“He was filled with horror at the thought of what a child becomes, and what the dead must feel watching eh change from innocence to guilt and powerless to stop it.”
–Graham Greene, The Ministry of Fear, p.65.
The protagonist of The Ministry of Fear, Arthur Rowe, is haunted by the mercy killing of his wife. Set in World War II, Greene presents the city of London as a physical manifestation of Rowe’s past. On one hand, London reflects his childhood past through the fete, the vicar, and the books which remind him of his boyish innocence. On the other hand, Rowe’s recent sinful past is visible in the shops and restaurants near his home which remind him of his life with his wife. In an attempt to escape his fear of the future and present situation, Arthur Rowe attempts to both retreat to and erase the past. Firstly, Rowe searches for his childhood in a local fete which ‘called him like innocence; it was entangled in childhood, with vicarage gardens and girls in white summery frocks and the smell of herbaceous borders and security’.1 The imagery of vicarages, white dresses and security reflects Rowe’s longing to return to his childhood where he can avoid his future. However, this description of the fete is concluded by Greene noting that the fete would have to close early ‘because of the blackout’ (p.11). This brings the protagonist back to the present, failing to allow Rowe to blissfully ignore his problems. Simply, Greene implies that retreating to the past and ignoring the present is not a realistic option for dealing with fear. This can be applied to the context of the text as Greene suggests that the Blitz cannot be ignored and must be acknowledged.
Choosing to stay in London during the Blitz, Rowe watches the city being destroyed and ‘notes 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’ (p.22). Rather than escaping the Blitz, Rowe relies on the bombing to help him escape his recent past. After losing his memory and finally becoming a ‘happy man’, Greene momentarily separates Rowe from his recent past (p.107-109). As well as losing the memories of his marriage, the bomb also results in Rowe losing any memories or knowledge of the war and Blitz. ‘Digby’, the name Rowe is given when he wakes, is taught about the historical past by Dr Forester who he notes was ‘more than ever the headmaster, and Digby a pupil’ (p.114). Therefore, Rowe has been detached from his personal past and the historical present. While this memory loss provides Rowe with a happier life, Greene forces the knowledge of his recent past onto the protagonist at the very end of the text. Once again Greene fails to provide Rowe with the comfort of ignorance. Greene continuously creates and destroys various escapes for Rowe in order to emphasise the importance of the past on the present and future. In this way, Greene indicates that the past must be acknowledged and accepted in order to move forward.
Featured Image: Cover Image created by Peter Edwards for Heinemann’s 1960 Library Edition of the novel.
1. Graham Greene, The Ministry of Fear (London: Vintage, 2001). All further references to Greene’s text are to this edition and will be given parenthetically.
Written by Dionne Rowe.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.