The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

I would never have chosen this book because I’m not crazy about Greene and his anxiety about Catholic righteousness.  Oh well – this one is supposed to be pretty good and it was re-released in 2011, a good sign.

Major Henry Scobie is a police commissioner working somewhere in West Africa circa WWII.  He likes it there,  likes his job,  and loves his wife, Louise.  He should be  a happy man,  right?  Wrong – Louise is not happy at all – she feels she has no friends and wants to go to South Africa.  Scobie feels it’s his responsibility to make her happy.   The only child of the couple died a few years prior and Scobie feels a lot of guilt as well as self-pity.



The Heart of the Matter
by Graham Greene
1948 /  288 pages
read by Michael Kitchen 10h 6m
rating:  8 / classic  – an extra point for being a classic  

Why Sierra Leon  or the Ivory Coast or wherever?  It’s not for the scenery or the population because there’s almost nothing about that sort of thing – just enough to know it’s a distant land with a hugely varied population.  More likely the novel is set there to give a slight distancing to the whole situation and more sympathy for the protagonist . He’s a police officer,  alone in a war zone distant from home.   Scobie’s first transgression, against his job,  involves a clemency,  a mercy to a deserving suspect.

But he has embarked on a slippery slope – his wife gets to leave with the help of an ill advised loan.  Then he meets a devastated young widow who needs him  and well –  he’s just trying to help –   poor, sad man.

Also,  Africa gives the protagonist access to illicit funds, smuggled diamonds,  a man from another culture with different values who will “understand” and help –  I suppose with some thought this could mostly have been achieved in  London – only the distancing would be missing.   Because of that distancing we’re better able to understand that Scobie is a very good man who is in a strange and lonely place where he feels unappreciated at work and unloved by his wife. Furthermore he has none of the resources he would have in London – old friends,  family, activities.  He becomes sympathetic in a way he would not have been in the city.

Major Scobie is a good Catholic man – he wants always to do the right thing which he interprets as being in the good graces of the Church.   He doesn’t lie, steal, cheat, commit adultery or any number of other things.    He’s very proud of his “goodness”  and sticks to it.  He goes to mass  and has a very legalistic view of religion.  But!  he does little things like tearing up letters from suspicious persons when he finds they’re innocuous  –  this is against regulations and Scobie tries to follow the laws and regulations of the government and the injunctions of the Church.

Scobie’s depressed wife Louise really, really wants to go to South Africa.  So Scobie has to find the money and he accepts a loan from this disreputable man who deals in illicit diamonds.  Then he does something else akin to lying.  Then he … well .. yes. He errs in many ways and struggles with his choices – or lack of them.  And then he starts really feeling sorry for himself and wonders if everyone feels pity for him –  that pretty well tears at his pride.  Scobie is a very proud man – hasn’t thought he needed forgiveness because has committed no sins – until now – and he can’t face himself,  face those he’s hurt,  face his God.   It’s depressing –

Pity seems to be Scobie’s whole concept of love –  he feels sorry for his wife,  sorry for the man with the letter,  sorry for the young widow –  he mostly feels sorry for himself.

“The character of Scobie was intended to show that pity can be the expression of an almost monstrous pride.”  Greene in the  Introduction to the novel. 

Greene writes very nicely with  interesting metaphors and believable characters in psychological torment.  Still, I’m really rather bored with his issues of existential despair played out against the backdrop of Church regulations and commandments.   He’s searching for a meaningful life and for love but can’t let go of the need for Church approval.   Where is one to find meaning? –

I’ve now read three of Graham’s books saying the same thing in different shells –   The Power and the Glory (Mexico 1930s,   pub 1940),  The End of the Affair (1951 – London Blitz of 1940  – pub 1951) – and this one (Africa WWII – pub 1948).   –   Some poor man trying to be a good Catholic is trying to align his human passions (lust) with the  Church and/or state in addition to other women,  etc.    The protagonist struggles with this and always feels guilty and overwhelmed with disgust and self-pity because of  illicit love – but he can’t stop himself from loving – which is what he really thinks the rules are requiring.  –  What kind of a God would condemn a man for loving?    –

I think this message probably had a lot more impact in 1950,  when it was perceived as being truly realistic considering the higher moral standards the Church had at the time, higher than they are now after the 2nd Vatican of 1965.    I doubt men and women these days worry too much about Church condemnation as a result of adultery – they  tend to feel guilty for breaking the trust of their partner – for hurting the other party.   They were angry that divorced folks are not able to take communion (until very recently).   The Church has become a bit obsolete for most folks as a result of archaic prohibitions on birth control,  divorce,  etc.

Fwiw,  these three books pretty much follow Graham’s own life – he was stationed in Sierra Leon,  was a womanizer,  converted to Catholicism for his second wife and then later reverted to some kind of agnostic/atheism,  etc  as he left her for yet another woman.

And as a kind of aside – I also read Travels with My Aunt which was hilarious but it was first published in 1969 and I read it in the early 1970s so it was timely.

1948 review in New York Times

A more recent and positive review:
LA Review of Books – 2012:

William Boyd on Greene – (church and morality)

A Psychoanalytic  Reading  (PDF – University of Arad, Romania)

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2 Responses to The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    I am fascinated by your review, because I love this book. I gave it five stars at Goodreads, and I save five stars for breathtaking books like James Joyce’s Ulysses, so the rating really means something.
    I am fascinated because we have such a different view of Greene’s highly principled character. Perhaps today the idea of being ‘principled’ has ebbed with the tide, I don’t know. I grew up in an era when there was such a thing as right and wrong and condemnation for bad deeds, whereas now all things are relative, we find reasons for people when they behave badly, we understand cultural relativities and so on.
    But to me, this book spoke of a man who had – not just for religious reasons – matured as a person who never expected his principles to be challenged as they were. I don’t think this is Catholicism, I think it’s a kind of integrity that seems old-fashioned today. His dilemma is that he has a duty to love his wife (who clearly doesn’t love him) and that duty conflicts with his duty to his work which is more than just a job, it’s implementing (imposing) British law and justice in a crucial period of time. So there’s a patriotic loyalty involved as well (which IMO is why the book has to be set in Sierra Leone because THOTM (1948) is also a post-colonial text, showing that British/imperialist ways of doing things don’t/can’t work). Scobie’s whole moral framework is in disarray and he finds himself trapped. His pride in knowing how things should be done, and how he fits into the world, is shattered, and he has no way out. Akin to how Britain had no way out of empire except to dissolve it and shrink back to a Statehood undefined and at a loss to know its own identity.
    In its own way, this book reminds me of John Williams’ novel Stoner, there is that same sad sense of entrapment in a life that will never make him contented.
    Ha, I’ve gone on about it so long, I should write a review of it on my own blog! Except it’s ten years since I read it (as an audiobook, brilliantly narrated by Michael Kitchen) and I read it as a book some years before that.


  2. I agree he’s trapped – but imo that’s the point. He’s trapped himself in his pride and by being unwilling to be a mortal and sinful human being who has to ask forgiveness from God (through the Church I guess) and from his wife. Rather, he rants at God about a person can be condemned for for loving and then he feels so sorry for himself he commits suicide instead of owning up to his own failures – he truly doesn’t see his own part in it. That’s not the way of a committed Catholic who might believe in redemption and salvation.

    I agree Greene writes very well and I did give it an 8.


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