*London. Great Britain’s capital city, which faced the brunt of the heavy German air attacks in 1941. German chancellor Adolf Hitler launched the air attacks on Britain because he was afraid to risk ferrying his troops across the English Channel in open barges, subject to bombardment from ships, planes, and shore batteries and always in danger of hitting underwater mines. Instead, he gambled on Hermann Göring’s promise to force Britain to surrender through relentless bombing. London eventually became the prime target of the powerful German Luftwaffe. During the period the British called the “Blitz,” masses of German planes arrived every night on schedule. Air raid sirens would begin their mournful wailing, as if they were mourning the end of civilization. Londoners hurried to shelters carrying their bedding and valued possessions.
Up above the blacked-out city the sky was pierced with searchlights trying to pick out planes for the antiaircraft gunners to shoot at. When the bombs began to fall, the fire fighters would aim their hoses at the burning buildings, but the little streams of water seemed pitifully ineffective against the blazing chaos. In the morning, the Londoners would go off to work in their shops, offices, warehouses, and factories, trying to conduct business as usual, although every morning saw numbers of dead and wounded being trucked away in makeshift ambulances. It was the first time in history that the civilian population of a major city had witnessed such sights—staircases leading to upper stories that no longer existed, burnt-out vehicles blocking streets, human limbs protruding from piles of rubble, detours around enormous craters holding unexploded bombs, broken glass everywhere, children shouting for joy after discovering their schools had disappeared overnight. Greene realized that all this made a magnificent setting for a novel about fear and alienation.
In The Ministry of Fear, the external reality reflects the mood, the internal reality, of the protagonist Arthur Rowe, whom Greene introduces as the “Unhappy Man.” His life is a microcosm within a macrocosm, a nightmare within a nightmare. Just as London is being demolished block by block and brick by brick, so too Rowe’s life seems to be falling apart. But it should be noted that Rowe retains a quirky, fatalistic sense of humor, just as many embattled Londoners maintained good cheer in the midst of chaos.
Greene’s masterful novel is sprinkled with characteristically whimsical, tragic, and funny thumbnail descriptions of London under siege. An example:The stairs were at the back of the flats looking toward Chelsea, and as you climbed above the second floor and your view lifted, the war came back into sight. Most of the church spires seemed to have been snapped off two-thirds up like sugar-sticks, and there was an appearance of slum clearance, where there hadn’t really been any slums.
No history book can give as graphic an impression of London at this critical turning point in human history as Greene’s dramatic “entertainment,” The Ministry of Fear. Arthur Rowe may have been a creature of his imagination, but the setting in which his story is played out was very real indeed. The great Battle of Britain, which ended only after the Hitler took the fatal misstep of throwing all of his military forces against the Soviet Union, inspired Greene’s tragicomic thriller, and burning, embattled, heroic London was integral to the plot.
Allott, Kenneth, and Miriam Farris. The Art of Graham Greene. New York: Russell, 1963. One of the first book-length studies of Greene and still one of the best. Views The Ministry of Fear in the terms...
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of Greene’s obsessions with “the divided mind” or “the fallen world.”
Boardman, Gwenn R. Graham Greene: The Aesthetics of Exploration. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1971. Sees the novel as “an ingenious parable on the nature of love.” The book is a commentary on the state of the world and “the mess that Western civilization” was in at the time.
Cuoto, Maria. Graham Greene: On the Frontier. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. An excellent discussion of the book’s complexities. Greene’s “artistry lies in breaking the mold of the thriller to integrate tragic and spiritual concerns.”
DeVitis, A. A. Graham Greene. Rev. ed. Edited by Kinley E. Roby. Boston: Twayne, 1986. An excellent starting point for a consideration of Greene’s work. Insightful chapter on the “entertainments” as opposed to the “novels.”
Wolfe, Peter. Graham Greene the Entertainer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972. Essential book-length study which chiefly addresses those works classified as “entertainments.” Devotes an entire chapter to The Ministry of Fear.