Places: The Human Factor

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1978

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Spy

Time of work: Late Cold War era

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*London

*London. Human Factor, TheGreat Britain’s capital city is the central location of the British Secret Service. The novel’s protagonist, Maurice Castle, works as a trusted intelligence officer in a London firm but is actually selling secrets to the Soviet Union. He returns to England from Africa and lives in the country, commuting to London by train. His movements between the city and his country home highlight the contrast between his dual allegiances: In London he is a secret agent; in the country he uses an old childhood hideout to drop secret information to the Soviets. The ironic framework of Greene’s novel unfolds several relationships, including Castle’s interracial marriage, that challenge cultural perceptions through plausible and possible relationships of strong commitments.

London itself is not free of racial prejudice. Castle mistakenly believes that no one in London would mind the “African blood” of his wife. However, a passerby addresses her with the derogatory term “Topsy”–echoing a nickname for a black slave girl in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851-1852). Greene ridicules London’s class-conscious society through Sir Hargreaves’s marriage to an American woman who brought him wealth, status, and a promotion in the London office at a time when he was an inexperienced man in the firm.

*South Africa

*South Africa. Homeland of Castle’s wife, Sarah. Castle’s flashbacks to his years in South Africa reveal a setting during the period when apartheid was supreme. At the same time, political rivalries among Western countries led to partnerships with South Africa’s government that promoted economic imperialism that helped to perpetuate the apartheid system. The United States, Great Britain, and South Africa are collaborating in covert activities in support of Uncle Remus Operation as a joint endeavor, sharing of secret information on diverse issues, such as guerrillas, blockades, Cuban or Russian penetration, or economic interests.

While living in South Africa, Castle had to break the country’s rigid racial-separation laws in order to be with Sarah. This experience opened his eyes to the evils of apartheid and made him sympathetic to the plight of black South Africans. In fact, he became a Soviet informant because of his sympathy for Africans.


*Moscow. Capital of the Soviet Union. When Castle fears that he will be discovered as a double-agent, the KGB arranges his escape from England to provide him sanctuary in Moscow. There, he discovers that he must learn a great deal about Russian culture and language. At the same time, he learns that the Russians have merely used the information Castle has sent them to make Western nations believe there is a double-agent in Moscow who does not actually exist. This disclosure comes to Castle only after he is virtually a prisoner in Moscow. Meanwhile, England turns into a prison for Castle’s family because his wife does not have her son on her passport. There is an irony of fate in the separation of this family that had come together across continents; in the end, Sarah and her son are forced to remain in England, while Castle leads a life of an exile in Russia.

BibliographyDeVitis, A. A. “The Later Greene.” In Essays in Graham Greene. Vol. 1, edited by Peter Wolfe. Greenwood, Fla.: Penkevill, 1987. This essay and the revised edition of DeVitis’ book Graham Greene (Boston: Twayne, 1986) offer a number of insights on The Human Factor, in particular on Greene’s use of chess metaphors and his novel’s debt to the moral ambiguities of Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent.O’Prey, Paul. A Reader’s Guide to Graham Greene. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988. Comments (pages 135-140) usefully on The Human Factor and draws on Greene’s own remarks.Shapiro, Henry L. “Morality and Ambivalence in The Human Factor.” In Essays in Graham Greene. Vol. 2, edited by Peter Wolfe. Greenwood, Fla.: Penkevill, 1990. Explores one of Greene’s recurrent concerns and discusses the link between religion and espionage.Wolfe, Peter, ed. Essays in Graham Greene. Vol. 3. St. Louis: Lucas Hall Press, 1992. Introduces and reprints three important early essays on Greene.Wolfe, Peter. Graham Greene the Entertainer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972. The best book on Greene’s early novels that prepared for The Human Factor, Wolfe’s study is also one of the most perceptive books on the thriller as an art form.
Categories: Places