Major Scobie, the hero of The Heart of the Matter, is a middle-aged police officer in British West Africa. During his fifteen years of service he has acquired a reputation for unfailing integrity. His wife, Louise, is a nagging and restless woman who plans a holiday trip to South Africa to escape the languid, oppressive atmosphere of Sierra Leone and the embarrassment caused by her husband’s failure to be promoted to commissioner. Scobie, whose love for her has long been replaced by an obsessive sense of pity and responsibility, borrows the money for her vacation from a Syrian smuggler and usurer named Yusef.
During his wife’s absence Scobie falls in love with a nineteen-year-old girl named Helen Rolt, who has been widowed in a shipwreck off the coast. When Louise returns, Scobie still feels morally bound to live up to his private vow to see to it that she is always happy. Complicating matters further, Scobie writes Helen a letter reassuring her of his love for her. This letter winds up in the hands of Yusef, who blackmails Scobie into helping him smuggle some diamonds out of the country.
Shortly after her return home, Louise asks Scobie to go to Holy Communion with her. He goes to confession but cannot promise the priest that he will not see Helen again and so cannot be absolved of his sin. In order to ward off any suspicion of his adultery, however, he receives Communion in the state of mortal sin. He willingly risks his eternal damnation rather than inflict pain on Louise. At the same...
Major Scobie is chief of police in a British West African district. Over the past fifteen years, he has built up a reputation for honesty, but he learns that, in spite of his labors, he is to be passed over for the district commissionership in favor of a younger man. Those fifteen long years now seem to him to have been too long and filled with too much work. Worse than his own disappointment is the disappointment of his wife. Mrs. Scobie needs the encouragement that a rise in official position would have given her to compensate for the loss of her only child some years before and for her unpopularity among the official families of the district.
A love for literature, especially poetry, sets Mrs. Scobie apart from the other officials and their wives. Once the difference was discerned, the other Britishers came to distrust and dislike her. They even pity her husband. Indeed, the Scobies are not much happier than people imagine them to be. Mrs. Scobie hates her life, and her husband dislikes having to make her face it realistically; both of them drink. When she finds that her husband is not going to become district commissioner, Mrs. Scobie insists that he send her to the Cape Colony for a holiday, even though German submarines are torpedoing many vessels at the time.
Scobie cannot afford the expense of a trip to the Cape Colony. Indeed, he already gave up part of his life insurance to pay for a previous such excursion. After trying unsuccessfully to borrow money from the banks, he seeks out Yusef, a Syrian merchant, who agrees to lend him the money at 4 percent interest. Scobie knows that any dealings he has with Yusef will place him under a cloud, because the British officials are aware that many of the Syrian’s activities are illegal. He even ships industrial diamonds to the Nazis. Pressed by his wife’s apparent need to escape the boredom of the rainy season in the coast colony, however, Scobie finally takes the chance that he can keep clear of Yusef’s entanglements, even though he knows that the Syrian hates him for the reputation of integrity he has built up during the past fifteen years.
To add to Scobie’s difficulties, he learns that Wilson, a man supposedly sent out on a clerkship with a trading company, is actually an undercover agent working for the government on the problem of diamond smuggling. This fact poses a series of problems for the police chief. Scobie has been given no official notice of Wilson’s true activities; Wilson has fallen in love with Scobie’s wife; and Mrs. Scobie once bloodied Wilson’s nose and permitted her husband to see her admirer crying. Any one of these facts would have made Scobie uneasy; all three in combination make him painfully aware that Wilson must hate him, as in fact he does.
Shortly after his wife’s departure, a series of events begins to break down Major Scobie’s trust in his own honesty and the reputation he has built up for himself. When a Portuguese liner is searched upon its arrival in port,...