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Graham Greene: The Toil of Belief

As the centenary of the birth of Graham Greene approaches next year, questions remain as to his enduring legacy. Although few would question his place as one of the most influential and enigmatic writers of the 20th century, it is equally true that few would agree on the exact nature of his influence or the peculiar quality of his enigma. The fact remains that Greene is not only one of the most important writers of his generation but is also one of the most elusive. Indeed, it was Greene’s view that one cannot understand a man without understanding “the man within.” As such, the quest for Graham Greene involves a pursuit of the Greene-eyed monster that haunted his luridly vivid imagination.

Greene’s novels, and the characters that adorn them, are riddled with angst and anger. Simultaneously confused and confounded by a deep sense of guilt and failure, his characters are informed and sometimes deformed by a deeply felt religious sensibility. The oppressive weight of the real presence of Christian faith, or the terrible emptiness of its real absence, turn Greene’s novels into a fascinating and unforgettable conflict between the fertile and the furtive. The depiction of a drunken priest in The Power and the Glory, and also in the play The Potting Shed, exudes Greene’s morbid preoccupation with human folly and failure, as well as exhibiting his belief in the remnants of human dignity even amidst the deepest degradation. At other times, as in The Comedians, he squirms amidst the squalor of sin and cynicism, or, as in Brighton Rock, he squeals in the sadistic self-indulgence of the psychopath.

Greene’s fiction is gripping because it grapples with faith and disillusionment on the shifting sands of uncertainty in a relativistic age. His tormented characters are the products of Greene’s own tortured soul, and one suspects that he was more baffled than anyone else at the contradictions at the core of his own character and, in consequence, at the heart of the characters that his rich and fetid imagination had created.

From his earliest childhood Greene exhibited a world-weariness that at times reached the brink of despair. In large part this bleak approach may have been due to a wretched childhood and to the traumatic time spent at Berkhamsted School where his father was headmaster. His writing is full of the bitter scars of his school days. In his autobiographical book A Sort of Life, Greene described the panic in his family after he had been finally driven in desperation to run away from the horrors of the school: “My father found the situation beyond him … My brother suggested psychoanalysis as a possible solution, and my father—an astonishing thing in 1920—agreed.”

For six months, the young, and no doubt impressionable, Greene lived at the house of the analyst to whom he had been referred. This episode would be described by him as “perhaps the happiest six months of my life,” but it is possible that the seeds of his almost obsessive self-analysis were sown at this time. Significantly, he chose the following words of Sir Thomas Browne as an epigraph to his first novel, The Man Within: “There’s another man within me that’s angry with me.”

In later years, the genuine groping for religious truth in Greene’s fiction would often be thwarted by his obsession with the darker recesses of his own character. This darker side is invariably transposed onto all his fictional characters, so that even their goodness is warped. Greene saw human nature as “not black and white” but “black and grey,” and he referred to his need to write as “a neurosis … an irresistible urge to pinch the abscess which grows periodically in order to squeeze out all the pus.” Such a tortured outlook may have produced entertaining novels but could not produce any true sense of reality. Greene’s novels were Frankenstein monsters that were not so much in need of Freudian analysis as the products of it.

Greene’s conversion in 1926, when he was still only 21 years old, was described in A Sort of Life, in which he contrasted his own agnosticism as an undergraduate, when “to me religion went no deeper than the sentimental hymns in the school chapel,” with the fact that his future wife was a Catholic:

I met the girl I was to marry after finding a note from her at the porter’s lodge in Balliol protesting against my inaccuracy in writing, during the course of a film review, of the “worship” Roman Catholics gave to the Virgin Mary, when I should have used the term “hyperdulia.” I was interested that anyone took these subtle distinctions of an unbelievable theology seriously, and we became acquainted.

The girl was Vivien Dayrell-Browning, then 20 years old, who, five years earlier, had shocked her family by being received into the Catholic Church. Concerning Greene’s conversion, Vivien recalled that “he was mentally converted; logically, it seemed to him … It was all rather private and quiet. I don’t think there was any emotion involved.” Greene himself corroborated this when he stated in an interview, “[M]y conversion was not in the least an emotional affair. It was purely intellectual.”

A more detailed, though hardly a more emotional, description of the process of his conversion was given in his autobiography. “Now it occurred to me … that if I were to marry a Catholic I ought at least to learn the nature and limits of the beliefs she held.” He walked to the local “sooty neo-Gothic Cathedral” that “possessed for [him] a certain gloomy power because it represented the inconceivable and the incredible” and dropped a note requesting instruction into a wooden box for enquiries. His motivation was one of morbid curiosity and had precious little to do with a genuine desire for conversion. “I had no intention of being received into the Church. For such a thing to happen I would need to be convinced of its truth and that was not even a remote possibility.”

His first impressions of Father Trollope, the priest to whom he would go for instruction, had reinforced his prejudiced view of Catholicism: “At the first sight he was all I detested most in my private image of the Church.” Soon, however, Greene was forced to modify his view, coming to realize that his initial impressions of the priest were not only erroneous but that he was “facing the challenge of an inexplicable goodness.” From the outset he had “cheated” Father Trollope by failing to disclose his irreligious motive in seeking instruction, nor did he tell the priest of his engagement to a Catholic. “I began to fear that he would distrust the genuineness of my conversion if it so happened that I chose to be received, for after a few weeks of serious argument the ‘if’ was becoming less and less improbable.”

The “if” revolved primarily on the primary “if” surrounding God’s existence. The center of the argument was the center itself or, more precisely, whether there was any center:

My primary difficulty was to believe in a God at all … I didn’t disbelieve in Christ—I disbelieved in God. If I were ever to be convinced in even the remote possibility of a supreme, omnipotent and omniscient power I realized that nothing afterwards could seem impossible. It was on the ground of dogmatic atheism that I fought and fought hard. It was like a fight for personal survival.

The fight for personal survival was lost, and Greene, in losing himself, had gained the faith. Yet the dogmatic atheist was only overpowered; he was not utterly vanquished. He would re-emerge continually as the devil, or at least as the devil’s advocate, in the murkier moments in his novels.

The literary critic, J.C. Whitehouse, has compared Greene to Thomas Hardy, rightly asserting that Greene’s gloomy vision at least allows for a light beyond the darkness, whereas Hardy allows for darkness only. G.K. Chesterton said of Hardy that he was like the village atheist brooding over the village idiot. Greene is often like a self-loathing skeptic brooding over himself. As such, the vision of the divine in his fiction is often thwarted by the self-erected barriers of his own ego. Only rarely does the glimmer of God’s light penetrate the chinks in the armor, entering like a vertical shaft of hope to exorcise the simmering despair.

Few have understood Greene better than his friend Malcolm Muggeridge, who described him as “a Jekyll and Hyde character, who has not succeeded in fusing the two sides of himself into any kind of harmony.” There is more true depth and perception in this one succinct observation by Muggeridge than in all the pages of psycho-babble that have been written about Greene’s work by lesser critics. The paradoxical union of Catholicism and skepticism, incarnated in Greene and his work, had created a hybrid, a metaphysical mutant, as fascinating as Jekyll and Hyde and perhaps as futile. The resulting contortions and contradictions of his own character and those of the characters he created give the impression of depth; but the depth was often only that of ditch water, perceived as bottomless because the bottom could not be seen. Greene’s genius was rooted in the ingenuity with which he muddied the waters.

It was both apt and prophetic that Greene should have taken the name of St. Thomas the Doubter at his reception into the Church in February 1926. Whatever else he was or wasn’t, he was always a doubter par excellence. He doubted others; he doubted himself; he doubted God. Ironically, it was this very doubt that so often provided the creative force for his fiction. Perhaps the secret of his enduring popularity lies in his being a doubting Thomas in an age of doubt. As such, Greene’s Catholicism becomes an enigma, a conversation piece—even a gimmick. Yet if his novels owe a debt to doubt, their profundity lies in the ultimate doubt about the doubt. In the end this ultimate doubt about doubt kept Graham Greene clinging doggedly, desperately—and doubtfully—to his faith.  


Joseph Pearce is Writer-in-Residence and Assistant Professor of Literature at Ave Maria College in Michigan. His latest book is C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church.

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