|Brighton Rock - study guide|
This study guide is intended for students preparing for exams at GCE Advanced (A2) level and Advanced Supplementary (AS) level. But it is suitable for university students and the general reader who is interested in Brighton Rock. Please use the hyperlinks in the table above to navigate this page. If you have any comments or suggestions to make about this page, please e-mail me by clicking on this link.
The purpose of this study guide is to help you find your way around the text, and to introduce subjects which may be set by examiners. It is not a substitute for close study of the novel. Ideas presented here need to be supported by textual reference (either summary of narrative detail or brief direct quotation, as appropriate; do not quote at length: you gain no credit for this in an "open book" exam, the point of the reference will not be clear, and you are wasting time!).
It is assumed by the examiners that literature is a humane subject; that is, that books set for study explore and interpret values and attitudes in the real world, although they must also be judged in their own right as imaginative works depicting an alternative reality or alternative view of the world. Broadly speaking, students are asked to examine works in terms of their content (what they are about) and the author's technique (how they are composed). While examiners hope that students will enjoy studying these things, they recognize that this enjoyment will rarely be simple or immediate in the case of demanding texts. Students would do well to develop maturity as readers, to discover the historical and cultural diversity of western literature, with some of its history; to recognize different literary forms, genres and conventions.
Personal and independent judgements are encouraged, but should be made against a background of familiarity with established or current attitudes. It is impossible to "teach" this entirely within lesson time; private reading, directed by a teacher or other well-read person, is essential. Because you cannot read everything, or even very much, try to profit from the experience of others.
Brighton Rock: what is it about?
At one level, this novel is a simple, if elegant, thriller: Ida Arnold, an unlikely heroine, pursues the evil but failed gangster Pinkie Brown; she seeks his punishment, while trying to save from his influence the young woman, Rose, whom Pinkie has married to buy her silence. In these terms, with vivid but usually straightforward characters and well-drawn locations, and the shocking conclusion (the reader is aware of Rose's imminent discovery of Pinkie's hatred) the novel shows why it achieved great popularity, and why it was successfully adapted for the cinema. Unlike some classic works, it obeys the convention of popular fiction, that there should be a well-paced and exciting story; "suspense" is also provided by the reader's concern for the perhaps doomed Rose. But why is the novel also considered to be serious fiction, or a "modern classic"? This is a little less obvious, but we can find reasons for this opinion, if we look.
Like many writers from earlier times, Greene is deeply interested in what could be called metaphysical questions: about the real nature and purpose of this world, about the nature or existence, even, of God; about man's freedom, by his own efforts, to alter his circumstances - or lack of this freedom. In order to address these arguments, Greene depicts characters who are not at all complex, but who hold, profoundly in the case of Pinkie, radically differing views on these matters.
Dallow, like Ida, sees only the immediate material world before him, as do the punters who see Brighton's jolly facade and gaiety, but not the squalor behind this. Pinkie, though, believes also in a world of unseen but eternal spiritual realities. Initially, he believes these to await him after death, and he aspires to better his status in this world; but he comes, gradually, to see what Prewitt, his bent lawyer, articulates for him, that "this (this world, generally; for Pinkie, Brighton) is hell, nor are we out of it". Brighton in its two aspects (the Palace Pier or Paradise Piece) becomes a metaphor for heaven and hell, while the novel begs the question: does Pinkie have a morbid and deluded imagination, or is he right in his view of the world? Ida is a likeable heroine, but Greene does not at all endorse her matter-of-fact view of the world.
Greene's examination of these questions should also be seen in its historical perspective. The major English novelist of the inter-war years, D.H. Lawrence, presented a view of the world in which problems arise from personal, social and especially sexual relations. While ideas about religious belief might occasionally preoccupy the characters in Lawrence's novels the author does not seriously entertain belief in a supernatural God. Late Victorian writers, such as Thomas Hardy and George Eliot, followed by G.B. Shaw, have tried to replace religious values with social ethics. In Brighton Rock, Greene shows the continuing importance of religious belief. In Hale's funeral service and Ida's superstitious dabblings in the "spirit world" he ridicules the then fashionable compromise between religious faith and so-called "rationalism". Pinkie's rebuke to Dallow's "I don't believe in what my eyes don't see" ("They don't see much then"; p. 212 ) could reasonably be read as the author's gibe against the blindness, to eternal realities, of the modern materialist outlook. These ideas will be discussed more fully later.
Heaven and hell
Pinkie accepts the Roman Catholic teaching about heaven and hell, but in a rather perverted way. There may be heaven though he can form no idea of it; but he has a vivid idea of hell: "Of course there's Hell. Flames and damnation." (p. 52) Initially, Pinkie believes that hell awaits him after death, and there is no point in troubling about it beforehand: "Hell - it's just there. You don't need to think of it - not before you die" (p. 91) But his remark to Rose immediately prior to this ("I don't take any stock in religion") is not convincing. It is probably true, however, at this point, that Pinkie believes he can use his position as Kite's successor to gain status and influence, though it is not clear to the reader how he can achieve these, as Pinkie lacks imagination; his refusal to meet Colleoni's terms seems foolish. What Pinkie wants immediately is to obliterate his past in Paradise Piece, with the knowledge of his parents' sexual habits, and to escape from the room at Frank's, where strategic planning is made impossible by the interruptions of the other gang members and Judy. An idea of controlling the race track, resisting Colleoni and doing what he needs to, in order to silence Rose is Pinkie's vision of worldly success. The reader notes, first that the celibate, ascetic Pinkie is unfitted to enjoy the fruits of this success, other than the prestige it might bring; second, that Ida, effortlessly, achieves what is denied Pinkie: he is refused a room at the hotel on his wedding-night, while Ida uses the "unlucky" Hale's tip to pay her way in Brighton, and her charm to hitch a lift to the races in a luxury sports car.
What Pinkie comes to realize about his original view of things is that it is mistaken, and that hell is all around us. In trying to silence Rose, he finds himself committing a sin more serious than murder (the corruption of an immortal soul). He also sees how the squalid domestic routines and the sexual relations he has hitherto sought to escape have now trapped him; the only way out is to arrange Rose's death. Pinkie sees this most vividly when he takes his bride back to Frank's place:
Now it was as if he was damned already and there was nothing more to fear ever again. The ugly bell chattered, the long wire humming in the hall, and the bare globe burnt above the bed - the girl, the washstand, the sooty window, the blank shape of a chimney, a voice whispered, " I love you, Pinkie". This was hell then; it wasn't anything to worry about; it was just his own familiar room. (p. 182)
Later, when he visits Prewitt (Part Seven, Ch. 3), this is articulated most clearly. Pinkie's fear of settled domesticity is alarmingly embodied in Prewitt's household. Prewitt is successful enough (or has been) to own a house and to employ a servant. But his house is near the railway line, "shaken by shunting engines" while soot settles "continuously on the glass and brass plate". The party wall is so thin, there is non-stop noise from the neighbour's radio. The wife in the basement and the girl with "grey underground skin" suggest the hell just beneath this world. Prewitt tells Pinkie that the Boy's danger of conviction is to be preferred to his own living death: "The worst that can happen to you is you'll hang. But I can rot". Finally, Prewitt tells Pinkie of Mephistopheles' words to Faustus: "Why, this is Hell, nor are we out of it" repeating the phrase soon afterwards. Pinkie would not be familiar with Marlowe's play, but the quotation expresses an idea to which his own thoughts have been tending.
The reader sees that Pinkie is like Faustus: he has tried to make a deal, accepting his own damnation, in return for some advantage in this world. Like Faustus, he finds that the worldly gain is illusory and unsatisfying. We see further how Pinkie becomes aware more and more of a loss of control. When he confronts Hale, he is utterly confident he can kill him with impunity. Early in the novel (p. 7) Greene likens Pinkie to a hunter "before the kill". As he is drawn into closer relations with Rose, Pinkie sees how his scope for action is lessened. This becomes explicit when he visits Prewitt: "More than ever yet he had the sense that he was being driven further and deeper than he'd ever meant to go": he is now the hunted.
This idea is central to the novel's conclusion: although Pinkie is fairly sure of his own damnation, he believes (in theory) that a Catholic can be saved if he repents before death, an idea he thinks of repeatedly in terms of the rhyme about the "stirrup" and the "ground". When he fears he may be about to die, after the attack on the race-course, he finds that this does not work, that his whole attention is given to trying to stay alive. But Greene is careful not to exclude the possibility of forgiveness for Pinkie. Driving with Rose to the country, to arrange her "suicide", Pinkie thinks of himself as pre-destined, unfairly, for damnation, because of the experiences of which "his cells were formed". He is stirred by "an awful resentment", and wonders why he should not "have had his chance, like all the rest, seen his glimpse of heaven, if it was only a crack between the Brighton walls". (p. 228) But as he looks back on his brief courtship of Rose, Pinkie has his chance. He discovers, to his surprise, that he remembers it "without repulsion" and the (slight) possibility of affection for Rose occurs to him; "somewhere, like a beggar outside a shuttered house, tenderness stirred, but he was bound in a habit of hate".
The image is repeated (p. 237) as Pinkie feels almost protective of Rose in response to the boasting of the upper-class men in the bar: "Tenderness came up to the very window and looked in". The chance of repentance, twice refused, comes most vividly, the third and final time; as he drives away from the bar, Pinkie is aware of "an enormous emotion", likened to "something trying to get in; the pressure of gigantic wings against the glass. Dona nobis pacem...If the glass broke, if the beast - whatever it was - got in, God knows what it would do." (p. 239) The colloquial "God knows" here clearly has a serious literal meaning. Pinkie is aware of what is happening, this is the "crack" opening in Brighton's walls, but when it comes, he resists it.
Having declined the threefold offer of mercy, Pinkie cannot escape the divine judgement. His death is presented very much as the action of supernatural punishment: "it was as if the flames had literally got him" (the burning of the vitriol anticipating and becoming a metaphor for the hell-fire which Pinkie is about to meet). When he goes over the cliff no sound is heard: "it was as if he'd been withdrawn suddenly by a hand out of any existence - past or present, whipped away into zero - nothing". (p. 243) The "hand" is a conventional anthropomorphism for the action of God, while the reference to time indicates how Pinkie's hell, as Prewitt correctly divines, begins before his death.
In the depiction of Pinkie, Greene addresses many of the paradoxes of Roman Catholic doctrine. Pinkie seems to be doomed - both by his environment and by his temperament - to hell, and yet he is held accountable for his actions. His lack of imagination (of others' sufferings) and inability to value those for whom he has no affection (and he has affection for nobody) explain, but in Greene's eyes neither justify nor excuse, his crimes. He has the possibility of mercy but declines it. The reader is satisfied (with Ida) that justice has been done (though we understand it, as Ida does not, in the context of eternal damnation).
Ida, like Dallow, believes in what she sees. She is superstitious, being quite ready to believe in a spirit world, but not seeing, as Pinkie does, the vivid reality of hell-fire. "She believed in ghosts, but you couldn't call that thin transparent existence life eternal". (p. 36) This is contrasted with Ida's hedonistic ideas about life, as a series of tangible material pleasures to be enjoyed without self-reproach: "She took life with a deadly seriousness". (p. 36) Ida has no belief in heaven or hell: "That's just religion...Believe me, it's the world we got to deal with". (p. 198) "Fred" has been deprived of life and Rose's life may be in danger; Ida, with her overwhelming sense of "right and wrong", of fair play, casts herself in the rôle of avenger.
Greene explains Ida's popularity in terms of her understanding of ordinary people; her physical presence, her joie de vivre and her sentimentality all make her attractive; she is generous in every respect, and mixes common sense with commonplace superstition. In this, she is a kind of representative of the people, and of the popular world view. Many readers will see things as Ida does; most will admire the courage with which she responds to what she sees as her duty to "Fred". Whether we agree with Ida's belief that "it's the world we got to deal with" is another matter. It is possible to see Pinkie's theology as the morbid fantasy of a moral imbecile. But the conclusion of the novel appears more to endorse the supernatural than the worldly outlook. The "hand" which seems to withdraw Pinkie from existence, for example, is not in his mind (we have no insight into the dying man's thought) but in the narrative.
Just as Ida sets out to save Rose's (mortal) life, so Rose hopes to save Pinkie's (immortal) soul. If this is impossible, she thinks, she would rather be damned with him. Though familiar with the Catholic doctrine in which she has been brought up, her understanding is very different from Pinkie's. She is quite ready to defer to his authority, even when he pretends not to believe the orthodox teaching on marriage, in order to persuade Rose that he and she are "to be married properly". Although Rose is conventionally "good" she has a sense of inhabiting a country where "good or evil" live together, speaking "the same language", coming together "like old friends"; Pinkie and she live in a common world, from which the non-Catholics are excluded. She sees Ida (in relation to Catholicism) as resembling "an Englishwoman abroad", as if "in a strange country" without a "phrase book".
Rose rightly suspects that Pinkie's background is the same as hers; he denies this (p. 91) not least because his home is the thing of which he most wants to be free. Rose fails, at the last, to commit suicide; though she thinks of the voice prompting her to stay alive so she can plead for Pinkie "at the throne of grace" as speaking like a "devil", yet her hand is stayed long enough for her to be overtaken by events. When Ida and the policeman arrive, Rose throws away the revolver she is holding. Rose tells the priest (p. 246) that Pinkie was damned and knew it. The priest encourages her to believe it might be otherwise "if he (Pinkie) loved" her, and tells her to make her child a saint "to pray for his father". The novel's concluding sentence intimates that Rose will soon discover (from Pinkie's recorded message) that he hated her, thus giving the lie to the priest's suggestion.
In the novel, Brighton is important as a well-drawn setting for the action; as a metaphorical device for depicting the eternal realities of heaven and hell; for its close identification with Pinkie, and for its atmosphere. The reader does not have to know the town through personal experience to follow the novel, though in fact Greene supplies very precise details at points (he identifies the Palace Pier, the West Pier, Old Steyne, Montpellier Road and neighbouring Rottingdean and Peacehaven, as well, of course, as the race track). The town could be any English seaside resort in its layout: a drab hinterland, known only to the locals extends back from the extensive promenades and piers with amusements, sideshows and kiosks selling confections and souvenirs.
These sources of pleasure and entertainment are presented by Greene as essentially vulgar, for the common people. Ida, ever adaptable, is able to enjoy her day-trip, but Hale, down on his luck yet of more middle-class outlook feels isolated, different from the crowd which seems to exist only as a collective, to which individual differences are surrendered: it is likened, impersonally, to a "twisted piece of wire", uncoiling "endlessly past him". While the crowds enjoy the seaside, they do not know the impoverished streets behind it. Though Pinkie seems to know all of Brighton well, there are parts he wishes not to know. In seeking her parents' permission to marry Rose, Pinkie must return to the poor area from which he originates; he (like the reader) is directly confronted with the squalid detail of Nelson Place and Paradise Piece.
The promenade and the piers, dedicated to amusement, parting people from small amounts of money saved, patiently, from what they have earned through real work are artificial, a veneer on reality, as it were. For the crowds of holiday-makers or day-trippers on bank-holidays they are a delightful illusion of the good life:
With immense labour and immense patience they extricated from the long day the grain of pleasure: this sun, the music, the rattle of the miniature cars, the ghost train diving between the grinning skeletons under the Aquarium promenade, the sticks of Brighton rock, the paper sailors' caps. (p. 6)
Greene indicates here how the crowd almost force themselves into a sense of enjoyment, as this is the only diversion they can know. But the reality of Brighton is Paradise Piece and Nelson Place, with their poverty and squalor; Mr. Prewitt's domestic hell; the room at Frank's place; the life Pinkie sees embodied in the clutter of a garage in which he takes refuge, or the sprawling development he and Rose look at from the bus. In every case, the place is associated with unhappiness, failure of one's plans and of one's relationships but chiefly with entrapment.
Prewitt's quotation of Mephistopheles points the reader to Pinkie's apparent inability to leave Brighton. We may wonder why he does not simply run away from his troubles: the answer is that he cannot leave. Unlike the much-travelled Dallow, he knows he is doomed to stay there. He tells Dallow: "I'd feel a stranger away from here...I suppose I'm real Brighton" (pp. 219,220) He says this "as if his single heart contained all the cheap amusements, the Pullman cars, the unloving weekends in gaudy hotels, and the sadness after coition". Though he has tried to escape Paradise Piece, there is irony in his criminal actions (the intended means of escape) leading him, as he tries to silence Rose, back to the very slums from which he came.
When Pinkie goes out into the country with Cubitt and Dallow he takes his past with him; confronted with Sylvie in the back of a Lancia he is as nauseated as ever by the physical reality of sex. Immediately before this we are told (p. 130):
This was his territory, the populous foreshore, a few thousand acres of houses, a narrow peninsula of electrified track running to London, two or three railway stations with their buffets and buns. It had been Kite's territory, it had been good enough for Kite, and when Kite had died in the waiting-room at St. Pancras, it had been as if a father had died, leaving him an inheritance it was his duty never to leave for strange acres.
Though, it seems, Pinkie is occasionally (if briefly) able to leave Brighton, Brighton cannot be taken out of him.
Finally, Brighton is appropriate because of its atmosphere. Although a fashionable resort in its Regency heyday, the Brighton of the 1930s, which Greene knew was rather down-at-heel and extremely vulgar. The amusements are a series of clichés: ghost-train and shooting-gallery; paper hats and sticks of rock. A supposedly festive location often, by way of contrast, as here, may prove highly effective as the setting for a story about evil and crime. On the day of the Whitsun bank holiday, though the sun shines there is a chill wind; the literal coldness becoming a metaphor for Hale's fear and sense of isolation and danger.
Brighton Rock: why is the title apt?
Brighton is (or was, in Britain, until recent times) very closely associated in the public mind with the sticks of rock sold there, and would have been so even more in the 1930s, when the rock would have been seen as a semi-luxury. Greene chooses it for his title, both because of its connection with the circumstances of Hale's death, and because of its use, by Ida, as a simile to explain the unchanging nature of the human heart. We do not learn at once how Hale died. We know that Pinkie and his gang believe they have killed him, yet are puzzled by the different conclusion of the coroner. Much later (p. 162) Cubitt hints to Ida about the killing: "I can't see a piece of Brighton rock without..." (without distress, evidently, at recalling his part in the killing; Ida presses him for more information, but he gives none). The mystery is resolved in the following chapter, where Pinkie sees a kind of diabolical leading of Rose, as she inadvertently retraces his steps on the day of Hale's death.
The covered walk which Rose takes (in bad weather) because it is sheltered has been chosen, earlier, by Pinkie for discretion. When she reaches the kiosk where the killing took place, Pinkie asks Rose whether she wants winkles or rock "as if something important really depended on the answer". When she replies, "I'd like a stick of Brighton rock" he believes that "only the devil...could have made her answer like that". We learn that some rock is for sale cheaply because it has been broken (in the kiosk) by "some clumsy fools" (Pinkie and his gang, with Hale). He knows, before he turns around, that "the promenade" will be "shut out behind the rows of Brighton rock" (p. 178). Evidently, this place was chosen for the killing of Hale because few, if any, holiday-makers would see the men on the covered walk, and no-one would see the murder. (It is not clear whether the shop-assistant would be in the kiosk but unaware of what was happening or out, though her remark suggests that the murder may have occurred when the kiosk was unattended; Pinkie evidently knows every detail of the place.)
The principal reason for Greene's choice of title, though, is that Brighton rock provides Ida with a topical but simple analogy to human nature. In response to Rose's statement that people change, Ida retorts: "Oh, no they don't....I've never changed. It's like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down. That's human nature". (p. 198) In the case of Pinkie, Ida would appear to be correct. But whether Greene wishes us to endorse this view in every case is debatable; Pinkie, after all, is confronted with the possibility of change, but is unable to achieve it. This view is essentially pessimistic, suggesting that the only good people are those who are good to begin with. In the eternal context (in which Ida has no real belief) this would mean that the capacity of the individual to respond to God's mercy (and thus damnation and salvation) are determined in advance by God's will. Crudely, whether one is saved or damned, in terms of Ida's simile, depends on what God has written on one's character or soul.
The narrative viewpoint
Before considering this, it may be worth thinking generally about the idea of viewpoint in fiction. Conventionally, writers use first or third person narration for different effects: the one gives a more partial and subjective view, while the other allows more objective or shifting viewpoint. However, by regulating the reader's access to the thoughts of the imagined characters or by making judgements about them, the author may massage the reader's sensibilities and attitudes. Comments may also be provided by way of explanation, to clarify what would otherwise seem puzzling or to elicit sympathy for otherwise repellent characters.
In Brighton Rock Greene limits the reader's view to scenes in which Pinkie, Ida and Rose appear, save for the opening, in which we follow Hale, and a brief episode in which Dallow is prominent. We are granted access to the thoughts of these characters, to their feelings about others, with the author's explanatory comment sometimes, seeing the story, as it were, through their eyes. One way of understanding this better would be to consider those characters to whom we are not given this kind of insight. Good examples would be Colleoni or Kite: both exert a great influence on Pinkie but their own outlook is not important to the novel, so much as the way that Pinkie sees them, and this is how they are presented to the reader; like Pinkie, we judge Colleoni by how he appears and what he says, while Kite is known only by a series of recollections, some general, some (such as their first meeting ) more vivid and precise. In episodes in which more than one of the principals is present Greene will often present the story through the eyes of one only. Occasionally, as in the set-piece description of the race day (Part four, Ch. 1; p. 99) Greene will adopt a neutral, impersonal view, not at all mediated by the subjective response of a character, but merely detailing what was to be seen and heard.
One result of Greene's subjective limiting of viewpoint to that of Pinkie or of Ida, is to reinforce the idea of their mutual incomprehension: neither can make sense of the other's world; neither attempts understanding. Thus, when Ida appeals to Rose, she speaks in terms of worldly common sense, and cannot see why the younger woman is unmoved.
An episode which shows well how Greene selects a partial viewpoint is the account of Pinkie's visit to the races with Spicer, at which both are attacked by Colleoni's men. We read what Spicer says, but see him through Pinkie's reactions, as when he blows "gaseous malted breath towards the bookies". Comments such as "It was as easy as shelling peas" are clearly not those of the author, but an indication of Pinkie's thoughts. Pinkie squeezes Spicer's arm, but there is no account of Spicer's pain or irritation; when the attack occurs, Spicer is seen and heard from afar, but Pinkie's pain is presented directly; although the surprise is said to be worse than the pain "at first", the account of the attack is graphic: we read the word "pain" repeatedly, as also references to razors and to slashing (of knuckles, twice, and of cheeks). Here, the reader is concerned with Pinkie's pain alone; Spicer is out of sight figuratively, as well as literally.
Giving access to thoughts, with explanatory comment, Greene enables the reader to achieve imaginative sympathy with characters (Pinkie, Rose, Ida) whose views the author in no sense endorses. This does not, of course, mean that we are led to like them, but that we can understand them: even Ida, though we might like her for a neighbour, is depicted as narrow and worldly, while her tastes are snobbishly depicted as vulgar. This sympathy is most important in the case of Pinkie: if we saw him only as he appears to others, and without comment on the origins of his self-centred misanthropy, the novel would be repellent; as it is, Greene elicits some comprehension of (if not compassion for) how Pinkie has become what he has, by means of the repeated insights into his thoughts.
This is not a novel in which "rounded" characters are depicted in the round: in fact, Greene is preoccupied with a limited range of human characteristics. What we learn of Pinkie is what has made him as he is (his revulsion at his parental home and his parents' ugly ritual of sex, his sadism at school and his Catholicism) and his present doomed struggle for advancement in the Brighton underworld. This could be seen to bring what is important (Pinkie's evil) into sharper relief, and to omit everyday detail suggestive of humanity; but the poverty of Pinkie's past and present experience, the absence of happy childhood recollection, might indicate that there is nothing else to say about Pinkie, that simple hostility has driven out complexity of character. Where Pinkie eschews experience, Ida is game for anything, especially modest material luxuries. Where Pinkie is alienated by his singularity and hostility to God and man, Ida is the epitome of the insider. She is a stereotype of decent humanity at its best, eating, drinking and making merry but consoling the weak and seeking justice she believes "Fred" has been denied. Her idea of right and wrong is far less profound and potent than Pinkie's sense of Good and Evil, but she is confident she is in the right, and inexorable in doing what she sees as her duty. There is some irony in the reader's awareness that this mixture of superstition and agnosticism should be the unwitting instrument of divine retribution for Pinkie.
Rose is more impoverished of character and experience even than Pinkie, so that he appears to her as glamorous. She, too, seems motivated by a single idea, that of loyalty to Pinkie, and resists Ida's arguments with sullen perversity. Her commitment to Pinkie is an act of faith which she justifies by the will power with which she sustains it; she does not know him really, as appears (p. 195) as she attempts to explain her marriage to her friend, Maisie.
The depiction of complex characters, showing development over time, is a legitimate purpose for a novelist, but in Brighton Rock we meet characters who are not complex and who do not undergo much development, in the short time which the principal narrative occupies. What Greene is interested in is the states of mind of Pinkie and Ida, and the nature of their conflict.
Motifs and symbols
In Brighton Rock Greene presents the reader with many motifs and symbols. In order to sort these out, we should note the following types of symbolism. First, there are symbols or metaphors which are understood as such by the characters in the novel: of these, the most obvious is that in the title. The reader is aware that the letters run right through a stick of rock, but we may be a little surprised to read of Ida's using this image to explain to Rose why, in her view, human nature is unchanging - the symbolism occurs to Ida as it does to us; second, we may consider things which the characters observe, and which suggest the characters' state of mind, although for them the symbolism is never articulated: thus, Pinkie's battered Morris and the sausage roll crumbs on his bed can be contrasted with Colleoni's gold cigarette lighter and limousine, as indicative of the status of the two men; finally, there are the images which are never explained but which recur throughout the novel, and which we may choose to interpret analogically - such as the sea, or music (of various kinds). As a writer whose work was frequently adapted for the cinema, Greene seems to think very much of what should be seen or heard at any time, but the context of these images suggests that they are at least ambiguous, if not obviously open to analogical interpretation. In your reading of the novel, you should look out for recurring details which Greene introduces to indicate meanings beyond the literal.
To take one minor example, we might note the frequency with which Greene draws our attention to glass and windows (Rose outside her old place of employment, Pinkie looking in shop windows, "tenderness" coming to the window in the roadhouse and looking in, gigantic wings beating on the car's windscreen, references to glass breaking). Many of these can be seen as images of separation or isolation. They are also connected with a series of references to seeing or not seeing: Pinkie twice rebukes others for failing to see (first, literally, and later, speaking to Dallow about hell, metaphorically), we (twice) meet a blind band, Prewitt wants to act "like Samson" and sees his wife as a "mole" (p. 210), while even the name of Nelson Place suggests partial blindness or wilful failure to see the enemy (as Nelson did at Copenhagen by placing his telescope against his blind eye). Frank's ignorance of Dallow's affair with Judy is ultimately explained by Dallow's disclosure (p. 234), which we may have anticipated: "What Frank doesn't see, he doesn't mind...And he can't see much - he's blind" (which explains why, although he has "a wonderful hand with an iron", he does not notice the damp patch on Pinkie's suit, of which the Boy is so conscious, speaking to Colleoni at the Cosmopolitan). This recurrent motif is part of Greene's way of distinguishing the visible everyday world of material pleasures, in which Ida so firmly believes, from the unseen eternity behind or beyond it (see below) just as, to use another parallel, Pinkie knows the ugly "real" Brighton behind the facade of sea-front, promenade and pier, a Brighton which the day-trippers never see.
Prewitt's seeing his wife as a "mole in the cellarage" is one of several subterranean references, depicting hell as the underworld (note that this word in its loose metaphorical sense [as used in the blurb on the novel's back cover] is avoided by Greene). Apart from the basement in Frank's house, we might note the cellar at Snow's where Rose tends the wounded Pinkie, the long tunnel (p. 177-8) under the parade (down which Hale is led to his death) or the likening of the blind musicians' eyes to those of pit ponies (p. 99). These references reinforce the reader's sense that Brighton is, like the world, but in a local and comprehensible sense: "the ravaged and disputed territory between the two eternities" (of heaven and hell; p. 139). Pinkie eventually is stirred by an "awful resentment" that he has never "seen his glimpse of heaven" (228) though he is disgusted by the romantic cliché (p. 48) "beautiful to hold and heaven itself" which confuses heaven with the object of sexual or amorous desire.
This theological understanding is made explicit by Prewitt, as he quotes Mephistopheles ("this is Hell, nor are we out of it"; p. 210) as by Pinkie's earlier recognition on returning to his room at Frank's with his child bride: "This was hell, then; it wasn't anything to worry about: it was just his own familiar room" (p. 182). As Pinkie and Rose are turned away by the hotel clerk the reader senses a parody of the Holy Family finding no room at the inn. But the motif of Eden is one which Greene develops more fully: as the door of the "Crown" closes behind them, Pinkie and Rose feel "as if they [are] shut out from an Eden of ignorance" with "nothing to look forward to but experience" (p. 171). "Ignorance" here seems synonymous both with bliss and innocence. For Rose, especially, marriage is like a different country, which she thinks of as the country of "mortal sin". As she looks at Maisie on the other side of Snow's window (p. 194), she cannot return to the "Eden of ignorance". That the squalid slum from which Pinkie has fled should be called Paradise Piece is an irony which requires no comment beyond noting that it has not given Pinkie the "glimpse of heaven" he later wishes he had had!
Pinkie knows and fears the sensual element in the violin music he hears as he walks on the Palace Pier - he thinks of "the catgut vibrating in the heart" or "grief in the guts" and is the nearest thing he knows to "sorrow". Sentimental love songs such as that crooned at Sherry's, suggest "stale romantic" convention, which leads to the double horrors of sexual intimacy and domestication: the lyrics allow Greene to invoke playfully Pinkie's sense of Rose's inadequacy ("lovely to look at"), his eternal perspective ("heaven itself"), serious poetry ("west wind...nightingale") and even Pinkie's way of life, as he would like it to be ("the gangsters gunning"). The dispassionate purity of the sung Mass is more acceptable to Pinkie, not least because he has learned by rote the Latin liturgy, while appearing not to notice its appropriateness to his own situation (does he know how the words translate?) as he sings, or thinks of, "dona nobis pacem" he is trying to find ways to secure peace of mind for himself, while he speaks to Spicer of peace with Colleoni's mob and of "a peace that lasts".
Some motifs are obviously visual and cinematic: as we read, repeatedly, of the sausage roll crumbs on the bed or the gold lighter, we can see how these would be shown in close-up in the cinema. We are today quite familiar with the idea of the car as status symbol (indeed, the motif may now be too trite for a self-conscious writer to use it) but the contrast between the gang's Morris, rarely parted from the epithet "battered" and the "scarlet racing model" in which Ida cadges a lift, the sports car of which the wealthy young man boasts to his friend (p. 237) or the limousines which may or may not be driven by Colleoni, is made explicit by Sylvie, who describes the Morris as "no good to us", tries a Ford and finds it occupied, but cries (on finding one) "I love a Lancia", pulling up her skirt to show the truth of her remark (p. 134).
Images of battle and conquest abound throughout the novel. Ida thinks in these terms (looking at the "heavy traffic of her battlefield, laying her plans, marshalling her cannon fodder", p. 81) while Pinkie tries, but fails, to find time and space to plan his "strategy". The world in which we live is seen as a battlefield where eternal powers struggle for the souls of men and women: this world, which "never move(s)" is seen as "the ravaged and disputed territory between two eternities". Pinkie and Rose, from "opposing territories", fraternize "like troops at Christmas" (p. 139). At times the images are nautical: Ida's mind, moving slowly but inexorably, is likened to a dredger (p. 72) while later she is compared to a "figurehead of Victory" (p. 244), an image which suggests both her triumph and her voluptuous figure (figureheads on sailing ships were conventionally carved in the form of bare-breasted women). Rose's poorly-concealed possessiveness towards Pinkie is likened (p. 138) to "the guns on a Q-ship".
The comparison is interesting, as it is meant to give an insight into Pinkie's fear of Rose's attitude. Pinkie can plainly see what she is thinking, and may well have heard of Q-ships, but we feel the comparison is more the author's than one which would occur in this form to Pinkie! Later, as Ida fails to persuade Rose to save herself from Pinkie (p. 139), Rose's obstinacy appears to Ida in terms of a naval battle: "...all the fight there was in the world lay there - warships cleared for action and bombing fleets took flight between the set eyes and the stubborn mouth. It was like the map of a campaign marked with flags".
The recurring motif which most defies clear or simple interpretation is the sea. Given the novel's setting in Brighton and the interest of the day-trippers, frequent reference to it need not invite any kind of symbolic interpretation. But the way both Ida and Pinkie think of the sea, or, at least, are repeatedly aware of it supports such a reading. For Ida, the sea is a metaphor for the exotic, for possibility, for romance: "It was the time of near-darkness and of the evening mist from the Channel and of love" (p. 146). Greene is always aware of the Channel, which links Brighton to other more romantic places: we read of its "continual whisper", of thunder coming down the Channel, of tides which come from Boulogne. Prewitt's wished-for escape is to involve a Channel-crossing. For Pinkie, the sea has no romance, but, in the lightning, as he shows Rose the effect of vitriol, seems more like part of the hell which lies about him. Later, as he is burned by this same vitriol, the sea claims him ("they couldn't even hear a splash", p. 243). It is almost as if the novel's characters embody mediaeval notions of the four elements and the corresponding vital humours: for the phlegmatic, earthy Ida, the sea is a comfortable alternative element, but for the fiery Pinkie it is threatening and hostile: as he disappears into it at the end of the novel, it is evidently the agent of his destruction. In effect, the sea is a kind of mirror, reflecting the ideas of the beholder.
Details of the characters' physical appearance may be understood metaphorically: Pinkie's thinness and physical immaturity suggest his emotional underdevelopment, for example. But it is Ida whose physical presence is most clearly indicative of her character. Greene repeatedly refers to Ida's breasts to suggest her joie de vivre: "She liked a good time, her big breasts bore their carnality frankly down the Old Steyne" (p. 80). There is an interesting contrast here: the large-breasted Ida has no children but becomes a maternal figure for any number of men, such as Hale and Cubitt; but it is the immature Rose who terrifies Pinkie with the prospect of real maternity: "His thoughts came to pieces in his hand: Saturday nights: and then the birth, the child, habit and hate" (p. 224); as he looks at her Pinkie (p. 228) sees "a mouth which wanted the sexual embrace, the shape of breasts demanding a child". While the worldly Ida sees sex as a means to pleasure (and knows how to avoid conception) Pinkie understands that for Rose (a good Catholic) sex is a means to maternity, which also he dreads.
Finally, one should note the image of human nature as like a stick of rock: "Bite it all the way down, you'll still read Brighton. That's human nature" (p. 198). Where Rose suggests that "people change", Ida cannot believe in this possibility, but sees the world as composed of people, like her, who have "never changed". This metaphor is central to our reading of the novel: at the end, Pinkie appears to be aware of a possibility of change but he is "bound in a habit of hate" and resists the impulse. He thus appears to be responsible for his own actions - but it is not at all clear whether Greene believes (or expects his readers to believe) that Pinkie has any real prospect of repentance. And this ambiguity is endorsed by the priest who tells Rose (and the reader): "You can't conceive...nor can I, or anyone...the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God" (p. 246).
Beginning to study the novel
In Part One of the novel Greene introduces us to four characters; these are Pinkie (Brown) (aka "the Boy"), Ida Arnold, Charles Hale ("Fred") and Rose. Although we will meet other characters, these four are of most importance to the narrative, which is chiefly about Ida's attempt to bring Pinkie to justice (for Hale's death) and to save Rose from a dangerous association: we later see that though Ida is thinking of physical and moral danger, Rose is in far greater danger in a spiritual sense.
Some questions you might like to consider as you read this first part are as follows:
A more general idea to consider is the novelist's choice of subject; given that any story could be told, why this one? Behind this question (impossible to answer certainly) lie many other questions: is the novelist merely documenting typical events naturalistically (what you mean when you say realistically) or is he trying to interpret/ make sense of the world by means of fiction? Is the novel written for a didactic purpose (that is to teach some moral or philosophical view)? On the surface, Brighton Rock looks like a fast-paced crime thriller, and it was a best-selling novel when it first appeared, so why is it considered a "modern classic" and worthy of close study by people like yourselves? What is the relationship between places in fiction and real places? Brighton, here, like Wuthering Heights, in Brontë's novel of the same name is, arguably, as much a state of mind as a real place with streets and houses, even though Greene makes several precise references to the topography (layout) of the real town.
You may be disappointed by Greene's depiction of character in this novel: the two principals are strong but not complex characters; and Greene considers morality and religious belief more closely than psychology. How far ought a novelist, as most of the Victorians do, provide judgements on characters for the benefit of the reader, and how far should he or she present simply actions and speech (and perhaps, but not necessarily, thoughts) and allow the reader to make his or her own judgements?
In this part the focus is on Pinkie. In Chapter 1 he attempts to impress Rose, and subsequently how he threatens a bookie (Brewer) who has paid protection money to his rival Colleoni; in Chapter 2, he visits Colleoni, and is subsequently picked up by the police and given a warning.
In Chapter 1, Ida figures more prominently in the narrative again: she has come to Brighton, and places a bet on Black Boy; if the horse wins, the payout will cover the expense of her investigation into Hale's death; in Chapter 2, Greene examines the fears of Spicer, while Chapters 3 and 4 follow Pinkie, first with Rose and subsequently with Spicer. While he moves to silence both of them (in different ways), he is unaware of Ida's moves, of which the first hint comes in Rose's account of a "big" woman with a "laugh", asking questions.
* "Liturgy" here refers to the words of the Mass (or Communion) which Pinkie learned to sing, as a choirboy: "Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world...grant us (your) peace".
In this part, we have a detailed account of the day of the races; we see the thwarting of Pinkie's plans as Black Boy wins his race, Colleoni's men do not kill Spicer, but wound him and Pinkie, and the Boy find he is too young to marry Rose, whom Ida visits in the brief second chapter; finally, Pinkie silences Spicer for himself. Ida's ascendancy over Pinkie is shown symbolically as she travels to the races in a sports car, in style, while he chugs behind in the gang's battered Morris. Look out for other occasions where cars are used to suggest Pinkie's poverty and the luxury of others' lives.
This part has parallels with earlier chapters of the novel; the same blind band which appears at the start of Part Four is described at the start of this part; the contrast between Pinkie's room at Frank's and Mr. Colleoni's hotel (Part Two) is found in chapters 3 and 4: in the former, Pinkie returns to the squalor of the Catholic slum (to bribe Rose's parents into consenting to his marrying her), while in the latter, Ida, eating an éclair in the Pompadour Boudoir, decides to splash some of her winnings on a room at the Cosmopolitan; Spicer's disaffection (Part Four) is followed by Cubitt's loss of faith in Pinkie.
We note how the description of Pinkie's "territory" (p. 130) is followed immediately by an account of one of his rare excursions outside the boundaries of that territory; this symbolically mirrors his failed attempt to venture into the metaphorical territory of adulthood, seen in terms of drinking and sexual experience, with Sylvie, Spicer's girlfriend.
In the first chapter of this part, we follow Cubitt who means to quit the gang and tries to join Colleoni, but is rejected by Crab (Colleoni's lieutenant), and subsequently consoled by Ida. The second chapter concerns Pinkie's marriage: he and Rose are refused a room at the Cosmopolitan, and pass time walking near the pier, before returning to Frank's, where the marriage is consummated.
This part of the novel has ten chapter divisions, but the important details of the plot concern Pinkie's growing desperation, his idea of a suicide pact (to rid himself of Rose) and Ida's concern to save the younger woman. Pinkie's chance of repentance is vividly depicted, but he rejects it, and dies (symbolically?) by his own hand. The grim sequel to this is Rose's confession, which concludes with her belief that she may have a child, and her mistaken hope that the child will hear a loving message from Pinkie on the gramophone record he has recorded for her.
"Open book" style examination tasks
For most syllabuses (e.g. AQA, formerly NEAB) alternative questions will be set, on two different parts of the text. You will answer one only of these. The exam paper will indicate where the set passage is to be found in your copy, which you must have with you. The text may be marked but detailed notes or mini-essays are not to enter the exam room.
The examiners will require you, unless they clearly state otherwise, to discuss what is important in the specified passage and relate it to the rest of the novel (show how other parts anticipate or follow from the set passage). You may take some time to identify important ideas, but you should organize these in some way (by category or subject). For example, you might write about how a specified character is presented generally, then discuss motifs, then the viewpoint, then the way this section connects with other parts of the text (this is only an example: there are other plans you may use; if the examiners indicate categories or subjects you must include all of these). Do not write a "running commentary" and (even worse) do not retell the narrative in the specified section. You may summarize narrative information, but this should not occupy more than a sentence or two (see summary comments above in the section called Beginning to Study the Novel).
The passages set for examination could reasonably come from anywhere in the novel. There are some parts which are of such obvious importance that you can expect to see questions on them, but there are others which could fairly be set. This is not a problem, for two reasons: first, as two passages are set, this gives you a chance of anticipating one; second, whatever passages appear, you should be able to discuss the text in its entirety, in relating the passage you choose to the whole novel. It is quite possible that you will have more things to write about than the time allows; so long as you keep writing and organize your work clearly, this is not a problem: do not confuse your essay in the attempt to cram everything in. It is reasonable to balance detailed discussion and brief reference to related material: thus, you might list military metaphors, as above, but explain one or two of them more fully. Be aware of the time, and ensure that you wrap up your discussion before the end of the exam.
The best preparation, assuming you have read the complete novel several times, is to select your own passages, and prepare to discuss what is important in them. Be ready to discuss any of the things mentioned in this study guide (theme, motifs, characterization, viewpoint and so on) as these appear in the passage chosen, and how they connect with the rest of the novel. Post-It notes may be inserted and colour-coded to help you with cross-references, while page numbers may be noted in the margin for this purpose also. There is no merit in long quotation but frequent brief quotation or reference to detail is very much in order.
Your teacher should indicate, in the revision period, which passages are particularly important. Some you might wish to consider are Part Two (both chapters) where Pinkie is fully presented to the reader, Part Four, Chapter 1 (the Day of the Races), Part Five, Chapters 2 to 4 (Pinkie and Rose; Nelson Place and Ida's enjoying the luxury of the Cosmopolitan; Part Six, Chapter 2 (Pinkie's wedding day) and Part Seven, Chapter 3 (the visit to Prewitt), Chapters 7 to 9 (the novel's climax) and, as an outside bet, the very last chapter (11) which reflects much of what has gone before it. Note that this is just a starting point, not an exhaustive list.
Preparing for the exam
The syllabus you are studying, and choices made by your teachers determine whether you are tested by questions requiring you to work from memory alone, or "open book" questions which allow you to use your copy of the text. The information which follows is appropriate to the exam papers for which you have been entered.
Specimen examination questions for practice
In theory, examiners can test your understanding of any idea in relation to a text. Questions may be very open, leaving you to supply your own agenda or plan (quite hard) or may indicate an outline to follow. You may be given a statement (either from the text, or from a critical work) and asked how far you agree with it. Usually, such statements will be reasonably close to some widely-held view, although certain texts (Shakespeare's plays, for example) have provoked extremely wide-ranging responses from critics. Always have a plan/structure before you write, and keep to it. Make your point, produce the evidence, and pass on. Use paragraphing and other presentational devices to make your answer clear. What follows are, of course, not the only essays which might be set for this novel, but a selection which address the principal critical issues in Brighton Rock.
How, in Brighton Rock, does Greene present Ida's and Pinkie's contrasting views of the world?
How, in the novel, does Greene examine the difference between Right and Wrong and Good and Evil?
How far would you agree that the novel is not so much about Brighton, as about heaven and hell?
Consider the importance of place in Brighton Rock.
How far does the novel endorse the view of Rose's confessor, that "a Catholic is more capable of evil than anyone"?
Examine Greene's use of contrast as a narrative device in Brighton Rock.
"I don't believe what my eyes don't see." How far does Brighton Rock support or challenge Dallow's view of the world?
"Ida's world is clearly marked and comfortable to live in; Pinkie's, because of his Catholic training, is a minefield of terrors and he is pathetic even in his nastiness." How far do you agree with this judgement?
In what ways, if any, is Brighton Rock anything more than merely a well-written popular thriller with a clear plot and an exciting ending?
"Open book" (contextual) questions
Re-read the section from Part Seven, Chapter 1, beginning at the start of page 194 [Penguin edition] ("In the world outside it was Sunday...") to the end of the chapter, on page 200.
What is the relationship of this section to the rest of the novel? In answering the question, you should refer in detail to episodes before and after this one.
Look again at Part Seven, Chapter 7, from page 226 ("The old Morris was parked near the pier...") to the end of this chapter, on page 231.
How does this chapter contribute to the reader's understanding of Pinkie both here and elsewhere? In answering the question, you should refer to Chapter 9 of this Part, and to passages from three or more of the earlier Parts of the novel.
© Andrew Moore, 2000; Contact me