The Basement Room Summary

Graham Greene

The Basement Room

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The Basement Room Summary

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Graham Greene’s short story “The Basement Room” appears in his 1954 collection, Twenty-One Stories, composed mainly of pieces that had previously appeared in his 1947 collection, Nineteen Stories. Greene, an English novelist, is widely considered one of the major literary figures of the twentieth century. His canon of more than two-dozen novels contains works with a serious Catholic perspective and those that fall into the thriller genre, the latter of which he referred to as entertainments. In 1966 and 1967, he was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

“The Basement Room” focuses on an innocent child and is filtered through a psycho-analytical perspective. Seven-year-old Master Philip Lanes’s parents have embarked on a holiday trip and he finds himself left alone under the care of the family butler and housekeeper as the family is currently in between nurses. Philip looks forward to exploring the huge Belgravia house in which he lives. Philip likes Mr. Baines, the butler, who tells him stories about adventures in Africa. He does not like Mrs. Baines and fears her like a nightmare. At first, Philip feels uncomfortable but, thinking about this newfound freedom, realizes that he can do whatever he wants. He feels happy being out from under parental control. A new personality begins to emerge from within him. He develops an unquenchable desire to learn what life is all about. This leads him to want a sense of intimacy with the world beyond the one he knows with his family.

Upon the departure of his parents, Philip looks in the basement room for Mr. Baines. He goes through a “green baize door” which separates masters and servants. Philip dislikes Mrs. Baines, even more, when he sees Mr. Baines cower when around her. The young boy starts to see how the adult world he longs to enter has reasons to be feared as well. He also starts to gain an understanding of the meaning of evil. He sees that his unqualified happiness when with Baines is threatened by the existence of people like Mrs. Baines. When Philip asks Baines to go for a walk with him, Mrs. Baines steps in to stop it. Rather than remain amid the discord of Mr. and Mrs. Baines, Philip flees the mansion and enters the outside world alone. Among the things he sees outside is Mr. Baines displaying a very different persona. Philip finds him in a tea shop being an affectionate companion to a young woman rather than the frightened version of himself whom Philip had observed with Mrs. Baines. Philip agrees to keep Baines’s secret but later, inadvertently tells Mrs. Baines, who also swears him to secrecy, bribing him with an addition to a hobby set—which the boy can never bring himself to use again. This series of events that Philip does not understand will continue to haunt the boy. It is a traumatizing period in his young life that shapes the man he ultimately becomes.

Greene makes use of symbolism, for example, using the green baize door that Philip must pass through as a dividing line between the conscious and the subconscious. The building kit he no longer uses after it takes on a negative connotation because of Mrs. Baines becomes a sign of his inability to continue to create. The city outside of the mansion is a realm beyond the self. Good and evil coexist there, for example, Philip’s willingness to keep a secret. Back home, however, this becomes more problematic. Overall, the story demonstrates how a traumatic event in childhood can keep the person who experienced it from reaching fulfilling human contact later in life. Greene’s narrator addresses this loss of innocence theme saying of Philip, “Life fell on him with savagery and you couldn’t blame him if he never faced it again in sixty years.” Philip is an innocent boy when he learns that sorting through good and evil is not a simple task. At the nub of the story is the need to learn how to deal with the fact that life is not a comfortable straight line, but rather a series of compromises that are not always easy to understand. Betrayal is a major theme.

In a 1991 obituary, The Washington Post referred to Graham Greene as, “one of the major English language authors of this century whose work ranged from stories that mixed theology and melodrama to satirical comedies and tales of espionage and intrigue,” adding, “A master at building and maintaining suspense, Greene had a wide appeal among a large general readership and an enthusiastic following in the academic and literary community.”