Elements of Graham Greene’s style

Greene’s strengths and weaknesses

Greene’s strengths are:

  • tell-tale description
  • interior monologue
  • dialogue, generally at cross-purposes

His weaknesses are:

  • weak plots
  • psychology instead of plot
  • melodramatically bleak worldview
  • using Catholic symbolism to dress up banal situations

1. Description

I enjoy Green’s descriptions. They are used:

  • to describe (generally squalid) locations or sketch out the (generally seedy) physical appearance of characters
  • to act as objective correlatives of the characters’ (generally bleak) thoughts
  • to deflate – in a classic Modernist tactic, to intersperse ‘serious’ dialogue or thoughts with off-key, seemingly random background detail: very frequently the tawdry lyrics of popular songs keep interrupting characters who are having earnest conversations about their souls etc

2. Interior monologue

  • give each character three or four telling moments in their lives, then have those moments recur again and again in their interior monologues: thus Conrad Drover remembering his brother’s wedding in It’s A Battlefield or the Farrant siblings endlessly remembering when Kate told Anthony not to run away from school in England Made Me or Pinkie remembering his parents have sex in Brighton Rock or the agent D. remembering being trapped in a bombed house for 56 hours and his wife being shot in The Confidential Agent
  • interior monologue is an opportunity to slip in lots of editorialising about how vile people are, how you can’t trust anyone, how the world is a battlefield, or prosing about angels and saints and sin and damnation in the more Catholic novels

3. Dialogue

Generally at cross-purposes. Greene’s technique is to show us pages and pages of people’s interior thoughts, and then have them speak to each other to create ‘dramatic irony’ ie to show how people lie or are just oblivious of each other, tut, aren’t people ghastly!

4. Weak plots

Stamboul Train A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of a political exile in an obscure rail junction, and then a cynical business deal in Istanbul.

It’s a Battlefield: a man is condemned for stabbing a policeman; his brother propositions his wife and then, in an access of anger and frustration buys a gun and wanders london till he sees one of the officials involved in his brother’s trial and takes a pop at him; meanwhile his wife’s tarty younger sister spends a night with a middle-aged socialist leader then allows herself to be whisked off by a waiter who’s won a jackpot, and thinks about proposing to her until they have sex after which he changes his mind.

A Gun for Sale After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous agent who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the agent and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot himself.

England Made Me Pretty Kate persuades Krogh the shy industrialist to employ her as his PA and then mistress; and then to give a job to her shiftless brother Anthony, who almost immediately starts giving away industrial secrets to the seedy journalist Minty and so his henchman Hall bumps him off.

Brighton Rock Teenage psychopath Pinkie Brown inherits leadership of a Brighton criminal gang after Kite is killed in London, gets his henchmen to strangle a journalist who helped his rival gangleader Colleoni, but leaves clues behind which lead him to push a weakling gang member over the banisters in a tall tenement building and then marry the only other witness, Rose, an immature 16 year-old waitress but doesn’t reckon for fat Ida Arnott who met the scared journalist just before his murder, and makes it her purpose to track Pinkie down and confront him at a beauty spot where he’s taken Rose to persuade her to kill herself, Pinkie goes to throw acid over interupting Ida but a policeman hits him with his truncheon and Pinkie spills the acid over himself, running screaming over a cliff.

The Confidential Agent As a benzedrine-fuelled thriller this has more plot than usual, summarised in my post on it. D., the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, comes to England, tries and fails to secure a contract for coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners not do the work out of solidarity, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape on a ship accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.

The Power and the Glory An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the Mexican revolutionaries’ pogrom against Catholic officials, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.

All the plots, even when eventful,  are unconvincing or weak. The violent bits often appear arbitrary and out of character with the scores and scores of pages of characters mooning about feeling sorry for themselves. Agent is an exception in including sort-of comic or ludicrous scenes and having the convoluted plot of a farce. Gun For Sale is an avowed thriller and so has the nearest to a compelling plot (hence the many movie versions of it). In general, though, it’s hard to believe most Greene characters capable of much more than drinking heavily and feeling sorry for themselves, a trend which reaches a kind of delirious climax in Power and Glory which is nothing but the protagonist drinking and feeling sorry for himself.

5. Psychology instead of plot

Instead of plot there are pages and pages of interior monologue, prosing about the pessimistic subjects close to Greene’s heart.

6. Melodramatically bleak worldview

In a way, the lack of decent plot, the paucity of events, is compensated by the worldview. To put it another way, whereas in another type of book there might be pages of plot development, in a Greene novel there are pages and pages of people thinking bleak thoughts or traipsing round the sordid streets (or jungle). What fills the books is page after page of Greeneprose which can be ordered by the yard or the mile. Lots of the ‘thoughts’, dreams, memories which, if you read a number of the novels, acquire a samey kind of feel. The same doomy pessimism, the same disgust.

7. using Catholic symbolism to dress up banal situations

Some people take Greene’s Catholicism seriously and take the novels as ‘investigations’ of Catholic theology, or the theology as a tool for ‘investigating’ human psychology. Not believing a word of it, I take the Catholic symbolism to be a way of doing two things:

  1. At its crudest, it’s a way of adding more words to a page and more pages to a book. It is filler. The theology adds to the content; it is a content-generating device – the Catholic characters can waffle on for pages about their oh-so-special sins and spiritual agonies because they are tapping into an established, vast and all-providing worldview.
  2. It’s also a meaning-generating machine. The ‘theology’ lends a spurious significance to events, to plots which, as noted above, are often trivial and inconsequential until they suddenly erupt in extremely improbable moment of melodrama (like Conrad confronting the Assistant Commissioner with a gun or Hall pushing Anthony Farrant into the lake). The bucket Catholicism lends the often immature and melodramatic vapourings of the unhappy characters a depth and seriousness they often don’t really deserve.
The youthful Graham Greene

The youthful Graham Greene

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