Graham Greene: The Ambiguity of Death

by Janet McCann

Dr. McCann teaches in the department of English at Texas A&M University.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 30, 1975, pp. 432-435. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


There is a death-centeredness in much of Greene’s work. In his novels, human love is a destructive and also a redeeming force which clouds all moral issues and makes the world an even more dangerous place.

When theologians and others were arguing about the ultimate fate of Scobie in The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene commented: "I wrote a book about a man who goes to hell -- Brighton Rock -- another about a man who goes to heaven -- The Power and the Glory. Now I’ve simply written one about a man who goes to purgatory. I don’t see what all the fuss is about" (Time, October 29, 1951, p. 103). Although Greene was perhaps not being entirely serious, that remark illustrates the death-centeredness of much of his work. In his autobiography, A Sort of Life, Greene makes another relevant statement about his fiction:

And if I were to choose an epigraph for all the novels I have written, it would be from "Bishop Blougram’s Apology":

Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things.

The honest thief, the tender murderer,

The superstitious atheist, demi-rep

That loves and saves her soul in new French books --

We watch while these in equilibrium keep

The giddy line midway.

These lines are meant to apply to all of Greene’s novels, not only to the so-called Catholic novels. They suggest that the novelist is fascinated by the irony of possible damnation or salvation in a world where all looks gray. For Greene, life is a moral drama with death as its climax; the denouement, of course, can only be hinted at.

Departure for an Unknown Destination

Greene’s notion of life as a moral drama is reflected in his treatment of death and dying in the novels. His main characters usually meet sudden and violent ends, but their deaths are almost always accompanied by hints of hope. (In fact, the only apparently hopeless death is that of Pinkie in Brighton Rock -- the "man who goes to hell.") In most cases, Greene surrounds death with such mystery and ambiguity as to suggest an entirely different perspective on the total picture -- a perspective which suffering human beings glimpse only occasionally and incompletely. Through his treatment of his characters’ deaths, he makes known the nature of that great gap he finds between the actuality of life in the world, with its disappointments and limitations, and the possibility of infinite life.

Greene’s characteristic methods of describing death emphasize its ambiguity. He intensifies the focus of his narrative on the person for whom death is imminent. Sometimes the shifting point of view becomes entirely that of the one who is to die; his most minute sensations and impressions are recorded. In other cases, the dying man is seen through the eyes of others. But the character is never taken all the way to the end, as Katherine Anne Porter did with the death of Granny Weatherall. Instead, there is a gap, represented by the close of a chapter or by a blank space on the page. Then the focus shifts abruptly to the thoughts and reactions of those still living. This technique of describing death emphasizes both its finality and its mystery. The individual’s life is seen as a completed progression, with death as its last act. By focusing on the survivors’ often mistaken or incomplete understanding of the deceased, Greene shows our inability to understand life or death. Evoking the mystery and the suddenness of the characters’ deaths by means of abrupt shifts in viewpoint and by the use of white space, Greene makes of death a strange departure for an unknown destination. The reader is left with the impression that something has been launched which the eye cannot follow. That a death may be a "happy" one, however, is sometimes suggested by the circumstances surrounding it and by the sense of possibility inherent in its ambiguity.

Elation at the End

This ambiguity is present from the beginning of Greene’s work. His first novel, The Man Within, ends just before its main character, Andrews, commits suicide. Andrews has been tortured all his life by the conflict between the cowardly and the critical halves of his personality. His love of Elizabeth has enabled him to resolve the conflict; at the novel’s end he takes the responsibility for her death to spare a friend. The image he holds of Elizabeth looks with approval on his suicide as he reaches for his own knife with which to kill himself.

To Andrews’ sense now there were two stars, or it might be two yellow candles, in the night around him. One was the sole companion of the moon, the other glimmered more brightly still in the belt of the old officer in front of him and bore his own name. Slowly his hand stole out unnoticed on an errand of supreme importance, for between the two candles there was a white set face that regarded him without pity and without disapproval, with wisdom and with sanity.

By ending the story at this point, Greene avoids describing the suicide and yet gives the story a sense of completeness. The candles seem to consecrate the act.

It may well be, of course, that Andrews has brought himself to the pinnacle of self-delusion rather than of self-knowledge. However, the use of Andrews’s point of view forces the reader to experience some of the character’s elation as he approaches his end. Thus the ending is ambiguous: Andrews has lost his love and is at the point of suicide; yet he is happy and at peace, for he believes that he has found himself and that he is acting rightly. His death is in a sense an act of love, and no doubts trouble his mind as he reaches for his knife. At this point it even seems appropriate that his name is on the knife. The reader asks: What kind of death is this? The ending seems not quite satisfactory: it suggests that there may be some kind of cosmic order which justifies Andrews, but that suggestion is not developed.

From Despair to Bittersweet Hope

In The Man Within, we are given no viewpoint other than Andrews’s own. In Greene’s later novels, the multiple viewpoints add to the ambiguity of the deaths. In some cases, the character’s own viewpoint is more pessimistic than that of the people who knew him. But in all the deaths except that of Pinkie in Brighton Rock, ambiguity and possibility are present. The question posed and left unanswered concerns the character’s ability to love, and Greene’s message is always the same: it is our human capacity to love which both leads us into sin and redeems us. Thus, the man who would live fully finds the world dangerous and irrational as he tries to keep "the giddy line midway." He alone will know whether he has kept it, and he will not know until his death.

More insight into Greene’s attitude toward death can be gained by analyzing the deaths of the main characters in the novels cited in the Time comment -- The Power and the Glory, Brighton Rock and The Heart of the Matter.

The death of the unnamed whisky priest in The Power and the Glory is highly ambiguous. In revolution-torn Mexico, Greene pits the weak, corrupt priest with his promises of heaven against the strong lieutenant, exponent of equality and heaven on earth. Eventually the priest is executed; the lieutenant has won the battle against him, and yet since the influence of priest and priesthood remain, the lieutenant has lost the battle for the people’s loyalty. At the whisky priest’s death there is a sharp contrast between his own understanding of his life and achievement and the perceptions others have of him. His reminiscences just before his execution contain only one object of love: his illegitimate daughter. Drinking brandy and trying to make a final confession in the absence of a confessor, he can think only of her:

As the liquid touched his tongue he remembered his child, coming in out of the glare: the sullen unhappy knowledgeable face. He said: "Oh God, help her. Damn me, I .deserve it, but let her live forever." This was the love he should have felt for every soul in the world: all the fear and the wish to save concentrated unjustly on the one child . . . he tried to turn his brain away towards the half-caste, the lieutenant, even a dentist he had once sat with for a few minutes, the child at the banana station ~. . . For those were all in danger too. He prayed: "God help them," but in the moment of prayer he switched back to his child beside the rubbish-dump, and he knew that it was only for her that he prayed. Another failure.

Part III of the novel concludes pith his thoughts of failure and hopelessness just before his execution:

He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him at that moment that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that there was only one thing that counted -- to be a saint.

Yet, ironically, to some he is a saint. The young girl Coral Fellows, who died trying to save the priest’s life, found something of the saint in him. Her parents speak of the priest and their daughter in an odd, elliptical conversation:

"I was just thinking of that priest. A queer fellow.

He drank. I wonder if it’s him."

"If it is, I expect he deserves all he gets."

"But the odd thing is -- the way she went on

afterwards -- as if he’d told her things."

Another child, who earlier had seemed more inclined to accept the lieutenant’s world view than the priest’s, ultimately gives his loyalty to the priest. The novel ends with the boy’s welcome of yet another persecuted priest. Significantly, those who believe in the priest are children. Most adults have little faith in him, but the young draw their hope from him although he is weak and corrupt.

In this conclusion, the priest’s despondency is contrasted with others’ belief in him. The difference in tone between the ending of part III and the beginning of part IV heightens the ambiguity as the reader is shunted from despair to a kind of bittersweet hope. Certainly, if this priest is saved, it must be through his very human love, since he had little else to offer. The priest’s sense of failure may point up another Greene theme: that people are unaware of the roles they play in the divine plan. But in any case, it is difficult to find any loopholes for the priest in Catholic dogma, and the Catholic Church’s initial disapproval of the book is understandable.

Love, Damnation and Redemption

A far less ambiguous death is that of Pinkie in Brighton Rock. If the whisky priest’s dubious love saves him by providing him with a positive commitment to life, Pinkie’s inability to love damns him. Greene goes to great lengths to avoid giving an ambiguous ending to this novel; it would almost seem that to Greene, salvation is tentative while damnation is sure. Pinkie is a perversely ascetic, alienated young killer who feels threatened by any human contact. A Catholic, he has married a 16-year-old Catholic waitress so that she cannot testify against him. He tries to force her to commit suicide near the end of the story, all the while struggling against a tenderness for her which has arisen because of their common heritage. Although Pinkie is depicted as almost entirely evil, he feels kindly toward his young wife when others laugh at her. "Tenderness came up to the very window and looked in. What the hell right had they got to swagger and laugh . . . if she was good enough for him?" But Pinkie successfully fights the feeling. He dies when his plan for his wife’s suicide fails; his death is described through the eyes of his wife, who loves him.

She could see his face indistinctly as it leant in over the little dashboard light. It was like a child’s, badgered, confused, betrayed; fake years slipped away -- he was whisked back towards the unhappy playground. He said: "You little . . . " he didn’t finish -- the deputation approached, he left her, diving into his pocket for something. "Come on, Dallow," he said, "you bloody squealer," and put his hand up. Then she couldn’t tell what happened: glass -- somewhere -- broke, he screamed and she saw his face -- steam. He screamed and screamed, with his hands up to his eyes; he turned and ran; she saw a police baton at his feet and broken glass. He looked half his size, doubled up in appalling agony; it was as if the flames had literally got him and he shrank -- shrank into a schoolboy flying in panic and pain, scrambling over a fence, running on.

"Stop him," Dallow cried; it wasn’t any good; he was at the edge, he was over; they couldn’t even hear a splash. It was as if he’d been withdrawn suddenly by a hand out of any existence past or present, whipped away into zero -- nothing.

This death is hardly surrounded by positive omens. As is usually the case in Greene’s novels, the death ends a chapter, and the next chapter takes up the reactions of the survivors. Through Rose, Greene clears up any possible ambiguity about Pinkie’s death. Rose goes to confession after Pinkie’s death, but all she really regrets is not having killed herself for him. The priest tries to comfort her, suggesting that Pinkie’s love for her may have redeemed him. The passage, citing the example of Péguy, describes the Greene theme of salvation through love:

He said, "There was a man, a Frenchman, you wouldn’t know about him . . . He was a good man, a holy man, and he lived in sin all through his life, because he couldn’t bear the idea that any soul should suffer damnation." She listened with astonishment. "This man decided that if any soul was going to be damned, he would be damned too. He never took the sacraments, he never married his wife in church. I don’t know, my child, but some people think he was -- well, a saint. I think he died in mortal sin. . . . You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone -- the . . . appalling . . . strangeness of the mercy of God."

But rather than end the novel on this ambiguous note, Greene uses a somewhat awkward device to resolve the ambiguity. On Rose’s wedding day, she had asked Pinkie for a souvenir recording of his voice. He recorded a hate-filled message and told her it was "something loving." At the end of the novel Rose, comforted by the thought that Pinkie’s love for her may have saved him, is on her way to play the recording and to discover the quality of that love. The reader is not to be allowed to believe what he wishes about Pinkie. Love could have saved Pinkie, it is suggested; but he resisted it and therefore it did not.

Perhaps the ambiguity of death is strongest in The Heart of the Matter. In this novel Greene’s central paradox that love leads both to sin and to redemption is developed fully and finely. The main character, Scobie, commits suicide -- attempting to make his death look like a heart attack -- because he can bear to betray neither his mistress nor his wife. Scobie has always felt such pity and responsibility for others that he cannot bring himself to hurt people, and to avoid inflicting hurt he commits all kinds of sins. Yet although he feels guilt for his sins and cannot pray at his death, his last act is an attempt to help someone and his last words are "I love . . ."

The chapter following the description of Scobie’s death shows us that neither Scobie’s childish mistress nor his pious Catholic wife was worth his sacrifice. Both have other men waiting to console them. When Scobie’s suicide is discovered, his wife assumes that of course he is damned, but the priest is not so quick to judge. In fact, Father Rank’s words echo the words of the nameless priest who consoles Rose in Brighton Rock.

"It’s no good even praying

Father Rank clapped the cover of the diary to and said, furiously, "For goodness sake, Mrs. Scobie,

don’t imagine you -- or I -- know a thing about God’s mercy."

"The Church says .

"I know the Church says. The Church knows all the rules. But it doesn’t know what goes on in a single human heart."

But in this novel no brief scene follows to resolve the ambiguity. Scobie is left standing midway between the whisky priest, who accepts love, and Pinkie, who rejects it.

Most other Greene heroes, including Dr. Plan of The Honorary Consul, Querry of A Burnt-Out Case, even Raven of This Gun for Hire, die under circumstances similar to those in the novels discussed. Greene heightens the suspense just before a death, sometimes by shifting the point of view; he follows the death with the suggestion of a great gap; then he focuses on the survivors at a low point of action. The ambiguities and ironies emphasize Greene’s theme of human love as a destructive and redeeming force which clouds all moral issues and makes the world an even more dangerous place. Thus in Greene’s world, lives ,deaths are all ambiguous, and it is difficult to tell saint from sinner.