Graham Greene | Critical Essay by Elliott Malamet

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of Graham Greene.
This section contains 3,325 words
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Critical Essay by Gary P. Storhoff

SOURCE: "To Choose a Different Loyalty: Greene's Politics in The Human Factor," in Essays in Literature, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 59-66.

In the following essay, Storhoff examines Greene's portrayal of the conflicting interests of political action, personal morality, and institutional order in The Human Factor. "For Greene," writes Storhoff, "religion should not take one out of the political world; instead, it should provide one with a coherent moral vision and profound scope that the secular world cannot offer."

In Graham Greene's story "Under the Garden" (1963), the ancient Javitt, instructing the young protagonist on how to succeed in the world, says, "If you have to earn a living, boy, and the price they make you pay is loyalty, be a double agent—and never let either of the two sides know your real name." Javitt's wisdom is adopted by Maurice Castle, the double agent in The Human Factor, which Greene also wrote in the 1960s but put aside because of the defection of his friend, Kim Philby. The figure of the double agent wreaking confusion in the State places The Human Factor well within the orbit of Greene's preceding political novels—The Quiet American, The Comedians, The Honorary Consul—for like these other books, he sets in motion the interactions between political ideology, social commitment, personal morality, and the moral qualities of the State.

Greene's use of the spy thriller to communicate political themes reveals his indebtedness to Joseph Conrad, whose The Secret Agent, like The Human Factor, accentuates the vast discrepancy between our romanticized conception of the secret agent and his dull reality. Indeed, Greene makes his debt explicit by the allusion to Conrad's mad Professor—"A man in love walks through the world like an anarchist, carrying a time bomb"—and by the implicit comparison between Conrad's Winnie and his character Sarah, who "had learned not to probe too far." Beyond narrative similarities, however, Greene dramatizes the Conradian vision that human beings are divided in their fundamental needs. On the one hand, they would like to make their world routine and predictable, stable and orderly. Thus, each character loves his placid bourgeois existence: Hargreaves, his estate; Daintry, his apartment and cheese and tin of sardines; Castle, his comfortable domestic life with Sarah. Yet counterpoised against this fundamental need for order is the craving for the mysterious, transcendent, and enigmatic—a more expansive and majestic universe where justice is finally meted out. Thus Hargreaves laments the loss of nineteenth-century Africa, with its "chiefs and witch doctors and bush schools and devils and rain queens"; Castle nostalgically remembers his childhood fairy land, where loyalty to imaginary dragons was possible; and Davis apes the romantic James Bond. Greene's characters, then, are caught up in irreconcilable conflict, for commitment to one world means loss of the other.

The double agent, because he is at once committed and independent and therefore ambivalent toward the political order, best incarnates this paradoxical condition. As a double agent, Castle's role is to "right the balance," to ensure justice will be done in spite of the manifest failures of politics. In his famous essay "The Lost Childhood," Greene attributes to Marjorie Bowen's The Viper of Milan the philosophical vision that was to inform his career: "Anyway she had given me my pattern—religion might later explain it to me in other terms, but the pattern was already there—perfect evil walking the world where perfect good can never walk again, and only the pendulum ensures that after all in the end justice is done." This oft-quoted passage reflects Greene's preoccupation with sin, evil, and loss; but critics have seldom emphasized the final, more optimistic clause of his sentence: "only the pendulum ensures that after all in the end justice is done" (emphasis mine). Like many of Greene's protagonists, Castle is unwilling to wait for the pendulum's final swing, and the central problem of the novel is how to translate his humanitarian concern into action, given the failure of institutional politics.

The British Secret Intelligence Service symbolizes the individual's involvement in the impersonal political world. Microcosmic, the SIS is a vast network of connections and communications, where messages nevertheless become "mutilated" and incomprehensible; where men appear to trust each other but do not hesitate to betray one another to serve personal ends. Although ostensibly dedicated to a single purpose of maintaining British order and comfort, the SIS actually mirrors the private obsessions of the characters. In it, Hargreaves sees the salvation of English Liberalism; Percival, the ascendency of the technocratic state; Daintry, a safe job with a pension. The fact that none of these characters is entirely wrong only compounds Greene's irony. For Greene, the "State" is no independent abstraction, but rather the sum total of all people's actions, evolving without malice or beneficence or a single motivating force. The political world operates chaotically, with no concern for justice, its trellised actions originating in individual quests for meaning.

In Davis's murder—one of the few purely political acts in the novel—Greene dramatizes the delusion that the State, with its clearly defined hierarchy and rational organization, can never bring about a just world. "C" knows that the SIS harbors a "mole," an informer who has leaked insignificant information on Africa to the Soviet Union. The information does not endanger national security except that it would embarrass the SIS; the management recognize that their own fragile order is threatened, for they would appear foolish and incompetent to the Americans, who are themselves concerned about their image. In identifying the mole, they overlook Castle because he has a wife and a cousin in the government, and they kill Davis, whose flashy life is belied by a desire for a quiet, monogamous life with Cynthia, a secretary. The novel begins, then, with a breach of justice, arising out of a quest for personal, not national, order.

Davis's murder measures the chaos of political mismanagement. No one really gives the order to kill him; his death "just happens." Hargreaves is later troubled that Davis is killed, for he is unwilling to acknowledge his complicity in the affair. Percival, wrongly assuming Hargreave's authorization, plots the murder and carries it out, but will not acknowledge Davis's humanity—he prefers to compared Davis to "an enormous trout." Castle knew that transmitting more information to the Russians might mean Davis's death, but he transmits it anyway. Even Cynthia, as she realizes later, could have been kinder to Davis. All are in some way implicated, but no one is responsible. Throughout the book, Greene emphasizes how people, institutions, and nations constantly work at cross-purposes; thus, every event—like Davis's murder or Castle's escape—is composed of acrimonious divisions rather than unified, coherent effort. Greene's meaning is clear; to except justice from the State is to be tragically deluded.

Into this highly politicized world Greene places his protagonist, Maurice Castle, who resolutely proclaims, "I have no politics." Wishing to remain untroubled by the ambiguities of political commitment to either England or the Soviet Union, he prefers his tranquil, domestic life with Sarah, who says, "We have our own country. You and I and Sam. You've never betrayed that country, Maurice." Castle tacitly confirms her naive sense of divisibility between home and nation, a division he has taken great pains to secure. Yet his retreat into bourgeois security is balanced by his own sense of responsibility and his idealized vision of an orderly, just world—he "could seldom resist a call of distress"—that his own action might bring about. His lost childhood, characterized by a dragon and the mysterious forest, recalls a world of moral absolutes where defense of the weak is imperative and justice is certain.

Castle believes he is actuated by "gratitude" to Carson for helping Sarah escape South Africa. His mother ascribes his gratitude to his deep insecurity: "You always had an exaggerated sense of gratitude for the least kindness. It was a sort of insecurity…." Certainly Castle, like the other characters, wants the stability that middle-class existence should ensure: he assiduously invests even his simplest habits with great meaning, not merely to deflect the suspicion of his superiors but to protect himself from the absurd. His name implies that he is his own bastion; also, the name suggests "castling," a protective chess move. Undoubtedly Castle's insecurity is a partial explanation of his motives. However, insecurity does not fully explain his willingness to risk himself for others. His "exaggerated sense of gratitude" is really congruent with his need for affirming human bonds. He responds with gratitude because he needs to believe that people, unlike institutions, do not act haphazardly or without good cause. His gratitude, then, affirms a world of significance, where an individual's actions have genuine meaning. His function in the SIS, to receive and decode messages, is appropriate for someone who takes human connections so seriously. Ironically, it is Castle's "gratitude," his need for human connections, that severs him from his community.

Greene clarifies Castle's political dilemma by introducing two foils, Mr. Halliday and Daintry. The first is an ideologue whose devotion to Communist principles is not linked to a passion for individual justice; the second understands personal suffering but lacks the courage to choose another's welfare above his own. Shrugging off Stalinist brutalizations as "little things," Halliday has lost his own humanity, for he is afraid to examine his own "silence of pain and doubt." He is like Castle because he attributes his idealism to a troubled childhood, but his commitment to abstract political ideals has robbed him of his humanity. Greene neatly dramatizes the incongruity of his noble idealism and his sordid actions with his expedient decision to kill Buller, whose faithfulness parodies Percival's confidence in Castle, and Castle's in the KGB. Halliday's high-minded goals are made even more unreachable by his disregard for individuals.

In contrast to Halliday, Daintry is sensitive to the needs of others, but his pathetic life is wholly circumscribed by his function in an office that proscribes significant communication. He is just another alienated State employee, and his misery emphatically conveys the illusory comfort a "secure" world provides. Daintry has the opportunity to defy his superiors politically when he discovers that Castle is the mole, yet Judas-like he betrays Castle to Percival. Like so many other characters in the novel, Daintry suffers deeply from wounds inflicted in childhood. And in adulthood, regularity has taken precedence over his humanity, so that even though he remembers his friendship with Castle, he is unable to act upon it. In Halliday and Daintry, then, Greene defines the dangers, yet the necessity, of political commitment.

"Where freedom is absent," writes Irving Howe in a different context, "politics is fate." Castle, thinking he had fulfilled obligations to the Communists, stumbles on Operation Remus, a plan whereby the West would equip South Africa with nuclear weapons to deploy against a Black revolt. Suddenly he is propelled into a world of choice, and Greene makes Castle's choice necessary and sympathetic: Castle chooses "a different loyalty," as Percival puts it. But Percival misunderstands Castle's true loyalty. Moved by the remembered image in Africa of a "dying child and the vulture." Castle commits himself not to the Soviets but to his own wider, far more inclusive sense of humanity that knows neither nationalistic nor racial boundaries. Although he cannot believe in Christ, his Christ-like mission to "right the balance" is inspired by Carson, the "secular priest" who represents the moral and political ideal. Carson, Castle says, "survived Stalin like Roman Catholics survived the Borgias," an analogy that confers on Carson the stature of spiritual and secular hero. The selfless commitment of both Carson and Castle points to the Christian cast of Greene's politics: dedicated effort to relieve individuals, coupled with a sense of human community, reflects God's love for man. Through politics, man can give witness to Christian faith.

On the novel's surface, we have a sense of Castle's inevitable failure, and after his escape the settings shift rapidly to enhance our sense of political disappointment. Castle is first brought to a hotel that reveals the Westernization of all the grandeur Africa used to represent. A bizarre duplication of the tropics, the "Starflight Hotel" with its "artificial sky" and "innumerable pinpoint stars" is, appropriately, the place Castle acquires his fake identity. A make-up man who himself is nameless and faceless deprives Castle of his identity in a few minutes, dismissing his uniqueness as a person with ideological dogma: "The human visage is infinitely adaptable. That is a good argument against the importance of heredity." Significantly, the new identity Castle acquires is that of a blind man, a symbolic culmination of the theme of political blindness running throughout the novel. There is only one character who sincerely appreciates the meretricious elegance of the Starflight Hotel: Blit, an American whose name suggests his spiritual vacancy. In Blit, Greene repeats his motif of comfort and simple desires in a purely comic mode: "Smart idea, this joint," says Blit. "Just like the Virgin Islands. I'd put on my Bermuda shorts if I had them."

Castle's final alienation occurs in Moscow. Here, from the barren isolation of his room, Castle gazes out at the red star on Christmas night: "There was a certain beauty in the view as there is in all cities at night. Only the daylight was drab." The passage implies that Moscow is like any other city of man: well-lit, superficially gay, meretriciously beautiful; but, in the daylight of truth, empty of meaning. Russia is depicted as a frozen land where entombed, spiritless bodies—like the statues of Lenin, Marx, and Engels at the University Library (which itself parodies a decayed church)—appear and disappear, leaving no impression except for footprints in the "merciless, interminable, annihilating snow, a snow in which one could except the world to end."

Ironically, Castle moves from his own country where he was free to talk but couldn't to a nation where not only is he not at liberty to say what he wishes but where he does not even know the language. When he does have an opportunity to talk—with Ivan, Boris, or the defector Bellamy—the topic is usually what previously was closest to his heart, his own personal comfort, secured for him by a seemingly solicitous State. But like his adopted son Sam, Castle is, so to speak, "a Ward in Chancery," a prisoner of a nation. Greene makes this point emotionally powerful with the concluding scene of the book, in which Sarah speaks for the last time with Maurice: "She said, 'Maurice, Maurice, please go on hoping,' but in the long unbroken silence which followed she realized that the line to Moscow was dead."

Castle, like Fowler at the conclusion of The Quiet American, needs "someone" to talk to—"someone" who can understand the seriousness of Castle's political gesture and therefore give it meaning. The implication at the end of the book is that God—and God alone—endows human action with meaning; to be human necessarily involves commitment, but men must choose God before any other choice is meaningful. At first reading, the novel seems to stress the failure of individual politics, and Greene seems to share Joseph Conrad's skepticism of political action. Yet the world of The Human Factor is somewhat better because of Castle's action: Operation Remus is exposed, and in Greene's fictive world this act is significant because, presumably, other humanitarian individuals will share Castle's repulsion. Merely because justice is only partly done, we cannot therefore dismiss private action as meaningless: although the ultimate consequences of Castle's choice are unrevealed, Greene rejects a world made of neatly labeled boxes, the metaphor that Percival finds so fetching, in favor of a more complex, integrated world, where Castle's private decision has consequences at an international level. Political engagement is not absurd; presumptively it has some redemptive power.

Even on a more personal level, Castle's sacrifice is redeemed from the absurd. Though he consciously associates his own mission with Christ's, he denies Christ as "that legendary figure whom he would have liked to believe in." There is, however, the strong suggestion that Castle will recover his lost faith. In Moscow he finds his own situation reflected in Robinson Crusoe, whose protagonist desires personal comforts but also understands the nature of desolation. Crusoe, though, undergoes a conversion in his loneliness and discovers the consoling power of God: "That he could fully make up to me, the Deficiencies of my Solitary State, and the want of Humane Society by his Presence, and the Communications of his Grace to my Soul, supporting, comforting, and encouraging me to depend upon his Providence here, and hope for his Eternal Presence hereafter." Greene's allusion to Robinson Crusoe makes the book open-ended, mitigating the seemingly despairing conclusion with the suggestion that Castle's sacrifice—purposeless though it may initially seem in the chaotic world of international politics—has meaning in a transcendent moral sphere. On his island, Crusoe attempts to synthesize his actions with his religious convictions; he tries to accept his place in the world with equanimity, having faith that the universe is ultimately just. Castle has sacrificed himself for his moral principles, but to make his own action meaningful, he must envision his life within a religious context. For Greene, religion should not take one out of the political world; instead, it should provide one with a coherent moral vision and profound scope that the secular world cannot offer. Without faith in God, Greene implies, man cannot properly value his fellow man.

The allusion to Robinson Crusoe and the character of Carson imply Greene's alternative to complacency and nihilism: what Greene calls "empirical Marxism." Empirical Marxism for Greene is a Marxist but nondogmatic commitment to revolution, a commitment that ensures justice for the individual as the highest political value. Revolutionary politics must be conjoined with Christianity's emphasis on individual salvation. In an interview with Fidel Castro in 1966 (presumably about the time The Human Factor was being written), Greene argues "… for the possibility, not of a mere chilly co-existence, but of cooperation between Catholicism and Communism." This same view is indirectly presented in The Human Factor, but indirection is Greene's aesthetic for political novels: "If anyone has anything direct to say about society or politics, let him say it as journalism," he said in an interview with Philip Toynbee. In Carson, whose commitment to an ideology is not an obstacle to his individual charity. Greene symbolizes the Marxist-Christian; and Castle, though he sees his life as nonpolitical, fashions his political identity when he takes Carson as his model. Both Carson and Castle, of course, have as their spiritual model the self-less love and charity of Christ.

As a writer, Greene sees himself playing a political role, the significance of which he communicates throughout the novel by means of his literary allusions. He posits literature as a possible means of realizing, if not a more humane State, at least a wider sense of fellowship. Trollope, Tolstoy, Browning, Balzac, Dickens, Defoe, Richardson, even Rider Haggard—all these writers mentioned in the novel performed in Greene's estimation a political service, for in some way they extended our emotional life to others, showing us we are not unique in our search for meaning and order. In his famous letter to V. S. Pritchett, Greene contends that the obligation of the writer is to be "grit" in the machinery of the State; the writer must resist the State's attempt to restrict our sympathy so we are easier to control: "… one of the major objects of his craft … is the awakening of sympathy. Now the State is invariably ready to confuse, like a schoolmaster, justice with retribution, and isn't it possibly the story-teller's task to elicit sympathy and a measure of understanding for those who live outside the boundaries of State sympathy?" In The Human Factor, Greene successfully accomplishes this task. In our sympathy for Castle, we are made to abolish easily acquired loyalties to envisage a more profound division of loyalties in the human spirit. In so doing, we extend our emotional world to accommodate what Greene celebrates: the fusion of the religious and the political.

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This section contains 3,325 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Doreen D'Cruz