Graham Greene (1904-1991) published Travels with my Aunt in 1969. Although this year corresponds to the beginning of post-modernism, the incipit doesn’t seem to overthrow the classic rules of narration, and looks just like one of the thrillers that Greene loved t write (like Brighton Rock for example). In this novel, the author gives the reader a chance to explore and understand how Henry Pulling, a retired bank manager, got to travel across Europe with his aunt Augusta to discover his family’s past.
Henry and his aunt were re-united at Henry’s mother’s funeral. The incipit opens on Henry attending the funeral, while remembering his parents and how they were related, before finally meeting his aunt and starting to talk with her, which is the triggering element of the story. This incipit first gives a moment of confession and introspection on the protagonist, Henry, before ending on a small bit of dialogue between him and his aunt Augusta. This passage is told frivolously, and the tone is mainly comic and ironical, even if there is a slight touch of seriousness at some points.
I will first show what makes this excerpt the incipit of a thriller, then I will explore the constant use of contrasts and irony in this incipit, before finally analyzing the role of Death. First of all, as in most incipits in a story, this passage is mostly an exposition scene, in which the reader is introduced to the main characters of the story: First, we learn for example that the main protagonist “had retired from his job two years before the moment when the action takes place with an adequate pension and a silver handshake” (line 3). This indicates that he is a bit old – probably around the age of 60. We also learn that he just lost his mother as he is attending her funeral. Then, this protagonist – who actually is the narrator from whose point of view the story is told – presents his parents to the reader through his memories of them “as a child” (line 10).
With this detailed description, we can guess that even if they won’t be physically present in the plot as they are both dead, they will still play a really important role in the story, considering the fact that the longest – and second – paragraph of the incipit is only dedicated to them. The last character introduced in this passage is Augusta – the main character’s aunt – who is “some eleven or twelve years younger than his mother” (line 2). This means that the age difference between the two characters isn’t extremely important, which can give a clue to the reader on the complicity that may appear between them. Besides, this incipit ends with a cliffhanger: Augusta and her nephew start a small conversation, before taking “a little walk together in the garden of the crematorium” (line 47).
This implies that they will continue this conversation, thus creating suspense, making the reader want to know more about what is going to happen. In this way, the author gives us a foretaste of the narrative methods used in this book, so that we can guess that we are going to read a thriller. Moreover, this also echoes with the title, “Travels with my Aunt”: We know that this “little walk” with his aunt will probably turn into “travels”, which intrigues us even more about what is going to happen next. Another interesting fact is that although the main protagonist presents himself, his name still remains a mystery until his aunt shows up and clarifies this mystery by saying: “You must be Henry” (line 41). This foreshadows the role of Augusta as the one who will reveal the mysteries of Henry’s family throughout the story. One of the most striking elements of this text is the omnipresence of contrasts.
The first one that can be seen is that because of his job at the bank and his comfortable retirement, “everyone thought him lucky, but he found it difficult to occupy his time. He has never married, … and … he has no hobby” (lines 4 to 6). This contrast shows the discrepancy that there can be between appearances and reality. This is also a good foreshadowing, as this discrepancy is really often present in thrillers, in which there are a lot of revelation about what the character thought he knew.
In this precise case, it is even more relevant since one of the first things Augusta says to Henry after this passage is that the woman who just died wasn’t his real mother. The next contrast is the one between Henry’s parents, and it is quite obvious and visible, since there is a whole paragraph dedicated to it – as mentioned earlier. His father “was a building contractor of a lethargic disposition who used to take naps in all sorts of curious places. This irritated his mother, who was an energetic woman” (lines 8 to 10).
Within the very first sentences of the paragraph, the reader sees right away that they had a radical difference in terms of character. The rest of the paragraph describes this difference in detail using Henry’s childhood memories as examples, like the time when he went “to the bathroom … and found his father asleep in the bath in his clothes” (line 11). This contrast serves Henry’s character development, as it shows how being educated by two people with completely opposite characters made him become absolutely neutral and down-to-earth, thus leading to another contrast. Indeed, the most important contrast comes with the last sentence of the first paragraph: “I found myself agreeably excited by my mother’s funeral” (lines 6 and 7). When reading this for the first time, the reader is immediately surprised, as he immediately sees the dissonance between Henry’s mood and the context of the scene. There is an addition to this discrepancy when Augusta arrives, “dressed rather as the late Queen Mary of beloved memory might have dressed if she had still been with us and had adapted herself a little bit towards the present mode” (lines 28 and 29), her extravagant look standing out among all the people that are probably dressed quite casually. More generally, the whole tone and atmosphere of this scene is very light and frivolous, which reinforces even more the difference with the events taking place (“there was that slight stirring of excited expectation which is never experienced at a graveside”, lines 23 and 24).
Furthermore, because of his neutrality, Henry seems to analyze the scene without even feeling the slightest emotion. This is even more flagrant when he says that “the funeral of his mother went without a hitch” (line 36). This contrast conveys some sort of irony, as it goes against the conventions that tell you how you are supposed to feel according to what is happening This neutrality shown by Henry towards his mother’s cremation also comes from his job: He “attended a great number of funerals in his time” (line 32). He goes on saying that “a bank manager is expected to pay his last respect to every old client who is not as they say ‘in the red'” (line 33). Therefore, we learn thanks to this passage that he isn’t necessary emotionless: He just learnt from his job not to see death as a fatality, as an end in itself, which is why all he does is keeping looking on the bright side of things, by remembering his joyful memories with his parents, who were “reasonably happy together” (line 18).
In addition, we can see that death is omnipresent in this text, which is quite unusual for an incipit. First and foremost, the whole excerpt takes place during a funeral: this kind of scene usually occurs at the end of most stories, whether they’re literary or cinematographic. The lexical field of death, as well as references to the concept of death, are also very present (“My father had been dead”, line 8; “a famous crematorium”, line 23; “if she had still been with us”, line 29; “funeral service”, line 32): It almost makes us feel like we are overwhelmed by death while the novel barely started. Augusta also represents this idea of viewing death as a start. The very first sentence of the novel actually sums it up quite well: “I met my Aunt Augusta for the first time in more than half a century at my mother’s funeral”.
We know thanks to the title that the whole story is going to be about the protagonist traveling with his aunt, and this sentence informs us that they meet thanks to his mother’s death. Additionally, Henry says that until then, he had “no hobby” (line 6) and we understand he was living quite a boring life. So, in a way, whether it’s literally – as it is the incipit – or metaphorically, death marked the beginning of a new life for Henry. Through this analysis, I’ve shown that this incipit used foreshadowing and cliffhangers to intrigue the reader and catch his attention, as most thriller do. Then, I pointed out all the contrasts that the author used to either develop Henry’s character, show that appearances are often deceptive, or to say that there is no rules or conventions when it comes to how you are supposed to feel depending on the situation.
At last, I explored the different ways that were used in this text to show that death doesn’t necessarily have to be considered as an end, and that it can also be a start: It can be seen as such in a literary way – since death was omnipresent in the incipit of this novel – but also in a more general way, as here the death of his mother allowed Henry to meet a new mother figure in the person of his aunt Augusta that will change his life. This will become even more relevant when he learns at the end of the novel that Augusta was not just a figure, but that she was his actual mother. So here death did not only marked the start of a new life for Henry, it also unveiled the truth about his origins.