The Human Factor
The central theme of The Human Factor is sacrificial love; this is the most Christian of Mr. Greene’s major novels since The Heart of the Matter. The police officer, Scobie, the hero of The Heart of the Matter, was driven on by “pity” to courses which involved betrayal of professional trust, some degree of complicity in murder, a sacrilegious communion (Scobie was a Catholic), and the ruin of many lives including his own. In The Human Factor the intelligence officer Castle is driven on by love—explicitly distinguished from pity—to courses which involve betrayal of professional trust, unintentional precipitation of murder, the shooting of his beloved son’s pet dog, defection to the Soviet Union and thereby the enforced break-up of a loving family, the ruin of Castle together with those whom he loved, and for whom he made his destructive sacrifices.
One reviewer of The Human Factor has called the book “phony,” repeating that adjective with manic frequency, and being particularly and repetitively incensed by what he calls its “phony decency.” It is true that the plot of The Human Factor, like that of many other good novels, is incredible at some key points. I do not myself find it incredible that the intelligence services of Britain and the United States might, in certain circumstances, have set up a joint intelligence operation (here code-named Uncle Remus) with the Republic of South Africa. But I find it hard to believe that the British service would employ in such a matter such an agent as Castle, happily married to a black woman, and bringing up as his own her son by a black man. Hard to believe, but just possible.
It is, however, quite impossible to believe that the South African intelligence officer assigned to the operation, having known Castle in South Africa and blackmailed him through Castle’s then mistress (who escaped with the help of a communist agent), would not know, when he was asked to work with Castle in London, that Castle had subsequently openly married that black mistress and was now living with her and her black son. I also find it impossible to believe that Castle’s superiors, learning of a leak, from Castle’s section, of African material to the Soviet Union, would altogether ignore—as they do in the novel—the possible relevance of Castle’s family situation and its history, and treat Castle as being so far above suspicion as to proceed to poison one of his colleagues, a bohemian bachelor with a weakness for port.
The falsity here is of the same kind as in that part of Camus’s L’Etranger where a court in French Algeria, trying a white man for the murder of an armed Arab, is depicted as being altogether unaffected by the ethnic provenance of the accused and of his victim. In both cases, the social and political situation is treated with ostensible realism, but distorted to permit the emergence of the spiritual dilemma of …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.