When my friends and I were choosing a book list for our Catholic book club, I said, “We have to read a Graham Greene.” He was one of the leading novelists of the 20th century, as well as a Catholic writer. I’ve read two of his books—The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair—and really enjoyed both. My friends and I scrolled through descriptions of several of his novels and settled on The End of the Affair.
I was away hiking the West Coast Trail during the first part of September. When I got back, I went to pick up The End of the Affair, only to realize that the seven-volume Graham Greene collection my husband found didn’t include it. I dropped by my library, but the book was already out. Finally, my husband tracked down a copy for me at another library and I began to read.
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The End of the Affair plot synopsis
The story begins in hate and confusion. Despite the two years that have passed, Maurice Bendrix is still mad at Sarah for breaking off their affair. A chance meeting with her husband, Henry, only reignites his jealousy of Sarah and hatred of Henry.
Then Henry approaches Maurice, asking for advice because he suspects Sarah has had an affair, and Maurice takes matters into his own hands. He hires the private detective that Henry found and sets out to discover why Sarah broke off their affair—and if she’s having another.
When the private detective gets his hands on Sarah’s journal, Maurice reads it eagerly. The diary starts just after the end of the affair. In beautiful yet agonizing prose, Sarah recounts her reasons for breaking off her affair and her struggles to stay away from Maurice, the love of her life.
She begins to see an atheist, hoping to prove that if God doesn’t exist, then neither does the vow she made to him. Yet the atheist’s very hatred of God proves to Sarah that God exists. In her deep love for Maurice, she finds herself pursued by a God who loves her even more. Her vow, her passion for Maurice, draws her slowly and unwillingly to faith.
My thoughts on The End of the Affair
Because I’d read The End of the Affair many years ago, I knew where the story was going. I had a rough recollection of the outline, and that I’d really enjoyed it. However, for the first half of the novel, I found myself wondering why I’d liked it so much. Maurice is not a likeable character.
The first few chapters are confusing and twisting, as he goes around and around inside his head. Even as the story moves forward with the private investigator, I found myself wondering why Sarah fell in love with Maurice at all. He’s controlling, jealous, angry, and admits he only started the affair with her to find out more about Henry for a potential novel.
Sarah’s journal is much more readable, and Sarah herself is much more likeable. She’s an intelligent young woman in a boring relationship who wants more from life. On the outside, she’s an poised, beautiful woman who catches the attention of men. On the inside, she feels like a fake and a liar, struggling to believe in her self-worth. As the private detective says, there’s much to learn about Sarah by reading between the lines of her journal.
Faith is woven subtly through The End of the Affair. Sarah wanders into a Catholic Church one day looking for answers. One of my favourite parts of the novel was when Sarah’s mother tells Maurice the story of Sarah’s baptism. Sarah was only two when it happened and didn’t remember it. She wasn’t raised with any faith at all. Yet, as an adult, she finds herself returning to the Catholic Church. Maurice says,
You can’t mark a two-year-old for life with a bit of water and a prayer. If I began to believe that, I could believe in the body and the blood.
And there, in a nutshell, is the mystery of the Catholic Church. The sacraments are strange to us, earthly things that represent a heavenly reality. To an outsider, water and bread and wine cannot change anyone, cannot be more than water or bread or wine. In Sarah’s simplicity and in Maurice’s disbelief, Greene highlights the wonder of faith and God’s work in our lives.
Sarah gives the reader hope, as even Maurice (in all his hate and jealousy) admits at the end of the novel:
What I chiefly felt was less hate than fear. For if this God exists, I thought, and if even you—with your lusts and your adulteries and the timid lies you used to tell—can change like this, we could all be saints by leaping as you leapt, by shutting the eyes and leaping for once and for all: if you are a saint, it’s not so difficult to be a saint. It’s something He can demand of any of us, leap.
Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh
It was very interesting to read The End of the Affair immediately after Brideshead Revisited. Waugh and Greene were both twentieth century Catholic writers who were aware of each other’s work. Both novels deal with faith, love affairs, and a striking moment of conversion. It was a lot of fun in our book club to discuss the similarities and differences between the novel. Whether you’re in a book club or just reading for fun, I highly recommend reading these novels together.
More about Graham Greene
Graham Greene was born in 1904 in England to a large, influential family. His father was a schoolmaster. Greene attended school there but wasn’t happy and attempted suicide several times before running away. At the age of twenty-two, he converted to Roman Catholicism, partly for his future wife, Vivien. They were married the following year and had two children together.
Greene published his first book in 1925. He worked as a copy editor, film critic and literary editor and went on to publish short stories, essays, and over 25 novels. Many of his novels were adapted for film; Greene was fascinated by film and used cinematic techniques in his writing. He worked for the Foriegn Office in Sierra Leone during World War II.
The world Greene’s characters inhabit is a fallen one, and the tone of his works emphasizes the presence of evil as a palpable force. His novels display a consistent preoccupation with sin and moral failure acted out in seedy locales characterized by danger, violence, and physical decay. Greene’s chief concern is the moral and spiritual struggles within individuals, but the larger political and social settings of his novels give such conflicts an enhanced resonance. ~Britannica
Greene traveled extensively, which is obvious with the diverse settings for his novels. His affair with Catherine Walston in 1946 is thought to have inspired The End of the Affair (which is dedicated to her). He left Vivien the following year, although as Catholics, they did not get a divorce. He suffered from manic depression and died in 1991 of leukemia.