‘Two Gentle People’ by Graham Greene: Short Story Analysis
This short story is very much about the conventions of marriage, and its various problems after a certain period. Graham Greene in ‘Two Gentle People’ highlights the story of an American man settled in France and a French woman. They both are middle-aged, have long been trapped in loveless marriages, and both are trying to analyze the conventions of their times. Through this short story, one gets a clear idea of the early twentieth century’s view about the married state. We realize that many people like the American man and French woman remain in loveless marriages basically for the sake of ‘keeping face’. Many sacrifice their desires and happiness because of this. In this story, towards the end, we realize that the American named Henry C. Greaves was married to a mentally disturbed, suspicious, alcoholic, and very sickly woman. The French woman named Marie-Claire Duval is married to Gay artist and sculptor who has no love for her in his heart and is a voyeur. The story is calm, soothing, and full of self-control like the passive personalities of Greaves and Duval. Not only are their personalities tamed but also their physical features. Greaves according to Graham Greene has the stamp of a man of good behavior while Duval is pretty than her looking glass claims her to be.
I would like to draw your attention to the beginning of the story. Graham Greene plays tricks with our minds through his lucid prose. He makes us think that the two people were a married couple when indeed, as we find out after they start a conversation, they are meeting in the Parc Monceau for the first time. They exude modesty, disillusionment, and commonness that can describe a lot of married people in even our world today. Greaves is a good man and has a compassionate heart. He, therefore, wrings the neck of the severely wounded pigeon to let it escape the pain of a slow death. Duval does not have sensuous legs like the cliched French woman in our psyche but she too is good at heart because she too feels for the plight of the poor attacked bird. That pigeon symbolizes their slow descent into a world of permanent loneliness. This is because they are loyal to their baseless marriages where their partners are wounding them day by day like the pigeon was wounded. I smiled to myself when I saw Greaves making a mention that he felt ‘at home’ in India when he was part of a government mission there. It reminded me of the fact that Graham Greene is the writer who was the godfather of India’s first English language fiction writer, R. K. Narayan. Greene always felt close to India throughout his life because of the stories told by R. K. Narayan about the fictional Indian town of Malgudi. Greaves doesn’t feel at home in places that do not have ‘old structures’ which is yet another indirect reason why he is capable of tolerating a toxic marriage. He stays in that marriage because it is one of the ‘oldest’ parts of his life. Duval has a latent sensuality in her which is completely wasted because she is married to a homosexual. Both wonder aloud and in their minds what it would have been like if they had met fifteen years ago. They both feel that right now they should be beyond the bars of conventions of ‘early matrimony’ and were old enough to step out to have a dinner date together on the spur of the moment. But both were cowards. They are cowards in the sense that they have the wisdom to know that consummating their newly found relationship will not lead them to happiness, though they admit that sometimes one could be ‘ashamed of wisdom’ for it prevents us from seeking our happiness. As you read the story, you realize that the descriptions, the reflective pieces, the indirect props, are all hinting at us with the hope that either:
- They will start having an affair.
- They will not have an affair as they must be having good spouses back at home waiting for them.
Notice how we judge them throughout the story as adulterers in the works but all that changes when towards the end, Greaves goes back home to a wife who thinks he was with a woman or a prostitute while Duval goes back to an empty room as her Gay husband is only concerned about his own sexual needs and preferences. The phallus stone sculpture in Duval’s house is indicative of Duval’s desire for erotic love even in middle age which goes completely against the idea that when one is old, he or she does not need sex anymore or doesn’t crave for physical intimacy anymore. Greaves and Duval yearn to be with each other; their compassion towards the dead bird draws them to each other. But convention wins yet again and without exchanging addresses or telephone numbers they go off towards their separate homes. It’s not like they did not try. The dinner date at Brasserie Lorraine was their little way of trying to do something for themselves for a change but the two ghosts of their spouses cause a disturbance in their midst. The ghosts seem to disappear for a while as they eat but not for long. When one is too used to sorrow then it becomes strangely more difficult to get out of that mire of sorrow because it’s become a part of who we are. This is a highly Catholic perspective of looking at marriage which is one of the common themes through which Graham Greene writes his short stories and novels. A few passing comments on this very sad story of two defeated persons in marriage:
- Greaves mentions to Duval after killing the pigeon that Americans are very fond of ‘taking lives’. He even says it’s a privilege to do so indicative of how his wife ironically named Patience is draining the life out of him every day. This is also indicative of the fact that Greaves prefers old places away from the modern world where the rude and brash ways of modern American society are prominent.
- Greaves is ‘henpecked’ to a great degree; we should have realized that right in the beginning, with the description of him having a banal and plain personality. He knows Patience is torturing him, but he still calls her ‘Poor Patience’. He tends to her every whim and tolerates her when she accuses him of adultery.
- Duval is not the clichéd French woman of the twentieth century. She does not know anything about wine. She mentions that her husband chooses the wine for her which hurts Greaves. Wine here is indicative of ‘sexual and romantic pleasure’ which Duval’s husband is not capable of giving her.
- Duval calls Greaves before they part with the pronoun ‘tu’ in French which is an informal endearment. She thinks he must have not heard it, but he does, and both wonder if they had met when they were younger and more flexible with their lives whether things between them would have been different.
- Greaves mentions that everyone is a coward about something. He and Duval were cowardly enough not to admit that both their marriages were failures.
• Greaves mentions that what American’s make never ages beautifully indicative of the way the Coca Cola loving Patience was disgracefully aging. She had to be kept dosed with medicines half the time, and while Greaves loved good alcohol, showing his fine taste, Patience prefers the plain consumer-friendly Coca Cola.
Thus, ends yet another short story about two people coming together with a similar purpose, but who ultimately leave each other most probably never to meet again. I love the works of Graham Greene and especially his short stories. If you are interested in more book reviews, short story analysis, poems, essays, and bookish articles then you can visit my blog insaneowl.com. If you want to buy my books then you can visit my website fizapathanpublishing.us or fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you this coming week!
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