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The heart of the matter, p.1
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       The Heart of the Matter, p.1

           Graham Greene
The Heart of the Matter



  About the Book

  About the Author

  Also by Graham Greene


  Title Page


  Book One

  Part One

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Part Two

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Part Three

  Chapter 1

  Book Two

  Part One

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Part Two

  Chapter 1

  Part Three

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Book Three

  Part One

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Part Two

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Part Three

  Chapter 1


  About the Book

  Scobie, a police officer serving in a war-time West African state, is distrusted, being scrupulously honest and immune to bribery. But then he falls in love, and in doing so he is forced to betray everything he believes in, with drastic and tragic consequences.

  About the Author

  Graham Greene was born in 1904. On coming down from Balliol College, Oxford, he worked for four years as sub-editor on The Times. He established his reputation with his fourth novel, Stamboul Train. In 1935 he made a journey across Liberia, described in Journey Without Maps, and on his return was appointed film critic of the Spectator. In 1926 he was received into the Roman Catholic Church and visited Mexico in 1938 to report on the religious persecution there. As a result he wrote The Lawless Roads and, later, his famous novel The Power and the Glory. Brighton Rock was published in 1938 and in 1940 he became literary editor of the Spectator. The next year he undertook work for the Foreign Office and was stationed in Sierra Leone from 1941 to 1943. This later produced the novel, The Heart of the Matter, set in West Africa.

  As well as his many novels, Graham Greene wrote several collections of short stories, four travel books, six plays, three books of autobiography – A Sort of Life, Ways of Escape and A World of My Own (published posthumously) – two of biography and four books for children. He also wrote hundreds of essays, and film and book reviews, some of which appear in the collections Reflections and Mornings in the Dark. Many of his novels and short stories have been filmed and The Third Man was written as a film treatment. Graham Greene was a member of the Order of Merit and a Companion of Honour. He died in 1991.

  Also by Graham Greene


  The Man Within

  It’s a Battlefield

  A Gun for Sale

  The Confidential Agent

  The Ministry of Fear

  The Third Man

  The End of the Affair

  The Quiet American

  A Burnt-out Case

  Travels with my Aunt

  Dr Fischer of Geneva or

  The Bomb Party

  The Human Factor

  The Tenth Man

  Stamboul Train

  England Made Me

  Brighton Rock

  The Power and the Glory

  The Fallen Idol

  Loser Takes All

  Our Man in Havana

  The Comedians

  The Honorary Consul

  Monsignor Quixote

  The Captain and the Enemy

  Short Stories

  Collected Stories

  The Last Word and Other Stories

  May We Borrow Your Husband?

  Twenty-One Stories


  Journey Without Maps

  The Lawless Roads

  In Search of a Character

  Getting to Know the General


  Yours etc.


  Mornings in the Dark

  Collected Essays


  Collected Plays


  A Sort of Life

  Ways of Escape

  Fragments of an Autobiography

  A World of my Own


  Lord Rochester’s Monkey

  An Impossible Woman

  Children’s Books

  The Little Train

  The Little Horse-Bus

  The Little Steamroller

  The Little Fire Engine


  V.G., L.C.G.,




  Why not begin at the beginning?

  Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork. It was Sunday and the Cathedral bell clanged for matins. On the other side of Bond Street, in the windows of the High School, sat the young negresses in dark-blue gym smocks engaged on the interminable task of trying to wave their wirespring hair. Wilson stroked his very young moustache and dreamed, waiting for his gin-and-bitters.

  It is a celebrated opening: a Flaubertian precision of detail refracted through a cinematic lens; we know at once why Graham Greene called himself ‘a film man.’ It is a style one could call commercial realism—an often powerful, sometimes melodramatic mixture of the literary and the merely efficient. In a few lines, Greene establishes the terms of his locale as usefully as any movie’s opening tracking shot. He does so with considered authorial reticence, in homage to the notion that fictional narrative should show and not tell. But what, then, is shown? First, the Bedford Hotel and Bond Street. These canonical names, with their pale loyalty to the originals, tell us that we are likely to be in a British colony. Wilson’s shorts tell us the same thing too, but they have a deeper connotation: schoolboys wear shorts. So this pale young colonial overseer, who looks down on what he rules, is less a master than a child, the white negative of the black schoolgirls he can see on the other side of the street. Indeed, Wilson’s childish knees are pressed ‘against the ironwork’ of the balcony as if confined by the ironwork of a heavy school desk. Or perhaps more sinisterly confined? It sounds as if these absurd knees might be imprisoned.

  Greene’s first paragraph establishes not only the place but the terms of the book’s imagery: we are, it turns out, in an unnamed British colony in West Africa during the Second World War, closely based on Greene’s own experiences, in 1942–43, in Sierra Leone. Throughout the book, this closed community will be pictured as both a kind of minor boys’ boarding school and as a prison. Scobie, the book’s tormented protagonist, reflects that ‘one counted age by the years a man had served in the colony,’ rather—as is implied—as convicts measure their years inside. Later, as Greene introduces us to Scobie’s servant boy, Ali, we are told that he had been briefly in prison: ‘There was no disgrace about prison; it was an obstacle that no one could avoid forever.’

  But the ‘albino’ (Scobie’s word) English, Scots, and Irish who run this colony act more like school prefects than prison warders. They anxiously finger their old school ties at the officers’ club. One of the faint gleams of comedy shines when Harris, a young and lonely officer, discovers that he and Wilson attended the same miserable minor school, Downham. Wilson writes excitedly to the old boys’ magazine, The Downhamian, and Greene’s morbidly good parody of Harris’s letter captures the intersection of public school jollity and mediocre, now-faded imperial romance: ‘I’m afraid I’ve been out of touch with the old place for a great many years and I was very pleased and a bit guilty to see that you have been trying to get into touch with me. Perhaps you’d like to know a bit about what I’m doing in
“the white man’s grave,” but as I’m a cable censor you will understand that I can’t tell you much about my work. That will have to wait till we’ve won the war.’

  Sealed by the war—letters are censored, shipping routes limited, and borders closed—Greene’s colony resembles the rat-infested closed town of Oran that Albert Camus allegorized in The Plague, a novel that appeared in 1947, a year before The Heart of the Matter. Camus’ town becomes a kind of hell, whose inhabitants, punished by plague, must work out their own theodicies, their own metaphysical and political explanations for what has unfairly visited them. Greene’s African colony shares with Camus’ town something of the hellish, and something of the allegorical. The local priest, Father Rank, has a laugh whose hollow clang is likened to the bell of a leper; Scobie, the Catholic sinner, keeps a broken rosary in his desk; another priest, to keep himself occupied, plays cards—the game is ‘demon.’ There are cockroaches and rats everywhere, and the humidity is so great that wounds take weeks to heal. Greene makes much symbolic use of sweat; as soon as Scobie and his wife, Louise, touch, sweat starts up. Sweat, often a mark of sexual desire or activity, painfully substitutes for the lack of it in Scobie’s loveless marriage. More than this, sweat is the body’s nasty confession, the sign that control has been lost. Louise likens her depression to fever—‘it comes and goes’—as if fever is not only an inevitability in this climate, but as if being without fever is really just a state in which one is waiting to contract it again. And, as Father Rank reminds his listeners, ‘There are more policemen in this town than meet the eye.’ Everyone is watching everyone else (and Wilson, indeed, turns out to be a spy). Gossip functions as knowledge here, and the officers’ mess is the gossip-oasis, where truths and lies meet and mingle.

  Alongside this community, or hidden under it, is an alternative one—the Catholic Church. Scobie and his wife are Catholics, and of course the novel turns dramatically on the question of Scobie’s religious faith. When Scobie encounters the fat Portuguese naval captain, and seems to be about to report him for a crime, their shared religion suddenly binds them in a kind of guilty pact: ‘He had discovered suddenly how much they had in common: the plaster statues with the swords in the bleeding heart: the whisper behind the confessional curtains: the holy coats and the liquefaction of blood … They had in common all the wide region of repentance and longing.’ Despite this talk of a ‘wide region,’ the novel presents, in effect, two imprisoned communities, the colony-prison and the theology-prison, the city of man and the city of God, and finds them both to be awful places, sites of torture and pain. In both the colony and the Catholic community there is spying (it is Father Rank, the great gossip, who knows everything beforehand); snobbery (only the Catholic believer has the capacity for damnation, apparently—it is better even to be a Catholic sinner than a non-Catholic saint); comfortless ritual (Scobie thinks of the interview between policeman and suspect as akin to that of priest and server); and imprisonment. It is never clear if the colony offers an ironic shadow-world to the religious world, or if the religious community offers an ironic shadow-world to the secular community.

  The Heart of the Matter tells the story, principally, of Scobie, a colonial policeman trapped in a loveless marriage. Scobie has an overdeveloped sense of pity and responsibility; he is never so moved by his wan, cheerless, and complaining wife than when she looks ugly and vulnerable. At those moments, his ‘pity and responsibility reached the intensity of a passion.’ He feels ‘bound by the pathos of her unattractiveness.’ Scobie cherishes the meanness of life in the colony, for here ‘you could love human beings nearly as God loved them, knowing the worst.’ Scobie and his wife lost their daughter when she was a little girl, and it is perhaps this wound that has made him so helplessly drawn to the wounds of others.

  In the course of the novel, Scobie is repeatedly placed in suffering’s way. First, he is called to deal with the aftermath of a suicide involving Pemberton, a young district commissioner. Suicide is of course a mortal sin for a Catholic, but Scobie feels that God would forgive Pemberton, partly because he was so young, and partly because the dead man was not a Catholic: ‘We’d be damned because we know, but he doesn’t know a thing.’ When the local Catholic priest remonstrates that the Church’s teaching is emphatic, Scobie cuts him off: ‘Even the Church can’t teach me that God doesn’t pity the young.’

  Not long after this event, Scobie is called away from the capital to Pende, where the survivors from a shipwreck are being treated. He watches a young girl die, and the experience naturally rouses terrible memories. His thoughts tend toward questions of theodicy, the intolerable struggle to make sense of God’s providence in a world of pain and sin—‘that was the mystery, to reconcile that with the love of God. And yet he could believe in no God who was not human enough to love what he had created.’ He thinks of Pemberton’s death: ‘What an absurd thing it was to expect happiness in a world so full of misery.’ Given the amount of suffering there is, the amount of pity one feels might well be limitless. Looking at the stars, Scobie reflects: ‘If one knew, he wondered, the facts, would one have to feel pity even for the planets? If one reached what they called the heart of the matter?’

  It is in Pende that Scobie meets Helen Rolt, one of the survivors, who lost her husband at sea. She is young, childlike, unattractive. Scobie is drawn to her, feeling her unattractiveness ‘like handcuffs on his wrists.’ While Louise is away (she has managed to escape to South Africa), Scobie and Helen begin an affair. Scobie is once again married to misery, though this time adulterously. His life begins to unravel when Louise returns home. Scobie is torn between his responsibility to his wife and his responsibility to his mistress. A Syrian merchant, Yusef, has essentially blackmailed him, and as a result of his involvement with the Syrian, Scobie’s servant boy, Ali, is killed. Wilson is spying on Scobie, and also courting his wife. Meanwhile, Louise, who in fact knows about the affair (so we learn at the book’s end) is slyly forcing Scobie to attend communion, knowing that in order to do so he must first confess his sins to Father Rank, and must be pure in mind and spirit. It would be a grave sin to take communion while uncleansed. Scobie manages to wriggle out of one mass, but finally succumbs to his wife’s pressure, and takes communion in an agony of damaged faith. As he receives the wafer, he is ‘aware of the pale papery taste of an eternal sentence on the tongue,’ and prays: ‘Oh God, I offer up my damnation to you. Take it. Use it for them.’

  Scobie’s ultimate breakdown is religious in nature. His adultery, and above all the crisis of his false communion, seem to condemn him to damnation; he feels that he is ‘desecrating God because he loved a woman.’ When his mistress complains that his Catholicism seems to her bogus, he fiercely replies: ‘I believe that I’m damned for all eternity … What I’ve done is far worse than murder.’ In the last fifty pages of the book, Scobie veers between his usual exaggerated feeling of responsibility (he feels that both women need him), and a great desire to ‘get out’—to commit suicide. He seems to think that in dying he can offer himself as a sacrificial victim. Returning alone to church one last time, he sees himself as an outcast, an inhabitant from another country. ‘This was what human love had done to him—it had robbed him of love for eternity.’ He is determined to kill himself, despite the Church’s prohibition, and begins to reformulate what had first occurred to him when he falsely took confession: he thinks that he may offer himself up as a kind of sacrificial lamb, thereby bringing peace both to Louise and Helen, and to God Himself: ‘You’ll be at peace when I am out of your reach,’ he prays to God. The novel ends with his suicide.

  The book’s Catholic writhings were much discussed at the time of its publication. George Orwell, reviewing the novel in The New Yorker, formulated an objection which is difficult to counter:

  Scobie is incredible because the two halves of him do not fit together. If he were capable of getting into the kind of mess that is described, he would have got into it years earlier. If he really felt that adultery is
mortal sin, he would stop committing it; if he persisted in it, his sense of sin would weaken. If he believed in hell, he would not risk going there merely to spare the feelings of a couple of neurotic women. And one might add that if he were the kind of man we are told he is—that is, a man whose chief characteristic is a horror of causing pain—he would not be an officer in a colonial police force.

  In fact, the contradiction can be posed even more acutely than Orwell frames it. It is not so much Scobie’s lack of fear of hell that startles, but his willingness to surrender the very God he spends so much time praying to. If ‘human love’ can rob Scobie of his ‘love for eternity,’ then he was never a very passionate Christian; but if he is not the latter, why then his Christian passion? Another novelist’s reply might be that Scobie is simultaneously a passionate Christian and a passionate adulterer, and is sundered by these competing passions. But there are at least three complications. First, Scobie is not sundered. Instead of, say, miserably continuing to be an adulterer while continuing to feel damned—many a guilty Christian’s version of having your cake and eating it—Scobie chooses to solve the problem by committing suicide, a path whereby he renounces both the secular pleasure of adultery and the religious pleasure of reconciling himself with God; a gesture, in short, that casts doubt on both the reality of his adulterous passion and the reality of his religious passion. Scobie, as it were, bypasses self-sundering in favor of self-renunciation. Second, one of the peculiarities of Scobie’s temperament is that secular passion seems to give him so little pleasure. His sundering might have been more effective if he had seemed to have a genuine adulterous passion from which religion—or the return of his wife—truly threatened to remove him. As it is, Scobie’s motives toward his mistress seem already religious, rather than secular: he feels pity and responsibility toward her—charity, in other words. Part of Orwell’s incredulity surely arose from this fact, that Scobie is not suspended between two rival passions but between two complementary charities (responsibility toward the women in his life, and responsibility toward God), neither charity as passionate as Greene seems to want it to appear.

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