Human and Divine Love in The End of the Affair
Christians believe that one should love God above all things, including one’s earthly dearest. In particular, Christians believe that sexual love must never be elevated above one’s love for God and one’s duty to man. So it is easy enough for Christian moralists, noting the havoc wreaked upon society by the sexual revolution, to dismiss sexual love--especially sinful sexual love--as nothing more nor other than selfish.
There is certainly truth in that, and it would be foolish to fear, much less warn against, a sudden outbreak in 2009 of Puritanical moralism and repression. But since the job of the novelist is to show rather than tell, the greatness of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair lies in Greene’s ability to give sinful sexual love its due, to let it speak for itself, and then to show how woefully it falls short by its own lights.
The affair between Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles begins sordidly enough. Maurice is a novelist and wants to use Sarah’s husband Henry, a minor civil servant, as a character in his next novel. He cultivates a friendship with Sarah for the rather cruel purpose of asking her minute personal questions about Henry. Sarah, who feels sorry for the uninspiring Henry, is touched by Maurice’s interest and does not at first realize the reason for it, though he enlightens her later on. In this initially deceptive context, they are overwhelmed by lust and, neither being burdened with moral scruples, begin a liason carried out under any and every unpropitious circumstance, including on the floor of the dining room of Sarah’s and Henry’s apartment while Henry lies upstairs sick with a cold.
But in a sense, I am getting ahead of myself. For while that is the beginning of the affair, the novel is about its end, and the tale of the affair itself is told entirely in retrospect by Maurice, after the affair is over and Maurice has begun to be tormented by the suspicion that Sarah has moved on to another lover. In that account, which occupies the first half of the book, we learn that Maurice has been unkind and selfish, wilfully cruel, picking fights with Sarah repeatedly, waking her out of sleep to ask a hurtful question about Henry, badgering her endlessly about whether she is jealous of him. His reason, he says, was that he expected the affair to end inevitably and, tormented with backward-looking and forward-looking jealousy, perversely pushed it toward its end so as to get it over with. But that is a poor excuse for his behavior, as his love is a poor excuse for love. How, then, can one say that Greene gives human love its due?
One possible answer to this question is that Maurice’s love for Sarah is not the only human love in the book. Sarah’s love for Maurice turns out to be a different matter altogether, a fact revealed ultimately because of Maurice’s jealousy. Henry confides to Maurice that he has begun to suspect that Sarah has a lover. Since Maurice knows that he cannot be that lover, he seizes the opportunity of Henry’s having written to a firm of private detectives to meet with the detective himself. In this way, Maurice eventually gets Sarah’s private diary (the detective has suborned the maid), and we learn what has been going on: In an air raid one night when they had been making love, Maurice got up and went downstairs, where the front door was blasted in on top of him. Sarah, creeping downstairs, felt his hand sticking out from under the door and was sure he was dead—something about the feel of the hand. Back upstairs, she knelt and prayed desperately that God would give him a chance to live, vowing to give him up if God would let him live. To Maurice, it seemed that he had merely been knocked out. He came to under the door, pulled himself out from under it, and walked back upstairs. When he entered the bedroom, Sarah insisted on leaving, and she never returned.
Greene portrays the transmutation of Sarah’s earthly love into something greater with a grace that is all the more impressive for being realistic. She is not an instant saint. Her feelings swing from misery to peace and back to misery, with much bitterness and hatred of God. She berates herself for making a vow under the influence of hysteria, and she tries again and again to convince herself that her vow is not binding. She even comments wryly at one point that she loved her husband while she was having an affair, but now that she is “good” she loves nobody.
Nor does she merely move beyond her physical love. Rather, she realizes that Christianity affirms the importance of the body she loves--Maurice’s body--because Christianity is what she calls to herself a “materialist” religion. When she once told her husband how upsetting she found the crucifix in a Spanish church they visited, he told her, somewhat dismissively, “Of course, it’s a very materialist faith. A lot of magic…” Now she begins to realize that there might be some point to being thus tied to mundane physical reality. She could wish her own annihilation but cannot wish that Maurice should simply die and rot. She wants even a scar he has on his shoulder to exist through eternity. And in her desperate search for God in what she calls “the desert,” Sarah comes to find a meaning for the love she had for Maurice:
[H]e gave me so much love and I gave him so much love that soon there wasn’t anything left when we’d finished but You. For either of us. I might have taken a lifetime spending a little love at a time, doling it out here and there, on this man and that. But even the first time, in the hotel near Paddington, we spent all we had. You were there, teaching us to squander, ... so that one day we might have nothing left except this love of You.
When, at last, she has nothing left except her love of God, she is able to offer herself and to love and pray for others besides Maurice--for her husband and for a bitter, disfigured atheist named Richard Smythe.
At this point, however, rebellious human nature cries out that we have changed the subject. Sarah’s exclusive, passionate, sexual love for Maurice has become a self-sacrificial love that includes in its beneficence the woes of other men. It is now love for God and thereby love for Maurice, yes, but also love for all men. It has metamorphosed into a desire to die for others, not a desire for her lover. This is no longer just ordinary human love. It is when Sarah is weak, when she decides she can’t go on keeping her vow any longer, that she says that she wants “ordinary corrupt human love.” For Greene to show us Sarah becoming a saint is not, one might argue, for Greene to show us what can be said for sexual love per se.
It seems, then, that we must after all look to Maurice’s love for Sarah to see what mere human love, human love unchanged, human love that remains stubbornly and uniquely itself, can offer. And Maurice’s response to the diary does reveal an almost joyful ardor that is difficult to dismiss.
The entry I was left with was an entry only one week old. “I want Maurice. I want ordinary corrupt human love.”
It’s all I can give you, I thought. I don’t know about any other kind of love, but if you think I’ve squandered all of that you’re wrong. There’s enough left for our two lives.
He calls Sarah and tells her that he is coming to see her and that they are going away together. Sarah is in bed, very ill, but she gets up and flees to a church, where he finds her and pours out his love and his plans for their future. He even apologizes.
“I’ve been a bad lover, Sarah. It was the insecurity that did it. I didn’t trust you. I didn’t know enough about you. But I’m secure now....I have a cousin in Dorset who has an empty cottage I can use. We’ll stay there a few weeks and rest....We need a rest, both of us. I’m tired and I’m sick to death of being without you, Sarah.”
“Me too.” She spoke so low that I wouldn’t have heard the phrase if I had been a stranger to it, but it was like a signature tune that had echoed through all our relationship....“Me too,” for loneliness, griefs, disappointments, pleasures, and despairs--the claim to share everything.
This is the authentic voice of true human love: The claim to share everything. What more can a man offer a woman? “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health...” Yet if this is the fullness of sexual love, it leaves something to be desired. When Maurice first finds Sarah in the church, coughing and in pain, she pleads, “Please, won’t you let me be.” And he replies, “I’ll never let you be.” She falls asleep against his shoulder in the church, obviously very ill. When she wakes, he presses her for promises to telephone him, untile she begs him to have mercy and leave her alone. Something is still not right about this love, as becomes more evident when Sarah dies a few days later of pneumonia. Gradually, the pitilessness of Maurice’s all-too-human love grows and becomes frightening. For now he knows that his Rival has won. So he takes his small revenge on Sarah and on God by denying her Christian burial, even when it emerges that she has secretly been meeting a priest for preparation to enter the Catholic Church. He lies to the priest, concealing the fact that Sarah asked for a priest when she was dying.
Maurice is anything but repentant, and even in the midst of his anger and duplicity he can still issue a challenge to the Christian view of the world. When the priest tells Henry, arguing for Catholic burial, “We remember our dead,” Maurice’s angry thought in reply is powerful.
I thought angrily, how do you remember them? Your theories are all right. You preach the importance of the individual. Our hairs are all numbered, you say, but I can feel her hair on the back of my hand; I can remember the fine dust of hair at the base of the spine as she lay face down on my bed. We remember our dead too, in our way.
These few, bitter sentences exemplify Greene’s treatment of sex throughout the book--the careful balance between frankness and restraint. While there are more explicit passages, none are crude, and in them we see Maurice’s passion at its tenderest and most unanswerable. What can the priest say to that? Human sexual love is unique. Spiritual love seems a poor substitute for the knowledge of the flesh, for that aching tenderness that loves every detail of the body of the beloved. But the priest has an answer, and when Maurice offers the platitude, “A great many people loved her,” Fr. Crompton is not disarmed.
Father Crompton turned his eyes on me like a headmaster who hears an interruption at the back of the class from some snotty youngster.
“Perhaps not enough,” he said.
That is the truth, and that is the answer. For when sexual love is an end in itself, when it insists on remaining merely itself, it becomes something far other than love. Maurice really did love Sarah. But not enough. That is why he is in great danger of never loving her anymore at all, of falling into nothing but lies and hatred.
The book, however, is not merely a story of human love, well though Greene understands human love, painfully, accurately, and unblinkingly though he treats of it. Ultimately, the most important story here, as anywhere, is God’s love for man. Greene is no sentimentalist about Divine love any more than he is about human love. On the first page of the book, Maurice refers to God as “that other, in whom in those days we were lucky enough not to believe,” and in just that ominous fashion, God looms over the book. The reader cannot help experiencing the knowledge of God as Maurice experiences it--as disaster. God is not a lover to be welcomed ecstatically. Still less is He a comfort. He is a rival to all merely human happiness and an unwelcome Guest. He demands, pursues, and will not leave off.
In a sense, one could even say that God is unscrupulous. He will use any human fact or event that comes to hand to woo the soul. Or as Donne more devoutly says, “All occasions invite His mercies.” After the air raid, God uses the atheist Richard, to whom Sarah goes in the hopes of being argued out of her vow. “He hated a fable,” she says, “He fought against a fable, he took a fable seriously.” And when Sarah weakens, she becomes ill and dies, though not before renewing her determination not to leave her husband. Her illness, too, is an occasion of God’s mercy.
But the most frightening pursuit of man by God is God’s pursuit of Maurice after Sarah’s death. It begins with the information that Sarah has asked for a priest, which infuriates Maurice, who bitterly accuses God of turning up like “a strange relation returned from the Antipodes.” God pursues Maurice in increasingly obvious evidences of answers to prayer, even miracles. There is, for example, the very odd incident at Sarah’s funeral. Maurice comes to the funeral with an ambitious young woman he has just met, and he begins to feel guilty in prospect as he asks the young woman to spend the evening with him. Desperately, he asks the dead Sarah, “Get me out of this, get me out of it, for her sake, not mine.” They are interrupted, quite unexpectedly, by Sarah’s shiftless mother who has shown up for the funeral and accosts Maurice to ask him for money. Out of sheer politeness and pity, he has to offer to take her out to dinner, and the disaster with the young woman is averted.
The Divine pursuit doesn’t end there. Sarah’s mother reveals over dinner that Sarah was baptized in a Catholic church, secretly and against her father’s wishes, as a very small child. Her mother says of the baptism, “I always had a wish that it would ‘take.’” Maurice is furious at the coincidence.
It wasn’t you that took, I told the God I didn’t believe in, that imaginary God who Sarah thought had saved my life--for what conceivable purpose?--and who had ruined even in his non-existence the only deep happiness I had ever experienced....It’s just a coincidence, I thought, a horrible coincidence that nearly brought her back at the end to you. You can’t mark a two-year-old child for life with a bit of water and a prayer....You didn’t own her all those years; I owned her.
The most stunning blow of all falls when the atheist, Richard Smythe, has a disfiguring strawberry birthmark disappear after sleeping with a lock of Sarah’s hair under his cheek.
After this, Maurice begins to admit that he believes. “What I chiefly felt,” he says, “was less hate than fear.”
If I begin to love God, I can’t just die. I’ve got to do something about it. I had to touch you with my hands, I had to taste you with my tongue; one can’t love and do nothing....If I ever loved like that, it would be the end of everything. Loving you, I had no appetite for food, I felt no lust for any other woman, but loving Him there’d be no pleasure in anything at all with Him away. I’d even lose my work, I’d cease to be Bendrix. Sarah, I’m afraid.
In the words of T. S. Eliot, “a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything.”
But in the end, God cannot force man to love. Maurice believes in Him, forced to believe by evidence, by all the “coincidences.” But he will not love.
You haven’t got me yet. I know Your cunning....But I don’t want Your peace and I don’t want Your love. I wanted something very simple and very easy: I wanted Sarah for a lifetime, and You took her away. With Your great schemes You ruin our happiness as a harvester ruins a mouse’s nest. I hate You, God, I hate You as though You existed.
The final line of the book is a plea for damnation.
O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough. I’m too tired and old to learn to love. Leave me alone forever.
Maurice is not dead, so we may hope that that chilling demand is not the end of his story. In fact, it seems as though Greene himself has not made up his mind. There are parallels between Maurice’s hatred of God and parts of Sarah’s diary; she decides that if she hates God, then God might exist, and her hatred of God is a step on the way to loving Him. That might imply that Maurice will eventually be caught by the hound of heaven. On the other hand, he is a good deal more determined against that end than Sarah ever was.
But even though we can only conjecture the end, Maurice’s story as far as we have it is all too typical of human nature. We ask for a God of love, but what we really mean is that we want God to guarantee our earthly happiness and then to leave us alone. We want to be happy. God wants us to be holy, something as near to gods as mere human beings can get. That is His “great scheme.” And for the most part, we just don’t want it. Who wants to be a saint? Who needs it?
The terrifying truth of human existence is that there is no via media between damnation and the beatific vision. God has a plan for our ultimate bliss, our greatest and truest happiness, and He is ruthless in pursuing it. We can accept that or reject it, and on that acceptance or rejection hangs our eternal destiny. And we are tired, and small, and really wish we did not have to bother with anything so grand. It would be easy enough to hate the One who makes such demands.
Greene’s portrait of Maurice might make us more willing. For time would not serve to detail all the ways in which it is frightening to think that one might become that character. There is, for example, his shameless use of his superior intelligence to manipulate Henry into having Sarah cremated. There is his devilish determination to pull down Henry with him, which he disguises to himself as “holding Henry up.” There is his intellectual dishonesty, including the fraud he perpetrates upon Henry when he expatiates on the commonness of coincidence. There is his determination to destroy himself rather than leave anything for God to have. Is that what we would become? It is what we will become if we go that way.
Greene’s novel is, to be sure, a novel of ideas. In the nature of the subject, it cannot be otherwise. But it is a novel, not a sermon, and the more disquieting for that. As literature, it shows us that these things--the love of God, its tension with human love and happiness, the choice of damnation or sainthood--are not mere abstractions and for that very reason cannot be evaded forever.