Greene made it his responsibility as a writer to express this suffering, in the sense of both enacting and squeezing the truth of it onto the page. With absolute intention, he kept himself mentally shackled to his desk every day of his writing life until he’d turned out his requisite 300 to 500 words (the daily number shrank as he aged, but his commitment never did). He felt similarly bound to his characters. “It’s like a strain on the eyesight,” he told Israel Shenker of theNew York Times in 1971. “I find that I have to know — even if I’m not writing it [literally into the scene] — where my character’s sitting, what his movements are. It’s this focusing […] that strains my eyes, as though I were watching something too close.” This intense scrutiny enabled Greene to be exacting with his factual details — and also to wring out of them their crucial double meaning. For what Greene watched most closely was the inner life of his characters. Each external movement had to be not only seen but also decoded as an expression of human truth.
For Greene, that truth inevitably was influenced by his own perspective, which in turn was influenced by his manic depression. He admitted as much in his autobiographyWays of Escape: “Writing is a form of therapy. Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.” The likes of Orwell and Wood might dispute the claim that features of mental illness are inherent in the human condition, but who could deny Greene’s bottom line? “There are so many things that bother one about the world,” he told Shenker. “Injustice, intolerance. And that it all comes to an end.” If Greene’s depression gave him a special appreciation for specific forms of human affliction, it also made him wise to the universality of suffering.