Graham Greene and Christian Despair: Tragic Aesthetics in Brighton Rock and the Heart of the Matter

By Sinclair, Peter M. | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Graham Greene and Christian Despair: Tragic Aesthetics in Brighton Rock and the Heart of the Matter


Sinclair, Peter M., Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


THE epigraph for The Heart of the Matter, "The sinner is at the very heart of Christianity,' refers to Greene's protagonists who have a great capacity for sin and an equal potential for redemption. It is a doctrinal sounding theme, and Greene never fails to make its paradoxical nature explicit in his so-called "Catholic" novels. At the ending of Brighton Rock, the priest tells Rose, "a Catholic is more capable of evil than anyone" (247). Greene, however, is more interested in the aesthetic contexts of theology, drawing some of his ideas concerning evil from T. S. Eliot, who writes concerning Charles Baudelaire, "it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing: at least, we exist. It is true to say that the glory of man is his capacity for damnation" (23). Such theological inflections can become problematic in Greene's novels if we do not make a crucial distinction between fiction and doctrine in his works. Greene does not prescribe moral behavior, nor does he necessarily make an epistemological inquiry into the nature of sin, but he speaks of good and evil as aesthetic categories in the context of fiction.

Greene's novels never present anything systematic, and critics who attempt to make Greene's fiction fit within a theological system lose sight of the more human experience of despair that he presents. He claimed that if he did not make faith indeterminate--if he did not place Catholic concerns into existential contexts--he would "produce only advertising brochures setting out in attractive terms the advantages of Church membership" (Allitt 279). Literature disrupts determinate Christian theology by compensating for the inadequacy of doctrine to give human experience meaning. As a result, Greene offers a level of terror in Pinkie's and Scobie's confused understanding of death and salvation in Brighton Rock and The Heart of the Matter that brings us to the heart of the human experience of despair that doctrine fails to address.

In Brighton Rock, Pinkie struggles to gain salvation at the same time as he courts damnation. He tries to circumvent God's grace with the energy of a Machiavellian over-reacher in the Jacobean dramas that had always fascinated Greene. The tragedy derives from Pinkie's poignant awareness of God's grace that he refuses nonetheless. He thwarts the ample opportunities to repent, and he knows it. In The Heart of the Matter, Greene examines the same eschatological terror, but Major Scobie is the opposite of the Jacobean over-reacher. Like Pinkie, Scobie struggles with sin, death, and salvation, but whereas Pinkie's pyrotechnics quickly and dangerously seduce our imagination, Scobie initially distracts us. Unlike Pinkie, Scobie is a good man whose charitable acts increasingly exacerbate his despairing existence as he attempts to save others at his own expense. Scobie may be a less entertaining character than Pinkie, but since his desire to save others leads to sin and tragedy, his destruction in the end is more terrifying.

In both novels, Greene presents a unique experience of Christian tragedy in the context of despair: the fallen individual fails to bring meaning to his fractured relationship with the world so that his mere existence in it entails his destruction. In an act of the will, the individual in despair sins by deliberately giving up any expectation of ever reaching eternal life. Greene, however, places doctrine into aesthetic contexts, testing the various means by which fiction can represent the ineffable nature of sin and death. Pinkie and Scobie sin when they fail to trust the paschal mystery and reject God's grace out of despair, but Greene's novels reveal that the experience of despair is very real and cannot be alleviated by eschatological hope. Since Christianity brings Redemption into the context of tragedy, the experience of despair becomes more complex than in pagan tragedy. The tragic event does not remain the final word as the present world determines the individual's future in an eternal life of salvation or damnation. …

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