Brighton Rock Novel Review Essay

It is the tension between the two faces of Brighton – the illuminated tourist bling and the gritty, mobster-laced industry behind the façade – that sets up the intrigue in Greene's classic 1938 novel of good and evil; and it's the menacing, sinisterly youthful antihero Pinkie who continues to fascinate today. This reissue, with an introduction by JM Coetzee, coincides with the book's adaptation (again) to screen by Rowan Joffe, setting it in 1964 with Sam Riley in the lead role; Joffe's foreword to this edition is almost an apologia for daring to remake John Boulting's 1947 version, famous for Richard Attenborough's ferocious performance as Pinkie.

As well as bringing Greene commercial success, Brighton Rock also heralded the author's emergence as a "Catholic novelist". From the opening line – "Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him" – the narrative has the pull of a thriller. Seventeen-year-old Pinkie is trying to cover up his involvement in Hale's murder. To do this he must silence Rose – waitress, fellow "Roman", key witness, and as innocent and youthful as her name suggests – either by marriage or by death. To Pinkie, allergic as he is to intimacy, these are interchangeable fates.

The person that stands in his way is Ida Arnold, Fred Hale's companion on his last day on earth. Ebullient and full of laughter, middle-aged Ida is determined to find the truth behind Hale's death; and once she finds it, to save Rose from her terrible destiny. Ida is a curious but effective avenging angel: non-religious but superstitious (she believed "only in ghosts, ouija boards, tables which rapped") and her outlook contrasts vividly with that of Pinkie and Rose, who are enmeshed by images of heaven and hell; of redemption offered but never taken up.

Why does this bleak, seething and anarchic novel still resonate? Its energy and power is that of the rebellious adolescent, foreshadowing the rise of the cult of youth in the latter part of the 20th century. And while Catholicism may have given way to secularism, Pinkie ultimately realises that hell isn't located in some distant realm: it's right here, present on earth, all around us.

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Analysis
2.1 Pinkie’s View of the World
2.2 Pinkie’s Self-Image
2.3 Sexuality and Marriage
2.4 Pinkie’s Ally Rose

3 Conclusion


1 Introduction

In Brighton Rock, Greene introduces the religious dimension for the first time. This marks a turning point in his writing career. However, the subject of Roman Catholicism is not immediately apparent to the reader. It is incorporated into a thriller plot that functions as the framework of the novel. Greene originally conceived Brighton Rock as an “entertainment”, and it indeed starts out as an exciting thriller. As a means of suspense Brighton Rock is pervaded with pairs of opposites: The sunny Brighton of the Bank Holiday against the gloomy Brighton of the gang fights; Ida Arnold against Hale’s murderers; Pinkie against Colleoni.

Yet this is only the first or basic level of Brighton Rock. The true meaning lies on a second level beneath the surface of the entertaining action. Ida Arnold, Colleoni and the police are the hounds that are after Pinkie, which can be described as the secular level of the text. This division of characters is taken up but then transformed into a spiritual one by introducing the religious dimension, which establishes a spiritual gap between the believers (Pinkie and Rose) and the non-believers (especially Ida Arnold). Although there are various shifts in point of view, the main perspective is that of Pinkie Brown. He is a religious gang-leader, who fights against secular enemies. His behaviour is shaped by his Roman Catholic concepts of good and evil, of damnation and salvation.

The novel thus depicts the world as it is seen by a Roman Catholic. It describes how religious belief can shape human perception and behaviour. I will examine how Greene describes Pinkie’s Catholic attitude towards the world, himself, sexuality and marriage. Since Rose is the other Roman Catholic in the novel, I will also look at her depiction and how it is related to Pinkie’s. Whether or not Brighton Rock contains a clear message will be the final issue of discussion.

2 Analysis

2.1 Pinkie’s View of the World

Brighton Rock begins as a thriller and although the focus shifts towards religious matters it retains the atmosphere of suspense throughout the text. Nevertheless, the thriller-plot “is just the surface of the story. Underneath the melodrama, the dominant concern is profoundly religious” (Gaston 19). R. H. Miller sees the key to the understanding of the novel in considering its allegorical aspect (Miller 33). Brighton is therefore not just the setting of the action but, especially in the opening scene, it “is an amalgam of the whole world as it appears at its gaudiest” (Miller 36).

The allegorical meaning of places and characters corresponds with Pinkie’s religious view of the world, which looks beyond the surface of things and people. Pinkie Brown, the seventeen-year-old gang leader, differs not only in his outward appearance from the other characters. The major difference lies within his view of the world. This psychological condition of the protagonist is the reason for his inner as well as outer conflicts and thus forms the core of the novel.

Pinkie watches the world with disdain (Miller 48), which is an expression of his contempt for a world that is foreign to him. Robert Hoskins describes Pinkie’s whole life as “an act of revenge against the world that has offered him nothing but misery and unhappiness” (Hoskins 95). Pinkie’s feeling that the world has denied him the chance to become happy points to the two dimensions of this character. He is at once a person in the physical world of Brighton whose poor background has shaped his conduct of life but at the same time he is a young man that sees the world in a religious aspect that goes beyond the worldly view.

Although social critique is shown more openly in Greene’s earlier novels like It’s a Battlefield, England Made Me and A Gun for Sale “which expose a corrupt establishment and an impersonal social system” (Sharrock 84), it can also be detected in Brighton Rock: “Pinkie is not simply a metaphysical creation; what he is is at least partly conditioned by environment” (Smith 65). The description of Pinkie’s background is rather sporadic. There are three passages where we learn about his home at Paradise Piece: In a conversation with Rose (III.3), when he hides in a garage after the attack at the racecourse (IV.1), and on his way to Rose’s parents (V.3). In all of these passages Pinkie gets reminded of his past and he obviously does not appreciate his memories.

This sociological foundation of his view of the world is the minor part. The main influence is his religious condition that shapes his perception. Ida Arnold serves, above all, as the counterpart to his position: “Brighton Rock frequently contrasts two distinct views of the world - the secular [...] outlook of Ida and others, and the religious perception of Rose and Pinkie” (Diemert 136). Unlike in the earlier novels “the major struggle is not between the forces of society and crime but between good and evil” (Gaston 19). These are the categories in which Pinkie divides the world. He shares this view with Rose, the other Roman Catholic character. It is their firm belief that makes them think of heaven and hell as “bare facts, not speculations” (Sharrock 94). Pinkie gives his religious creed when Rose asks him about his belief: “

’But you believe, don’t you,’ Rose implored him, ‘you think it’s true?’ ‘Of course it’s true,’ the Boy said. ‘What else could there be? [...] Why, it’s the only thing that fits. These atheists, they don’t know nothing. Of course there’s Hell. Flames and damnation, [...] torments.’ ‘And Heaven too,’ Rose said with anxiety [...]. ‘Oh maybe,’ the Boy said, ‘maybe.’” (BR 52).

When he says that “it’s the only thing that fits” he expresses his view of the world that can only be described in terms of torments and damnation. For Pinkie there is basically no difference between life and death because his life is like hell to him. He cannot even think of an alternative - “What else could there be?” - and thus expresses his scepticism over Rose’s insistence on the existence of heaven.

When Pinkie talks about life after death he talks at the same time of his present situation. This means that he places himself outside of any secular chronology. He lives in a different sphere: “the slatey eyes were touched with the annihilating eternity from which he had come and to which he went” (21). Within this eternity the categories of the secular world become meaningless. Ida Arnold’s division of right and wrong can not penetrate this sphere when she tries to convince Rose to leave Pinkie because “good and evil are seen as supernatural categories reaching far beyond humanist right and wrong” (Sharrock 88). Sharrock argues that Greene insists “that any Catholic is superior to any Protestant or agnostic, not in virtue, but in his knowledge of the nature of life” (Sharrock 88). I would argue that Brighton Rock is just a depiction of how a Roman Catholic sees the world but not that it is Greene’s intention to prove its superiority. The message, if there is one, might rather be that for Roman Catholics the world as it appears is just the surface of what lies beneath. It can be understood as a reminder of transcendent categories such as good and evil.

2.2 Pinkie’s Self-Image

George M. A. Gaston calls the struggle between good and evil “an age-old subject” (Gaston 19) that Greene took up in the novel but transformed it in a significant way: “What distinguishes this book from any number of other, more pious ones is that this struggle takes place primarily within a character who seems to take the risk of willingly damning himself despite his Catholic conscience” (Gaston 19). This inner conflict of Pinkie is depicted in his self-image.


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