The Human Factor

by Graham Greene
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 201

The Human Factor by Graham Greene is a novel about Maurice Castle. He is 62 years and does office work for a British intelligence agency. He is married to Sarah, who comes from Africa. They have a son called Sam. His responsibilities at work entail liaising with British agents in South Africa. He works together with Arthur Davis in the same office. Previously, Castle had been posted in South Africa, where he was a field agent. When Castle goes out for lunch on a normal working day, he bumps into Colonel Daintry, who is now in charge of security. He requests to check Castle’s bag to ensure that he is not carrying top secret documents outside the building.

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The intelligence agency has been suspecting that there is a leak in Castle’s subdivision, which comprises of only two people. As a result, security checks are conducted randomly, which explains why Castle was searched. Daintry and his superiors plan to kill the person responsible for the security breach to protect the agency from public humiliation. With the help of Doctor Percival, they decide to poison the culprit. After spending a brief time with him, Percival is convinced that Arthur is the leak.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1024

Maurice Castle, sixty-two years old, works a desk job in a two-man subsection of British Intelligence. Castle’s duties and those of his younger office mate Arthur Davis involve receiving and sending information to and from South Africa, where Castle previously worked as a field agent. One day on his way to lunch, Castle meets the new head of security, Colonel Daintry. Though polite, Daintry asks Castle to open his briefcase and show that he is not removing any classified papers.

Later, Castle rides the train to his home in Berkhamsted, where he senses something amiss. His wife Sarah tells him that their young son Sam has measles. Castle’s anxiety subsides somewhat. What he values most in life is Sarah, a black woman he met in South Africa, and her son Sam. That weekend, Daintry and others from security meet at the country house of Sir John Hargreaves, Daintry’s superior, for a pheasant shoot and a discussion of the security leak that was traced to Castle’s office. Over whiskey and cigars, Hargreaves decides that once the culprit is identified he will have to be eliminated to spare British Intelligence the embarrassment of a public treason trial. To facilitate that end, he invites Doctor Percival to join them in case they should need suggestions for an undetectable poison.

One morning, Castle brings two copies of War and Peace from Halliday, the bookseller he visits. Hargreaves later reports that in a few weeks Castle will confer with Cornelius Muller, a leader of the South African apartheid group called BOSS. Seven years ago Muller was one of Castle’s adversaries when Castle’s love for Sarah led him to break the race laws in South Africa. Hargreaves also informs Castle of Uncle Remus, a White House position paper that will unite Britain, the United States, and the apartheid government to protect their shared financial concerns if a race war should close South African gold and diamond mines. Hargreaves orders Castle to set aside past differences and to work with Muller.

About three weeks later, Percival accompanies Davis to a strip club with the excuse of wanting an evening’s relaxation. Davis tells Castle that Percival mentioned Uncle Remus and the British establishment at Porton. Castle finds this odd. He wonders if Percival suspects a leak and is planting a false rumor. When Percival later lunches with Hargreaves at his club, the doctor names Davis as the leak. He has uncovered discrepancies in Davis’s behavior that he connects with the heavy drinking and the emotional strain he observed in Davis at the strip club. Though he lacks the hard evidence of guilt that Daintry wants, Percival recommends that they proceed by using a poisonous mold from decaying peanuts to make Davis’s eventual death look like liver failure.

Castle’s first meeting with Muller seven years after South Africa leaves him uneasy, although Muller is polite and apologetic. Castle later delivers a report of this meeting to Boris, his communist contact. Castle also verifies from Boris that Carson, the Marxist who helped Sarah escape from South Africa, is really dead, as Muller claims. Castle’s motive for being a double agent is simple gratitude rather than shared ideology: Carson had freed Sarah, and Castle expresses his gratefulness by sending secrets to this friend. Now, on seeing that Operation Uncle Remus supports apartheid, Castle wants to retire.

Castle hears of Davis’s death at the wedding reception of Daintry’s daughter. Daintry and Castle go immediately to Davis’s apartment, where Castle notices men from the special branch. He begins to doubt the findings of natural causes. Castle drafts another report for Boris. The notes Muller leaves with Castle about blacks in South Africa use the frightening phrase the “final solution.” Although Castle communicates with the Russians through a book code based on War and Peace, for the first time he links himself in his report with Carson. Knowing he is going too far, he begins using an emergency telephone code to signal for a safe passage out of England.

Castle takes the transcribed copy of Muller’s notes to Halliday, for Halliday to give to his son, whom Castle suspects is his intermediary with the Russians. Castle later tells Sarah that he is the double agent. She backs him, but Castle insists that Sarah take Sam to his mother’s house and tell her that they quarreled. Castle becomes anxious over news reports of the arrest of Halliday’s son, another bookseller, who is picked up on the charge of selling pornography. If he had had Castle’s report on him, Castle would have been exposed as the double agent.

Meanwhile, Muller contacts Hargreaves with a troubling intuition about Castle. Muller says that he left some inconsequential notes with Castle but that he did not trust him. Hargreaves knows firsthand the importance of intuition. He reluctantly meets with Percival and raises the possibility that they killed the wrong man. Percival reminds Hargreaves that the false information he gave Davis about Porton later surfaced, a confirmation, Percival thinks, of Davis’s guilt. Hargreaves nevertheless sends Daintry to Castle’s house to question him.

Castle’s need to talk leads him to tell Daintry that Davis is not the leak. When Daintry asks Castle if he is the double agent, Castle equivocates. Daintry later reports to Percival that Davis’s murder was a mistake. Hours later, Castle is surprised when Halliday senior arrives at his home and admits that he and not his son is Castle’s intermediary. Castle realizes that his ignorance of his contact reveals how little even the communists trusted him. Halliday maps an escape. Castle travels in disguise to Moscow by way of the Caribbean.

Once there, he reminds the Russians that they agreed to bring Sarah and Sam. Sam lacks a passport, however, and the British stall them with bureaucratic delays. Finally, Castle makes telephone contact with Sarah in England. Sarah tells him she cannot leave without Sam, and Castle says he understands. She urges him to go on hoping, but the silence makes her realize that the line is dead.

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