‘In childhood we live under the brightness of immortality – heaven is as near and actual as the seaside. Behind the complicated details of the world stand the simplicities […] that is why no later books satisfy us like those which were read to us in childhood – for those promised a world of great simplicity of which we know the rules’.
Graham Greene, The Ministry of Fear, p. 88-9.
Graham Greene classified his novel The Ministry of Fear as an entertainment, due to its espionage plot. However, many critics would disagree, arguing that it contains serious underlying themes. The narrative focuses on the protagonist Arthur Rowe’s struggle with grief and his journey as he comes to terms with his mercy killing of his wife. Focusing on the character’s own identity and conscience, Greene brings into question the meaning of morality and the definitions of good and evil as his protagonist struggles to perceive himself as an innocent man.
Opening with the presentation of a village fete, the protagonist enters a state of nostalgia; this is triggered by the innocence of the event and the childhood memories that this evokes. The author leaves the reader feeling empathetic; it becomes clear that the character Arthur Rowe is a lost man searching for his childhood innocence and naivety. In his search for release from the burden of guilt, the protagonist reverts to his past in an attempt to recreate the childlike innocence that he remembers, refusing to accept this as an unattainable goal. Throughout the novel, Greene focuses on the theme of childhood versus adulthood, as Arthur Rowe, an adult man, reminisces about his own childhood, avoiding the horrors that his adult-self has experienced. The protagonist often looks to children’s literature and, through these references, Greene indicates the problems that come with looking to fiction as moral guidance. Whilst describing his reading of these children’s stories, the narrator states that he does so ‘not so much because he liked them as because he had read them as a child, and they carried no adult memories’. The protagonist is clearly using literature as a means of escape from his adult identity, rather than facing his guilt. He narrates that ‘in childhood we live under the brightness of immortality – heaven is as near and actual as the seaside. Behind the complicated details of the world stand the simplicities […] that is why no later books satisfy us like those which were read to us in childhood – for those promised a world of great simplicity of which we know the rules’ (p. 88-9). He recognises that adult literature is tainted and confused by complexity and ambiguity through experience, looking to simplistic childhood literature as a moral guidance.
In Book Two of the novel, Greene disorientates the reader by introducing Arthur Rowe as Digby; this disruption reflects the confusion and disorientation that the character also feels. Mary Ann Melfi notes that ‘subconscious growth in Rowe’s case is an inadvertent process wherein the subconscious takes control, working at its own pace. Here, the conscious mind relaxes, and the subconscious fulminates before manifesting itself.’ The protagonist’s forgetting of his identity works as a kind of healing process, administered by his own subconscious. His own pain and vulnerability become unbearable and, rather than facing his fears and facing himself, it is easier to forget and live a lie. The character’s conscience is so burdened with guilt that he entirely recreates his own identity, erasing the torturous memories of his wife’s death in a final desperate attempt to move forward. His disturbing memories have been erased and at this point in the narrative he is demonstrated to be at peace, viewing himself as an innocent man. The character of Digby represents the Arthur Rowe that would have been had he not killed his wife and suffered with the guilt. Arguably, the character has achieved his goal of innocent content through the erasure of his adult memories. However, this is shown to be only a temporary state, in which his subconscious is allowing him to heal and decipher his identity without the pain of facing his crime head on. As Arthur contemplates his childhood, he reflects on the fact that ‘he learned before he was seven what pain was like – he wouldn’t willingly allow even a rat to suffer it’ (p. 88). The reader learns of the character’s inability to witness pain and suffering due to his empathetic nature. As Digby, the protagonist feels great sympathy for the character of Stone; he remarks that ‘he felt capable of murder for the release of that gentle tormented creature’ (p. 141). Despite his identity being entirely forgotten and recreated, the sense of empathy that Arthur Rowe possessed seems ever-present. His core human nature remains the same, indicating a contingency and suggesting that even Digby, undisturbed by the burden of an ill wife, would have committed the same crime due to his own moral code. The protagonist’s tendency to empathise and pity others has ultimately led to his mental destruction; through Digby, it becomes clear that this is inherent in his human nature.
Featured Image: Front cover of the 1974 Penguin edition of the novel.
 James M. Welsh and Gerald R. Barrett, ‘Graham Greene’s Ministry of Fear: The Transformation of an Entertainment’, Literature and Film Quarterly, 2 (1974), p. 312.
 Graham Greene, The Ministry of Fear (New York: Penguin Books, 1963), (pp.20-1). All other references are to this edition and are given in parenthesis in the main body of the text
 Mary Ann. Melfi, ‘The Landscape of Grief: Graham Greene’s ‘The Ministry of Fear’’, South Atlantic Review, 69 (2004) <http:// www.jstor.org/stable/20064577 > [accessed 19 April 2018] pp. 54-73, p. 64.
Written by Amy Fretwell.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.