Biography of Graham Greene

Graham Greene is one of the most beloved and prolific writers of the 20th century. He is best known for his novels, especially those dealing with Catholicism, but he also wrote short stories, novellas, book and film reviews, poetry, radio plays, stage plays, an autobiography, biographies, a memoir, travel stories, screenplays, and children's literature. He contributed to major publications and edited other prominent writers' work, as well.

Greene was born on October 2nd, 1904 in Berkhamsted, England. He was an avid reader from childhood and particularly enjoyed Rider Haggard's work. Greene's father was the headmaster of the prestigious Berkhamsted School, which Greene attended as a child. However, Greene hated boarding school and ran away to London. His parents had to retrieve him and subsequently sent him to intense psychoanalysis for six months. Greene actually found the psychoanalysis to be very interesting and remained fascinated by dreams for the rest of his life.

As an undergraduate at Oxford College, Greene studied modern history. In 1925, he published his first book, a collection of sentimental poetry called Babbling April. After graduating, Greene worked as a journalist in Nottingham and in 1926, he converted to Roman Catholicism. Greene married Vivien Dayrell-Browning in 1927 and they had two children. Greene had his first affair in 1946 with his goddaughter, Catherine Walston. He would continue to have affairs for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, Vivien and Greene separated in 1948 but never divorced.

Critics celebrated Greene's first novel, The Man Within (1929), and he earned a contract for two more books. Unfortunately, both books were failures. He then became a book reviewer at the Spectator, which helped him develop and refine his writing style. In 1932, Greene decided to give fiction another try. He wrote Stamboul Train, a thrilling and popular spy novel that Greene described as "entertainment." Greene wrote a similar novel called A Gun for Sale a few years later. He also traveled to Liberia, which had a large impact on his worldview. The experience also inspired Greene to pen his famous travelogues. Upon his return to England in 1936, Greene returned to the Spectator as a film critic. He loved watching films and his new job made his writing slightly more cinematic. 

In 1938, Brighton Rock was published. It went on to become one of Greene's most esteemed works. Soon thereafter, Greene traveled to Mexico to research the persecution of Catholics. His experiences there inspired The Power and the Glory (1940) which, alongside The Heart of the Matter (1948) and The End of the Affair (1951) comprise Greene's "Catholic Trilogy." When World War II broke out, Greene wanted to enlist but was too old to do so. Instead, he joined the Secret Service and worked for the propaganda division in the Ministry of Information. Greene spent time in Sierra Leone during the war and he drew heavily on his time there to write The Heart of the Matter. Greene also based Our Man in Havana (1960) on his tenure in the Service.

After the end of World War II, Greene accepted the position of director at Eyre and Spottiswoode, a publishing house. During this time, he wrote several screenplays, the most famous of which is The Third Man (1949). In the early 1950s, Greene traveled a great deal, taking long trips to Malaya and Vietnam. Subsequently, Greene set The Quiet American (1955) in Vietnam and it went on to become one of his most notable works. As he got older, Graham Greene continued to write travel pieces, novels, short stories, plays, and recollections of his own life. He eventually settled in Switzerland, which is where he eventually died of pneumonia in 1991. He was 86 years old. He is buried at the Corseaux Cemetery.

On his death bed, Greene was awarded the Order of Merit and appointed as a Companion of Honor by the Queen. This, along with photos of him receiving the Catholic Last Rites, prompted criticism from some factions of Catholicism. Amidst the general praise and celebration of Greene's life, there were some articles by Catholic sponsored publications that called Greene an "honor-less man" who had betrayed the basic tenets of Catholicism when he betrayed his wife. Despite the criticism by this demographic, Greene continues to be celebrated for his contributions to literature. 

William Golding describes Graham Greene as "the ultimate chronicler of twentieth-century man's consciousness and anxiety." Greene indeed had the unique ability to portray disillusionment and existential gloom in a clear but poetic style. Not all of Greene's writing was so serious - he had a comedic streak as well. He once submitted an entry to a Graham Greene parody contest (and won second prize!). For generations to come, Graham Greene will continue to be remembered for his acerbic wit as well as his tragic vision.


Study Guides on Works by Graham Greene

The title, A Burnt-Out Case, refers to a condition identified by Doctor Colin in the novel: some lepers develop severe psychological numbness as a result of their disease. Even after they are cured and cease to feel the pain of their condition,...

The Heart of the Matter (1948) is one of Graham Greene's most famous novels. Critics consider it to be part of Greene's "Catholic Triology" alongside The Power and the Glory (1940) and The End of the Affair (1951). The Heart of the Matter has...

The Quiet American is an anti-war novel by Graham Greene that waspublished in 1955 in the United Kingdom and in 1956 in the United States. Greene drew upon his own experiences in Indochina as a war correspondent for The Times and Le Figaroin the...