Last Updated 02 Jan 2021

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Category Graham Greene, Rock
Essay type Research
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In 1947 Donat O’Donnell wrote that "far more than the left-wing militancy of such poets as Auden and Spender... the thrillers of Mr. Greene reflect the state of the West European mind in the thirties. " . For O'Donnell, Greene is "the most truly characteristic writer of the 'thirties ir England, and the leading novelist of that time and place". What Greene draws attention to in his novels from the period is, as McEwen notes, the condition of violence and savagery repressed beneath a seeming peace.

Greene’s work such as Brighton Rock used the apparatus of the thriller to expose and investigate contemporary social problems; these novels are vehicles for social commentary particularly in the implicit equation they make between the violence and cruelty of their protagonists, Raven and Pinkie, and the background of poverty against which they are presented. This paper analyses Brighton Rock through a prism of narrative theory. In addition some socio-philosophical implications are discussed.

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Analysis In Brighton Rock Pinkie's gang murders Hale but only after he has made the acquaintance of Ida Arnold, a fun-loving pragmatist who repeatedly insists on her knowledge of the difference between right and wrong. Responding to an irrational compulsion—she calls herself a "sticker where right's concerned" —she investigates Hale's death, seeking to bring Pinkie to justice and to save Rose the suffering that Pinkie will inflict upon her.

Like Mather, Ida, despite fulfilling the role of the detective, is mocked by the narrative: her inability to see beneath the surface of things severely limits her understanding of the case and of the world she inhabits. Brighton for her is a place of fun and excitement, and life is always "good" : "I always say it's fun to be alive" . The dark side, both of life and of the city with its beggars and its crime, is completely alien to her :

Death shocked her, life was so important. She wasn't religious. She didn't believe in heaven or hell, only in ghosts, ouija boards, tables which rapped . . . but to her death was the end of everything. . . . Life was 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. Life was poor Fred's mouth pressed down on hers in the taxi, vibrating with the engine along the parade. . .

. she took life with deadly seriousness: she was prepared to cause any amount of unhappiness to anyone in order to defend the only thing she believed in. Both her naive optimism, which has "something dangerous and remorseless"  in it, and her spiritual blindness prevent her from understanding Pinkie and Rose and account for the ironic tone that dominates many of the descriptions of Ida: Ida Arnold was on the right side. She was cheery, she was healthy, she could get a bit lit with the best of them.

She liked a good time, her big breasts bore their carnality frankly down the Old Steyne, but you had only to look at her to know that you could rely on her. She wouldn't tell tales to your wife, she wouldn't remind you next morning of what you wanted to forget, she was honest, she was kindly, she belonged to the great middle law-abiding class, her amusements were their amusements, her superstitions their superstitions (the planchette scratching the French polish on the occasional table, and salt over the shoulder), she had no more love for anyone than they had.

This kind of mockery has led numerous critics to denigrate Ida for her lack of spiritual awareness (she boasts to Rose that "It's the world we got to deal with" ) and to elevate Pinkie to tragic stature because he professes a belief in a divine order ("it's the only thing that fits" [52], he says) wherein the crucial difference is not between right and wrong but between Good and Evil. In that Rose shares Pinkie's knowledge, she and Pinkie are presented both in the text and in critical discussions as morally superior to Ida and other characters like her such as Dallow, Cubitt, Colleoni, and Phil Corkery.

The point is made particularly clear in comments made by Rose to Pinkie and in exchanges between Ida and Rose: "I only came here for your sake. I wouldn't have troubled to see you first, only I don't want to let the Innocent suffer"—the aphorism came clicking out like a ticket from a slot machine. "Why, won't you lift a finger to stop him killing you? " "He wouldn't do me any harm. " "You're young. You don't know things like I do. " "There's things you don't know. " she brooded darkly by the bed while the woman argued on: a God wept in a garden and cried out upon a cross; Molly Carthew went to everlasting fire.

"I know one thing you don't. I know the difference between Right and Wrong. They didn't teach you that at school. " Rose didn't answer; the woman was quite right; the two words meant nothing to her. Their taste was extinguished by stronger foods—Good and Evil. The woman could tell her nothing she didn't know about these—she knew by tests as clear as mathematics that Pinkie was evil—what did it matter in that case whether he was right or wrong? As is illustrated here, the narrative frequently contrasts two distinct views of the world—the secular outlook of Ida and others and the religious perception of Rose and Pinkie.

From a social perspective there is no escaping the fact that Pinkie's evil makes him a criminal. However, as with Raven, Pinkie's guilt is mitigated by a background of poverty ("Man is made by the places in which he lives," the text tells us ) and by the presence of Colleoni, a self-described "business man" , who, though the leader of a vast criminal organization, is also well regarded by the Brighton police and by the Conservative party which seeks to persuade him into politics .

As for Ida, whatever her shortcomings, she succeeds in her task of ridding society of Pinkie's menace, although the conditions that produced Pinkie, the source of the evil, remain. On one level, then, Ida is the instrument of law and order who brings about the socially desirable end, the social good, that Rose, representative of a religious or spiritual Good, cannot. Ida is, in this respect, a figure of the law defending a secular middle-class vision of society that relies on human justice which, as we have noted, Greene sees as both limited and limiting.

On the other hand, criticism of Ida often seems to have at its root a prejudice against the detective story because it is a popular form of literature. Ida, herself, is strongly tied to popular culture, and in many respects she represents a populist spirit. The text tells us that "She was of the people, she cried in cinemas at David Copperfield, when she was drunk all the old ballads her mother had known came easily to her lips, her homely heart was touched by the word 'tragedy'". Similarly, her bed-sitting room contains the trappings of popular culture and an assortment of popular literature:

pieces of china bought at the seaside, a photograph of Tom, an Edgar Wallace, a Netta Syrett from a second-hand stall, some sheets of music, The Good Companions, her mother's picture, more china, a few jointed animals made of wood and elastic, trinkets given her by this, that and the other, Sorrell and Son, the Board.  In one sense then, her success represents the triumph, albeit limited, of the popular. However, for critics like R. W. B. Lewis, Ida's "popular heart" and her role as the investigating detective underpin the condemnation of her character and the neglect of her function in the book.

In Lewis's eyes, the Ida Arnold plot threatens Brighton with the disaster of being two different books under the same cover : "The entertainment is Ida's; it begins with the first sentence . . . The tragedy is Pinkie's; it begins more subtly in the atmosphere of place" . As these remarks imply, not to condemn Ida is to elevate in their importance the book's detective-story aspects-something Lewis cannot and will not do. We can see in Brighton Rock how the detective story complements and underscores the narrative of Pinkie's religious struggle.

To be fair, however, Lewis does recognize the interdependence of the two stories, despite his perception of "generic confusion" in the novel  the relation between the detective story and the tragedy expresses exactly what Brighton Hock is finally all about. It is a relation between modes of narrative discourse that reflects a relation between two kinds or levels of reality: a relation between incompatible worlds; between the moral world of right and wrong, to which Ida constantly and confidently appeals, and the theological world of good and evil inhabited by Pinkie and Rose.

However, we might add to these remarks that the relation between the two modes of narrative discourse can also be read as an inscription of the relationship between popular discourse and serious discourse. In the pure classical detective story that Todorov describes, the story of the crime becomes present in the text only through the story of the investigation; that is, the crime takes place outside the frame of the narrative and all its details are revealed only in the course of the investigation.

The events leading to the crime make up a story that is seen only through its periodic intrusion by means of clues, or ciphers, into the story of the investigation which we read: we find out about the one story in the telling of the other. As Todorov figures it, this pattern reveals the two aspects that the Russian formalists identify as part of any story—fabula and sjuzhet—where the fabula is revealed only through the sjuzhet while yet providing the sjuzhet with the material of its own existence.

However, as we have noted, to determine which of these two precedes the other is a task fraught with ambiguity, and this ambiguity is reflected in Brighton Rock's departures from the paradigm of the classical detective story. This ambiguity emerges in the novel's handling of the mechanics of the classical detective story's structure: Ida explicitly begins her pursuit at the place from which Hale disappeared  and then works to reconstruct the crime which, as even Pinkie realizes , is the standard investigative process.

In a general sense, Ida traces over the previously laid path of Pinkie and his gang—an activity that is consistent with the structural dynamics of the classical detective story plot—and so figures the actions of the sjuzhet (the discourse) upon the material of the fabula (the story). As well, her retracing figures the act of writing that produces narrative as a rewriting of a prior narrative which is repressed in the later narrative although its existence is revealed in the later narrative—the narrative of the investigation—through the presence of clues which are the tangible signs marking the return of the repressed.

However, in Brighton Rock Ida's pursuit of Pinkie intensifies the story of Pinkie's efforts to avoid capture. As Ida proceeds in her reading or events—explicitly linked to her reading of an occult text ("Fresuicilleye")—she uncovers indications of Pinkie's story marked in the narrative's details, which in more orthodox detective fiction are formalized as clues: things such as Hale's dislike of Bass beer and his confession that he was "going to die" arouse Ida's "instincts" so that she senses that "there is something odd" about Hale's death .

Late; details that come out after his death, such as the fact that he used a false name , had bruises on his arms , and left a restaurant without eating despite telling Ida he was hungry , confirm Ida's suspicions that something is puzzling about the death while, at the same time, they reveal details of Pinkie's story. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Ida's investigation of Hale's death forces Pinkie's actions.

Since the official investigators agree that Hale died of natural causes, they have closed the case, which means that it is only Ida whom Pinkie has to fear. In an odd way, then, Ida's search originates, explains, and validates all of Pinkie's actions from his courtship of Rose to his murder of Spicer to his attempt to arrange Rose's suicide: as Dallow accuses Ida late in the novel, "this is your doing. You made him marry her, you made him . . . " .

To be sure, Pinkie fears that the police may ask questions about the man who left the card at Snow's, but, as we realize, they do not and will not reopen their inquiry. In their place, though, is Ida. In this sense, the detective story plot determines the course of Pinkie's story; although, conversely, it is Pinkie's story that gives rise to the detective narrative. The two lines of action are entangled in each other with each standing as the origin of the other.

Indeed, the question of origin is complicated further by the fact that the disturbance that excites the narrative of Brighton Rock into being—the murder of Hale—is considered an act of revenge: the initial action occurs in response to an earlier action—the murder of Kite—the story of which, though sporadically erupting into Pinkie's story , lies in another narrative, another text; as the text explicitly remarks, "The whole origin of the thing was lost".

As a model of narrative mechanics, then, Brighton Rock, figures narrative's ability to perpetuate itself by inscribing within itself two separate narrative strands that generate and then feed on each other. Since Pinkie's story—the story of the crime—sparks Ida's story into life and since her investigation determines the content of Pinkie's story, each story can be seen as the origin of the other as each lies behind the other. Ida's investigation uncovers the contents of Pinkie's story, but his narrative also becomes the means by which Ida's story is discovered.

To illustrate with just one example of how this works one can look at part 4, section 1, where Pinkie and Spicer are at the race track. Although the storyline in the foreground involves Pinkie's betrayal of Spicer to Colleoni's men, one glimpses the other narrative line involving Ida. Spicer tells Pinkie about a woman who "backed Black Boy for a pony" . One then finds out that Black Boy won the race, and again Spicer mentions the woman who now has won so much money ; the narrative goes on to report that Pinkie "heard a laugh, a female laugh" which is attributed to the same woman .

She is, of course, Ida, who bets on Hale's tip and so wins enough money to persist in the investigation. In this example one sees how the story of detection is revealed in the telling of Pinkie's story. Another way for us to see the relationship between the two narratives of Ida and Pinkie, of investigation and crime, is to think of either narrative strand as the repressed content of the other: each reveals its presence in intermittent clues that surface into the respective narrative.

However, whichever way one chooses to view Brighton Rock again depends on one's point of view, but ultimately one is looking at the same thing. Greene reflects the indeterminate nature of narrative origins in his handling of the classical detective story's structure. As Brighton Rock stands, the story of the detection is interrupted by the story of the criminal, which reveals details of the crime; the two stories are presented in roughly alternating chapters occurring more or less along a shared timeline.

The reader, then, gains knowledge of the circumstances of Hale's death from two sources, the chapters dealing with Ida and the chapters dealing with Pinkie. The two stories of the investigation and the crime become blurred in the novel as each begins to include the other. As if to underscore this blending of narrative, it is notable that the novel's first scene places Pinkie, Ida and Hale in the same room: murderer, detective, and victim have their stories begin at the same time in the same place. The novel figures, then, the indeterminate nature of narrative origin from its outset.

Because Ida's investigation of events, metaphorically figured in her reading of an occult text, both reveals and determines the text she reads, we also see in Brighton Rock how the perceiving subject effects what it perceives, and in terms of reading the implications of this action are complex. On one level, reading a text actualizes that text for the reader by inscribing it in the reader's consciousness where it previously did not exist. At the same time, the reader sees in the text what he or she is, in a sense, programmed to see through his or her experience of the "already-read".

This phenomenon lies behind the differing judgments on Brighton Rock: probable or improbable plot, proletarian novel or moral allegory, detective story or religious drama, light fiction or serious literature, entertainment or tragedy, and so on. However it is seen, the novel is the product of an interpretive act. Brighton Rock shows us both how these differences are generated and how they coexist within the textual field of the novel. The question of how texts are read is one of the issues at the heart of Brighton Rock.

Perhaps more than in other detective stories, Brighton Rock foregrounds the reading process as a concern from the first page when we find Hale as Kolley Kibber following a route (itself prescribed by a text) through Brighton in search of someone with a copy of The Daily Messenger in hand who can repeat a prepared text: "You are Mr. Kolley Kibber. I claim the Daily Messenger prize" . Language is, thus, explicitly figured as a code. The text stresses that the claim must be made "in the proper form of words" , and hence the possibility of arriving at a correct, univocal reading of a text, of fully understanding the code, is implied.

However, since the challenge Hale receives ultimately results in his death, we see figured in Brighton Rock the inadequacy of such a simple method of reading. This possibility is confirmed in the larger investigation of reading that is enacted in the novel. As the detective, Ida is the reader of the fictions that Pinkie creates to explain Hale's, Spicer's, and, though it does not occur, Rose's deaths. In producing these fictions, Pinkie uses tangible signs, which are meant to mislead their reader. The cards he has Spicer lay along Hale's route are meant to stand as the visible traces of Hale's presence, as Hale's signature.

Similarly, in preparing the story of Rose's suicide, Pinkie uses a note that Rose herself has written and insists that she "add a piece" to explain her death ; for Rose, this involves "signing away more than her life" because in committing suicide she commits a mortal sin which will, according to her belief, damn her. But in both instances, and particularly in the latter, the creation of a fiction is explicitly tied to the production of a written text, and in this way the act of detection that involves the reading of Pinkie's texts mirrors the activity of Greene's reader and of reading in general.

Conclusion If Brighton Rock demonstrates the limitations of reading, it also insists upon the necessity of reading. Just as Chesterton described every detail within the urban landscape as a sign to be read by the detective in his or her search for truth, so is every detail within a detective story of potential significance to the reader's interpretation of the narrative. In Brighton Rock the experience of the world is figured in terms of reading; the world of Brighton is explicitly a world of text.

Rose's father's face is "marked deeply with the hieroglyphics of pain and patience and suspicion" ; "the edge of the sea is like a line of writing in whitewash: big sprawling letters"; and Ida, herself, is likened by the narrative to an enigmatic text that insists it be read: "she stood there like a wall at the end of an alley scrawled with the obscene chalk messages of an enemy". In this context, reading becomes an unavoidable activity linked to power; those best able to read or even to offer convincing and authoritative readings are those who exercise power in this world.

Both Ida and the police are confident in their interpretations of clues and events. The police, assigned the task of interpreting evidence in order to determine whether or not a crime has been committed, produce their own reading of Hale's death. Their report presents a univocal interpretation of the details of the death and so preserves their power because in their eyes and in the eyes of the society the case is solved.

The closing of the case thus maintains an impression of efficiency, which, in turn, justifies the authority conferred upon the police. As Edwin Muir wrote of Pinkie in a review of Brighton Rock, "he is an evil product of an evil environment, a living criticism of society, and on that plane genuine" . Muir's remarks could just as easily apply to Raven, who is said to be "made by hatred". Indeed, because one of his obsessive boasts is "I'm educated" , the social system that shapes Raven is severely criticized.

In Brighton Rock there are hints of a repressed desire for goodness and peace in Pinkie that are seen in his emotional reactions to music, his recollection of his days in the church choir and his desire to be a priest, his faint stirring of tenderness for Rose and pity for Prewitt, and his sense of an "enormous emotion beating on him . . . the pressure of gigantic wings against the glass" as he drives Rose to what he assumes will be her death —all of which indicate that Pinkie's evil arises out of the corruption of his innocence.

In his case, the crippling effects of his environment destroy a natural tendency to goodness. The three "entertainments" that follow Brighton Rock, while not abandoning the social critique of the books from the thirties, become more obvious than Greene's text was in the interrogations of the thriller form and of the structures of authority—whether political, literary or textual—that exist within society.

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