Graham Greene's Brighton Rock - despondent take on the human condition
In novel that made his name, author wrestles with conscience, justice and innocence
There's rock and then there's Brighton Rock, Graham Greene's 1938 novel whose title was inspired by the famous English confection.
Greene's interest was twofold and doubly ironic. Rock candy was a staple of the British seaside holiday, something Brighton Rock plays on constantly. Set at the end of a scorching bank holiday weekend in one of England's most popular resorts, the story traces the spiritual and earthly damnation of Pinkie Brown, a young, vicious small-town gangster. He begins by murdering a man named Hale, whom he holds responsible for betraying and killing his former boss.
The main action concerns his attempt to cover up his misdeed, witnessed by an innocent young woman named Rose, whom he woos into complicit silence. Pinkie's complex sexuality ensures that the relationship borders on the sado-masochistic: "He felt desire move again, like nausea in the belly," Greene writes.
Rose, however, is convinced of his inherent decency or the possibility of decency. Pinkie's take on this same question is far darker: "What was most evil in him needed her: it couldn't get along without goodness."
Here is rock's second suggestiveness. Traditionally, the location of its sale is emblazoned throughout its length, being inverted at one end. For Greene, this provided a telling metaphor for his own jaundiced view of humanity, shaped in the story by his fraught relationship with Catholicism. The image is made explicit when Ida Arnold, the decent but unsentimental heroine who is hunting Pinkie down, tries to talk Rose out of marrying a murderer.
For Greene, the idea of transformation is one of repentance and redemption, justice and mercy. Is human nature, good or bad, fixed in stone by some original sin? Or do we have the capability to learn from even our most grievous mistakes and begin again? Rose believes the latter, but it is hard to separate her optimism from her naivety, as Ida discovers in their crucial encounter later in the story.
If Ida is the personification of conscience and justice (not to mention Pinkie's nemesis), then Rose is the embodiment of innocence without peer in the novel.
Brighton Rock made Greene's name. That such a success was inspired by a story so unremittingly despondent about the human condition - sour rather than sweet - is an achievement indeed.
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (Heinemann)