Graham Greene and Christian despair: tragic aesthetics in Brighton Rock and the Heart of the Matter.
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. Greene is more concerned with offering a shape to Christian mystery by interpreting tragic experience in the light of eschatology as opposed to systematizing theology or professing doctrine. The strength of his novels derives from his use of narrative to bring meaning to irreducible issues of the human's complex relationship with the world without relinquishing reality or exhausting mystery.
KURTZ's famous last words, "The horror, the horror" (112), that come near the close of Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, echo at the very end of Brighton Rock as Rose walks to "the worst horror of all," Pinkie's gramophone recording: "God damn you, you little bitch, why can't you go back home forever and let me be" (176). Conrad spares Kurtz's "Intended" from his deathbed message. "I want something--something--to--live with," the Intended implores Marlow, but he covers up Kurtz's final utterance, "The last word he pronounced was--your name," allowing her to feel inconceivable triumph: "'I knew it--I was sure!'" (110). Marlow offers her false hope as "something to live with" as opposed to uttering the traumatic truth. The priest at the end of Brighton Rock also offers Rose hope, convincing her that her unborn child is a sign of Pinkie's love. "We must hope and pray ... hope and pray. The Church does not demand that we believe any soul is cut off from mercy" (248). In many ways, Greene pushes Conrad's "horror" one step further. Whereas the In tended will remain comfortably ignorant about the truth concerning Kurtz, Greene ends the novel immediately before Rose hears Pinkie's words that she believes will offer something she too can "live with." Rose exits the novel on the edge of reckoning as the alleviation she feels from despair will turn out to have been based upon false hope.
The end of Brighton Rock strips any certainties concerning Christian salvation to an uncomfortably radical mystery that denies the more comforting words the priest offers Rose, "we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God" (248), a refrain of all the priests at the ending of Greene's Catholic novels. If the novel had ended with certainty concerning Pinkie's redemption or Rose's ability for self-transcendence, it would not reflect the indeterminacy of such theological issues. Interpretation, however, demands that we resist the advice of Greene's priests, who tend to have the last word, to leave all judgment to the mysterious mercy of God. I argue that the novel is successful not because of the radical mystery at the ending that seems to value an irreducible theodicy, but because of the means by which Greene constructs a dark aesthetic out of Catholic dogma in order to address the more complex experiences of despair.
The alluring dramatics that surround Pinkie's evil draw us to the edge of nihilism, to the brink of the cliff from which Pinkie falls to his death. But the secularity of the third person in the novel's dramatic trinity, Ida Arnold, draws us back. Throughout the novel, Greene makes our sympathies oscillate between Pinkie's theologically despairing nihilism and Ida's grounded secularity that continually retrieves us from Pinkie's depths. But the two contrasting perspectives between Pinkie and Ida have more to do with their competition to gain our attention in their performances in the narrative than their contrasting sacred and secular perceptions.
Although Ida Arnold represents the secular world of justice, she is not the ironic sort of antagonist that most critics make her out to be. A. A. Devitis sums up the critical heritage concerning Ida:
One of the most beguiling aspects of the novel is the subtle yet relentless way in which Greene managed to shift his reader's interest away from right and wrong--morally easy Ida--to good and evil--the Roman Catholic Church girl Rose and the boy Pinkie. As the focus shifted, the reader's affection for Ida diminished, and her undeniable humanity at first so captivating became tedious and then even unreal. (43)
Although she may become "tedious" and "unreal," Ida plays a vital role in putting Pinkie's extremes of evil and damnation into an earthly context. Her secularity opposes Pinkie's tragic sense of the sacred with her down-to-earth belief in human "badness" as opposed to human "sinfulness." Reducing Pinkie's theological pretensions so that we can see his behavior in the light of day, Ida succeeds in denying Pinkie his potentially heroic role as a misunderstood rebel, a Miltonic sort of Satan. He is simply a bad person who does very bad things, and he must be stopped before he harms the very good girl Rose.
At the same time, however, Greene forces us to resist adopting Ida's secularity too readily as he continually depicts her "goodness" as smug and recalcitrant juxtaposed to Pinkie's far more alluring nature, and this is borne out by the competing discourse that surrounds both of them. Ida "was of the people, she cried in cinemas at David Copperfield, when she was drunk all the old ballads her mother had known came easily to her lips, her homely heart was touched by the word 'tragedy'" (28). Pinkie "had no doubt whatever that this was mortal sin, and he was filled with a kind of gloomy hilarity and pride. He saw himself now as a full grown man for whom the angels wept" (168). Ida "wasn't religious. She didn't believe in heaven or hell, only ghosts, Ouija boards, tables that rapped and little inept voices speaking plaintively of flowers," whereas Pinkie ponders how "God couldn't escape the evil mouth which chose to eat its own damnation" (32). The loaded and dramatic discourse that surrounds Pinkie aesthetically overwhelms Ida's earthly existence. Ida's world of "right and wrong" is not as entertaining as the high theater of Pinkie's "evil." Perhaps we are supposed to gain moral perspicuity through Pinkie's self-deceptions, but Greene does not offer us a viable alternative in Ida's ideology that remains equally self-deceptive, nor does Rose's blind faith function as a determinate moral center to the novel.
THE oppositional discourse between Pinkie and Ida compels us to assess two different eschatological worldviews without necessarily accepting one or the other. Roger Sharrock claims:
For Ida death and life apply and are distinct categories because there is no eternity in which they may become continuous, only the clear limited sense of a present world in which human beings enjoy that life, pursue happiness, and postpone that death. (83)
Whereas "death shocked [Ida], life was so important" (32), Pinkie is "touched with the annihilating eternity from which he had come and to which he went" (17). Ida believes in only an earthly fulfillment whereas Pinkie visualizes a hell of divine retribution. "Of course there's Hell," Pinkie tells Rose. "Flames and Damnation ... torments" (48). When Rose tells Ida that she hopes that Pinkie will go to confession and repent, Ida responds: "That's just religion. Believe me, it's the world we got to deal with." Ida believes that one must live in the world with the same urgency with which Rose and Pinkie anticipate the afterlife: "Let Papists treat death with flippancy: life wasn't so important perhaps to them as what came after; but to her death was the end of everything" (32).
Although she stands on the side of justice, Ida's hunt for Hale's killer disintegrates into a game, and we realize that her lack of an eschatological vision turns her actions into activities she designs to merely satisfy her present desires. As the narrative progresses, she can no longer remember the name of the man Pinkie murdered. She admits that instead of pursuing Pinkie in a drive for justice, she hunts him down because she revels in the thrill of the chase.
As Ida's pursuit of justice becomes uncomfortable, so does Pinkie's theatrical religiosity. The only character who has the power to awaken people to the spiritual appears to be Pinkie. But by making Pinkie the moral center of the novel, Greene forces us to sympathize with the tragic fall of a consummately bad person, frustrating tragic convention in which a fall results from the actions of a good person. Greene wants to awaken the reader to God, who exists even in a corrupt and violent world and whose grace visits the damned with equal intensity as the saints. In his manipulations of Catholic doctrine for his artistic purposes, however, we wonder if he depicts a viable eschatological vision or if he merely entertains us with Pinkie's perversion of theology, turning him into a spectacle of the Catholic sinner.
Greene makes sin and damnation more dramatic than the suspense an author usually features in a typical thriller by superimposing Pinkie and Rose's discourse over the narrative structure of a crime novel. Ian Ker argues that Greene invents a new form of detective fiction by using theological discourse to cast fundamental doubt upon Catholic eschatology. By challenging Catholic certainties, Greene creates suspense when Pinkie gambles with the possibility of last-minute grace. Ker claims that the novel reveals Catholicism's "insistence on the one hand on mortal sin and the reality of hell and on the other hand the infinite mercy of God which exceeds human understanding" (122). Catholic doctrine is frequently at odds with itself in its insistence upon both the certainty of damnation and unlimited mercy. For Ker, the indeterminate nature of mercy creates "the uniquely thrilling sense of danger that accompanies the fear of eternal damnation" (122). In Catholicism, God does not predestine anyone to hell--one is free to choose, including the freedom to reject God's grace--a doctrine that heightens the thrill of mystery in the novel.
Since the novel incorporates Catholic certainties and, at the same time, casts doubt upon these very certainties, the discourse surrounding the sacred and the secular oscillates between seriousness and parody. Often the discourse that surrounds Pinkie becomes an avalanche of Catholic terminology--"the confession, the penance, the sacrament"--creating a serial effect that threatens to empty the terms of meaning. Pinkie's memories of Catholic liturgy "spoke of things he didn't understand" (49). He only revels in the drama of a memory. Pinkie is a child playing with murder and theology, an illiterate gang leader who can mouth fragments of Latin. Pinkie and Rose's religious discourse is not too far removed from baby-talk, and they apply the terms "Good and Evil" to their lives instinctually.
The novel becomes more theologically believable when Pinkie and Rose attempt to understand a Catholic sense of God's mysterious grace by interpreting, in their limited intellectual capacity, verses remembered from childhood.
My friends judge not me, Thou seest I judge not thee: Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, Mercy I asked, mercy I found. (88)
The possibility that Pinkie could find last-minute salvation in God's mercy frequently recurs in the text. However, in his anxious desire to escape the law, Pinkie makes a mockery out of penance by believing that he can repent for a crime in the act of committing it. After fleeing wounded from Colleoni's attack at the racetrack, Pinkie "even tried to pray. You could be saved between the stirrup and the ground, but you couldn't be saved if you didn't repent, and he hadn't time ... to feel the least remorse ... there he stood ... with his razor out, trying to repent" (105). Greene establishes an almost ludicrous tableau of Pinkie: a teenage sociopath attempting to repent while brandishing a razor blade. Since Pinkie is a child mentally juggling a relationship between crime and a theology he does not understand, he is unaware that to bank on God's mysterious grace--deferring repentance to the last moment--is the tragic sin of pride. Pinkie equates God's mercy with the roll of the dice, a bet placed at a racetrack. His personal eschatology, in the end, parodies Pascal's coin toss.
The egocentrism of Pinkie's dramatic memories of a Catholic childhood turn his beliefs into a bogus religiosity because he cannot escape his own egocentric concerns. "The imagination had not awoken ... He couldn't see through other people's eyes, or feel with their nerves" (49). To be spiritually awakened and to rise from his despair, Pinkie must gain a sense of human empathy, of otherness. His relationship with Rose becomes his greatest hope to transcend his solipsism. Although he marries Rose so that she cannot testify against him, Pinkie begins to find her goodness integral to his life--she embodies necessary otherness to Pinkie, just as Ida's secular sense of justice stands juxtaposed to eschatological certainties. "What was most evil in him needed her; it couldn't get along without her goodness ... he got the sense that she completed him" (125).
Additionally, Pinkie glimpses the possibility of an alternate eschatological world from that of torment, despair, and damnation that parallels his recognition of Rose's necessary otherness. After their marriage, they go to the cinema where music, again reminding him of liturgy, offers Pinkie an eschatological fantasy.
Suddenly, inexplicably, the Boy began to weep. He shut his eyes to hold in his tears, but the music went on--it was like a vision of release to an imprisoned man. He felt constriction and saw --hopelessly out of reach--a limitless freedom: no fear, no hatred, no envy. It was as if he were dead and were remembering the effect of a good confession, the words of absolution. (178)
Wishing he could look back retrospectively from death as if he had been redeemed by God, Pinkie desires a better end that contrasts his "torments and agonies." Pinkie yearns for something different in his life, but "he couldn't experience contrition--the ribs of his body were like steel bands which held him down to eternal unrepentance" (178-179). He realizes that Rose has somehow affected his hatred as the novel draws toward its catastrophic ending: "It was quite true--he hadn't hated her; he hadn't even hated the act. There had been a kind of pleasure, a kind of pride, a kind of--something else" (166). Since he is conscious of his unrepentant nature, however, he should know better, which makes the tragedy more poignant and his actions more reprehensible.
That "something else," the otherness of love and an alternative life, grows more excruciating for Pinkie as the novel nears its end. Like a giant bird of prey, the power of grace pursues his car, about to consume him as he drives Rose to the location of their bogus suicide pact. But when he leaves Rose alone in the car with the gun, there is no question that Pinkie wants her to commit suicide. Alone, Rose realizes that it is one thing to damn oneself and another thing to shoot oneself, and throws the gun away, rejecting Pinkie's plan, which allows time for Ida and the police to catch them. In his escape, Pinkie suffers an ironic punishment that is almost too fitting. In a parody of extreme unction, he burns his face off with the vitriol that he had intended to use on Rose, and stumbles off the cliff "out of any existence" into the ocean (244).
Despite how we may feel about Ida, she grounds the melodramatic discourse that surrounds Pinkie in a real and finite world. The dramatic climax when Ida arrives with her posse like the cavalry over the hill brings Pinkie's seductively sublime world of damnation into the light of reality. There is good and evil, but in the finite world, Pinkie must be judged as right or wrong, good or bad. Satisfied with her accomplishment, Ida turns to her Ouija board while Rose, in a parallel scene, goes to the confessional. Nothing in Ida's experience has alerted her to anything beyond the world she lives in. Yet, her worldliness, her dedication to the importance of finitude, allows her to become a strange vessel of God's grace.
The three endings of Pinkie, Ida, and Rose indicate the three means by which Greene turns narrative closure into eschatological problems for interpretation in this novel. Although Ida is right when she stops a wrong, she misses a larger spiritual picture of the human drama into which she intervenes. Pride drives both Ida's determination to mete out justice and Pinkie's determination to be damned. But Pinkie experiences moments of doubt. The glimpses we get of him vacillating force us to experience the tragic waste when Pinkie denies, out of despair, alternative possibilities of which he becomes poignantly aware. In the end, what counts in this novel is not that Pinkie is a worse person than Ida, but that he is a more dramatically interesting character. If Greene had maintained the story from Ida's point of view, as Greene had originally intended when he began to write the novel "as a detective story" (Escape 77), we would draw our conclusions concerning each character as quickly as Ida judges those around her, turning the narrative into melodrama. If Greene had shown the story only through Pinkie's point of view, things too sublime for words would paralyze our ability to interpret the text.
In the final chapter, the perspective shifts from the inexplicable Pinkie to the vulnerable Rose as she walks off the last page of the novel on the edge of everlasting hope and hopelessness. In the light of Christian tragedy and the eschatology that tragedy questions, Rose stands for all of us who struggle to reconcile daily suffering with the hope of an eternal world that may be waiting for us, or that may be a consoling fiction to help us to survive the "horror" of life.
NEARLY all of Pinkie's actions have a criminal purpose; therefore, when he envisions the possibility of reform, the tragedy becomes heightened by the opportunity for redemption that he thwarts. Major Scobie in The Heart of the Matter is a police officer in crime-infested Sierra Leone, dedicated to maintaining order and justice during World War II; therefore, when he commits crimes that create chaos in his generally apathetic social environment, his moral conscience suffers more deeply. The dissonance between the banality of Scobie's world and the eschatological terror he contends with makes the supernatural stand out in the novel with greater intensity.
The reader can distinguish the difference between Scobie's and Pinkie's experiences by looking at a typical conversation in The Heart of the Matter. Scobie attempts to explain to his mistress, Helen, the crisis that eventually leads to his suicide. His wife wants him to attend Mass and receive Holy Communion, but because of his extramarital affair, he remains in a state of mortal sin and cannot partake in the sacrament. If he does not attend Mass with her, however, it will confirm her suspicions that he is having an affair. When Helen asks him, "You don't really believe in hell?" he answers that he does, causing Helen to wonder--as may the reader--why he persists in having an affair with her in the first place, and why he does not just confess the sin.
"It's not much good confessing if I don't intend to try..."
"Well then," she said triumphantly, "be hung for sheep. You are in--what do you call it--mortal sin? Now. What difference does it make?"
He thought: pious people, I suppose, would call this the devil speaking, but he knew that ... this was innocence. He said, "There is a difference--a big difference ... Now I'm just putting our love above--well, my safety. But the other--the other's really evil. It's like the Black Mass, the man who steals the sacrament to desecrate it. It's striking God when he's down--in my power."
She turned her head wearily away and said, "I don't understand a thing you are saying. It's all hooey to me."
"I wish it were to me. But I believe it."
She said sharply, "I suppose you do. Or is it just a trick?" (210-211)
This conversation illustrates the tension in The Heart of the Matter between domestic banality and domestic tragedy. Scobie attempts to hide his infidelity from his wife by couching his situation in eschatological mystery. Whereas for Helen, and many readers, Scobie's predicament is merely a matter of infidelity--"it's all hooey," and we turn our heads "wearily away"--Scobie believes that his wife's and his mistress's salvation depends upon his decisions. In these moments when Scobie confronts others for whom Catholic belief is partly "hooey," the audience becomes divided between perceiving the novel as a pathetic domestic muddle or as a domestic tragedy. The reader's response toward Catholicism is more subtle and complicated in this novel than it is in Brighton Rock, where there is no intermediation between the profane and the sacred. The novel entertains different audiences that represent different attitudes to eschatology: if you are Catholic, Scobie's marital position and the horror he faces when he desecrates communion is filled with tragic weight; if you are not, Scobie is a pathetic victim of his own delusions.
While the novel entertains different audiences, the narrative also juxtaposes contrasting ontological worlds. The supernatural frequently enters the mundane and domestic environment, making the boundary between the natural and the supernatural break down without the natural world becoming any less real. Both realms become superimposed, creating a sense of imminent eternity encroaching upon daily life. The supernatural stirs most intensely in the domestic environment toward the end of the novel when Scobie, sitting in an armchair in his living room, experiences a powerful presence of God as he dies from an overdose of Evipam. Alluding to the parable of the thief in the night in the Gospel of Luke, God stirs like an intruder in Scobie's backyard.
Somewhere far away he thought he heard the sounds of pain. "A storm," he said aloud, "there's going to be a storm,".... It seemed to him as though someone outside the room were seeking him, calling him, and he made a last effort to indicate that he was here ... someone wandered, seeking to get in, someone appealing for help, someone in need of him. (265)
God pleads with Scobie like a transient begging for shelter from a storm, a cry for help, a voice Scobie can understand. Even though God's presence may be a hallucination from the drug, it does not minimize Scobie's experience. His feeling that someone cries to him for help resembles the terrifying force of grace that attacks Pinkie's car like a giant bird of prey. Like Pinkie, Scobie rejects the saving hand of God.
Although suicide reflects the mortal sin of despair, Greene leaves Scobie's salvation more ambiguous than Pinkie's. As a result, the novel ends on a note of perplexing irresolution. Just before he dies, Scobie "dredged his consciousness up from an infinite distance in order to make some reply. He said aloud, 'Dear God, I love...'" (265). Death interrupts his sentence, and Greene leads us to believe that Scobie has more to say. The fragmented sentence reflects the ambiguity of Greene's narrative ending as Scobie, like Rose in Brighton Rock, remains on the verge of revelation. The way in which we interpret Scobie's death depends upon how we believe Scobie intended to complete his final sentence. I believe that his last words are not an incomplete statement, but an affirmation: "I love." At the very end of his life, Scobie affirms the love over which his ambivalence had been the source of his despair.
SCOBIE does not leave a note behind like Pemberton, whose suicide Scobie must investigate in the middle of the novel, forcing Helen, Louise, and Father Rank to narrate their own interpretation of Scobie's ending. The final pages shift the narrative focus away from Scobie for the first time to brief and poignant scenes in which those who remain serve as a Greek chorus. Helen, who had protested against Scobie's Catholicism, begins to contemplate God. She resists the advances of a man, asking him, "Do you believe in God? I wish I did... I wish I did" (270). Alone in bed she tries to pray, pondering eternity by repeating a fragment of the Lord's Prayer. "For ever and ever, Amen . . ." Scobie's death makes her vulnerable to the possibility of God's existence. Like Scobie in the moments before his death, she feels a presence in the room. "She put her hand out beside her and touched the other pillow, as though perhaps after all there was one chance in a thousand that she was not alone, and if she were not alone she would never be alone again" (271).
Father Rank, a fairly ineffective priest throughout, has the final words. When Louise determines that Scobie is damned, Father Rank's response echoes the priest at the end of Brighton Rock: "For goodness sake, Mrs. Scobie, don't imagine you--or I--know a thing about God's mercy ... I know the Church says. The Church knows all the rules. But it doesn't know what goes on in a single human heart" (272). Doctrine insists that Scobie is damned. But there is a greater human communion that suggests that action is as mysterious as the mercy of God. Father Rank's comments point to the notion of God as wholly other. The world is fallen, torn from essential union with God so that the answer, like Scobie's final words, remains incomplete. The Heart of the Matter, as R. W. B. Lewis claims, "yields to a dark theology, the pity to the terror, the human sufferer to the secret cause. All we are meant to know is that we know nothing" (263). Whereas Lewis's reading denies the possibility of understanding God by emphasizing the irreconcilable divorce between the human and the divine, an analogical imagination leaves open the possibility that there are many ways in which to signify mystery, leaving an ellipsis at the end of a narrative. The reader is the only witness to Scobie's final moments and his last words. We join the Greek chorus, but since we are privy to Greene's dramatic irony--none of the bereaved know that Scobie uttered words of love to God--we are allowed to talk more meaningfully about the end than Father Rank. "All that we are meant to know," in fact, is that we can continue to try to know as much as possible.
The convoluted issue of the corrosive nature of pity tends to be the focus of critical interpretations of the novel. I believe that the question of Scobie's pity, which has plagued criticism of this novel since it was published, tends to obscure his affirmation at the end. Scobie's inability to love without feeling pity turns his penchant for compassion into a death drive, and we read in horror as a harmless man destroys himself by his own charitable acts. But Greene does not present the contrast between pity and love as a dogmatic issue, turning pity into a tragic aesthetic. A. A. Devitis, Roger Sharrock, and R. W. B. Lewis have interpreted The Heart of the Matter in the tradition of Aristotle's Poetics as a means to understand pity. Scobie is a good man, "Scobie the just" (18), sympathetic to all, bearing the responsibility of law and order in a criminally infested climate. And, according to Lewis, his hamartia is "an excess of the quality Greene calls pity--an inability to watch disappointment or suffering in others--with this portion perhaps of pride, that he feels it particularly incumbent upon himself to relieve pain." Lewis claims, "The Heart of the Matter should be reckoned as successful precisely by implying a terrible tension between the divine and the human--a somber and disturbing modern version of the Greek tragic tension between fate and freedom" (260).
Reading the novel in Aristotle's terms, however, robs the narrative of its unique tragic vision. Scobie's vulnerability to the suffering of others is his most detrimental weakness. But, paradoxically, recognizing and relieving the suffering of others is a great Christian virtue. Nathan Scott, Jr., refers to Scobie as an example of Greene's "Christian tragic hero":
He is a man whose dominant emotion is pity ... It is, indeed, the quality of his compassion, his inability to resist the impulse to bear the griefs and carry the sorrows of his fellow creatures--it is this which makes him a hero: he would have the chastisement of their peace upon himself ... would have them healed. He is the man whose life is governed by the horrible and horrifying emotion of pity: for him the great uncanonical sacrament is the sacrament of the brother. (37-38)
The more Scobie damns himself in his pity for others, the more he becomes the odd vehicle for God's grace that so many critics find farfetched and preposterous. Scobie muses: "Only the man of goodwill carries always in his heart this capacity for damnation" (60). Greene uses Scobie's compulsion for pity as a means to shape his ending, his personal eschatology. Corruptible pity becomes a vehicle with which Greene organizes plot and creates narrative teleology as he frequently indicates forces beyond human agency that compel Scobie toward an awful end. "He had the sense that he was embarking now on a longer journey than he had ever intended" (313); "He had a sense that life was closing in on him" (96); "He was touched by uneasiness, as though he had accidently set in motion a powerful machine he couldn't control" (242).
A crucial scene in which Scobie watches helplessly over a six-year-old victim of a torpedoed passenger ship as she dies in agony reveals the means by which pity determines his fate. "It was as if she were carrying a weight with great effort up a long hill: it was an inhuman situation not to be able to carry it for her" (125). Scobie begs God to transfer the child's pain onto himself, foreshadowing the same sacrificial inclination he will have for Helen Rolt. "Father... give her peace. Take away my peace for ever, but give her peace" (125). On a supernatural level, the narrative suggests that God has answered Scobie's prayer in the same way that we are meant to believe He agrees to Sarah's bargain to keep Bendrix alive in The End of the Affair. Scobie's life becomes bereft of peace until he kills himself. Pitying the child's unbearable pain, Scobie experiences the ravaging grace of God. On an earthly level, Scobie allows the despair that derives from pity to consume him to the point of suicide.
It is only by reading back from the ending in which Scobie affirms "I love" that we recognize how Scobie's pity is bound to charity. Greene undermines the possibility that Scobie's pity is entirely based upon self-indulgent despair by depicting such scenes as his interaction with the dying child, his anguish over Pemberton's suicide, and his guilt concerning Ali's murder. Scobie's compassion makes him spiritually bound to the marginalized so that his despair becomes more acute when he feels responsible for their pain.
[Scobie] had no sense of responsibility towards the beautiful and the graceful and the intelligent. They could find their own way. It was the face for which nobody would go out of his way, the face that would never catch the covert look, the face which would soon be used to rebuffs and indifference that demanded his allegiance. The word "pity" is used as loosely as the word "love": the terrible promiscuous passion which so few experience. (159)
The ambiguity over whether "pity" or "love" signifies the "terrible promiscuous passion" in the passage above courses throughout the novel. Scobie himself finds it difficult to distinguish between the two emotions, asking, "was it even love, or was it just a feeling of pity and responsibility?" (223-224). I agree with Roger Sharrock, who claims, "it now becomes apparent that what from the prudential human side is dangerous blind pity is from the religious side charity" (144). In addition, Cates Baldridge argues, "The Heart of the Matter makes a case for the consubstantial nature of love and pity that is both consistent with the odd quality of difference-in-sameness" (95). Pity becomes the context in which Scobie experiences worldly love, whereas the love he affirms at the end, which exists beyond a worldly context, signifies the inexplicable nature of eschatology. Scobie's death is a damnable act, but the circumstances that lead to it involve the noblest demands of Christian charity. Scobie acts defiantly because of his compassion for those to whom he believes he brings pain, but his faith ultimately estranges him from the world. He cannot solve the question that haunts him in the novel: "How can one love God at the expense of one of his creatures?" (135).
In many respects, Scobie's alienation and suicide make The Heart of the Matter end with the same terrible and irrevocable sense of exile that ends such ancient tragedies as Oedipus the King. But in the tragedy of The Heart of the Matter, the real possibility of resurrection, paradoxically, makes death and waste more painful. Because of eschatology, tragedy in Christian culture differs from the tragic vision of the ancient world without rejecting all of its aesthetic and despairing energy. Without eschatology, the protagonist in ancient tragedy confronts death heroically, but the question of death becomes ultimately nihilistic. If The Heart of the Matter were an ancient Greek tragedy, or if it unequivocally rejected Christian cosmology, it would end by accentuating Scobie's suicidal madness, the height of his despair, the final exhaustion of his passion, and his ultimate alienation from the world. Ancient tragedy tends to end with "all passion spent."
The strains after an eschatological hope that echo in Scobie's cry to God, Helen's anguished sense of a presence in her room, and Father Rank's one heroic moment denying out of anger Louise's attempt to pin down her husband's ending with dogma, make Scobie's death all the more terrifying and all the more impossible to interpret with one monolithic truth. Since the reader is the sole witness to Scobie's final moments, he or she occupies a significant position from which to interpret the ending and to offer additional testimony unavailable to the survivors at the end of the novel. We know that Scobie's utterance of love longs after hope for new life, toward which the remaining characters hint like a chorus. The hope of new life in Christian eschatology makes their despair more poignant as they yearn for the resurrection that haunts them. In the final analysis, Christian tragedy is not so much haunted by the fear of death as it is haunted by the hope for new life.
IN "Christian Pessimism," Karl Rahner reflects upon St. Paul: "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair" (2 Corinthians 4:8). Rahner asks the questions that penetrate the heart of Christian despair: "Do Christians simply capitulate before the insuperable darkness of existence and honestly admit they are capitulating? Or do they simply ignore their perplexity and become right away persons who have victoriously overcome the hopelessness of life?" (614). We can never overcome the perplexities and despair of this world, Rahner argues, but Christ's triumph over death insures that they will not ultimately destroy us. He goes to the heart of the matter concerning the tragic experience of despair in Greene's novels: "God's grace does not totally remove the perplexity of existence. The lifting, the not driven to despair, accepted and filled with grace, is the real truth of the perplexity itself ... it is possible for us to realize that death can be neither an act of faith nor a mortal sin" (615).
Nathan Scott Jr. argues that Greene's novels depict a unique, modern tragic vision:
Greene's hero, characteristically, is not the great individual of Greek tragedy: he is rather, the little man who is, however, very much in the manner of Greek tragedy, immediately placed in a situation that makes him guilty. This situation is simply his membership in the "fallen" world from the stage upon which the drama of redemption is to be played out... For, although not unaffected by the consequences of his own and others' sins, there yet remain vents of freedom through which it is possible for him to transcend the moral ambiguousness of human existence, to the extent of being able to hear and accept the summons to reenact our Lord's Passion. (Evans 37)
Tragedy aids our understanding of theology because it can offer healing and redemptive powers concordant with the Christian message. Catharsis makes the absurdity of the tragic world meaningful, which Scott believes equates to Christian notions of self-transcendence and redemption.
Even when the final scene on the tragedian's stage is a scene of wreckage, woe, and utter defeat, the disaster and the doom are not altogether unbearable. For the very fact that tragedy is an aesthetic form means that what is substantive--the tragic vision--has been shaped, has been contained. (Cary 88)
The reader affirms something at the end of a tragedy by shaping experience into a meaningful whole. In the midst of human waste and wreckage, we rescue something of value because we can interpret the text and arise from the annihilation and nothingness it represents.
In Greene's novels, the protagonist draws ever closer to death. As the ending looms, the plot focuses on the last moments before his death, about which he must have either a faith that redeems or a despair that kills. An imminent ending forces the protagonist to create meaning urgently out of his or her life. In a secular world, such as the world that Ida Arnold inhabits, death ends everything. Life is all that matters, and action in the world does not signify continuation into an afterlife. In a novel in which the thrill is all that matters, the ending rounds off the scattered events, making meaning quick and conclusive. For Greene, however, death is not the end of the story; consequently, there is no finality to his narrative endings, but the beginning of a further and greater mystery. There is a great lacuna at the end of Greene's novels in which the reader feels compelled to ponder the radical mystery of death while staving off despair over its inevitability by imagining the possibility of an afterlife. We discover that we perpetually live in the middle of total experience, poised always on Saturday between the hopelessness of Good Friday and the hope of Easter Sunday.
Baldridge, Cares. Graham Greene's Fictions: The Virtues of Extremity. Columbia: U of Mississippi P, 2000.
Boyle, Nicholas. Sacred and Secular Scriptures: A Catholic Approach to Literature. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame R 2005.
Cary, Norman Reed. Christian Criticism in the Twentieth Century: Theological Approaches to Literature. Port Washington: Kennikat P, 1975.
Conrad, Joseph. The Heart of Darkness. London: Penguin, 1994.
Detweiller, Robert. Breaking the Fall: Religious Readings of Contemporary Fiction. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989.
DeVitis, A. A. "Religious Aspects in the Novels of Graham Greene." The Shapeless God:
Essays on Modern Fiction. Ed. Henry J. Mooney, Jr. and Thomas F. Staley. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1968.
Eliot, T. S. "Baudelaire." The Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot. Ed. Frank Kermode. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1975.
Evans, Robert O. Graham Greene: Some Critical Considerations. Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1967.
Greene, Graham. Brighton Rock. New York: Viking R 1968.
--. The Heart of the Matter. New York: Penguin, 1971.
--. Ways of Escape. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.
Ker, Ian. The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961: Newman, Hopkins, Belloc, Chesterton, Greene, Waugh. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 2003.
Lewis, R. W. B. The Picaresque Saint: A Critical Study. New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1956, 1958.
Rahner, Karl. "Christian Pessimism." The Content of Faith. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993.
Scott, Nathan A. The Tragic Vision and Christian Faith. New York: Association P, 1957.
Sharrock, Roger. Saints, Sinners and Comedians: The Novels of Graham Greene. London: Burns and Oates, 1984.
Stratford, Philip, ed. The Portable Graham Greene. New York: Penguin, 1977.
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|Author:||Sinclair, Peter M.|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
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