Monday, April 17, 2017

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene (79 down 21 to go)

In our hearts there is a ruthless dictator, ready to contemplate the misery of a thousand strangers if it will ensure the happiness of the few we love.

This is the first time I’ve read The Heart of the Matter or Graham Greene. It is a modernist novel, third-person narrative of Major Henry Scobie, deputy commissioner of police in a West African, British colony, sometime during WWII.

This novel satisfies 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge, category #11: An Award-Winning Classic. With this novel, Greene won the 1948 Tait Black Memorial Prize for Literature – one of England’s oldest literary prizes.

My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars

Major Scobie is an honest cop, in a climate of corruption. He could also be a contented man, maybe even a happy man, if not for his own perceived inability to provide contentment and happiness to his wife, and later to others. I would argue that Scobie’s wife Louise is responsible for her own discontent, but Scobie blames himself. As I say, he might be happy if not for this. He is good at his job, he seems to like it, and he claims to like the unnamed colony where he serves. He is not bothered that he is passed over for promotion, except that it upsets Louise. Scobie longs for peace and solitude. He is not likely to enjoy either with Louise – not in Western Africa at least. She longs to get out of the place, even for a short vacation. In spite of his sense of duty towards Louise, failed duty, Scobie does not appear to love her, and Louise is quite aware of this.

One day in the commission of his official duties, Scobie commits a small, and probably harmless, violation of official protocol. He destroys evidence, out of kindness, for a man he believes is innocent. It is hardly worth mentioning. It is never discovered, does no one any harm, and actually helps a scared and innocent man.

But it is the first minor compromise in Scobie’s character.

The next is still rather small, but not completely benign. Unable to pay for Louise’s vacation to South Africa, but desperately wanting to please her, and escape her for a while, Scobie borrows the money from a local scoundrel, the black marketer, Yusef. It is not illegal or even precisely unethical. It is just something Major Scobie would never have done before.

Yusef was the Devil – in an allegorical sense. He is one of the most unctuous characters I’ve encountered. He always comes with flattering words, tokens of friendship, and peaceful reassurances. Scobie knows that Yusef is a villain – and yet, he is slowly seduced.

The loan puts him a position that could easily result in a conflict of interest.

It does.

These first compromises lead to more and greater infidelities, and ultimately to drastic measures.

Greene has been described as a Catholic novelist, though he disliked that distinction. I understand why it’s applied though, as there is a strong Catholic theme throughout this novel. Scobie’s slow corruption leads to an intense inner turmoil relative to his Catholic faith. I imagine there are more allegorical elements, perhaps a parallel intended between the strict codes of British Imperial bureaucracy and Catholic doctrine. I admired Scobie in the beginning when he was a suffering paragon of virtue, felt physically ill when he first bent the rules, and miserable as his “sins” degenerated to the unforgiveable.

I didn’t love this story – though it is superbly written. Greene does a wonderful job creating his characters, and describing the dismal setting. I imagine it might resonate more if I were Catholic.

Have you read The Heart of the Matter? What did you think?


It seemed to Scobie that life was immeasurably long. ~ Major Scobie

O God, give me death before I give them unhappiness. ~ Major Scobie



  1. I've read a couple of Greene's novels, and I'm currently reading The Human Factor, but I haven't read this one yet. I really enjoy his writing, although The Human Factor isn't gripping me as much as the others I've read.

    I will eventually get to The Heart of the Matter!

    1. Thanks for the feedback Rob. I'll eventually get to some of his others as well. Even though I didn't love this, I did like his I want at least one more sample.

  2. I read The Quiet American back in the 90’s and fell head over heels for Greene and quickly read a lot of his other titles in subsequent years, including The Heart of the Matter, which I remember enjoying. But nothing lived up to The Quiet American really.

    1. I've heard good things of that one. I'll get to The Quiet American eventually. Thanks.

  3. I dont subscribe to any religious faith but this novel was still a powerful reading experience for me because essentially we have a man who is wanting to do the right thing but ending up compromised.

    Karen - bookertalk


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