In The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene takes a fundamentally ordinary decent man down a path that leads to spiritual conflict and despair.
Henry Scobie is an assistant police commissioner stationed in a British controlled West African coastal town during World War 2. He’s a man of high integrity although his scruples and his reserved nature have made him something of an outsider amongst the other British settlers. As the book opens Scobie hears he has been passed over for promotion. He is disappointed but for his wife Louise, this news is the final humiliation. For almost 15 years she’s endured the suffocating heat and annual monsoon, the humidity that turns her treasured poetry books mouldy unless wiped daily and the vultures that perch on the tin roof of their home (which is essentially little more than a shack on stilts) She begs Scobie to return home to England or – failing that – for a holiday in South Africa.
It’s the beginning of Scobie’s problems.
He feels pity for his wife’s plight but can help her only by taking the one step he has vowed never to take – borrowing money from a Syrian trader known for his dubious business practices. It proves a fateful decision when the trader begins exerting pressure on Scobie to turn a blind eye to his diamond smuggling activities. Scobie’s downward spiral accelerates when he falls in love with Helen, a widow almost half his age, the survivor from an attack on a flotilla of ships making its way along the coast.
It was hard to read this novel and not feel sympathy for this tortured soul whose actions are taken in the belief that they are what will help the people he cares for. That was not however the reaction Greene intended in writing Heart of the Matter. His purpose, he said, was to illustrate the “disastrous effect on human beings of pity.” Pity for Greene is an egotistical trait deriving from an abundance of pride rather than true compassion for the welfare of others. He makes it the fatal flaw that brings Scobie down, leading inexorably to a crisis of conscience and, ultimately, his spiritual damnation. Scobie knowingly transgresses against his Catholic beliefs when he embarks on his adulterous affair, then suffers a fear of taking Communion while the stain of his mortal sin of adultery lies about him and then finds he is unable even to pray. When he discovers that all the actions he took to try to help Helen and his wife, have after all been failures, he takes what he feels is the only course left to him. He addresses his God from the back of an empty church:
… there are limits to what I can do to you – or them. I can’t desert either of them while I’m alive but I can die and remove myself from their blood stream. They are ill with me and I can cure them. And you too, God – you are ill with me. I can’t go on month after month, insulting you……. I’ve longed for peace and I’m never going to know peace again.
I first read The Heart of the Matter more than 30 years ago but never appreciated the power of the novel at the time. I dug it out from the back of the cupboard as part of the ‘Greene for Gran’ readalong organised by Savidge Reads as a tribute to his book-loving gran. And I’m so glad I gave it another go.
It’s one of those books where I was completely embroiled in the protagonists’ situation , cringing whenever he took an action that, as an outsider, I sensed would plunge him deeper into a crisis. The atmosphere of decay and rot created by Greene was also perfect match for the way we see Scobie’s integrity, the code by which he has lived his life, gradually become corrupted under the weight of his desire to avoid giving pain to those around him.
A superb study of a man in turmoil.
In 2005, the novel was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the one hundred best English-language novels from 1923 to the present
The Heart of the Matter is considered one of Greene’s best even though the author apparently hated it personally. It forms a companion to three other novels (The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair and Brighton Rock) in which Catholicism and the conflict between an individual and his faith are central themes.