The End of the Affair§
by Russell Dyer
published: august 18, 2007; revised: september 03, 2017; readers in past month: 238
I must confess that I first discovered Graham Greene from watching the 1999 movie of the same name as this novel, starring Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore, and Stephen Rea. I was fascinated by the movie and watched it a few times when it was on HBO. Years later I bought the movie on DVD and watched it many more times. Eventually, last year I decided to read the novel on which it was based. Before reading it, I felt as though I was evolving as a writer, but did not know into what I was evolving. When I read his novel, I realized that I was evolving into a writer similar to Greene — or at least that’s my hope and goal now. From there I became a Graham Greene fan and have read over a dozen of his novels.
This literary criticism is about that novel, in particular how he draws in the reader at the start, and how he keeps the reader engaged with his unique characters, but ones with which the reader identifies.
Of all of the novels of Greene’s that I’ve read, The End of the Affair is perhaps my favorite. I don’t think it’s because it was the first one I read or so well depicted in the movie. Published originally in 1951, it’s set in London just after the second world war, with scenes recalled that took place in London during the war. It’s a story about a writer (like Greene) who is named Bendrix — Greene chose to narrate his story from the perspective of a writer, seeing life and the world as a writer would. I hate to say this since I hate when people say this about my writings, but the story seems to be based in spirit on Greene himself and a lover of his who was married to someone else. It’s hard to separate Greene from the protagonist, the narrator, when the narrator speaking in first person is a writer.
Opening Lines & Paragraphs
Everytime I buy a Greene novel, although I enjoy his books, I’m usually not in the mood to read it. That’s not a comment on his novel; I just always have too much going on and no time to read. I resist opening his novel after getting it home because I know that I’ll be drawn in. Sometimes the novel will start with an obvious hook like the the opening sentence in Brighton Rock: Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. That’s an excellent line. Actually, it’s too good and indicates Greene’s youth as a writer — it was one of his first. When I read a line like that, I will chuckle and think to myself how good it is, but I am able to shake it off to read later because it’s so stunning. It doesn’t compel me to start reading the novel then and there, although it does compel me to read it later. I can resist these kind of openings. It’s the more subtle ones that catch me and keep me.
In his later novels, there are no such blatant hooks. Instead, there are dry and seemingly mundane beginnings. With those, I will start reading and think that the novel has nothing to draw me in, just a dull opening paragraph to establish the setting. This is where I drop my defenses and get pulled into a Greene novel. Look at the opening two paragraphs of the The End of the Affair:
A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say ‘one chooses’ with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who — when he has been seriously noted at all — has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me? It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there, but if I had believed then in a God, I could also have believed in a hand, plucking at my elbow, a suggestion, ‘Speak to him: he hasnt seen you yet.’
For why should I have spoken to him? If hate is not too large a term to use in relation to any human being, I hated Henry — I hated his wife Sarah too. And he, I suppose, came soon after the events of that evening to hate me: as he surely at times must have hated his wife and that other, in whom in those days we were lucky enough not to believe. So this is a record of hate far more than of love, and if I come to say anything in favour of Henry and Sarah I can be trusted: I am writing against the bias because it is my professional pride to prefer the near-truth, even to the expression of my near-hate. (1)
The first sentence here is not a hook in the same way as the one in Brighton Rock, but it is a hook in a way. The reader doesn’t expect a story to begin with the narrator talking about how a story begins. That’s a bit unconventional and daring and catches the reader’s curiosity. The narrator is acknowledging that although he is a fictitious character, he is self-aware in his way. The story is aware of itself, it is seemingly sentient. That sounds ridiculous and bizarre. However, that’s the bizzare nature of the opening line of this story. Look at the second sentence: …that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain… Greene goes from an academic discussion of how this story and any story should begin or if the notion of a begining is valid, to a strong visual image. From where did this use of the gerund slanting suddenly come? I’ve never heard it used this way before, and yet I understood it when I first read it and its unique use conjures an immediate and all the stronger image of a dejected man walking through the rain. Black, wet, January, night. I’ve been in London in January at night in the rain. It’s bitter, bitter cold there in January when it rains. It will make you curse the joints of your bones. And what about the wide river of rain? Here’s a man fighting the onslaught of a bitter cold rain in London at night, but to add to the imagery, it’s river wide — a wide river is not easily escapable, but it’s easy to succumb to it, to be drowned by it. He is physically and metaphorically enduring the abuse of life, living and existing contrary to it.
So it is that this paragraph catches our attention with its unconventional narration and with its intriguing character, Henry. The next natural question is, Who is this Henry? Who is he to you, narrator? I say you because already at this point, the reader has fallen into a relationship with the narrator. By including the reader in the narrator’s observations about the beginning of a story, they have shared thoughts together and begun a relationship. The second paragraph starts to answer the questions about Henry, but with more intriguing comments that lead to more questions in the reader’s mind. Near the start of the second paragraph is the line, I hated Henry |—| I hated his wife Sarah too. Now we know of another character, Henry’s wife Sarah. How odd it is for someone to hate a person and their wife. Normally, you hate one not both. You hate the guy, but feel sorry for his wife since she has to live with him. Or, as a man, you’re friends with the guy, but can’t stand his wife — probably because she doesn’t like you. Usually, we have nothing to do with people when we hate both the husband and wife.
What a bizarre and unorthodox character Bendrix is to use for the protagonist of a novel. He’s an anti-religious, athiest who contradicts himself by hating God in the end. He’s an adulterer and an overly jealous man. His jealousy is hypocritical and unbecoming. It’s not even clear that he loves the other main character, his lover Sarah or if he’s just obsessed with her. He even says of himself, I’m incapable of love. (132) And yet, he’s our hero in a way. We don’t necessarily like or dislike him, we just understand and somewhat sympathize with him as the book progresses. Greene has figured out how to bring a reader into the thoughts of a less than admirable protagonist and to get us to accept him. We may form opinions about him and how he acts, but that’s alright. That’s how life is. The heroes of our lives, as well as ourselves, are not people that we worship and admire everything they do. Well, I know that some people act that way, but I suspect they are fooling themselves, living in denial. Greene seems to cool our judgements against Bendrix by showing his frailty and his insecurities. Look at this line of self-admission supposedly from Bendrix (but maybe also from Greene): If this book of mine fails to take a straight course, it is because I am lost in a strange region: I have no map. I sometimes wonder whether anything that I am putting down here is true. (39) He is admitting that he’s lost. He’s admitting that he may be fooling himself and thereby the reader. This may soften the reader, but the average reader needs more than this to buddy up to a jealous adulterer protagonist. How about this line which comes after Bendrix has read Sarah’s diary (another despicable act) and he learns that he is loved by her despite his incredulousness: It’s a strange thing to discover and to believe that you are loved, when you know that there is nothing in you for anybody but a parent or a God to love. (70) It’s admissions like that that make the reader identify with the flawed Bendrix. We can identify with him because we know we have our faults and because we have our insecurities when it comes to love and being loved. As Bendrix says, I have never seen any qualities in me for a woman to like… (129) Or as I like to say, “I’m always dumbfounded when a woman shows an interest in me, but I’ve learned not to question it.”
And what about Sarah, the love interest of the story? She’s an adultress and from the outside she seems worse than Bendrix in that she knows how innocent her husband is and how cruel it is to him to stay with him and cheat on him. Despite this, Bendrix tells us that unlike the rest of us she was unhaunted by guilt. (39) You would think that not feeling guilty for her adultery would cause the reader to have less sympathy for her. Maybe the most critical of Christians might not have sympathy for her — but they probably wouldn’t read this book all the way through, they probably would never buy it even.
Nevertheless, as we flawed readers read about her, we start to understand her. We start to understand how she is in a marriage without love or passion: she told [Bendrix] they had never been in love. (11) We begin to appreciate how her husband thinks no more of her than his slippers, as Bendrix says in the movie. We realize how she stays with him because he needs her and his marriage to be in tact for his career. In time we also start to see how pure her love for Bendrix is and how unjustified he is in his jealousy. She says to Bendrix suddenly, without being questioned, ‘I’ve never loved anybody or anything as I do you.’… We most of us hesitate to make so complete a statement |—| we remember and we foresee and we doubt. She had no doubts. The moment only mattered. (39)
So it is that we readers appreciate how loving a woman she is and how unfairly she’s been treated by her husband and her lover. In the end, her husband even says that he was wrong in marrying her since he could not give her what she deserves. As for Bendrix, he hires a detective to stalk her to see if she has another lover even though she has told him many times that she would love no one but him. How awful is that. So we have sympathy for Sarah, despite her flaws and supposedly immoral actions. In the end we see her as pure in her nature. She’s generally just an unhappy and miserable woman trying to do what’s right, while also trying to eek out for herself a few moments of happiness without disturbing the status quo if possible.
The character Henry is not as elaborately portrayed, but then one wouldn’t think that the narrator would know as much about his lover’s husband and wouldn’t have as much interest in him as he would his lover. After all, he tells us in the begining that he hated Henry. Of course, he said that about Sarah, too. In time, though, Bendrix began to feel differently Henry: He sat there with his head-bent, looking at his shoes. I have been sorry for myself for so long, so extensively, this it seemed strange to me to feel sorry for my enemy. (52) It may have seemed strange, but to a person who takes a moment to be aware of other people’s feelings, takes the time to look at the person he has wronged while they sit there in sorrow before him looking down at their shoes, it’s not strange at all to feel sorry for them. From Sarah’s diary, Bendrix reads of how Henry pleads with her not to leave him: ‘I can’t do without you,’ he said. Oh yes, you can, I wanted to protest…You changed your newspaper once and you soon got used to it. (94) Henry goes on to admit his faults: ‘My dear, I haven’t been much of a husband…I’m dull for you. My friends are dull. We no longer |—| you know |—| do anything together.’ (95) He finishes his pleadings by saying, ‘Don’t leave me, Sarah…I’ll try…’ but he couldn’t think himself what he’d try. (52) So, while we don’t get to know Henry much, we do see him as this gentle person who is hurt by the affair that his wife has had, who realizes (and in the movie says) that he was culpable in the larger picture by insisting on his wife staying with him when he could not make her happy and did little to try.
Greene’s choices in these three main characters is interesting and daring. They make for more realistic characters and add richness to the story. They also make it more difficult for the writer, for Greene. If a writer is to use such characters, he must take care in his writing to present them properly or the reader will dislike them and thereby disassociate himself from the story and eventually stop reading. As I mentioned above, Greene manages to get his reader to sympathize with the main characters. The reader may not completely identify with any one of the main characters, but I suspect the reader does identify with various aspects of them. I know that I can identify with Bendrix’s feelings of frustration regarding loving a woman who will not fully be with him. I can also join in his passion for a woman, his desire to feel so strongly about a woman. I can also appreciate how Sarah feels in not being treated well and instead being treated hurtfully by those who are supposed to love her. I can share in her feeling of being trapped in a marriage and wanting to find an escape, even if only a temporary one.
One of the appealing things about a Graham Greene novel is that the plots are not typical: this is no Cinderella story, no one is being rescued, and there’s no savior in the mix. Although I like those plots in that they give me hope, they are unrealistic to some extent. They’re not how life generally goes. Instead, in real life, people fail and faulter: they are trapped in marriages, commit adultry, can’t have the one they want, are jealous, and generally treat each other badly. As a result, life isn’t usually a fairy tale. Still, do we not enjoy reading books that allow us to dream about a fairy tale life? Sometimes we do. Other times we want to face the reality and come to terms with it. As Bendrix says, albeit in a different context, one gets so hopelessly tired of decption. I would have welcomed the open fight. (7) Bendrix was referring to his desire to confront Henry about his secretive affair, but the sentiment is in parallel: We readers reach a point where Cinderella stories are not enough, we want to stop living in denial about ourselves — we perhaps have tried to change but could not change so we pretend to be normal as an alternative. We reach a point where we instead want to learn to accept ourselves the way we are. A Greene novel helps us to do that. It doesn’t do it with red, yellow, and blue color-coded characters, nor even characters of that spread into the main rainbow colors. Instead he reaches into an extensive color rubrix for characters that one cannot exactly identify as the princess, the charming prince to rescue her, or the witch.
Let’s consider The End of the Affair in these simpler character codings: who is the princess, the prince, and the witch? On the surface, one would say that a woman who cheats on her husband cannot be the princess of the story. Nor can her overly jealous and hateful lover be Prince Charming. Certainly the docile, naive, and overly trusting Henry cannot be seen as a witch. In time, though, we realize that there’s no witch, although Bendrix often says the devil was at work in his actions. One can’t piece together a Sleeping Beauty plot with these characters. Let’s look to secondary color-coding, a plot along the lines of a detective story in which there is a female client, the tough-guy detective who used to be a disobedient policeman and maybe a thug of sorts himself, and the corrupt public official, businessman, or gangster who is oppressing the client, and the many shady and questionable characters in between with their various levels of goodness and evil. This idea is perhaps closer to the characters and the plot of this novel. However, it still doesn’t fit: Sarah isn’t a client that looks to Bendrix to save and protect her. She only wants to love him and would like him to love her in return without feeling jealousy. She wants her husband to either be content with her while she unknownst to him has an affair with the man she loves, or she wants him to just let her go and divorce her without any fuss. As for the villain oppressor, there’s only life and its cultural restraints that are working against her. Sarah does not expect anyone to fix that for her, to protect her from it. The detective plot, the thriller plot, the railing-against-the-world plots and others like them don’t fit.
So what is the plot The End of the Affair? If they say all of the plots have been created already, what is its stereo-typical plot that it follows? Certainly there may be small pieces of other plots, but I suspect the overall plot is a muddled one just as the characters and the readers are muddled. The plot is that boy meets married girl when he’s entering middle-age. Girl doesn’t get girl per se, but shares in her with her unsuspecting husband. Girl leaves boy who is jealous. Then boy stalks girl with the aid of a detective on behalf of the husband and so on. Yes, it’s a muddled plot with muddled characters. While the story encompasses some simple themes — love, passion, romance, heart-break — it also involves more complicated ones: jealousy, deception, and adultry. How it deals with this elements, how it presents them to the reader, and how it allows the reader to feel an akinship with these less than idealic characters and to feel acceptance of these shared faults, that seems to be the appeal of the plot — whatever one might call that kind of plot.
How a novel ends can affect the reader’s lasting assessment of the book and determine whether he likes it and recommends it. Greene ends this novel in a profound and unusual way. He ends with Bendrix praying, saying, O God, You’ve done enough. You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me along for ever. (160) How contrary to cultural norms, to pray to God that He leave you alone and forget about you. How daring to write such a thing, to risk ending a novel in such a way — this is the last line, incidentally. If you haven’t read the novel yet, this will tell you that things don’t end happily ever after. Instead, they end with the hero feeling sad and bitter towards Life. They end with the reader understanding the hero’s outburst and frustration with Life, with the reader identifying with it and feeling a little less stressed about himself. We end by feeling that life isn’t fairy tales and happy endings necessarily: life is just life. There’s a certain peace that comes from this realization, a certain maturity that grows out of it. This is perhaps the greatest value of reading one of Greene’s serious novels. This is its appeal and how it changes its readers and thereby makes the novel and Greene memorable.
Greene, Graham. Brighton Rock. 1938. London: Vintage Classics (Random House Group Ltd), 2004.
Greene, Graham. The End of the Affair. 1951. London: Vintage Classics (Random House Group Ltd), 2004.