A Burnt-Out Case

A Burnt-Out Case Summary and Analysis of Part Six, Chapters One and Two


The final Part of Greene’s novel returns us to the company of Monsieur and Madame Rycker, where the head of the household lies ill with fever in bed. Marie lies near him, pretending to read pious literature but secretly longing for the serial novel in her out-of-date issue of Marie-Chantal. The dogs sound the arrival of a visitor and Marie goes to see who it is with orders not to disturb M. Rycker. Marie finds Querry and recalls “the shameful scene” (140) at the leproserie in which she overheard his abuse of her husband. He reports that he is on the way to Luc but that he’d like a word with Rycker first. Marie offers to take the message himself until Querry lets on that he wishes to punch Rycker in the nose.

Marie reveals that Parkinson stayed with them and probed them for information on Querry. She also discourages Querry from disturbing her husband because she must tell him disquieting news – that she thinks she is pregnant. (Rycker adamantly doesn’t want a child.) Querry offers to take Marie to Luc in order to get a pregnancy test. Marie decides to allow Querry to see Rycker, in the hopes that he can convince Rycker to let her go to Luc.

In Rycker’s room, Querry forgets his intention to tell him about Marie and Luc, instead laying in to Rycker about “that stupid article by the Englishman” (143). Rycker interprets Querry’s scruples as pious humility, adding, “It’s a penalty of genius to belong to the world” (144). Unable to speak sense to Rycker, Querry leaves. Marie asks whether he told Rycker of her intention to go to Luc; though he did not, she decides to accompany Querry anyway.

On the way to Luc, Marie questions Querry about his escape from Europe. He says that he fled unannounced and hopped the first plane to the most remote locale he could find. He thought about going to Japan before seeing the flight to Africa. Marie empathizes with Querry’s desire to flee. She confesses wishing to run away from Rycker and asks Querry whether he would lend her money for a ticket to Europe. Querry refuses.

Late that night, Marie and Querry arrive at Luc and obtain next-door rooms at a hotel. As he readies for bed, Querry hears what sounds like crying – it turns out that Marie is only laughing at a comic novel. Querry brings her some whiskey to help her sleep. Her childishness inspires Querry to tell her a bedtime story. He begins it like a fairy-tale, “Once upon a time…” Marie and the reader both realize that his story – of a famous “jeweler” – is thinly veiled autobiography. Nonetheless, Querry discourages such a reading.

Querry’s story concerns a young boy who believes in a god-like King who lives on a distant star and orders the world according to a perfect but inscrutable justice. When he grows up, the boy becomes a famous jeweler who makes lots of money and sleeps with many women. Marie confesses that she doesn’t much like the hero of his tale – and Querry agrees. He continues, saying that the boy realizes that he is not an artist, merely a clever jeweler, but that everyone insists on calling him an artist. After a series of quite clever jewels, the hero becomes terribly bored. His mistress, a woman also named Marie, kills herself, which sends him into a funk – though his work, however purposefully petty he makes it, continues to attract praise. Finally, he realizes that all his life he has been fooling himself; that he never loved his work, his women, or his king – only himself. On that note, the hero runs away from it all.

The tale told, Marie worries briefly about the impossibility of divorcing Rycker before drifting off to sleep.

Chapter Two of Part Six finds Querry in Luc. He sees the Bishop’s boat and goes to meet the captain from the beginning of the novel only to find he's been replaced. Upon returning to the hotel, Querry finds Parkinson, who has returned to Luc to continue his series of articles on Querry. Marie soon joins them; her dislike for Parkinson is palpable. She lets on that the doctor thinks she is pregnant. Querry accompanies her upstairs, where she expresses deep concern at her state and says that she’ll have to wait another day for the definite test results.

Querry pays the hotel bill and goes for a walk. Upon returning, Parkinson tells him that Rycker has followed his wife to Luc and is very upset about their escaping together. Querry receives the news cool-headedly and determines to leave Marie to her husband and return to the leproserie. Parkinson tells Querry that he won’t get off so easily – Rycker found evidence of an affair: Marie’s comb in his room, and a joking journal entry, “Spent night with Q!” Rycker comes down and confronts Querry, leaving no doubt as to his interpretation of the journey. Querry tells Rycker that nothing happened between them and leaves the hotel. On his way out of town, he stops by the local Cathedral to warn Marie, who is there praying. She explains the remark in her diary, saying that the exclamation point was “an exaggeration mark.” She offers to come with Querry, but he refuses her company. After telling her not to give up on her marriage so quickly, Querry departs.


Part Six of the novel stands out not only in terms of its length, but also in terms of its high quotient of action. The book thus far has been languorously paced, concentrating more on characters’ religious and philosophical conversations than any sustained dramatic action. The pace increases as we near the big finish – and conflicts that have been latent or passive-aggressive throughout the novel take a turn for the purely aggressive.

The first point of conflict occurs between Marie and Rycker. We again see his absurd prohibitions and ostentatious sanctimoniousness on display. Marie is almost a hostage to Rycker’s bizarre piety. The first sentence of the section – one of the funniest in the book – captures this survivor’s mindset perfectly: “Marie Rycker stopped her reading of The Imitation of Christ as she saw that her husband was asleep, but she was afraid to move in case she might wake him, and of course there was always the possibility of a trap” (137). Marie is in a double bind – forced to fake a schoolgirl piety while being used sexually by a man she loathes. The situation would be outright comical if it weren’t so depressing.

That said, many readers – since the first reviewers of the novel in 1961 – have found Marie to be a comparatively flat character. Given the extremity of her situation – hostage to and pregnant by a repulsive hypocrite, albeit a husband – she attracts remarkably little sympathy from either Querry or, by extension, Greene. She is depicted as almost unbelievably childish, not much more mature than a girl of twelve or fourteen. Then again, she shows flashes of an independent spirit that seem inconsistent with her docility; perhaps it’s just childish rebellion, but don’t we wish she’d strike out forcefully at her unjust situation? Instead of pining for her serial novel, oughtn’t she be pining for escape? Querry, Rycker, and the men in the novel generally patronize her to an unsettling degree. Certainly her infantile behavior is unbelievable even in so sheltered a woman.

Querry’s patronizing treatment of Marie is linked to his general lack of interest in women. We’ve seen his talk about this waning interest at several points in the book – especially his long conversations with Doctor Colin and Parkinson. In every case, he connects his lack of interest in women to his lack of interest in his vocation. As his need to build diminished, so too did his sex drive. Querry, at a couple points, connects these two desires in alarmingly crude metaphors. Speaking to Rycker on his sickbed, he says, “So I gave up [architecture]. It’s as simple and commonplace as that. Just as I have given up women. After all there are only thirty-two ways of driving a nail into a hole” (144). The full import of this apparently offhand remark comes when one recalls his earlier observation in Parkinson’s company – “[T]here are only thirty-two positions according to Aretine” (113). (Aretine was a licentious French poet from the fifteenth century.) Thus Querry directly links building with sex – “driving a nail into a hole.” This analogy, of course, is disquieting and more than a little misogynistic. Perhaps, as Querry himself would probably say, the misogyny is merely a transference of self-loathing. Perhaps, on the other hand, Graham Greene displays misogynist tendencies in this novel. At any rate, it’s worth noticing and discussing as you work through the book.

Speaking of the link between Querry and Greene, if the two come together with certainty at any point in the novel, it’s in the long fairy-tale that Querry tells Marie in the hotel in Luc. Greene seems to have smuggled several of his aesthetic opinions into the section – and perhaps to have forgotten that he was dealing with an architect rather than a novelist. For instance, Querry says, “They always say a novelist chooses from his general experience of life, not from special facts” (152). Even as he sketches a tail unmistakably like his own, Querry says, “You mustn’t accuse a story-teller of introducing real characters” (154). And a moment later, Marie poses a number of questions that might have occurred independently to the reader of A Burnt-Out Case: “When are you going to reach a climax? Has it a happy ending? […] Why don’t you describe some of the women?” To which Querry replies, “You are like so many critics. You want me to write your own sort of story” (155).

Just as Marie finds it irresistible to identify the young jeweler with the young Querry, so too it’s more or less irresistible to hear Greene’s own voice in these sections. After novelizing for so many decades, he had indeed fielded many complaints – including frequent requests that he “describe some of the women” (much as we requested above). This whole section seems invariably tongue-in-cheek, a opportunity for Greene to mock his critics and his public – ventriloquizing them through an immature young woman – and to avoid identification with said mockery – insisting that a story-teller mustn’t be identified with his characters. It’s the most playful moment in the book and, whatever else it is, it works as evidence that Querry has come a long way from his initial malaise. He is enjoying life, happy, even a bit frivolous. Alas, all good things come to an end.