‘It’s intellectuals like ourselves who are the only free men. Not bound by conventions, patriotic emotions, sentimentality […] we haven’t what they call a stake in the country.’
-Graham Greene, The Ministry of Fear, p.29.
The London Blitz caused large scale destruction and unrest in London which, naturally, fuelled anger towards the enemy. During this time of conflict there existed a myth of an innate social cohesion, where London was united against the perpetrator. Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear deconstructs this idea of a united Britain against a common enemy. Suzan R. Grayzel notes the large scale destruction during the Blitz. She argues:
Those whom air raids affected had to confront an essential feature of modern and total warfare: every home could now come under fire. As a result, civilians mattered in wartime as never before.1
The large scale ruin and the effect on the civilians would assume a negative reaction to the Blitz. However, Arthur Rowe focuses on his own personal experience with disregard to the collective struggle. Buildings that once held memories are destroyed, and the destruction is liberating for Rowe who’s past, according to the narrator, both traps and defines him. Memories of his wife are intertwined with the streets of London and Rowe lives with the guilt of killing her. The narrator says, ‘after a raid he used to sally out and note with a kind of hope that this restaurant or that shop existed no longer-it was like loosening the bars of a prison cell one by one.’2 The bars of the prison cell metaphorically represent his past and when London is bombed he is free; the physical destruction purifies him of his guilt. The stranger who attempts to kill Rowe in Mrs Purvis’ house summarises Rowe’s indifference to the destruction caused by the blitz. He says, ‘it’s intellectuals like ourselves who are the only free men. Not bound by conventions, patriotic emotions, sentimentality […] we haven’t what they call a stake in the country.’ (p.29) Rowe becomes immune to patriotic emotion and instead he is occupied with thoughts of his own past. Choosing to disengage with the political discourse of war does not render Rowe a free man. Instead, patriotic emotions are replaced with imprisoning feelings of guilt. He is ‘othered’ from a collective fight against one common ‘enemy’ as he fights his personal war against his past. Greene presents a system of living based on personal salvation and redemption, rather than a desire to be part of a larger ideology. The novel continues to feature a discourse of imprisonment surrounding him. Greene writes, ‘for more than a year now Rowe had been imprisoned- there had been no change of cell, no exercise yard, no unfamiliar warder to break the monotony of solitary confinement.’ (p.46) The language used by Greene renders Rowe an outsider trapped in the cell of his own mind, confined by his past. Greene depicts a conflict of language and ideas within the novel: Rowe is liberated and cleansed by the bombing, but equally, remains trapped by his past. This state of stasis Rowe experiences renders him an outsider from any social cohesion. By focusing on internal strife and finding relief in the bombing, Rowe is ‘othered’ from a patriotic unity against a common ‘enemy’. The definition of ‘other’, then, is not only a description of a foreign enemy, as would be assumed war time London. Instead, Rowe himself is the enemy, as he is wages a war against himself.
At the beginning of the novel, Rowe attends a fête, a place he would go every year as a child. Imagery of war is reoccurring throughout the fête, reminding the reader of the greater social events happening at the time. Greene writes, ‘of course, this year there would be no coconuts because there was a war on’ (p.11) and, ‘they would have to close early because of the black-out.’ (p.11) The novel depicts a community trying to cling onto life pre-war by hosting a fête. The event, however, cannot be separated from the discourse of war which penetrates each aspect of the day. Greene depicts the loneliness the people felt during the war by clinging onto an idyllic, British tradition and gathering together to create a sense of community. The novel shows that collectively people in Britain were endeavoring to re-create a piece of the past in order to escape their own horrific, brutal reality of life during the London Blitz. Instead of using the fête to escape the horror of the Blitz, Rowe uses it as a way to fantasize about his own past, and attempt to re-live his childhood experience. He immediately becomes ‘othered’ from the collective experience of the other fête goers. Instead, Rowe spends his time attempting to reconnect with his childhood innocence. In doing so, he momentarily rids himself from his present overriding feelings of guilt. The narrator defines Rowe’s perception of childhood as, ‘liv[ing] under the brightness of immortality […] God is good, the grown-up man or woman knows the answer to every question, there is such thing as truth, and justice is as measured and faultless as a clock.’ (p.95) In short, childhood is a simpler, blameless time with no moral ambiguity. For Rowe, the fête is symbolic of the past as the narrator says, ‘the fête called him like innocence: it was entangled with childhood.’ (p.11) The novel suggests that Rowe endeavours to reconnect with his lost sense of identity and reunite with who he was before he murdered his wife: an opportunity to cleanse himself from his past. The text says, ‘he came to these fêtes every year with an odd feeling of excitement as if anything might happen, as if the familiar pattern of his afternoon might be altered forever.’(p.13) Greene continues to recall Rowe’s desire to ‘mislay the events of twenty years.’ (p.13) The novel depicts Rowe in a state of stasis: unable to escape his past, with no clear direction for his future. The fête represents a longing for the past, as other people who attend the fête unite in their hatred of the war, and desire for some normality amongst the chaos. Rowe, on the other hand, isolates himself from the shared experience of escaping the Blitz. Instead, he uses the event to escape his own, personal past. His inability to forgive his own past means he fails to connect with his own present, rendering him an ‘other’, but at his own will.
Featured painting: Nettie Moon, The Spirit of London during the Blitz, 1979, Oil on Canvas, 55 x 65.5 cm, Museum of London.
1.Susan R. Grayzel, At Home and Under Fire: Air Raids and Culture in Britain from the Great War to the Blitz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)
2.Graham Greene, The Ministry of Fear (London: Penguin, 1943) All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically within the body of the essay.
Written by Sarah Culham
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