Instruments of Grace

Graham Greene always liked the idea of damnation.

Graham Greene always liked the idea of damnation. His contemporary George Orwell joked that, in Greene’s view, hell was little more than a "high-class nightclub" for distinguished sinners. Throughout the late English writer’s long career (Greene’s centennial was celebrated last year), he depicted many characters who viewed, and perhaps justified, their own sin as a vehicle for connecting to others. It was corruption that seemed to give the world a kind of identity, even a uniting principle. His characters lived and understood themselves in a fallen world where martyrdom was often the cost of salvation. No wonder Greene took French writer (and fellow Catholic) Charles Peguy’s famous observation to heart that it is sinners and saints who best understand Christianity. In the existential landscape known as "Greeneland," the two are inverses of each other, both attesting to the stricken state of creation itself.

The sinners far outnumber the saints in Greene’s work, however, and even those sometimes perceived to be saints, such as the policeman Scobie in The Heart of the Matter, are in reality very fallible creatures. (Greene himself said that Scobie had been "corrupted by pity," a kind of misplaced compassion, that eventually led to his suicide.) Sin, for the novelist, was compelling because it was insidious and universal and had a kind of artistic appeal. If the lower depths of Dante’s hell were frozen, Greene’s were often damp, subtropical, and inflamed with the heat of human desire. His characters live out their purgatory in places like West Africa, Indochina, or Central America, exotic locales that offer both distraction from the pursuits of the soul and also enforced isolation with it.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2005
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