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When writing an analysis of The Human Factor, there are several perspectives you could choose to take. The story offers rich exploration of multiple concepts such as age, racism and humanity, and your analysis could include one or all of them.

One approach to an analysis of The Human Factor would be a discussion of the racial tension, which the book touches on as part of Castle's motivation for leaking governmental secrets to the Communists. While Castle was in the Secret Service during World War II, his first wife was killed in the London blitz, and his guilt for failing to protect her is part of why he has such a strong sense of gratitude to Carson. Carson is the Soviet agent who helped him get his next wife, Sarah, out of prison after he broke apartheid laws with her. Apartheid was the system of racial segregation in South Africa, institutionalizing racial discrimination and ensuring the white population would be dominant over people of other races. To break apartheid laws was a serious crime.

Another perspective you could use in your analysis is the theme of youth and old age. Greene shows the fear of aging through the eyes of Maurice Castle, Doctor Percival, Colonel Daintry and Sir John Hargreaves. Each man has a different attitude about aging and a different strategy for coping. For example, Castle is distressed that he will not share old age with his younger wife, so he would rather get a different job as opposed to going into retirement.

Another approach would be a discussion of humanity. Maurice Castle is arguably the most human of the characters, basing his decision making on feeling he owes Carson, the Soviet agent who helped get Sarah out of prison. He makes these decisions even at great personal risk. Then we have Doctor Pervical on the opposite end of the spectrum, a cold, cynical man who does not even feel regret when his decisions lead directly to the death of an innocent man.

The Human Factor

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2250

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 his bed,” when the fatal illness set in. Castle imagines that “perhaps somewhere far away a microphone and a recorder were being detached from the line. Davis would no longer be under surveillance. He had escaped.” It is an effective chapter ending that anticipates the end of the novel.

To some extent, Greene uses the British Secret Service structure as a metaphor for life as a game. The game becomes more complicated when Cornelius Muller, a South African agent, arrives to share with the British an American project with the code name of “Uncle Remus,” the goal of which is to prevent a race war that threatens to close the gold mines and cut off the uranium supply. Castle passes this information on to the Soviets, but the notes he steals from Muller are the wrong set. Muller, whose notes are headed “A Final Solution” and who declares that there is no such thing as ancient history, is part of a historical context that Greene creates. And in Castle’s own part in history, certain relationships recur. Muller is a “racialist” who once tried to blackmail Castle under South Africa’s race laws; Ivan, who was once his Soviet control in London, had also tried to blackmail Castle. An exile in Moscow, Castle must again deal with Ivan.

Castle, who lives a very private life is conscious that he has no friends. He is estranged from his mother, and his father is dead. He does not even have the satisfaction of close contact with his wife’s son, Sam, by her Bantu husband (who may or may not have died in prison). Although he does not wish Sam were his own child, the thought of Sam living among the Bantus, dying of starvation or radiation if the Uncle Remus plan should ever be put into effect, makes Castle feel justified in betraying the plan.

In all his novels, Greene’s characters discover that the ties that bind sometimes strangle, that our interdependence forces us in some ways to become double agents who must in time end in old age, loneliness, silence, and exile. A comparison of Greene’s works with Joseph Conrad’s would reveal many illuminating parallels. The epigraph of The Human Factor is from Conrad: “I only know that he who forms a tie is lost. The germ of corruption has entered into his soul.” Love and gratitude form the major ties in Castle’s life, beginning with his relationship with a Bantu black woman and her child. During World War II, while Castle was away in the Secret Service, his first wife was killed in the London blitz; his guilt for not being there to protect her partially explains his exaggerated sense of gratitude to Carson, a Soviet agent, for helping him get Sarah out of South Africa years ago when he broke the apartheid laws with her. She did not learn until later that he had used her to contact his African agents. She tells him she sometimes wishes she were still his agent. “You tell me so much less than you did then.” He is now a double agent out of gratitude to Carson, who died in prison; thus, he puts himself and Sarah in even greater danger.

Castle’s mother once told him that when he was a child he “always gave away too much in a swap.” Because he fears, hates, and loves, he is convinced he should quit the Service; human emotions have no place in it, and are actually a detriment to the job. In Moscow, Castle is forced, like other defectors, to live on Russia’s gratitude; and Sarah’s efforts to join Castle in Moscow are a reversal of Castle’s efforts to join Sarah at the Hotel Palana in Lourenco Marques (which, ironically, is where Davis wanted to be transferred to).

The compassion that is part of his character also causes Castle to form ties with Davis and Daintry. When he leaves a note in a tree for Boris, he remembers leaving a love note for a girl when he was ten years old. She was a girl nobody liked, and “he was there to right the balance. That was all.” When Daintry plaintively asks Castle to attend his daughter’s wedding with him because he will not know a soul there, Castle realizes that he cannot resist any call for help. Castle does not see, as the reader does, that his loneliness and inability to communicate with others parallels Daintry’s predicament. When Boris is not there to talk to, and other attempts to communicate (including trying to confide in a priest, who rudely tells him he needs a doctor) fail, loneliness compels Castle to expose himself to Daintry, who feels the same aching loneliness and need to speak. Both men suffer from the rule of silence imposed by their profession; out of frustration, Daintry, also, talks too much, telling strangers about his mother and father. He has bored his wife into “that chilling world of long silences.” Lonely, he calls his daughter, but when he mispronounces her new last name, his son-in-law tells him he has the wrong number, and hangs up. Likewise, in the end, the line to Moscow will go dead, cutting Castle off from Sarah. Greene contrasts Percival and Hargreaves with Castle and Daintry; each is the other’s only friend.

In every story of double agents, a doublecross must surface; in Greene’s symbolic use of the spy genre, the doublecross contributes to the novel’s meaning. To pass messages to Boris, Castle buys classics such as War and Peace and Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (the titles are a little too pat) at a used book store; he tricks the proprietor into passing on to his son, who runs a pornographic book shop across the street, passages taken from the books. But when Castle must go into exile in Moscow, Halliday, the father, reveals himself to be the real contact, a loyal Communist; another lonely old man, he tells Castle he felt less lonely when Castle visited the shop. “It came as a shock to Castle to realize how little he had been trusted even by those who had the most reason to trust.” In Moscow, Castle learns that the messages he sent to Moscow were passed back to the British to give the impression they had an agent in place in Moscow. Castle has risked everything only to lend a few panes to a hall of mirrors.

Castle’s exile in Moscow is but a literal culmination of a series of existential exiles every human being must experience. Greene conveys a sense of that exile in his imagery. Early in the novel, a light rain gives “a black glitter to the pavement like a policeman’s raincoat.” That rain becomes in Moscow “a snow in which one could expect the world to end.” In Moscow, he is “safe at the center of the cyclone.” He feels like Robinson Crusoe in his little room, another image that seems a little too mechanical.

To emphasize our sense of Castle’s exile in Moscow, the physical and psychological atmosphere of which suggests the universal limbo of old age and retirement, to which the dangers of double agentry lend poignance, Greene shifts at the end for the first time to the point of view of Castle’s black wife, Sarah, herself an exile from South Africa. She and her son are the only “country” to which Castle feels any loyalty. During a long distance call from Moscow, Castle tells Sarah that perhaps she and Sam will join him in the spring, but the only certainty his tone expresses is that of old age. “She said, ’Maurice, Maurice, please go on hoping,’ but in the long unbroken silence which followed she realized that the line to Moscow was dead.” On that note, echoing all the themes and techniques Greene has developed, the novel ends. One hopes the line to Greene remains open.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524


*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. Castle’s flashbacks to his years in South Africa reveal a setting during the period when apartheid was supreme. At the same time, political rivalries among Western countries led to partnerships with South Africa’s government that promoted economic imperialism that helped to perpetuate the apartheid system. The United States, Great Britain, and South Africa are collaborating in covert activities in support of Uncle Remus Operation as a joint endeavor, sharing of secret information on diverse issues, such as guerrillas, blockades, Cuban or Russian penetration, or economic interests.

While living in South Africa, Castle had to break the country’s rigid racial-separation laws in order to be with Sarah. This experience opened his eyes to the evils of apartheid and made him sympathetic to the plight of black South Africans. In fact, he became a Soviet informant because of his sympathy for Africans.


*Moscow. Capital of the Soviet Union. When Castle fears that he will be discovered as a double-agent, the KGB arranges his escape from England to provide him sanctuary in Moscow. There, he discovers that he must learn a great deal about Russian culture and language. At the same time, he learns that the Russians have merely used the information Castle has sent them to make Western nations believe there is a double-agent in Moscow who does not actually exist. This disclosure comes to Castle only after he is virtually a prisoner in Moscow. Meanwhile, England turns into a prison for Castle’s family because his wife does not have her son on her passport. There is an irony of fate in the separation of this family that had come together across continents; in the end, Sarah and her son are forced to remain in England, while Castle leads a life of an exile in Russia.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 200

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.


Critical Essays