene's entire oeuvre in this form it is clear that these stories are all worth a journey, not just a detour. Along with "The Basement Room," "The Hint of an Explanation," "When Greek Meets Greek," and with his masterpiece of quiet horror. "A Little Place Off the Edgware Road," in which the murderer and the corpse of his victim trade places, his short stories stake out a claim for Graham Greene that he refuses, with characteristic modesty, to make for himself—that of a genuine master of the short story.

If the stories in The Last Word are not examples of Mr. Greene working at the top of his form, they do give us a few new pleasures while sending us back to the often overlooked body of short stories waiting for us. There is now no doubt about one thing: over the long haul, in the short story as well as the novel, Graham Greene is the Master.

Richard Kelly (essay date 1992)

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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 joys of innocence that quickly give way to the dark pains of experience. Greene also found his obsession mirrored in the novels of Charles Dickens, where Victorian society seems dead set upon destroying the bodies and souls of children. Similarly, Greene's admiration for the minor Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough, whom he calls the only adult poet of the age, derives from his own spiritual malaise. During Clough's years at Oxford he lost the serenity of his Christian faith and turned to writing poetry as a means of defending himself against the doubts that raged against his desire for belief in God. Like Clough, Greene's sense of dislocation from his childhood and from his Christian faith intensified during his Oxford days, and he sought to overcome his depression and to exorcise his psychic demons through his writing.

As a highly sensitive, imaginative youth, and coming from a respected, comfortable, upper-middle-class family, Greene enjoyed the opportunity to develop more exotic emotional problems than are allotted to children of the lower classes. When he first discovered that he could read, he hid this fact from his parents out of fear that they would make him enter preparatory school. He began to live a covert life, secretly reading books about adventure and mystery that his parents would not approve. As a child he also developed inordinate fears of the dark, of birds and bats, of drowning, and of the footsteps of strangers. He developed recurrent nightmares about a witch who would lurk at night near the linen cupboard in the nursery.

As a student at Berkhamsted School, where his father was headmaster, Greene's emotional problems were compounded by his sense of divided loyalties. His filial devotion was constantly challenged by his desire to be one of the boys. He was never able to resolve these conflicting loyalties, and, to make matters worse, two schoolboys, named Carter and Wheeler, sadistically exploited Greene's anxiety with cruel psychological precision. Greene has not disclosed specific details of their torment, but Norman Sherry, in his biography of Greene, has shown that these two boys, especially Carter, exercised a powerful control over Greene during a critical time in his development. More experienced in worldly matters, they took pleasure in attacking Greene's naïveté and trust. Lionel Carter not only tormented Greene for being the headmaster's son, but, after winning his confidence and discovering his secret dreams and desires, he disabused Greene of many of his romantic and chivalric ideals. As the murderer of Greene's childhood and as the arch-betrayer, Carter would appear in many guises throughout Greene's stories and novels and become one of the powerful demons Greene would spend his life as a writer attempting to exorcise. Years later Greene was to observe, "Every creative writer worth our consideration . . . is a victim: a man given over to an obsession."

In 1920 Greene's manic-depressive and suicidal behavior led his parents to send him to a psychoanalyst named Kenneth Richmond for treatment. The experience proved beneficial and Greene began self-consciously to record and analyze his dreams and feelings. It was also during this period that he began to write short stories, which served, perhaps unwittingly, to shape and help control his inchoate fears and depressions.

The short stories Greene began writing then and later during his years at Berkhamsted School and Oxford University have been largely ignored by critics and scholars, and yet they are fundamental to an understanding of his character and his development as a writer. Uncollected and not easily accessible, these stories, written during the period 1920-25, reveal the youthful obsessions that were to inform all his later work. It seems important, therefore, to examine these early creations for what they reveal about Greene the man and the writer, for, as Wordsworth says, "The child is father of the man."

Several of Greene's juvenilia, being only a page or two in length, fail to develop character, plot, or scene; rather, they sketch a mood, fear, or anxiety, usually in a self-conscious literary or allegorical form. "The Tick of the Clock," for example, which was published in Greene's school magazine, the Berkhamstedian, in 1920, when he was only 16 years old, reveals his youthful morbidity. The story is about a lonely old lady facing death with no companion but her ticking clock. Her only wish in life was to love someone, but young men had never come her way and children now fear her. The clock attempts to console her by relating the fate of a king and a poet who unhappily died with an uneasy conscience and a failed sense of glory: "But you, you have no sin upon your conscience, you have not sought for fame or wealth, why then do you find death so hard?" When the woman replies that she cannot face death "without Love to hold me up," Fate speaks to her in Christ-like tones: "O woman of little understanding, wherefore are you sad? Do you not know that I am Fate and Fate is Death, and Death is Love Eternal? Your quest is ended, you have found that which you sought." The next morning she is discovered dead in her bed and those who see her exclaim, "How happy she looks."

The heavy-handed allegory, the melodrama, and the unconvincing consolation offered to the old woman by Fate all mark this story as a youthful exercise. Beneath the literary posturing, however, one can detect the young Greene's concern about his own rather loveless life and the void that enhances its misery. Greene's romantic assertion that death is eternal love is a bit like whistling in the dark. It is an idea belied by his later work in which his expiring heroes and heroines are sent to anxious and uncertain fates.

In his autobiography, A Sort of Life (1971), Greene looks back upon "The Tick of the Clock" with mixed emotions. He abhors the story as literature but recalls its publication—his first—as inspiring him with confidence and a sense of glory:

I was beginning to write the most sentimental fantasies in bad poetic prose. One abominable one, called "The Tick of the Clock," about an old woman's solitary death, was published in the school magazine. I cut out the pages and posted them to the Star, an evening paper of the period, and for God knows what reason they published the story and sent me a check for three guineas. I took the editor's kindly letter and the complimentary copy up to the Commons and for hours I sat on the abandoned rifle butts reading the piece aloud to myself. . . . Now, I told myself, I was really a professional writer, and never again did the idea hold such excitement, pride and confidence. . . . that sunny afternoon I could detect no flaw in "The Tick of the Clock." The sense of glory touched me for the first and last time.

In "The Poetry of Modern Life," published in the Berkhamstedian in 1921, Greene implicitly acknowledges Carter's disturbing effect upon his ideals. The narrator of the story is overwhelmed by a voice that declares the death of poetry in modern life: "It was just a voice in the street that I heard as I passed along, 'Poetry and Romance are dead' . . . when I heard that voice, the busy movement of the streets pressed in upon me, seeming to shut out all colour, and changing everything into a dull monotony . . . it even penetrated into my slumbers so that I seemed to be surrounded with legions of devils, all crying out, 'Poetry and Romance are dead.'" In a desperate attempt to deal with his painful disillusionment, the narrator reverts to the literary past and seeks counsel from a chivalric knight. The knight, however, merely confesses that he and his kind are dead and offers the narrator the weak consolation that there is heroic virtue in the poetry of defeat: "As long as heroic deeds are done, as long as the great world struggle between Good and Evil lasts, so long will there be poetry in life. . . . Ye know the poetry of victory, the wild enthusiasm of a people when long looked for peace arrives. But have ye yet learned the poetry of defeat?" The story concludes with this theme by describing three men dying of hunger and cold, "yet one was still striving to write some last letters to those at home, thinking in his last moments, not of himself, but of the man who had sent him and trying to save him from vain, useless regret.

Norman Sherry suggests that Greene might have been thinking of the deaths of Captain Scott and his associates Wilson and Bowers in the Antarctic, since Scott's dramatic death in the Antarctic in 1912 made him a great hero among English schoolboys. More significantly, however, Sherry connects this story by Greene with his persecution by Carter:

Perhaps the dying man's attempt to write letters home reflects Graham's desire to write to his parents about his misery, though he could not. In the face of Carter's undermining of Greene's cherished boyhood beliefs, it is not surprising that he turned to a less romantic vision. The knight in the story offers some hope, arguing that "as long as the great world struggle between Good and Evil lasts, so long will there be poetry in life." It is possible that Carter, with his inexplicable cruelties, his nihilism, his ability to feign innocence, put Greene on to his fundamental theme, the nature of Good and Evil and the conflict between them.

In another story, "Castles io the Air" (1921), which earned him a first prize in a school competition, Greene reverts to the subject of disillusionment and death, heralded again by his personal devil, Lionel Carter. During the festivities at the Great Grinsted's Midsummer Fair, a grotesque piper begins to play strange music that brings an end to the noisy pleasures of the crowd and makes everyone aware of his mortal sadness. Greene's memorable description of the piper anticipates the grotesque character of the mestizo, another betrayer, in The Power and the Glory: "a short, hunched man, one-eyed, covered in dirt, with a great red bulbous nose protruding aggressively from his face. . . . The man grinned, disclosing great, dirty, fang-like teeth."

As the piper plays, his music conjures up in the minds of the crowd visions of beauty and romance: "to each onlooker he was different. To some he seemed a princess, with beautiful braided hair, to others as a glorious knight in shining coat of mail, but to all he was their childhood's dream of love. He was the mistress, he was the lord of those lovely twisted white marble palaces which all had constructed once, stone upon stone, in the clouds. The piper's seductive tune offers intimations of childhood immortality for all of his listeners, but then he disappears and the crowd is left in dismal silence "each with his private grief." The devil incarnate, the piper steals the very dreams of childhood love and romance he conjured up in the imaginations of his listeners.

Greene believed that his personal tormenter, Lionel Carter, destroyed his childhood joy and dreams. It is interesting to note that Greene presents the devil as a piper. The legendary piper plays music that is both seductive and destructive, thereby suggesting that Carter's imposition of his adult view of life upon Greene's youthful fantasies combines both alluring and terrifying prospects.

While he was under the psychiatric care of Kenneth Richmond, Greene wrote a story entitled "The Creation of Beauty: A Study in Sublimation." Unlike the other early tales, with their emphasis upon mortality and disillusionment, this one lives up to its subtitle by offering a defense against fear and unhappiness through the escapist ideal of feminine beauty. Greene's repressed sexuality—during his teens he was infatuated with several women, including a ballet student who used to visit the Richmonds—thus finds an outlet in this story about cosmic creation.

The chief architect of the universe confronts God with his misery. Following God's orders he had created man and the universe but now he is distressed that God gave man no other happiness than a woman to love. Furthermore, God has ordered the existence of darkness and sleep, which contain fear and evil dreams to torment man. All of nature, in fact, seems to conspire to harm man and defeat his work and his dreams. God answers that "because you have given him the beauty of woman, you have given him the beauty of the universe." God declares that good and evil are reconciled in man's devotion to woman:

He will love the cold, because it is like his wayward mistress; he will love the heat, because it is as warm as her breast. He will write songs to the dark, because it is as deep, unfathomable and mysterious as love, and drowns him in the blackness of her hair. He will let himself down into sleep with a fear, because, though it bring evil dreams, yet will it also bring dreams of her for whom he lives. He will glory in the birds, for he will decorate her in their feathers.

In the midst of this lyrical celebration, Greene attributes to his femme fatale the power to assuage and reconcile many of his most profound fears: of sexuality, of the dark, of bad dreams, of drowning, and of birds. The story reads almost like a psychoanalytical exercise whereby through the sublimation of his fears into a cosmic hymn to female beauty and through the act of writing itself Greene may obtain a sense of control over his demons. Like his character God, Greene can assume the role of creator through his fiction, imposing order upon the chaos of his experience and illuminating the dark corners of his fears.

The two stories Greene published in 1922, "The Tyranny of Realism" and "Magic," extend some of the former themes and reveal his continuing sexual repression, guilt, desire for punishment, and sense of betrayal and disappointment. Roland Wobbe was the first to note the significance of "The Tyranny of Realism." He sees it as a self-conscious and paradigmatic dream story important to an understanding of Greene's later work: "The story's characters reappear in a number of later variations, and its plot becomes a schematic for the conflicts in the later novels and entertainments."

"The Tyranny of Realism," published in the Berkhamstedian in 1922, is an allegorical fantasy that focuses upon a young boy held captive by an omnipotent tyrant named King Realism, "from whom no secrets were hid, no dark places safe." Sharing the boy's captivity and lying at the King's feet in a cold marble hall filled with the smell of a prison, corruption, and repression, is a beautiful maiden called Fantasie. The boy asks the King why his great love, Fantasie, has been stolen from him and complains that he has been robbed of his dreams and of a mystical homeland of dark caves and hidden ways, full of beauty and sweet fears. King Realism informs the boy that he is no longer imprisoned and the small room melts into rolling plains and a star-filled sky. When the boy kneels before him he discovers that the King has become God and on the throne next to him sits Fantasie, "and their lips were pressed each to each in a long passion of joy."

Wobbe's interpretation of this final scene lays the biographical framework for understanding the story:

The final action leaves no doubt that both the God-king and the girl have betrayed the boy, and the allegorical significance of the characters begins to crystallize. The maid stands for fancy, romance, the erotic and a certain ambivalence; the God-king represents a changeable (perhaps arbitrary) authority, discipline, repression, cold, puritanical objectivity and male competition. One easily identifies the boy prisoner as the depressed young writer who feels both captive and spy in his father's school. The story contains heavy Freudian associations of repressed sexuality, guilt, and punishment.

King Realism seems to be a composite of Lionel Carter and Greene's father. Both of these figures served to undermine Greene's sense of freedom, spontaneity, and fantasy. They both exercised authority over him and demanded his loyalty. Greene's youthful dreams and chivalric eroticism, embodied in the character of Fantasie, are destroyed by the father-bully. The boy asks King Realism, "Why did you send that cold, peering slave, that Spiritualism there, to drive away my dreams, the ghosts, who used to kiss my lips and hair?" The question elucidates the psychological allegory. Berkhamsted School is the prison ruled by Mr. Greene (King Realism) and the students are the slaves "who lined the walls." Greene's father is then held responsible for destroying Greene's romantic idealism by his authoritarian rule and especially by imprisoning him with Carter, "the cold, peering slave."

The boy's release from his imprisonment turns out to be the cruelest irony, for he has been released into the larger world of adult experience where betrayal can now be recognized and innocence lamented. The boy's discovery of King Realism in an impassioned embrace with Fantasie suggests his painful role in the oedipal triangle. Greene later modifies this oedipal relationship in "The Basement Room," where he has Philip discover Baines and Emmy together in a restaurant. In that story Baines is the figure associated with fantasy who betrays the boy's innocence.

Greene's next story, "Magic," published in the Weekly Westminster Gazette six weeks after the appearance of "The Tyranny of Realism," is another dream story. A writer of children's fairy stories is haunted by the spirits of children who have read his books and who are now imprisoned within his fictional fairylands. These child ghosts express their various disillusionments: one has discovered that his mythical princess is actually an old woman who wears a corset and paints her face; another has found that the king's daughter, for whom he slew dragons, first ignores him and later runs off with someone else; and a king's daughter exclaims that the young man who rescued her from a dragon turned out to be an abusive, alcoholic husband who eats his peas with a knife.

While most of the ghostly readers bitterly complain of their disillusionment with the romantic view of life the author had instilled in them as children, one of them announces his loss of religious belief as well: "I entered the gardens of heaven to fight with the archangels, and there was nothing there save weed-grown paths. I entered the halls of God, and there was only an empty throne."

Finally, the author asks if he has given happiness to anyone and he is answered by the ghost of his own youth: "You showed me the door to happiness and I went in, and faeryland was more beautiful than any dream of yours. I went in, but they pulled me out and closed the door, and for me also there was nothing left." This young spirit, unlike the other speakers, goes on to rationalize his disillusionment be arguing that the intensity of love and beauty in fairyland is too powerful for mere mortals and that one had best settle for a life of more ordinary happiness. "Love there was like a beacon fire," he says, "here like a smouldering hearth. Yet we may warm ourselves at that hearth for a little while, you and I, and perhaps forget the beacon. It is safer so. It might have scorched us."

Besides battling his personal school dragons once again in this story, Greene is gradually discovering the subject matter and central themes of his future fiction. His overpowering sense of fantasy, which he nourished during the covert period of his childhood by reading such books as Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, Charlotte Yonge's The Little Duke, Captain Frederick Marryat's The Children of the Forest, the fairy stories of Andrew Lang, and the tales of Beatrix Potter, must now be counterpointed by his profound disillusionment embodied within a fiction that accommodates cruel and brutal realities. It is little wonder, then, that a novelist such as Joseph Conrad would emerge as Greene's literary hero, a man who takes the dreams and illusions of a character like Charles Marlow, in The Heart of Darkness, and crushes them against the savage cruelty of a figure like Mr. Kurtz.

By the time he began his studies at Oxford University, Greene had all but lost any belief in God. His undergraduate atheism derived from several causes: his psychoanalysis under Kenneth Richmond, which hastened his disillusionment with the Protestant church; his rebellion against the unquestioning faith of his parents; and the opportunity afforded him at Oxford to explore new intellectual ideas and to challenge conventional principles.

In his first story for the Oxford Outlook, called "The Trial of Pan" (1923), Greene attempts to shock the traditional members of Balliol College by describing the seductive charms of a pagan who liberates God's followers from his stern, tyrannical rule. Greene here has at least two literary antecedents: Shelley, who, as an undergraduate at Oxford proclaiming the necessity of atheism, relished his Promethean role in attacking symbols and figures of authority, and Swinburne who, in his early poetry, asserted the superiority of the free and lustful pagan gods over the repressive and puritanical God of Christianity.

Greene's story opens on a light satirical note and establishes a tone characteristic of his later comical work in May We Borrow Your Husband? God, in the company of his angels and his worthies, is busily judging the souls of prostitutes, murderers, robbers, and swindlers. The story then moves to Gabriel's defense of Lady Hope-Smithies against the charges that she boxed the ears of an Anglican curate, lost money playing bridge, and gave money to a cousin. Michael, however, demolishes the defense, accusing the defendant of always reciting "Little Annie's Deathbed" at village concerts and of keeping six pet dogs. "God summed up against her, and the jury pronounced her guilty, without leaving the box."

Greene then modulates the tone of the story to one of heavy melodrama as Pan comes before God for judgment. Greene contrasts the youthful, sexual, and energetic character of Pan with the old, gloomy, and lifeless figure of God. Asked to defend himself before judgment is passed, Pan announces that he can best express himself through his music. His sensual melodies soon capture the minds and hearts of all the inhabitants of Heaven: "Never before in all Eternity had such a tune been heard in the realms of Heaven. There was not a sound in the room. The jury, the counsels, all leaned forward in a dream. And the light in their eyes changed with the changing music."

God, however, reveals himself to be out of touch with the dreams and desires of his people. He laughs at the momentary power of Pan's music and laughs at the idea of sensual pleasures set against the joys of Heaven: the cross, the sacred music, the purity, love, and peace. But as Pan's music continues to seduce the heavenly host back to a dark, primitive world of sexual pleasure and youthful freedom, God begins to feel old and weak: "He put his hand to his head. It was aching and he was feeling old. He felt that if the music went on much longer he would weep. There was something wrong with his nerves to-day." When the music finally ceases God realizes everyone has deserted him to follow Pan. The story ends with a description of an old, saddened, betrayed God sitting alone in the empty hall playing ticktacktoe with himself on his blotting pad.

The tale is essentially an allegory of Greene's rite of passage in which he overthrows the restrictive authority of his religious father in order to assert his sexual identity. The only segments of this heavy-handed story that point to Greene's later style are the brief satiric account of the judgment of Lady Hope-Smithies and the description of a decrepit God attempting to recall the dim past: "It was such a long, long time since he had made the world. After all, one couldn't remember everything, and it had turned out very nicely. But still he wished he could remember why he had done it all. It might be important." No other Oxford undergraduate could have written these sentences.

"The Improbable Tale of the Archbishop of Canterbridge," published in the Cherwell in 1924, adds a few interesting twists to Greene's atheism. The Archbishop of Canterbridge solemnly announces to a small gathering of his peers that England and the world are doomed:

Our cause in England, the cause of Peace and the cause of Christ, is defeated; England is doomed, she has doomed herself. A lunatic has led her dancing to dabble her feet in blood, and the notes of his mad pipings have begun to penetrate even to Europe. Gentlemen, in a month's time the world will be fighting like a pack of mad dogs. The madman with his talk of the joys of war has bewitched mankind. If it were not that this is the twentieth century I should call him Satan.

The Archbishop tells his associates he will go to the home of this incarnate devil and murder him while he is taking a bath. "I realize," he says, "that I am risking my own soul, by meeting blood with blood. But, as I have said, I do it for the good of the world."

Despite the allegorical nature of the story, the final scene is presented in graphically realistic terms that anticipate the style of Greene's later stories. After the Archbishop fires a shot he sees his victim cough up a stream of blood: "He lay still for a moment in the blood-stained water, with his head, white with soap, resting on the brass taps."

Greene then reverts to an allegorical conversation between the representative of the Church of England (Canterbridge for Canterbury) and evil incarnate. After expressing his fear that by taking justice into his own hands he might have damned his soul, the Archbishop receives a stunning revelation from his victim: "You will find no God. . . . I am God." The Archbishop asks him how he can be dying if he is God, and the story closes with the bleeding man's response: "'I made myself man,' murmured he who was once God, and sleep crept into his tones. 'A miracle . . . Very rash . . . I have done better in my day.' They were a child's eyes that twinkled up from between the H and C taps. 'Such miracles I've done. You wouldn't believe. Woods, and wars, and sheep paths, and—and you, my dear Canterbridge.' And in a bubble of bloodstained laughter God died."

Despite its melodrama, bizarre theology, and allegorical characters, this story marks a significant development in Greene's thinking about the nature of good and evil. He now portrays God and Satan as one and the same. Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the creator and the destroyer are paradoxically incarnate as one in the mortal body of man. The story self-consciously allegorizes Greene's own manic-depressive personality.

Long after he became a convert to Catholicism, he continued to develop this paradoxical theme through such characters as Trevor in "The Destructors," Pinkie Brown in Brighton Rock, and Raven in A Gun for Sale. All three characters possess a childlike innocence and yet they all are dangerously destructive. Greene's theology is largely conditioned by his sense of a ravished childhood, thereby leading him to portray evil in rich, palpable detail that blocks out any light from the City of God. Greene's most compelling image of paradise is not based on orthodox Christian theology but instead represents his own Eden of dreamy innocence. Expelled from the Garden of Berkhamsted, Greene seeks God in the past, in the myth of his lost childhood, and not in some future paradise. The world once was bright and good, he seems to argue, but now is brutal and evil. Therefore God is Satan, the creator and the destroyer, who made the sheep paths and woods to frame humanity's innocence and then trampled it with wars and murders.

Two final stories from Greene's Oxford years, "The New House," published in the Oxford Outlook in 1923, and "The Lord Knows," published in the Oxford Chronicle in 1925, show him moving into his stride as a more restrained writer, abandoning heavy-handed symbolism, allegory, and fantasy for a down-to-earth dramatization of the clash between dreams and reality.

"The New House" deals with a middle-aged architect named Handry, who has long harbored a dream of designing and building a house that would harmonize with a particular tract of land. Josephs, the wealthy owner of the land, grants the architect a commission to develop the tract and build the house, but Handry soon discovers his aesthetic dream house is not what his client desires—he wants a structure that will symbolize his wealth and power, a landmark that can be seen for miles.

The conflict between dream and reality, beauty and power, overwhelms Handry and he leaves his meeting with Josephs and "dashed into the road as if from an evil spell, and yet he knew that all this struggle was in vain. He was trapped, held fast by the ropes that bind all, his wife, his family, the world. Soon he would come slinking back, mouthing embarrassing apologies, to perpetrate the betrayal."

In the denouement, years after the building is completed, two passersby comment on the monstrosity: "This used to be one of the most beautiful views in the country. That fellow Joseph's [sic] philanthropy goes too far. His architect was a fellow in the village here, with no more views on art than the average rustic. And the abomination is a waste, for Josephs never lives in it, never comes near it."

Handry, now an old man "with pathetic, puzzled eyes," who happens to be standing near the two passersby, reveals his corruption as he echoes the values and language of his former employer: "It is so imposing, and such a landmark. It can be seen for miles. . . . Once I disliked it, but I had queer ideas in those days. . . . Do you read Longfellow? You should. He has very inspiring ideas."

As Roland Wobbe points out, "In this story Greene brings the power of his 'devils' down to earth, as the power of wealth is equated with the economic pressure of the whole society." Throughout his life Greene retained the romantic notion that capitalism is the Satanic enemy of integrity, creativity, and art. Greene resurrects the prototype of Josephs for the character of Eric Krogh, an industrialist with dwarfed aesthetic tastes, in England Made Me (1935) and for the Satanic capitalist Doctor Fischer in Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party (1980).

"The Lord Knows," published in the Oxford Chronicle in 1925, is another tale of disillusionment. A young man who is about to get married enters a local pub to celebrate his future happiness. He is soon set upon by the local cynic and a drunk, both of whom poke fun at his sexual innocence and suggest his fiancée may not be a virgin. To make his point, the drunk lures a spider to his finger, which he has dipped into his whisky. The young man's celebration is ruined. The romance of marriage has been undermined by brutal jokes and disturbing sexual questions.

The touch of genius in this tale lies in Greene's depiction of the drunk's seduction of the spider. As the young man is discussing his forthcoming marriage with the bartender and the cynic, the drunk in the background continues to attend to the spider until he possesses it: "Off its thin scaffolding in the roof stepped delicately a spider. It swayed slowly down through space, undisturbed by the two high voices. It was very deliberate." At that moment the young man cries out in a childish voice for the men to stop spoiling things, walks out of the pub, and exclaims, "Anyway, I've won her." The drunk, however, now holds the large spider in his hand and says, "She's come, I knew she'd come; I've won her."

In reading "The Lord Knows," one is again reminded of Carter's battering of Greene's dreams of chivalric romance. While at Berkhamsted Greene used to go off by himself to read the romantic poetry of Lewis Norris, whose Epic of Hades celebrates the loves of Helen and Cleopatra. Norman Sherry speculates that Greene may have confided his secret erotic dreams to Wheeler in the first flush of their friendship and that later Wheeler betrayed Greene by reporting the details to Carter, who cynically used them to ridicule and humiliate Greene.

As beneficial as it may have been for Greene to work out his terrors and frustrations through the psychodrama of his early fiction, most of the stories, because of their crude symbolism and abstractions, fail to connect with the experience of his readers. But Greene was learning that his personal devils might be recognized by others if they were presented in the guise of crass capitalists, cynics, and foolish drunks rather than as allegorical figures. In the future he would embody these devils in such forms as cruel policemen, greedy smugglers, untrustworthy mestizos, pious priests, and foreign dictators. As Greene matured and began traveling about the world, he discovered his personal demons had taken up residence everywhere, from Haiti to Indochina.

Ultimately, however, Greene's early stories serve only as a temporary defense against his demons, sort of like whistling in the dark. Greene's sense of alienation, his fears, and his obsession with his lost childhood continue to comprise the central themes of his fiction for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, the compulsive act of writing served him well in his lifelong battle with what he calls "the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition." Throughout most of his life he dutifully wrote a minimum of 500 words a day. His manuscripts are filled with notations of word counts: the compulsive act of writing provided him with a sense of psychological equilibrium, but he always had to be on guard for the next onslaught of the demons of his youth and to defend against them with another story, another novel, another trip to a dangerous country to distract him from his plight. He developed an addiction to writing: it became his drug of choice in escaping from the sense of reality he acquired under the sinister influence of Lionel Carter, an unremarkable boy except for his role in unwittingly helping to shape the mind and soul of a distinguished writer.

The Last Word (1990) represents Greene's "last word" as a writer of short fiction, and as such conveys a synoptic view of the stages of his life as a writer. Many of the stories, in fact, resemble sketches of atmosphere or character preliminary to the novels or memoirs he was writing at the time.

The first story, "The New House" (1923), written during his undergraduate days at Oxford University, is one of his first stories to discard the heavy-handed trappings of allegory and melodrama for a realistic portrayal of an idealist being corrupted by money. . . . "Murder for the Wrong Reason" (1929) reflects Greene's interest in the dual personality, a subject he explores in greater detail in his retracted novel The Man Within, published the same year. "The Lottery Ticket" (1938) shows Greene's engagement with the politics and violence of Mexico and anticipates his more comprehensive vision of that land in The Power and the Glory. "The News in English" (1940) and "The Lieutenant Died Last" (1940) reflect Greene's patriotism and interest in espionage during the war. "Work Not in Progress" (1955) and "The Man Who Stole the Eiffel Tower" (1956) display his whimsical mode during the time he was writing his comic masterpiece, Our Man in Havana. "An Appointment with the General" (1982) is a section of a novel abandoned in favor of a book-length memoir, Getting to Know the General (1984). Reminiscent of the melancholy comedy of the stories in May We Borrow Your Husband?, "The Moment of Truth" (1988) reflects the 83-year-old Greene's thoughts about death. "The Last Word" (1988) is also about death, but the melancholy and loneliness of the preceding story is here replaced with a strong Christian faith that welcomes death as a release from a futuristic godless world. In "An Old Man's Memory" (1989) Greene all but abandons the pretense of fiction to assume again the role of a Jeremiah, predicting on a smaller scale this time, not the end of Christianity, but the destruction of the Channel Tunnel. Finally, in "A Branch of the Service" (1990), a story published for the first time, Greene reverts to the comic style of Our Man in Havana in depicting the absurdities involved in undercover operations.

"Murder for the Wrong Reason" appeared in three installments in the Graphic in October 1929. Although Greene disparages and wishes he had suppressed his first published (though third-written) novel, The Man Within (1929), he has seen fit, after 60 years, to reprint the short story he wrote at the same time, a story that embodies the theme of the divided self he also explores in his novel. The editor of the Graphic prefaces the story with the following comment: "The young author of this story of murder with an unusual twist in its detection won an instantaneous success this year with his first novel, The Man Within, and a brilliant future is predicted for him."

Unlike the rather straightforward stories he wrote during his years at Oxford, "Murder for the Wrong Reason" is overwritten, complex, and dependent upon a surprise ending. It is a story that requires at least two readings before one can feel confident about understanding it. The manner in which the story was originally presented in the Graphic, with synopses of each preceding installment and with illustrations of the various characters, significantly shaped the readers' expectations and understanding of the action. Both the synopses and the illustrations create, as will be discussed shortly, plentiful red herrings that lead one to misread the story and to have to backtrack.

Here is the synopsis that appears at the beginning of the third installment:

Detective Inspector Mason, entering the offices of Hubert Collinson with a search warrant, finds the body of its owner huddled in the swivel chair, with a knife in the heart. Mason telephones to Scotland Yard, and also summons a constable from a neighbouring beat. He tells the constable that Collinson had been a blackmailer. Together they search for clues while awaiting the arrival of an able detective from the Yard. The constable finds a letter to the dead man signed "Arthur Callum." Mason says he knows Callum, who actually lives quite near. The constable, with visions of rapid promotion, asks his superior if they cannot pay a quick visit to Callum's flat before the arrival of the fast car from Scotland Yard. The Inspector re-reads the letter, and confronts Callum in the latter's flat. After fruitlessly interrogating him Mason leaves the flat, and on the stairs meets Rachel Mann, an ambitious actress who had become Collinson's mistress, though Callum had loved her and asked her to marry him. He tells her that the tragedy was her doing and goes into a reverie of the past. Returning to the scene of the crime he tells the constable that Callum is not the man they want, but promises him a spectacular triumph, saying that the air is full of clues. . . .

Among the five illustrations that accompany the story is a depiction of Mason's confrontation of Callum that shows the two men to be distinctly different. There is also an illustration of Mason's meeting with Rachel Mann outside Callum's flat. At the end of the story, however, the reader discovers that Rachel Mann has been dead for 10 years and that Mason's meeting with Callum and Mann occurs only in his mind and that Callum is, in fact, Mason's youthful alter-ego and not an actual character in the story. Both the synopsis and the illustrations, therefore, are red herrings designed to trick the reader, leaving him feeling cheated at the conclusion of the story.

In the final installment Greene reveals that Mason is himself the murderer. Mason melodramatically offers himself up for arrest by the constable, assuring the latter of his promotion. In retrospect, one realizes that Mason not only committed the murder but that he also set up the constable to "discover" the clues. Like Arthur Conan Doyle, Greene has Mason create the mystery and then urge the constable to solve it.

Mason/Callum could have killed Collinson years before "for the right reason"—jealousy over a woman. As it stands, he killed Collinson for "the wrong reason." As he says to the constable, "You don't see a jealous lover here, constable, only an elderly, corrupt police officer who has killed his blackmailer." Greene never makes clear why Collinson was blackmailing Mason nor how Rachel Mann died. At the beginning of the story Mason declares that "'Collinson deserved all that he got. Blackmail,' he added, 'and women.'" Clearly Mason's dealings with Collinson have involved these two separate issues, and the blackmail may have been about women, or a woman, or the death of a woman.

One of the ways in which Greene deals with the theme of the split personality is through the symbolism of a painting depicting the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead that hangs on the wall of Mason's/Callum's flat. The painting also appears in one of the illustrations. Mentioned several times throughout the story, the painting suggests the resurrection of Mason's dead, youthful self. Mason frequently speaks of his "private inquiries," which suggests not only his investigation into the crime but, more significantly, his introspective dialogues, his encounters with the man within. It may be that this interesting psychological subtext combined with an experimental detective story explains Greene's decision to include the story in this collection. Reading the story more than 60 years after he wrote it, Greene comments: "I found that I couldn't detect the murderer before he was disclosed. During those early years in the twenties and thirties I was much interested in the detective story (I even began Brighton Rock expecting it to be a detective story)."

During the winter of 1938 Greene spent five weeks in Mexico to undertake research for a book about the Mexican Revolution. Mexico was a dangerous country to visit at the time, for President Plutarco Elias Calles, in the name of his socialist revolution, was closing down the churches and exiling or murdering priests and practicing Catholics. Greene's brief visits, nevertheless, yielded three significant works: "The Lottery Ticket" (1938), a short story, The Lawless Roads (1939), an account of his travels through Chiapas and Tabasco, and The Power and the Glory (1940), one of his finest novels.

"The Lottery Ticket," though written in 1938, was not published until 1947, when it appeared in the Strand Magazine and Cosmopolitan. It was also included in Greene's collection, Nineteen Stories, which was published in England that same year. Curiously, Greene omitted the story from the American version of Nineteen Stories (1949) and from subsequent collections of his short fiction until the publication of The Last Word in 1990. Greene explains that he excluded the story from his earlier collection because "I thought then that there were too many echoes in it of The Lawless Roads and The Power and the Glory. Well, those two books today belong to an even more distant past, so I decided to give 'The Lottery Ticket' a second chance."

Many of the details of setting and character in "The Lottery Ticket" are, indeed, reflected in The Power and the Glory: the seedy, derelict atmosphere of the Mexican towns, the omnipresent vultures waiting for another death, the roaches on the hotel walls, the banana plantations, the dentist, the fat chief of police preaching social progress, and the themes of fatalism and betrayal. Despite the evocative character of Mexico Greene develops in this story, it cannot compete with the fully realized character of the land he conjures in his novel.

Greene does not handle point of view in "The Lottery Ticket" with his usual skill. The story is basically told by an omniscient author. Nevertheless, Greene opens his tale with a first-person narrator who soon gives way to the omniscient author. After introducing Mr. Thriplow, an Englishman on holiday in Mexico who has just purchased a lottery ticket, the narrator comments, "I don't often believe in fate, but when I do I picture it as just such a malicious and humorous personality as would choose, out of all people in the world, Mr. Thriplow to fulfill its absurd and august purposes." There is no indication who this narrator is, and after the opening paragraph he simply recounts Mr. Thriplow's adventures.

Shortly after his arrival in a dirty and depressing village, Mr. Thriplow learns he has purchased a winning lottery ticket worth 50,000 pesos. Enjoying comfortable circumstances in England, he does not really need the money and feels ashamed at having won the lottery in the midst of so much Mexican poverty. To overcome the guilt of being a foreign exploiter and gringo, he goes to a bank and offers the money to the manager so that some good might be done with it locally. Perhaps the money could be used to establish a free library or a hospital. As he becomes involved with the Governor and the Chief of Police, however, Mr. Thriplow discovers his money will be used to "defeat reaction."

The Mexican state's view of social progress turns out to be quite different from that of Mr. Thriplow, whose British liberalism and naïveté lead to ironic consequences. It appears the money he turns over to the government is used to pay the wages of the police and the military. When Thriplow sees the government soldiers moving down the street to arrest another of the Mexican patriots, a defender of the church, he rushes to the rebel's house to warn him. The man's daughter answers the door and the dialogue that follows carries Greene's attack upon foolish British liberalism:

"It was you who gave the money, wasn't it?"

"It was, but you understand . . . no personal feeling. I am a Liberal. I cannot help sympathising with . . . progress."

"Oh, yes."

"I detest Fascism. I cannot understand how a patriot—I am sure your father is a patriot—could take arms from Germany, Italy . . . "

"What a lot you believe," she said with faint derision.

She then reveals to him that the soldiers have already carried off her father, presumably for execution.

This simple woman, a former nun, exhibits a political savvy and human understanding that overwhelms Thriplow in his moment of bitter disillusionment. Determined to make the affair easy for him, she asks for some money to help bury her father, saying, "You have done your best for us. You could go home quite happy. . . . I can see you are a kind man. Only ignorant . . . of life, I mean." With his innocence devastated, Thriplow's feelings turned to hate "for all who had so unexpectedly broken into his life, hate of the new ideas, new words. Hate increased its boundaries in his heart like an annexing army . . . and hate spread across Mr. Thriplow's Liberal consciousness, ignoring boundaries. . . . It seemed to Mr. Thriplow . . . that it was the whole condition of human life that he had begun to hate."

Like The Power and the Glory, this story has its clear-cut villains—the Chief of Police, the Governor, and the military—and its heroes—the executed patriot and his daughter. What complicates this story is the focus upon Mr. Thriplow. His presence diffuses the tension that should arise from the opposition between the government and the rebels, the hunters and the hunted, and shifts the reader's attention to his disillusionment. The damaged feelings of a British liberal on holiday in Mexico thus becomes more significant than the political and human fate of a nation and the Catholic church. Perhaps here is another reason why the story disappeared from the American edition of Nineteen Stories and failed to appear in subsequent collections until 1990.

Greene published two short stories during the war, "The Lieutenant Died Last" and "The News in English," both of which show the British to be courageous opponents of the Germans. These tales might be read as simple morale boosters, as Greene's literary contribution to the war effort. He explains that he excluded them from Collected Stories not because he found them unworthy but because "Time (and with it Memory) passes with horrifying speed. How many people below the age of sixty would remember Lord Haw-Haw, whom I listened to nightly in 1940 on the radio, and understand the title and subject of 'The News in English'? In that war, they might well ask, was it plausible for a squad of foreign soldiers to descend by parachute on an English village? None had occurred in the German war and we had been engaged in at least three conflicts since then. The questions are even more relevant today than in 1967, but I am taking the risk of reprinting them because I like the stories." For those under 60, Lord Haw-Haw was an Anglo-American named William Joyce who broadcast German propaganda in English from Berlin during the Second World War. He was captured by British soldiers in Germany in 1945, convicted of treason, and hanged.

"The Lieutenant Died Last," published in Collier's in 1940, is a whimsical tale about German parachute troops attacking an English village. While out poaching rabbits on Lord Drew's grounds in the small village of Potter, Bill Purves sees a small group of Germans parachute onto the field. While some of the soldiers round up the villagers and imprison them in the local tavern, Bill Purves engages the others in a gun battle and kills or wounds them. He then returns to the tavern, where the soldiers stationed there, seeing that Purves is armed, surrender to him. The narrator's conclusion to this tale displays a British pride and patriotism with a comic touch and a laconic hero. Despite his heroism, Purves is charged with poaching: "He was quite gratified: he didn't expect medals and as he said, 'I've got one back on them bloody Bojers.'"

An action-filled and humorous story, "The Lieutenant Died Last" also contains a brief note of seriousness. The wounded German lieutenant calls out to Purves to kill him. The narrator comments that "Old Purves always felt pity for broken animals, but he hadn't a bullet left." He then picks up the officer's revolver and kills him. Afterward he looks through the dead man's pockets and discovers a photograph of a naked baby on a hearthrug. His sense of humanity, suppressed during his battle with the Germans, overcomes him and he becomes sick to his stomach. Purves keeps this souvenir of his encounter with the Germans but never shows it to anyone. "Sometimes he took it out of a drawer and looked at it himself—uneasily. It made him—for no reason that he could understand—feel bad." The theme of pity, which became an obsessive one for Greene in his later works, surfaces even here, in this comic salute to British patriotism, and demonstrates that in Greene's mind pity transcends national boundaries.

"The News in English," published in the Strand Magazine in 1940, is one of Greene's earliest tales of espionage. Unlike his later spy novels, such as Our Man in Havana (1958), which satirizes the British Secret Service, and The Human Factor (1978), which makes a hero of a British traitor, "The News in English" celebrates the heroic patriotism of a British double agent.

Set during the Second World War, the story opens with Mrs. Bishop and her daughter-in-law, Mary, listening to a radio broadcast from Germany. The voice they hear on the radio is that of a typical English don who is proclaiming the resurgence of youth throughout the new Germany. Mrs. Bishop recognizes the voice as that of David, her son and Mary's husband. A mathematics don at Oxford, David was reported in the newspapers to have gone to Germany to evade military service, leaving his wife and mother to be bombed in England. At the time, Mary fought in vain with reporters, arguing that David must have been forced to leave England. Mrs. Bishop, however, condemns her son for his cowardice and betrayal while Mary persists in her attempt to make sense of his bizarre actions.

One evening during his broadcast David announces that somewhere back in England his wife may be listening to him: "I am a stranger to the rest of you, but she knows that I am not in the habit of lying. . . . The fact of the matter is. . . ." At that moment Mary suddenly realizes that her husband is speaking to her in code. When he was away from her on trips he employed a scheme whereby the phrase "the fact of the matter is" always meant "this is all lies, but take the initial letters which follow." Mary discovers that David is sending her details of Germany's military secrets.

Reporting this information to the War Office, Mary is told to keep David's subterfuge secret, even from his mother, otherwise his and many other lives will be lost. The War Office agrees to broadcast a message using the same code to Germany in the hope that David will hear it. The message explains how he can obtain a safe passage home.

Meanwhile, Mary must silently endure her mother-in-law's contempt for David. On his final broadcast, after reporting some military secrets, he says goodbye to his wife, indicating to her that he never received the War Office's message and that he is now lost to her forever. Mrs. Bishop exacerbates Mary's pain by commenting, "He ought never to have been born. I never wanted him. The coward," driving Mary to cry out, "if only he were a coward, if only he were. But he's a hero, a damned hero, a hero, a hero. . . ." Mary is left with an agonizing truth that she cannot reveal and looks to a future time when she can restore her husband's good reputation.

The painful note on which this story ends anticipates the conclusion of The Human Factor, where Castle, the British defector living in Russia, telephones his wife in England, knowing he will never be able to see her again. Castle's motivations for spying are complex and involve his loyalty to the Communists for helping to get his wife, a South African, out of her country. One of the problems with "The News in English" is that Greene fails to establish any motivation for David's presence in Germany. Since the War Office had no knowledge of his coded messages until Mary reported to them, David could not have been an official double agent. One can only assume that the newspaper reporters were right, that he left England to avoid military service. Once there, however, his conscience presumably led him to join the war effort by spying on the German military and hoping that his wife remembered their childish code. The story, unfortunately, does not make this very clear.

Lying behind the patriotism of this tale is Greene's obsession with the subject of divided loyalties, a subject dramatically fixed in his mind while at Berkhamsted School, where he had to deal with conflicting loyalties to his father, the school, and his peers. Greene later found a way of escaping the conflict and puts his solution forward through the character of Javitt, in "Under the Garden": "If you have to earn a living, boy, and the price they make you pay is loyalty, be a double-agent—and never let either of the two sides know your real name." David is Greene's first attempt to create such a character, but it would be many more years before Greene could flesh him out with complex and believable motivation.

The comic phase of Greene's career is represented in The Last Word by two stories that appeared in Punch, "Work Not in Progress" (1955) and "The Man Who Stole the Eiffel Tower" (1956). It was about this time that Greene was writing Our Man in Havana, a novel that captures a comic view of life that Greene, in his depressive mood, denied his previous heroes. His cocky state of well-being at the time is brilliantly embodied in the character of that novel's hero, James Wormold, a fellow with the unique sanity of the clown. Unfortunately, Greene's two pieces in Punch seem hollow when compared to that novel.

Conceived as a sketch for a musical comedy, "Work Not in Progress" offers this bizarre plot: a group of 12 Anglican bishops are kidnapped by 12 thugs who hope to steal their chasubles belonging to the Church of England. The thugs are so poorly educated they have mistaken the word "chasuble" for "chalice." After a successful kidnapping, the thugs put on the bishops' clothes. The ringleader and brains of the gang is a woman (the only woman in the cast), and she assumes the role of Archbishop of Canterbury. Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Melbourne, who has come to observe the convocation of bishops, attempts to track down the kidnappers. He locates them in Canterbury where, in the rose garden, he falls in love with the false Archbishop of Canterbury. Later the rest of the gang realize they have been betrayed by their leader and attack her. She is defended by the Bishop of Melbourne until the arrival of the true bishops in their underclothes scares away the impostors. The musical ends with the lovers singing a melodious duet and then heading off to live together in Australia.

Hardly up to the standards of W. S. Gilbert, this fantasy sketch of a musical comedy may have titillated some readers of Punch at the time but the piece does not hold up very well. It seems more suited now to undergraduate tastes that have come to savor the Monty Python brand of comedy. The slapstick humor of presenting 12 bishops running across the stage in their underwear and of having a female thug dress up like the Archbishop of Canterbury shows Greene shamelessly indulging in the pleasures of low comedy.

"The Man Who Stole the Eiffel Tower" opens with a riveting sentence and then lapses into disappointing frivolity: "It was not so much the theft of the Eiffel Tower which caused me difficulty; it was putting it back before anyone noticed." The narrator describes how he hired a fleet of trucks to carry the Eiffel Tower out of Paris to a quiet, flat field on the way to Chantilly. Having great affection for the structure, he is pleased to see it "after all those years of war and fog and rain and radar, in repose." Greene's anti-Americanism then surfaces as he has the narrator return to the empty site to enjoy the confusion of stupid American tourists. Finally, the narrator returns the Eiffel Tower before the employees who work there lose their wages.

The comic stories are the weakest in the collection. They are not especially funny, their humor is undergraduate and patronizing, they feature no notable characters, and their whimsy and fantasy are contrived. Perhaps Greene had poured all of his comic genius into writing the novel Our Man in Havana (1958). In any event, one suspects he included the comic pieces in The Last Word to reflect what he calls his manic mood, the dynamic state of mind that gave birth to such brilliant comic characters as James Wormold (Our Man in Havana) and Aunt Augusta (Travels with My Aunt).

"An Appointment with the General" was originally published in 1982 under the title "On the Way Back: A Work Not in Progress" in Firebird 7, as part of a collection of fiction by contemporary authors. Greene's subtitle refers to the fact that this story is actually a chapter of an abortive novel that was to have been called On the Way Back. He conceived the idea of writing the novel in 1976, when he was invited to visit Panama as the guest of General Omar Torrijos Herrera. The invitation led to a curious friendship between the two men that lasted until the general's mysterious death in a plane crash in 1981. Greene eventually abandoned his novel On the Way Back in favor of writing a memoir of his friendship with Torrijos entitled Getting to Know the General (1984).

While being shown around Panama by the general's companion, a man named Chuchu, Greene picked up the title for his novel: "I heard Chuchu tell Captain Wong that we should see him again 'on the way back'—Captain Wong, the miraculous Christ, the Haunted House, all were promised on the way back and my projected novel with that title again emerged from the shadows. In my book the promised return would never be fulfilled—there would be no going back for my chief character." Later Greene entered a note in his diary for the new novel: "Start novel with a girl from a French left-wing weekly interviewing the General. She's escaping the pain of an unsatisfactory marriage in Paris and wants to avoid further pain. In the end she goes back to her pain and not to happiness."

Greene's note provides the outline for the surviving chapter "An Appointment with the General," but in Getting to Know the General he tells Chuchu the plot of the rest of the novel. He believes that in telling the story to his companion he had no further need to write it: "it is a substitute for the writing." Greene's idea was to have the general assign Chuchu to show the French journalist around Panama. She and Chuchu fall in love but he is later killed by a bomb someone planted in his car. The general has the journalist flown back to Panama City by helicopter and she must see from the air all the places Chuchu promised they would enjoy on the way back.

"An Appointment with the General" opens with the French journalist, Marie-Claire Duval, awaiting her interview with Torrijos. She feels dislocated, not knowing the language and feeling threatened by the men, dressed in camouflaged uniforms and carrying revolvers, who stand around her. One of the men, Sergeant Guardián (drawn after Chuchu), announces in perfect English that the general will see her but she cannot bring her tape recorder into the interview. She thinks, "I'll have to trust to my memory, my damnable memory, the memory I hate."

The story then flashes back in time a month to the lunch she has with the editor of a left-wing French newspaper. Eager to discredit Torrijos, the editor praises Marie-Claire for her destructive interview with Helmut Schmidt and assigns her to interview the general. During the course of their conversation Greene makes it clear that the journalist will be no match for the general. She only knows French and English, knows little of geography, is dependent upon her tape recorder, and is psychologically flawed by a failing marriage. She accepts the assignment, in fact, to escape the memory of her loveless marriage.

The last section of the story focuses upon the interview, during which Guardián serves as the translator. Greene portrays the general as a wise, almost mystical figure, whose eyes are "laden with the future." In his quiet way, he undermines the destructive agenda of Marie-Claire. Her attempts to label him a Marxist or socialist are met with clever parables: "My General says the Communists are for a while traveling on the same train as he is. So are the socialists. But it is he who is driving the train. It is he who will decide at what station to stop, and not his passengers." Out of her own failed sexuality she desperately conjures up questions that would link the general's political power with sexual promiscuity: "What does he dream of? At night I mean. Does he dream of women. . . . Or does he dream of the terms he is going to make with the gringos?" "The tired and wounded eyes looked at the wall behind her," Greene writes. "She could even understand the single phrase he spoke in reply to her question. 'El Muerte.' 'He dreams of death,' the sergeant translated unnecessarily, and I could build an article on that, she thought with self-hatred."

This story reflects Greene's own failed marriage and his hero-worshipping friendship with Torrijos. Like Marie-Claire, Greene enjoyed an exciting escape from domestic concerns upon receiving an invitation to meet with the general. It must have been an exhilarating experience for him to be taken into this leader's confidence, to be shown secret military plans, and be taken into the inner sanctum of political revolution. The character of Marie-Claire, however, not only embodies some of Greene's initial trepidations at meeting the general but serves to typify what Greene assumes are the Left's mistaken preconceived notions about Torrijos. Her vulnerability and weakness in the face of a third world savior mark her as one who, had the novel been completed, would have discovered the powerful inner resources of Greene's political hero. Ending as it does, however, the story merely sets up a straw-woman whose own decaying marriage leads her to self-hatred.

In "The Moment of Truth," originally published in the Independent Magazine on 18, June 1988, the 83-year-old Greene turns his thoughts to the subject of death. He opens his story with a characteristically surprising simile: "The near approach of death is like a crime which one is ashamed to confess to friends or fellow workers, and yet there remains a longing to confide in someone—perhaps a stranger in the street." The hero of this story is Arthur Burton, a waiter in a London restaurant, who develops a fondness for an American couple, the Hogminsters, who, in appreciation of his solicitude, habitually sit at one of his tables.

A lonely man, Arthur lives in a small bed-sitting-room, and in the evenings enjoys a vicarious life by thinking of his various customers: dull married couples, young lovers interested only in each other, and, sometimes, married young women accompanied by older men. Arthur's sense of isolation is painfully exacerbated by his doctor's recent suspicion that he may have cancer: "the crime of death had touched him." Like a criminal, he becomes desperate to confide his illness in someone. Touched by the use of his first name and the smile of real friendship that he received from Mrs. Hogminster, he decides to make her his confidante before he returns to his doctor for the final results of his medical tests.

The next day he discloses only a small portion of his secret to her when he announces he will not be at the restaurant tomorrow because he has to go to the hospital for a checkup. The Hogminsters offer him some platitudes of reassurance and tell him they will return for another meal before they leave for America. On his day off, they add, they plan to take his earlier advice and shop at some men's stores in Jermyn Street. That night he has a dream about Mrs. Hogminster: "It was as though he had spoken to her and somehow she had given him words of sympathy which lent him courage to face his enemies, who were about to disclose the shameful truth."

The doctors inform Arthur that he does, indeed, have cancer and must be operated upon immediately. Although he is not frightened at the prospect of death, he wants "to share his knowledge and his secret with a stranger who would not be seriously affected like a wife or a child—he possessed neither—but might with a word of kindly interest share with him this criminal secret." Convinced Mrs. Hogminster is just such a woman ("he had read it in her eyes"), Arthur arranges to return to work in the hope of talking to her.

To his dismay, he discovers the manager has seated the Hogminsters at another table. When he goes over to speak with them he is disappointed at their failure to inquire about his health. All they talk about are the details of their shopping spree in Jermyn Street. Arthur excuses himself and goes into the kitchen in a state of depression: "He was going to say nothing to the manager: the next day he would simply not turn up. The hospital could inform them in due course if he were dead or alive."

Some moments later, however, the manager enters the kitchen and hands Arthur a letter from Mrs. Hogminster. Feeling immense relief, he reasons she could not discuss his secret in the restaurant for others to hear and therefore discreetly placed her inquiry and sympathy within this letter. He returns to the hospital for his operation and that night, before putting out the light over his bed, he opens and reads the letter. Mrs. Hogminster wrote: "Dear Arthur, I felt I must write you a word of thanks before we catch our plane. We have so enjoyed our visits to Chez Augustine and shall certainly return one day. And the Sales, we got such wonderful bargains—you were so right about Jermyn Street."

The droll humor of this story is reminiscent of Greene's tales in May We Borrow Your Husband?. And, as in the latter volume, the comic pathos is worked out within the confines of a restaurant, an establishment that Greene employs as a workshop for his imagination. The technique of a doctor giving a death sentence to his patient was employed much earlier in "Under the Garden" where, stirred by his diagnosis, Wilditch seeks wholeness by returning to his childhood. Now the older Greene depicts his hero's impending death as a crime, something too shameful to be told to one's family or friends, as if death were a conscious betrayal of one's communal bond, a betrayal that would inflict pain and elicit hopeless sympathy. The irony of Mrs. Hogminster's letter, however, amplifies the folly of Arthur's attempt to secure sympathy and encouragement from outside the circle of his family or friends. Greene makes it clear in his story that Arthur was in the habit of observing his customers superficially. Like the hack writer in "The Invisible Japanese Gentlemen," Arthur fails to see what is really going on around him. Unlike the self-deluded writer, however, Arthur's failure to read the truth in Mrs. Hogminster's eyes leads to his utter disillusionment and desolation at the end of the story. The panic fear inherent in the human condition, from which Greene finds release through his writing, blossoms like a cancer in the moment of truth and disillusionment effected not by the doctor's diagnosis but by Mrs. Hogminster's letter.

"The Last Word," published in the Independent Magazine on 10 September, 1988, moves the subject of death beyond the dreary, localized confines of the preceding story to a futuristic brave new world where great spiritual heroism offers the hope of life after death. The last surviving Christian, an old man who turns out to be the last pope, has been living in a state of amnesia for the past 20 years, ever since he was shot during an assassination attempt. He is brought out of his humble apartment to meet the general of the new godless world union. He gradually recalls fragments from the past that reveal to him that he is indeed the pope, and he discovers that the general now plans to execute him.

As in The Power and the Glory, The Comedians, and Monsignor Quixote, Greene reverts to one of his favorite themes: the dramatic struggle between secular and spiritual power. Vaguely recalling Huxley's and Orwell's secular utopias, Greene's futuristic world boasts of peace through the elimination of poverty, nationalism, and Christianity. The general preserved the old man until he was sure that all of his followers were dead. On this occasion of their historical meeting, the general has the old man dressed in his formal papal robes, the clothes having been borrowed from the Museum of Myths. Over the years the old man has kept his Bible and a crucifix with one of Christ's arms broken off.

When the general tells the old man he feels sorry for his having lived so long in such dreary conditions, the man replies "They were not so dreary as you think. I had a friend with me. I could talk to him." The general, failing to understand the reference is to the broken Christ on his cross, protests that his men assured him the old man was living alone all those years. Upon learning that he will now be executed, the old man expresses his relief: "You will be sending me where I've often wanted to go during the last twenty years." "Into darkness?" asks the general.

"Oh, the darkness I have known was not death," says the old man. "You are sending me into the light. I am grateful to you."

As a symbol of final friendship between two born to be enemies, the general pours out two glasses of wine, a moment that suggests the Last Supper of Christ. The old man raises his glass as though in salute and says in a low voice some words in a language that the general cannot understand: "Corpus domini nostri. . . ." These are the words of the priest during the Communion service of the Mass. As the old man drinks his wine the general shoots and kills him. In this reenactment of the Last Supper, the old man presumably reverts to his former priestly duties and consecrates the wine as the blood of Christ. By shooting the old man (the pope, Christ's representative on earth), the general reenacts the combined roles of Judas and Pontius Pilate.

Greene adds a final paragraph to his story, however, that undermines the secular convictions of the general: "Between the pressure on the trigger and the bullet exploding a strange and frightening doubt crossed his mind: is it possible that what this man believed may be true?" This suggestion of a lingering doubt in the general's vision of a godless world seems totally unprepared for by the rest of the story. Greene seems to be reaching back a few years to Monsignor Quixote for his conclusion here. In that novel the representative of the Marxist state, the mayor, attends a final Mass said in pantomime by the dying Monsignor Quixote. Having no chalice or Host, Monsignor Quixote nevertheless places an imaginary wafer upon the mayor's tongue. The mayor, feeling the pressure, wonders later if he might not in fact have received Communion. Greene deftly leaves the Marxist mayor with a troubling ambiguity that suggests his capability for belief in God. The amicable relationship between the mayor and Quixote, however, is established throughout the novel, making its conclusion credible. The relationship between the general and the pope in "The Last Word," on the other hand, is abstract and undeveloped, and the conclusion seems forced.

Greene would have done better to have followed the more rigid pattern of The Power and the Glory. Like the general of "The Last Word," the lieutenant in The Power and the Glory has spent his life eradicating Christianity from his country. Also like the general, he is dedicated to eliminating the poverty and suffering of his people. What makes him so effective in his work is his total, unflagging belief in the Tightness of his socialist program. Having brought about the capture and execution of the whisky priest, the lieutenant may miss his quarry but he entertains no misgivings about his faith in the secular state. Greene's general thus comes across as someone with an even grander accomplishment than that of the lieutenant—a worldwide socialist state—and on whose character Greene grafts the susceptibility of the genial Communist mayor from Monsignor Quixote. The hybrid character is not convincing.

"An Old Man's Memory" originally appeared in the Independent Magazine on 25 November, 1989. Although designated "a new short story by Graham Greene," the piece, less than a thousand words long, reads more like a dire warning to the English government about the potential for sabotage of the Channel Tunnel between Dover and Calais, scheduled for completion in 1994. The narrator of Greene's story, writing in the year 1995, announces that the year 1994 will never cease to horrify him: "The event of that year has a quality of nightmare about it—deaths in the darkness, in the depths of the sea, deaths by mutilation and drowning. The rotting bodies of the unrecognizable lie even today on both sides of the Channel."

The narrator (clearly no prophet) recalls Margaret Thatcher, having won her fourth electoral contest, greeting the French train as it comes up from the sea and halts at Dover to join the celebration. On the other side of the Channel the president of France awaits the British train, but it never arrives. Bombs have exploded under the Channel and the British train is destroyed along with the lives of all the people aboard it. Two years have passed since the disaster and the terrorists have not been identified or captured.

Greene borrows several details from recent terrorist activities to build his case for the dangers involved in the tunnel. Semtex appears to have been the explosive used in the tunnel and the narrator reminds us that in the late 1980s only 300 grams of Semtex were needed to blow up the Pan American plane over Lockerbie, Scotland. Now, he argues, explosives can be timed days, not hours, in advance.

The prime suspect, of course, is the IRA, but he also points to the Iranians, who had never forgiven England for its support of Salman Rushdie nor the Americans for having shot down their innocent airliner. There were, he observes, more Americans on board the train than there were English.

After noting the British and French governments' plan to reopen the tunnel by 1997, he concludes his account by predicting the public's reluctance to reenter the tunnel. Quite clearly Greene is here putting his fiction into the service of propaganda. Over the years Greene wrote hundreds of letters to newspapers and magazines in which he protested or criticized the actions of many governments and institutions. "An Old Man's Memory" is simply a more interesting form in which to cast his argument than the conventional letter to the editor. Several people in England had already pointed out the possibility that the IRA could blow up the tunnel. Greene's idea is not new, but the weight of his reputation as a novelist and his futuristic point of view perhaps give the story more political clout than a nameless activist could achieve in a television interview. But he does weaken the credibility of his narrator by having Margaret Thatcher still prime minister in 1995. The view of Westminster from Antibes had apparently grown somewhat hazy.

Published for the first time, "A Branch of the Service" is a comic account of an employee of a restaurant-rating association who is recruited by the Secret Service to eavesdrop on suspicious diners. Now retired, the narrator announces that he reluctantly left his profession because he lost his appetite for food.

Reminiscent of the professional eavesdroppers (and Greene himself) in the restaurants of Antibes (May We Borrow Your Husband?), the narrator observes his fellow diners with the analytical eye and ear of a writer. In one case his astute observation leads him to retrieve a cigarette containing some secret information of interest to the government. The cigarette leads to a new suspect, a doctor who had connections with the chemical industry, and the narrator is assigned to watch him. During the lengthy meal, however, the narrator is struck by diarrhea and after he returns from the toilet the doctor has vanished. Embarrassed by his failure, the narrator decides to retire.

Bathroom humor has a long tradition in England and Greene seems to delight in it. Years earlier in Our Man in Havana he drew a very funny scene in which the hero, James Wormold, is recruited into the Secret Service in a public toilet. Javitt, in "Under the Garden," sits upon a filthy commode, and Beauty, the pampered Pekinese in "Beauty," rolls in a clump of offal during an unscheduled spree.


Graham Greene World Literature Analysis


Greene, Graham (Henry)