I had always thought that my first article in the Literature section shall be a review of a twentieth century book. So, today, I decided on Graham Greene’s debut The Man Within (1929).
Considering it is Greene, the ultimate conscious keeper of the twentieth century (as William Golding put it), the plot is, needless to say, well structured. Any spaces in the novel that are difficult to follow can be forgiven given that it was his first novel to find a publisher.
The Men Within
The novel, set in the early nineteenth century, traces the tale of a man named Francis Andrews who was sucked into a life of smuggling brandy, because he was born to a father who was a smuggler. His father is idolized by his colleagues as a raw man who stood by his friends, come what may. But Andrews is aware that his father is a coward, for he is a bully who beats him and his mother. His mother dies from beating, and Andrews often wonders throughout the novel if her spirit was crushed before her body or the other way around.
Once his father dies, Andrews is taken aboard his ship Good Chance by his father’s right-hand-man Carlyon. Andrews is always treated like an unwanted person on the deck, and is unable to adjust to the life at sea but no harm as such comes to him (‘they treated me kindly, because that man was my father.’). Because Carlyon treats him a little better, and he is the only refuge for the young kid, Andrews starts to revere him.
At last, sick of this rough life of smuggling with noisy men and craving for a certain kind of refined life that his school had prepared him for, he tips off the police about a smuggling operation. A skirmish between ten smugglers and the police follows when the latter lay a trap, and a policeman is killed from one of the smuggler’s gun. Andrews escapes before the police open fire, but three others including Carlyon escape too after the skirmish. However, unknown to Andrews, six men are caught that night and are put on trial in Lewes.
Andrew keeps on fleeing, and he does not know if he is fleeing from Carlyon, who if he runs into would kill him straightaway, or from the authorities who are equally unkind despite having been helped by him. Having read Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1942), which traces the ‘escapes’ of a Whisky Priest during the Catholic Persecution in Mexico, I believe Andrews’s escapes in Greene’s debut The Man Within give a powerful foretaste of his future works.
He is eventually sheltered by Elizabeth, a woman who lives alone and who succeeds in persuading Andrews to go to Lewes and give testify against his fellow smugglers. By this time, Andrews has fallen in love with her, but more than that, he sees her as an unattainable, unspoiled, holy person and uses her as a yardstick for his own courage or cowardice.
In each instance, there a constant inner conversation going on within Andrews between at-least two types of men: between a critic and a man who keeps on justifying his actions; or between a critic and a thinker who tries to find a reason for his actions; or between a sentimental man and a rational man who plans future actions. He is constantly playing devil’s advocate with himself. For instance, Andrews never loves his father for he knows what a bully he is, but at the same time sometimes thinks he was beaten incessantly because his ‘father wanted to drive courage into’ him. Mental conflicts such as these are never resolved outright but he tries to resolve them through his actions and philosophizing. He is actually pretty meticulous in demarcating the different voices in his him, for while expressing his love for Elizabeth and telling her how she has brought clarity to his head, he takes care to note that there are total of six men inside him
With this book, Greene joins the long list of humans through history who have tried to answer what is perhaps the most bothersome question ever to human beings: ‘what should I do?’ The protagonist of The Man Within is the perfect personification of this dilemma. It is almost never clear if he is obeying his heart or his head, even as he confidently ascribes his actions to either. At times when he follows his head, he labels himself as a coward. At other times, however, when he does act brave out of loyalty or love, he calls himself a fool or too coward to think for himself.
And yet, despite all his shortcomings, Andrews strikes to us as a much better person with a conscience than the powers-that-be: people who used, abused, misused their powers in whatever way they could and were still not remorseful. The first such person we come across is Mr Jennings, the dead guardian of Elizabeth, the lady who sheltered Andrews. Mr Jennings, it turns out, is living in Elizabeth’s obscure cottage for many years just to evade taxes, because he has earned whatever he has by financial fraud and helping smugglers (he was an officer in Customs). Not only that, until he died, he was always making attempts to sexually assault Elizabeth.
Jennings frequently asks Elizabeth to read out passages from the Bible to him, as if to cleanse his soul and consciousness. When Elizabeth stumbles upon a passage in the Bible that seems to exonerate Mr Jennings, he asks her never to read the Bible aloud to him again, lest she stumble upon a passage that indicts him.
Other such people we encounter in the book are Sir Henry Merriman and Mr Farnes, the lawyers. Their motives for fighting the case against smuggling are unclear, but it is clear that they mistreat Andrews right from the moment they lay their eyes on him even though he is their trump card. When they eventually lose the case, they are quick to disown him. Unlike the introspecting Andrews, they are completely remorseless and are only worried about the financial losses entailed in losing the case.
Another such person who is often talked about in the book but makes only two appearances is Carlyon, Andrews’s guardian after his father’s death. Towards the end of the novel, he turns out to be a coward too when he gives turns a blind eye to his henchmen planning to rape Elizabeth. But the usual self-deprecating Andrews, as usual, finds it hard to accept that someone can be a bigger coward than him. Although it is apparent to the reader, and even earlier to Elizabeth that all those men are cowards, the protagonist always finds it hard to see.
There are many passages that talk about Andrews’s inner turmoil. But one that portrays an effort on Andrews’s part to see that other men can be cowards too has stuck with me. Andrews realizes that perhaps the high-principled Carlyon is high-principled only in his dreams and in the aura he has built around himself, and that he too should be judged by his actions – just like Andrews has always judged himself, harshly – and not by the image he seeks out to build. Just like everyone revered his father, but only he knew his father to be a coward and a bully. Even as it strikes him that Carlyon’s or his father’s so-called bravery was not real bravery and only stemmed from physical courage, he plunges further into self-pity as he did not even have physical strength. Things are grey, and any bravery or cowardice only depends on the angle with which it is looked at.
How could one judge a man when all was said but by his body and private acts, and not by the dreams he followed in the world’s eye? His father to his crew was a hero, a king, a man of dash, initiative. Andrews knew the truth – that he was a bully who killed his wife and ruined his son. And myself, Andrews thought, I have as good dreams as any man, of purity and courage and the rest, but I can only be judged by my body which sins and is cowardly. How do I know what Carlyon is in private. But as he spoke he wondered uneasily whether Carlyon might not follow his dreams even when alone. Suppose that after all a man, perhaps when a child, at any rate at some forgotten time, chose his dreams whether to be good or evil. Then, even though he were untrue to them, some credit was owing simply to the baseless dreaming. They were potentialities, aspects, and no man could tell whether suddenly and without warning they might not take control and turn the coward for one instant into the hero. P148
Like any book of the twentieth century, The Man Within too is replete with socio-political commentary, albeit not very pronounced. In this case, its comments on school education seem almost contemporaneous. Strangely, one part of Andrews’s life – his schooling – is completely unlike what one would expect of the son of a smuggler. Andrew is brought up as an ideal English schoolboy, taught Latin and Greek and knows his Horace from his Sophocles, much to the pride of his teachers (‘What was the point of having me taught Greek, when I was to spend my life like this?’… ‘I will tell you why he sent me to school… so that he could brag about it’). Greene is near-obsessed with Andrews education, highlighting its pointlessness time and again. When Sir Merriman marvels at how well-educated this drunken sailor/smuggler is, he gives a clichéd reply with a straight face that ‘they taught me Latin and Greek, they didn’t teach me how to live.’ Europe and Americas were seriously thinking about education reforms after the First World War, even more so after the Second, with philosophers like Bertrand Russell (On Education, 1976) and writers like Aldous Huxley (Ends and Means, 1937 and Literature and Science, 1963) constantly publishing essays and monographs on education and reforms. Greene, with his witty comments on Andrews’s education, almost joins the league of such twentieth century thinkers.
Another thread that runs across the book is that of doubt and anxiety. He very well knows that Carlyon is hot in his pursuit and is, currently, his enemy. Yet, he is unable to come to terms with the fact that someone – and the only one – who sheltered him could be his enemy. In fact, he makes sure to always refer to him as ‘my friend, Carlyon’ even if he talks of being killed at his hands. Self-flagellation is writ-large in these scenes, as Andrews blames himself for the mess he has brought himself and Elizabeth and his fellow smugglers in. He does that even though he knows he did what was right at that point in time and was the only sensible course of action for getting out of the rut he was in.
The theme of self-flagellation runs through the tale. The protagonist often conjures up images of how he will act bravely in such-and-such setting: when he’ll knock on a stranger’s door for a night’s refuge, when he will stand in the witness box in court or when he will face Carlyon. But time and again, he fails to live up to it, often out of being drunk or hungry or weak but always blames it on his being spineless. He always regrets not acting out as he has thought, and instead acting in a manner he thought was best to save his skin.
We get an initial taste of this as he is stumbling over hillocks and running furiously, sleepless and hungry, with the hope of finding a hideout for a day. In his mind, he practices the lines he will speak when a kind old woman will open her door to him. But of course, things don’t go exactly as he envisages them in his mind, and when he stumbles upon a cottage inhabited by a young woman, as opposed to an old woman, he forgets the lines he had thought he will speak.
The young woman, Elizabeth, lives alone and who succeeds in persuading Andrews to go to Lewes and give testify against his fellow smugglers. After losing the court case, at the hotel where he is put up, Cockney Harry, a big man and one of the six acquitted warns Andrews that Carlyon and his friends will be at Elizabeth’s place anytime during the next two days to rape her. Andrews knows this is a trap for him, and reassures himself that Carlyon, a man of principles and a friend whom he had made his enemy, would never treat a woman disrespectfully. At the same time, he is unable to refrain himself and dashes off to Elizabeth’s place to warn her.
It is not difficult to imagine that the emotion of repentance is predominant in the book. Andrews always does what he thinks is best in that situation, what he thinks is best for him to avoid an elusive ‘punishment.’ And irrespective of whatever he does, and whether it is an act brave or cowardly, he always regrets it. As the old adage goes, ‘one can’t do everything,’ the reader is forced to imagine that no matter what Greene makes the characters do, they will always regret what they have been made to do.
On all occasions, regret gives way to complacence: a complacence born out of the knowledge that life will give him another chance.
But the last regret he experiences in the book is the ultimate straw. Andrews warns Elizabeth of her dangers of getting raped and/or murdered. The seemingly unperturbed lady literally pushes Andrews out of the house to fetch water from the well, when it is dark. While returning from the well, he notices that Joe is proceeding inside Elizabeth’s cottage. Even as he has promised to save Elizabeth in case of any danger, he runs off to the nearest neighbour to seek help, trying to justify his actions that this is what they would have done even if they were together, and that if Carlyon is there he would make sure Elizabeth does not come to any harm. He is unable to seek any worthwhile help. Meanwhile, he half-realizes and half-thinks that Elizabeth had perhaps sensed that Carlyon and his revengeful men were nearby and that is why had pushed him out of the house to keep him safe (‘She trusted my cowardice. She was right, right, right!’). He is suddenly fuelled by courage and informs the local authorities before dashing for the cottage. By the time he returns to the cottage, Elizabeth is dead and Carlyon is sitting wistfully, while Joe and Hake have gone. It turns out (as Carlyon tells Andrews) that Carlyon came after Joe and Hake, and that they were indeed after him, not her. When Hake started harassing her, she stabbed herself with the same knife that Andrews left her when he left for Lewes.
Andrews in unable to shake himself off this regret that has cost the life of the only woman he sincerely adored, even as he was following her instructions. He is unable to come to terms with the fact that Elizabeth was aware of their enemies being nearby, sent him so that he is safe and braved them herself.
Andrews has only a few moments in moaning until the policemen come. Carlyon has left by then, promising Andrews that he will never bother him again. The policemen are horrified by the dead body. By this time, Andrews has regained his composure and has a certain eventual ease in his mannerisms, but this ease is not one borne out of complacence of any sort. As if to atone for his negligence, with a mixture of repent and coolness, he claims that he has murdered her. The evidence also points at him, for the knife is his and has his name etched on it. Much to the shock and discomfort of policemen, Andrews is happy to accompany them to anywhere they wish (most likely a prison). Such is the coolness in his body language that the police do not even bother handcuffing him, out of fear or whatever reason.
It is clear in the final pages of the novel that this ultimate ease that envelops Andrews is because he now, officially, has no one to defend and no one to defend him. Elizabeth is dead and gone, and maybe in his heart Andrews knows that he could not have gone on living with her in perpetual fear of vengeance; and Carlyon, his best friend and only benefactor in recent life, is gone, having promised never to cross his path again. It becomes clear that Andrews’s anxiety had its roots in his fear that he has ruined everything he had ever touched and will ruin anything he touches; in his fear that he had wronged everyone he knew, that too without honesty and conviction, and will wrong anyone he gets to know. Apparently, he was never really afraid of pain, but only of pain that came from the ramifications of his actions – which is somewhat proven by the fact that he owned up a crime he never committed (just to put an end to it all?). Now that he is not responsible for anything, he need not be afraid of anything or anyone.
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