A Burnt-Out Case

by Graham Greene
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 997

Querry takes the long boat ride into the African jungle, traveling deeper and deeper into the Congo and escaping farther and farther from the misery of his life in Europe. When the boat reaches its ultimate point—a leper colony run by Catholic missionaries—Dr. Colin and the priests invite Querry to stay. Settling in at the colony, Querry asks only for solitude. “So you thought you could just come and die here?” Dr. Colin asks him. “Yes, that was in my mind,” he responds. “But chiefly I wanted to be in an empty place, where no new building or woman would remind me that there was a time when I was alive, with a vocation and a capacity for love.” Querry explains to Dr. Colin that he is figuratively like the lepers—the burnt-out cases—who lose their toes and fingers to the disease, but, once mutilated, no longer suffer pain. “The palsied suffer, their nerves feel, but I am one of the mutilated, doctor,” Querry says. After a month at the leper colony, Querry offers to drive to Luc, the capital city, to pick up some medical equipment for Dr. Colin. While in the city, Querry is accosted by Rycker, who recognizes the famous architect from an old cover photo in Time magazine. After picking up the doctor’s equipment, Querry agrees to spend the night at Rycker’s house, near the palm oil factory that Rycker manages. At the house, Querry meets Rycker’s childlike young wife, Marie, and witnesses firsthand the misery of her marriage to Rycker.

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While Marie is preparing a drink for her guest, Rycker explains to Querry that he married a very young woman because women age rapidly in the tropics and he wanted a wife who will still be sexually attractive when he is an old man. He adds that young women are more easily trained and that he trained Marie to “know what a man needs.” Rycker, who spent six years in the seminary, complains that Marie is ignorant of Catholic rituals and that she cannot understand his spiritual needs the way Querry can. Querry insists he no longer believes, but Rycker refuses to listen. Appalled by Rycker’s insensitivity and disgusted by his hollow professions of faith, Querry leaves hurriedly the next morning.

For a time, Querry feels at ease only in the company of Dr. Colin. Dr. Colin respects Querry’s need for peace and quiet, but Rycker, the failed priest, and Father Thomas, the doubting priest, refuse to respect Querry’s privacy. Although Querry protests, they see him as the great Catholic architect, the famous builder of monuments to God, and they torment him with their spiritual problems. After two months at the leper colony, Querry feels more secure, and he begins the long journey back from his emotional breakdown. At Dr. Colin’s urging, he begins to draw up plans for a new leper hospital. When his leper-servant, Deo Gratias, becomes lost in the jungle, he rescues him. Querry and Dr. Colin talk often about God—Dr. Colin happy in his atheism and Querry tormented by his half-belief.

Just as Querry is beginning to enjoy a rebirth of interest in life, he suffers a setback with the arrival of the journalist Parkinson. Just when Querry believes that he truly escaped his past, hidden in the jungle where few know or care that he once was famous, the journalist’s arrival shatters this sense of security. Parkinson, a lonely and bitter man, knows he can achieve fame for himself by publishing the whereabouts of the famous architect. He digs up painful events of Querry’s past, including the suicide of a mistress who killed herself for Querry’s love. He seeks out Rycker, who pretends intimacy with Querry and feeds Parkinson a pack of lies. Angered by Rycker’s lies to Parkinson, Querry travels to Rycker’s house, determined to confront him and convince him to stay away from the journalist. Arriving at Rycker’s home, Querry finds Rycker ill in bed and Marie in a state of panic, fearing she is pregnant and knowing her husband wants no children. Touched by her helplessness and moved by her tears, Querry offers to take Marie to the doctor in Luc. That night in the hotel in Luc, Querry hears Marie crying in the room next door and goes in to comfort her. He tells her a story about a famous Catholic jeweler who lost his faith in God, a story that Marie quickly recognizes as the story of Querry’s own life. In the morning, Marie sees the doctor, who tells her she will have to wait two days for her pregnancy test results.

That same morning at the hotel, Querry and Marie meet Parkinson, and they are soon joined by Rycker, who insists that Querry and Marie slept together the night before. Querry tries to convince Rycker of the truth, but Rycker refuses to believe him. Disgusted with Rycker once again, Querry promptly leaves Luc and returns to the colony. Three days later, the priests hold a party to celebrate the completion of the new hospital. Querry, Dr. Colin, and the priests toast their accomplishment with champagne. Querry feels warm and happy, planning his future there among his new friends.

His joy, however, is interrupted with the news that Marie is at the nearby convent school, exposing her pregnancy and falsely claiming that Querry is the father. No amount of coaxing on Querry’s part can persuade the young woman to tell the truth. She stubbornly clings to her lie, perhaps for love of Querry, or perhaps seeing her chance to escape from Rycker. Though Dr. Colin and some of the priests believe in Querry’s innocence, others do not, and Querry sadly prepares to leave the colony. That very night, however, Rycker shows up in a rage. As Querry attempts to pacify him, Rycker shoots and kills Querry in a fit of jealous passion.

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