Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene

by Robert A. Parker

This 1938 work is generally recognized as Greene’s first serious novel. And justifiably so, I will now agree. It had not impressed me, however, when I first read it perhaps sixty years ago.

And now I can see why.

Because this is not written in the beautiful, rich style of the serious novels that followed. It features a very gritty style, with metaphors that emphasize the ugliness of nature and the world. But it is nevertheless a true Greene work, as well as his first successful one. Because it is about evil. And about love. And about the two in conflict, the boy Pinkie being evil and the girl Rose not seeing the evil because she is in love.

It is a theme that will become richer, and more subtle, in subsequent Greene novels. It is a theme that naturally rises out of the newly acquired Catholicism of the author as well as the Catholicism of these two characters he has created. But it is not a visible theme until the second half, when Rose’s love blinds her. Indeed, Norman Sherry writes in his biography of Greene that the author had intended that this book to be a thriller, but as he passed the 30,000-word mark, he saw the possibilities in writing about more than a murdering punk; it could also be about a punk who personifies evil.

The story until then revolves around two murders initiated by an ambitious Pinkie. He seeks, through the power of his gang, revenge on a man who has betrayed his leader, who was also a father figure; but he also plots to avoid being blamed for the first murder. Greene explores the Brighton underworld and Pinkie’s efforts to survive it for a greater part of the novel, an approach which frankly turned me off in my first reading long ago. But this time I found it provocative because it was unclear how deep the evil went, and I was curious about where this novel was going.

Where he was going was Pinkie’s conviction that Rose could be a witness against him for the murder that opens the novel. He then pursues her, thinking that if he marries her she cannot, by law, testify against him. And Rose, being both unattractive and untutored in the wiles of men, succumbs to his attention, and then falls in love with him. What makes this relationship even more fascinating is that Pinkie is physically repelled by her, as well as by all women. For he has not only never experienced women, being a virgin and terrified by the idea, but also appears to be a latent homosexual. Or, perhaps, not even latent in Greene’s mind.

And so we have another example of Greene’s fascination with characters torn by internal conflict. Pinkie hates physical contact with women, but must seduce Rose. And Rose wants to live with Pinkie, but soon is convinced she must die with him. Indeed, the climactic moment when Pinkie plots with her to commit a suicide pact together—and we know he does not intend to fulfill his side of the bargain—is the most intense and most accomplished scene in the book.

The resolution of that scene, however, is not convincing, for Greene has taken the easy way out. He has three characters arrive fortuitously on the scene, and interrupt Pinkie’s plans. The most important of the three is Ida, whom we have been following at intervals throughout the novel. She was with the initial murder victim at the start of the novel, and seems to feel some responsibility for letting it happen. She is also, in contrast to the lovers, a very secular person, a believer in Right vs., Wrong, rather than, like the Catholic lovers, in Good vs. Evil. In any event, she is intent on seeing that justice is done and that Rose is saved. Indeed, she has been in pursuit of Pinkie for the second half of the novel. Which does lead to her presence in the climactic scene, when she arrives with a little help from the author.

The Raven of This Gun for Hire and Pinkie here are blood brothers. Each personifies evil, and each is involved with a girl who loves them and prefers to see the goodness inside them. J. M. Coetzee also points out that a death in This Gun prompts the killing that Pinkie commits as revenge at the opening of this novel.

One does ask how Greene could be so effective in portraying these characters on the underside of life. Granted, he wished to explore the nature of evil, and evil flourishes most on that underside. Sherry’s biography clearly shows how Greene researched the Brighton scene, using the race course, the hotels and bars, even the Kolley Kibber character who leaves cards all over Brighton and offers a prize to whomever first identifies him. He also cites actress Mae West, whom Greene recently reviewed, as a model for the spirited, blowsy Ida. As for his knowledge of the evil in these underground characters, Sherry says Greene “was tapping his own fundamental view of mankind and religious belief. What he is demonstrating in the novel is the limitations of religious belief which do not accept the existence of innate evil.”

The title, Brighton Rock, is never explained within the novel. It is a type of hard candy, and critics have assumed that the first murder was committed by stuffing the candy down the victim’s throat. This would make sense, and the title also reflects the hard life for these characters in Brighton. But Greene never makes clear why he chose it, as he chose his other titles.

It seems clear that Brighton Rock marked the turning point in Greene’s literary career. He realized that his new Catholic faith offered the entre with which to explore the contradictions in life between evil and sin on one hand, and human innocence and love on the other. And for literary purposes, this was most present in the sexual desire that drove his own life—desire as an expression of pleasure and also as an expression of love.

This is an ugly work on the surface, in its concentration on evil, in its unsympathetic characters, and in the hard metaphors of its style. But it offers a key to understanding the works to come, especially Power, Affair, and the plays. This is where the external world is replaced by the internal world—and by sin, redemption, and pity. It is where Greene finds his true subject: the contradictions within the human mind and the human soul. (February, 2016)

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