A Shocking Accident by Graham Greene
About the story: A Shocking Accident was published in 1967 in the collection of stories May We Borrow Your Husband?. It was later made into a film which won an Oscar for Best Short Film in 1983.
In the story, Jerome, the main character, attends a ‘preparatory’ or ‘prep’ school. This is an independent school for children at the lower level and is a boarding school where the pupils live.
In these schools, students are often divided into groups. Each group has its own teams and activities. The groups are called ‘houses’, and each one has its own master, a teacher who manages the students and events in the house. Jerome’s housemaster is Mr Wordsworth.
In the second part of the story, Jerome is older and he attends a ‘public school’, which in the UK is, traditionally a single-sex boarding school, most of which were established in the 18th or 19th centuries
Summary of A Shocking Accident
Jerome, a young boy at a boarding school in England, is called one day to his housemaster’s study. The housemaster tells him that his father, a travel writer, has died in Naples, Italy, as the result of a pig falling on him from a balcony.
As Jerome grows up, his father’s death becomes a source of embarrassment to him. He mentally prepares different ways of telling the story in case anyone is interested in the future in writing his father’s biography.
Jerome becomes engaged to Sally, a doctor’s daughter. He realises that she will find out about his father’s death when she meets his aunt, with whom he has been living. He tries to tell her himself before the visit takes place, but all his attempts fail. A week before the wedding, Sally meets Jerome’s aunt who tells her what happened to his father. Jerome is full of apprehension: what will Sally’s reaction be?
Sally is the first person who responds with the proper annoyance and grieving. Jerome has consistently felt the story requires, thus he falls promptly enamoured with her.
Graham Greene often wrote about his travels in some of the world’s most remote and troubled places. In contrast, Jerome’s father is a writer who seems to travel mainly in Mediterranean countries. His books are given unadventurous titles, such as Sunshine and Shade, Rambles in the Balearics, and Nooks and Crannies — suggesting, perhaps, that Jerome’s father does not take risks. This makes the way he dies even more ‘shocking’.
We learn that often, ‘after an author’s death’, people write to the Times Literary Supplement expressing an interest in personal letters and stories about the writer’s life. Greene tells us that most of these ‘biographies’ are never written and suggests that perhaps some of the more scandalous details are used as ‘blackmail, that is — by threatening to reveal damaging information about someone. It is quite possible that Greene may have seen himself some examples of this type of behaviour.
Before you read the story, you may want to think about some of its main themes. The questions will help you think about the story as you’re reading it for the first time. There is more discussion of the main themes in the literary analysis section.
It is interesting to see how Jerome’s attitude to his father changes as he grows older. As a young boy, he idolises and romanticises him, imagining that he leads an exciting and dangerous life as an agent for the British Secret Service. He is sure that his death has been the result of a gunfight.
Later, at public school, he is teased by the other boys when they learn how Jerome’s father died. By now, he knows his father was a travel writer rather than a secret agent. He accepts this, however, and cherishes the memory of his father and wants to keep it alive.
As a young man, he feels sympathy and quiet love for his father. It is essential to him that the girl he loves understands his feelings.
Reactions to death
Different cultures react to death in different ways. It is not rational that death from a falling pig should cause amusement. Nevertheless, in the story, most people who are not related to the person involved, find something comical in the event. Convention tells us that we should receive news of death with sympathy and seriousness but the housemaster, Jerome’s schoolmates, and strangers find it difficult to react in a conventional way. Because the cause of death is so unusual and unexpected, it makes people react in unusual and unexpected ways.
Understanding The Story
Q. 1 Is Jerome afraid when he is called into the housemaster’s room? Why/why not?
Answer: No, because he was a warden – a position given to approved, reliable boys.
Q. 2 Who has telephoned the school? Why?
Answer: Jerome’s aunt.
Q. 3 What are Jerome’s feelings for his father? What does he think his father does?
Answer: Jerome adores his father. He thinks that he is a gun runner or a member of the British Secret Service.
Q.4 How does Jerome imagine that his father has died?
Answer: He thinks he has been shot.
Q.5 How does Mr Wordsworth react when he tells Jerome how his father died? Greene writes that the housemaster shook with emotion. What kind of emotion do you think Wordsworth is feeling?
Answer: He finds it hard not to laugh. The emotion he feels is probably suppressed amusement.
Q. 6 Does Jerome show a lot of emotion when he hears about his father’s death?
Answer: No, he doesn’t.
Q. 7 When does Jerome realise that other people find his father’s death comical?
Answer: When he first goes to public school.
Q. 8 Why has Jerome got so many postcards? Does he remember his father with love?
Answer: His father sent him postcards from different places. He loved the memory of his father.
Q. 9 Why is it terrible for Jerome to listen to his aunt telling other people about his father’s death?
Answer: People are only interested in his aunt’s story when she tells them about the pig and Jerome hates to see this interest.
Q. 10 Is it likely that anyone in the literary world will ask Jerome for details about his father’s life? Why/why not?
Answer: It is unlikely because his father had not been a very distinguished writer.
Q. 11 Is Jerome aware of his father’s position in the literary world?
Answer: No, because he has no contact with the literary world.
Q. 12 How many explanations of his father’s death has Jerome prepared for other people? Are the explanations very different?
Answer: He prepared two accounts: one leads gradually up to his father’s death; the other says simply that his father was killed by a pig.
Q.13 How would you describe the relationship between Jerome and sally?
Answer: Contented, conventional.
Q. 14 What is Jerome afraid of with regard to Sally and his father?
Answer: He is afraid that Sally will laugh when she hears about his father and he wants to protect his father’s memory.
Q. 15 Why does Jerome long to leave the room when Sally is talking to his aunt?
Answer: He does not want to see Sally’s reaction when his aunt tells her about his father.
Q.16 What is the miracle and why does Jerome’s heart sing with joy?
Answer: The miracle is that Sally is horrified when she learns about Jerome’s father. Jerome is pleased and relieved.
Q. 17 Does the story have a happy ending?
Answer: Yes. Jerome and Sally’s future will probably be a happy one.
Understanding The Story. (Literary analysis)
1 Use these questions to help you check that you have understood the story.
Q.1 What is the shocking accident in the story? How do most people feel when they hear about it? How do you think you would react?
Answer: The shocking accident refers to when the pig fell from the balcony and killed Jerome’s father. Most people are interested and amused.
Q.2 How old is Jerome when his father dies? Do you think this affects Jerome’s reactions?
Answer: He is nine. Because he is young, death is something of a mystery to him. He does not find anything
comic in it.
Q.3 How old is Jerome when the story finishes? How has the manner of his father’s death affected him during his life?
Answer: Jerome has reached adulthood, since he is working, and is engaged to be married. All his life, he has been afraid of people’s reactions to the way his father died.
Q. 4 How many accounts are there in the story of Jerome’s father’s death? Think about Mr Wordsworth, Jerome, and his aunt.
Answer: Mr Wordsworth tells Jerome, Jerome tells other people, either very briefly or in a more elaborate way.
He tells Sally his father had a street accident. His Aunt has a complicated way of telling the story to strangers. The account she gives Sally is uncharacteristically abrupt.
Q. 5 How are the accounts of the death different? Who finds it difficult to tell the story? Who finds it easier? Why?
Answer: Mr Wordsworth is perhaps embarrassed but also amused. Jerome finds it painful. His aunt is less worried because she has no sense of humour.
Q. 6 How do you think Jerome would have felt if Sally had laughed at his aunt’s story? Would the story have ended differently?
Answer: Jerome would probably have felt disappointed. He wonders whether this quiet love of his would survive if Sally were to laugh; he might have ended the relationship in this case.
Q.7 This story was made into a short film. What changes do you think were made? Think about characters, setting, and plot.
Answer: Certain scenes would have to be more explicit, for example, the reactions of other boys at Jerome’s public school, and the discussion of Jerome’s behaviour among his teachers. Perhaps there would have been a scene where Jerome meets Sally for the first time.
Q. 8 How would you describe Jerome’s father? How does he change in Jerome’s eyes as the boy grows older?
Answer: He is a rather sad figure, widowed, restless and a second-rate writer. In Jerome’s eyes, he changes from a mysterious, adventurous figure into an ordinary man with problems. However, Jerome feels a strong affection for him.
Q. 9 What kind of person is Jerome? Do you think he is like his father?
Answer: Jerome is possibly a rather unimaginative person. He seems to want an ordinary life, with a respectable job and a conventional marriage. He was maybe even less adventurous than his father.
Q. 10 How would you describe Jerome’s aunt? What does she think of her brother? Give evidence for your answer.
Answer: Jerome’s aunt is very fond of her brother; she misses him and believes him to have been a better writer and a more glamorous person than he was. She sees nothing amusing in the form of his death and is not embarrassed to tell total strangers what happened. She has probably not travelled much and regards other countries with suspicion.
Q. 11 What kind of person is Sally? Do you think she and Jerome are suited to each other?
Answer: Sally is the right age for Jerome, pleasant, respectable (a doctor’s daughter) and likes children. The author suggests that she is boring, similar to Jerome and that they are well suited.
Q.12 Do you think the type of schooling that Jerome receives affects his character or attitudes? How?
Answer: Jerome’s desire for conventionality and conformity may have been encouraged by his schooling.
Independent schools in the mid-19th century in Britain were single-sex and did not encourage displays of emotion. The pupils were expected to control their feelings and use work and sport to keep them healthy and well-balanced.
Q. 13 What do you think Greene’s attitude is to his characters? Do you think he identifies with some characters more than others? If so, which?
Answer: Greene stands outside of his characters and observes them from a distance. It is possible that he
identifies a little with Mr Wordsworth as he describes the headmaster’s dilemma with sympathy and humour.
Q. 14 Do you think Greene is a sympathetic narrator or a cynical observer of human nature?
Answer: He is rather cynical. All of his characters are caricatures to a certain extent. He is quite rude about his characters’ tastes (Sally likes reading family sagas and was given a doll that made water).
Q. 15 Why do you think Greene makes Jerome a chartered accountant and Sally a doctor’s daughter who adored babies? How do these details contrast with the main event at the centre of the story?
Answer: A chartered accountant is a respectable profession but was considered boring and ‘safe’, especially by writers and other creative people. Sally is a doctor’s daughter and predictable – she likes babies. These normal, harmless details contrast horribly with the violent and absurd manner of Jerome’s father’s death.
Q. 16 Do you think Greene succeeds in making us feel sympathy towards Jerome? How?
Answer: We feel sympathy for Jerome because he is left an orphan at nine, and then has to deal with the unkind remarks of his teenage friends. Despite everything, he is loyal to his father’s memory and desperately wants his future wife to love his memory too.
Q. 17 How would you describe the atmosphere of the story? Are any of the following adjectives appropriate?
amusing bizarre absurd sad cynical well-observed true-to-life unrealistic
Can you think of any more adjectives?
Answer: Student’s own answer.
Q. 18 Are people’s reactions to the pig incident understandable?
Answer: People’s reactions are understandable if sometimes cruel. It is unusual for a person to die in such a way and people find it difficult to know how to react. A lot of their amusement is caused by embarrassment.
Q. 19 Is the story believable or is it exaggerated? Explain your answer.
Answer: It may be exaggerated. It is important to try and understand the cultural background of the story and Greene’s ironic stance.
Q. 20 Look again at the first paragraph of the story [page 81] and the beginning of the conversation between Mr Wordsworth and Jerome. Notice how Greene obtains a comic effect by using both long, formal sentences and short, spoken sentences. Find more examples of this kind of narrative in the story.
Answer: More examples:
‘Nobody shot him, Jerome. A pig fell on him.’ An inexplicable convulsion took place in the nerves of Mr Wordsworth’s face; it really looked for a moment as though he were going to laugh. Mr Wordsworth left his desk rapidly and went to the window, turning his back on Jerome.
Jerome said, ‘What happened to the pig?’
Q. 21 Look at the aunt’s question [refer text] ending but who could possibly have expected when he was walking along the Via Dottore Manuele Panucci on his way to the Hydrographic Museum that a pig would fall on him?’ What effect do the details of the place have? Can you find other places where unnecessary detail is given? What effect does it have?
Answer: These details make the account more real but also more comical. The name of the street and the museum are largely irrelevant.
The aunt also gives irrelevant detail about her brother’s water filter. Jerome gives lots of irrelevant detail about the tenement blocks in Naples in his rambling account of his father’s death.
22 Wordsworth’s question, ‘All going well with the trigonometry ?’
[page 81] is absurd in the circumstances — so inappropriate that it is funny. It shows how difficult Mr Wordsworth finds it to tell Jerome of his father’s death, and how uncomfortable he is in this situation.
What other questions are there which create a comic effect?
Answer: Some other such questions are:
‘Did they shoot him through the heart?’
i. ‘What happened to the pig?’
ii. ‘Was your father keen on polo?’
iii. ‘I was wondering,’ Sally said, ‘what happened to the poor pig?’
23 Culturally, the English are known for their use of understatement. For example, they might say ‘It was rather cold’ when they really mean ‘It was absolutely freezing!’ Greene is very ‘English’ in this respect. Look at these examples of understatement from the story. Naturally, after that disclosure he was known, rather unreasonably, as
Pig. (It was a very unreasonable and cruel nickname.) Jerome’s father had not been a very distinguished writer. (He had been a bad writer.)
Can you find any more examples of understatement in the story?
i. ‘Your father has had an accident.’
ii. ‘A shocking accident.’
Q. 24 Greene often uses irony in his writing — a form of humour where the literal meaning is the opposite of the actual meaning, it can sound as though you are being serious, but actually you are being sarcastic. Notice below, how he describes Jerome’s profession and how it affects his relationship with Sally.
In course of time, neither too early nor too late, rather as though, in his capacity as a chartered accountant, Jerome had studied statistics and taken the average, he became engaged to be married. Their relationship was contented rather than exciting, as became the love affair of a chartered accountant; it would never have done if it had interfered with the figures.
Answer: The description suggests a practical, unromantic attitude to love and marriage. Greene seems to be saying that chartered accountants tend to behave in this way and are rather dull. He could have written: Jerome, doing everything by the book, became engaged to be married at just the right time of his life.