The Heart of the Matter

by Graham Greene

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Critical Evaluation

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The fears and hopes, friendships and petty rivalries, loves and hates of Europeans immured in a colony on the African coast afforded Graham Greene, who actually worked in such a place during World War II, the material for this novel. The book continues the study of British people begun in earlier works by Greene. Major Scobie, like Arthur Rowe in The Ministry of Fear: An Entertainment (1943), is a relatively friendless man—a type that seems to fascinate the author. Like Rowe in the earlier novel, Major Scobie is placed in a position where he can choose between life or death. The high point in both novels is that at which the choice is made. Beyond the immediate story, however, there are larger implications. The Heart of the Matter, written by one of the leading Catholic novelists of the day, is actually a religious story, a fable of the conflict between good and evil. It is a drama of the human soul in midpassage toward heaven or hell.

The Heart of the Matter is an intelligent, perceptive, and humane tour de force on the spiritual capacities and moral dilemmas of Henry Scobie, husband, chief of police, and Catholic. Each of these roles contributes something to the complications of Scobie’s situation. While accepting a stern Roman Catholic framework, Greene challenges readers to find fault with a man who goes from dishonesty and infidelity to sacrilege and suicide. As Scobie degenerates, Greene dares readers, despite the evidence, to cast the first stone by involving their sympathies and appealing to a higher law of mercy, one beyond the human capacity to understand or forgive.

The hothouse setting in a British colony on the West African coast in the early 1940’s is interesting in its own right. It affords opportunity for commentary on the uncertainties of the period and the limitations of the colonial mentality. Nevertheless, the setting is not the heart of the matter. Scobie’s problems as a human being are always the central focus of the novel, and they spring from the confluence of his circumstances, his roles, and his character. Scobie is a perpetual outsider to the web of colonial life. Too self-contained, too reflective, too honest with himself and others, he is not able to assume the roles and act out the rituals that will bring him local success. Circumstances contribute to the evolution of the central conflict, but the maritime warfare and diamond smuggling are, for Scobie, rather occasions for sin than sin itself. They provide a context in which Scobie’s character agonizes and falters as he takes on his major roles. In each of these roles, his character shines through, and it may be his ultimate transcendence that his strength of character maintains a stable core as its periphery comes into conflict with corrupting circumstances.

Scobie’s first role is as husband to a wife who, to Scobie’s credit, is far more irritating to readers than to him. It is only through Scobie’s patience and understanding that readers achieve any degree of sympathy for the human burden his wife bears. In Scobie’s related role of father of a deceased daughter, readers see more of his, and his wife’s, suffering. However, he understands her while she lacks the sensitivity, despite her love for poetry, to reciprocate. Paradoxically, Scobie’s honesty about his own limitations and compassion for the plight of others leads to a kind of hubris, which manifests itself first in his attempts to make his wife happy. It is this same desire to fix the world, to provide totally for another’s security and happiness, that embroils him in his...

(This entire section contains 1149 words.)

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later relationship with the vulnerable Mrs. Rolt and occasions his infidelity.

In his role as chief of police, Scobie has the sort of reputation for impeccable honesty and fairness that, combined with a lack of ambition, is likely to stimulate the suspicion, gossip, and animosity of his small-minded peers. It is one of the novel’s many fine ironies that Scobie’s honesty is compromised by the compassion he feels for his wife’s plight, for it is his perhaps excessive and blameworthy, even selfish, desire to free her that leads him to borrow money and put himself in the hands of Yusef. Indeed, Scobie may ultimately desire to free himself, but that desire lays him open to the less publicly dangerous but morally serious dishonesty with Mrs. Rolt. His desire, whether it is to please his wife or free himself, leads to a compromise of his office. His desire to provide insulation against suffering, whether it is compassionate or selfish, leads to a compromise of his marriage.

Scobie does not wish anything but to be at peace, and he hopes that if he can fix everything for his wife and thereby free himself of her, he can find peace. Subsequently, Scobie’s compassion for Mrs. Rolt turns into a love that brings his desire to repair other lives to an impasse when he wins Mrs. Rolt and his wife decides to return. In the chain of consequences and of flawed moral decisions, his attempt to comfort Mrs. Rolt by a reckless declaration of love further leads to complicity in murder. Scobie’s actions are, thus far, morally imperfect but entangled in mixed emotions and motives. It is in his role as Catholic that he commits the ultimate transgressions against God and the divine power of forgiveness.

Violation of public trust and infidelity can be pardoned or extenuated, but Scobie, as a Catholic, proceeds to commit institutionally unforgivable sins. His love for Mrs. Rolt makes a valid confession impossible, because his selfishness and compassion make it impossible for him to promise to leave her. His concern for his wife forces him to receive Communion without absolution for his sin so that he will not betray himself to her and thus wound her. In so doing, he does violence to Christ in the Eucharist. Although well aware that Christ, for love of man, makes himself vulnerable to abuse by his availability in the sacrament, Scobie allows his human motives to lead him to desecrate that trust by receiving Christ while in a state of sin. Having sacrificed Christ to selfishness and human compassion, Scobie is left totally desolate; unable to live with these conflicts, he commits the sin that theoretically puts him beyond God’s mercy: suicide.

Nevertheless, readers do not condemn Scobie. It is not that he is an automaton, a victim of circumstance. To excuse him on those grounds would trivialize the theology of the novel: “To understand all is to forgive all.” Rather, readers clearly recognize his progressive sins but are led by Greene to participate in the mystery of divine mercy by extending compassion without selfishness. Raised to the divine level, the compassion that contributed to Scobie’s corruption may also be his only hope of salvation.