Graham Greene: Doubter Par Excellence
Graham Greene (1904-1991)
by Anthony Palliser
by JOSEPH PEARCE
Graham Greene is perhaps the
most perplexing of all the literary converts whose works animated
the Catholic literary revival in the 20th century. His visions
of angst and guilt, informed and sometimes deformed by a deeply
felt religious sensibility, make his novels, and the characters
that adorn them, both fascinating and unforgettable.
His fiction is gripping because it grapples with faith and disillusionment
on the shifting sands of uncertainty in a relativistic age. His
tormented characters are the products of Greene's own tortured
soul, and one suspects that he was more baffled than anyone else
at the contradictions at the core of his own character and, in
consequence, at the heart of the characters that his fertile
and fetid imagination had created.
From his earliest childhood Greene exhibited a world-weariness
that at times reached the brink of despair. In large part this
bleak approach may have been due to a wretched childhood and
to the traumatic time spent at Berkhhamsted School where his
father was headmaster. His writing is full of the bitter scars
of his school days. In his autobiographical A
Sort of Life,
Greene described the panic in his family after he had been finally
driven in desperation to run away from the horrors of the school:
"My father found the situation beyond him . . . My brother
suggested psychoanalysis as a possible solution, and my father
- an astonishing thing in 1920 - agreed."
For six months the young, and no doubt impressionable, Greene
lived at the house of the analyst to whom he had been referred.
This episode would be described by him as "perhaps the happiest
six months of my life," but it is possible that the seeds
of his almost obsessive self-analysis were sown at this time.
Significantly, he chose the following words of Sir Thomas Browne
as an epigraph to his first novel, The
"There's another man within me that's angry with me."
In later years, the genuine groping for religious truth in Greene's
fiction would often be thwarted by his obsession with the darker
recesses of his own character. This darker side is invariably
transposed onto all his fictional characters, so that even their
goodness is warped. Greene saw human nature as "not black
and white" but "black and grey," and he referred
to his need to write as "a neurosis . . . an irresistible
urge to pinch the abscess which grows periodically in order to
squeeze out all the pus." Such a tortured outlook may have
produced entertaining novels but could not produce any true sense
of reality. Greene's novels were Frankenstein monsters that were
not so much in need of Freudian analysis as the products of it.
Greene's conversion in 1926, when he was still only 21 years
old, was described in A
Sort of Life,
in which he contrasted his own agnosticism as an undergraduate,
when "to me religion went no deeper than the sentimental
hymns in the school chapel," with the fact that his future
wife was a Roman Catholic:
I met the girl I was to marry after finding a note from her at
the porter's lodge in Balliol protesting against my inaccuracy
in writing, during the course of a film review, of the "worship"
Roman Catholics gave to the Virgin Mary, when I should have used
the term "hyperdulia." I was interested that anyone
took these subtle distinctions of an unbelievable theology seriously,
and we became acquainted.
The girl was Vivien Dayrell-Browning, then 20 years old, who,
five years earlier, had shocked her family by being received
into the Catholic Church. Concerning Greene's conversion, Vivien
recalled that "he was mentally converted; logically, it
seemed to him . . . It was all rather private and quiet. I don't
think there was any emotion involved." This was corroborated
by Greene himself when he stated in an interview that "my
conversion was not in the least an emotional affair. It was purely
A more detailed, though hardly a more emotional, description
of the process of his conversion was given in his autobiography.
"Now it occurred to me . . . that if I were to marry a Catholic
I ought at least to learn the nature and limits of the beliefs
she held." He walked to the local "sooty neo-Gothic
Cathedral" which "possessed for me a certain gloomy
power because it represented the inconceivable and the incredible"
and dropped a note requesting instruction into a wooden box for
enquiries. His motivation was one of morbid curiosity and had
precious little to do with a genuine desire for conversion. "I
had no intention of being received into the Church. For such
a thing to happen I would need to be convinced of its truth and
that was not even a remote possibility."
His first impressions of Fr. Trollope, the priest to whom he
would go for instruction, had reinforced his prejudiced view
of Catholicism: "At the first sight he was all I detested
most in my private image of the Church." Soon, however,
he was forced to modify his view, coming to realize that his
initial impressions of the priest were not only erroneous but
that he was "facing the challenge of an inexplicable goodness."
From the outset he had "cheated" Fr. Trollope by failing
to disclose his irreligious motive in seeking instruction, nor
did he tell the priest of his engagement to a Catholic. "I
began to fear that he would distrust the genuineness of my conversion
if it so happened that I chose to be received, for after a few
weeks of serious argument the 'if' was becoming less and less
The "if" revolved primarily on the primary "if"
surrounding God's existence. The center of the argument was the
center itself or, more precisely, whether there was any center:
My primary difficulty was to believe in a God at all . . . I
didn't disbelieve in Christ - I disbelieved in God. If I were
ever to be convinced in even the remote possibility of a supreme,
omnipotent and omniscient power I realized that nothing afterwards
could seem impossible. It was on the ground of dogmatic atheism
that I fought and fought hard. It was like a fight for personal
The fight for personal survival
was lost and Greene, in losing himself, had gained the faith.
Yet the dogmatic atheist was only overpowered; he was not utterly
vanquished. He would reemerge continually as the devil, or at
least as the devil's advocate, in the murkier moments in his
The literary critic, J.C. Whitehouse, has compared Greene to
Thomas Hardy, rightly asserting that Greene's gloomy vision at
least allows for a light beyond the darkness, whereas Hardy allows
for darkness only. Chesterton said of Hardy that he was like
the village atheist brooding over the village idiot. Greene is
often like a self-loathing skeptic brooding over himself. As
such the vision of the divine in his fiction is often thwarted
by the self-erected barriers of his own ego. Only rarely does
the glimmer of God's light penetrate the chinks in the armour,
entering like a vertical shaft of hope to exorcise the simmering
Few have understood Greene
better than his friend Malcolm Muggeridge, who described him
as "a Jekyll and Hyde character, who has not succeeded in
fusing the two sides of himself into any kind of harmony."
There is more true depth and perception in this one succinct
observation by Muggeridge than in all the pages of psycho-babble
that have been written about Greene's work by lesser critics.
The paradoxical union of Catholicism and skepticism, incarnated
in Greene and his work, had created a hybrid, a metaphysical
mutant, as fascinating as Jekyll and Hyde and perhaps as futile.
The resulting contortions and contradictions of both his own
character and those of the characters he created give the impression
of depth; but the depth was often only that of ditch water, perceived
as bottomless because the bottom could not be seen. Greene's
genius was rooted in the ingenuity with which he muddied the
It was both apt and prophetic
that Greene should have taken the name of St. Thomas the Doubter
at his reception into the Church in February 1926. Whatever else
he was or wasn't, he was always a doubter par excellence.
He doubted others; he doubted himself; he doubted God. Ironically,
it was this very doubt that so often provided the creative force
for his fiction. Perhaps the secret of his enduring popularity
lies in his being a doubting Thomas in an age of doubt. As such,
Greene's Catholicism becomes an enigma, a conversation piece
- even a gimmick. Yet if his novels owe a debt to doubt, their
profundity lies in the ultimate doubt about the doubt. In the
end this ultimate doubt about doubt kept Graham Greene clinging
doggedly, desperately - and doubtfully - to his faith.
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay
Witness magazine. Lay
Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith,
Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support,
defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.