March 17, 2009

Pinkie's Devils

Brighton Rock is about a crucial distinction- that between right and wrong and that between good and evil. Right and wrong are the categories used by Ida, the amateur detective, who seeks to find out what happened to her friend who was murdered. She is a lively, sexual and vivacious woman who desires to live and lives within a set of rules- common sense principles of morality. Opposed to her is the criminal Pinkie and his girlfriend Rosie, Pinkie and Rosie are both ‘Romans’, Catholics. They live within the world of good and evil: invest the world with an eschatology that Ida never feels and believe in mortal sin- Pinkie believes that losing his virginity was worse than committing a murder- rather than in common sense morality. The novel is about a contrast between these two principles- two ways of looking at the world.

Some interpret this as a repudiation, not of Pinkie and Rosie, but of Ida. Her ‘totalitarian’ morality is what one introducer to Greene’s novel believes is at issue within the story. Common sense morality is rejected upon the basis that it is inferior to Catholic morality. This reading of the novel- and it may well be the intention behind the writing- has some merit: Ida is definitely viewed as disgustingly lively, her plump breasts are referred to by Greene with scorn as though they were overripe. There are pretty obvious echoes in Ida’s character of the barmaid in Elliot’s Wasteland. Rosie in particular is presented as battleground within the novel- she like the reader is poised between Pinkie and Ida and yet at the end of the day, she chooses Pinkie and not Ida. Ida’s confidence that she can reverse the girl’s decision by imposing her own view, not persuading but cajoling, is condescending and unpleasant.

Step back though and what Greene’s novel exposes is something that would be familiar to any observer of the nineteenth century novel. The insight of Dosteovsky that a higher morality does not justify immoral deeds- throughout so many of his novels, this point is expressed in different ways- seems to have been forgotten. What we have arrived at with Pinkie is a nihilistic Christianity which sees murder as less important than sexual taboo. What Greene argues, in my opinion, is that Ida’s morality is insufficient to properly live within the world- but that so too is Pinkie’s and Rosie’s morality. Right and wrong and good and evil must live together- or become enemies to each other. Ida’s sins come with a kindness that is no vice, Pinkie’s come with an ascetic contempt that is no virtue.

Greene appears to me to be directing his novel towards contemporary Catholicism: it should be read as a resounding call to Christianity not to abandon the common sense ideas of right and wrong, the underpinning of morality, as it becomes a minority faith. Perhaps instead of reading the book as a contrast between secular and Christian morality, we should read Brighton Rock as a terrible warning- that if Christianity becomes an aggressive minority culture, it might lose a sense of right and wrong in the search for good and evil. That warning is important- for it reminds us of the great danger of intellectual eschatology- whatever its source- that elevated ideas must be accompanied by moral intuitions unless they are to become perverted.

Pinkie, like Raskolnikov, is a warning of a type of nihilism- Raskolnikov warned the West of the dangers of Atheist nihilism. Greene through Pinkie warns us of religious nihilism and its dangers.


Crushed said...

I agree it's a complex novel.

Certainly there is something rather loathsome about Ida. A rather objectionable woman, loud, coarse, full of herself.
By contrast, there is something more archetypically heroic about Rose. One could perhaps see the two as archetypes, Ida is a kind of pagan earth mother figure, in grotesque form. Rose kind of suggests the Virgin Mary.

Pinkie is interesting, because he is on the one end irredeemably evil, yet also sympethetic. One WANTS him to somehow redeem himself. But in spite of his evil, there is a kind of heroic quality to him.

I found the priests words to Rose in the final chapter to be quite thought provoking. The ending is not clear cut, for Rose is returning to listen to the tape, the 'final horror'. And we know it is going to shatter her. But it raises the question, I think. Did Pinkie love her, in the end?

Perhaps also there is a sense that is the world around them which corrputs true faith. Much emphasis is paid to Pinkie's childhood and the one we actually see Rose escape from, contrated with the gliitering pleasure packed seafronts.

There is a sense in which the material world has corrupted true virtue, tirning into the dessicated shadow of true virtue that one sees in Rose, no longer potent to redeem Pinkie, who has basically all the old heroic qualities but in this new world, they are not enough so he is trapped in evil.

And the new morality of the age, is Ida, gaudy, sickly, with chocolate stains covering her teeth.

Moggs Tigerpaw said...

An interesting post. You make some good points too.

I did not enjoy this novel, but maybe it was not written to be enjoyed. I thought Pinkie was a vicious ignorant scumbag. The world has too many Pinkies in it.

Is Greene using the sort of characters he is to some extent to make a point? All seem flawed, or objectionable. I think he had to work to make Ida objectionable. He seems to do it through an antipathy to the physical, sensual.

I wonder if he is showing his own underlying feeling here. I guess you get the sense that he approves of a certain hard asceticism. Almost like he half approved of Pinkie

People do seem to have hangups about the sensual (maybe mostly read sex?) and religion.

Maybe conditioning conflicting with instincts and needs to produce twisted responses.