Monday, September 6, 2010
Graham Greene's The End of the Affair
In my effort to read all of Greene's so-called "Catholic novels," I finally got around to The End of the Affair (1951).
This book is about adultery, sin, redemption and the nature of faith. Elements of the book may be loosely based on Greene's notorious real life carryings on with various of his mistresses, especially Lady Catherine Walston.
The End of the Affair doesn't involve a love triangle, it involves a love rectangle. The four lovers being Sarah Miles, her husband Henry, Maurice Bendrix, and God.
The book is primarily the story of the lovers Sarah Miles and Maurice Bendrix. Sarah is in a loveless marriage to a civil servant named Henry Miles. Then just before the outbreak of World War II, Sarah becomes involved in a passionate love affair with the novelist Maurice Bendrix.
The love affair reaches its climax during the London blitz. In 1944, while making love in Bendrix' apartment, a German V-1 rocket lands near by and Bendrix is hit by a falling door. Thinking that he has been killed, Sarah, who is an agnostic, sinks to her knees and promises God that if Bendrix lives she will give him up.
Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore as Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles
Sara ends the affair with Bendrix. After two years, in 1946, Bendrix happens to run into Sarah's husband Henry. Henry confides in Bendrix that he thinks that Sarah is having an affair. Jealous at the thought that Sarah had left him for another lover, Bendrix hires a private detective to follow her.
Sarah is indeed involved with another lover for whom she has left Bendrix: God. A big theme of The End of the Affair is the nature of faith. Sarah is desperately unhappy in her marriage and wishes to leave Henry to be with Bendrix. She rationalizes that if God doesn't really exist then she is free to do as she pleases. In order to try to convince herself of God's non-existence, she begins studying with a notorious atheist intellectual. Unfortunately, atheist arguments against the existence of God only convince Sarah that God is real and that she must keep her promise.
Sarah begins taking instruction from a Catholic priest, and performs random acts of kindness. At one point, she prays that she could take Christ's place on the cross and suffer for the redemption of humanity. Her wish is granted, as shortly thereafter, Sarah dies from pneumonia.
After Sarah's death there are several miraculous healings associated with her intercession in Heaven. (Apparently, the long-term enthusiastic commission of the sin of adultery doesn't cause Sarah to have to spend much time in Purgatory, since she seems to zip straight to the presence of the Beatific Vision!). In other words, it turns out that Sarah Miles was a Saint.
After finding out that his girlfriend left him for God, who then proceeded to take her away permanently, Bendrix, who has been an atheist, hates God. Bendrix realizes that he cannot hate God and remain an atheist since hate is just the other side of love. In order to hate God, Bendrix must first believe in Him.
The End of the Affair is rightly recognized as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.