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...
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