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Symbolism in 'Brighton Rock'

November 11, 2016

 

Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock is an interesting example of an Irony, a story which draws its power from the classic patterns and symbology of a traditional Epic by turning those things upside down. Stories of the Ironic kind generally feature an ‘anti-hero’, a protagonist who not only lacks conventional heroic qualities such as courage or morality but who is also often a dark personality with many of the characteristics of an antagonist. Classical Greek drama, Roman satire, and Renaissance literature all feature these types, figures who appear to serve their own ends rather than being morally correct, even when their actions are seen to accomplish ‘right’ within a story context. An anti-hero can also be defined in many cases as a ‘shadow protagonist’: Romanticism in the 19th century developed new forms of this, such as the Gothic double, a concept explored in Robert Louis Stephenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde or Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey and later found in contemporary examples like Marvel’s Bruce Banner/Hulk. A shadow protagonist is often a foil to the traditional hero archetype, an indecisive or corrupt version of the central character, marked by ennui, angst, and alienation.

 

In Ironies, the shadow protagonist often becomes the lead character, the protagonist, if we define the protagonist as the figure who most attracts the audience’s attention (see How Stories Really Work). Film noir gave prominence to this character in such films as Double Indemnity (1944) and Night and the City (1950), and the film version of Brighton Rock itself (1947). Western films, like the so-called Spaghetti Westerns, sometimes feature lead characters who are often morally ambiguous, like the man portrayed by Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).

 

In the novel Brighton Rock, Pinkie Brown, is a teenage gangster and sociopath. The novel gets underway when the character Hale writes a newspaper article about a slot machine racket, betraying the former leader of the gang Pinkie now runs. Chased through the streets and lanes of Brighton, Hale accidentally meets Ida Arnold twice, thus drawing her into the action. Pinkie murders Hale, then tries to cover his tracks and by removing evidence of Hale's Brighton visit which creates a series of further crimes and Pinkie's ill-fated marriage to Rose, a waitress who unknowingly has the power to dismantle his alibi. Rose falls in love with Pinkie despite the fact that his advances to her are motivated by his desire to keep her from giving incriminating evidence against him. However, though our attention is absorbed by Pinkie as the anti-hero, heroic or positive action is undertaken by Ida, who decides to pursue Pinkie relentlessly because she believes it is the right thing to do, seeking as well as to protect Rose from the psychotic youth she has married. In this way, Ida takes up the role of detective, hunting down Pinkie to bring justice to Hale, ironically representing justice in the novel.

 

What gives the novel its long-lasting power is not just a series of events featuring these figures involved in Brighton’s underworld, though, but its treatment of Roman Catholic doctrine concerning the nature of sin and morality. Whatever else they are, Pinkie and Rose are also Catholics, like Greene himself; their beliefs are contrasted with Ida's common sense moral sensibility.  Despite Greene’s devout Catholicism, Ida is perhaps the most thought-out character in the novel: she is an anti-catholic, modern woman who ironically is also the main voice of morality in the story. Her bearing on the novel and the characters within it is constant and she is often the topic of conversation between the other characters.

 

Greene attacks her character through Pinkie calling her a ‘beur’, an outdated Catholic term for a whore; she is shown to be a seedy club singer, giving men attention in exchange for drinks or meals; and yet there is an honesty to Ida that dispels any negative feelings the reader may develop towards her. Greene cultivates sympathy for her: she admits freely she may not be the most conservative of lovers when she says ‘I couldn't trust myself’ in response to Hale's advances; Greene gives her a ‘rich Guiness voice’, ‘big blown charms’ and makes her a ‘friendly accommodating’ woman who most of the surrounding anti-Catholic society can learn to love.  

 

Pinkie constantly talks about Ida and her being a nuisance and he obviously has the ability to kill her but never deems her a serious enough threat. With the central character of the novel being a calculating psychotic, Greene presents Ida as a ‘human’ figure for the reader to grab onto: Pinkie callously kills Hale, assaults Brewer even though his wife is ill upstairs and is dismissive of humanity, while Ida takes the death of Hale, a momentary acquaintance, to heart in the most tender fashion: ‘he was a gentleman’, she says; she jumps to defend him stating ‘he wouldn't've wanted to die any more than I want to die’. She positions herself against the natural injustice in the world: ‘She would want to cry a bit for the death of that scared passionate bag of bones’. Her emotionality and warmth endear her to us; she is a friend to all, not driven to isolate people as Pinkie is, based on religion or gang. As Greene says, ‘There was no place in the world she felt a stranger... there was nothing with which she didn't claim kinship’. 

 

Greene was a master of symbolism, and there are three forms of symbolism in Brighton Rock, the first being that which is understood by characters themselves, such as the title of the novel: in the seaside confectionery called ‘Brighton Rock’, those words run through the solid stick of sugar unchanging.

 

The second form of symbolism is never fully explained but is prevalent throughout. Greene manages to liken the town of Brighton to the whole universe: it is, like the world, but in a local and comprehensible sense ‘the ravaged and disputed territory between the two eternities’, heaven and hell. 

 

Nautical symbols appear too: Ida's mind works like a dredging boat ‘her mind on its axis like a great steel dredger’; she is later likened to a ‘figurehead of victory’ after her eventual triumph, suggesting both her voluptuous figure and huge character with figureheads on boats often carved into the shape of large-breasted women. Further likeness to her being far more human than anyone else in the novel is her opinion of the sea: the sea is a metaphor for romance, trysts, love-inspired escapes: ‘It was the time of near-darkness and of the evening mist from the Channel and of love’. For Pinkie, however, the sea resembles Hell: at the end of the novel in his inability to capitulate he throws himself into the sea - ‘they couldn't even hear a splash’ - and Hell swallows his misguided soul. 

 

Physical appearance is a third form of symbolism. The huge contrast between Ida and Pinkie as well as Rose helps Ida remain in the forefront of the reader’s mind.  We are constantly reminded by Greene of Ida's figure and more commonly her breasts, suggesting her exuberance: ‘She liked a good time, her big breasts bore their carnality frankly down the Old Steyne’. Whereas, conversely, Pinkie's small and timid frame suggests a mental immaturity. There is an intriguing comparison to make in that Ida's grand frame compares to Rose's also comparatively diminutive figure: Ida bore no child and yet Pinkie finds himself terrified of Rose as the image of maternity: ‘His thoughts came to pieces in his hand: Saturday nights: and then the birth, the child, habit and hate’ as well as ‘a mouth which wanted the sexual embrace, the shape of breasts demanding a child’. Ida, however, sees sex as a means of pleasure and like a true sinner (from a Catholic point of view) makes use of contraception. This is even more clearly shown as a contrast earlier in the novel when Ida along with Corkery come across a peep show and find nothing egregious about it even though they embrace it; Pinkie comes across the self same show and is mortified. 

 

The extended metaphor of a stick of Brighton Rock is central to the novel’s ideas, though. Ida harangues Rose on the nature of life imploring her to change her course, and she does so making reference to the confectionery,  ‘Bite it all the way down, you'll still read Brighton. That's human nature’. Ida finds it impossible to believe that people can change: we are born as we die in spirit, only our personal experiences differentiate us. This also reminds one of an evergreen wreath, a very common Catholic image. We see this same idea later with Pinkie as he begins to accept there may be some change in the world but is ‘bound to a habit of hate’ which eventually kills him.

 

As to whether the author would have us believe that Pinkie may achieve any form of salvation, Greene has the preacher state ‘You can't conceive...nor can I, or anyone...the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God’. We are all fully aware though, as sure as there is heaven, Ida Arnold, whether or not she belongs there doctrinally, is bound there and this is the way Greene would have it. 

 

(With thanks and apologies to Ryan Ellory.)

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