Ways of Escape Critical Essays

Graham Greene


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The idea of escape is central to an understanding of Greene’s life and writing. He sees writing as a form of therapy: “Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition.” Both his writing and his compulsive travels to dangerous places around the world are ways of escape. Like his fictional characters, Greene enjoys living on the edge of danger, testing his spiritual, psychological, and physical limits. By living intensely, he can evade the deadly boredom and emptiness that threaten his creative sanity.

Greene has carefully excluded from his autobiography details of his personal life. He explains, for example, how he met his wife, Vivien, in A Sort of Life, but nowhere does he mention his separation from her in Ways of Escape; she simply ceases to exist. Greene is more concerned here with dramatizing the social and political atmosphere in which he created his novels. “Those parts of a life most beloved of columnists,” he explains, “remain outside the scope of this book.”

One gets the impression from this book that Greene is always at the top of his form, whether writing a new novel or traveling to some remote part of the world. He explains how he set out to write a book that would both please the popular taste and be made into a film, and Stamboul Train succeeded in both aims. He also recounts how he tested his youthful bravado by traveling with his twenty-three-year-old cousin Barbara to Liberia, an adventure that was the basis of his travel book Journey Without Maps (1936). A statement from his cousin’s diary—when Greene became ill in Zigi’s Town—captures the tough-minded image of himself that he seeks to project: “I took Graham’s temperature again, and it had gone up. I felt quite calm at the thought of Graham’s death. To my own horror I felt unemotional about it.”

Greene delights in depicting himself in unorthodox poses, whether exploring Africa or writing film criticism. He gives considerable emphasis to his controversial review of Shirley Temple’s film Wee Willie Winkie (1937), in which he suggests that Twentieth Century-Fox had procured Temple “for immoral purposes” and that she had “a certain adroit coquetry which appealed to middle-aged men.” Temple and the studio brought a libel suit against the magazine in which the review appeared and won their case. Nevertheless, Greene takes an obvious delight in having stung the precocious child star and exposed the hypocrisy of the studio; he records the incident as a moral victory.

Although Greene converted to Catholicism in 1926, he had to contend with the label of Catholic writer only after he published Brighton Rock in 1938. Insisting that he is not a Catholic writer but a writer who happens to be Catholic, Greene nevertheless brought Catholic characters and themes into almost all of his later works. Given the fixed rules and regulations of the Catholic church at that time, he could put his characters into dynamic situations in which their faith and humanity could be tested to the breaking point. His Catholicism provided him with an excellent dramatic framework for his future novels, stories, and plays.

In The Power and the Glory (1940), Greene shocked the public (and the Catholic church) with his depiction of an alcoholic priest who achieves an ambiguous sainthood in his execution. Later, in The Heart of the Matter (1948), Greene again tests the limits of orthodox theology by having his Catholic hero, Scobie, commit suicide. Technically, Scobie has damned himself to Hell, but Greene suggests that God can forgive even the hopeless. In his autobiography, Greene expresses a growing weariness over the arguments in Catholic journals as to whether Scobie is saved or damned. Greene...

(The entire section is 1602 words.)