Instruments of Grace: For Novelist Graham Greene and His Characters, Corruption Could Be a Path to Salvation

By Davis, Deryl | Sojourners Magazine, July 2005 | Go to article overview

Instruments of Grace: For Novelist Graham Greene and His Characters, Corruption Could Be a Path to Salvation


Davis, Deryl, Sojourners Magazine


Graham Greene always liked the idea of damnation. His contemporary George Orwell joked that, in Greene's view, hell was little more than a "high-class nightclub" for distinguished sinners. Throughout the late English writer's long career (Greene's centennial was celebrated last year), he depicted many characters who viewed, and perhaps justified, their own sin as a vehicle for connecting to others. It was corruption that seemed to give the world a kind of identity, even a uniting principle. His characters lived and understood themselves in a fallen world where martyrdom was often the cost of salvation. No wonder Greene took French writer (and fellow Catholic) Charles Peguy's famous observation to heart that it is sinners and saints who best understand Christianity. In the existential landscape known as "Greeneland," the two are inverses of each other, both attesting to the stricken state of creation itself.

The sinners far outnumber the saints in Greene's work, however, and even those sometimes perceived to be saints, such as the policeman Scobie in The Heart of the Matter, are in reality very fallible creatures. (Greene himself said that Scobie had been "corrupted by pity," a kind of misplaced compassion, that eventually led to his suicide.) Sin, for the novelist, was compelling because it was insidious and universal and had a kind of artistic appeal. If the lower depths of Dante's hell were frozen, Greene's were often damp, subtropical, and inflamed with the heat of human desire. His eharaeters live out their purgatory in places like West Africa, Indoehina, or Central America, exotic locales that offer both distraction from the pursuits of the soul and also enforced isolation with it.

Like the author himself, the characters often look to make deals with God that will leave them free to pursue their own passion. (A notable exception is Catherine in The End of the Affair, whose deal with God--to save her lover Bendrix's life--entails the breaking off of that same affair.) The distance between the author and his characters and the theology embodied in their stories has been hotly debated. Some critics, including contemporary English novelist David Lodge, see Greene appropriating the symbols and imagery of Catholicism largely for artistic ends. Others, including official biographer Norman Sherry, believe Greene wrestled with church doctrine all his life, but in the end remained, at least nominally, a Catholic.

THERE'S NO DOUBT that Greene's relation to his faith began and ended in a kind of paradox. The young writer converted to Catholicism in 1926 largely to please his future wife, but quickly began to absorb its doctrines, and by 1938 was clearly employing religious ideas in the first of his so-called "Catholic novels," Brighton Rock. In the decade and more that followed, Greene continued to explore themes of sin, guilt, and redemption in a series of important and successful novels including The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948), and The End of the Affair (1951).

In each, corruption is a path to salvation, or at least to recovery of the soul. Characters become involved with the dirt and sweat of existence and in doing so find that it can be made holy. The hard-drinking, adulterous priest in The Power and the Glory is a prime example of this sinner-who-might-be-a-saint: He is neither noble nor particularly faithful, but in administering the sacraments at the risk of his own life he becomes a flawed instrument of divine grace.

Greene rarely returned to such obviously religious themes or characters in his later novels. Instead, they focus almost exclusively on political intrigue and social or revolutionary movements, such as the period prior to American involvement in Vietnam depicted in The Quiet American. The thematic change is reflected in Greene's own relationship to his faith. After years of adulterous affairs (some hardly secret, like that loosely depicted in The End of the Affair), the writer seems to have come to an impasse in his ability to reconcile his faith with his own personal failings. …

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