Friday, January 22, 2016

Lessons from Brighton Rock

"I mean--a Catholic is more capable of evil than anyone.  I think perhaps--because we believe in Him--we are more in touch with the devil than other people."

Graham Greene wrote Brighton Rock in 1938, ten years after his conversion to Roman Catholicism.  The thriller was his first specifically Catholic work.

Greene's controversial thesis: a Catholic can sin more gravely than anyone.  And it's preferable to be a Catholic--even one in mortal sin--than to be a non-believer.  (The second statement is not, I believe, theologically correct.)

Brighton Rock dwells upon the differences between Good and Evil and Right and Wrong.  What is "good" is not exactly the same as what is "right."  It is the contrast between the religious and ethical mind.  

Brighton Pier

The book takes place in Brighton, a seaside town filled with amusements and pleasures--games, a racetrack, and carnal delights of all kinds.  Greene begins his narrative with a chilling line:

Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they mean to murder him.

"They" is the gang, led by seventeen-year-old Pinkie, or as Greene refers to him, "the Boy."  Indeed he is a Boy in many ways: he is a child in his emotional and interpersonal abilities, incapable of forging strong, trusting relationships. Pinkie is literally repulsed by physical proximity to others, especially those of the opposite sex. be touched, to give oneself away, to lay oneself open--he had held intimacy back as long as he could at the end of a razor blade.

His purpose is to garner enough power to have sole, gang monopoly on Brighton.  And he will go to whatever means to gain this notoriety and escape the poverty of his youth.

Things begin to unwind for Pinkie after he murders Hale.  His alibi is uncovered by an unassuming, naive, but observant waitress named Rose.  Unbeknownst to her, Rose's sharp memory for remembering faces could lead to Pinkie's demise.  Pinkie's only safety is to marry Rose, thus stripping her of any ability to testify against him.

Yet Pinkie faces an avenger: middle-aged, large-breasted, lover of life Ida Arnold.  Ida was about to dine with Hale before he unexpectedly disappeared and, upon the news of his death, she suspected foul-play.  Ida pushes her way into Pinkie's plans, determined to discover the truth of Hale's death and to protect Rose, whose love for Pinkie may ultimately end her life.

It is these three characters (Pinkie, Rose, and Ida) who develop Greene's thesis.  Pinkie and Rose were both raised Catholic in their hometown of Paradise Piece.  

"Do you go to Mass?" he asked.

"Sometimes," Rose said.  "It depends on work.  Most weeks I wouldn't get much sleep if I went to Mass."

"I don't care what you do," the Boy said sharply.  "I don't go to Mass."

"But you believe, don't you," Rose implored him, "you think it's true?"

"Of course it's true," the Boy said.  "What else could there be?" he went scornfully on.  "Why," he said, "it's the only thing that fits.  These atheists, they don't know nothing.  Of course there's Hell.  Flames and damnation," he said with eyes on the dark shifting water and the lightning and the lamps going out above the black struts of the Palace Pier, "torments."

"And Heaven too," Rosa said with anxiety, while the rain fell interminably on.

"Oh, maybe," the Boy said, "maybe."

When he was younger, Pinkie thought of becoming a priest and sang in the choir.  As a Catholic, Pinkie knows there is something more than flesh and blood.  He realizes his actions in this world have repercussions in the next.  Consider: Satan, too, believes in God.  

Pinkie realizes, as a murderer, he is damned.  And he doesn't care.  

This is what makes Pinkie incredibly, chillingly evil.  He understands.  He knows.  When he acts, he acts with full knowledge that what he is doing is evil.  Yet he acts still.  Pinkie's gravest sin is not taking Hale's life; it is taking Rose's soul.  In corrupting her, he has killed the life of her soul.  

Pinkie watches Rose sign their nuptial agreement before the official, knowing that marrying outside the Church, consummating a false marriage, and misleading her with the lie of his love are the substance of mortal sin.  Pinkie is bringing Rose into his damnation and he is proud of it.

He stood back and watched Rose awkwardly sign--his temporal safety in return for two immortalities of pain.  He had no doubt whatever that this was mortal sin, and he was filled with a kind of gloomy hilarity and pride.  He saw himself now as a full grown man for whom the angels wept.

In many ways, Pinkie is a figure of Satan.  He desires power and is filled with pride.  It is Rose's humility that makes marrying her repugnant to him.

...he began again to hate her.  She wouldn't even be something to boast of: her first: he'd robbed nobody, he had no rival, no one else would look at her, Cubitt and Dallow wouldn't give her a glance: her indeterminate natural hair, her simpleness, the cheap clothes he could feel under his hand.  He hated her as he had hated Spicer...the cheapest, youngest, least experienced skirt in all Brighton--to have me in her power.

Pinkie's foil is Ida.  She is physically affectionate, has friends in all places, generously partakes in food, wine, and sex.  Ida also is an unbeliever.  She thinks only of the here and now.  She is superstitious--dabbling in ouija boards and cards--but not supernatural.  It is life on earth that matters and it is here that she must right the wrongs.  An injustice was done to Hale and she will fix it: an eye for an eye.  Pinkie's life for Hale's.

In Pinkie's eyes (as well as Greene's) Ida is "nothing."  Though she is the agent that brings about Pinkie's earthly demise, she is not the hero of the story.

"It's her," she [Rose] said.  "I'm sure it's Her.  Asking questions.  Soft as butter.  What does she know about us?"  She came closer.  She said, "I did something once too.  A mortal sin.  When I was twelve.  But she--she doesn't know what a mortal sin is...Right and wrong.  Right and wrong.  As if she knew."  She whispered with contempt, "Oh, she won't burn.  She couldn't burn if she tried...I don't care.  I'd rather burn with you than be like her...She's ignorant."

Pinkie is lost, but Ida doesn't even realize that a lost or found exist.  Ida doesn't believe in Heaven or Hell, and for Greene, that makes her more significantly lost.  When Ida warns Rose about Pinkie's ill-intentions, Rose stubbornly replies that people can change; there is mercy, conversion.  Ida, however, claims that it is human nature.  It is the way people are made--right or wrong.  Just like sticks of Brighton Rock candy, no matter how far up or down the stick you eat it, the word "Brighton" will still be there.

"My dear," she [Ida] again tried to close the gap between them, "I only want to save you.  He'd kill you as soon as look at you if he thought he wasn't safe."

..."People change," said [Rose] said.

"Oh, no they don't.  Look at me.  I've never changed.  It's like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you'll still read Brighton.  That's human nature."  She breathed mournfully over Rose's face--a sweet and winey breath.

"Confession...repentance," Rose whispered.

"That's just religion," the woman said.  "Believe me, it's the world we got to deal with."  

Rose, starving for love and affection, loyally stays with Pinkie, knowing that it is at the risk of her own soul.  She could echo the lyrics of Rachel Platten's song "Stand by You," which read, "Even if we can't find Heaven, I'll walk through Hell with you."

But Hell has already begun for both of them, here on earth.  They have left their figurative and symbolic home of "Paradise Piece," living in sin and at enmity with God.  Pinkie craves peace, but it alludes him as he commits more murders to cover the initial one.  In a brilliant line describing the momentum of sin, Green writes of Pinkie, 

...he was shocked by his own action.  It was as if he were being driven too far down a road he only wanted to travel a certain distance.  

In all Pinkie's hatred and sadism, God in His mercy seeks His lost sheep before Pinkie's choice becomes an eternal one.  As the novel nears its conclusion, Pinkie and Rose drive to "Peacehaven."  There Pinkie hopes to finally secure his peace by persuading Rose to suicide.  Still, God pursues him.

An enormous emotion beat on him; it was like something trying to get in; the presence of gigantic wings against the glass.  Dona nobis pacem.  He withstood it...If the glass broke, if the beast--whatever it was--got in, God knows what it would do.  He had a sense of huge havoc--the confession, the penance and the sacrament--and awful distraction, and he drove blind into the rain.

Is Pinkie saved?  Does he find peace?  As Pinkie plunges toward his death into the violent sea, his face literally burning with vitriol--perhaps an image of the flames of hell--it seems the answer is no.  He had thrice refused God's invitation previously; in the terrible minutes of confrontation and pain preceding his death, was there time to beg God's forgiveness? 


"You can't conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the...appalling...strangeness of the mercy of God."