The Ministry of Fear, by Graham Greene

by Robert A. Parker

One can see why this 1943 work is often considered both an “entertainment” and a novel. Because it is both. The entertainment is the story, the intrigue about a gang of spies and a secret microfilm they are trying to sneak out of the country. The novel element exists in the way the story is told, in the mood of wartime London during the blitz and in the probing depth of the various characters, especially that of Arthur Rowe, the main character.

When we meet Rowe he has just been released after the mercy killing of his terminally ill wife. He is filled with guilt for what he has done, and the reason he has killed her, he believes, is his sense of pity. This may well be Greene’s first use of that sense, which will culminate with Scobie. Indeed, it is so prominent that Greene’s initial title for this work was, The Worst Passion of All. In the novel, note, these words are followed by, “we don’t outlive it like sex.” But Rowe’s guilt also grows out of a pity for himself, that perhaps it was not his wife’s suffering that bothered him but a doubt of his own ability to witness that suffering.

This is a rich novel whenever we share Rowe’s emotions or his intellect. Indeed, he is a mix of guilt, love, redemption, and memory loss. He has lost his memory when a bomb explodes nearby, and he spends much of the novel not sure he wants to regain it. For he is happy, and he does not want to lose that happiness. Nor do the villains, for they do not want him to remember the cake he has won in a lottery, a cake which contained that microfilm they want to get out of the country.

The mechanics of the plot require Rowe to move about abruptly from setting to setting. Thus, he moves from the charity bazaar to his bombed home; from a séance to a hotel room to a sanitarium after he has lost his memory, being held there by the spies; and finally from tagging along with Inspector Prentice as he pursues the spies to a climax in which Rowe pursues them on his own. Each scene is completely believable, but the transition in each case is somewhat arbitrary. This is especially so when Rowe is trapped in a hotel room and opens a mysterious suitcase, whereupon an ellipses ends the scene. The next scene has Rowe being treated in the spies’ sanitarium for his loss of memory. One critic declares that a bomb has been dropped on the hotel. But is that one bomb too many? For an earlier bomb has dropped on Rowe’s home, enabling him to escape the spies a first time.

There is also a love story, and a not entirely convincing one. For the woman Rowe meets, Anna, the sister of Willi Hilfe, the spies’ ringleader, is not complex enough. In fact, as I recall, Greene was often criticized for the weakness of his female characters. Is she so elusive in this case because Greene, to create suspense, does not wish to reveal which side she is on and how much she can be trusted? In any event, she starts helping Rowe so quickly that her allegiance to him rather than to her brother is not convincing. Nor is the vestige of loyalty that she still has for her brother near the end—introducing a false complexity with no repercussions. But a fine Greene touch at the end offers that the two lovers, Rowe and Anna, will have to lie to each other until the end of their lives (about how much Rowe has regained his lost memory and how much he knows about her brother’s fate).

The Ministry of Fear, one character speculates, is a government agency that rules people through fear, much as Rowe in the sanitarium is being ruled by a fear that his recovered memory will end his current happiness. The psychology of his captors, however, is not entirely convincing, as they try to persuade converts that one’s loyalty is owed to individuals and mankind rather than to a particular society or country.

Arthur Rowe, the main character, is a complex man worthy of Greene. As William Du Bois wrote in 1943 in the Times: “Few writers can distill drama from a twisted soul with more skill than Mr. Greene; few experts in the field would dare to combine all the elements you will find in The Ministry of Fear. The novel begins as a case-history in psychiatry, and ends as a spy hunt…Arthur Rowe is Mr. Greene’s illustration of the schizophrenia that is corroding the world today. Probably no one else would have chosen Rowe as a protagonist. When he ghosts into the novel, he is dank with malaise….And yet, when the story ends, he has developed a strange courage.”

I have not read this novel in nearly 60 years. My first review ended: “In other words, this book can stand a rereading.” And now that I have, I find my reaction to be remarkably similar. That the melodrama, such as the opening auction mix-up and the séance murder, is overshadowed by the literate writing. And I also agree that “the espionage plotting seems worked out by Green to control his hero’s life as much as by the spies themselves.”

Regarding pity, I said: “This novel reaches its peak only when Rowe has forgotten his pity. Why? Perhaps pity is too deep and too real an emotion to supplement a fully external plot, especially when pity seems to be used to give Rowe the character he has and the lonely circumstances he lives in. The pity is turned chiefly on his past, moreover, not onto the events taking place.”

However, I do not agree that the pity applies only to the past. Rowe seems to have some pity for Anna, for this Austrian woman, this refugee who identifies more with English justice than what she has left at home. And he also has pity for Stone, his fellow victim at the sanitarium, as well as for some of the staff. His action at the end even reflects pity for Willi Hilfe.

To sum up, this is a beautifully written melodrama of espionage. Its author introduces various twists, but what follows each twist works. And the novel itself works because Arthur Rowe is complex and believable. He faces dire situations with uncertainty and fortitude, and outmaneuvers shallowly drawn villains. And Greene is always there to probe the novel’s heart, with such lines as: “If one loved one feared.” That one could lose love. And: “Perhaps after all one could atone even to the dead if one suffered for the living enough.” That there is redemption after a mercy killing, but one must earn it. No, Greene never ignores one’s conscience, one’s soul. (June, 2015)

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