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 Scobie, whose love for her has long been replaced by an obsessive sense of pity and responsibility, borrows the money for her vacation from a Syrian smuggler and usurer named Yusef.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...
(The entire section is 623 words.)