“The Great Façade.” Literary analysis of Graham Greene’s “Special Duties” short story. English 230: Modern Catholic Writers. March 2012.
Graham Green’s short story “Special Duties” tells of a Catholic proprietor whose approach to business extends to his soul. Misunderstanding the Catholic teaching on indulgences, he hires a three-time piety award-winning secretary to get him as many days off purgatory as she can. When her piety is exposed as a façade, the businessman wastes no time in hiring another secretary to do the same “special duty.”
Of the many short stories we read in my Modern Catholic Writers class, I chose to do a literary analysis on this one because I thought it represented a particularly interesting Catholic sacramental imagination. This general worldview, in which an outward sign corresponds to an inward reality, is especially evident in the writing of authors such as Graham Greene who have been deeply influenced by the Catholic view of sacraments. In this particular short story, however, I noticed that Greene inverts the notion of sacramentality. A prime example is the false piety of the secretary, in whom “the actual inward state of being is entirely opposed to the characteristic portrayed.”
This paper’s specific critique of Greene’s inverted sacramental imagination perhaps reflects my more general love of paradox. As I noted at the time, “In the same way that we would in conventional Catholic literature search for the deeper meaning behind an ordinary symbol, [in ‘Special Duties’] Greene forces us instead to expose the superficiality behind the symbol of depth.”