Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 729
In The Human Factor, Graham Greene develops an idea he mentioned in an essay on the adventure novels of John Buchan. Greene credited Buchan with being “the first to realize the enormous dramatic value of adventure in familiar surroundings happening to unadventurous men.” Some of Greene’s early novels illustrate Buchan’s premise—A Gun for Sale: An Entertainment (1936), The Confidential Agent (1939), and The Ministry of Fear: An Entertainment (1943)—but The Human Factor is his most thoughtful treatment of this idea. Greene elaborates movingly on the costs and value of human compassion by placing unadventurous characters such as Maurice Castle and Arthur Davis in the setting of modern espionage. The novel’s epigraph, a quote by Joseph Conrad, also helps to identify this focus on humanity: “I only know that he who forms a tie is lost. The germ of corruption has entered into his soul.”
This germ of corruption in The Human Factor is openheartedness, a quality that outweighs commitment to an ideology. Castle’s betrayal of his government is motivated solely by a personal kindness by Carson, the Marxist who arranges Sarah’s escape from a South African prison. At one point Castle’s mother reminds him of a childhood insecurity: “You always had an exaggerated sense of gratitude for the least kindness.” In one of Greene’s most unsettling ironies, Castle’s human ties thus become both his greatest strength and greatest vulnerability.
For example, to shield Sarah from any repercussions, Castle sends his secrets to Russia in complete secrecy. This display of love, however, only increases the precariousness of his position by increasing his loneliness. Castle prowls streets carrying the self-incriminating report about Cornelius Muller and seeking the therapy of someone in whom to confide. Even a priest, on hearing Castle admit that he is not Catholic, slams the confessional door in his face. Castle describes himself to Sarah as someone born to be a half-believer. When a human face such as Carson’s is attached to Marxism or those of the humble priests he meets in Africa are attached to Christianity, he feels inner stirrings of commitment. What he wants most, however, is “not the City of God or Marx but the city called Peace of Mind.” This he is denied.
Castle learns “the age-old lesson that fear and love are indivisible”; others are defined by a crippling emotional aridity. Away from apartheid, Muller adapts like a chameleon to attitudes in England, and his hollow apologies to Castle and Sarah indicate his complete lack of convictions. Muller’s later intuition about Castle’s disloyalty arises from his recollection that Castle offered friendship to Carson. To Muller, such benevolence corrupts. Muller describes an agent years ago in Africa who leaked secrets: “He too cultivated friendships—and the friendships took over.”
Doctor Percival is Greene’s most inhuman character. His interest in fishing supplants an interest in his fellow man. Percival expounds on the varieties of fish even as the naked women contort before him at the strip club. Percival dehumanizes the murder plot against Davis by rendering it in comfortable metaphors (“we seem to have a fish on the line”). Like the sterile boxes in the abstract art he notices at Sir John Hargreaves’s country house, Percival’s chilling inhumanity rationalizes killing the wrong man, thereby thwarting all remorse. He even tells Sarah that blocking her passage to Russia is “nothing personal.” As with Muller, this cold-as-fish politeness affronts more than open hostility does; hostility would at least imply some human emotion.
Daintry’s plight may be the saddest. Realizing that “they killed my marriage with their secrets” and hating the subsequent loneliness imposed on him, Daintry remains an outsider at his own daughter’s wedding. At the reception he accidentally smashes one of his former wife’s ornamental owls, one of a hundred such pieces of bric-a-brac. This human blunder reminds Castle of Daintry’s smashed marriage and stirs his sympathy. In Daintry’s final visit, Castle finds his longed-for chance to talk. Daintry ultimately does his duty, but he realizes that he must resign, a decision that only intensifies his solitude. Greene’s unsparing emotional realism thus makes The Human Factor important not only among his own works but also in the growth of the spy novel from the uncomplicated politics and morality of Buchan to the richer ambiguities of modern fiction.