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.
(The entire section is 1149 words.)