If you were to progress through Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory and finally The Heart of the Matter, you would perhaps draw the conclusion that Graham Greene was trying to find the limits of the Catholic church. It is not what he was doing; the last of these was actually an attempt to show how pity without compassion could destroy a man, but his readers have received it otherwise. What he achieved was not what he set out to do.
In a novel by Graham Greene an organized mind guides you into the dilemma, a good writer draws and keeps your attention, the details however flat or insipid in real life are always the right details, and, of course, the moral dilemma deepens. The last is what really interests him and I think what makes him a good writer. In this respect, I’m not aware of Greene ever succeeding with a young character (Pinky in Brighton Rock is a flaw in the novel, but the situation is still compelling and the other characters, especially the fact that the novel does not begin with Pinky, help); young characters aren’t usually listless in the face of a moral dilemma, they can’t convincingly succumb to it. But with old characters, guilty characters, weary characters, strained characters who are about to break, Greene knows what to do.
There is a strange detachment in the writing of Graham Greene: his version of the objectivity which so much saves twentieth-century letters, the last and the noble when there was still pathos of subject along with universality of experience for a writer to work with. Coupled with this strange detachment we have his fascination with the moral dilemma, which turns into what appears to be a search for the limits of the Catholic church.
The Catholic church stands as a symbol as the mediation of, the point of contact with a mystery. It provides humans with a point at which they can deal with this mystery, understand what is expected of them, relate to that which will govern the world to come. But in the case of Major Scobie the system breaks down. Is it convincing? Greene has done well, and the break-down is entirely convincing, but the end is still the vindication of the church with the words of another typical type in Greene’s novels, the talentless and tactless priest on whose lips come the words on which all the novel turns. “Don’t imagine you—or I—know a thing about God’s mercy.” It may mediate a relationship, but the church does not regulate the mystery that operates beyond it. And while the suggestion of mercy is there, Greene does not go so far as to support it, encourage it, even harbor it.
In this troubled, tired world it is always hot, or raining. One or another of the inconveniences of life is present in the reader’s consciousness, affecting the subjects of the novel. Major Scobie wins the reader’s sympathy with his honesty, his intelligence which gleams forth in his exchanges with Wilson. Wilson, incidentally, is so repugnant and antagonist he may be the place where Graham Greene went wrong. Something of this was supposed to attach to Scobie, but it never does. The character seems to have been instrumental in the origin of the story, but I think his behavior ran away with Greene. Scobie is supposed to be without love, but that is not entirely clear in the novel. I think the reason for this is that the direction of the moral compass of the world of the novel is never too clear. I think Greene was good at creating this ambiguity, but not so good at working with it in this case, if his own comments on the novel are anything to go by.
The result is the sense that Greene has tried, by using the dilemma of this character the reader sympathizes with, to find the limits of the system of the Catholic church: to suggest a place of mercy by following the stated path of damnation. Evelyn Waugh thought it might be a very loose poetical expression or a mad blasphemy. It is nevertheless, an interesting novel.
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Greene has grown on me slowly. I’ve been reading my way through his works, not in the swift way I devoured down all of Waugh, but gradually, randomly. I find the desultory approach congruent with the atmosphere of his novels and the spiritual state of his characters. Greene is very good taken slowly. Here is a site with some of his commentary on his works; he says many useful things.