The End of the Affair
The End of the AffairIntroduction
Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair was first published in 1951 in England. The events of the novel concern an adulterous affair in England during World War II. With the war and the affair over, Maurice Bendrix seeks an explanation of why his lover, Sarah Miles, broke off their relationship so suddenly. Greene's contemporaries could relate to the setting of the story, as the war was fresh in their memories and they were living in the same postwar period as the characters. Within this setting, Greene explores themes of love and hate, faithfulness, and the presence of the divine in human lives. Critics have been generally positive in their reviews and analyses of the novel, and readers have embraced it for more than fifty years. One of Greene's early admirers was William Faulkner.
Critics consider The End of the Affair the last in Greene's Catholic tetralogy. In the first three books of the four, Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, and The Heart of the Matter, Greene depicts God as a source of grace in people's spiritual lives, but in The End of the Affair, Greene presents a more active, involved God who is a force in people's earthly lives (performing miracles through Sarah, for example). All four novels address the ideas of mortal sin and redemption. To many critics, The End of the Affair is the most obviously Catholic of Greene's novels, due in large part to the apparent sainthood of the heroine, whose death is followed by a series of miracles.
Graham Greene was born in Hertfordshire, England, on October 2, 1904, to Marion Greene (first cousin of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson) and Charles Henry Greene, a school headmaster. An introverted and sensitive child, Greene's had difficult early years because of his strict father and boarding school bullies. At sixteen, Greene suffered a breakdown and went to London for treatment by a student of Sigmund Freud.
While in London, Greene became an avid reader and writer. Before leaving, he met Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, who became lifelong literary mentors to him. His other influences were Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Ford Madox Ford. After graduating from high school in 1922, Greene attended Oxford University's Balliol College, where he received a degree in history in 1925. While at college, Greene became interested in politics, especially Marxist socialism (but not communism). This interest sometimes created tension in Greene's friendship with the conservative writer Evelyn Waugh, although the two remained steady friends for many years.
In 1926, Greene converted to Catholicism for his fiancée, Vivien Dayrell Browning, whom he married the following year. The couple eventually had two children. Greene is generally considered a Catholic writer despite his insistence that the conversion was not his greatest literary influence.
During World War II, Greene did intelligence work for the British government in West Africa. His experiences at home and abroad inspired works like The Heart of the Matter (1948). In addition to his novels of intrigue, peopled with spies, criminals, and other colorful characters, Greene wrote short stories, essays, screenplays, autobiographies, and criticism. His literary reputation rests primarily on what are termed his Catholic novels, Brighton Rock (1938), The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948), and The End of the Affair (1951); and his Cold War-era political novels, which include The Quiet American (1955) and The Comedians (1966). Greene is considered one of the most important English writers of the twentieth century, and his honors include consideration for a Nobel Prize. His works are popular with critics and readers, and they have been translated into twenty-seven languages and have sold more than twenty million copies.
Greene died of blood disease in Vevey, Switzerland, on April 3, 1991.
As The End of the Affair opens, the narrator, Maurice Bendrix (called simply "Bendrix" by his friends) explains that he is a writer and thus is in control of the story he is about to tell. Although it is a true story, he determines how much of it he will tell—at what point he will begin his tale and at what point he will end it. He begins with the night he encounters Henry Miles, the husband of a woman with whom Bendrix had an affair in the recent past. Henry has no idea that Bendrix was once involved with his wife. The two men go to a bar to get out of the rain, and Henry reveals that he thinks Sarah (his wife) is seeing another man. Pretending to be a friend to Henry, Bendrix offers to secure a private investigator to find out the truth. In reality, Bendrix is jealous and wants to know for his own reasons if Sarah is seeing someone. Bendrix's affair with Sarah ended suddenly, and he is tormented by the breakup and longs to know why she ended the relationship. When Bendrix is talking to Henry, he mentions that a demon encourages him to be deceptive and false in pretending to be Henry's friend so that he can find out about Sarah. At various points throughout the novel, Bendrix mentions this demon, which represents his hate and selfishness.
Henry decides against hiring an investigator, but Bendrix does so anyway. A man named Mr. Parkis is assigned to the case. Parkis follows Sarah and reports back to Bendrix on what he sees, which is very little. When Henry finds out that Bendrix has hired a detective, he guesses that Bendrix's interest in Sarah means that they were once involved with each other. Bendrix admits this, and the two men talk calmly about it.
Parkis finds that Sarah has been visiting a man named Richard Smythe, so Bendrix creates a ruse in order to visit him. Smythe, a man with "livid spots" on the left side of his face, turns out to be a rationalist with an extensive library, and Sarah has been debating the existence and nature of God with him.
Parkis takes Sarah's diary while posing as a party guest in the Miles's home, so Bendrix can finally know why she broke off their relationship. He reads Sarah's diary, reviewing entries about their relationship and her feelings for him. Then he finds the entry about their last day together. They had been in bed when bombs started to fall. Bendrix went to see if the landlady had retreated to the bomb shelter. While he was looking, he was knocked unconscious. Seeing him in the hallway, Sarah thought he was dead or dying, so she went back to the bedroom and pleaded with God to let him live. She felt so strongly about this that she vowed she would give up her sinful ways, and Bendrix, if only he would live. When he walked in shortly thereafter, Sarah believed that her prayer had been answered. She broke off their relationship to keep her vow.
But Sarah's inner conflict did not end on the day of the air raid. She embarked on a spiritual journey of deep, painful struggle. She looked for ways to rationalize recommencing a relationship with Bendrix. She felt love and hate for God, but ultimately made peace with the situation. At the end of her struggle, she feels the power of God's love in her life, and she dedicates herself to Him. She reinterprets her relationship with Bendrix as a precursor to the deeper, purer love of God, and she asks God to give Bendrix the peace she now enjoys. From her pain comes faith in, and love for, God.
After reading Sarah's diary, Bendrix is convinced that she still loves him and that he can offer her real, tangible joy, not the kind of abstract happiness of spirituality. He calls her, but she says she does not want to see him. When he insists on seeing her, she leaves the house, running through the cold and sleet to evade him. She does not know that he is following her, but she keeps running. Finally she collapses, coughing and clutching her side. He rushes to her, and as he tells her of his plans to run away together, she insists that she does not want to go. He can see that she is exhausted and ill, so he tells her to go home and to call him when she feels better. Eight days later, Bendrix receives a call from Henry. Sarah has died of pneumonia.
Bendrix and Henry find themselves surprisingly close as they grieve the loss of Sarah. Although Sarah had expressed a desire to become Catholic, Henry and Bendrix decide against giving her a Catholic burial. In fact, when visited by a priest, Bendrix makes it clear that Sarah will be cremated, despite the Church's objections.
- In 1955, The End of the Affair was adapted to film by Columbia Pictures. This production was directed by Edward Dmytryk and starred Deborah Kerr as Sarah, Peter Cushing as Henry, and Van Johnson as Maurice Bendrix.
- In 1999, Columbia Pictures again adapted the novel to film, this time directed by Neil Jordan and starring Julianne Moore as Sarah, Stephen Rea as Henry, and Ralph Fiennes as Maurice Bendrix. Moore received an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe award nomination for Best Actress, and the film was a Best Drama nominee for a Golden Globe award.
On the day of the funeral, Bendrix first meets with Waverly, a writer who is working on an article about him. After a brief exchange, Bendrix must leave for the funeral, and he takes Waverly's girlfriend with him. Bendrix does not like Waverly, and he feels powerful in taking his girl from him. Realizing that he does not actually want the girl along, he says a prayer to Sarah to help him out of the situation. Sarah's mother arrives, and Bendrix has an excuse to ask the girl to leave. Over dinner, Sarah's mother explains to Bendrix that Sarah was actually Catholic all her life, having been baptized as such at the age of two.
A series of miracles is attributed to Sarah in the days following her death. First, Parkis's son is cured of appendicitis after being given a book that belonged to Sarah. The spots on Smythe's face clear spontaneously. At the end, Bendrix and Henry are walking arm in arm as Henry declares how much he looks forward to their walks. Bendrix agrees. Silently, he tells God that he is tired and old, and he implores God to leave him alone.
Maurice Bendrix is the story's narrator. He is an unreliable narrator and a selfish, immature, insensitive, and cynical man. He is a moderately successful writer who met Sarah Miles while doing background research on her husband for a novel he wanted to write. As a writer, he has a following, is somewhat well known, and makes a living at his craft, but he is unable to become truly great in the eyes of critics because his work is too polished. His control over his fiction mirrors the control he strives to have in his life. What he fails to understand, however, is that people in his life are not characters he can create and manipulate at will. He finds this lack of control frustrating and unfair.
Bendrix claims not to be impressed when he first meets Sarah. His physical imperfection—one leg is shorter than the other—prompts him to reject people before they can reject him. He almost always seeks to assert superiority over people because of his self-consciousness about his leg. Sarah's beauty overwhelms him when they meet, stirring his insecurities, so he conjures his superiority by trying to forget her. Eventually, they begin to see each other romantically, and his shaky self-esteem takes the form of jealousy. Emotionally, Bendrix is an extremist. He lacks the emotional maturity to feel anything moderately; he is either madly in love with Sarah or he hates her passionately. The only topic about life to which he is indifferent is religion.
Bendrix's arrogance is apparent throughout the novel. It is evident in his dealings with people, and it is also apparent in his assumption that because God is his rival for Sarah's affections, he can easily win her back. He believes that the tangible love he can offer will be more appealing than abstract promises of salvation or redemption.
Henry is Sarah's hapless husband. Bendrix originally wanted to research Henry's life as a civil servant for a book he was writing, but the book was never finished. Henry is oblivious to his wife's affair until Bendrix has her investigated by a private detective. When Henry figures out that his wife and Bendrix were once involved with each other, his response is calm disappointment. Upon Sarah's death, Henry calls Bendrix and the two become unlikely friends. Henry is a pleasant, but introverted man who lacks the passions that color Bendrix.
Sarah is Henry's wife and Bendrix's lover. Her love relationship with Bendrix is complicated. She is hesitant to talk of their love when he asks, yet she sometimes surprises him by saying that she loves him deeply. While she seems to find in Bendrix what is missing in her marriage with Henry, she is not open about it.
Sarah is a person of pleasure and selfishness until she has a traumatic experience during which she vows to God that she will be virtuous if He will save Bendrix. While before this experience she thought little of how her affair might hurt her husband, her bargain with God forces her to look deep inside her morality. She emerges from her spiritual struggles a stronger, more loving and virtuous woman. Not only does she refuse Bendrix's advances after her vow, she also prays that he will be given the same spiritual peace she has found.
After attaining spiritual resolution, Sarah seeks to deepen her faith. She debates with a rationalist man about the existence and nature of God, and she tells a priest that she wants to become Catholic. Her personal growth is cut short, however, when she dies from pneumonia after fleeing into bad weather to escape Bendrix. After her death, a series of miracles are attributed to her, and she ascends to the level of saint in the eyes of those who knew her. Critics have commented that Sarah's life story reads like that of a saint's life; she abandons a life of mortal pleasures to devote herself to God, dies unjustly, and performs loving miracles on Earth.
Mr. Parkis's son, Lance, accompanies Bendrix on his trip to the Smythe's house to try to discover the nature of Richard Smythe's relationship with Sarah. Because his father involves him in detective work, Lance is a suitable actor to pretend to be Bendrix's son. Lance is also the recipient of one of Sarah's miracles.
Lance is named after Sir Lancelot from Arthurian legend. Parkis named his son Lance because he mistakenly believed that Lancelot was the knight who found the Holy Grail.
Mr. Parkis is hired by Bendrix to discover whether Sarah is having an affair. The investigation takes place after Sarah's relationship with Bendrix has ended. Parkis is congenial enough but inefficient. He involves his young son in his business, which creates comic moments in the novel.
Richard Smythe is an acquaintance of Sarah; she contacts him during her spiritual struggle. After her vow to give up her affair, she wants to rationalize a way to continue her relationship with Bendrix, so she contacts Richard. He is a rationalist (someone who believes only in what the intellect can perceive, not in tradition or authority) who has an impressive library and engages in spirited debates with her. His efforts to convince her that God does not exist, however, only serve to bolster her belief that He does.
Richard has "livid spots" on his left cheek, but they miraculously disappear after Sarah's death. Because this was something about which she felt compassion, he assumes that she is responsible for the miracle.
Topics for Further Study
- People in frightening situations often bargain with God, promising to become better people in return for divine favor in the situation. Sarah makes this bargain and keeps her promise. Do you think that most people follow through as she did? Explain your answer.
- Greene mentions a stairway at various points throughout the story. What is the symbolic meaning of the stairway? How does it enhance the story, and do you think that Bendrix realizes that it is meaningful when he includes it in his telling of the story?
- During and after times of crisis, attendance at churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other places of worship tends to increase. Was this the case during and after World War II in England? Research the role of religion in wartime and post-war England and present your findings in an essay.
- Bendrix mentions that he and Sarah had "become unused" to air raids because of their in-frequency compared to the recent past. What do you think it would be like to live in a time and place where bombing was frequent and might begin at any time? Pretend that you are Sarah and write a diary entry for a day (or night) in 1940 when an air raid took place.
- Sarah's mother, Mrs. Bertram, tells Bendrix that Sarah had a Catholic baptism as a child. What is the Catholic Church's position on baptism? What does this ritual mean to Catholics? What is the significance, in the story, of this information? Write a short script in which a priest explains these religious points to one of Sarah's friends who does not understand Catholic beliefs.
Love and Hate
The opposing themes of love and hate run throughout The End of the Affair as Greene sets them up to shed light on each other. Ultimately, he demonstrates that hate can be the surprising precursor to love. At the same time, he depicts the cruel realities often associated with love and hate. After all, Sarah chooses love (divine) and dies, but Bendrix chooses hate (earthly) and is still alive at the end of the novel. The choices these characters make represent the two kinds of love in the novel: divine love, which is selfless; and romantic love, which is selfish and can easily turn to hate.
Bendrix knows only romantic love, and he knows it only for Sarah. After she ends their relationship, he does not seek a new woman for his life. Instead, he alternates between love and hate for her. When they are involved, he loves her, but when she stops seeing him, he hates her. Then when he thinks he has a chance to win her back, he loves her again. When she dies, he claims to love her, but his actions tell a different story. His love is so confused by romantic selfishness that he ignores what he can infer about her burial wishes and insists that she be cremated, which according to Catholic faith, would be unpleasing to the God who took her from him.
Sarah, on the other hand, sacrifices romantic love for divine love. Although she began the affair in pursuit of romantic love, even at the cost of her morality, she is surprised to find herself giving it up to fulfill a desperate promise made to God.
Sacrificing the affair leads Sarah to the other kind of love presented in the novel, divine love. After an intense spiritual struggle to truly give up her romance with Bendrix, she finds herself at peace because she has accepted the love of God. She finds that this love renews her, whereas her love for Bendrix was sinful and unhealthy. In fact, she concludes that her love for Bendrix was merely a stop on the way to the divine love that awaited her. In her diary, she writes:
Did I ever love Maurice as much before I loved you? Or was it You I really loved all the time?… For he hated in me the things You hate. He was on Your side all the time without knowing it. You willed our separation, but he willed it too. He worked for it with his anger and his jealousy, and he worked for it with his love. For he gave so much love and I gave him so much love that soon there wasn't anything left, when we'd finished, but You.
Whether or not they are aware of it, the divine plays a role in the characters' lives. Sarah prays to God in a panicked moment, pleading for Bendrix's life and promising to abandon her immoral ways in return. When Bendrix walks into the room, she is convinced that her prayer has saved him and she makes good on her promise. For Sarah, this incident is unquestionably a moment of divine intervention. The spiritual struggle that follows is also an example of the divine shaping her life. She realizes that she cannot attain spiritual peace alone, and she submits to the will of God and feels the change in her life.
After Sarah's death a series of miracles occurs, seemingly because of her status in heaven. In the Catholic tradition, a person is not canonized (declared a saint by the Catholic Church) unless a miracle is attributed to him or her. This implies that Sarah is a saint or is eligible for such divine status. Her ability to perform miracles after her death represents her divine influence in the lives of the people she once knew.
The presence of Bendrix's demon also alludes to the divine world. As a devout Catholic, Greene is likely familiar with the position of St. Augustine, a first-century bishop and theologian whose teachings are regarded as among the most important in Catholic theology. Augustine taught that evil is present in the mere absence of God. This is relevant to Greene's novel because Bendrix makes repeated references to his demon, which seems to appear and talk him into doing and saying things that are hateful. According to Augustine, the intervention of this evil presence would be evidence of Bendrix's separation from God.
Bendrix narrates in first-person for most of the story, acknowledging that he alone holds the power to tell the story and that he will control its presentation. At the beginning of the book, he explains that he is shaping what is purported to be a true story. However, interpreting situations according to his personal feelings and cynicism renders Bendrix an unreliable narrator. He allows his negative feelings to color his telling of the story at almost every turn.
As the story unfolds, then, the reader may sense that Bendrix is working out his feelings and processing his experience. This suggests that Bendrix only thinks he is controlling the plot, when in fact his emotional response to the events of the book evolves from hatred to understanding as he reflects on the details. The best example of Bendrix's progression is his assertion that the book is a record of hate, a claim he makes at the beginning of the book. His perspective changes, however, as he gets deeper into the story. For example, in book two, chapter two, he admits, "When I began to write I said this was a story of hatred, but I am not convinced. Perhaps my hatred is really as deficient as my love." Later in book four, chapter one, he writes:
When I began to write our story down, I thought I was writing a record of hate, but somehow the hate has got mislaid and all I know is that in spite of her mistakes and her unreliability, she was better than most." By the end, he is hopeless, filled with resignation rather than hate.
Once it is clear that Bendrix is less reliable than he thinks he is, the reader is able to begin drawing independent conclusions. The reader questions Bendrix's version of events in the story. Furthermore, Greene provides other narrative forms within Bendrix's first-person account. This enables the reader to better understand the themes and conflicts of the novel, of which Bendrix is only part. These techniques include flashback, letters, Sarah's diary, and dreams to help the reader see beyond Bendrix's perspective.
Sarah's diary is an important part of the narration because it forms a first-person narrative within the first-person narrative. Presumably, Bendrix is deciding which passages he will reveal to the reader, but Sarah's voice and her side of the story still come through. Her struggle, her pain, and her honesty assure the reader that she is a reliable narrator. Because it is a diary that was intended to be private, it contains truthful versions of Sarah's thoughts and experiences. Having no close friends and unable to confide in either her husband or her lover, Sarah turned to her diary to express and explore her feelings.
Greene uses time shifts to put his story in a broader chronological context and to offer the reader background information and Sarah's point of view. The novel itself is a time shift, as the narrator is telling the story of events that happened in his past. Within the story, the narrator also uses flashbacks to tell the reader about his romance with Sarah and his emotional reaction to their breakup. In addition, Sarah's diary and her letter to Bendrix are time shift devices that allow the reader to understand the inner experience of a character who has died by the time Bendrix is telling his story. Without Sarah's writings, the reader would never know about her deep personal struggles and her profound sense of peace.
Modernist Period in English Literature
The modernist period in English literature began in 1914 with the onset of World War I and extended through 1965. It is a literary period that reflects the nation's wartime experiences (World War I and World War II), the emerging British talent of the 1920s, and the economic depression of the 1930s. Toward the end of the period, literature and art demonstrated the nation's growing uncertainty, which became especially pronounced after World War II; this uncertainty would give way to hostility and protest in the postmodernist period.
During the early years of the modernist period, the foremost writers were English novelists E. M. Forster, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, and Somerset Maugham. One of the major accomplishments of this period came from Ireland with the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses, a work that continues to be respected as a masterpiece of twentieth-century literature. In the 1920s and 1930s, the novels of D. H. Lawrence and Evelyn Waugh were harshly critical of modern society, an attitude shared by many English men and women of the day. In the 1930s and 1940s, novelists such as Greene wrote traditional fiction that was well-crafted enough both to stand up to innovative fiction of the day and to gain a wide and loyal audience.
Many writers of this period (Greene included) were born at the turn of the century, near the end of the Victorian era. These writers were reared in an environment of romanticism, which often meant leading a relatively sheltered childhood that left them ill-prepared for the realities of adult life. This background, combined with events of the first half of the twentieth century, led writers such as Greene to question the values of their past and to reevaluate the world in which they lived as adults. This is seen in Greene's fiction as he explores morality and creates characters who possess the capacity for both virtue and vice.
By the summer of 1940, German Chancellor Adolph Hitler had conquered most of Europe. Britain, however, refused to yield. Under the new leadership of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Britain was determined to fight Germany, despite heavy losses of artillery and the unwillingness of Russia to get involved. After Germany took France, the United States, not yet involved in the war, began fortifying its military personnel and budget. In June, Germany initiated submarine warfare to prevent goods from going into or out of Britain. Hitler planned to invade Britain but would not do so until the British air force had been substantially weakened. In August 1940, the Battle of Britain began, with Germany hoping to decimate the British mil-itary and British resistance to keep control of their land. The Germans began with daytime air raids of ports, radar stations, and airfields, moving to inland cities in late August. The first targets of inland raids were Royal Air Force installations and aircraft manufacturers. Germany had hoped to draw out the English military and destroy it, but the combination of radar technology and the ability of the English to see German planes in the daylight compromised their objectives. Germany's failures with daytime raids led them to begin nighttime raids on September 7. Such nighttime raids were very intensive, involving massive attacks from as much of the military resources that Germay could thrust at England. This type of concentrated, suprise offensive aimed at overwhelming the enemy with one big blow is known as a blitzkrieg.
The British fought hard and used new radar technology to strengthen their position. By the end of October, the German bombing of England diminished and eventually ended. The German military lost twenty-three hundred aircraft in the Battle of Britain; the British military lost nine hundred. The loss of this battle was the first important German loss in World War II. In the years following the Battle of Britain, the frequency of nighttime air raids on England was erratic. It was one of the later raids that occurred when Bendrix and Sarah were together and she thought he had been killed. The infrequency of the raids compared to the recent past is evident in Bendrix's comment: "We had become unused to air raids."
Compare & Contrast
- 1940s: The Catholic Church still forbids cremation as a means of disposing of a dead body. Catholics are buried in the ground or in tombs. This is a tradition from the days of the early Christians.
Today: As of 1963, Catholics are permitted to choose cremation as an alternative to traditional means of burial. The Church still encourages keeping the body intact, and, if the body is to be cremated, the Church prefers that it be done after the funeral liturgy so that the body may be present for the ceremony. Still, Catholics are not forbidden to be cremated or to have the cremated remains present at the ceremony.
- 1940s: Penicillin has recently been made widely available and is used to treat a wide variety of illnesses, including pneumonia. Because pneumonia is a major health concern, doctors are relieved to be able to reduce the number of mortalities by administering the antibiotic.
Today: Antibiotics such as penicillin are still used to treat pneumonia. More people are aware of its benefits and tend to see the doctor sooner when they are seriously ill. Pneumonia continues to be a major health concern for people in England; it is the fifth leading cause of death in the United Kingdom.
- 1940s: Air raids in the early and mid-1940s, along with the general threat posed by World War II, lead to heightened security in England. England experiences what it is like to be attacked on its own soil, and the escalation and immediacy of the war are frightening.
Today: In September 2001, the United States is attacked by terrorists who hijack passenger airplanes and use them as giant bombs to destroy the World Trade Center towers and to attack the Pentagon. England is among the first nations to rally to the Americans' cause against terrorism. This public declaration of support, along with the international nature of the terrorist threat, leads to heightened security at England's airports.
Critical response to The End of the Affair has been overwhelmingly positive. Critics praise Greene's complex thematic presentation, astute characterization, and complex narrative style. In a review that was printed the year the novel was published, George Mayberry of New York Times describes the novel as "savage and sad, vulgar and ideal, coarse and refined, and a rather accurate image of an era of cunning and glory, of cowardice and heroism, of belief and unbelief." Bruce Bawer in The New Criterion comments that the novel is
exquisitely shaped and paced, the people and their relationships seem real, and both the passion and the bitterness ring true; though plenty of abstractions are brought into play, one does not constantly have the feeling that the characters serve merely as symbolic tokens.
Many critics comment on the novel's strong religious theme. Richard Hauer Costa in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 15: British Novelists, 1930–1959 asserts that the theological elements in the novel are intimately connected to the characters' human emotions. He writes that Green "can write a powerful love story on two levels—the earthbound and the divine—while making each level reinforce the other." Critics such as Costa and Bernard Bergonzi of British Writers observe that God is such a central player in the novel's action that He essentially becomes a character. Costa explains, "The journal entries of Sarah Miles in The End of the Affair show her infidelity with Bendrix pitted against God's will in such a way as to make God an actual character."
Critics frequently remark on the strong Catholic nature of the novel. A. A. DeVitis in Twayne's English Authors Series Online, for example, finds it to be the most Catholic of Greene's books, "in the narrowest sense of the definition." The critic points to the saintly status of Sarah as evidence and the sensitive characterization of the priest as more than just a spokesman for the Church. Bergonzi also observes that the novel has a strong Catholic disposition, "disconcertingly so for some humanist readers, just as the emphasis on sex disturbs some of Greene's devout Catholic readers."
Besides the substance of the book, critics are also impressed with the style of the storytelling. Mayberry observes that because the main character and narrator is a writer, like Greene, the novel reflects a "command of language," adding, "His cocktail party chit-chat, his fumbling man-to-man conversations, his not-to-be-overheard mutterings between lovers are concrete and probably univer-sal." DeVitis is particularly impressed with Greene's stylistic presentation of the story, making special mention of the dream sequences, debates, and time shifts, all of which give the reader unique and important insights into the characters' inner lives and struggles. DeVitis also praises the way Greene places characters in context with one another:
Greene's use of the diary and of the journal allows him not only to characterize his people but also to portray the various levels of meaning of the spiritual drama enacted. Bendrix looks at Sarah; Sarah looks at herself as she looks at God. The Bystanders look at Sarah, and she leaves her mark on them.
Although critics deem the book a great accomplishment, they also note its shortcomings. In an analysis of the two main characters, DeVitis concludes, "One of the flaws of the novel is quite simply the fact, sexual matters excluded, that it is difficult to understand why Sarah loves [Bendrix]." Bawer, who praises some aspects of the book, finds the depiction of religion to be lacking. He writes that "Greene's fixation on suffering seems masochistic, morbid; certainly the notion that religion should be nothing but suffering is as distasteful as the notion that it should be nothing but sweetness and light." Orville Prescott comments in In My Opinion: An Inquiry into the Contemporary Novel that in The End of the Affair:
Mr. Greene displays his usual distinctive flair for words and atmosphere. His precise, carved sentences fit together like stone blocks which require no mortar. But his author's hands jerking his puppet strings are always noticeable. He is not content to demonstrate his thesis with one religious conversion. He adds two more, both of them even more unlikely. He even makes use of several near miracles. It is too much. The End of the Affair is not only unconvincing; it is dull.
In Graham Greene, author Francis Wyndham finds substantial fault with the narrative style that so many other critics praise. Wyndham asserts that the first-person narration creates too narrow a view, preventing the reader from truly gaining a perspective on the story. He adds that the time sequences are hard to follow and, in a comment similar to that of Prescott's, that the miracles are neither believable nor necessary. In short, he concludes that "the book must be regarded as a stumble in Greene's progress."
Despite the faults found by a few critics, most scholars maintain that The End of the Affair is an important book in Greene's overall career. J. C. Hilson of Reference Guide to English Literature asserts that "Bendrix, the unsympathetic novelist-narrator, is the precursor of the antiheroes of the later Greene." According to Costa, the novel's other main character, Sarah, also represents a turning point in Greene's fiction. He explains, "Until this book, the conversions of the good-bad characters in Greene have always been either tentative or ambiguous or both. Sarah Miles finds true reconciliation."
Bussey holds a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor's degree in English Literature. She is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, Bussey maintains that Bendrix, the unsympathetic narrator of Greene's novel, is unlikely to reach the spiritual peace that his ex-lover, Sarah, attained before her death.
At the end of Greene's The End of the Affair, the narrator, Bendrix, seems unaffected by the profound spiritual transformation of Sarah, the woman he claims to love. Although he has read her diary and a moving letter she left for him before she died from pneumonia, he feels none of the spiritual urgency that she felt. Bendrix is a hateful man, and his hate overtly extends to God. Many critics contend that because love and hate are so close together (both are the product of passionate beliefs and indicate caring deeply one way or the other about something personal), Bendrix is well on his way to experiencing the same spiritual transformation that Sarah experienced. Because of the fundamental differences between the two characters and Bendrix's last-minute shift to apathy, however, it is highly unlikely that he will ever change. Instead, he will probably continue to live as a bitter man, feeling wronged by the world and by the God who created it, sinking deeper into his cynicism.
Bendrix introduces his story by claiming that it is a record of hate. He returns to this claim throughout the book, usually to alter it. His stance softens as he relives his relationship with Sarah and the heartbreaks that followed their breakup and her death. He is determined to believe that he is writing the book out of a sense of hatred, and he is equally determined to convince the reader of that. His revisions to his original claim point to the fact that the hate he feels at the beginning of the book is toward Sarah. This is apparent because as his stance softens, it is always in reference to her.
In book 2, he claims that his hatred was perhaps as deficient as his love. Sarah is the only person he has ever loved, so he is obviously referring to his feelings for her. In book 4, he is more straightforward, admitting that his hate has been "mislaid" now that he realizes that "in spite of her mistakes and her unreliability, she was better than most." As he processes the experiences related in the book, he matures somewhat. He comes to understand that it was not Sarah that he hated, but his own inability to control a situation in which he was emotionally vulnerable. Once Sarah broke off the relationship with Bendrix, he grasped for any way to exert control, and hating her was his solution.
Bendrix's hatred of Sarah is important to understanding why he is unlikely to experience spiritual redemption because it shows how out-of-touch with his feelings he is and how little he actually knows himself. Many critics believe that Sarah is a role model who foreshadows what lies ahead in Bendrix's future when, in fact, the two characters are almost opposites. While Sarah has the capacity for selflessness, Bendrix is completely absorbed in his own feelings and desires. She loved Bendrix in an ultimately selfless way. Faced with the possibility that he might die, she makes a bargain with God. She promises to live a life of virtue, which means giving up her lover, if only he will live. She does this without thinking about it, without weighing her options, and without thinking of how painful it will be to lose him, but she does it with absolute certainty.
In contrast, Bendrix always thinks of his own feelings first. Perhaps the best illustration of this is that he has the opportunity to return the favor and try to save Sarah from dying, but he does not. He leaves her shivering and alone in the sleet, telling her to go home and call him when she is ready to run away with him. He is blind to her predicament because he believes—despite her objections—that they will be together again. Rather than try to help her and make sure she is going to be well, he happily returns to his home and awaits her call; he waits for her to fulfill his desires without any concern for her welfare or desires. When his phone finally does ring, it is news that she is dead.
Because of Bendrix's selfishness, he will never sacrifice his own happiness for the well-being of someone else, which is what Sarah did and what led her to spiritual redemption. He claims repeatedly that Sarah was the love of his life, adding that he will never again be able to be with a woman that he does not love. After she breaks off the relationship, he fixates on her, just as he did with his jealousy when they were together. If the intensity of this relationship was inadequate to conquer his selfishness and help him see that there is a spiritual aspect to true love, nothing ever will. There could hardly be a more dramatic series of events so close to his heart, so it seems he has lost his only chance to find peace within himself and know the love of God as Sarah did. Bendrix, unlike Sarah, is unwilling to suffer in the name of a higher aim. When he suffers, he does not look for the lesson in it but perceives himself as a victim of unjust circumstances.
There is a theological element in Bendrix's life in the figure of the demon that he claims whispers to him. It tells him cruel things to do and say, and Bendrix recognizes this demon as hate. His attitude toward this demon is cavalier, and he seems resigned to listen to it for the rest of his life. He does not love or hate the demon, so he is unlikely to either challenge or embrace it. Most likely, he realizes that he is the demon's creator. After all, Bendrix is a man who insists on being in control, which is not the sort of man who would be obedient to any voice that was not his own. He fails to recognize that he has an emerging spirituality, and it leans distinctly toward evil, not good. His casual attitude about it, however, makes it improbable that he will realize this about himself.
The three most revealing things about the future of Bendrix's spirituality come at the very end of the novel. This is where the reader would expect to find a glimmer of hope or some reason, however subtle, to believe that Bendrix is on his way to salvation. Instead, his spiritual doom is made clear. First, Bendrix is meeting his new best friend, Henry. In a sense, Henry will replace Sarah in his life. Henry and Bendrix have become friends through being in love with the same woman; neither has any spiritual leanings, and there is no reason to believe that either of them will feel compelled to pursue God. The second cue Greene provides at the end is Bendrix's comment, "I thought, in the morning I'll ring up a doctor and ask him whether a faith cure is possible. And then I thought, better not; so long as one doesn't know, one can imagine innumerable cures."
These statements represent Bendrix's conclusion that faith does not cure anything at all, but if he is never told that, he can always return to it as a last-resort explanation of phenomena like the miracles that seem to occur through Sarah. Bendrix is moving from hate to apathy toward God at this moment. He has just thought to himself that if Sarah could have her way—he would believe that God exists. But he rejects the idea that he will ever love God or ask Him for anything. Wondering whether faith cures are possible, he does not ask God or himself but instead considers asking a doctor for a scientific opinion. When he then makes the statement that he can imagine innumerable cures by believing in God, he makes room for the possibility that God can make things happen in people's lives. He just does not want God to make anything happen in his life.
This sets up the third indication of Bendrix's spiritual future in the last lines of the book, in which Bendrix thinks to himself, "I found the one prayer that seemed to serve the winter mood: O God, You've done enough, You've robbed me of enough, I'm too tired and too old to learn to love, leave me alone forever." Here, he makes a final decision that God exists, but that He offers nothing but pain. Bendrix gives up on finding love of any kind and wants to be left alone. This statement to God, along with his situation at the end of the novel and his lack of response to both his own evil nature and the example of Sarah's goodness, all ensure that Bendrix is not headed toward spiritual growth or transformation.
Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on The End of the Affair, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Kryhoski is currently working as a freelance writer. She has also taught English literature in addition to English as a Second Language overseas. In this essay, Kryhoski considers love as a religious experience in Greene's work.
What Do I Read Next?
- Greene acknowledged that he admired Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915) and read it repeatedly. Critics often comment on the influence of this novel on The End of the Affair. Considered by many to be Ford's masterpiece, it is the story of how indiscretions and lust destroy two couples who often vacation together.
- The Power and the Glory (1940) is among the four novels included in Greene's Catholic tetralogy. In this novel, one Mexican state has outlawed the Church and executed all priests save one, the whisky priest, who must run for his life. The priest is a divided man, torn between his own sinfulness and his compulsion to put himself in danger by doing the work of the Church.
- Francis Joseph Sheed's Theology for Beginners (1982) is an easy-to-understand introduction to Catholic doctrine. Insightful for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, this book explains the meanings and traditions behind Catholic beliefs and practices.
- Edited by Philip Stratford, The Portable Graham Greene (1994) is a valuable resource for new readers and long-standing admirers of Greene's work. It includes two complete novels, excerpts from ten other novels, short stories, essays, travel writing selections, and memoir excerpts, in addition to a thorough introduction and bibliography.
In Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, a lock of hair has the power to suddenly erase both physical and emotional scarring for a lifetime. The power of the lock is merely an expression of a higher love and its power to endure without end, a love akin to religious experience. Using religious iconography or symbolic references, Greene is able to convey the persistent, emotive power of love as one not only rivaling religious experience, but posing serious moral and emotional challenges.
Bendrix is the voice of the novel and the protagonist of the work. He talks of his relationship with Sarah at the beginning of the novel as being one affected by intense hatred, stating "I hated Henry—I hated his wife Sarah, too." Soon after this statement the reader discovers that Sarah is in fact a former lover of Bendrix's. As a result, Bendrix's hatred takes on a deeper connotation when he adds that "nothing would have delighted me more than to have heard that she was sick, unhappy, dying," imagining that "any suffering she [Sarah] underwent would lighten mine." The relationship is described with bitterness, like the lament for a relationship that once seemed to mean "complete love" for "hours at a time." The spirit of the first half of the novel is tainted with Bendrix's loathing or expressed hatred for his former lover, Sarah. These sentiments run deeply within his soul, so deeply that they are often times expressed as if they were bodily functions gone wrong. In one instance, Bendrix describes the nature of love and hate on a glandular level, stating that "hatred alone seems to operate the same as the glands of love: it even produces the same actions." He reacts to the emotive power of the situation as though such feelings are secreted from his body, a natural process he seemingly cannot control or begin to understand.
Bendrix's response to his lover dramatically shifts in the second part of the story, and it is a dramatic shift that mimics the course of troubled love in life. The author also uses these narrative techniques to successfully illustrate the somewhat irrational nature of the character, rendering the narrator unreliable but also vulnerable to his own human failings. At the outset of the novel, he is spurned, abandoned, burned by his lover's rejection, filled with hatred for both her and the affair. A simple contact between Henry and Bendrix ignites his obsession with Sarah again, compelling him to become a voyeur or intruder into the personal life of his ex-lover Sarah.
This dynamic emotional pattern exhibited by the narrator, moodily swinging back and forth from intense hatred to overwhelming admiration, on some level mirrors the conflicts also inherent in a relationship with a higher being whom one cannot touch, feel, see, or comprehend. Bendrix is only able to spiritually connect to Sarah with the aid of the journal, but even this medium for contact has been ill-gotten.
Furthermore, a perception of distance contributes to the overall assertions of the narrator, who at the start feels an unsettling sense of disconnection from the woman he loves. The following quote illustrates Bendrix's uneasiness: "I have always found it hard to feel sexual desire without some sense of superiority, mental or physical." He is instead amazed by the idea that "All I noticed about her that first time was her beauty and her happiness and her way of touching people with her hands, as though she loved them." Bendrix's feelings for Sarah are unfamiliar to him; they fall outside of the realm of sexual attraction. He is instead drawn to her in an intensely spiritual way. The interaction is not only foreign to him, but for Bendrix constitutes a very mystical experience.
At the core of Bendrix's attachment to Sarah lies an equation of feeling to that of religious experience. In fact, many of the spurned or neglected lover's assessments of the affair between hims and his former paramour or lover are related by way of sacred comparison. Assigning value to the relationship, for example, Bendrix poses that one's interpretation of the Passion is essential to understanding "from their actions alone whether it was jealous Judas or cowardly Peter who loved Christ?" The Biblical story of the Passion revolves around the betrayal of Jesus, and by extension, of God, by both Peter and Judas. Despite Peter's insistence that Jesus adopt his role as religious teacher, when Jesus is captured, Peter denies him three times. Judas Iscariot has been often characterized as being the "devil" among the apostles, identifying Jesus for the authorities by kissing him.
The use of Biblical allusion serves to emphasize the very nature of Bendrix's relations with Sarah by comparison. True to the text, Bendrix admits that he would open his heart to Sarah in one moment as easily and readily as he would refute or deny her in the next. Self-expression for Bendrix, in this instance, has created a soup of mixed emotion. Together the power to love and to hate form an interesting dichotomy or division of feeling into two opposing parts, perplexing emotions Bendrix claims he is prone to feel separately or in tandem (together) at any given time.
Greene's book is a story of human frailty, of human failings. It is a modernday parable based on the perhaps most ancient and revered of all, the Biblical parables of the New Testament, stories which form the basis for the life and times of Jesus. Greene, in this sense, successfully conveys the human failings of Bendrix and others, connecting them to the demise of the Christ-like figure of Sarah. Early on in the work, the reader discovers Sarah's divine nature has driven her away from her lover. Claiming that "love doesn't end," Sarah explains away the abruptness of her departure, by attempting to minimize her choice to break up with Bendrix, explaining that her feelings for her lover are analogous to the love she harbors for God. She explains her sudden decision, stating, "People go on loving God, don't they, all their lives without seeing Him?"
When Bendrix reads her journal, Sarah is revealed to be a pious or devoted Christian. Her sacrifice, one of true happiness, is made real in her dialogues with "You," or God, rather, for whom she at times grudgingly suffers. At other times, the suffering expressed in Sarah's journal culminates in or becomes the highest expression of love. The reader discovers Sarah's relationship with God when Bendrix introduces the contents of the journal, selecting a passage in which Sarah characterizes her sacred moments with Maurice (Bendrix) in the context of her faith:
You were there, teaching us to squander, like you taught the rich man, so that one day we might have nothing left except in this love of You. But You are too good to me. When I ask You for pain, You give me peace. Give it to him too. Give him my peace—he needs it more.
The "You" in the passage signifies a more personal relationship with God, in which Sarah has put her trust, faith, and appreciation, by willingly ending her relations with Bendrix. Sarah's conviction that her choice to step back from the union between her and her lover is a spiritual one; however, Bendrix discovers, in the end, that such a choice has become one of great personal sacrifice. The last entry he shares with the reader in his ongoing narration of the events surrounding the affair includes the following statement from Sarah: "I'm tired and I don't want any more pain. I want Maurice [Bendrix]. I want ordinary corrupt human love."
This portion of the entry has appeared before, and it is the first entry in its entirety to be revealed in the sequence of entries that follows it. The reappearance of the phrase "ordinary corrupt human love," works on several levels. First and foremost, it affirms the idea that Sarah has made her decision to sever relations with Bendrix based on a sense of moral responsibility to God. Second, it emphasizes that while Sarah has chosen to responsibly live her life according to the standards of her religion and her God, by denying her humanness, she has painfully sacrificed herself.
Christ indeed has been described as a man of two natures, both divine and human. In the New Testament, He is characterized not only as genuinely human, but the reality of His personal sacrifice serves to raise Him to divine heights. Sarah is described in terms of both natures, and by implication, she becomes a mythical, Christ-like figure by the end of the text. Bendrix, despite his shortcomings, also realizes this in Sarah, responding to her pleas for "corrupt human love" with a sense of pain and frustration all his own. He recognizes that he has failed Sarah, that for him divine love is not possible, that "corrupt human love" is "all I can give you…. I don't know about any other kind of love." Bendrix's love offering compels Sarah to seek refuge in the church but ultimately sends her to an untimely death.
In Greene's novel, Sarah clearly sacrifices her life for the sake of Bendrix's peace of mind. The idea of sacrifice and the religious and moral implications behind the nature of such a sacrifice also surface in Greene's novel The Power and the Glory. The martyr of the work is an alcoholic priest who gives his own life by execution in order to save career criminal James Calver. According to David Lyle Jeffrey, in the Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, the novel draws some Biblical parallels similar to that of The End of the Affair. He states that in The Power and the Glory, "Peter's denial of Jesus is symbolized by Padre José, who refuses to hear the whiskey priest's confession, and Judas, is represented by the mestizo, who in effect causes the hero's arrest."
Graham Greene's The End of the Affair is an exploration of love and the social ramifications of acting upon love born of an illicit affair. Greene uses the Christ-like Sarah to illustrate what happens when love, formed out of the best intentions, but straining ethical social limits, has the power to destroy those most insistent on its expression. For Sarah, love is physically fatal, for Bendrix, it becomes "a record of hate."
Source: Laura Kryhoski, Critical Essay on The End of the Affair, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Ronald G. Walker
In the following excerpt, Walker examines the structure of Greene's novel.
What are the thematic implications of such a variegated structure? I cannot hope to expatiate on all of them here, but there is one at least worth pursuing in some detail. Simply stated, it is the idea that reality is malleable not fixed and that what shapes it, continuously, is the sensibility of the human observer, itself always in flux and subject to influence from every quarter. Such a view is of course by no means original with Graham Greene. Writers from Plato on have expressed similar misgivings about the narrowness of the finite epistemologies of their day. But the familiarity of the idea makes it no less unsettling. The various reactions against it have been motivated, at bottom, by the need for ontological security. In self-defense, so to speak, man is forever fabricating alternative explanations which envision reality as fixed and finite and, therefore, more amenable to rational comprehension. But though (to paraphrase another line from Wallace Stevens) reality may in effect consist of the propositions made about it, the danger is that in time these explanatory fictions may become reified and be taken literally as prescriptive guides to life.
This danger is amply represented in Greene's novel by characters who live according to rigid codes which reduce the multifarious complexities of human experience to a set of formulas and the fertile mystery of God to a "perfect equation, as clear as air". Thus for the effete literary critic Waterbury, life imitates art; art is a commodity that exists to be "ranked" by the cognoscenti; and artists are commodities to be "placed" according to which "school" they belong. For Parkis the detective, the aim of an investigation is to render "the exact truth," no less, and this can be accomplished by simply recovering scraps from certain wastepaper baskets, procuring appointment books and diaries from "the party" under surveillance, and bribing servants to divulge incriminating evidence about their employers. For Father Crompton, belief in God is a matter of receiving the sacraments of the Church or, failing that, at least what he calls "the baptism of desire." This doctrine is "produced [by] a formula," Bendrix notes. For Richard Smythe the rationalist pedagogue, not only religion but love can be defined in purely functional terms. Love is viewed clinically as the "desire to possess in some, like avarice; in others the desire to surrender, to lose the sense of responsibility, the wish to be admired. Sometimes just the wish to be able to talk, to unburden yourself to someone who won't be bored. The desire to find again a father or a mother. And of course under it all the biological motive."
As for Bendrix, though by both temperament and training he is responsive to the urgings of his own imagination, there are moments when he seems the most formula-bound character of the lot. When his creative "passion" flags, he resorts to the most mechanical sort of craftsmanship, turning out a novel every year by writing in daily five-hundred-word quotas. Similarly, when his romantic passion for Sarah turns to jealousy and pettiness, he helplessly capitulates to the reduction of love into a love affair, with a finite beginning and end. From this reductive point of view, he can even contemplate the resumption of the affair after its end in functional terms, comparable to Smythe's "biological motive": "If two people loved, they slept together; it was a mathematical formula, tested and proved by human experience." Where Bendrix turns, in periods of depression and doubt, to a defensive rationalism, Sarah records in her journal an alternative outlook tempered by the agony of her spiritual transformation:
It's strange how the human mind swings back and forth, from one extreme to another. Does truth lie at some point of the pendulum's swing, at a point where it never rests—not in the dull perpendicular mean, where it dangles in the end like a windless flag, but at an angle, nearer one extreme than another? If only a miracle could stop the pendulum at an angle of sixty degrees, one would believe the truth was there.
Such quasi-mystical sentiments could scarcely be at further remove from the Bendrix of the quota for writing and the formula for loving, the Bendrix who places his trust in facts and who would reduce God to "a perfect equation."
But there is, fortunately, another side of Bendrix. His formulaic approach to writing and loving at any rate is more than balanced by other statements (and some of these are made very early on) indicating that, at his best and most characteristic, he values their complexity and in fact views them in something like mystical terms. Significantly, it is only his attitude toward God and religious belief that he—persists—up until the very end of the hunt—in his desperately narrow rationalism. As the evidence of Sarah's miraculous influence proliferates in the weeks after her death, he clings to what he calls, in an appropriately paradoxical phrase, his "faith in coincidence."
The end of this "faith" proves the beginning of another. In very general terms we may say that Greene's strategy, both narrative and rhetorical, is essentially designed to expose the sham of reductive fictions and their palliative function; at the same time, however, he relentlessly strives to create assent to a far more profound fiction whose function is anything but palliative as envisioned in The End of the Affair. This is of course the appalling mystery of divine grace moving through a fallen world, Heaven's Hound on the prowl for human prey: a version, in short, of what Kermode calls the fiction of immanent Apocalypse. We have seen how Greene manipulates the novel's structure into a complicated series of dynamic configurations—the parallel, the pendulum, the slack and the taut line, the circle—which, by their subtle interaction, tease and chasten the tendency on the part of both Bendrix and the reader to formulate facile end-expectations. Equally devastating is Greene's rhetorical assault on beginnings and endings and the finite view of time which relies on them. He paraphrases St. Augustine's famous dictum that time "came out of the future which didn't exist yet, into the present that had no duration, and went into the past which had ceased to exist." Of course a saint enjoys a kind of dual perspective; he can see the wholeness of time and still affirm its ceaseless fluidity because, though he has participated in the diachronous unfolding of human history, he stands "outside the plot, unconditioned by it." Ordinary human beings, however, are "inextricably bound to the plot, and wearily God forces [them], here and there, according to his intention." Both Sarah and Bendrix are recalcitrant to God's plot making (if not to Greene's), and both require more than their share of "forcing."
When Bendrix first meets her, Sarah is one for whom "the moment only mattered." "Unlike the rest of us she was unhaunted by guilt. In her view, when a thing was done, it was done; remorse died with the act." Bendrix, on the other hand, "couldn't bring down that curtain round the moment … couldn't forget and … couldn't not fear." He is time's victim: "to me the present is never here, it is always last year or next week." Yet, different as their attitudes toward time are, both accept the finiteness of its ultimate boundaries. Only in their stealthy lovemaking during the bombing raids do they contemplate the idea that "eternity might … after all exist as the endless prolongation of the moment of death," and at such moments "death" refers as much to their sexual abandonment as to their possible demise in a bombardment. But God the plotter is the master ironist, for it is at just such a moment that he chooses to end the affair and, in effect, to begin the process of severe privation by which both Sarah and Bendrix will come to the end of all endings.
The privation, of course, is double-edged. Sarah's vow to God restores Bendrix to life after the V-1 explosion, but it also necessitates their separation. Because of the separation, both their lives are made truly miserable, and yet out of this misery comes the loss of self necessary to the successful resolution of the divine plot. In the meantime, however, they are abandoned in a kind of purgatorial state, an alien region through which each must pass without benefit of a map, and with the hapless Henry as an additional burden. In her diary Sarah refers to this place as a desert in which "everything's over forever … [with] nobody, nothing, for miles and miles around." But "if one could believe in God," she wonders, "would he fill the desert?". For his part, Bendrix comes to realize this condition fully only after Sarah's death, when he and Henry become companions in bereavement. Faced with the mounting evidence of her saintly intercession, the concatenation of miraculous events which threaten his "faith in coincidence," he feels his defenses dissolving: "And with a sense of weariness I thought, how many coincidences are there going to be? [Sarah's] mother at the funeral, [Lance Parkis's] dream. Is this going to continue day by day? I felt like a swimmer who has over-passed his strength and knows the tide is stronger than himself." With only Henry as his ally "against an infinite tide," Bendrix's carefully bounded existence is doomed, and he knows it.
"Eternity," he notes in the novel which enacts that knowledge, "is said not to be an extension of time but an absence of time." This idea in turn reminds him of "that strange mathematical point of endlessness, a point with no width, occupying no space." Adrift in undifferentiated time and space, questing about for the fictive shape which will provide order and meaning and, perhaps, peace of mind—that is more or less the spiritual condition of the Bendrix who struggles to write this story with "no beginning or end," this novel whose last word is forever. Repeatedly he insists that he would "turn back time" to alter events such as the initial encounter with Henry on the Common; that he "knows" how the story of Sarah will come out when he does not; that he would end his novel with this scene or that one, only to proceed to another chapter. At the outset, he refers to the novel as "a record of hate far more than of love;" yet by the middle of Book IV, he admits that "somehow the hate has got mislaid." In short, the novel is beyond Bendrix's control: it is written through him but not by him, and like the other characters in it, he is "inextricably bound to the plot."
Bendrix's complaints notwithstanding, the maker of this plot knows his craft surpassingly well. For the beginning whose arbitrariness Bendrix protests, the ending whose outcome confounds his every expectation, and the middle whose failure "to take a straight course" prompts him to apologize, these provide us, after all, with the fictive consonance of which Kermode speaks. The book opens and closes with Bendrix and Henry together on the Common. The first time, they meet there by chance after a long absence, and as far as Bendrix is concerned, they meet as enemies. The last scene, in contrast, finds them walking arm in arm to a pub for an evening drink, and here Bendrix shows a solicitude toward his former enemy and victim that is further evidence of this being ultimately a record of love rather than of hate. As they walk over the Common, passing by the intersecting roads where lovers meet, Bendrix looks across to the other side toward his old flat in "the house with the ruined steps where He gave me back this hopeless crippled life." The novel thus finally turns back upon itself, conferring an almost wheellike pattern on the whole. The slightly off-center hub of the wheel is the sole diary entry in Book III, chapter 6. Though not precisely equivalent to "that strange mathematical point of endlessness … occupying no space," it is still the novel's smallest segment of textual space at the chapter level. The entry is dated January 10, 1946, that same black wet night on which the novel opens, with the lives of the three principal characters "intersecting" for the first time since the end of the affair nineteen months before. Moreover, the entry amounts to a crucial turning point in Sarah's passage through the "desert," when for the first time she feels—in words that anticipate the novel's final paragraph—"as though I nearly loved You [God]."
We can say, then, that the overall design of The End of the Affair is roughly circular. Its rhythm, consistent with its epistemological concerns, is a complicated juxtaposition of movements in time and space, the medial movement being the elaborate pirouette of Book III. And both of these narrative patterns, along with the rhetorical assault on beginnings and ends, function so as to frustrate facile expectations on the reader's part, forcing instead a redistribution of attention to the subordinate elements in their dynamic interaction. Finally, the novel affords a meaningful consonance not despite but because of these complications. And indeed, when we recall Kermode's account of the permutations of the apocalyptic myth into the modern myth of transition and immanent crisis, we may find some satisfaction in the corroboration of one of his main points: the remarkable tenacity and adaptability of the fiction-making impulse, which motivates not only plot making and reading, but also (to incorporate one of Greene's themes) loving. If in the modern age the myth of crisis has usurped the traditional role of Apocalypse, throwing the weight of our end-feeling onto virtually every moment, then we can fairly say that in The End of the Affair Greene has created a compelling version of that myth.
Source: Ronald G. Walker, "World without End: An Approach to Narrative Structure in Greene's The End of the Affair," in Texas Studies in Language and Literature, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer 1984, pp. 218-41.
Bawer, Bruce, "Graham Greene: The Catholic Novels," in the New Criterion, Vol. 8, No. 2, October 1989, pp. 24-32.
Bergonzi, Bernard, "Graham Greene," in British Writers, Scribner Writers Series, 1987, pp. 1-20.
Costa, Richard Hauer, "Graham Greene," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 15: British Novelists, 1930–1959, Gale Research, 1983, pp. 146-69.
DeVitis, A. A., "Graham Greene: Chapter Four: The Grand Theme," in Twayne's English Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall, 1986.
Hilson, J. C., "Greene, Graham," in Reference Guide to English Literature, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991.
Jeffrey, David Lyle, ed., A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.
Mayberry, George, "Mr. Greene's Intense Art," in New York Times, October 28, 1951.
Prescott, Orville, "Comrades of the Coterie: Henry Green, Compton-Burnett, Bowen, Graham Greene," in In My Opinion: An Inquiry into the Contemporary Novel, Bobbs-Merrill, 1952, p. 108.
Wyndham, Francis, "Graham Greene," in Graham Greene, Longmans, Green, and Company, 1955, p. 24.
Bloom, Harold, and William Golding, eds., Graham Greene, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House, 1992.
Noted literary scholars Bloom and Golding explore Greene's life and career in this installment of their Modern Critical Views series. Besides reviewing Greene's biographical information, the editors examine Greene's writings as a whole, commenting on themes, style, and influence.
Cassis, A. F., ed., Graham Greene: Man of Paradox, Loyola Press, 1994.
This collection of fifty-seven essays and excerpts includes writings by the author, interviews, and writings about Greene by others, all of which give the reader a sense of what kind of man Greene was personally and professionally. Topics covered include writing, Catholicism, and the writer's role in modern society. Contributors include Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Burgess.
Clarke, P. F., and Mark Kishlansky, Hope and Glory: Britain 1900–1990, Penguin, 1997.
This contribution to the Penguin History of Britain Series provides an overview of modern British history. Besides providing students with a better understanding of the events leading up to both world wars (and their aftereffects), this book provides commentary on religious, social, and intellectual changes over the past century.
Sherry, Norman, The Life of Graham Greene, Vol. 1, 1904–1939, Viking Penguin, 1989.
This biography covers the early years of Greene's life up to 1939, exploring his influences and preoccupations that would later characterize his writing. To complement the biography, Sherry includes photographs.
―――――― The Life of Graham Greene, Vol. 2, 1939–1955, Viking Penguin, 1996.
In this second volume of Greene's biography, Sherry relates the events of the author's life from 1939 to 1955, with special emphasis on the autobiographical nature of Greene's fiction. This volume also contains photographs.