The Main Theme of Graham Greene’s “The Third Man”


Parlindungan Pardede

Universitas Kristen Indonesia


Inspite of the fact that fiction is the most interesting and the most widely read literary genre due to the realistic sense it offers, readers often find it difficult to throughly comprehend a fiction they are reading. Some readers, for instance, may find it intricated to make out the theme. Some others find it difficult to figure out the characters’ qualities. Still some others may encounter difficulties to relate the determine and relate viewpoint to the theme presented.

To a higher extent, such difficulties are caused by the readers’ lack of literary analysis competence. Literary analysis is indeed an intricated process because it necessitates a good understanding of the works elements and how these elements are combined to create a unified literary work. Roberts (1977: 6) explains that literary analysis is the process of breaking up a literaty work into smaller units so that each of the elements nature, function, and meaning could be deeply discerned, and the corelation among the elements could be easily defined.

This analysis is a venture to aid readers to appreciate novels in general and The Third Man, a novelette by Graham greene in particular. The novelette is interesting to analyze due to two reasons. First, it was written by a novelist who is regarded as the best and most productive English writer in the 20th century. Green was a novelist who could satisfy two group of readers—laymen and literary critics—who always have contrastive perception in English literature. O’Prey (1988: 7) emphasizes: “No other writer since Dickens has so successfully combined immense popularity with craftmanship.” Second, the novelette does not merely tell an interesting story but also expresses a universal theme. It conveys the inquest on the death of one of the major characters made by his friend, another major character. Besides exposing the truth about the death, during the investigation, the theme of friendship is lso revealed.

This paper deals with the theme of the novelette. Discussions are focused on the identification of the theme and the way how Green presents it. The analysis was carried out by using the structural approach and was based on the transcendental phenomenology, i.e. a study aimed to analyze a phenomenon by using a set of theories the basis of the analysis.


1. Synopsis of The Third Man

The Third Man is a novelette written in the form of a detective story told by one of the characters in the story named Colonel Calloway who acts as the narrator. The novelette conveys the inquest on the death of one of the major characters named Harry Lime by his best friend, Rollo martin, another major character. The novel starts with Martins arrival in Vienna to find his school-boy friend Lime. However, Lime has just been fatally struck by a car and is being buried on Martin’s arrival.

The police accuse Lime of having been a black market racketeer. Hearing it, Martins strives to vindicate the name of his friend. His investigation finaly reveals that Lime is still alive and is truly guilty of dilluting penicillin. The one buried in Lime’s funeral was another person. When they finally meet, Lime asks Martin to join him in his business. Although the business promises a big fortune, Martin refuses the proposal and even shots Lime. The novel ends with Lime second funeral.


2. Theme Identification

After reading the novelette thoroughly for several time, there is no doubt that the main theme is “A true friendship necessitates love, confidence, and loyalty”. Greene presents this theme through characterization aided by plot imagery, irony, and viewpoint.


3. Theme Presentation

From the beginning of the novelette, Rollo Martins has been shown as a man who believes that friendship means to love. When he arrives at the cemetery and hears from Calloway that the body being buried is Harry Lime, his best friend since their child-hood, Martins comes to deep grief. Calloway says that that grief of Martins’ is not a shaming or a fake one. He calls it “genuine mourners with genuine tears” (Greene, 1981: 21). The genuineness of the tears, which is used to emphasize how great Martins’ love towards Lime is, is beautifully described by Greene through Calloways’ statement: “the tears of a boy ran down his thirty-five-year-old face.” (Greene, 1981: 13). Furthermore, the genuin-ness of the love is emphasized by the philosophical statement of Greene’ presented through Calloway’s comment when they drive away from the cemetry:

“As we drove away I noticed Martins never looked behind – it’s nearly always the fake mourners and the fake lovers who take the last look, who wait waving on the flatforms. in-stead of clearing quickly out, not looking back. It is perhaps that they love themselves in the sight of others. even of the dead?” (Greene, 1981: 22)

It is obvious that Martins’ love towards Harry Lime is so great that he tends to worship the latter as a hero. This tenden-cy is clear in the first interrogation of Calloway towards Mar tins who praises Lime as a “wonderful planner (Greene, 1981: 24). He adds that Lime has a real wit that he “could have been a first composer if he had worked at it. (Greene, 1981: 25). Martins also states that Lime always “put him wise to a lot of things.” (Greene, 1981: 24).

Besides love, Greene states that the second necessary aspect of friendship is confidence. Martins confides Lime very much. That is why, at first, he cannot believe in the accusation of Calloway that Lime is involved in a bad racket. He even tries to attack Callaway and intends to make him black and blue. Finally, being unable to hit Calloway because Paine, Calloway’s driver, ha held him tightly, Martins resolutes he will prove that Calloway’s accusation is wrong. He also adds that he will make Calloway looked like “the biggest bloody fool in Vienna.” (Greene,1981: 27).

Undoubtedly, Martins’ confidence in Harry Lime is so great that he makes a firm decission to take revenge on Calloway. This decission of his is revealed in the conversation between Martins and Crabbin when the former arrives at Sacher’s. Martins tells the latter that similar to the hero of The Lone Rider of Santa Fe who hunts down a sheriff who had killed a friend of his, he will take revenge on Calloway for the accusation of Lime’s involvement in a bad racket, which, in Martins’ opinion must be impossible. The importance of confidence in friendship is also shown in the episode when Martins asks Kurtz to tell Lime that he wants to meet him. He believes that if Harry still considers him as a friend he will undoubtedly comes to meet him. This belief of his comes true because Harry does come to meet him. At the end of the novel, ironically, this aspect of friendship is keenly used by Greene to enable the police make a trap to catch Lime.

The third important aspect of friendship presented in this novelette is loyalty. Besides confidence, it is his loyalty towards Lime that motivates Martins to defend Lime and to refuse the illegal accusation addressed to that friend of his. It is clear that although he begins to realize that Harry was indeed doing something illegal after hearing Kurtz’s admission, Martin’s loyalty still derives him to defend Lime by telling Calloway that to be a racketeer is common in Vienna. Even a high official such as Colonel Cooler does such a thing. Colonel Calloway then ex-plains that Lime’s racket is far more harmful than Cooler’s. Lime and some of his friends have stolen penicillin, diluted it with colored water and dust and sold it to public. A great disaster then exists: “… a number of children died and a number went of their heads.” Greene, 1981, 811. Realizing this, Martins becomes very disappointed. However, once more, his loyalty in friendship motivates him to defend Harry Lime. He asks the colonel to show the evidence of Harry Lime’s involvement. After being shown the evidence, including a piece of Lime’s handwriting, Martins’ disappointment reaches its climax. His tendency to defend Lime has died down. By means of imagery, Calloway states Martins’ disappointment beautifully:

“If one watched a world come to an end, a plane dive from its course, I don’t suppose one would chatter, and a world for Martins had certainly come to an end, a world of easy friendship, hero-warship. confidence that had begun twenty years before in a school corridor. Every memory-afternoons in the long grass, the illegitimate shoots an Brickwarth Common,. the dreams, the walks, every shared experience – was stimultaneously tainted like the soil of an atomized town. One cannot walk there with safety for a long while.” (Greene, 1981: 82)

Besides through Martin’s characterization, the necessity of loyalty in love or friendship is also shown through Ana’s characterization. When martins insists on her to forget Lime because that man is immoral and has committed a great crime. Anna replies that she will keeps in love with and be loyal to Lime eventhough that accusation towards him is true: “I loved a man’, she said. “I told you-a man doesn’t. alter because you find more about him. He’’s still the same man”‘. (Greene, 1981: 92)

After seeing the evidence of Lime’s involvement in a bad racket, Martins becomes very disillusioned and hopeless: there is no more point to defend Lime because he had died devilishly. He then says to Calloway: “I’ll be getting back to England.” (Greene, 1981: 83). However, the incidence of his seeing the figure which looks like Lime gives Martin a hope to investigate whether the accusation is true or not. After hearing Lime’s own confession, Martins’ confidence in him disappears totally because Lime’s ignorance of humanism irritates Martins deeply. The latter becomes in a total disillusionment. And since Lime won’t stop committing the racket, Martins thinks it is necessary for him to do something to stop it. This facts shows that in Martins’ opinion humanism must be placed over frienship. He then tells Calloway that he has decided to help the police arrest Lime. By means of this decission and the fact it is Martins who manages to kill Lime, undoubtedly, Greene wants to emphasize that how close a friendship may be, means nothing compared to the value of humanism.

Last but not least, it is interesting to perceive the use of viewpoint to express the theme in this novel. It goes without saying that the contents of The Third Man are to be perceived through Calloway’s point of view. By using this kind of first limited poin of view. Greene means to underline that the theme must be interpreted through the viewpoint of a police or keeper of laws.

As a conclusion, we can say that the basic theme presented by Greene in The Third Man is that friendship means to love, to confide, and to be loyal as long as that friendship does nothing seriously harm towards humanism.


Greene, Graham. 1981. The Third Man. (in The Third Man/The Fallen Idol) Penguin Books.

O’Prey, Paul. 1988. A Reader’s Guide to Graham Greene. London: Thames and Hudson.

Roberts, Edgar V. 1977. Writing Themes About Literature. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc.


Jakarta, April 16, 2005.


4 thoughts on “The Main Theme of Graham Greene’s “The Third Man””

  1. Eugenia Papaioannou said:

    Thanks for the analysis of the theme of THE THIRD MAN. It’s great.

  2. This was awesome,

  3. Matthew ( said:

    Thanks for a really full post! It’s hard to find good articles about the book as most of the discussion seems to revolve around the film so I was really pleased to find this!

    My review: The Third Man by Graham Greene

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