Graham Greene 1904–1991
English novelist, short story writer, essayist, dramatist, screenplay writer, travel writer, autobiographer, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Greene's career through 1994. See also, Graham Greene Criticism and volumes 1, 3, 6, 9, 14 and 18.
A prolific and widely popular literary figure, Graham Greene is recognized as one the finest English novelists of the twentieth century. Best known for his engaging thrillers, distinguished for their masterful plotting, moral complexity, and suspenseful themes of pursuit and detection, Greene attained rare prestige as a critical and commercial success. His literary reputation rests primarily on his "Catholic" novels—Brighton Rock (1938), The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948), and The End of the Affair (1951)—and his Cold War political novels, including The Quiet American (1955), A Burnt-Out Case (1961), The Comedians (1966), and The Honorary Consul (1973). A champion of the underdog, the irreverent, and the aggrieved, Greene portrays the human tendency toward corruption and the possibility of redemption. His preoccupation with religious and political topics, colored by his affinity for Catholicism and communism, is a prominent and controversial feature of his fiction. A consummate storyteller noted for his realistic style and idiosyncratic ethical perspective, Greene is considered among the most accomplished writers of his generation.
Born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England, Greene was one of six children of Charles Henry Greene, headmaster of Berkhamsted School, and Marion R. Greene, a relative of Robert Louis Stevenson. A precocious introvert and sensitive soul, Greene endured a miserable childhood at the hands of his moralizing father and boarding school brutes. At age sixteen he suffered a nervous breakdown and briefly fled home, leading to a period of psychoanalytic treatment. Greene's unhappy adolescence, punctuated by intense boredom and flirtations with suicide, informed much of his early writing and iconoclastic sentiments. Upon graduating from Berkhamsted School, Greene attended Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied modern history and earned an undergraduate degree in 1925. While at Oxford, Greene briefly joined the Communist Party and met his future wife, Vivien Dayrell Browning, whom he married in 1927. Shortly before their marriage, he converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. Greene worked as a sub-editor for the Times of London from 1926 until the publication his first novel, The Man Within (1929), after which he became a full-time writer. Weak sales of his next two novels prompted him to write Stamboul Train (1932), the first of many popular thriller's subtitled "entertainments," including A Gun for Sale (1936), The Confidential Agent (1939), The Ministry of Fear (1943), and The Third Man (1950). His first volume of short stories appeared as The Basement Room and Other Stories (1936). During the 1930s, Greene wrote film criticism for Night and Day and Spectator, collected in The Pleasure-Dome (1972). He also travelled to Liberia and Mexico to gather experiences for his fiction, recorded in the travelogues Journey Without Maps (1936) and The Lawless Roads (1939). The novels It's a Battlefield (1934) and England Made Me (1935) illustrate his lifelong leftist sympathies, which later were distinguished by notorious associations with Soviet spy Kim Philby, Fidel Castro, and Ho Chi Minh. Greene produced the first of his "Catholic" novels with Brighton Rock (1938), followed by The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948), and The End of the Affair (1951)—among his best-known works. After serving with the British Foreign Office in Sierre Leone during the Second World War, Greene witnessed political upheavals in Indochina, the Belgian Congo, Haiti, and Cuba as an freelance journalist. The post-war novels The Quiet American (1955), Our Man in Havana (1958), A Burnt-Out Case (1961), and The Comedians (1966) reflect his interest in international affairs during the Cold War. Greene adapted many of his novels and "entertainments" into screenplays. He also published additional volumes of short stories, including Nineteen Stories (1947) and A Sense of Reality (1963). Greene also wrote several plays, notably The Living Room (1953), The Potting Shed (1957), and The Complaisant Lover (1959). His other late novels such as The Honorary Consul (1973), The Human Factor (1978), and The Tenth Man (1985) were well received. Among his many distinctions and honorary degrees, Greene was named Companion of Honour in England (1966), Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in France (1967), Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature (1984), and received the British Order of Merit (1986). Greene died in Vevey, Switzerland, at age eighty-six. His personal experiences are documented in two autobiographies—A Sort of Life (1971) and the sequel Ways of Escape (1980).
Greene's enormous popularity and critical recognition is based largely upon his "Catholic" and political novels. Though variously classified as "entertainments" and novels proper, each reflects his serious preoccupation with aspects of spiritual edification, moral turpitude, ideological commitment, and the potential for salvation in the modern world. Drawing upon the narrative conventions of crime and spy fiction, Greene's novels often involve exotic international settings and alluring depiction of murder, adultery, political intrigue, suicide, assassination, and pursuit. The protagonists are typically fallen or hapless characters whose moral failings, both innate and socially conditioned, reflect a broad range of corruption and suffering, especially as caused by extremes of disengagement and orthodoxy. Greene's four "Catholic" novels—Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair—offer insight into the theological concepts of mortal sin and atonement, drawing attention to the paradoxical virtues of vice itself. Set in the working-class neighborhood of a seaside resort town, Brighton Rock features Pinkie Brown, a teenage thug who exacts vengeance on a newspaperman for betraying his gang. Pinkie marries Rose, a naive waitress, to stonewall testimony against him. Ida Arnold, a local matron and unlikely investigator, eventually takes up the case and hounds Pinkie to his death. The Catholic theme comes to the forefront when Rose consults a priest about Pinkie's damnation. The Power and the Glory is set in Mexico during anticlerical persecutions of the 1930s. The protagonist is a renegade Catholic priest who continues to carry out his ecclesiastic duties despite official sanctions that have driven away all other priests. An unrepentant though self-loathing sinner—he is an alcoholic and father of an illegitimate child—the "whiskey priest" is tracked by a "mestizo," or half-caste, and eventually captured by the police. His martyrdom is complicated by the contradictory facts of his charity and unsaintly indulgence. The Heart of the Matter, which takes place in Sierra Leone, involves Major Scobie, a Catholic policeman and devout husband whose tragic vice—pity—leads him to betray his wife, religion, and profession in an extramarital affair and diamond smuggling scheme that drives him to suicide. Among his most overt religious novels, The End of the Affair involves an English woman whose passionate love for God is mistaken for an adulterous affair by her jealous husband and former lover. Greene's political novels—The Quiet American, A Burnt-Out Case, The Comedians, and The Honorary Consul—are set against the backdrop of contemporary Third World trouble spots in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Though drawing attention to the sociopolitical circumstances of each locale, the religious concerns of earlier novels persist in the overarching theme of moral ambiguity. The Quiet American is set in Vietnam during the turbulent 1950s. Noted for its anti-Americanism, Greene juxtaposes the practical hedonism of Thomas Fowler, a cynical English journalist, with the puritanical innocence of Alden Pyle, an idealistic American whose naive and self-righteous assumptions about Indochinese culture lead to his demise. A Burnt-Out Case involves a leprosarium in the Congo where Querry, a disillusioned doctor, grapples with his lack of compassion for human suffering by engaging in a futile battle with the mutilating disease, drawing parallels between the ravages of leprosy and a life without faith. The Comedians takes place in Haiti during the dictatorship of Francois Duvalier. The story revolves around the experiences of Brown, a lapsed Catholic and hotel owner engaged in a doomed affair with a diplomat's wife, the Smiths, an American couple committed to vegetarianism, and Jones, a con-man, as they are drawn into revolutionary activities. Brown's view of God as a "practical joker" underscores his indifference and the absurdity of the appalling violence and exploitation under Duvalier. Set in Paraguay, The Honorary Consul centers upon Eduardo Plarr, a doctor of English-Paraguayan descent who aids a Paraguayan guerrilla group. Among the rebels is Rivas, Plarr's former classmate and an ex-priest. Plarr becomes entangled in an ethical dilemma when the guerrillas kidnap an elderly ambassador, Charley Fortnum, whom Plarr is called upon to care for. Fortnum's young wife is also Plarr's mistress, further complicating his moral obligations. The Human Factor involves an international espionage scandal caused by Castle, a minor British intelligence officer who leaks information to the Soviets to aid black South Africans, among whom is his wife. When the security breach is discovered, another agent is mistakenly murdered before authorities close in on Castle and he flees for Moscow, leaving his wife and child behind.
Greene is considered one of the most outstanding British novelists of the century. Widely praised for his superb narrative abilities, vivid cinematic descriptions, and compelling fusion of religious and political themes, he is regarded as a master craftsman and formidable moralist. Though critics discern the literary influence of Henry James and Joseph Conrad in his work, Greene confesses an equal debt to adventure writers such as H. Rider Haggard, John Buchan, and Stanley Weyman. Credited with redefining the modern suspense novel, most critics contend that Greene's melodramatic plots and sensational depiction of violence and sex belie a complex synthesis of theology, world politics, and existential psychology that elevate his popular thrillers to the level of high literature. Critics agree that Greene's "Catholic" and political novels are his masterpieces and constitute the central achievement of his large oeuvre, particularly Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, and The End of the Affair. Critical attention is frequently directed toward Greene's distinct religious perspective, controversial left-wing rhetoric, and recurring themes of pursuit and moral equivocation in his novels. While some of Greene's detractors find fault in his preoccupation with Catholicism, cited as a narrow obsession that confines his novels to sectarian eschatology and Manichean divisions, others assert the universal significance of such themes as they relate to problems of moral obligation and political commitment. As many critics note, Greene's sympathetic sinners, criminals, and double agents symbolize the degradation of the individual and necessity of moral compromise amid the hellish realities of violence, corruption, and poverty in the modern world. An international best-selling author, Greene's fiction is acclaimed for its entertainment value and provocative examination of sin, moral relativism, and problems associated with spiritual faith in the contemporary world.