Graham Greene

From tackling morality issues to high farce, Graham Greene was a highly adaptable novelist so good at writing spy thrillers that even MI6 hired him. His work has been adapted for film and television over eighty times. Here we will look at the life and works of Graham Greene.

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Table of contents

    Graham Greene: author biography

    Graham Greene's Biography
    Birth:2nd October 1904
    Death:3rd April 1991
    Father:Charles Henry Greene
    Mother:Marion Raymond Greene
    Spouse/Partners:Vivien Dayrell-Browning (1927-1947), Catherine Walston (1946-1966), Yvonne Cloetta (1966-1991)
    Cause of death:Leukaemia
    Famous Works:
    • Brighton Rock
    • The Power and the Glory
    • The Heart of the Matter
    • The Quiet American
    Literary Period:Realism

    Graham Greene was born on 2 October 1904 in Berkhamsted, England. Greene had many strings to his bow but was known most prominently as a novelist. He was a journalist, but he also wrote plays, poems, and short stories. His first publication was a book of poetry, and he even had time to work for MI6. A prominent theme of his fiction was the blurred lines of morality. Many of his novels were set during tense, political situations.

    Graham Greene attended Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire. His father was the headmaster when he was boarding. Greene suffered from anxiety due to bullying and ran away from school one day. The event caused his parents to send Greene to live with a psychoanalyst in London. After six months of therapy, Greene returned to school but not to board. Graham Greene first began writing, contributing short stories to the school magazine during this time.

    In 1922 Greene began studying at Balliol College in Oxford University. In 1925 Graham Greene published his first work, a poetry collection called Babbling April (1925). After graduating, Greene turned his hand to journalism. He became a sub-editor for 'The Times' newspaper. In 1926 Greene met Vivian Dayrell Browning. It was Browning who influenced Graham Greene's conversion to Catholicism. Greene converted to Catholicism so that the pair could be married in 1927.

    Graham Greene, a close up image of The Times newspaper broadsheet, StudySmarterFig. 1 - After graduating, Greene worked for the London newspaper 'The Times'.

    While working at the newspaper, Graham Greene wrote and published his first novel, The Man Within (1929). The novel's reasonable success afforded Greene the means to dedicate his life to his writing. He continued with journalism and worked as a film critic for The Spectator.

    Greene categorised his books into two groups, 'entertainments' and 'literary novels'. The entertainment would usually be suspense stories like Stamboul Train (1932). The literary novels were the books Greene thought carried more weight, like Brighton Rock (1938). In some of Greene's later novels, it can be hard to distinguish between the entertainments and the literary.

    Did you know that Graham Greene has over 80 films adapted from his novels and short stories? This Included the original screenplay for the 1949 film The Third Man.

    Greene travelled the world extensively and was recruited by MI6 as a result. He worked for the agency for four years. Often Greene would use his travels to inspire the settings and characters of his fiction. It would not be unusual for Greene's novels to be set worldwide, from Cuba to Vietnam and beyond. Another significant influence on Greene's books was his Catholicism. His novels would usually include a character going through a moral or spiritual crisis, like the novel The Power and the Glory (1940).

    MI6 is the secret intelligence service of the United Kingdom, where agents would collect information from around the world.

    In 1966, Greene left Britain to spend the remainder of his life in mainland Europe. He was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966 and 1967. Graham Greene received the British Order of Merit in 1986. He died in Switzerland from Leukaemia in 1991, aged 87.

    Graham Greene: books and novels

    Graham Greene wrote over 25 novels over a career spanning 67 years. Here we will look at some of his more famous works, including both 'entertaining' and 'literary' novels.

    Literary novels

    The literary works of Graham Greene include Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, and The Quiet American.

    Brighton Rock

    A modern suspense story set in the seaside town of Brighton in the United Kingdom, in Brighton Rock, Journalist Charles Hale has been sent down to Brighton by his newspaper. He is anxious because he previously reported on a local gang's criminal activities and fears their retribution. Hale meets a lady named Ida Arnold and hopes to use her to evade the gang.

    Graham Greene, the white buildings of Brighton palace pier, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Brighton, the seaside town, is the setting for Greene's novel.

    The gang is headed by Pinkie Brown, the book's anti-hero. Hale disappears and is murdered by Pinkie's gang. Ida Arnold was in the bathroom when Hale disappeared, and she became suspicious. What follows is a game of cat and mouse familiar in crime stories. Ida is trying to solve Hale's murder while Pinkie and his gang are trying to cover their tracks.

    Brighton Rock is considered one of Graham Greene's first 'Catholic novels'. The book's anti-hero, Pinkie Brown, and his partner Rose, are Catholic. Pinkie is almost obsessive about the thought of damnation, and it drives his criminality. He feels his poor upbringing is a punishment from God and believes nothing can prevent him from damnation. In contrast, the character with a clearer sense of moral code, Ida Arnold, does not believe in God. These moral contradictions often appear in Greene's novels.

    The Power and the Glory (1940)

    The Power and the Glory is a story about an unnamed Catholic priest set in the Mexican town of Tabasco in the 1930s. At the time the story is set, Catholicism is banned in Mexico. The ban is strictly adhered to in Tabasco. The police lieutenant of Tabasco has a hatred of all religions and increases his search for any remaining clergy in the town. The story follows the unnamed priest as he tries to escape the oppressive state while being pursued by the lieutenant.

    The unnamed priest is not without his sins. He has an illegitimate child from a previous affair. However, the priest's dedication to his duties that placed him in this situation eventually leads to his demise. The book explores the complexity of one's beliefs. The priest can be seen as a martyr for the cause or an unrepenting hypocrite.

    The Quiet American (1955)

    Set in the 1950s in Vietnam, The Quiet American explores the rising tension between French Colonialism and the burgeoning communism of Vietnam. The story is primarily narrated in flashbacks from the perspective of Thomas Fowler. Fowler is in between the ongoing tension. He is neither on the side of the communists nor the colonialists. He could be seen as a symbol of Britain's involvement in the war.

    In the story, we hear of Fowler's meeting and relationship with Pyle, the 'quiet American' of the title. The two soon become embroiled in a love triangle with Fowler's Vietnamese lover Phuong. Both parties are competing for her heart. The pair remain friendly on the surface, yet both are wary of the other's threat or intentions.

    Pyle is young and idealistic and soon gets involved with the mysterious General The. General The, like Fowler, is neither with the communists nor the colonialists. Fowler fears Pyle's association with The and warns him against it. But Pyle does not heed, and his association with General The results in him taking part in the act of terrorism in Saigon. These actions eventually cause Pyle's downfall.

    Entertaining novels

    Two of Graham Greene's entertaining novels are Stamboul Train and Our Man in Havanna.

    Stamboul Train (1932)

    Written and published in 1932, Stamboul Train was the first success of Grahame Greene's novels. The book is set on a train from Belgium to Istanbul, Turkey, known as the 'Orient Express'. The story is a thriller in which the many lives of the different passengers become entwined over the long journey. Central to the plot is Carleton Myatt, a character with questionable attitudes who links most of his fellow passengers.

    Our Man in Havana (1958)

    Our Man in Havana was a spy comedy set in Cuba during the communist revolution. Jim Wormold is a vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana. Wormold is somewhat mistakingly approached by an MI6 agent to become a spy and follow the oncoming revolution. Despite being unsuited to the job and knowing very little, Wormold agrees. Due to his lack of containing any relevant information, Wormold begins to fabricate reports involving real people. These actions cause havoc inside and out of Havana.

    Graham Greene: writing style

    Graham Greene wrote with simple clarity to create highly visual worlds in his work. His novels often have a cinematic quality, both with their subject material and Greene's attention to graphic details. This is proven in the number of his works adapted for film and television. Using rich imagery and simple language made Greene a hugely popular writer.

    Graham Greene, Portrait, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Graham Greene is known for his serious Catholic novels and thrillers.

    Perhaps unsurprising due to the number of thrillers he wrote, the pace of Greene's novels has always been fast. His choice of language is functional, and Greene rarely included details that did not serve the plot. Despite often using subject material such as religion and espionage, Greene's novels can often be comic in tone. Books such as Our Man in Havana and Travels with my Aunt (1969) involve unwitting characters dragged into farcical political situations.

    Graham Greene's highly adaptable approach meant he was equally adept at writing a wide range of novels, from the comic to the deeply religious to page-turning thrillers. He won many awards in his lengthy career, including the James Tait Black Memorial prize in 1948 and the Shakespeare prize in 1968. This track record proves Graham Greene to be one of the rare writers to enjoy both literary acclaim and immense popularity during his lifetime.

    Graham Greene - Key takeaways

    • Graham Greene was an English novelist born on 2 October 1904.
    • Some of Graham Greene's most famous novels include Brighton Rock and The Quiet American.
    • Graham Greene used to separate his fiction into two categories, 'entertainments' and 'literary novels'.
    • Graham Greene wrote with simple clarity to create highly visual worlds in his work.
    • Graham Greene died in Switzerland from Leukaemia in 1991, aged 87.


    1. Fig. 3 - Graham Greene (,_1975_Fortepan_84697.jpg) by Fortepan ( is licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Graham Greene

    What was Graham Greene best known for?

    Some of Graham Greene's most famous novels include Brighton Rock (1938) and The Quiet American (1958).

    Why did Graham Greene convert to Catholicism?

    Graham Greene converted to Catholicism so that he could marry Vivian Dayrell Browning in 1927.

    Who is graham Greene?

    Graham Greene was an English novelist born on 2nd October 1904. 

    How did Graham Greene die?

    Graham Greene died in Switzerland from Leukaemia in 1991, aged 87.

    What was Graham Greene's writing style?

    Graham Greene wrote with simple clarity to create highly visual worlds in his work.

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