The Ministry of Fear

by Graham Greene

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1091

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 Nazi sympathizer Willi Hilfe, Greene delves into the other extreme: underdeveloped pity or pitilessness. Hilfe is a monstrous villain, an utterly selfish, amoral criminal who loses the sense of worth of human life.

Rowe’s overwhelming sense of pity makes him capable of bearing pain but equally incapable of causing pain to others. As he unwittingly becomes involved with the activities of an undercover Nazi organization in war-torn London during the air raids of World War II, Rowe ironically becomes the spokesman of humanity as he must face down Hilfe and the threat his group poses. This involvement with Hilfe and his group, however, is necessary for Rowe to achieve self-actualization. To overcome the hurdles that block his rebirth, Rowe must give up both his private life and his safety to help the common cause and rid his country of the threat Hilfe embodies.

The book’s structure is notable. The Ministry of Fear is divided into four parts....

(This entire section contains 1091 words.)

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The first, “The Unhappy Man,” deals with Rowe, describing the experiences that combine to create him. As a result of the mercy killing, Rowe becomes a solitary man, unable to find a job and without friends. The fact that the murder is a mercy killing does not soften anybody’s harsh opinion of Rowe—even Rowe’s opinion of himself. He stands condemned just as deeply in his own eyes as in those of others.

Because the story is set during World War II, Rowe is all the more alone because he is cut off from the sense of community engendered by wartime experience. This section sets the stage for the action, portraying the fete at which Rowe wins, ironically, the cake in which the undercover organization places a microfilm of secret naval plans.

The second section, “The Happy Man,” deals with a Rowe who, as a result of a bomb blast, loses the memory of his past, along with the sense of pity that propels him. Rowe becomes Richard Digby and is in a countryside nursing home under the care of the famous Dr. Forester. Rowe is at peace, at least as much as it is possible for him to experience peace. His amnesia allows him to rest and rejuvenate, which eventually leads to thoughts of escape.

In the third section, “Bits and Pieces,” Rowe slowly begins his reorientation as he rediscovers his beliefs and convictions. Since he did not yet redevelop his overdeveloped sense of pity, he is still essentially happy. The fourth section, “The Whole Man,” presents Rowe’s public and private reintegration as a complete knowledge of his past returns to him.

This structure, which involves Rowe losing touch with himself, only gradually to relearn the painful facts of life, connects The Ministry of Fear with the idea of “the divided man,” “the man within” of Greene’s earlier novels. Were it not for this “man within,” an ideal, imagined fantasy self, the ordinary, instinctive man would find it easier to come to terms with actuality.

However, surprisingly, Rowe does not entirely lose touch with his sense of pity at the book’s end. He comes full circle to a new life with Anna Hilfe but is still so obsessed with his sense of pity at the idea of human suffering that he is willing, at the story’s end, to enter into this new relationship with Anna without being completely honest. Rowe’s pity will cause the relationship to be one based in fear and dishonesty, as he attempts to spare her the knowledge that he remembers killing his wife.

Easily one of the strongest of the entertainments, The Ministry of Fear falls short of Greene’s criteria for his novels only because of the lighter treatment of religious themes. A strong thriller narrative, combined with numerous artistic and thematic complexities, makes The Ministry of Fear one of Greene’s best works.