Greene, Graham (Henry Graham Greene)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Greene, Graham (Henry Graham Greene)

Greene, Graham (Henry Graham Greene) (1904-1991) English novelist and journalist A writer of plays, short stories, criticism, and nonfiction work as well as the novels for which he is best known, Graham Greene delved into the moral ambiguities of 20th-century American and European imperialism. Born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England, his internal struggles with bipolar disorder began at age six, when he attempted to kill himself while enrolled at Berkhamsted School. In his mid-teens, he required psychological counseling before entering Balliol College, Oxford University, to study history. Upon graduating, he began a career in journalism, which ended in 1929 when he abandoned editing for the Times to write fiction. His often took as themes the collapse of Britain as a global economic and political force, and his fictional dialogues, rich with epigrams, analyzed the ebb of institutional loyalty, duty, and service.

Taking a personal approach to his stories, Greene engaged himself in colonial scenarios by creating a fictional alter ego. With his early socialist novels, he probed the waning of nationalism and turned fictional recruits to the foreign service into cynical, venal, and self-absorbed straw men, the victims of social isolation and government dilemmas. For the travelogue Journey without Maps (1936), he walked 350 miles of Liberia, one of Africa's few uncolonized lands. Because of Liberia's freedom from racist domination, he charged British imperialism in Kenya, Rhodesia, and South Africa with failure: “They were simply out to make money; and there was no hypocrisy in their attitudes towards ’the bloody blacks'” (Greene 1992, 43). The contrast between black-ruled and conquered nations seized his imagination. He mused, “To a stranger, I think, coming from a European colony, Monrovia and coastal Liberia would be genuinely impressive. He would find a simplicity, a pathos about the place which would redeem it from the complete seediness of a colony like Sierra Leone” (243).

His political acumen and hatred of indifference led Greene to serve during World War II in M16, the British intelligence agency. He was posted to Freetown, Sierra Leone, the source of one of his best novels, The Heart of the Matter (1948), set during the war. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for depicting the internal struggle and eventual suicide of a police inspector, Major Henry Scobie, against West African smuggling, adultery, and blackmail, crimes the author connects with declining morality. A screen version in 1953 starred Trevor Howard, Maria Schell, and Peter Finch.

As it did GEORGE ORWELL, the postwar malaise confirmed for Greene the disrepute into which imperialism lapsed. In the early 1950s, he reported from Saigon to Le Figaro and the Sunday Times on the French colonial war, the source of his novel The Quiet American (1955), a PROPHECY of the American quagmire that began in Southeast Asia four years later. A love triangle hampers the efforts of a naive civil servant, Alden Pyle, to represent U.S. interests in Vietnam. An immature idealogue, he dismisses Indochinese politics as “only a damned colonial war anyway” (Greene 2002, 38). The author voices his own disgruntlement at colonialism in the jaded observation, “It's always the same wherever one goes—it's not the most powerful rulers who have the happiest populations” (49). Film versions in 1958, starring Audie Murphy and Michael Redgrave, and in 2002, featuring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, dismayed U.S. audiences for their anti-Americanism.

As a correspondent for the Sunday Times, Greene reported on the Mau Mau uprising against British colonial rule in Kenya (1952-60). Later, he gathered material for The Human Factor (1978), an expose of imperialist paranoia regarding espionage and communism at the height of South African apartheid. The 1979 film version, shot in Kenya, combined the acting talents of top stars including Richard Attenborough, John Gielgud, and Derek Jacobi. In his autobiography Ways of Escape (1980), Greene characterized the British pull-out from Malaya in 1963 as a wise decision, unlike the American rush to occupy Vietnam.

Empire's End

Greene became a perceptive witness to faltering empires and the antiheroic behavior of some colonial civil servants. He anticipated the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 with Our Man in Havana (1958), an espionage thriller pitting treachery against survivalism. The statelessness of the civil servant emerges in a letter home, in which the protagonist declares, “Sometimes I fear going home to Boots and Woolworths and cafeterias, and I'd be a stranger now even in the White Horse” (Greene 2007, 62).

In January 1959, the author traveled to Leopoldville to explore the Belgian Congo. His visit to the Yonda, Imbonga, and Lombo Lumba leper colonies undergirded A Burnt-Out Case (1960), set in the fictional Congolese capital of Luc. Familiar with the Freudian concept of the repressed self, he symbolized the stifled subconscious with heat, sun, humidity, and claustrophobic boat cabin. As though referring to the unending duties of Europeans in service to the Belgian empire, Greene refers to the river as khaki-colored, a suggestion of drab uniforms set against a perpetually green forest.

The text pictures the cubicle occupied by the protagonist, Query, during a Conradesque journey upriver in search of the leprosy bacillus as “a nut at the centre of the hard shell of discomfort” (Greene 1961, 9). Heavy with suspense, the action suggests a symbolic subtext: the European’s search for infection in a land that imperialism has corrupted. As a result of overlong contact with the outback, Querry sinks into a soulless despair worsened by atheism. Stymying Belgium’s efforts to control the region, the jungle thwarts all movement except for that of snakes, insects, birds, primates, and pygmies, the only humans who thrive in the tropical environment. Greene symbolizes the failure of white incomers to function in the unyielding climate when he quotes the leper Deo Gratias. Knowing his case is incurable, the leper says, “I am too far gone, I can’t feel at all” (31).


Greene, Graham. A Burnt-Out Case. New York: Viking, 1961.

------- . The Heart of the Matter. London: Penguin, 2004. . Journey without Maps. London: Penguin, 1992. . Our Man in Havana. London: Penguin, 2007. . The Quiet American. London: Penguin, 2002. Sherry, Norman. The Life of Graham Greene. Vol. 2:

1939-1955. London: Penguin, 2004.