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Graham Greene Anniversary 3: The Heart of the Matter

Thursday, June 09, 2011
Set in a British colony in West Africa during the Second World War, The Heart of the Matter deals with the life of the small British community, focussing in particular on the character of Scobie, the Deputy Commissioner of Police. As in many of Greene’s novels, we are presented with the complexity of life and the moral challenges it presents, as flawed human beings struggle to live with each other and themselves.

Scobie comes across at the start of the novel as an upstanding policeman, committed to his job when many around him seem to be in it for the bribes. However, he no longer loves his wife Louise – no longer enjoys her company – and yet at the same time feels an enormous sense of responsibility towards her, and pity for the situation in which she finds herself because of this lack of love. When he again misses out on promotion, she refuses to put up with the conditions in the tropics any longer, and insists on moving to South Africa. Unable to get the money together, Scobie finds himself obliged by his sense of responsibility to borrow it from an unscrupulous businessman, and break his own moral code on account of his perceived responsibility for his wife’s happiness.

This initiation into 'shady dealings' can be seen as one of the turning points in the book; during his wife’s absence, Scobie finds himself drawn into both an adulterous affair and further underhand operations. The initial spark of love he thinks he has experienced with Helen, his mistress, turns out to go the way of his marital love, and become very quickly a sense of responsibility.

On his wife’s return, Scobie finds himself in an even more complicated moral situation. He had become a Catholic in order to marry his wife, and is now put in a position where, in order to maintain his wife’s happiness (which, with his sense of responsibility, he feels bound to do), he receives Holy Communion in a state of mortal sin: lacking contrition for his adultery, he is unable to seek absolution. The paradoxical situation in which he has placed himself leads, in the end, to disastrous consequences.

Greene himself, in the book’s preface, describes Scobie as a ‘weak man with good intentions doomed by pride’. He pursues what he sometimes even recognises as impossible aims solely by his own efforts, and when confronted with the contradictions and failures this presents, he comes to the 'flip side' of pride: despair, in which the enormity of his failure seems beyond even God’s redeeming power. Greene offers no easy answers to the problems, but presents us with a compelling account of the results, in a relatively ordinary life, of the primeval sin.

Gregory Pearson OP


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