The End of the Affair. A slice of life.

The end of the affair portrays the love triangle among Henry Miles, Sarah Miles and Maurice Bendrix, and it is considered as one of Greene’s ‘Catholic novels’ in which he defended his right to write ‘from the point of view of the black square as well as from the white’, for if his writing merely conformed to official dogma, the result would be mere propaganda. Nor was Greene’s objective to write a morality tale, neither did he write for the righteous, but for the sinners, for the outcast, for those who harboured doubts, like himself. An actual example was when, during one of Greene’s conversations with the priest who advised him during his conversion, he sought to systematically challenge and undermine the priest’s Catholic tenets with his agnostic comments (Ways of Escape), maybe attempting to ground his own faith on reason, since he wanted a genuine conviction and not blind faith. In parallel but conversely, Sarah Miles challenges and counters Mr. Smythe’s disbelief with her faith, hoping that he is able to ‘convince’ her that God doesn’t exist so that she doesn’t have to honour the commitment she took in order to save Bendrix’s life, since everything that lead her to that commitment would have been caused by but mere chance; ‘I’ve caught belief like a disease. I’ve fallen into belief like I feel in love.’ Both Greene and Sarah Miles sought the truth in their own way; one wanted to see faith through reason, maybe in order to be fully convinced, the other desperately wanted not to believe.

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The church treated this novel with severity, most of all because it was considered as a Catholic novel, but didn’t agree with their expectations of a final moral condemning all that sinning against the 7th commandment. On the contrary, the plot flows full of human love, weaknesses and low passions, all too human. In 1953, Bernard William Cardinal Griffin, the archbishop of Westminster read Greene a letter from the Holy Office, who had an official index of forbidden books up to 1966, in which Cardinal Pizzardo requested him to change some passages of The Power and The Glory, to which refused ‘politely’ (Ways of Escape) using the excuse that the copyright was in the hand of his publisher. Griffin added that in his opinion he would have preferred that Rome had condemned The end of the affair, on the grounds of its indecent scenes. When the interview between Griffin and Greene ended, the former provided a copy of the pastoral letter condemning not only The power and the glory but also, by implication, The heart of the matter and The end of the affair. ‘Novels which purport to be the vehicle for Catholic doctrine frequently contain passages which by their unrestrained portrayal of immoral conduct prove a source of temptation to many of their readers. The presentation of the Catholic way of life within the framework of fiction may be an admirable object but it can never be justified as a means to that end the inclusion of indecent and harmful material’. Despite this rebuke, the church took no further action. ‘The affair was allowed to drop into that peaceful oblivion which the Church wisely reserves for unimportant issues’ (Ways of Escape). Also, The heart of the matter, The end of the affair, England made me and The quiet American offended Catholics on the Irish censorship board and were banned by the Eire government. However, this ban was later reversed upon an appeal by his publishers.

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But what is so scandalous in the eyes of Catholicism? The ‘explicitness’ of the love scenes? The portrayal of adultery? In fact, the theme explored by this novel is by no means uncommon in literature. Rivers of ink have flown throughout history on this matter. Then, what makes The end of the affair different to others? It portrays infidelity from the point of view of the lover, the outsider who witnesses the core relationship consumed by jealousy, which isn’t innovative either. However, what draws the reader’s attention, is the sheer intensity of the first-person narrator’s feelings, a perspective that makes the reader fully identify with his constant and deep suffering: ‘I couldn’t have thought of her more. Even vacancy was crowded with her’, with his deep love: ‘We can love with our minds, but can we love only with our minds? Love extends itself all the time, so that we can love even with our senseless nails: we love even with our clothes, so that a sleeve can feel a sleeve’. ‘How strange too and unfamiliar to think that one’s presence had once had the power to make a difference between happiness and dullness in another’s day’. There is a special emphasis on his jealousy, since being in his position he can’t cope with the idea of her going back to her husband and he doesn’t understand her when she says that he only wants to see him happy, even with other women; ‘I refused to believe that love could take any other form than mine,. I measured love by the extent of my jealousy, and by that standard, of course, she couldn’t love me at all’. The novel depicts different stages, shapes and levels of pain during the narration and emotions emerge like an overwhelming tide: jealousy, abandonment, envy, death wishes and hatred, which culminates in its ultimate and most universal expression; ‘I hate you God. I hate you as though you actually exist’. The plot revolves around his turmoil, as we see the events evolving through his eyes and feel their deep effect on him. His torment conveys all kinds of disturbing emotions that bring to mind the debate about the representation of ‘good’ and ‘disturbing’ events in classic theatre. It was argued that presenting awful, fearsome or sinful scenes to the audience could have an ‘uplifting’ effect, by purging the emotions through catharsis. All human emotions could be ‘useful’ as a vehicle of morals. Well, not all of them, since lust was equally demonised by Aristotle. Horace, however, asserted that all human emotions were valid in order to construct a believable character in a play. Could this be applied to this novel? Jealousy is a much demonised emotion these days and I doubt if the morals of political correctness or even feminism wouldn’t shun this novel entirely. However, jealousy is just another human emotion that Bendrix feels and puts into words as the suffering lover in the triangle. Is the novel morally uplifting in any way? Does the reader experience catharsis after Sarah’s semi-voluntary demise –as a kind of atonement for her adultery- or after Henry and Bendrix’s friendship? I understand it more in terms of portraying emotional upheaval, rather than in terms of mere catharsis. Nevertheless, there may be some readers for whom Sarah’s demise could be seen as some kind of (cruel) ‘poetic justice’ or as an act of closure that brings peace to both men; as if it was deserved instead of representing the lack of will to live under certain conditions, which lead her to let herself go, unable to do anything else than struggling between faith and love.

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The novel is rich with human, all too human, emotions taken to the extreme in this love triangle. Emotions that we could all surrender to at some point in our lives. No one is exempt from sinking low into the quicksand of unrestraint passions, not even Catholics –in fact, that’s what the sacrament of penance is for-. We live the utmost intensity of Bendrix’s politically incorrect emotions. We experience Sarah’s dichotomies and dilemmas; between Henry and Bendrix, between God and Bendrix; ‘I’m not at peace anymore. I just want him like I used to in the old days. I want to be eating sandwiches with him. I want to be drinking with him in a bar. I’m tired and I don’t want any more pain. I want Maurice. I want ordinary corrupt human love. Dear God you know I want to want Your pain, but I don’t want it now. Take it away for a while and give it me another time’. Nothing is certain, faith wavers, the solid pillars of marriage are put into question, as love itself seem to falter; conflict is served, and conflict is the source of drama; Sarah Miles wants to shake free from the shackles that keep her apart from her lover so that they can finally reunite and be together. Although she does her best to respect her commitment to God, her love for Bendrix proves to surpass every other consideration. We share Henry’s feelings and fate as well; Henry is a pathetic character. Not pathetic in the derogative sense, but in the classical sense of the word: he moves us and elicits heartfelt compassion. He never vents his fears and insecurities; he doesn’t seem to be of the intense sort at all. Rather, he remains apparently calm, but exudes sadness and defeat. He’s aware that he’s not able to fulfill Sarah and sees himself as an inane and dull man, as a mere habit for his wife, as just a brotherly figure. Funny enough, he doesn’t suspect while the affair is going on or when Bendrix suddenly disappears from their lives, but when Sarah starts meeting Mr. Smythe secretly. Not until then does Henry decide to hire a private detective, involving Bendrix himself in the process. It’s a detailed and first-hand informed study on the three different perspectives of human suffering within a love triangle.

Greene was at least standing on two of the three vertexes himself, so he knew exactly how it felt to be the unfaithful husband, but also the lover. His own experiences and feelings during his own affair with Catherine Walston served as the basis for The End of the Affair. The British edition of the novel is dedicated to “C” while the American version is made out to “Catherine.”

It’s all about that intensity that you can’t help but feel, all the suffering that never ends, all the jealousy, the coarse and raw passion that devours the lover; The informed portrayal of all that intertwined structure who has inspired pages and pages throughout history, its unbearable truthfulness and its intensity make this novel a masterpiece.

Bibliography:

The End of the Affair, 1951.

Ways of Escape, 1980.

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