Friday, August 27, 2010


In trying to catch up on my reading, I just finished Graham Greene’s classic Brighton Rock first published in 1938. The Heart of the Matter left me unsettled, but I really don’t know what I think about this book.

The title refers to hard candy sold at the beach in the town of Brighton in England. Brighton Rock is the story of a teenage gangster named Pinkie Brown, his hapless girlfriend Rose, and a busybody named Ida Arnold. Sound like a bizarre plot? Well, Brighton Rock is a bizarre book.

The plot of Brighton Rock is readily available elsewhere on the internet so I won’t bother everyone with it here. What I want to focus on are the much heralded theological aspects of the novel. Brighton Rock is considered to be one of Greene’s “Catholic Novels,” the others of which are The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, and The Power and the Glory. Although Greene habitually throws in some reference to the Church or Catholicism in his thrillers and “entertainments,” like the daughter who goes to Catholic school and says her rosary in Our Man in Havana.

Greene has said that when he started writing Brighton Rock he intended it to be a conventional thriller or detective story, hence the exciting opening chapter which describes a chase and a murder. The novel’s famous opening line sets the stage for what follows:

“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”

Hale is indeed murdered. At Hale’s sparsely attended funeral, the Anglican priest mouths the platitudes of modern religion of the “I’m OK, You’re OK, God’s OK” type:

‘Our belief in heaven,’ the clergyman went on, ‘is not qualified by our disbelief in the old medieval hell. We believe,’ he said, glancing swiftly along the smooth polished slipway towards the New Art doors through which the coffin would be launched into the flames, ‘we believe that this our brother is already at one with the One.’ He stamped his words like little pats of butter with his personal mark. ‘He has attained unity. We do not know what that One is with whom (or with which) he is now at one. We do not retain the old medieval beliefs in glassy seas and golden crowns. Truth is beauty and there is more beauty for us, a truth-loving generation, in the certainty that our brother is at this moment re-absorbed in the universal spirit.’

It astounds me that Greene was already able to poke fun at New Age babble like this in the late 1930's. This kind of stuff sounds good but has no real content. This is not a religion that a person will give his life for.

Ida Arnold, who was a woman that Hale picked up in an attempt to avoid being killed, becomes obsessed with finding Hale’s killer and bringing him to justice. Ida represents the modern person. She has no religious beliefs to speak of, she just believes in “right and wrong.” However, Ida finds no fault in anything which brings her pleasure. Ida sees nothing wrong with casual sex, for instance. “It’s natural” she says, and there’s nothing wrong with it.

“She wasn’t religious. She didn’t believe in heaven or hell, only in ghosts, ouija boards, tables which rapped and little inept voices speaking plaintively of flowers.”

So while “the good guys” in this novel are not religious, “the bad guys” are very religious. Hale’s killer Pinkie was reared as a Roman Catholic, sings parts of the Mass to himself, and believes in all of the doctrines of the Church. Outside of the fact that Pinkie is also an evil psychopathic killer, he’s not a bad bloke.

Pinkie believes in Hell and knows that when he dies in a state of mortal sin that he will certainly go to it. In the back of his mind, Pinkie hopes that he’ll be able to make a confession and be granted absolution before his death. If Pinkie dies and goes to Hell in the meantime, well, as they said in The Godfather, it ain’t personal, it’s just business.

Pinkie kills Hale for being involved with the murder of the gang leader Kite. Then he kills a member of the gang named Spicer so that Spicer can’t talk. Pinkie seduces the hapless Rose, a 16 year old waitress in a greasy spoon who can give incriminating testimony against him, and convinces her to marry him.

Rose is also a Roman Catholic. Before their civil marriage ceremony, Rose goes off to confession but then realizes that marrying Pinkie in a civil ceremony outside the Church is a mortal sin so it doesn’t make any difference anyway. Rose and Pinkie are very moral in a bizarre kind of way. Rose knows that Pinkie is a murderer, but makes a conscious decision to go to Hell with him.

Although neither Pinkie or Rose believe that their civil marriage is valid in the eyes of God, they refrain from sex until they are married. In fact, Pinkie has a revulsion of the entire idea of sexual intimacy from listening to his parents make love through the thin walls of a poor tenement apartment. Pinkie says that listening to his parents in their bedroom disgusted him so much that he swore he would become a priest. However, when the time comes on the wedding night, Pinkie overcomes his disgust and does his duty.

Since Rose is convinced that she is going to Hell by living in sin with Pinkie anyway, she is ready to commit the ultimate mortal sin by taking her own life when Pinkie asks her to. Rose winds up throwing the gun she is supposed to kill herself with away and Pinkie accidentally splatters acid all over his face (in grim preview of where his soul is headed) before he plunges over a cliff and dies to avoid capture by the police.

If any of the above makes sense to you, then you may be either (1) a deranged lunatic, (2) a Graham Greene fan, (3) a Catholic, or (4) all of the above.

Greene seemed to be obsessed with mortal sin and damnation. This led George Orwell to famously opine that Greene apparently viewed Hell as an exclusive high class nightclub open only to Catholics.

I can’t really say that I enjoyed reading Brighton Rock, but it certainly provided much food for thought. Graham Greene was a one of a kind author. It may just be that Brighton Rock is a great work of literature.

Pinkie & Rose in a film version of Brighton Rock

Graham Greene

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