Maurice Bendrix’s affair with Sarah Miles has been over for a couple of years when he unexpectedly runs into her husband, Henry, one evening. Bendrix reluctantly agrees to have a drink with Henry, only to find all his love and hate of Sarah reignited when Henry shares that he believes Sarah to be having an affair. Henry is a mild man, a civil servant, who suggests and then decides not to follow through with hiring someone to watch and follow Sarah. Instead, Bendrix hires the man and his obsession with Sarah and the end of their relationship grows.
There is a song by the Lumineers with a line that goes, “The opposite of love’s indifference.” That certainly seems to be a sentiment that Greene might agree with in this novel. Bendrix’s love and hate is horrible mixture within him that he can’t seem to separate. He loves Sarah deeply but he hates her for leaving him and even when they were together he hated her for what he saw as her unfaithfulness. He hates himself for driving her away. He hates Henry for keeping her from him but pities him. And then, finally, as the story progresses and we learn more about Sarah herself from her own journals, we see the struggle that both Sarah and Bendrix experience as they individually face the existence and presence of God.
Having read several Graham Greene novels before, I knew the question of God and religion would eventually appear and it reliably does though in a very different form than I’ve seen Greene explore before. Bendrix is our narrator and he is a strongly irreligious man, making a point of stating his atheism. Sarah and Henry both seem to share this general disbelief but, of course, we are seeing them only through Bendrix’s eyes. Partway through the novel we get to see Sarah through her own lens and here the whole story shifts and approaches the subject of love and hate in a new way.
I can imagine that if there existed a God who loved, the devil would be driven to destroy even the weakest, the most faulty imitation of that love. Wouldn’t he be afraid that the habit of love might grow, and wouldn’t he try to trap us all into being traitors, into helping him extinguish love? If there is a God who uses us and makes His saints out of such material as we are, the devil too may have his ambitions; he may dream of training even such a person as myself, even poor Parkis, into being his saints, ready with borrowed fanaticism to destroy love wherever we find it.Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
Bendrix within this novel is a novelist himself, a writer who is always aware of the story he is fashioning. This casts the whole book in a new light as the reader must question how much is Bendrix manipulating our interpretation? How much here is fictional? What are we expected to believe? And what does Bendrix himself believe.
I think it’s also crucial to view this story in the light of its timeline. Bendrix and Sarah’s affair takes place largely throughout World War II and air raids and bombing are an important part of the story. Their affair ends not long before the end of the war and the present timeline in the book is in those early post-war years. Bendrix, Sarah, and Henry are all building themselves and their relationships within the context of a country and a city emerging from near destruction. As always, Greene is a brilliant writer and leaves the reader with much to ponder.