Graham Greene

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Greene, Graham 1904–

A British novelist, short story writer, editor, children's author, essayist, and playwright, Greene is highly respected and widely read. His literary world is one of paradox and seediness where the sinner is often the saint, the idealist a destructive agent, and evil is everywhere while innocence is suspect. Greene's Catholicism figures prominently in his fiction, providing him with a system of concepts, situations, and symbols that he uses to dramatize human nature. (See also, Graham Greene Criticism and volumes 1, 3, 6, 9, 18 and 125.)

Evelyn Waugh

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Of Mr. Graham Greene alone among contemporary writers one can say without affectation that his breaking silence with a new serious novel is a literary "event." It is eight years since the publication of "The Power and the Glory." During that time he has remained inconspicuous and his reputation has grown huge….

Mr. Greene has long shown an absorbing curiosity in the [existence of Hell]. In "Brighton Rock" he ingeniously gave life to a theological abstraction. We are often told: "The Church does not teach that any man is damned. We only know that Hell exists for those who deserve it. Perhaps it is now empty and will remain so for all eternity."… Mr. Greene challenged the soft modern mood by creating a completely damnable youth. Pinkie of "Brighton Rock" is the ideal examinee for entry to Hell. He gets a pure alpha on every paper. His story is a brilliant and appalling imaginative achievement but falls short of the real hell-fire sermon by its very completeness. We leave our seats edified but smug. However vile we are, we are better than Pinkie. The warning of the preacher was that one unrepented slip obliterated the accumulated merits of a lifetime's struggle to be good. "Brighton Rock" might be taken to mean that one has to be as wicked as Pinkie before one runs into serious danger.

Mr. Greene's latest book, "The Heart of the Matter," should be read as the complement of "Brighton Rock." It poses a vastly more subtle problem. Its hero speaks of the Church as "knowing all the answers," but his life and death comprise a problem to which the answer is in the mind of God alone, the reconciliation of perfect justice with perfect mercy. It is a book which only a Catholic could write and only a Catholic can understand. I mean that only a Catholic can understand the nature of the problem. (p. 322)

Mr. Greene divides his fiction into "Novels" and "Entertainments." Superficially there is no great difference between the two categories. There is no Ruth Draper switch from comic to pathetic. "Novels" and "Entertainments" are both written in the same grim style, both deal mainly with charmless characters, both have a structure of sound, exciting plot. You cannot tell from the skeleton whether the man was baptized or not. And that is the difference; the "Novels" have been baptized, held deep under in the waters of life. (pp. 322-23)

[Mr. Greene's style of writing is] not a specifically literary style at all. The words are functional, devoid of sensuous attraction, of ancestry and of independent life. Literary stylists regard language as intrinsically precious and its proper use as a worthy and pleasant task. A polyglot could read Mr. Greene, lay him aside, retain a sharp memory of all he said and yet, I think, entirely forget what tongue he was using. The words are simply mathematical signs for his thought. Moreover, no relation is established between writer and reader. The reader has not had a conversation with a third party such as he enjoys with Sterne or Thackeray. Nor is...

(This entire section contains 1190 words.)

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there within the structure of the story an observer through whom the events are recorded and the emotions transmitted. It is as though, out of an infinite length of film, sequences had been cut which, assembled, comprise an experience which is the reader's alone, without any correspondence to the experience of the protagonists. The writer has become director and producer. Indeed, the affinity to the film is everywhere apparent. It is the camera's eye which moves from the hotel balcony to the street below, picks out the policeman, follows him to his office, moves about the room from the handcuffs on the wall to the broken rosary in the drawer, recording significant detail. It is the modern way of telling a story….

Mr. Greene is a story-teller of genius. Born in another age, he would still be spinning yarns. His particular habits are accidental. The plot of "The Heart of the Matter" might well have been used by M. Simenon or Mr. Somerset Maugham. (p. 323)

[Mr. Greene] makes of his material a precise and plausible drama. His technical mastery has never been better manifested than in his statement of the scene—the sweat and infection, the ill-built town which is beautiful for a few minutes at sundown, the brothel where all men are equal, the vultures, the priest who, when he laughed "swung his great empty-sounding bell to and fro, Ho ho, ho, like a leper proclaiming his misery," the snobbery of the second-class public schools, the law which all can evade, the ever-present haunting underworld of gossip, spying, bribery, violence and betrayal. There are incidents of the highest imaginative power—Scobie at the bedside of a dying child, improvising his tale of the Bantus. It is so well done that one forgets the doer. The characters are real people whose moral and spiritual predicament is our own because they are part of our personal experience.

As I have suggested above, Scobie is the complement of Pinkie. Both believe in damnation and believe themselves damned. Both die in mortal sin as defined by moral theologians. The conclusion of the book is the reflection that no one knows the secrets of the human heart or the nature of God's mercy. It is improper to speculate on another's damnation. Nevertheless the reader is haunted by the question: Is Scobie damned? One does not really worry very much about whether Becky Sharp or Fagin is damned. It is the central question of "The Heart of the Matter." I believe that Mr. Greene thinks him a saint. Perhaps I am wrong in this, but in any case Mr. Greene's opinion on that matter is of no more value than the reader's. Scobie is not Mr. Greene's creature, devised to illustrate a thesis. He is a man of independent soul. Can one separate his moral from his spiritual state? Both are complex and ambiguous. (p. 324)

Mr. Greene has put a quotation from Péguy at the beginning of the book "Le pécheur est au coeur même de chrétienté … Nul n'est aussi compétent que le pécheur en matière de chrétienté. Nul, si ce n'est le saint," and it seems to me probable that it was in his mind to illustrate the "Nouveau Théologien" from which it is taken, just as in "Brighton Rock" he illustrates the Penny Catechism. The theme of that remarkable essay is that Christianity is a city to which a bad citizen belongs and the good stranger does not…. If Péguy is saying anything at all, he is saying something very startling and something which people seem to find increasingly important. Mr. Greene has removed the argument from Péguy's mumbled version and re-stated it in brilliantly plain human terms; and it is there, at the heart of the matter, that the literary critic must resign his judgment to the theologian. (p. 325)

Evelyn Waugh, "Felix Culpa?" in Commonweal (copyright © 1948 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. XLVIII, No. 14, July 16, 1948, pp. 322-25.

Kathleen Nott

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The framework of absolute Catholic theory employed by Greene … in his serious novels, really implies that sexuality is sinful and is not more than condoned by marriage. When Greene is writing about a real psychological situation he writes powerfully and movingly. Such a situation may well be one in which the particular actions of a character result from the reaction between a certain type of education and his concrete circumstances. This applies to the priest in The Power and the Glory. Compared with this the psychological situations of the policeman in The Heart of the Matter, and the novelist in The End of the Affair, seem factitious, even ad hoc.

To be artistically satisfying the situation must be objectively described. The author must not imply that, for esoteric reasons, he knows more about the answers to the problem than the characters do. You can write a human book about a Catholic if you do not at the same time write a book about Catholic theories of human nature.

The Power and the Glory is about the effect of Catholic belief and dogma on someone for whom that belief affords his whole raison d'être. We are allowed to concentrate our attention of the priest as a suffering human being. In The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair, which are about sexual and marital relations, the problems, while they are not less specialised and also peculiar to those who have had a Catholic education, are not resolved in their own terms, that is, also, in human and therefore artistic terms. The priest, a minor character in each of these two later books, is yet of major importance to Greene. He is a deus ex machina. He supplies the answers, dogmatic ones, not artistic.

The End of the Affair, for instance, is a book about sexual sin and about a superstitious bargain to evade punishment. The main 'answer' seems to be 'Catholicism is right, for look what happened' (some of it very odd). One of the concrete forms of the answer is that superstition is a good idea because anything is better than trying to resolve one's problems in rational terms. This is the answer given to the main character, who seems to be impressed by it, although not himself a Catholic.

Greene never shows the effects of Catholicism on the temperamentally cheerful and balanced, yet some of these people must surely exist without being too insensitive to merit either attention or salvation. In his books, moreover, the refined agonies of conscience which Catholicism may induce in the more sensitive do not bear impressive fruit of charity or even greater understanding of fellow-sufferers and fellow-sinners. For pathological types like Pinky in Brighton Rock, it only provides a certain security of vaingloriousness and self-satisfaction which is deeply offensive to a merely humane and ethical conscience.

When Evelyn Waugh writes as a Catholic, e.g. in Brideshead Revisited and Helena, he also writes about Catholic theory. His satirical novels are artistically successful because they are written outside the scope of Catholic dogmatism. It seems to be much easier for Catholic writers who are born Catholic, for instance Mauriac, to stick to psychological truth than it is for converts. (pp. 309-10)

Kathleen Nott, "Augustinian Novelists," in her The Emperor's Clothes (reprinted by permission of Indiana University Press; in Canada by Hope Leresche & Sayle), William Heinemann Ltd., 1953 (and reprinted by Indiana University Press, 1958), pp. 299-311.∗


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After the revolution of sorts in fiction's faith in its own adequacy to describe the world wrought by Nabokov, Robbe-Grillet, Murdoch, and Pynchon, we can appreciate [The End of the Affair, Greene's] own most deliberate gamble with the limits of art as good taste. But when it appeared in 1951, it seemed in very bad, indeed scandalous, taste. Greene had already, with The Power and the Glory (1940) and The Heart of the Matter (1948), established his reputation, for better and worse, as the most complex and challenging religious novelist of his day. But even for many of his most sympathetic readers, he took things a bit too far in this story of a contemporary Magdalene, an adulteress named Sarah Miles who utters a prayer for her lover as he is trapped by a V-2 explosion outside their bedroom, finds herself drawn more and more to Catholic mysticism, finally dies, having caught a bad cold…. (pp. 35-6)

Scandalous, literally: one of the crucial New Testament meanings of skandalon is an event, divine or demonic, that upsets our notions of the way the world is supposed to work…. But the word can also mean fanatical, outrageous, silly. And not the least of Greene's accomplishments here is to have put these two meanings, scandalously, together. To tell a story that seriously insists a woman can love God enough to transform, physically, the world around her is to risk turning the novel into what Orwell called the "smelly little orthodoxies" of sectarian pamphlets….

[Greene] takes even bigger risks with our credence than many of the absurdists and fantasists who have lately populated fiction. A Nabokov may say that "reality" is the only word that must always be used in quotes. But he well knows the dangers of trying to remove the quotes, and whenever he does so, as in Pale Fire or Ada, he is careful to nudge us at the moment of removal, reminding us that he shares our basic sense of how things "really" are. But Greene withholds that comforting nudge. It is no accident that The End of the Affair, his eleventh novel, is the first to feature as its central character a professional novelist, and the first to be narrated from the first-person.

"I can be trusted," Bendrix insists, whenever he says anything favorable about Sarah or her God: "I am writing against the bias because it is my professional pride to prefer the near-truth, even to the expression of my near-hate." It is a device of remarkable subtlety: the novel's insistence on its own quality as a novel demands that we take seriously the conventions of "reality" to which the story at last does such systematic violence. The effect is intensified when, in the middle of the action, Bendrix acquires Sarah's journal, which seems to be written to her new lover. Only after some pages of apparently erotic musings do we—and he—discover that the "You" Sarah keeps addressing is God. In other words, Greene constructs with his usual mastery an absolutely convincing tale of human passions and betrayals, which entraps the reader who has swallowed it all into accepting, at the same level of narrative reality, the facts of sainthood and miracles….

[The] central fascination and central problem of The End of the Affair [is:] why does Greene write such an unpromising, offensive, perhaps fanatic book, and, beyond that, why does it, against all odds, work? For work it does, as one of the richest novels he has written….

[The End of the Affair is] an extended demonstration of the priest's last-minute discovery, articulated so as to upset the very religious complacency that might give it too easy an acceptance. Some of Greene's most withering scorn has always been reserved for what he calls the "habit of piety," the smugness of ritualized "goodness" that denies a world of pain. And Sarah's conversion, if that is the word, does not so much obliterate as it complicates and humanizes her relationships with the people around her, including her lover Bendrix. It is in fact her initiation into that truly political community of concern and charity that Greene calls elsewhere the ministry of fear…. (p. 36)

But when Matthew Arnold suggested that art would become the modern age's substitute for a dead religion, he could not have imagined that the religion of art would itself grow into a ceremony of self-consciousness as arrogant and rigid as the liturgies it supplanted, a religion of technique and taste as paralytic as the habit of piety and perhaps a good deal more current. Call it the habit of Culture. Its superstitions have by now wrecked or spoiled quite a few writers…. Bendrix is such a writer, but his creator is not. And Bendrix's terminal failure to comprehend what has happened to him is one of Greene's most effective reminders that the function of storytelling, even at the expense of esthetic form, is to make available to us clearer modes of feeling, of loving and hating, and of living humanly in this world: to help us … to live our lives….

The affair whose end Greene's 25-year-old book records is not just Bendrix's, but the century-long affair of an art divorced from moral energy, and a religion unconscious of its human responsibilities. He has not since experimented so daringly with the limits of the novel and the limits of belief. But the book's fierce intelligence, tempered and deflected, is present throughout his later, brilliant political novels, defining as they do a world whose salvation lies, if at all, not with its theologians or strategists but with the messiness, passion, and brave bad taste of its saints—that is, its martyrs and comedians. (p. 37)

Frank McConnell, "Books Considered: 'The End of the Affair'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 178, No. 10, March 11, 1978, pp. 35-7.

Richard Jones

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After more than 50 years before the reading public, Graham Greene has become an institution, the living proof that a contemporary novelist can tackle important subjects and still enjoy immense popularity. As a result, a new work by him is a major event in the international publishing season. (p. 338)

It is difficult to pin down unerringly the source of Greene's popularity. His appeal cuts across several classes of reader, and the link is probably his readability. For Greene, the novel still tells a story, and all his considerable craftsmanship is directed towards this end. He is uninterested in technical innovation, although he has been open to the influence of many different fashions from English historical romance and spy thriller to the French Catholic moralists—with glances at Conrad, Hemingway, and even Faulkner and the existentialists. Accents and passages can reflect these influences, but nothing deflects Greene from the main business of holding the reader's attention. To do this, he resorts to the tricks of the cinema—swift juxtaposition of scene, character, and tone—and is often, because of this, slick and ambiguous in his effects…. [What] makes Greene stand out is that from 1938, the year of Brighton Rock, he has used popular forms to explore his own very special obsessions, such as the operation of divine grace, man's moral responsibility to himself and other people, and the nature of love and disloyalty. The serious reader likes to recognize in these obsessions the proof of Greene's seriousness and claim to greatness. They respect his obsessions, even though the vocabulary of Greene's Catholicism and of his mysterious brand of radicalism is not shared.

Anyone writing about Greene has to face up at once to the Catholicism, not in order to argue with it, as many Orthodox Catholics have done…. Nor to dismiss it, as some free-thinkers tend to …, but rather to recognize that a Catholic novelist like Greene brings restraints to the novel that the Anglo-Saxon tradition is not used to. George Orwell's statement that "the novel is a Protestant art form, requiring the free play of mind" never seems truer than at the end of those novels in which Greene has drawn most heavily on his beliefs, such as The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter. The reader is left as uneasy by the locked gears of the novel's progress as by the rigid optimism of Soviet socialist realist fiction…. Greene may be right to claim "not to be a writer of Catholic novels, but a writer who in four or five books took characters with Catholic ideas for his novels," but the influence is there: it is the religious sense that Greene himself believes was lost to the English novel with the death of Henry James…. [His] sounding the religious note has been of the utmost value in reminding an increasingly agnostic century that man has existed on another level of being. This leads to the most interesting aspect of Greene's work: that despite the special nature of his obsessions few readers feel that they are being preached at. Each novel is really a private exploration of the possibilities of certain lines of conduct which Greene later shares with his public…. [There] is much that is ideologically dubious in Greene's work, but for the general public this matters less than the simple fact that Greene is a superb entertainer….

[In] considering the mass of his work, a line of demarcation wavers through it. On the one side are the novels that operate in what might be called a free market, and they include Our Man in Havana, Travels with my Aunt, and most of the early work. The other side of the line are the works that are the products of a closed market, where Greene's obsessions distort the values. By this rough and ready classification, The Human Factor, because it lacks either Catholic or left-wing dialectic, ought to belong to the free market, but in fact it belongs to the second. What we see operating, in place of Greene's acquired ideologies, is his native passion, not far removed from Thomas Hardy's, for plotting the destruction of small men and the half-baked hopes that inspire them. The fact that Greene is on the small man's side for most of the novel does not soften the inexorable way he so shapes events that his hero ends up cornered by actions of his own devising. In some respects, the novel is a throwback to the ones Greene wrote in the thirties, a spy thriller set against important political events…. Fascism was the accepted evil of many of the 1930's novels; apartheid is the one that dominates The Human Factor. In publishing his novel at this time, Greene once again shows his flair for producing a topical document. (pp. 338-41)

The South African situation dominates the novel, but the reader is never taken there except in flashback and conversation. The "beautiful, doomed country" plays the same role in The Human Factor as Paraguay does in The Honorary Consul. It is the place of injustice, where the main characters cannot, may not, live, and it is also their private climate. Greene's version of South Africa offers no surprises; it is accepted as a police state and, as such, fair game for subversion and harassment.

In establishing Castle as the non-political, non-religious, non-ideological man of good will, Greene had to give him qualities of heart, even of passion. He tries hard, but the result, perhaps from lack of practice, is little more than banal. Greene lavishes much detail on establishing the Castles' mousy life with Sarah's child by a black professor—accepted as Castle's—and a dog; but after years of writing about the horrors of marriage, Greene can only fumble for the essence of a happy match…. (p. 343)

At the end of this unconvincing story, Greene seems to be saying: this is where foolish affections and gratitude get you. Men of good will beware. Castle is a traitor, but he is a traitor that the reader has sympathized with for the simple reason that there is no one else in the novel capable of rousing any feeling. In this respect, Greene has produced a variation on an old theme. Otherwise, Castle as a hero is a washout, a soft-centered bumbler. His activities have been, on the whole, trifling, and he lacks the ability of the true ideologic spy, to claim that he is in some way "on the side of history." Why should Greene have given us such an old softie as hero? Was he trying to produce the anti-spy novel hero or to show us that the man without a real ideology is nothing and that it hardly matters what becomes of him since his actions are devoid of any real significance? (p. 345)

It is easy to accept that Greene is moved by poverty, exploitation, and corrupt dictatorships—the classic ills of the Third World—but does he classify as a political animal? It is hard to say "yes" on the strength of The Human Factor! It is not that anyone expects Greene to fill a novel with half-baked propaganda, but we are entitled to expect from him a greater resonance. Everything Castle does lacks common sense and gravity, and this failure in the central character exposes the defects in the framework of the novel.

What comes as a surprise is the realization that despite the sleaziness of many of Greene's settings and his capacity for converting any given place into a landscape in Greeneland, Greene is not a realistic writer. What is important for him is the poetic idea. In Brighton Rock he had the idea of the good-natured, rather beery woman become avenging angel; in A Burnt-Out Case, Greene was moved by the notion of a great man at the end of his moral rope, as it were, burying himself alive among lepers in steamy central Africa; in The End of the Affair he worked out the battle between the loves of this world and the love of God. The reader recognizes the poet's insights, but he expects the novelist's working out. This demands that the writer pay frequent tribute to the great god Probability, the one who presides over the fiction writer's desk. Nearly all of Greene's books are flawed by the schism between the poet's dream and the novelist's realization. (pp. 346-47)

[The Human Factor] sets up the great poetic idea of a love that wipes out traditional loyalties and then unsuccessfully tries to support it with a novel that is neither genuine thriller nor comedy of errors. Suspense is missing except at the end, and the exploration of character is minimal. Nowhere is this more evident than in the character of Sarah. She and Castle are an archetypal Greene pair, the elderly man and the young woman available for bed and domestic service. Greene's women are the least contemporary aspect of the novels. In book after book the reader is faced with the same subjugated type, incapable of sharing the battle of ideas. Nothing is less convincing than the scene in The Human Factor after Castle has confessed to his wife that he has been a double-agent. Given the hard, even pitiless, rhetoric of some female political activists at this time, Sarah is an Aunty Tomasina.

There are so many things off key in The Human Factor that it is difficult to know where to begin. The Castle household is wrong; the setting in Berkhamsted is not right; the handling of the details of the child's education is clumsy; the impact of such a strangely assorted couple in a conservative community is misjudged. Then, London is inaccurately placed. In some cases the mistakes are nugatory: errors that could have been put right by careful editing. In the end, so perfunctory is Greene's English setting that one wonders why he bothered, after so many years living abroad, to return home for a fictional enterprise.

Greene's absence from England had appeared to be an important factor in his youthfulness as a writer…. Greene has made the world his province and has found exotic settings and themes which excited him in places as diverse as Africa, Southeast Asia, Haiti, and Spanish America. Greene has made himself a true man of the world, in the best sense, and has been an eyewitness for a generation of readers for whom he has made concrete the great bugbear of our time, the reality of political power that ignores the will of the people and refuses to be restrained by any moral consideration.

In The Human Factor there is no electricity between Greene's eye and the landscape. Southeast England is too well-known to be exciting, and to see Greene trying at one or two points in the book to create an uneasy nighttime London—a city that goes to bed about eleven o'clock—is to see that there are certain tricks he has grown used to employing that do not work on the home scene. Greene is really quite limited in his atmospheric effects, and the reader of his novels must often be struck by how much a cliché the sudden storm has become … although realizing that it makes highly effective cinema. This is fine in Mexico, West Africa, or Vietnam, but the English, grown stoic in their oceanic climate, do not recognize rain as the stuff of melodrama. (pp. 347-49)

Richard Jones, "The Improbable Spy," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1979, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 55, No. 2 (Spring, 1979), pp. 338-49.


Greene, Graham (Vol. 125)


Greene, Graham (Vol. 18)