“Goodness has only once found a perfect incarnation in a human body and never will again, but evil can always find a home there. Human nature is not black and white but black and grey.” So said Graham Greene in his essay “The Lost Childhood,” and the statement as well as any defines the worldview manifested in his fiction. The “perfect incarnation” is Jesus Christ, and it is against this backdrop of the divine-made-human that Greene draws and measures all the actions of his stories. Whether the stories are explicitly religious in theme, such as “The Hint of an Explanation,” or not, or whether Greene chooses to view humanity in a tragic or comic light, the basic vision is the same: human nature steeped in evil and struggling with the fundamental problems of egotism, love and hate, responsibility, innocence and guilt.
As a result of this vision, the central action in Greene’s fictional world is invariably betrayal—the Judas complex—betrayal of one’s fellow human beings, of one’s self, or of one’s God. For Greene’s heroes and heroines there is no escape; they fall by virtue of their very humanity. Yet their flawed humanity is not presented and then judged from the standpoint of any simplistic orthodoxy. As a thinker and as a fiction writer Greene was a master of paradox, creating a world of moral and theological mystery in which ignobility and failure may often be the road to salvation. Indeed, in Greene’s world the worst sin is a presumed innocence which masks a corrosive egotism that effectively cuts human beings off from their fellow creatures and from God.
The Hint of an Explanation
Greene’s paradoxical treatment of his major themes within a theological perspective is best evident in “The Hint of an Explanation.” The story develops in the form of a conversation between the narrator, an agnostic, and another passenger, a Roman Catholic, while the two are riding on a train in England. Although he confesses to have occasionally had intuitions of the existence of God, the agnostic is intellectually revolted by the whole notion of “such a God who can so abandon his creatures to the enormities of Free Will . . . ‘When you think of what God—if there is a God—allows. It’s not merely the physical agonies, but think of the corruption, even of children.’” The question posed by the agnostic is the mystery of evil—why an omniscient God permits it. In response, the Catholic reminds him that the limitations of human understanding make a full answer impossible for human beings. Nevertheless, he insists, there are “hints” of an explanation, hints caught by men when they are involved in events that do not turn out as they were intended— “by human actors I mean, or by the thing behind the human actors.” The suggested “thing” behind the human actors is Satan, and it is the Catholic traveler’s conviction of Satan’s ultimate impotence and defeat, derived paradoxically from an experience of evil in his own childhood, that provides the underpinning for his own belief in divine providence.
As a child, the Catholic son of a Midland bank manager was tempted by the town freethinker to steal a consecrated Host while serving Mass and deliver it to him. The tempter, a baker named Blacker, is corruption incarnate; he both entices the boy by letting him play with an electric train and promising to give it to him, and at the same time threatens to bleed him with a razor if the boy will not do his bidding. The boy is conscious of the eternal consequences his actions will have: “Murder is sufficiently trivial to have its appropriate punishment, but for this act the mind boggled at the thought of any retribution at all.” Still, driven by fear of Blacker, he steals the communion wafer—the Body of Christ—and prepares to deliver it to the baker. Nevertheless, when Blacker appears that evening under the boy’s bedroom window to collect the Host, his diabolical purposes are defeated when the boy abruptly swallows the communion wafer rather than deliver it into the hands of the Enemy.
As he now recalls this episode from his childhood for the agnostic stranger, the Catholic sees in it a “hint” of the manner in which the mystery of the divine will operates, for that episode was the “odd beginning” of a life that eventually led him to become a priest. Looking back on it now, he sees in his struggle with Blacker nothing less than the struggle between God and Satan for the human soul, and the inevitable defeat of “that Thing,” doomed to hopelessness and unhappiness.
Although the story is clear in its religious theme, any danger of its being merely a tract disguised as fiction is skillfully circumvented both by the paradoxical quality of Greene’s thought and by his technical skill as a writer. For one thing, Greene undercuts the threat of dogmatic rigidity by creating enormous compassion for the malevolent figure of Blacker, imprisoned in his own misery, at the same time leaving the door open for his eventual redemption through defeat. Moreover, much of this compassion derives from the reader’s awareness that, as a human being, Blacker is as much the victim of satanic forces working through him as he is agent of his own fate. Greene sustains a delicate dramatic balance between man’s free will and responsibility on the one hand, and on the other, the suggestion or “hint” of supernatural forces at work in human affairs. Greene leaves the reader with a sense of the ineffable mystery of reality, and even the rather hackneyed and mechanical surprise ending of the story—the discovery in the last paragraph that the Catholic is indeed a priest—is consistent with the dramatic logic of the story.
“The Hint of an Explanation” bears many of the trademarks that made Greene one of the most important and widely read artists of the twentieth century, earning him both popularity and high critical esteem. His technical skill and sheer virtuosity as a storyteller stemmed equally from his mastery of the high formalist tradition of Henry James and Joseph Conrad and from the conventions of the melodramatic thriller, with its roots in classical, Renaissance, and Jacobean drama. Mastery of the themes and devices of the thriller—love and betrayal, intrigue, unexpected plot turns, the use of the hunt or chase, danger and violence—gave him a firm foundation upon which to base his subtle explorations of the spiritual condition of human beings in the twentieth century. In short, one of his most important contributions to the short story lies in the way in which he took the conventional form of popular fiction and infused it with a dimension of mystery that often penetrates to the deepest theological levels of experience. Although occasionally the action in Greene’s stories may seem contrived, it is contrivance brought off with great dynamism—the energy and unpredictability of life’s happenstances—and not the sealed, airless contrivance wrought by the aesthetic purists (whom Greene denounced), those modern fiction writers who have elevated artistic form to an absolute.
Although the social milieu of Greene’s fiction is most often the commonplace world of modern England and Europe, it is his ability to infuse this landscape with the sense of mystery that gives the stories their imaginative power and depth. Often the most fertile ground for imagination is childhood, and this may well account for the fact that, as in “The Hint of an Explanation,” Greene frequently makes childhood the locus of action for his themes of innocence, egotism, and betrayal. Yet his depiction of childhood is not a sentimentalized, romantic portraiture of innocence betrayed by a hostile world. Greene focuses on childhood because he finds in children a sense of reality which is keener and more alive, a sharper moral imagination, and a more vivid awareness of the personal consequences of their choices as they struggle with the demands of love and hate, loyalty and betrayal. In an essay on James, Greene remarked that “to render the highest justice to corruption you must retain your innocence: you have to be conscious all the time within yourself of treachery to something valuable.” Greene’s fictional children, still unjaded by maturity, feel the potential for treachery both within themselves and surrounding them. Greene was able to make this complex childhood world palpable and render it with great psychological fidelity, perhaps seen best in one of his finest stories, “The Basement Room.”
The Basement Room
Betrayal and the spiritually fatal consequences of choosing a specious innocence over the unalterable fact of the fallen state are the driving forces in “The Basement Room.” Phillip Lane, a seven-year-old upper-class boy, develops a strong bond of friendship with Baines, the family butler, while his parents are gone on a fortnight’s holiday. With Baines, whom he sees as a “buccaneer” and man-of-the-world, Philip feels that he has begun “to live,” and indeed he is initiated into a complex world of love and hate, deceit, the demands of friendship, and eventually betrayal. For Baines and Phillip have a common enemy: Mrs. Baines, a bitter shrew who bullies both her husband and young Phillip. During a day’s outing with Baines, Phillip also meets the butler’s mistress, Emmy, whom Baines introduces as his “niece.” When Mrs. Baines is called away suddenly because of family illness, Baines, in a holiday mood, brings Emmy home for the night, convinced that Phillip will loyally keep his secret.
“Life,” however, so complex and confusing in its demands, is too much for young Phillip. The suspicious Mrs. Baines returns unexpectedly during the night and terrifies him, demanding to know where “they” are. Too frightened to answer, Phillip manages to reach the bedroom door in time to see the enraged Mrs. Baines attacking her husband in the upstairs hallway, and in the ensuing struggle she topples over the bannister and is killed. Phillip runs frightened from the house, while the butler quickly removes her body to the foot of the stairs of their basement apartment to make it appear that she has accidentally fallen there. Phillip wanders aimlessly in the streets, waiting for someone to lift the burden of responsibility from him, for “life” has now become intolerable. “He loved Baines, but Baines had involved him in secrets, in fears he didn’t understand. That was what happened when you loved—you got involved; and Phillip extricated himself from life, from love, from Baines.” So when he is returned home by the police, Phillip betrays Baines, blurting out the facts that condemn the butler.
The effect of Phillip’s betrayal—choosing an egotistic “innocence” over the ambiguous responsibilities of love in a fallen world—is disastrous to his own spiritual growth. At the end of the story, Greene skillfully shifts the scene forward to Phillip’s own deathbed where, having “never faced it [life] again in sixty years . . . ,” he agonizingly relives the moment of his betrayal, murmuring the policeman’s question to Baines (“Who is she? Who is she?”) as he sinks into death. Greene’s point is clear: Phillip’s spiritual development stopped at the age of seven when he refused the consequences of his love for Baines. Instead of the reality of being a fallen, yet free and mature, creature, he chose egotism and the illusion of innocence. The innocence Phillip elects, however, is not a true childlike quality. On the contrary, the childhood Phillip loses is exactly that keen awareness of the potentialities for love and treachery, of the power of evil and the vital sense of mystery inspiring terror and awe which constitutes for Greene the real human condition.We are reminded of Greene’s quoting from Æ’s poem “Germinal”: “In the lost childhood of Judas, Christ was betrayed.”
Greene’s depiction of the lost childhood theme in “The Basement Room” is devastating and terrible, but he can also present the same theme in a manner which is devastatingly funny. Such is the case in “The Destructors,” in which the callous youngster Trevor leads a gang of neighborhood boys in the systematic dismantling of the house of Mr. Thomas—“Old Misery” as the children call him—a retired builder and decorator. Because his own father was once an architect, Trevor fully understands the value of Old Misery’s house; indeed, it is an elegant, twohundred- year-old structure built by Sir Christopher Wren, which embodies the refinements of tradition. In fact, Old Misery’s house is an emblem of civilization itself, the whole legacy of humane values and order and design passed from generation to generation, still imposing even though it stands amid the ruins of bombed-out postwar London. Fully conscious of its historical and cultural significance, Trevor diabolically mobilizes the gang of youths to bring the house down, working from the inside “like worms, don’t you see, in an apple.”
Trevor ingratiates himself with Old Misery by asking to tour the inside of the house and then, learning that the owner will be away for a weekend holiday, sets his plan of destruction in motion. Working floor by floor, the gang wrecks everything— furniture, china and ornamental bric-a-brac, doors, personal mementos, porcelain fixtures, the winding staircase, and parquet floors; even Old Misery’s hidden cache of pound notes is burned up. The evil inspired by Trevor goes beyond simple thievery; it is destruction for its own sake, a satanic love of chaos. When Trevor’s minion Blackie asks him if he hates Old Misery, the leader replies coldly that “There’d be no fun if I hated him. . . . ‘All this love and hate,’ he said, ‘it’s soft, it’s hooey. There’s only things, Blackie. . . .”’ In Trevor’s remark Greene has touched the nerve of a fundamental side of the modern consciousness, its brutal amorality and contempt for the past.
Greene’s inventive genius manages to make “The Destructors” humorous, although terrifyingly so. Trevor’s plan to destroy the house is endangered when Old Misery returns prematurely from his holiday, but Trevor is up to the challenge and instantly contrives a plot to trap the aged owner in his own outdoor privy. Locked in by the gang for the night, Old Misery can only sit helplessly and wonder what the faint sounds of hammering and scraping mean. The next morning a driver arrives to remove his lorry from the parking lot next door, and as he pulls away, unaware of the rope tying his truck to the foundation beams, Old Misery’s house comes down in a heap of rubble. The driver manages to free Old Misery from the privy, but he cannot restrain himself from laughing at the scene of devastation. “‘How dare you laugh,’ Mr. Thomas said, ‘It was my house. My house.’” The driver can only reply, chuckling, “I’m sorry. I can’t help it, Mr. Thomas. There’s nothing personal, but you got to admit it’s funny.”
“The Destructors” represents Greene at his best in presenting his vision of human perversity and folly in a comic vein. The depiction of Trevor’s unmitigated evil is frightening, but it is finely balanced by the humor of the final scene; and in the lorry driver’s laughter and the absurdly pathetic character of Old Misery the reader finds a basic affirmation of the common values of human existence which, paradoxically, triumph over the cold diabolism of young Trevor. It is he who is the ultimate loser. Knowing the world only as “things,” he himself has become a thing—T. the destructor— and he cannot respond either with love or hate to the life around him.
Greene’s stories, with their remarkable craftsmanship, exercise a powerful fascination on the reader. Even at their most melodramatic, his stories unfailingly create a plausible sense of reality because they touch the full range of human experience: petty foibles, corruption, deceit, love, responsibility, hope, and despair. Whether Greene’s emphasis is tragic or comic, or a wry mingling of both, the reader is again and again confronted in the stories with the fundamental mystery of existence on earth, making them at once rich, entertaining, and profound.
Other major works
Children’s literature: The Little Train, 1946; The Little Fire Engine, 1950 (also known as The Little Red Fire Engine, 1952); The Little Horse Bus, 1952; The Little Steam Roller: A Story of Mystery and Detection, 1953.
Plays: The Heart of the Matter, pr. 1950 (with Basil Dean; adaptation of his novel); The Living Room, pr., pb. 1953; The Potting Shed, pr., pb. 1957; The Complaisant Lover, pr., pb. 1959; Carving a Statue, pr., pb. 1964; The Return of A. J. Raffles: An Edwardian Comedy in Three Acts Based Somewhat Loosely on E. W. Hornung’s Characters in “The Amateur Cracksman,” pr., pb. 1975; For Whom the Bell Chimes, pr. 1980, pb. 1983; Yes and No, pr. 1980, pb. 1983; The Collected Plays of Graham Greene, pb. 1985.
Anthologies: The Old School: Essays by Divers Hands, 1934; The Best of Saki, 1950; The Spy’s Bedside Book: An Anthology, 1957 (with Hugh Greene); The Bodley Head Ford Madox Ford, 1962, 1963 (4 volumes); An Impossible Woman: The Memories of Dottoressa Moor of Capri, 1975.
Novels: The Man Within, 1929; The Name of Action, 1930; Rumour at Nightfall, 1931; Stamboul Train: An Entertainment, 1932 (pb. in U.S. as Orient Express: An Entertainment, 1933); It’s a Battlefield, 1934; England Made Me, 1935; A Gun for Sale: An Entertainment, 1936 (pb. in U.S. as This Gun for Hire: An Entertainment); Brighton Rock, 1938; The Confidential Agent, 1939; The Power and the Glory, 1940 (reissued as The Labyrinthine Ways); The Ministry of Fear: An Entertainment, 1943; The Heart of the Matter, 1948; The Third Man: An Entertainment, 1950; The Third Man and The Fallen Idol, 1950; The End of the Affair, 1951; Loser Takes All: An Entertainment, 1955; The Quiet American, 1955; Our Man in Havana: An Entertainment, 1958; A Burnt-Out Case, 1961; The Comedians, 1966; Travels with My Aunt, 1969; The Honorary Consul, 1973; The Human Factor, 1978; Dr. Fischer of Geneva: Or, The Bomb Party, 1980; Monsignor Quixote, 1982; The Tenth Man, 1985; The Captain and the Enemy, 1988; No Man’s Land, 2004.
Miscellaneous: The Portable Graham Greene, 1973 (Philip Stout Ford, editor).
Nonfiction: Journey Without Maps: A Travel Book, 1936; The Lawless Roads: A Mexican Journal, 1939 (reissued as Another Mexico); British Dramatists, 1942; Why Do I Write? An Exchange of Views Between Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, and V. S. Pritchett, 1948; The Lost Childhood, and Other Essays, 1951; Essais Catholiques, 1953 (Marcelle Sibon, translator); In Search of a Character: Two African Journals, 1961; The Revenge: An Autobiographical Fragment, 1963; Victorian Detective Fiction, 1966; Collected Essays, 1969; A Sort of Life, 1971; The Pleasure Dome: The Collected Film Criticism, 1935-40, of Graham Greene, 1972 (John Russell-Taylor, editor; pb. in U.S. as The Pleasure-Dome: Graham Greene on Film, Collected Film Criticism, 1935-1940); Lord Rochester’s Monkey: Being the Life of John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, 1974; Ways of Escape, 1980; J’accuse: The Dark Side of Nice, 1982; Getting to Know the General: The Story of an Involvement, 1984.
Poetry: Babbling April: Poems, 1925; After Two Years, 1949; For Christmas, 1950.
Radio play: The Great Jowett, 1939.
Screenplays: Twenty-one Days, 1937; The New Britain, 1940; Brighton Rock, 1947 (adaptation of his novel; with Terence Rattigan); The Fallen Idol, 1948 (adaptation of his novel; with Lesley Storm and William Templeton); The Third Man, 1949 (adaptation of his novel; with Carol Reed); The Stranger’s Hand, 1954 (with Guy Elmes and Giorgino Bassani); Loser Takes All, 1956 (adaptation of his novel); Saint Joan, 1957 (adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play); Our Man in Havana, 1959 (adaptation of his novel); The Comedians, 1967 (adaptation of his novel).
Teleplay: Alas, Poor Maling, 1975.
Bayley, John. “Graham Greene: The Short Stories.” In Graham Greene: A Reevaluation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
De Vitis, A. A. Graham Greene. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1986.Kelly, Richard. Graham Greene. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984
.____________. Graham Greene: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Meyers, Jeffrey, ed. Graham Greene: A Revaluation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
Miller, R. H. Understanding Graham Greene. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
O’Prey, Paul. A Reader’s Guide to Graham Greene. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988.
Sherry, Norman. The Life of Graham Greene. 2 vols. New York: Viking Press, 1989-1995.
Smith, Grahame. The Achievement of Graham Greene. Sussex, England: Harvester Press, 1986.
Categories: Literary Theory