Symbolism in 'Brighton Rock'

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.