Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock”

February 20, 2011 § 1 Comment

photo by scatterkeir

The world described in Greene’s “Brighton Rock” is the furthest from my own. I have no memories or experiences to draw upon, to identify with. From The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana, to The Heart of the Matter, I’ve found Greene’s novels having a natural magneticism: musings on the human condition, the multifaceted nature of man, and of course, exotic travels.

Gangsters, a British seaport town, 1930’s England, Catholic themes. What would a young, decidedly agnostic Singaporean man identify with? That was one of the reasons I was hesitant to pick it up, even though it was known to be one of Greene’s best and most well known novels.

As the title hints, the novel focuses on the city of Brighton in the 1930’s, which was when Greene published the novel.
Brighton, specifically the town in the south east of England, is famous for its promenade, funfair and restaurants, amongst other things. In this setting of pleasure and relaxation, Greene chose to set his story of murder, seduction, and fall from grace.

Pinkie Brown is a boy gangster with ambitious plans, finding himself fighting to step into the shoes of his gang’s recently-murdered chief, Kite. To avenge him and claim his rightful place on the top of Kite’s pack, Pinkie  murders the newspaperman (Fred) responsible for Kite’s downfall.

Under uncertain circumstances, Fred’s murder is picked up by local police as a natural death. Only a teenage café waitress, Rose, holds the evidence that reveals the murder. To silence the witness, the Catholic born Pinkie, who believes himself already damned, seduces Rose as part of his plans: the beginning of a series of damning evil acts.

Fred’s dubious death is picked up by a friend, and the only true heroine of this novel: the righteous Ida Arnold.
A woman slightly past her prime, but nevertheless charming and seductive, she deigns herself an experienced, worldly woman, nonreligious, and the purveyor of good from evil. You could think of her as an avenging angel of justice that knows how to appreciate the finer bourgeois pleasures of life.

It is Ida who ultimately catches on to Pinkie’s crime and is determined to bring him to justice whatever it takes, and to rescue Rose from the damned boy’s clutches. This deadly cat-and-mouse leads Pinkie into a series of actions that leaves him with no chance of turning back.

Greene’s literary mastery in Brighton Rock is his ability to craft a heart-stopping murder mystery, while weaving in existential themes of the nature of good and evil, and the role of religion in an individual’s life.

Pinkie Brown is Graham Greene’s characterization of pure evil: born of unloving circumstances, he grows up unfeeling and equally unable to feel love, much less give any. His memories of are filled with a disdain for his childhood home, and shunning his recollections of his parents in the act of sex. The latter leaves such a stain on him that he is unable to contemplate himself making love to any woman.

“She was good, he’d discovered that, and he was damned: they were made for each other”

The obvious contrast to Pinkie’s evil is his would be lover/victim Rose. A young inexperienced girl of 16, she falls for Pinkie’s advances, and colors her judgment of him. Everything he does is justified in her eyes. She will follow him anywhere he goes, she says, even unto the great sin of committing suicide

But perhaps a better contrast to Pinkie’s evil would be Ida Arnold as the representation of supposed justice and good. Besides Pinkie, Ida is the next strongest character in the novel; probably the strongest female character I’ve come across in Greene’s novels. She has the cynical streak of Fowler (The Quiet American) and the haughtiness of Aunt Augusta (Travels With My Aunt), well heeled in middle aged pleasures.

“It’s only fun after all”
-Ida Arnold

Ida’s judgmental view of life lacks any grey areas. In a conversation with young Rose, she spells out exactly what she thinks of her relationship with Pinkie:

“Listen, I’m human. You can take my word I’ve loved a boy or two in my time. Why, its natural. It’s like breathing. Only you don’t want to get all worked up about it. There’s not one who’s worth it- let alone him. He’s wicked. I’m not Puritan. I’ve done a thing or two in my time- that’s natural.”
“Why”, she said, extending towards the child her plump and patronizing paw, “its in my hand; the girdle of Venus.

But I’ve always been on the side of Right. You’re young. You’ll have plenty of boys before you’ve finished. You’ll have plenty of fun- if you don’t let them get a grip on you. It’s natural. Like breathing. Don’t take away the notion I’m against Love. I should say not. Me. Ida Arnold. They’d laugh.”

-Ida Arnold

I did find a few things that called out to me in this particular Greene novel. Boy gangster Pinkie Brown’s ambitious moves in underworld Brighton is marked by much youthful inexperience, and struggle against the critical (and older) eyes of those around him. I suppose much of it came from the author’s own difficult time growing up, often quoted from his biography. As a young man who still has fresh memories of his teenage years, these were easy to identify with.

“He had to show someone he was – a man… It was as if they doubted whether he had the money to pay for his meal.”
“He knew everything in theory, nothng in practice; he was only old with the knowledge of other people’s lusts, those of strangers who wrote their desires on the walls in public lavatories. He knew the moves, he’d never played the game.”

Ultimately, Greene’s final say in the book hints on the writer’s own beliefs on religion in his life: that even those seemingly damned and evil have the opportunity to redeem themselves. Reccuring themes from Greene’s other novels appear here too:
Can a person be truly good if she has never known or experienced evil?

Can a person be truly evil if circumstances force him to know of no other existence and habit?

And after a multitude of sins, can she be redeemed in the eyes of God?

It seems a young Singaporean man can have much to take away from a British seaport town, underworld violence in the 1930’s.

Greene’s answer to this last question, is a resounding yes.

Look at me. I’ve never changed. It’s like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton

-Ida Arnold


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