Maurice Bendrix, the narrator of Graham Greene’s 1951 novel The End of the Affair, starts his story with the ending–or after the ending really. It’s two years since his lover, Sarah Miles, gave him up with no explanation. Now, he sees her husband Henry out in the rain and goes home with him for a drink. As far as Maurice knows, Henry never suspected that he and Sarah were having an affair, but Henry now is suspicious of Sarah, and Henry’s suspicions pique Maurice’s curiosity, and he becomes determined to discover who Henry’s–and perhaps his own–rival might be.
Henry’s investigations eventually lead him to Sarah’s journal, in which he learns that Sarah’s decision to leave him had nothing to do with a loss of love on her part. On the contrary, her love of him led her to make a bargain that forced her to abandon him. But this revelation is no comfort. To Maurice, Sarah made a choice based on a delusion, and he lost her to a rival who isn’t even real–and if his rival isn’t real, who is left for Maurice to blame, to hate?
It’s not until halfway into the book that we learn that Sarah’s bargain was with God. When she saw Maurice pinned under a door, presumably dead, after a bombing in his neighborhood, she, having never believed in God, knelt and prayed. If God would give him his life, she would give him up. Maurice lived, and Sarah left. That was the end of their affair.
Sarah kept her promise, but she didn’t rest easily with it. She lashes out at God in her journal:
I’ve kept my promise to you for six weeks. I can’t believe in you, I can’t love you, but I’ve kept my promise for six weeks. If I don’t come alive again, I’m going to be a slut, just a slut. I’m going to destroy myself quite deliberately. Every year I’ll be more used. Will you like that any better than if I break my promise?
If I go down to the bar and pick a man up and take him on to the beach and lie with him among the sand-dunes, won’t I be robbing you of what you love most? But it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work any longer. I can’t hurt you if I don’t get any pleasure from it I might as well stick pins in myself like those people in the desert. The desert. I want to do something that I enjoy and that will hurt you. Otherwise what is it but mortification and that’s like an expression of belief. And believe me, God, I don’t believe in you yet, I don’t believe in you yet.
What does it mean to believe in God? Can you even rage in this way to someone you don’t believe in? Sarah tries to give up God, but she can’t. She’s found in herself a hunger for love that Maurice himself awakened in her. Earlier, when she thought Maurice was dead, she wondered, “If I’m a bitch and a fake, is there nobody who will love a bitch and a fake?” Somehow this battle with God turns her into less of a bitch and less of a fake (if indeed she ever was one). And it appears that God was there all along, thoughout her bitchiness and fakery, pulling her toward him. The title of the novel takes on a double meaning. The affair had an ending, but it also had an end, a purpose. Does God have a similar end in mind for Maurice?
One interesting thing about this book is how ambiguous it is, at least until the final chapters. Did God save Maurice’s life? We don’t know. He claims he wasn’t even badly hurt, but he did lose some time, so who knows? How authentic was Sarah’s conversion? It’s hard to say. Her final journal entry leaves some room for doubt about how long she’ll hold to her bargain with God. And even the meaning of that doubt is doubtful–it could just be a case of extreme honesty. Doubt in this novel is as difficult to hold on to as faith. We’re left wondering how much longer Maurice can hold on to his doubts. It’s interesting to note that Maurice’s final words in the novel are a firmer and more final version of the last words in Sarah’s journal.
The ambiguity breaks down in the book’s final chapters. Maurice makes discoveries about Sarah that seems to rule out all readings of her life that leave out God’s guiding hand. This development tips the novel into a slightly preachy territory that will put some readers off. Better, I think, to leave us wondering whether Maurice’s tenuous grip on his own atheism is the result of a delusion. Perhaps he needs to believe that Sarah was right. Or maybe he needs to know she left him for someone far greater and more powerful than Maurice himself. Maybe he sees God as his only proper rival, and thus he needs God to exist.
Michael Gorra, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics Deluxe edition, notes that Greene later admitted that the miracles that occur late in the novel should have had natural explanations. The fact that they feel too neatly and divinely engineered is a narrative problem. Yet I can’t help but think that Maurice, our narrator, needs the evidence to be clear and that he organized the events in just that way. Here, I turn to the novel’s opening paragraph:
A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say “one chooses” with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who–when he has been seriously noted at all–has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me? It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there, but if I had believed then in a God, I could also have believed in a hand, plucking at my elbow, a suggestion: “Speak to him: he hasn’t seen you yet.”
The whole question of free will goes beyond the events in the story–whether Maurice speaks to Henry–and colors the telling itself. The fact that Maurice begins with a declaration about writerly choice seems significant. Who is in charge of this story? If Maurice, is he stacking the deck in God’s favor for his own purposes? Or is God telling Maurice what to say and guiding the story to its own predestined end for his own ends? I don’t know, but I can’t stop pondering it.