"The Religious Sense"

Greene on pre-Restoration drama:

'... the abstraction - the spirit of Revenge (Hamlet), of Jealousy (Othello), of Ambition (Macbeth), of Ingratitude (Lear), of Passion (Antony and Cleopatra) - still rules the play... the old abstract drama had dealt with important things: with "the base Indian who threw away a pearl richer than all his tribe", with the lark in the cage and soul in the body' (British Dramatists, Graham Greene, p.19)

Greene on post-Restoration drama:

'... that had gone, perhaps for ever, and the theatre had become a kind of supplement to The Ladies' Magazine. The religious sense was at its lowest ebb... Man's interests shrank like a rockpool in the hard bright sunlight of reason.' (ibid., p.38)

He extends this judgement to the novel:

'... with the death of James the religious sense was lost to the English novel, and with the religious sense went the sense of importance of the human act. It was as if the world of fiction had lost a dimension... ' (Ways of Escape, Graham Greene, p.62)

Brighton Rock is more than a thriller. It is a 'Catholic novel' only in so far as it rediscovers the 'lost dimension' of the pre-Jamesian novel, the abstraction from reason that gives the human act the sense of importance.

The preceding section relates the character of Pinkie to the unhappiness of his creator's adolescent years. This is necessarily limited because Pinkie - and all the other characters - are fictional. I quoted earlier, Greene's comment on Brighton Rock, 'I have never again felt so much a victim of my own inventions' . We can try to understand the forces that shape Greene's imagination but if we wish to understand the characters in any terms deeper than as pieces on a thriller-chess-board, we must try to understand the 'religious sense' of the book.

In some respects, Brighton Rock is an exposition of the 'religious sense'. Two worlds are in contrast: Pinkie and Rose inhabit a world imbued by 'religious sense', a world of Good and Evil; Ida inhabits a world lit by the 'hard bright sunlight of reason', a world of right and wrong, a world where life is...

'... sunlight on brass bedposts, Ruby port, the leap of the heart when the outsider you have backed passes the post and the colours go bobbing up.' (36)

The dialogues between Ida, Rose and Pinkie reveal the contrast between these worlds. Note particularly pages 120-123 and 196-200:

'... Ida said, "Listen, I'm human. You can take my word I've loved a boy or two in my time. Why, it's natural. It's like breathing. Only you don't want to get all worked up about it. There's not one who's worth it - leave alone him. He's wicked. I'm not a Puritan mind. I've done a thing or two in my time - that's natural... But I've always been on the side of Right"... ' (122, my ellipsis)

'The Nelson Place eyes stared back at her without understanding. Driven to her hole the small animal peered out at the bright and breezy world; in the hole were murder, copulation, extreme poverty, fidelity and the love and fear of God, but the small animal had not the knowledge to deny that only in the glare and open world outside was something which people called experience.' (123)

Rose's naïveté lends added gravitas to her sense of importance of the human act. Greene's emphasises this by likening Ida to a battleship, guns ablaze (cf. 199), and Rose to a small animal, too frightened even to leave its hole. Rose knows nothing of Ida's bright and breezy world but she knows her own world, the world of Nelson Place with its murder, copulation and extreme poverty, the world of Romans with their love and fear of God. Speaking to Pinkie earlier in the novel, Rose derides Ida's world:

'"You're a Roman too. We were all Romans in Nelson Place. You believe in things. Like Hell. But you can see she don't believe a thing." She said bitterly, "You can tell the world's all dandy with her"' (91)

It is a world that lacks Greene's, 'sense of importance of the human act'. Ida's rhetoric is slot-machine cliché: "I don't want to let the Innocent suffer", etc. Her high-minded moral principles - Justice, Right and Wrong, an eye for an eye, etc. - are as slot-machine 'literature' (cf.156) is to Dickens when you compare her to Rose or Pinkie. When Rose defends herself against Ida with references to "Confession... repentance", Ida replies:

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