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Pubs, Clubs, and Hell: Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock

01 June 2021

Lucas Townsend, University of Roehampton

George Orwell lambasted Graham Greene’s corpus in a review of The Heart of the Matter (1948), stating that all Greene’s Catholic characters treat ‘hell [as] a sort of high-class nightclub’.[1] However, the comparison is apt for noir masterpiece Brighton Rock (1938), in which Greene depicts impoverished teenager Pinkie Brown—a choir boy-turned-gangster—as inordinately uncomfortable in the many spaces of festivity Brighton offers. Pinkie’s selective morality leads him to staunchly refuse offers of cigarettes, alcohol, and sex, and to instead derive pleasure from causing pain and his certitude of his own eternal damnation. The many scenes in the pubs, bars, nightclubs, and roadhouses of the seaside resort are constructed using a spectral amalgamation of spiritual vice and secular militarism—two concepts one would rarely associate with these places—and are symbolic of Greene’s skeptical argument against traditional values in a modern world.

As Christopher Hitchens comments, ‘[a]lcohol is seldom far from the reach of Greene’s characters’ (he also proposes that Greene’s work should be divided into ‘whisky’ fiction in addition to his ‘novels’ and ‘entertainments’).[2] Brighton Rock is no exception. Pinkie is first introduced in the private bar of a pub in which his first victim, Charles Hale, a newspaper advertiser and former informant for the gangster lord Colleoni, has taken refuge. Across the partition in the public bar is a motherly woman with ‘a rich Guinness voice’, the worldly and often drunk amateur detective Ida Arnold.[3] The subsequent murder of Hale will lead ultimately towards Pinkie’s accidental death due to Ida’s investigations, but it is his pious vitriol towards alcohol (and Ida as synonymous with the substance) that characterises Pinkie in his first scene in the book. Hale offers him an alcoholic drink, which he refuses:

“A double whisky and a grape-fruit squash,” Hale said. He carried them to a table, but the boy didn’t follow. He was watching the woman with an expression of furious distaste. […] [Hale] tried to joke, “A cheery soul.” “Soul,” the boy said. “You’ve no cause to talk about souls.”[4]

The construction of Pinkie’s hatred of Ida is motivated by his stark opposition to her secular and superstitious work ethic, layered upon his own virginity and frightened inexperience; in the public bar, Ida is surrounded by many of her temporary boyfriends. When combined with Pinkie’s Mephistophelean upending of the tenets of Christian morality, Ida’s mechanical repetition of the superiority of ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’ over God’s ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ is absolutely abhorrent to him.[5] In this first of many encounters with the world of Ida—in a space that she and her virtues enjoy and dominate—Pinkie has his first brush-up against his inability to understand the rapidly changing nature of the world in the face of religious tradition. He throws his empty glass on the floor of the bar and leaves, waiting for his quarry to make his exit.

To cover up his murder of Hale, Pinkie finds he must marry the one tangential witness to prevent her from giving evidence, a sixteen-year-old waitress named Rose. Pinkie and Rose connect over their shared poverty, Catholicism, and virginal inexperience of the world around them, and achieve a level of sentimental understanding (it would be difficult to call it love) over the ‘annihilating eternity from which [they] had come and to which [they] went’.[6] Their first date takes place at a nightclub. Like two embarrassed high schoolers at prom, they sit in silence and watch ‘the slow movement of the two-backed beasts: pleasure, he thought, they call it pleasure: he was shaken by a sense of loneliness, an awful lack of understanding’; Pinkie buys Rose a vanilla ice cream because ‘she didn’t even know the name of a drink’.[7] The couple’s shared virginity in alcohol and sex (the dancing ‘two-backed beasts’ being a well-known sexual euphemism) gives the segment an extreme sense of childlike awkwardness and incapability of understanding, and Pinkie lashes out by pinching Rose. The sudden violence within a seemingly happy image of young people on a date reverses the other objects in the nightclub into symptoms of violence themselves, with the most striking impression in the scene coming from the club’s jazz singer:

[H]is whisper reverberated hoarsely over the hall, like a dictator announcing victory, like the official news following a long censorship. […] The inhuman voice whistled round the gallery and the Boy sat silent. It was he who was being warned; life held the vitriol bottle and warned him: I’ll spoil your looks.[8]

The crooner presents a Faustian choice to Pinkie, with the song ‘warning’ him that the loss of his virginity will cripple him physically and spiritually. And yet new experience and success here in worldly pleasure are associated with military victory—ostensibly an attractive image to Pinkie, given he is described as ‘a young dictator’[9]—but is in fact connected with his enemies, with Ida variously compared to ‘a warship going into action […] in a war to end wars’, a ‘figurehead of [the goddess] Victory’, and a general in ‘the heavy traffic of her battlefield, laying her plans, marshalling her cannon fodder’.[10] Colleoni, meanwhile, occupies the Napoleon III suite of a luxurious hotel and is described as a ‘conqueror […] with an army of razors was at his back’;[11] this description of Colleoni comes after Pinkie tastes his first alcohol at a roadhouse and is offered sex in the parking lot. Pinkie’s ‘[f]ear and curiosity’ at his ‘enormous ambitions under the shadow of the hideous and commonplace act’[12]—that is, the opportunity to sleep with the former girlfriend of a mob member he killed (possibly in Colleoni’s Lancia) after having a single sip of her sidecar cocktail—causes Pinkie to flee, vomit, and faint by the roadhouse’s swimming pool.

Brighton Rock depicts an uncomfortable connection between self-indulgent modernist festivity and vanishing tradition by emphasising the destruction of these values with militaristic metaphors. In other words, new social movements in England are treated as an invading army, and Greene writes of a violently conservative boy that sees himself as society’s last defender. However, given Pinkie’s drive towards the pain and damnation of himself and others, his death signifies the outdated idea of a ‘pure’ or ‘virgin’ world in the modernist period, one that already has experienced the ‘the stain of the world in his stomach’,[13] like Pinkie’s last brandy in a hotel bar before his accidental fall. Even if Ida is ‘dangerous and remorseless in her optimism, whether she was laughing in [a pub] or weeping at a funeral’,[14] her forthright (if hedonist) egalitarianism prompts the citizens of England to quickly enter the pub—a space that Pinkie and Rose call the ‘Eden of ignorance’—as otherwise, the door will be forever ‘closed and locked behind them […] On this side there was nothing to look forward to but experience’.[15]

Cover image: Walter Richard Sickert, Brighton Pierrots (1915). Photo © Tate. Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported).


[1] George Orwell, ‘The Sanctified Sinner’, in Graham Greene: A Collection of Essays, ed. by Samuel Hynes (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973), pp. 105–09 (p. 107) (first publ. in The New Yorker (July 17, 1948), 61–3).

[2] Christopher Hitchens, ‘Death from a Salesman: Graham Greene’s Bottled Ontology’, in Our Man in Havana, by Graham Greene (New York: Penguin, 2007), pp. ix–xxiv (p. ix).

[3] Graham Greene, Brighton Rock (New York: Penguin, 2004), p. 4.

[4] Greene, p. 6.

[5] Greene, p. 217.

[6] Greene, p. 20.

[7] Greene, pp. 51–52.

[8] Greene, pp. 52–53.

[9] Greene, p. 117. Much has been made of this line and J. M. Coetzee’s description of Pinkie as a ‘chilling specimen of the Adolf Hitler type’. However, I find the common critical comparison of Pinkie to a fascist himself tenuous, especially as the main evidence of this (the ‘young dictator’ line) Greene writes in a pitying, mocking tone after Pinkie’s defeat on the racecourse by Colleoni’s men. J. M. Coetzee, ‘Introduction’, in Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene (New York: Penguin, 2004), pp. vii–xiv (p. viii).

[10] Greene, pp. 129, 266, 85.

[11] Greene, p. 147.

[12] Greene, pp. 146–47.

[13] Greene, p. 250.

[14] Greene, p. 35.

[15] Greene, p. 188. This particular pub scene echoes a similar one in The Waste Land, as Pinkie and Rose are repeatedly asked by the barman to leave due to the time.


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