Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 727
The Green Man is a medieval coaching inn at Fareham, Hertfordshire, and fifty-three-year-old Maurice Allington is its landlord. Plagued by anxiety, fears, depression, discontent, and an inner emptiness, Maurice seeks peace of mind under conditions that militate against it. His principal reaction to this unhappiness is to immerse himself in the mundane activities of life. There, the reader meets Maurice as a man on the run—from himself. Drink, women, and the tedious minutiae of the innkeeping business offer more satisfying—if only temporary—escapes. Add to this disquiet and revulsion the ever-growing urge toward self-destruction, and there begins to be felt in this novel a truly contemporary pulsebeat. Like the typical protagonist in the works of Albert Camus, Maurice emerges most convincingly as a complicated, self-divided, haunted man in a world that does not make sense.
Unlike Jim Dixon, Allington is given the unique opportunity to make sense of the world through supernatural intervention. The Green Man has its own special ghost, the wicked Dr. Thomas Underhill, who used his knowledge of the black arts for various evil deeds, including the conjuring of a powerful monster, the novel’s other “green man,” a creature of branches and twigs and leaves capable of rending an ordinary man. Underhill’s final triumph is to reveal his power beyond the grave in pursuit of Maurice and his daughter.
While other characters cannot believe in the ghost, the intensity of Maurice’s belief invites the reader to suspend that disbelief. Amis eases his readers into an acceptance of the supernatural by means of a variety of elements: the common sense and worldly character of the narrator, the characterization of the guests, the skillful use of incidental details to create the air of reality. People eat, drink, argue, reconcile, read, share, and make love with little or no expectation that anything out of the ordinary will (or can) happen.
As the tension grows, so does Maurice; he passes through various stages of awakening to the truth of himself and another world. Underhill, as a doppelgänger, is evidence that evil is a real and active presence in the world and not just a concoction of the mind. His ghost is also a means by which Amis can credibly account for the forces that seek Maurice’s destruction—all that afflicts, mystifies, and weighs on him.
The discovery of Underhill’s power brings Maurice to a deeper consideration of the question of survival after death and prepares him for a conversation with still another supernatural agent, of quite a different kind from Underhill. Amis personifies God as a character in his own right, in the guise of a young man who expresses puzzlement and a certain degree of helplessness over the events unfolding in the world of his creation. Maurice’s transformation from an alienated man to an unwitting hero who chooses to take on the responsibilities of an absentee God forms the dramatic core of the novel.
In his pursuit and eventual destruction of Underhill and the monster, Maurice gains self-knowledge. He begins to realize that his “affinity” to Underhill has taken many guises. Maurice has reduced people to mere objects, beings manipulated and controlled by a more powerful master, just as Underhill controlled his monster. For Underhill, further, sex and aggression and striving for immortality are all bound up together; it becomes clear, as Maurice struggles with the evil spirit, that the same holds true for him.
When the terrifying battle is finally over and the selfish Maurice has been softened by the closeness of disaster, he recognizes and responds for the first time to the love of his daughter, who agrees to look after him. Thus, the book is about moral education. Although the haunting was a terrifying experience, for Maurice it was also a rewarding one, for he has changed; he wants hereafter to be kind, not because social mores (in the shape of family and friends) tell him to do so, but because he has learned from facing his own potential for wickedness how destructive evil can be in any form. In exorcising Underhill and the monster, he has also exorcised the evil potential in his own character. The experience has ennobled him. He accepts the limitations of life and, most important, comes to an appreciation of what death has to offer—a permanent escape from himself.