With the publication of Brighton Rock in 1938, Graham Greene began to categorize his works as either “novels” or “entertainments,” with the latter term suggesting a work of somehow lesser stature. The distinguishing factor between the two appears to be the way in which religion is treated; the novels are set apart by a more serious consideration of religious and ethical problems, while the entertainments focus more on plot, action, and melodrama, with religious problems as secondary concerns.
Nevertheless, despite their overall lack of seriousness, the entertainments often show Greene at his best, committed to keeping his readers in suspense and making the action exciting, with the goal of telling the best story possible. In some cases, the entertainments even appear to serve as preliminary sketches for the more elaborate treatment of similar themes in the novels that follow them.
This might be argued in the case of The Ministry of Fear, the most ambitious, arguably the best, of Greene’s entertainments. In its focus on how the emotion of pity can destroy those in which it is overdeveloped, the book is also an obvious precursor to one of Greene’s finest achievements, the novel The Heart of the Matter (1948).
Moved by an almost corrupting sense of pity, Arthur Rowe, the book’s protagonist, kills his wife, who is suffering from an incurable illness. His sense of pity is corrupting, because it is really a disguised form of contempt for others. To pity other people is to regard them as inferior.
Whether he does it to end her suffering or to free himself from having to watch her endure, he cannot be certain. If he kills her quickly by poison because he cannot stand to watch her die slowly from cancer, then his mercy killing springs from selfishness. This “mercy killing,” of which the court acquits him, has an echo in a childhood memory. As a boy, Rowe happened upon a struggling rat with a broken back and ended its suffering, an experience that appears to define his character.
Rowe is obviously a precursor to Major Scobie, the main character in The Heart of the Matter. Like Rowe, Scobie is defined by his pity. Like Rowe’s, Scobie’s sense of responsibility for his fellow human beings and his concern with their unhappiness imply a lack of trust, a lack of faith in God. It is the treatment of this theme that most separates the two works, as the entertainment chooses to leave it unexplored, whereas the novel treats this lack of trust as one of its primary themes.
In Rowe, pity is overdeveloped to an extreme. In the person of the book’s antagonist, the...
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