The ambiguous nature of Henry Green’s fiction has long piqued and captivated the attention of readers and critics alike, for his individual departures from conventional narrative technique separate him from the literary mainstream. A successful businessman independent of popular success, Green felt free to experiment with the form and theory of the novel. His novels speak directly to the reader with minimal interruption or interpretation; taking on lives of their own, they maintain their own shifting realities and sustain an uncanny sense of the present.
Evident in his novels as early as Blindness are characteristics that Green was to polish throughout his writing career: close attention to balance and symmetry, objectivity in character presentation, action developed through juxtaposed scenes, and remarkable re-creation of spoken English interspersed with lyrical descriptive passages. His singular treatment was given to classical themes. Fascinated by language and the human capacity to interpret, Green dramatized the problems of communication by having his characters misunderstand one another. He further complicated these problems of understanding by creating intentional verbal ambiguity, so that the reader might also be uncertain of the speaker’s intent. Often talking at cross purposes, Green’s characters, prompted by loneliness, search for love. Although their love objects may at times seem strange, ranging as they do from peacocks and a pig to houses and fantasies, they nevertheless reflect the range of human passion. In an atmosphere suggestive of social dissolution, Green’s characters pursue the relative stability of love, which they often discover in unsuspected places.
Most of Green’s solipsistic characters are neither intelligent, gifted, nor particularly beautiful. Often vain and fanciful, they reveal themselves to be profoundly human as they engage in conversations revelatory of their own preoccupations. Fascinated by what people communicate through both speech and evasion, Green sought to make dialogue the vehicle for his novels, refining his conversation and decreasing his descriptive passages until, in his last two novels, dialogue carries almost the entire weight. To avoid the static quality of conversation, he created brief scenes, shifting his reader’s attention from one group of characters to another. His technique also produces an acute sense of the present, a sense emphasized by the “ing” ending of his novels’ titles.
That Green’s novels create their own sense of the present is only one of several important factors to be considered when reading his fiction. Above all, Green wanted his work to assume a life of its own, a life differing according to the reader, providing each one with a sense of connection until he or she is drawn into a “community of people.” Green accomplishes this primarily by suggesting rather than stating. Time and place, motivation and reaction, action and resolution are often evoked rather than delineated. Behind the slight plots and often silly activities is an unstated social context that tacitly influences action. Green’s characters are also created through indirection. By allowing them to inarticulately express their obsessions, fears, anxieties, or confusion, by having them avoid direct responses, by refusing to make authorial judgments, Green populates his novels with lifelike creations. Their humanness is mutely expressed in their search for love. Examining Blindness, Loving, and Nothing with these ideas in mind, the reader can begin to understand Green’s elusive art.
When Green had a family friend read the manuscript of Blindness , he did not receive much praise. He was, however, encouraged to show his work to Garnett, then a publisher’s reader, who gave Green sound advice concerning narrative technique and character development. The result is a first novel remarkable primarily for its close attention to structure and its multidimensional characters....
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While taking a usual avenue for a first novel, Green proceeded to treat his subject with daring. His protagonist, John Haye, a sensitive upper-middle-class schoolboy who aspires to be a writer, is blinded in a freak accident. During the course of the novel, John comes to new terms with himself and his world, awakening in the end to a fresh appreciation of life.
With the theme of growth in mind, Green divided Blindness into three sections—“Caterpillar,” “Chrysalis,” and “Butterfly”—suggesting John’s psychological metamorphosis. “Caterpillar,” presented as John’s diary, reflects his physical response to natural beauty, his passion for literature, and his concentrated ambition to write. Because John derives intense pleasure from visual stimuli, his blindness seems especially cruel. In “Chrysalis,” he reconsiders himself. As he lies dormant in layers of a protective cocoon—his bandages, his blindness, his fantasies and self-pity, his stepmother’s pity and worry, the physical safety of his inherited estate—his creative life is threatened until he determines to break free of this smothering safety. He emerges in “Butterfly” scarred but acutely aware of the value of life.
The narrative passages of Blindness are lush, as exuberant as John’s imagination, as soaring as his emotions. Echoing with poetic resonance, Green’s descriptive passages in Blindness far outweigh the oblique dialogue. Nevertheless, there are signs of Green’s later mastery of dialogue: Speech patterns are distinct for each character. The language is spare, with internal monologues reflective of individual character. John’s thoughts are full of wonder and pain, his stepmother’s are busy with seemingly dissociated concerns. Both characters’ thoughts, however, circuitously return to one subject: blindness. Where Green introduces rich visual images through John’s eyes in the first portion of the novel, he later confines John’s responses to those of touch and sound. Indeed, the novel ends in a cacophony of bells and traffic noises, affirming John’s rebirth.
Green seems precocious in his handling of the symbolic value of blindness. This he does by indirectly comparing John’s blindness with various metaphorical failures of vision. Mrs. Haye, John’s horsey stepmother, is “blind” in a number of respects, lacking all aesthetic response and being completely unintellectual. Two other figures are also introduced to indicate forms of moral blindness: Joan Entwhistle and her father, an unfrocked minister. They epitomize the destructiveness of self-deception, a potential trap awaiting John. Joan, a dirty, dreamy girl who vacillates between romanticizing her situation and luxuriating in its squalor, becomes an unlikely love interest for John, who re-creates her in his imagination and renames her June. Worse still is Joan’s father, who wallows in gin and self-pity. Like John, he thinks of himself as a writer, but his only creation is his disastrous life. Ultimately, Reverend Entwhistle has entered a darkness far more profound than John’s.
While blindness carries much of the novel’s symbolic weight, other images are also alluded to by Green, images that continue to reappear throughout his career, often assuming symbolic value. References to birds, birds’ songs, and patterns of birds’ flights recur throughout his novels. In Blindness, birds provide an oblique comment on human situations. Flowers, particularly roses, are also recurring images in Green’s fiction. Their value varying according to the novel, they generally connote love.
While the language and images of Blindness are vivid and memorable, it is the characters who are the novel’s main strength. Green’s impressive talent has created four main characters whose distinct speech and thought patterns and conflicting desires he has woven into a narrative tapestry with perspective, texture, density, and dimension. Arranged in contrasting couples—John and Mrs. Haye, Joan and Reverend Entwhistle—Green plays his characters against one another, in pairs and individually, using this arrangement to illustrate mutual misunderstandings. John and Joan, who have much in common, are first drawn together and then move apart. For purely selfish reasons, each tries to impose a fantasy on the other. John imaginatively re-creates Joan, raising her from a lowly social position. Joan, in turn, sees John as a means of escape, though in the end she prefers her fantasy to reality.
Mrs. Haye and the Reverend Entwhistle are also contrasting figures. The minister, capable of the kind of aesthetic response that John admires, has, however, succumbed to self-delusion. Significantly, the Reverend Entwhistle has scarred Joan. Mrs. Haye, on the other hand, wants to protect John. As guardian of his estate (Barwood), she sees it as her duty to manage his inheritance. When John rejects Barwood, indicating a changing social order, Mrs. Haye reluctantly supports the decision although this means abandoning a comfortable home and secure social role. Rough and tweedy, Mrs. Haye is a triumph of characterization as she awkwardly assumes a maternal role for which she is unfit. She is spared from caricature by Green’s ability to portray her confused, rambling feelings through indirection.
Through three successive novels, Green continued to experiment with narrative technique and character development. In Loving, he achieved a balance that has continued to impress readers and critics. Skillfully arranging themes, images, symbols, and characters in the form of a fairy tale and placing them in neutral Ireland during the London Blitz, Green created what is considered to be his finest novel.
Green’s setting, “the most celebrated eighteenth-century folly in Eire that had still to be burned down,” is ideal for bringing together upper and lower classes and for elaborating favorite themes. Social dissolution, the search for love, and the inability to communicate are intensified by the distant war, which threatens and thus influences all of the characters. Most discomforting is the seeming collapse of the social order. From Raunce the footman’s bold takeover of the butler’s position to the mingling of the cook’s nephew with the owner’s granddaughters, the reader is presented with evidence of accelerating social change. Indeed, real power has gravitated to the servants, whose departure would mean disaster for the house and its owners, significantly named Tennant. Far from thinking of leaving, however, most of the servants are intent on pursuing their respective passions, all of which are forms of loving.
Green pays careful attention to balance, transition, and symbol in Loving as he encircles the lives of his characters. Beginning and ending with a love moan, having as its center a lost ring, and moving its main characters, Edith and Raunce, in a circular direction, this novel revolves around various love relationships. Thus, Loving is rich in extravagant description; only in Concluding does Green’s language achieve Loving’s visual opulence. The color and detail that Green accords his gilded setting underscore its anachronistic existence and lend a sense of high comedy to the human activities taking place. Suggestive images recur throughout the novel, serving as transitional devices and assuming symbolic power. This is especially true of the peacocks and doves that stride and flutter through the action, symbolizing pride and love.
Dialogue in Loving is as important as narrative description, with Green seeming at times to be showing off his celebrated ability to create colloquial language. Each of the servants has a particular speech pattern, so peculiar that understanding can be a problem between them. Paddy, the single Irishman employed by the Tennants, speaks so unintelligibly that only Kate, who loves him, can understand what he says. Raunce, who acts as mediator between the servants and the Tennants, uses two different languages. Of course, the Tennants speak in the cultured tones of their class. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Tennant cannot understand what her servants are saying. Indeed, one of the high comic scenes of the novel occurs when she attempts to converse with her cook, who carries on about drains while Mrs. Tennant interrogates her about a ring.
The characters of Loving are to a large extent created by their language. Raunce is finely drawn, a complex of contradictory, even mysterious habits. He is a transparent manipulator who rudely asserts his authority over the other servants, and he is, apparently, a dutiful son who faithfully writes to his mother and sends money. A petty thief and would-be blackmailer, Raunce eventually becomes a father figure for a young servant and Edith’s trembling lover. While Edith lacks the many facets of Raunce, she is fully realized as the most loving and beloved character in this novel. A dreamy girl believing in the power of love potions, she sheds her fantasies in favor of practical possibilities. Even minor characters achieve distinction in this novel; through wonderfully individualized conversations, Green dramatizes the manifold nature of loving.
Although he had consistently accorded dialogue a prominent role in all of his novels, Green came to believe that pure dialogue, with minimal authorial direction, would constitute the novel of the future. Accordingly, he wrote Nothing and Doting, which, while bearing familiar Green themes and characters, progress almost entirely through conversation. Again, the unelaborated social background is an important influence. In fact, it may have as much significance in Nothing as any other narrative component.
While Nothing seems to be about very little, involving as it does a love chase among selfish people, it nevertheless implies a great deal. To ignore the subtext of this novel is to miss Green’s point, for although he might not have used the term, Nothing can be seen as a phenomenological novel, with subjective judgments excluded in order to show reality as it is. Revealed is a protean shield of manners concealing a moral vacuum, the ultimate hollowness of polite society. Green, however, withholds judgment even as he lends a comic ambience to his characters. Thus, whatever judgment is accorded to the themes and characters of this novel will be imposed only by the reader.
The themes of Nothing are on a continuum with those of Blindness. The social erosion marked by John Haye’s departure from his estate is now complete in the almost classless society of the welfare state. Little remains of the upper-middle-class characters’ inheritance except memory, and the children of this once privileged class consider themselves lucky to have dull civil service jobs. Aware of the passing of time, Green’s characters turn to one another. The result is a comedy of manners involving six characters—John Pomfret and his daughter, Mary; Jane Weatherby and her son, Philip; Liz Jennings, John’s mistress; and Dick Abbot, Jane’s escort—that provides an opportunity for Green to demonstrate his ability to write ambiguously frothy conversation that reveals the intellectual and emotional shallowness of his characters and the absurdity of their lives.
At the heart of this novel is Jane Weatherby, one of Green’s most effective creations, who, having determined to marry John Pomfret, skillfully arranges the lives of other people in order to achieve her ends. A study in calculating graciousness, Jane manages to retain the admiration of friends and verbally dispatch her enemies in the same breath. Though her methods are suspect, they remain undetectable, her intent double-edged. Consequently, Jane wins her man, a prize of dubious value and yet one wholly satisfying to her. The ironic justice of these two characters winding up with each other is not lost on the reader.
While Nothing was not Green’s last novel, it can be read as a final statement, for he extends his theory of the novel to its logical conclusion. This work exemplifies what Green called the “nonrepresentational novel,” a novel “which can live in people who are alive” and “which can die.” More than its predecessors, Nothing demands the conscious collaboration of its readers. Even with active participation in the novel’s present, ambiguities abound. This is just as Green would have wished, because he wanted his novels to evoke a sense of life’s texture, a texture he felt was fluctuating constantly. Nothing’s moral ambiguity, often cited as its principal flaw, is a significant part of this texture. Creating as it does a palpable sense of life’s mutability, Nothing perfectly embodies Green’s oblique, distinctive approach to the art of fiction.