Graham Greene's "Saddest Story"

By Miller, R. H. | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview
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Graham Greene's "Saddest Story"

Miller, R. H., Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Readers familiar with Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier will recognize his earlier title for the novel, "The Saddest Story," which he was forced to change at the insistence of his publisher (Ford xi).(1) It requires no stretch of the imagination to apply that abandoned title to Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter, perhaps his most poignant and moving novel. Although there has been considerable notice given to Greene's debt to Ford, up to this time no one has taken note of the several close material parallels and narratological differences between these two novels.(2) I hope to show that Greene found the frame of his idea for The Heart of the Matter in The Good Soldier but rejected for the time Ford's inspired narrative strategy, to employ it later in The End of the Affair. In preferring a more conventional mode of narrative, a limited third-person point of view, he created a story quite different from Ford's. Instead of aiming for Ford's sense of epistemic play and the multifaceted effect of his narration, Greene opted for a story anchored in the psyche of his protagonist, Major Henry Scobie, and for the emotional links that such a strategy might hope to achieve with his readers. Thus he identifies his readers more closely with Scobie and with Greene himself and matters closer to his own heart, to the failure of his own marriage and his affairs with Dorothy Glover and Catherine Walston, both of which are documented extensively throughout the second volume of Norman Sherry's biography. In his introduction to the novel Greene says, with what must be taken now as a large measure of bluster, that "Scobie was based on nothing but my own unconscious" (HM xv), knowing what we know now about Greene's love affairs.

Given also the close similarities between these novels, it is likely that Greene found Ford's story pressing more and more insistently into his consciousness, even though he may not or seems not to have realized his indebtedness to his master. What Greene created from Ford's novel is not so much a post-Victorian tale of passion at war with outmoded mores as it is a sad story indeed of a good man lost, directionless, in a nihilistic world. Perhaps the saddest of all outcomes to this effort is that Greene's novel, for all its artistry, does not make the subtle but devastating impact that The Good Soldier continues to make on its readership to this day. It was not Greene's intention to outdo Ford, but it was perhaps his undoing that Scobie would pale in stature by comparison to his model, Captain Edward Ashburnham, and that Scobie's wife Louise would likewise never rival in the depth of her character the brilliantly portrayed Leonora Ashburnham.

About Ford Madox Ford, Greene says that two of his works, the Tietjens series and The Good Soldier, "stand as high as any fiction written since the death of James."(3) A little over a week after Ford's death, Greene published a moving tribute to him in The Spectator, which was later included in his first collection of essays, The Lost Childhood and Other Essays. In 1962-1963 Greene provided two lengthy introductions to the newly published Bodley Head Ford Madox Ford, the former being an appreciation of the artistry of The Good Soldier. These were combined with Greene's earlier piece from The Lost Childhood to constitute the longer essay, "Ford Madox Ford," published most recently in his Collected Essays in 1969. Of special note is Part 2 of the essay, the discussion of The Good Soldier.

In that section Greene expresses almost boundless admiration for The Good Soldier. He mentions coming back often to the novel in over forty years of reading it (167). Equally significant is the affinity Greene felt for Ford as both writer and person. Of the former role Greene remarks on Ford's need to move far afield to find his material: "How seldom a novelist chooses the material nearest to his hand; it is almost as if he were driven to earn experience the hard way" (162).

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