A World of My Own
Dreams were always a preeminent feature in Graham Greene’s fiction. On his wedding night, Pinkie Brown, the unreflective boy gangster of Brighton Rock (1938), dreams of being surrounded by mortal enemies in a schoolyard until a dead friend gives him a razor with which to slash his way to freedom. In The Power and the Glory (1940), the anonymous whiskey priest dreams on the eve of his execution that an adolescent girl he once befriended serves him communion, despite the fact that he has been denied a final confession. Thomas Fowler, the cynical narrator of The Quiet American (1955), dreams of his Vietnamese mistress dancing with his enemy Alden Pyle, although she does not yet know him, and the dream foreshadows her eventual move from one man to the other. Whether premonitory, symbolic, or etiological, in nearly every novel and story Greene deployed his characters’ dreams in strategic and revealing ways. At least two of his novels, It’s a Battlefield (1934) and The Honorary Consul (1973), and several short stories originated in Greene’s own dreams. He once used a dream of his to overcome an impasse in a novel, attributing the dream to his protagonist Query in A Burnt-Out Case (1961). On other occasions, as in the terrorized and voodoo-saturated Haiti of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier in The Comedians (1966), the bombed-out London of the blitz in The Ministry of Fear (1943), and postwar Vienna in The Third Man (1950), Greene invoked a general atmosphere of nightmarish reality that operates as more than a mere backdrop to lurid tales of violence and treachery. Indeed, his long-standing advocacy of the suspense thriller, a form in which he is rightly considered paramount, may be understood in part as an attempt to tap into our collective nightmares, dramatizing fears about the powerlessness, the loss of moral authority, and the imminence of cataclysmic destruction that afflict the modern psyche.
Greene’s sense of reality was indeed so distinctive and more or less consistent in works spanning six decades, that critics long ago coined the term “Greeneland” to describe all of his fictional locales, whatever they might be called in the works themselves. The unrelenting emphasis on seedy, dilapidated dwellings; subtropical climate; fetid, stagnant water; grit beneath the nails; wounded pariah dogs; dental caries; snakes and rats and vultures; corrupt police and other officials; communal prison cells; death everywhere—such details are standard in Greene’s mise-en-scène, which has been parodied frequently. Greene, an inveterate traveler and a highly successful journalist, naturally argued that these details were not projections of his obsessive sensibility so much as they were an accurate record of the real world he had directly experienced: “ ‘This is Indochina,’ I want to exclaim, ‘This is Mexico, this is Sierra Leone carefully and accurately described. . . .’ But I know that argument is useless. [Critics] won’t believe the world they haven’t noticed is like that.” The difficulty, however, may be less that readers are unaware of the world, than that they have been made acutely aware by Greene himself of a particular vision of the world, rendered with incomparable power. One of the secrets of this power is precisely that it depends on the apparently arbitrary yet ruthless selectiveness and simplicity of dreams. As Greene commented in one of his stories, “Absolute reality belongs to dreams and not to life. The gold of dreams is not the diluted gold of even the best goldsmiths, there are no diamonds in dreams made of paste—what seems is. ‘Who seems most kingly is the king.’ ”
Dreams were more than a mere literary device that Greene used to reveal the unconscious motivation of his characters. Rather, they pervaded Greene’s own way of looking at reality and his characteristic way of representing it. In his autobiography, A Sort of Life (1971), he wrote about a recurrent nightmare from which he suffered at the age of seven, involving a malevolent witch who lurked on the nursery landing by a linen cupboard each night.
After a long series of nightmares when the witch would leap on my back and dig long mandarin fingernails into my shoulders, I dreamed I turned on her and fought back and after that she never again appeared in sleep.
Notwithstanding this apparently successful dream-therapy, the nightmare figure of the witch remained a fixture in Greene’s imagination, reactivated during his adolescence when he read H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885), with its “ancient witch Gagool,” and later still during his arduous trek through the uncharted bush of Liberia, recounted in his travel book Journey Without Maps (1936). These in turn set the stage for his subsequent African fiction—notably The Heart of the Matter (1948) and A Burnt-Out Case—which effectively used setting to evoke that dreamlike hyperreality at once deeply personal, linked to Greene’s childhood fears, and broadly racial, associated with northern European ambivalence toward the African “heart of darkness.”
Greene’s formal interest in dreams began at an early age. Removed from school during a nervous breakdown at age sixteen, Greene underwent six months of psychoanalysis in London from Kenneth Richmond, a noted Jungian. Part of the treatment involved Greene’s keeping a dream diary and discussing his dreams each day with the analyst, checking on unconscious associations. “Afterwards,” Greene writes in A Sort of Life, “he would talk in general terms about the theory of analysis, about the mortmain of the past which holds us in thrall. . . . But so far as my own dreams and associations went, he told me nothing; he patiently waited for me to discover the long road back for myself.” If he could...
(The entire section is 2421 words.)