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Definition: Greene from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

Graham Greene 1904–1991 Brit. nov.

Summary Article: Greene, Graham
From Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Literature: The Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Fiction

Born October 2, 1904, Graham Greene was, before his death on April 3, 1991, hailed by English reviewers as “our best living novelist.” The epithet is debatable, but Greene's prolific career – in fiction, journalism, criticism, cinema, even drama (eight plays), and poetry (Babbling April, 1925, is his first book) – undoubtedly made him a leader in British letters and fundamentally defined a particular milieu commentators dubbed “Greeneland,” a seedy world of ambiguous corruption through which redemptive possibilities are obscurely felt. Greene scoffed at the notion of “Greeneland,” arguing his descriptions reflected his reality, but an inclination to write about politically and religiously troubled locations, which he often visited with uncanny timing, gave his work an undeniable stamp. Greene is often identified with Catholicism and leftist politics, but his place in both camps is debatable.

The fourth of six children, Greene was marked in his youth by his experience at Berkhamsted School where his father was headmaster. A recurring image in Greene's fiction is a “green baize door”: just such a door separated his family's domestic abode from the school and its dormitories where Greene lived with the other boys (1971, 11). As the headmaster's son, he was never fully accepted by his peers, so the “normal” indignities of school life were compounded by bullying and his deep feeling of separation from his family. His unhappiness reached such proportions that suicide – Russian roulette is mentioned in his autobiographical work “The Revolver in the Corner Cupboard” and in A Sort of Life (1971) – seemed a reasonable option. Through his older brother Raymond's intercession with his parents, Greene was sent to Kenneth Richmond, a London psychoanalyst. While in London, Greene developed an appreciation for London's culture and a lifelong interest in dream analysis (evident in the posthumously published, Dream Diary, 1992). He went on to Balliol College, Oxford, where he read history, before he embarked on a career in journalism at the Nottingham Journal and then at The Times.

Journalism remained Greene's greatest source of income until the late 1940s, but the most significant experience of his twenties was meeting Vivienne Dayrell-Browning, a Roman Catholic with whom he fell desperately in love. Greene converted to Catholicism so he could marry Vivienne, but by the end of the 1930s and with two children, Lucy Caroline and Francis, the marriage was all but over (as Catholics, they never divorced). Later regular romantic partners were Dorothy Glover, Catherine Waleston (whose story is told in William Cash's The Third Woman, 2000), and Yvonne Cloetta, who lived with Greene from the mid-1960s to the end of his life.

Cloetta and many of Greene's friends have published memoirs of Greene, but the broader story, or rather, stories, are told by Norman Sherry, Michael Sheldon, and, to a lesser extent, A. J. West. Sherry's three volume Life (1989, 1995, 2004) is the authorized biography because Greene, impressed by Sherry's work on Joseph Conrad, asked him to write the biography and granted him unique access to papers, letters, and interviews. Quoting heavily, Sherry made full use of his privileges and produced a thorough, largely uncritical, biography. Sheldon's (1995) book, on the other hand, is deeply problematic, and one wonders why he devoted so much time to an author he so obviously dislikes. West's (1997) briefer text doesn't pretend to be a complete biography, but is highly readable and even useful. No consideration of Greene's life and career, however, can do without his occasionally dubious autobiographical writings, which include two books, A Sort of Life and Ways of Escape (1980, but cobbled from previous journalism and introductions to his collected works), journals, and several essays, most notably “The Lost Childhood” and “The Revolver in the Corner Cupboard.”

That Sherry's work on Conrad excited Greene's interest is telling because Greene's work shares much of Conrad's sensibility. Other influences are abundant, including T. S. Eliot, but Greene never aspired to the high modernism of writers such as Joyce, Woolf, or Dorothy Richardson, who, he felt, produced two-dimensional characters. Like others of his generation, he preferred realism and the “old dictatorship, the detached and objective treatment” (1969a, 116). He drew on Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, and Conrad for his models, but his book reviews also reveal his love of popular romance writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Rider Haggard, and James Buchan. Marjorie Bowen's The Viper of Milan (1906), which Greene credits with introducing him to adventure romance, is little read now (except perhaps by Greene scholars), but Greene felt it explained his schooldays' miseries, and, indeed, Greene's lasting affection for nineteenth-century romance fiction is evident throughout his work.

As a young writer, Greene had no intention of addressing issues of religious faith or politics. In the late 1920s and 1930s, he just wanted to be successful. And through much of his career he dealt with the old problem of trying to reconcile fiction's popular genres with “serious” literature. For more than 30 years Greene sought to keep these two separate in his work by calling several books “An Entertainment.” With Travels with My Aunt (1969b) he acknowledged the label's futility and abandoned it. Nonetheless, the distinction proved a boon to critics. For example, R. W. B. Lewis (1957), a fine critic of American literature, argued that Greene's “entertainments” were rehearsals for his more serious “Catholic” novels. Hence, A Gun for Sale (1936) looked toward Brighton Rock (1938), The Confidential Agent (1939) led to The Power and The Glory (1940), and The Ministry of Fear (1943) anticipated The Heart of the Matter (1948). The later texts formed a kind of Catholic trilogy, Lewis argued, that developed the concerns introduced in their corresponding predecessors. The notion of a “trilogy” soon collapsed as Greene's career developed, but Lewis's essay helped establish the vocabulary for serious comment on Greene's fiction that was echoed by A. A. De Vitis and other critics to cement the view that Greene's fiction fell into two camps – lesser and more important work. The novels that engaged Catholicism (though they all do to varying degrees) were regarded for much of Greene's lifetime as superior; consequently, he was, and occasionally still is despite his dismissal of the idea, often treated as a “Catholic novelist.” This perception pushed him to the heights of literary and popular fame when Time magazine featured him on the cover of the October 29, 1951 issue: the occasion was the appearance of The End of the Affair (1951), one of his most highly regarded novels.

The End of the Affair is Greene's first novel to feature first-person narration and recalls in tone, if not plot, The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, whose work Greene admired greatly and later edited for the Bodley Head. The novel combines the realism of the Blitz with the magical aspects of Catholicism (something, Greene speculated in The Lawless Roads, his 1939 travel book about Mexico, that the church had sadly lost), but it also offers one of Greene's few successful female characters. Indeed, it is something of a cliche among critics to say that Greene's female characters function largely as wide-eyed innocents, “waif” is the often-used term, in the midst of tormented male characters: “why can't you go back home for ever and let me be?” (1970 [1938], 179), Pinkie records as a message for Rose in Brighton Rock. That novel ends with Rose about to play the record the now dead Pinkie made for her – “the worst horror” – but John Boulting's film is evasive and preserves Rose's innocence at the end with, it is implied, divine intervention. Greene accepted this cinematic travesty because he thought viewers would realize that Rose would eventually hear Pinkie's curse. Whether Greene would accept the ending of the 1999 otherwise fine adaptation of The End of the Affair is another matter. (Not surprisingly, because Greene worked as a film critic and screenwriter, many of his books have been adapted to the screen, but few, with the exception of Carol Reed's The Third Man and The Fallen Idol, based on “The Basement Room,” have been wholly successful.)

Any reading of Greene's fiction reveals the limitations of his female characters – Elizabeth in The Man Within, Rose from Brighton Rock, Helen from The Heart of the Matter, Phuong in The Quiet American – the list goes on and back through Greene's canon. The fact is that Greene does not usually handle women well, so Sarah in The End of the Affair stands apart from his normal sketching of women characters. Still, Greene's fiction, like Conrad's, explores the multiple ambiguities of men's choices in a masculine environment. In some ways, his first published novel offers a template. The Man Within (1929) embodies themes of betrayal, especially between fathers and sons, and self-torment. Andrews and Carlyon form the figurative son–father pair while Elizabeth completes the triangular structure Greene so often used (another female character, Lucy, provides an archetypal contrast to Elizabeth).

Greene might have prevented The Man Within from being reprinted except for its status as his first published novel, but its successors, The Name of Action (1930) and Rumour at Nightfall (1931), remain rare finds because Greene did prohibit their reprinting. Neither is awful, but they reflect their young author's stylistic weaknesses clearly, and neither was commercially successful. Consequently, Stamboul Train (1932) was a deliberate bid for popularity. With the Orient Express as a container for his characters, Greene employed the strategy used by Vicki Baum in Grand Hotel and others in the 1930s; that is, several disparate characters become a microcosm of the larger society, but their stories seldom intersect. The book also reflects the 1930s preoccupation with frontiers and the difficulty of entering foreign space. Stamboul Train gives us several characters who are germinal to Greene's later fiction, the best of whom is his Dr. Czinner – a Balkan revolutionary returning, Lenin-like, to his homeland. His vaguely Marxist ideals arouse our sympathy, but Czinner is stopped at the border and, after the confessional scene that Greene often employed (that is, Czinner and Anne, a fellow passenger, find themselves hiding in a small barn exchanging confidences), executed.

Stamboul Train's real importance lies in the fact that its success encouraged Greene and, though it came to be viewed as a minor novel within the larger oeuvre, it helped define him as a novelist. Its successor, It's a Battlefield (1934), also employs an array of characters – none of whom can be considered central – to examine current political and social conditions, as Conrad did in The Secret Agent (whose influence here is especially obvious). Politics are never far from Greene's work, but this novel was consciously political, for the Depression showed capitalism in crisis. Fascism was on the rise in Europe, and communism seemed successful in Russia: between these two ideological structures, there seemed little room for compromise, so British culture in the 1930s was permeated by ideological division, most visible in debates about the Spanish Civil War (1936–9). Characteristically, Greene preferred not to commit himself to either ideological position and sought a third position which he linked to the church. It may be ungenerous to describe Greene as “a man of the 1930s,” as Roger Sharrock does (17), but there can be no doubt that ideological conflicts (political and religious) are the bedrock of Greene's plots throughout his career.

After his frantic prewar pace (nine novels, two travel books, a biography of the earl of Rochester (unpublished until 1974), scads of film reviews, and even more book reviews), Greene's writing career slowed in the 1940s, but three of his best novels were published then (The Power and the Glory; The Ministry of Fear, 1943; and The Heart of the Matter, 1948). Naturally, the war substantially deterred creative work, and Greene, like many writers, initially worked in the Ministry of Information, but he was soon recruited by his sister Elizabeth to British Intelligence and stationed in Sierra Leone, West Africa, from which he reported on coastal shipping. This tedious experience, however, offered time to write The Ministry of Fear, and to gather material for one of his most acclaimed novels, The Heart of the Matter, which features a Catholic policeman, Scobie, whose feelings of pity blur with love to lead him into moral, ethical, and religious crises because he is drawn into an adulterous affair with the waif-like Helen. Unable to extricate himself from the dilemma and, aware that his failure to participate in the eucharist will give him away, Scobie clumsily plans for a death that won't appear to be suicide. The central importance of Catholicism in the novel confirmed Greene's status as a “serious” novelist, but the book has not aged well and Scobie's torment, at least its religious component, now seems ridiculous.

Greene's work with intelligence ended when he abruptly resigned from his post, now in the Iberian section, prior to D-Day in 1944, and, because his supervisor and friend Kim Philby was later exposed as a spy, Greene's departure has led to speculation that he had “intuited” Philby's compromised status and chose not to betray his friend. Greene often referred in fiction and essays to E. M. Forster's piece, “What I Believe” – “if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country” (1965 [1938], 76)–and the reference seems telling because Greene offered the same thought in “The Spy,” his preface to Philby's 1968 memoir, My Silent War (Greene 1969a, 311). In the 1980s, Greene visited Philby in Moscow prior to the latter's death in 1988. That these visits occurred on the eve of perestroika and glasnost, like his previous and equally fortuitous visits to Kenya, Vietnam, Cuba, the Congo, Haiti, South America, and elsewhere, in moments of heightened political tension, fed speculation that Greene's resignation from intelligence lacked the sharp break he often claimed. Hard evidence in the matter is unavailable, but it seems reasonable to assume that Greene had numerous acquaintances, if not friends, in the service with whom he kept in touch.

After the war, Greene's status with the public and academics grew. The first book on his work, by Kenneth Allott and Miriam Farris, was published in 1951 but scholarly articles on aspects of his fiction had been appearing since the early 1940s. His successful collaboration with Carol Reed, especially on The Third Man, stimulated Greene to produce stories for film, some of which, while not intended as novels, have appeared. Among these, The Third Man (1950) is the most successful, but The Tenth Man, published in 1985, and more recently, No Man's Land (2004) are important additions to Greene's canon. In the 1950s, he continued to produce exceptional work. The End of the Affair has been mentioned, but The Quiet American (1955) and Our Man in Havana (1958) are remarkable for different reasons. The first, growing out of several visits to Vietnam in the early 1950s (nicely documented for Paris Match and reprinted in Judith Adamson's collection of Greene's journalism, Reflections, 1990), is prophetic of American fortunes in Vietnam. As in The End of the Affair, a first-person narrator, the cynical British journalist Fowler, is used to tell the story of the callow American Pyle, whose faith in Cold War rhetoric proves fatal for him and, implicitly, his country. Fowler, however, is not without blame because Pyle's relationship with Fowler's Vietnamese mistress, Phuong, encourages a jealousy in Fowler that taints both his actions and the narration. Our Man in Havana, on the other hand, in contrast to the popular, but two-dimensional, work of Ian Fleming, gives us the comical story of Wormold, a vacuum-cleaner salesman and would-be spy in late-1950s Cuba who, once recruited, sends his supervisors diagrams, based on vacuum-cleaner parts, that are meant to describe missiles and their installations. Impressed, his bosses want more, and, anxious for the extra income so he can send his daughter to private school, Wormold develops a complicated fictional network of spies that becomes all too real when the Soviets take his intercepted reports seriously.

In the 1960s, Greene wrote novels set in the Congo (A Burnt-Out Case, 1961), Haiti (The Comedians, 1966), and Latin America (Travels with My Aunt), while also publishing two volumes of short fiction. He remained as productive in the 1970s, offering his memoir, A Sort of Life, The Honorary Consul (1973), and perhaps his last great novel, The Human Factor (1978), which, recalling Philby, deals with the life of a double agent, Maurice Castle, working in South Africa. After the The Human Factor, Greene produced only one novel of note, Monsignor Quixote (1982), a kind of picaresque dialogue between Father Quixote and his friend “Sancho” a former communist mayor of El Toboso. The two journey through post-Franco Spain in an old car named Rocinante. Shadowing Cervantes's tale, Greene explores territory he had probed since the 1930s – the complex relationship between politics and religion, between Catholicism and communism. After Monsignor Quixote, Greene's publications seemed increasingly the leftovers of a vibrant career. His last, short novel, The Captain and the Enemy (1988), deals with Nicaragua in the 1970s; and The Last Word and Other Stories (1990) ranges from the 1920s to the 1980s. Since Greene's death several useful collections of occasional writing have appeared.

Greene was remarkably productive: he claimed 500 words a day to be his routine, though in later years this number dropped (Donaghy, p. xi). To say he was always a man of the 1930s may not be fair, but certainly his preoccupations – politics, religion, commitment, betrayal, travel – arise out of a thirties sensibility. Greene was not a technical innovator and, after some brief experiments in the thirties, largely rejected the modernist play with form and language, but his work embodies his era, and his life makes him, as it does for Paul Theroux in Picture Palace, suitable for fiction.

Early criticism focused on Greene's religious preoccupations and his relation to Catholicism has been the subject of several fine discussions such as Lewis's essay (1959), Lodge's essay (1986 [1966]), and Philip Stratford's book (1964). Many studies review Greene's entire career, and several are notable, especially A. A. De Vitis's (1986), Judith Adamson's (1990), and Roger Sharrock's (1984). Maria Couto's fine book on politics and religion (1988), Adamson's work on Greene and film (1984), and Brian Diemert's book on Greene's thrillers and 1930s are narrower in focus (1996).

SEE ALSO: Conrad, Joseph (BIF); The Film Industry and Fiction (BIF); Ford, Ford Madox (BIF); James, Henry (AF); Politics and the Novel (BIF); World War II in Fiction (BIF)

  • Adamson, J. (1984). Graham Greene and Cinema. Norman, OK: Pilgrim.
  • Adamson, J. (1990). Graham Greene: The Dangerous Edge: Where Art and Politics Meet. London: Macmillan.
  • Allain, M. -F. (1981). The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene by Marie-Françoise Allain (trans. Walman, G. . London: Bodley Head.
  • Allott, K.; Farris, M. (1951). The Art of Graham Greene. New York: Russell and Russell.
  • Cloetta, Y. (2005). In Search of a Beginning: My Life with Graham Greene (as told to M.-F. Allain). London: Bloomsbury.
  • Couto, M. (1988). Graham Greene: On the Frontier: Politics and Religion in the Novels. New York: St. Martin's.
  • De Vitis, A. A. (1986). Graham Greene, rev. edn. Boston: Twayne.
  • Diemert, B. (1996). Graham Greene's Thrillers and the 1930s. Kingston, Ont.: McGill-Queen's University Press.
  • Donaghy, H. J. (ed.) (1992). Conversations with Graham Greene. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
  • Forster, E. M. (1965). What I Believe [1938]. In Two Cheers for Democracy. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Greene, G. (1929). The Man Within. London: Heinemann.
  • Greene, G. (1932). Stamboul Train. London: Heinemann.
  • Greene, G. (1934). It's a Battlefield. London: Heinemann.
  • Greene, G. (1935). England Made Me. London: Heinemann.
  • Greene, G. (1936). A Gun for Sale. London: Heinemann.
  • Greene, G. (1939). The Confidential Agent. London: Heinemann.
  • Greene, G. (1940). The Power and the Glory. London: Heinemann.
  • Greene, G. (1943). The Ministry of Fear. London: Heinemann.
  • Greene, G. (1948). The Heart of the Matter. London: Heinemann.
  • Greene, G. (1950). “The Third Man” and “The Fallen Idol.” London: Heinemann.
  • Greene, G. (1951). The End of the Affair. London: Heinemann.
  • Greene, G. (1955). The Quiet American. London: Heinemann.
  • Greene, G. (1958). Our Man in Havana. London: Heinemann.
  • Greene, G. (1961). A Burnt-Out Case. London: Heinemann.
  • Greene, G. (1966). The Comedians. London: Bodley Head.
  • Greene, G. (1969a). Collected Essays. London: Bodley Head.
  • Greene, G. (1969b). Travels with My Aunt. London: Bodley Head.
  • Greene, G. (1970). Brighton Rock [1938]. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Greene, G. (1972). A Sort of Life [1971]. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Greene, G. (1978). The Human Factor. London: Bodley Head.
  • Greene, G. (1980). Ways of Escape. Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys.
  • Greene, G. (1982). Monsignor Quixote. Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys.
  • Greene, G. (1990). Reflections (sel. and intro. J. Adamson). Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys.
  • Greene, G. (2007). Graham Greene: A Life in Letters (ed. Greene, R. ). London: Little, Brown.
  • Lewis, R. W. B. (1959). Graham Greene: The Religious Affair [1959]. In The Picaresque Saint: Representative Figures in Contemporary Fiction. Philadelphia: Lippincott, pp. 220-74.
  • Lodge, D. (1986). Graham Greene [1966]. New York: Columbia University Press. Repr. in The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism [1971]. 1971: London. 87–118.
  • Sharrock, R. (1984). Saints, Sinners and Comedians: The Novels of Graham Greene. Tunbridge Wells: Burns and Oates.
  • Sheldon, M. (1995). Graham Greene: The Enemy Within. New York: Random House.
  • Sherry, N. (1989, 1995, 2004). The Life of Graham Greene. Vol. 1: 1904–1939. Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys. Vol. 2:1939–1955. New York: Viking. Vol. 3: 1955–1991. New York: Viking.
  • Smith, G. (1986). The Achievement of Graham Greene. Brighton: Harvester.
  • Stratford, P. (1964). Faith and Fiction: Creative Process in Greene and Mauriac. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
  • West, W. J. (1997). The Quest for Graham Greene. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
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