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Darkness and Depth in Graham Greene's Travels with my Aunt

Andrew Madigan By Andrew Madigan Published on December 15, 2016
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Graham Greene divided his work into novels and mere entertainments, lighter fare. Travels With My Aunt (1969) is classified as a novel, yet it has never received adequate critical attention and Greene claimed it was the only book he ever wrote “just for the fun of it.” Moreover, it’s been argued that Greene didn’t write strong female characters, yet the “Aunt” in his title is an exceptional, potent and engaging creation. Both of these issues deserve further attention.

Travels concerns Henry Pulling, a retired banker who never married, perhaps because he’s in love with routine, complacency and submissively adhering to the letter of the law. He grows dahlias, curates a lackluster existence, and fails to realize how mundane his life is. Until he meets his Aunt Augusta, a 70-year-old adventuress, at his mother’s funeral, that is. She’s the lifeblood of the novel and its true protagonist.

Born at the turn of the century, Augusta is remarkably open-minded, carefree and independent. She’s a con artist and rake, has an African lover, Wordsworth, and has worked as a prostitute. Augusta is fun, dangerous, generous, deceptive, clever, fair-minded, unbiased, loving, childlike, warm, loud, creative and loyal. Henry Pulling is everything she’s not. Careful, boring, calculating, rational, sober, trustworthy, repressed, lonely and self-righteous. In truth more pulled than pulling, Henry is a victim of order and propriety. He has no sense of his own desires or moral judgment. Instead, he simply does what he thinks he is supposed to do.

This changes dramatically once he meets Augusta. Soon, he’s given up his old life to travel, smoke pot, break the law and discover life. He also learns that Aunt Augusta is actually his mother. Travels is a chronicle of how one man changes for the better after he meets an extraordinary woman and, beneath the surface, an examination of this woman’s complex, embattled life.

The critics got it wrong. Novelist Paul Theroux, for example, comments on the novel’s “giddiness” as opposed to the “gloom” of Greene’s more serious work. Theroux’s quick dismissal of the novel accurately represents the misguided, if conventional, wisdom. Few scholars have chosen to study Travels, and those who have generally concerned themselves with technical, narrow and scholarly matters such as intertextuality, film adaptations and narratology. The writing about Travels is thin and has little to say about the text itself, its substance and subtext, or how it figures within Greene’s work as a whole. A Swedish critic who called the novel “laughter in the shadow of the gallows”, perhaps, made the most poignant comment. Anyone who’s spent much time in Greeneland knows that this could apply to any of his works. That’s why he’s sometimes called Grim Grin.

Travels is considered a curiosity, a happy-go-lucky glitch in the bleak Greene canon. A close reading of the text, however, reveals a darkness and depth that’s been overlooked. The narrator, Henry Pulling, demonstrates in the opening paragraph that he’s not recounting comedy:

“Everyone thought I was lucky, but I found it difficult to occupy my time. I have never married, I have always lived quietly, and, apart from my interest in dahlias, I have no hobby. For those reasons I found myself agreeably excited by my mother’s funeral.” (9)

This passage is funny, but that doesn’t mean the novel itself is comical. Far from it. Greene uses understatement and, in the final clause, black irony. He’s revisiting the famous opening of The Stranger, Camus’s portrait of a man–beginning with his mother’s death–who’s spiritually, morally and emotionally atrophied yet who, on the surface, appears quite agreeable. Greene clearly isn’t out for cheap laughs and the novel isn’t nearly as giddy as Theroux leads us to believe.

Pulling doesn’t seem to have much feeling for his deceased mother; his narration has more emotional depth when discussing dahlias, his former job at the bank, or business clients. He’s the perfect company man, a stereotypical bean counter more at ease in the cold calculus of figures than with the nuances of human contact. The closest he comes to genuine self-examination is through indirect statements, such as when he asserts that cultivating dahlias is something for “rather lonely people”, though he doesn’t explicitly admit that he is lonely. In another scene, he watches a man walking away from a train, which evokes the image of someone about to drown himself, but it’s evident that Pulling, not the other man, is having suicidal thoughts. In fact, references to suicide are scattered throughout the novel, further problematizing the book’s “comic” nature.

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It’s been said that Greene’s writing is misogynistic. Such claims are easy to make but much harder to justify after a solid examination of the material. Travels, like Brighton Rock before it, is a paean to the courage, strength, determination and moral vigor of its female lead. Augusta controls everyone and everything in the novel—even the weak, passive, easily-led Pulling, whom she rescues from a dreary, self-obfuscating life. He is the center of consciousness, but Augusta is the (anti-)hero. When we meet Pulling he’s outwardly fastidious but has almost no inner life. He is close to no one, removed, even, from himself. However, his new life at the end of the novel, within his aunt’s criminal underworld, brings Pulling joy, hope and love, seemingly for the first time.

Travels is, above all, a novel about morality. Pulling is naive regarding the dark world in which he lives, and he’s initially shocked and outraged by Augusta’s behavior and attitudes. She eventually makes Pulling realize how innocent he’s been regarding the most basic things, such as who his mother is; she also helps him to discover his own moral innocence. Augusta challenges his assumptions about how to live a good life, and she ultimately helps him cultivate his inner life rather than mere outward appearance. His values were narrow and plastic, based on fear and habit rather than a genuine desire to do good. Earlier in the narrative, Pulling wouldn’t have betrayed the fact, or perhaps even realized, that he was lonely, but as the novel ensues he increasingly comes to terms with the emptiness of his life. In the last act, a transformed Pulling is finally able to be honest, referring to “that dead old world of mine”.

In Travels Greene a woman is the primary protagonist, attributing to her many of the qualities normally reserved for his male characters—physical bravery, independence, sexual freedom. This distinguishes the book from many of Greene’s works and, indeed, from so many male-authored novels, especially during Greene’s era. Travels may have its giddy moments but, on the whole, it is dark and solemn, if also generous and subtle.

On first gloss Travels may seem amusing and comic, if perhaps insufficiently literary. Some may wonder why Greene classified it as a “novel” rather than “entertainment.” However, Travels is a serious meditation on religion, family, identity and truth. Far from being incongruous with the author’s more highly acclaimed work, it’s a continuation of the themes and subject matter that characterize his writing. The only major difference is tone; Greene offers the appearance of light comedy, but this is only a screen for his usual brand of existential gloom. 

    Freelance writer (food, drinks, books, travel, music, film) and former professor (creative writing, literature, Islamic studies, US history) and magazine editor who's lived in the UK, New York, ... Show More