The Heart of the Matter Summary
by Graham Greene

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The Heart of the Matter Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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 Scobie, whose love for her has long been replaced by an obsessive sense of pity and responsibility, borrows the money for her vacation from a Syrian smuggler and usurer named Yusef.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 time, his love and sense of responsibility for Helen are so strong that he cannot bring himself to end the affair. He thus tells God that he will accept eternal damnation in exchange for the happiness of these two women.

Tormented by his religious hypocrisy and by the certain knowledge that his dilemma will lead him to inflict unnecessary pain on Louise or Helen, Scobie decides to commit suicide. Both women, he reasons, will forget him after his death and will regain their happiness. He studies the symptoms of angina pectoris so that his death may appear to be natural then poisons himself with tablets prescribed by his doctor for the pretended illness.

Scobie is a sympathetic figure, demanding the reader’s pity and respect. His sense of pity and responsibility for the happiness of others, however, is excessive and demonstrates an almost monstrous pride that leads to his self-destruction. The reader feels sorry for Scobie because he cannot help himself. Watching his fall from grace is like watching the hero of a drama who, flawed by a critical blindness in his character, seeks peace and happiness but ironically and irrevocably brings upon himself and others pain, suffering, and death. The novel conveys a strong sense of fatalism as a chain of interlocking events that combines with Scobie’s obsessive personality to diminish his freedom and finally makes suicide the only means by which he can resolve his overwhelming dilemma.

During Scobie’s last moments he begins a prayer to God that he fails to finish. The reader is inclined to believe that this tragic man, who has suffered deeply, will at last be awarded the peace of God, but Greene characteristically denies the reader the restful certainty of that conclusion. Strictly speaking, suicide is a mortal sin that cannot be repented, and thus, according to Catholic doctrine, Scobie’s soul is damned to Hell. Afterward, Scobie’s priest, Father Rank, points out that the Church does not know what goes on in a single human heart, thereby leaving the door open to the possibility that Scobie’s final state of mind might have made his salvation possible.

Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1,853 words.)