The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

March 29, 2012

Plot summary (from the publisher): Set in a small British colonial outpost in Sierra Leone during World War II, The Heart of the Matter occupies and comments on the ambitious subjects of war, espionage, love, adultery, treachery, and betrayal. But at its core—at the heart of The Heart of the Matter —it is a novel of moral dilemmas. Its plot, its psychological and spiritual depth, even its political intrigues turn around two basic moral questions: Is it possible to make others happy? Is suicide ever the right choice? The novel’s enigmatic protagonist, police officer Henry Scobie, even wonders if Christ’s death might be understood as an act of suicide, since He allowed Himself to be sacrificed.

Before he reaches the climactic decision of his own moral crisis, Scobie struggles to make his poetry-loving and deeply unhappy wife, Louise, happy. Fed up with the ghastly climate, the remoteness, and, in her case, friendlessness of village life in Sierra Leone, Louise lets her husband know the full depth of her misery. And Henry Scobie is not a man who can bear the thought that he has caused another to suffer. When he is passed over for the job of Commissioner of Police, Louise feels humiliated in the eyes of the other British officers and their wives, and her unhappiness is brought to a fever pitch. She decides she must leave, and Henry makes a fateful promise to send her to South Africa, even though he lacks the funds to do so.

Thus begins a series of decisions and bargains that push Scobie into a terrifyingly unfamiliar moral terrain. Though Scobie wonders if any human being can arrange another’s happiness and even considers the desire to be happy in a world so filled with pain and suffering to be impossibly foolish, he still tries to make Louise happy. To raise the money to pay for his wife’s passage, Scobie strikes a bargain with Yusef that leads to Scobie’s corruption after many years of honest service. And once Louise is gone, Scobie begins an affair with the recently widowed Helen and soon finds himself responsible for the happiness of two people, rather than just of one. When Louise returns, hoping to restore their strained marriage, she suggests that they receive communion together, which requires a full confession, and the cage door swings shut on Scobie and his deceptions.

Only one way of escape presents itself to Scobie, and he believes that eternal damnation awaits him if he chooses it. But he convinces himself that by sacrificing his own life, he can spare both Helen and Louise further misery at his expense. And it is here that the crucial question of the novel is asked most poignantly: how far should one sacrifice oneself for the happiness of others? Henry Scobie provides one answer but the novel itself leaves the question open for its readers to ponder.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • Once the story got going (when Helen entered the picture), it became a page-turner for me. I was captivated by Scobie from that point forward and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.
  • I like reading about people struggling with their spirituality. I am not religious myself, but I often imagine that it must be extremely difficult at times to reconcile the constraints of faith with the problems of living in the real world. For some reason, I’m fascinated by people who try to seek justification for their actions so that they can still consider themselves faithful or devout.
  • Louise was an interesting character to me. She clearly was the kind of wife who worried more about how the garden furniture looked to outsiders than about her relationship with her husband, but that worked within the confines of this novel. I wish she had been involved in more scenes, though.
  • I thought the dark ending was perfectly fitting for a novel of this sort. There was really no other way things could have worked out.
  • I hated the Wilson character — but in a good way (meaning he was a good antagonist). Somehow it figured that he would be the one to see through Scobie’s “suicide” by examining the ink colors in the diary to determine the information about not sleeping well and having chest pains was added at a later date. Scobie couldn’t even succeed in death, could he?

Disliked:

  • I didn’t like the whole affair with Helen. I realize that was central to the novel, but I don’t know why Greene had to make this character a 19-year-old girl. I get skeeved out whenever there’s a huge age difference like this, and Greene certainly didn’t help matters with all the father/daughter references. Yuck!
  • I wasn’t all that interested in the diamond smuggling angle or in anything that had to do with Scobie’s job. Again, I understand that these things had to be included to make the novel more complete, but still….
  • This book took a good, long time to get off the ground. I’m glad I stuck with it instead of chucking it aside out of boredom.

Rating

The Heart of the Matter was my second Graham Greene novel, so now I can conclusively say that I like his style and will definitely read more of his work. This particular novel was intriguing because of themes of religion, adultery, and suicide, as well as the complex and not entirely sympathetic main character. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

Leave a Reply