Monday, May 23, 2022

Lessons from The Ministry of Fear

“I’m wanted for a murder I didn’t do. People want to kill me because I know too much. I’m hiding underground, and up above the Germans are methodically smashing London to bits all round me.”

What’s one murder when there is a daily massacre of innocent civilians?

That’s the atmospheric setting of Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear. Written in 1943, the book takes place during the Blitz of 1941, when Germans nightly bombed London. London is falling apart: attacked, living in fear of the enemy, and falling into ruins. It mirrors Greene’s protagonist, Arthur Rowe.

The results of a 9/9/1940 air raid on London

The first section of the book is called “The Unhappy Man” because Rowe has committed murder: he killed his wife. However, the court released him after a stay in a mental institution since the act was deemed a “mercy” killing. Rowe’s wife suffered from a terminal illness and, unable to watch her in pain any longer, he killed her out of pity.

Rowe is haunted by memories and weighed down by guilt. He never questioned his wife as to whether she desired to curtail her suffering by an early, premeditated death. Instead he poisoned her silently and then left her to die alone, knowing that staying by her bedside and breaking their usual routine would arouse her suspicion. He wonders whether he acted out of selfishness: he couldn’t bear watching her anymore and so killed her. This raises one of the themes Greene would explore in his later novel The Heart of the Matter. How do love and pity differ? Love would have suffered alongside his wife; pity murdered her.

“The law had taken a merciful view: himself he took the merciless one. Perhaps if they had hanged him he would have found excuses for himself between the trap-door and the bottom of the drop, but they had given him a lifetime to analyse his motives in.”

Then one day fate reaches him in the form of a fête—a fun play on words. With the help of a fortune teller, Rowe supplies the correct weight of the prize cake. (A cake, the reader later learns, that contains secret films with information regarding Britain’s war-preparedness.) As Rowe exits with the cake in hand, the charity organizers attempt to stop him, explaining that they made a mistake and the cake belonged to someone else. Rowe sidesteps their protests and brings the cake home.

The next day, a stranger appears on his doorstep, wanting to have tea with him. The man offers to buy the cake from Rowe, but then a bomb from the nightly raid drops on the building, leaving the stranger unconscious—but not before Rowe realizes that the man has put poison in his tea … Rowe recognizes the smell, since he himself had used the same poison to kill his wife.

This sets Rowe on a path to learn why someone is out to get him. At the charity that sponsored the fête he meets brother and sister Willi and Anna Hilfe (Hilfe is German for aid or help). They promise to help him. Willi accompanies Rowe to the home of the fortune teller and they sit down to a seance she is hosting. Anna telephones, warning Rowe to leave, but he stays—convention making it too uncomfortable for him to cause a scene. 

“Conventions were far more rooted than morality; he had himself found that it was easier to allow oneself to be murdered than to break up a social gathering.”

The lights go out and, when they turn back on, the man next to Rowe is dead … killed by Rowe’s knife.

Now wanted by the police for a murder he didn’t commit, Rowe goes into hiding. He doesn’t know who to trust or who wants him … or why they want him. The Ministry of Fear has him in their grip. During the war, the Nazis would target individuals in countries they sought to control, blackmailing them and trying to force compliance with their plans. 

“They formed, you know, a kind of Ministry of Fear—with the most efficient under-secretaries. It isn’t only that they get a hold on certain people. It’s the general atmosphere they spread, so that you can’t depend on a soul.’”

A tube station functioning as a bomb shelter in 1940

Things become complicated when Rowe loses his memory in another bombing. He becomes a happy man, known by the name of Rigby. He is no longer depressed by memories, and lives comfortably in a recovery center—run, unbeknownst to him, by the enemy. 

This raises the question of memory. Is it a curse or a blessing? As Rigby, Arthur is content. Yet, what is peace in ignorance? 

“‘I don’t remember. There are years and years of my life I still can’t remember.’ ‘We forget very easily,’ Mr Prentice said, ‘what gives us pain.’”

Such false peace comes at a great cost. Without his memories, Arthur is an unknowing victim and the enemies can continue their work without any hindrance. Perhaps this is why Greene titles the final section: “The Whole Man.” Happiness is not the same as wholeness.

Greene called The Ministry of Fear one of his “entertainments,” and it is indeed an entertaining story. The undisclosed identity of the “bad guys” keeps the plot suspenseful while the setting of the Blitz heightens the danger and drama. I wasn’t fond of some of the coincidental plot-points (could Rowe be that gullible to fall into an obvious trap of the enemy?) and the romantic subplot likewise felt implausible. Yet, I enjoyed the deeper themes, along with Greene’s at times questionable, always disturbing and haunting morality. Consider this line, which reflects some seriously askew theology:

“But for the sake of people you loved, and in the company of people you loved, it was right to risk damnation.”

In the end, Rowe gets the girl, but I don’t know if it can rightly be called a “happy ending.” Greene has a twist that leaves the reader wondering whether his protagonist has really changed that much after all. Will pity kill Rowe’s new love just like it had murdered his first? Pity is not a virtue, but a vice, and it will bind and imprison Rowe more than any Ministry of Fear because so often it is what happens in the interior of our soul that destroys us more than any exterior enemy.

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