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Scales of law

Analysis of the ‘Case for the Defence’ by Graham Greene



Scales of law
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Graham Greene is best known for his novels, which can be largely split into two genres - entertaining thrillers and more literary works that, according to this site, "explore the ambiguities of modern man and ambivalent moral or political issues in a contemporary setting." After graduating from Oxford University, he worked as a journalist, before publishing his first book, "The Man Within," in 1929. After its success, he hoped to turn to novel-writing full-time, but had to supplement his income with freelance journalism.

He also wrote plays and short stories. Although his literary works, such as The Power and the Glory, are arguably the books for which he is most remembered, his thrillers are still entertaining reading. This short story, called "The Case for the Defence," published in 1939, may be short and sweet, but is a good example of his work.

The narrator describes the case of the title as one that it most definitely cut-and-dried. The murderer of an elderly woman has been caught and stands in the dock: "...this murderer was all but found with the body: no one present when the Crown counsel outlined his case believed that the man in the dock stood any chance at all." There was a witness to the murder; a Mrs Salmon, who had seen his face illuminated in the street light. Mrs Salmon was regarded to be an exceptionally reliable witness. She was a decent, law-abiding citizen with excellent eyesight and no reason to make up what she had seen. And indeed she had seen the man standing in the dock bending over the body of the dead woman.

The only problem is that he has an identical twin brother, who is standing at the back of the court room, and Mrs Salmon has no idea which of the brothers is the guilty party. As a result, both brothers get to go free. Yet the story does not end there. As the men leave the court, one of them falls into the road and is killed. But was it the brother who was innocent? 

This is a very short story, originally published in a magazine; it therefore has to pack a punch in a very efficient way. Graham Greene manages to do that very successfully by using third person narration and a narrator who is just a casual observer and clearly knows very little about the case. This enables him to give a brief overview of the scene, leaving a great deal to the reader's imagination. This brevity makes the highlight of the story, the revelation that there is an identical twin brother, stand out all the more.

Even the death at the end is described with great economy of words: "He gave a squeal like a rabbit and that was all; he was dead, his skull smashed just as Mrs Parker's had been." It may be a little too blunt for some people's comfort, but that is the author's intention - he wants to shock, to make the reader remember that life is fragile and death can come to anyone at any time. 

It is interesting that Greene chose his key characters to be twins. He may have been trying to point out that looks can be deceptive and witnesses can be unreliable, for reasons that are beyond their understanding, which could be a criticism of the legal system. It is not that there is any sympathy for the brothers. One of them is obviously guilty; that is very apparent right from the start of the story. Not only were there witnesses to the murder, but the guilty party looks evil: "He was a heavy stout man with bulging bloodshot eyes. All his muscles seemed to be in his thighs." Greene was a Catholic, although his faith seemed to have dwindled by the end of his life, and could be commenting on the fact that man really shouldn't be deciding the fate of his fellow man; that is for God alone to decide - hence the comment about it possibly being divine vengeance at the end. Knowing that the death penalty was still in force at the time of writing strengthens this argument. 

It initially seems that the revelation about the twin is the only twist in the tale. However, there is another one; one that is even more chilling. After the death of his brother, the surviving twin looks across at Mrs Salmon. The narrator obviously doesn't know what he is thinking - he is clearly devastated at the death of his twin - but the suggestion is that he will make someone pay for his loss and Mrs Salmon, having just tried to put the nail in one twin's coffin, could end up being in the line of fire. However, if he does track her down, will it be the murderer committing a second murder? Or will it be an innocent man seeking revenge for the death of his guilty brother? It's another reminder that life can often throw curveballs and that unfortunately there is often no rhyme or reason for it. It's a depressing assessment of life, but although Greene may be trying to shock with an exaggerated example, there is no doubt that it is also a realistic assessment and readers can only hope that nothing similar will happen to them. 

More about this author: Sun Meilan

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