Seeing Ourselves in ‘The End of the Affair’

When Solomon wanted to warn his sons against adultery, he told a story.

Christians sometimes dismiss fiction as a distraction. Why read a fairy tale when there are other helpful books about how to live the Christian life, or how to read Scripture? But such an attitude not only misunderstands human nature, it misunderstands Scripture. Solomon—not to mention Jesus himself—understood the power of a story to captivate and impress in our consciences a wakefulness that propositional arguments cannot always reach. The broken souls who inhabit The End of the Affair have lessons for us, and they are lessons worth re-learning—lest we, like the fool Solomon watched, take dark paths by the twilight, and lose our very lives. 

 

When Solomon wanted to warn his sons against adultery, he told a story:

For at the window of my house I have looked out through my lattice. . . . I have perceived among the youths, a young man lacking sense.

Thus the Teacher recounts a tale of a simpleminded man and an enticing accomplice, who “drink their fill of love” while hidden from their covenant partners. It seems like all is wine and roses, until the narrative fades: “All at once he follows her, as an ox goes to slaughter. . . . He does not know that it will cost him his life.”

We aren’t allowed to see the end of the tale, the ultimate fate of the lovers. This uncertainty could be intentional on Solomon’s part; temptation, after all, makes the future difficult to see.

Hate More Than Love

Though the British novelist Graham Greene didn’t write his 1951 novel The End of the Affair with the same didactic purpose as King Solomon, his story equally illustrates the turbulent aftermath of sexual immorality. Set in the middle of World War II, the story is told via the first-person narration of journalist Maurice Bendrix.

In the opening lines, Bendrix warns the reader, “This is a record of hate far more than love.” Through his memories, we learn of his adulterous relationship with Sarah Miles, the wife of his friend Henry. Their liaisons went unabated and undetected, until the day Sarah suddenly stopped. The novel opens some time after the end of their affair, and during a chance meeting Henry confides in Maurice that he is worried about Sarah. In a moment of literary irony, Henry asks Maurice to investigate to ensure Sarah isn’t being unfaithful. Confused and bitter over Sarah ending their relationship, Maurice agrees, selfishly hoping to discover whatever, or whomever, had come between him and Sarah.

Two enigmas drive the novel. Why did Sarah stop the affair, and what is she doing now, years after breaking off her relationship with Bendrix? The pursuit of answers, and the moral consequences those answers bring, gives us a narrative that ends not with lust or betrayal, but with God and grace.

Demands of Lust

The End of the Affair was allegedly written out of Greene’s own experience. This is easy to believe, since the novel consistently offers profound commentary on adultery and its personal effects. One of the most striking illustrations is Bendrix’s inability to separate in his mind the difference between lust and hate. His passion for Sarah has the physical appearance of love, but his real desire is to “posses” her in a fundamentally self-oriented way.

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