The Tenth Man by Graham Greene
by Dan Haggard
There is an old clichéd maxim that the truth will set you free. No doubt you know it. But if you reflect on it a little while, its meaning can often feel elusive. In what way free? Graham Greene’s novel The Tenth Man is about as fine an answer to that question as has ever been provided. Terse in length, yet rich in theme and symbolism – the novel delves deep into the hideous nature of anxiety borne of deceit, lies and deception. Entwined in this mesh is a story about courage and sacrifice. The two themes wrap around each other, providing a greater intensity to the plot than would have been achieved singularly. It makes for a deceptively complex novel, one that is worth multiple reads. In this review I’m going to try to tease out some of these aspects to help make them more salient for the reader.
First I’ll give an overview of the plot – as usual, there are spoilers, so don’t read if you want the surprises. The story follows the exploits of an insecure lawyer named Chavel who is among a large group of prisoners in a German WWII camp in occupied France. A German guard comes to inform them that three of them are to be executed and that the group can decide which three. They draw lots and Chavel is among the damned. But rather than accept his fate, Chavel sells his position to a man named Janvier for his considerable fortune. Janvier is motivated by the prospect of leaving the fortune to his sister and mother.
After being released Chavel, is destitute and ashamed of his cowardice. He has adopted a new personage ‘Charlot’ so as not to be recognized for the coward he is. Against his better judgement he returns to his home who is now occupied by Janvier’s sister (Thérèse) and her mother. Chavel uses his fake identity to win a place as a helper to the household. He learns that Thérèse is consumed with the cowardice of the man that traded his property for her brother’s life. Chavel soon falls in love with the girl and can’t bring himself to leave.
The novel reaches its climax when a war criminal named Carosse arrives claiming to be Chavel. They both know that this is a lie, but the real Chavel plays along because he believes Thérèse’s hate will be dispensed upon this stranger and they will be free to be together. She does at first, but Carosse uses his deception to turn Thérèse against Chavel. Finally Chavel admits the truth and is shot by Carosse in order to protect the girl – his sacrifice making up for his earlier cowardice.
Greene does what he does best throughout this novel. He creates a deep sense of foreboding right from the beginning. It starts with a description of the prisoners, but focuses, oddly it seems at first, on the fact that only two prisoners have watches. He goes on to describe the position of importance this gives the two timekeepers, and the sense of importance it confers upon them both. But it turns out that their timekeeping is a lie, since they sometimes forget to wind their watches. The mayor, one of the timekeepers is deeply anxious about being found out, and he is cross examined severely just after he resets it.
This plot point seems completely ancillary to the main event, and one has to think about why it is that Greene included it. The lie of their timekeeping, and their competitiveness, mirrors the competing lies of Carosse and Chavel when they battle for Thérèse’s heart. Greene’s insight is into the deep and profound anxiety of the liar – that at any moment the lie will be discovered and the truth laid bare.
But this should give us some pause when considering our old maxim – the truth shall set you free. The truth is the thing that Chavel (and our timekeepers) is running from. It might be thought that in fact it’s the truth that is causing the anxiety and not the lie as such. Greene often seems to provide hints in this direction. Carosse, unlike Chavel, is far from anxious about his lies. He seems to positively revel in it. He sees it all as theatre – amusing playacting. What’s more, Carosse often asserts that it’s precisely because he’s not the real Chavel that gives him the advantage in wooing Thérèse even though she deeply hates him. The fact that she spits on Carosse he takes as a sign that he has gotten into her thoughts. To quote some of dialogue, Chavel says to Carosse:
‘She spat in your face.’
‘My dear fellow, don’t I know it? It was superb. It was one of the grandest moments I have ever experienced. You can never get quite that realism on the stage. And I think I did pretty well too. This sleeve: what dignity! I bet you she’s thinking in her bed tonight of that gesture.’
Carosse proves to be right. Thérèse comes to wonder why she was a coward and didn’t shoot him like she had said she would. She contrasts this with her decision to let Carosse stay the night. Chavel, who is trying to convince her to turn Carosse out, says to her:
‘Better to be walking in the rain than shot.’
‘I don’t know. Is it? It depends, doesn’t it? When I spat in his face…’ She paused, and remembered very clearly the actor lying on the bed boasting of his gesture. She’ll be thinking about it, he had said. It was horrifying to realize that a man as false as that could sum up so accurately the mind of someone so true. The other way round, he thought, it doesn’t work. Truth doesn’t teach you to know your fellow man.
Greene identifies falsity with power and knowledge in many places throughout the text. It’s a disturbing and cynical view. But we have to ask again, if lies and deception bring knowledge and power, in what way does truth set one free?
The irony contained within the above passage is that Chavel doesn’t realize just how close to Carosse he really is. After all, it’s through deception that he wins a place in Thérèse’s household. He uses his own deception to manipulate her. He also uses a deception to ultimately defeat Carosse. He tells him that a lighted torch will summon an old friend, thus proving his identity. Carosse shoots Chavel, to prevent this from happening – but this outs him as well, thereby saving Thérèse from his manipulation.
To answer our question we have to consider the other prominent theme in the novel – that of self sacrifice. Janvier makes the ultimate sacrifice for his sister and mother. Chavel was too cowardly to accept his own death. Chavel exposes himself to extreme amounts of fear and shame by returning to his house. The loss of Janvier is almost too much for his sister and her ruin comes to rest on Chavel’s conscience as well.
The question is how it is that Chavel ultimately comes to confront his fear and shame? He does so by outing his true nature to Thérèse and Carosse, forcing Carosse to shoot him. So from what is he freed by this act? His fear and shame? not as such, not directly. Carosse, remember, is as false as can be but he has no fear or shame. Truth could not set him free from this, for he is not possessed of it. But presumably it is a universal maxim toward which Greene is aiming here. Such an answer would lessen its import.
By outing himself, Chavel frees himself of his selfishness – he is freed from his own self. The truth is what enables him to make a real sacrifice for the girl that he has come to love. Even Carosse would be so freed if he could bring himself to it. But we know that he never will – not like Chavel. Chavel’s shame is the sign that he might one day gain wisdom and overcome.
That is the maxim that Greene is aiming at in this story – the truth will set you free… from yourself. And he is absolutely masterful in his execution. I hope you all will get to enjoy it for yourselves some time soon.