Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 618
Major Scobie, “Ticki” to his wife, a police chief in a British-controlled West African colony. He is a man whose merit is frequently overlooked and whose capacities for sensitive reaction are underestimated. Thus, when he learns he is not to be chosen district commissioner, he feels the slight more for his wife than for himself. He is scrupulous in his dealings, and he has a reputation for honesty earned in fifteen years of hard work. His scrupulousness is a result of religious convictions that force him to view every problem as a moral conflict; the tendency also diminishes his powers of decision. Compromising with his principles under the hysterical pressure of his wife, who feels that she must leave the colony, he borrows money from Yusef, a suspected Syrian smuggler. Another threat of compromise arises when, during his wife’s absence, he meets Helen Rolt, a young widow who is among the survivors of a torpedoed British ship. Greatly in need of friendship and encouragement, she becomes Scobie’s mistress, but it is desperation as much as love that binds him to Helen. An honest man, he cannot conceal from himself the fact that he is an adulterer. The same honesty forces him to recognize that he has profaned the act of communion by sharing the rite with his returned wife; this act is another step toward damnation. He reaches the end of his rope when he discovers that he is under official surveillance because of his relationship with Yusef. He commits suicide after fabricating the hoax of a serious heart condition, even though he knows that his act points toward complete damnation.
Louise Scobie, the major’s wife, essentially a weak woman whose pretenses and lack of perspective set her apart from the colony. She is ambitious for her husband, and she has suffered the loss of her only child. Her lack of perception appears after her husband’s suicide; she remarks to the priest that her husband was a “bad Catholic” and speaks of Scobie’s defects. She has no sense of the utter despair that her husband had reached before his act.
Helen Rolt, a young woman rescued after a British ship has been torpedoed by a German submarine. She becomes Scobie’s mistress and cannot understand why his religion prevents divorce and remarriage. Her recent widowhood makes her seek the security of a second marriage—if not to Scobie, then to a young officer who is attracted to her.
Wilson, a counter-intelligence agent sent to investigate the smuggling of industrial diamonds to Nazi Germany. He sees in Scobie a man who neglects his wife, deals with Yusef, a patently suspicious character, and is in love with another woman. He hates Major Scobie because he has himself fallen in love with Louise Scobie.
Yusef, a wily Syrian merchant. He loves Scobie as a fellow human being beset with problems, but he hates Scobie because he is honest and perhaps because he recognizes Scobie’s tarnished but still superior moral strength.
Father Rank, a priest of less than saintly demeanor who sees more deeply than the colony knows. He has compassion for Scobie and sees in him the lonely man forced by his conscience to choose among the evils that face him. It would not have shocked him to know that Scobie’s angina was feigned and that his suicide was the surrender of a soul endlessly tormented. As he says, a priest knows only sins; a man does not confess his virtues.
Tallit, a Syrian involved with Yusef. He is capable of great double-dealing.
Ali, Scobie’s favorite “boy,” who loses his life.