The Human Factor

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Graham Greene’s twentieth novel, The Human Factor, not only reminds us quite forcibly that at seventy-five the master is still doing what no other writer can do, but assures us that we probably need not fear that the novels he produces in his declining years will reveal a diminishing of creative energy, imaginative power, or moral force. The Human Factor shows little trace of the weaknesses of his last novel, The Honorary Consul: an apparent arbitrary use of point of view, a looseness of structure, an aura of contrivance, and predilection for theme-mongering.

If Maurice Castle is less memorable and Greene’s style less brilliant than the protagonists and style of his finest novels, one still feels the control of the supremely professional novelist who knows how to use an entertainment genre, the espionage thriller, as a metaphor of man’s basic condition: interdependence among people in love and hate, euphoria and fear, loyalty and betrayal, comradeship and loneliness, confession and silence, youth and old age, habit and chaos.

Greene uses alternating points of view to structure his vision of relationships that corrupt, and to generate the suspense that lures one to espionage novels. Maurice Castle, a double agent of sixty-two with thirty years in the British Secret Service, is the character through whose point of view Greene most often filters the action and his meditations on it. When we view events through the eyes of Colonel Daintry, a security officer within the Service whose assignment is to uncover Doctor Percival (the double agent who devises ingenious ways of disposing of double agents), and through the eyes of Sir John Hargreaves (the new commander who supervises the investigation and disposition of the double agent), we observe parallels among all four men; and our feelings for Castle, who is unable to perceive many of the parallels, are enhanced. For instance, each of them faces the specter of old age (as does Greene himself) and retirement. Their differing attitudes and strategies for coping give us more complex perspectives on the man who most interests us, Castle. Because his wife is young, he realizes that they cannot share old age. Past retirement age, Castle would like only to change his job, not to retire. Percival’s cynical dismissal of his error in killing the innocent Davis makes Daintry, who is most like Castle, want to resign, rather than conspire in a coverup. Knowing “he would exchange one loneliness for another,” he does resign, and feels free, but somehow strangely alone.

In this as in most of Greene’s best novels, espionage suspense also derives from his adroit point of view strategy. By rendering no events from the point of view of Arthur Davis, Castle’s assistant, whom Percival and Hargreaves wrongly suspect of being the double agent, Greene keeps the reader in suspense as to who that double agent really is. Once Davis is dead, Greene allows Castle to act and think more directly in his role as double agent; thus, not until halfway through the novel do we discover that Castle is the man they seek. Another kind of suspense sustains the reader’s interest thereafter: when and how will the other three old men, Daintry, Percival, and Hargreaves, discover Castle and deal with him? At midpoint, we are more interested in Castle as a complex character and in following Greene’s delineation of his varied relationships than in conventional espionage intrigue; and the suspense becomes more an acceptable device for heightening our responses to the pathos of Castle’s psychological traumas than a major element in a spy story.

As undeserved exiles within the Secret Service, Castle and young Davis are the only agents in the small Eastern and Southern Africa division. Nothing in Africa, says Hargreaves, the commander, is ever urgent. When Daintry discovers a leak in security, it is the public revelation that a leak is possible that poses the problem; scandal and the exposure of a court case would do much more harm than the information a double agent might reveal. It is imperative that the double agent die quietly, “naturally.” Arthur Davis, a romantic who joined the service expecting a James Bond excitement and who retains an incredible innocence, finally tells Castle, “We aren’t the stuff of double agents, you and me.” When Percival tells Hargreaves of his plan for having Davis die a natural death, Hargreaves tells the doctor that he sometimes gives him the creeps. The commander’s liaison officer with the bacteriological warfare division, Percival is amoral; to him, the word “traitor” is old-fashioned. He is “a little stout rosy man in tweeds” and silver-rimmed spectacles whose love of trout Greene belabors a little too mechanically as a character tag. In strict confidence, Percival tells the suspect, Davis, a bogus story about weapon researches; then, with insufficient proof, he impatiently takes it upon himself to proceed with the elimination of Davis.

Greene generates the pathos of Davis’ predicament through the points of view of Castle and Daintry. When his daughter tells him she is getting married, Daintry happens to catch sight of Davis in the restaurant. At the wedding, he and Castle learn that Davis is dead; when Daintry accidentally breaks his ex-wife’s owl figurine, she tells him it is irreplaceable; he replies that Davis is too. Cynthia, the daughter of an official who works in the office and whom Davis loved, says, “All I ever did for him was—was make...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*London. Great Britain’s capital city is the central location of the British Secret Service. The novel’s protagonist, Maurice Castle, works as a trusted intelligence officer in a London firm but is actually selling secrets to the Soviet Union. He returns to England from Africa and lives in the country, commuting to London by train. His movements between the city and his country home highlight the contrast between his dual allegiances: In London he is a secret agent; in the country he uses an old childhood hideout to drop secret information to the Soviets. The ironic framework of Greene’s novel unfolds several relationships, including Castle’s interracial marriage, that challenge cultural perceptions through plausible and possible relationships of strong commitments.

London itself is not free of racial prejudice. Castle mistakenly believes that no one in London would mind the “African blood” of his wife. However, a passerby addresses her with the derogatory term “Topsy”—echoing a nickname for a black slave girl in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851-1852). Greene ridicules London’s class-conscious society through Sir Hargreaves’s marriage to an American woman who brought him wealth, status, and a promotion in the London office at a time when he was an inexperienced man in the firm.

*South Africa

*South Africa. Homeland of Castle’s wife, Sarah....

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(Great Characters in Literature)

DeVitis, A. A. “The Later Greene.” In Essays in Graham Greene. Vol. 1, edited by Peter Wolfe. Greenwood, Fla.: Penkevill, 1987. This essay and the revised edition of DeVitis’ book Graham Greene (Boston: Twayne, 1986) offer a number of insights on The Human Factor, in particular on Greene’s use of chess metaphors and his novel’s debt to the moral ambiguities of Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent.

O’Prey, Paul. A Reader’s Guide to Graham Greene. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988. Comments (pages 135-140) usefully on The Human Factor and draws on Greene’s own remarks.

Shapiro, Henry L. “Morality and Ambivalence in The Human Factor.” In Essays in Graham Greene. Vol. 2, edited by Peter Wolfe. Greenwood, Fla.: Penkevill, 1990. Explores one of Greene’s recurrent concerns and discusses the link between religion and espionage.

Wolfe, Peter, ed. Essays in Graham Greene. Vol. 3. St. Louis: Lucas Hall Press, 1992. Introduces and reprints three important early essays on Greene.

Wolfe, Peter. Graham Greene the Entertainer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972. The best book on Greene’s early novels that prepared for The Human Factor, Wolfe’s study is also one of the most perceptive books on the thriller as an art form.