The Heart of the Matter
Date Published: September 28, 2004
Number of Pages: 288
Print Price: $10.37
eBook Price: $
Meet Major Henry Scobie, the highly principled, morally scrupulous, overly-solicitous, and gravely unhappy protagonist from Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. His exhausting struggle is so expertly described by these words: “So much of life was putting off unhappiness for another time. Nothing was ever lost by delay. He had a dim idea that perhaps if one delayed long enough, things were taken out of one’s hands altogether by death.”
Graham Greene is an exceptionally gifted writer, one who truly does know how to get to the heart of the matter – and in doing so, he creates some of the most lyrical, hauntingly beautiful prose I have ever read. Some of his passages are so perfectly expressed that I find myself going back and reading them over again – just for the sheer pleasure that is evoked by the language he employs.
My father, who has been a voracious reader his entire life (and converted to Catholicism at twenty-one, before he married my mother), has told me he considers Greene the greatest fiction writer of all time, Catholic or otherwise. His sister, a lawyer who spent over twenty years teaching high school English and literature courses, disagrees with him. After thoughtful consideration, I have decided that I tend to side with my father on this one.
On his recommendation, I read The End of the Affair about ten years ago, and it was life-changing. I followed it up with The Power and the Glory, another literary masterpiece. In both books, Greene tackles the complexities of the human condition with a skilled and compassionate pen, and he breathes life into unforgettable characters that are deeply flawed yet completely lovable.
I was only too happy, therefore, to offer to review Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter for CatholicFiction.net, confident that it would be as beautifully written and thought-provoking as Greene’s other works. I was not disappointed.
The setting for this story is a war-torn West African colony, where Scobie works for the Foreign Office as a police officer in the early days of World War II. After fifteen years of dedicated service at this desolate station that he has grown to love, he has been passed over for the position of Commissioner of Police – which is a profound disappointment for his long-suffering wife, who misses her old life of ease and comfort and thinks he deserves to be elevated to a more prestigious position.
Scobie doesn’t so much love his wife as pity her. “The less he needed Louise,” Graham writes, “the more conscious he became of his responsibility for her happiness…pity and responsibility reached the intensity of a passion.”
It doesn’t help that Scobie and Louise have no children to distract them from their disintegrating relationship, having lost their only daughter three years before while she was away at boarding school in England. Since Scobie believes that it has “always been his responsibility to maintain happiness in those he loved,” he is relieved that one of the people for whom he is responsible is safe now – his daughter, who by dying has moved on to a better life; but his wife is another story.
Louise is not well-liked by the people in their social circle at the outpost (the other foreign diplomats and their wives). She is a bit of a social outcast, viewed by the others as a bookish snob who puts on airs, and it isn’t until a clerk named Wilson (a fellow poetry enthusiast) arrives on the scene that Scobie can breathe a sigh of relief, because it appears that his socially-shunned wife has at last found a friend. Wilson wants to be much more than a friend; he falls in love with Louise and grows to hate Scobie.
Louise does not reciprocate Wilson’s feelings; she loves her husband, but is also well aware that although he feels an overwhelming sense of responsibility for her, he doesn’t really love her back. She asks Scobie to arrange a long vacation for her, hoping that after a break from the heat and general atmosphere of despair, she will return with a renewed sense of energy and purpose. Scobie, wanting as always to make his wife happy, tries to figure out a way to get enough money to buy her passage on a ship to South Africa.
When he can’t get the required funds through legitimate channels, he turns to his friend Yusef, who is known around the colony for his underhanded business deals. And thus begins Scobie’s inevitable downfall. “Scobie the Just,” as he’s been known, a man who would never even think of breaking a law, is now associated with a man whose name is synonymous with lawbreaking.
To further complicate matters, when a young widow named Helen arrives at the station, near death after having survived an enemy attack at sea, Scobie places on his already heavily burdened shoulders a sense of responsibility for her happiness, too. He falls in love with Helen, and with his wife far away on vacation, they begin to have an affair.
Between his dealings with shady Yusef and his illicit affair with Helen, he has put himself in a dangerous position, especially since Yusef has the power to blackmail him and jealous Wilson would like nothing better than to see his competitor’s downfall.
Scobie is a man of faith, but he is a tortured soul nonetheless. When he and Louise attend Mass before she heads off on her trip (a reprieve for which he has paid far too high a price), he thinks, “I’ve prayed for peace and now I’m getting it. It’s terrible the way that prayer is answered.”
When a young man in the colony commits suicide and he goes to investigate the scene, Scobie is haunted by the idea of the man’s “unforgivable sin, the final expression of an unrepentant despair.” And yet…and yet, he thinks, “God had sometimes broken his own laws, and was it less possible for him to put out a hand of forgiveness into the suicidal darkness than to have woken in the tomb, behind the stone? Christ had not been murdered – you couldn’t murder God. Christ had killed himself: he had hung himself on the Cross,” just as surely as that poor young man had hung himself from a picture rail.
When Scobie is incapable of making a good confession and therefore must forego receiving Holy Communion, he in effect lays bare his sins to the world – but most importantly, to Louise – and feels he has damned himself irreparably. With Louise back from her travels, thrilled that her husband has at long last been chosen as the new Commissioner, Scobie should finally have the peace that has long eluded him. But unfortunately, it appears to be too late for that.
In a tragic, misguided attempt to be all things to all people – to ensure, to the best of his ability, the happiness of those for whom he feels responsible – poor Scobie ultimately fails everyone…but most of all, he fails himself. As Greene puts it, “Only the man of goodwill carries always in his heart this capacity for damnation.” I don’t want to give you too many details and destroy the ending of the story; you’ll have to read The Heart of the Matter yourself to see what happens. But I highly recommend that you do read it. I guarantee you will not walk away from it untouched.
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.7 x 0.8 inches
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