Graham Greene: Brighton Rock
She . . . was about to mutter her quick 'Our Father' and 'Hail Marys' while she dressed, when she remembered . . . What was the good of praying now? . . . she had chosen her side: if they damned him they'd got to damn her, too
'Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him'. This powerful and sinister sentence is the opening line of Brighton Rock and the start of a gripping thriller. Part One of the novel, despite Greene's later concerns that it should have been removed, sets the scene and introduces the two main protagonists, Ida and Pinkie (initially referred to as 'the boy' - it is not until Chapter Two that he takes on the role of main character and becomes 'the Boy'). However, from Part Two onwards, it is quickly apparent that the novel is not just a murder mystery but also addresses metaphysical issues of Good versus Evil and the influence of the Roman Catholic Church.
The two opposing characters in the 'Good versus Evil' struggle are Pinkie and Ida. It is interesting and ironic that the evil Pinkie is the 'Roman'. He nurtures vice, although he realises, after his first taste of alcohol that 'You could lose vice as easily as you could lose virtue', and chooses Hell over Heaven: 'Heaven was a word: hell was something he could trust'.
Pinkie is appalled at the idea of sexual contact: 'a prick of sexual desire disturbed him like a sickness . . . He felt desire move again, like nausea in the belly'. This is partly a result of having watched his parents' weekly sexual activities while he was a child. In order to consummate his marriage he needs to tell both Rose and himself that they are committing a mortal sin because they were not married in church.
Pinkie also comes to believe that Hell is all around him, it is part of his life. He is responsible for two murders, and is compelled to marry Rose to prevent her from giving evidence. On his wedding night he looks around his room from his bed, no longer alone and no longer celibate: '(he had graduated in the last human shame): This was hell then . . . it was just his old familiar room'. Mr Prewitt, the lawyer, confirms this when Pinkie visits him: 'Why, this is Hell, nor are we out of it'.
Ida on the other hand is not a church-goer: 'life was so important. She wasn't religious. She didn't believe in heaven or hell, only in ghosts, ouija boards, tables which rapped'. When Rose talks of confession and repentance, she replies 'That's just religion'. Then later, 'I know one thing you don't. I know the difference between Right and Wrong'. Ida is much more comfortable with intimate relations and, although she describes herself as a bit free and easy, believes sex is part of human nature and just a bit of fun. She loves life and embraces it fully:
The two characters are opposites in other ways: Pinkie is young (seventeen), thin and introverted. Ida is late thirties or early forties, large and ebullient. She is superstitious. Pinkie prides himself on not being, or trying not to be, superstitious: 'If I was one of those crazy geezers who touch wood, throw salt, won't go under ladders'. Ida is confident, popular and not afraid to stick to her own views even when friends try to talk her out of something. As the net closes in on Pinkie, Phil Corkery is tiring of the intrigue and wants to leave well alone: 'Don't you think, Ida, we've done enough . . . We've done our best. It's a matter for the police or no one'. But Ida will not give up; it is not just her sense of fairness but the sense of excitement: 'I don't say it hasn't been - exciting . . . What's the harm in that?'
Pinkie is not driven by self-confidence - almost the opposite. He was a bully at school, always trying to prove he was tougher than another child. He has not changed. He is very concerned about how people view him and when he believes neither Colleoni nor the police take him seriously, he becomes very bitter:
His only thought after his first sexual encounter is not of the pleasure but that 'he had exposed himself and nobody had laughed'. He is driven by a need to feel safe. When he believes Spicer has been killed by Colleoni's men, his 'thoughts inevitably came back with a sense of relief . . . It was impossible to repent of something which made him safe'. If he could acknowledge one weakness, it would be the effect of music on his emotions - music could make him cry, but rather than admit this he would walk away from the music or leave a cinema. Pinkie is sadistic. He wants to rip a plaster off Spicer's cheek to see the wound open, he pinches Rose's wrist until it hurts, and, on their first date, threatens her with the acid he regularly carries. Ida, by way of contrast, on leaving Frank's place, gives money to a little boy she does not know - she possessed an innate kindness.
In summary, Ida is confident, irreligious but determined to do what is right, while Pinkie, the Catholic, is determined to be damned. As Rose's confessor says at end of the book, 'a Catholic is more capable of evil than anyone'. It is perhaps surprising then that Green was known as a 'Catholic writer' and not an 'Anti-Catholic writer'.
Ida takes on the role of avenging angel. Following leads from the newspaper she meets Molly, the girl Hale tried to pick up on the beach. After their conversation Ida is convinced of foul play. In addition, the word PHIL comes out of a session with the Board and Ida believes this refers to an acquaintance, Phil Corkery (usually referred to as Mr Corkery to distinguish him from the characters of the underworld such as Dallow and Cubitt who are never given a title) who, coincidentally, has invited her to Brighton. She returns to Brighton determined to discover the truth behind Hale's death. She goes to Snow's and meets Rose who inadvertently tells Ida that it was not Hale who left the Kolley Kibber card by saying the man who left it ordered Bass, a beer Hale does not drink. The investigation has begun and Ida is further spurred on by Black Boy, Hale's horse racing tip, winning first place. This allows her to afford a longer stay in Brighton - perhaps luck, or divine intervention on the side of Good?
Through her determination, Ida gathers information and pieces together the plot. Pinkie's limited imagination would never allow him to understand how a stranger could persist in this way; he does not understand other people's feelings. Only when he feels cornered does he begin to see a need to understand other people:
Pinkie's lifestyle, religion and personality take him into a downward spiral of multiple murder and ultimately his own death. Ida's irreligious love of life gives her the strength and courage to fight for Good. Good wins over Evil.
Other characters contribute to the plot. Phil Corkery gives Ida the excuse she needs to return to Brighton, acquaintances in Brighton give her information about Colleoni, and Old Crowe sits with her at the board. Spicer's nervousness leads to Pinkie's second murder and Colleoni highlights Pinkie's bleak lifestyle but also provides his role model. Dallow and Cubitt are important not only as part of the gang but also to help understand the type of people who live in Pinkie's world; Cubitt likes cheap seaside jokes and drinks heavily, Dallow is having an affair with Frank's wife.
Rose's role in the battle between Good and Evil is, in many ways, the most interesting. She initially appears to be the opposite of Pinkie - a good Catholic who says her prayers, attends mass, confesses and hopes for heaven. She reminds Pinkie too much of his own background as they are from the same part of town and Pinkie has ambitions to move on like Colleoni. However, he reluctantly recognises that he needs Rose:
So Rose represents a good which completes Pinkie's evil, in contrast to Ida who represents good fighting evil. She is, in many ways, the link between the two, a connection between Good and Evil. Her memory for faces allows her to deduce that Hale did not leave the Kolley Kibber card at Snow's. She passes this information to Ida. But it is also this memory that turns her into a threat to Pinkie, forcing him to marry her to prevent her testifying against him. Rose, in her naivety, wants to believe that Pinkie loves her, and becomes his most loyal supporter, even though she suspects he is a murderer:
Ida sees the good in Rose and wants to save her from Pinkie, and Rose is part of Ida's motivation for continuing her quest. But Rose has convinced herself that Pinkie loves her and wouldn't do her any harm. She has, through her association with Pinkie, lost some of her goodness. She is loyal to a murderer. Some of her Catholic beliefs have slipped away and she is not ashamed of committing a 'mortal sin' - sleeping with Pinkie without a church wedding. The morning after the wedding, she wakes up in Pinkie's room:
Rose is absorbed into Pinkie's life to such an extent that she appears willing to commit the ultimate sin, suicide, so that they will both go to Hell together.
It never occurs to Rose that Pinkie would not kill himself after she is dead. She takes the gun that Pinkie has given her and he leaves her alone in the car. She begins to doubt but pushes the doubts aside: 'If it was a guardian angel speaking to her now, he spoke like a devil - he tempted her to virtue like a sin'. Pinkie's influence is apparent here as this thought reflects Pinkie's own view stated earlier: 'You could lose vice as easily as you could lose virtue'. She picks up the gun but Ida, Dallow and a policeman arrive just in time. In the ensuing struggle, Pinkie's face is burned with his own vitriol:
So Pinkie achieves his ultimate goal and dies in the fires of Hell. Ida feels vindicated, she has solved the puzzle and saved Rose but the experience has changed her - perhaps she has had enough adventure and excitement. She goes home to ask the Board if she should return to her husband and possibly to a more traditionally accepted 'good' lifestyle without the amorous adventures.
Rose lives in a grey middle ground between Ida and Pinkie, where good and evil coexist. She is good enough to believe in Pinkie's love, but weak enough to follow him onto the evil path he has chosen for himself. She goes to confession, still believing Pinkie loved her and wanting to be damned. She condemns both Ida and the priest for suggesting he did not. She has been drawn into a world of evil but did it for Pinkie's love. In her confusion and distress, the reader can barely imagine her horrified reaction when she listens to the gramophone record and learns the truth.
© Sarah Jones August 2004