The Heart of the Matter

by Graham Greene

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Places Discussed

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West African colony

West African colony. Unnamed British colony in West Africa, but probably modeled on Sierra Leone, in whose colonial service Graham Greene worked during the early 1940’s. Major Scobie, his novel’s protagonist, is a deputy commissioner in the colony’s police service and works out of the colony’s chief port city. The secretariat for which he works represents British imperial control. Juxtaposed with the British presence are the enticing young African women who sit at the windows of the high school, and black clerks who move “churchward” with their wives in brilliant dresses.

In this mixed setting, Scobie goes past the secretariat to meet the commissioner at the police station and learns that he has again been passed over for promotion, despite his fifteen years of service with exemplary integrity. Instead of accepting any of the usual options offered to an officer in his position, Scobie refuses to resign, retire, or transfer to another colony; he wants to stay because he “likes the place.” He knows the colony so well that he has no need of maps because he carries the “whole coastline” in his mind’s eye. However, his disappointment at being denied promotion combines with the lassitude of the tropical colony to change him in ways that ultimately lead to his destruction.

Scobie’s house

Scobie’s house. House originally built for a Syrian trader near a swamp in which Scobie lives with his wife, Louise. The last time Scobie had been on leave, he was ousted from his government bungalow in the town’s European quarter. Louise, already unhappy with her living conditions, is even more anguished by Scobie’s being denied promotion. She feels humiliated and wants to go to South Africa to prepare a home there for his retirement. Unlike Scobie, Louise can never feel at home in West Africa. The novel’s primary conflict arises from the widening distance between Scobie and his wife over where they should live.


Bamba. Backcountry town in which another government officer, Pemberton, commits suicide, prompting an order for Scobie to go inland to retrieve Pemberton’s body. Scobie’s trip to Bamba, with its river crossings, marks a turning point in his domestic and professional life and foreshadows his own suicide. At Bamba, the shady Syrian merchant Yusef—a suspected smuggler—offers Scobie a loan to pay for Louise’s trip to South Africa. This incident begins a relationship between Scobie and Yusef that intensifies suspense through suspicion, spying, and blackmail.

Nissen huts

Nissen huts. Shabby one-room quarters for government officers and their dependents near the coastline. Wilson and Harris live in one of these huts. Likewise, Helen Rolt, a freshly widowed woman rescued after her ship is torpedoed by Germans during her honeymoon, occupies one. Scobie believes that his relationship with Helen is “safe,” but when they are alone in the hut, they begin an adulterous affair. This setting provides a center to the theme of betrayal at the novel’s conclusion. Wilson not only lives in close proximity to Yusef’s office, he uses bribery, enticing promises, and the blood bond between his servant and Yusef’s servant to spy on Yusef. Scobie’s desire to conceal his visits to Helen shake his trust in his servant, Ali. The pervasive atmosphere of mistrust in this setting leads to Ali’s murder and Scobie’s suicide.


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Bloom, Harold, ed. Graham Greene. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. In “The Trilogy,” R. W. B. Lewis discusses the uneven development of style and vigor in Greene’s early fiction, comparing The Heart of the Matter

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The Heart of the Matter to Brighton Rock (1938) and The Power and the Glory (1940). The Heart of the Matter is the most traditional of the novels and the best example of Greene’s blending of psychology and theology. Chronology and bibliography.

Boardman, Gwenn R. Graham Greene: The Aesthetics of Exploration. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1971. Chapter 4 discusses Greene’s comments on the novel, its exploration of Catholicism, and its treatment of love. Bibliography.

DeVitis, A. A. Graham Greene. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Chapter 4 summarizes the critical controversy over the novel’s religious issues, Greene’s views of his fiction, the role of pride in the character of Scobie, the novel’s setting, and Scobie’s struggle with himself, with God, and with the Catholic church. Chronology, notes, and bibliography.

Evans, Robert O., ed. Graham Greene: Some Critical Considerations. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1967. In “The Heart of the Novel: The Turning Point in The Heart of the Matter,” Kai Laitnen focuses on chapter 1 of book 2, where Scobie arrives to receive the shipwrecked people from the French colonial area, where the central threads of the novel intersect. Notes and bibliography.

O’Prey, Paul. A Reader’s Guide to Graham Greene. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988. Chapter 5 emphasizes the religious aspects of the novel, exploring the way that religion provides the framework for the characters and the author. Examines Greene’s handling of the rigidity of Catholic doctrine, the novel’s moral and dogmatic paradoxes, and its vision of God. Minor characters and the setting are also discussed. Bibliography.


Critical Essays