The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Studying the crowd at a party for inspiration for his latest novel, author Maurice Bendrix enters into conversation with the married Sarah Miles and his life’s trajectory is changed forever. Heedless of Sarah’s husband, the two enter into a passionate affair, but due in part to Bendrix’s ceaseless jealousy, the romance is abruptly cut short. It is at this point in the saga that the action of the novel begins, with the heartbroken Bendrix hiring the sedulous private investigator Mr. Parkis to determine the true cause of the affair’s dissolution. What Parkis uncovers, however, reveals not only an unexpected third party in the affair, but some of the finest examples of modernist writing from Graham Greene.
The mysterious third party is not Henry, Sarah’s tiresome husband, or a subsequent lover, as Bendrix is quick to suspect. Instead it is God, entering the picture after Sarah vows to sacrifice her physical affair with Bendrix if only he is not harmed when the two find themselves victims of a V-I bomb that hits Bendrix’s London apartment during the height of WWII. The explanation behind this vow and the struggle to maintain it are expertly revealed in the novel’s Book Three, an excerpt of Sarah’s diary covering the two years that follow the end of her affair with Bendrix. Greene brings Sarah to life in the captivating first-person narrative, adding great dimension to the “mistress” character. Much like Flaubert’s Emma Bovary and Sinclair Lewis’s Carol Kennicott, Sarah believes there is more to life than the day-to-day and aspires to come to some understanding of the master plan. She brushes close to this understanding through her relationship with Maurice, so when she sacrifices the relationship in order to save him, she dedicates the remainder of her life to discovering the truth about the God she understands to be behind the miracle.
One of the novel’s strongest themes is the extrenes of love and hate. Bendrix is forever on one side of the spectrum, either seething with hate for Sarah and the God that stole her from him or effusing with love for the woman who gave his life meaning. In writing Bendrix as an adherent to one extreme at a time, and never in between, Greene argues that one state cannot exist without the other. Behind Bendrix’s bursts of hate for Sarah is the unique undeniable love he felt for her.
This dichotomous relationship exists for Bendrix not only with Sarah, but with nearly everyone he comes into contact with. Most notably is Henry, the man Bendrix perceives to be his rival. As Sarah’s husband, Henry is inherently in opposition with Bendrix, however, Bendrix tends to take his hate of the clueless cuckold to the extreme. Even in his most pitiable state, Henry is loathed by Bendrix. However, after Sarah’s death Bendrix comes to realize that the very force that lead him to hate Henry, his relationship with Sarah, unites him with the scorned husband in their mutual grief.
Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair is a short but insightful examination of the power of human love to lead to something greater. My only criticism of the book is the overextension of the point with the series of miracles at the novel’s end. I found the inclusion of the miracles unnecessary as the rest of the book makes the same point just as capably. Overall, however, The End of the Affair is an emotional story that I will certainly recommend.