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The Heart of the Matter (1948)

by Graham Greene

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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4,716822,001 (3.92)194
In this widely acclaimed modern classic, Graham Greene delves deep into character to tell the dramatic, suspenseful story of a good man's conflict between passion and faith. A police commissioner in a British-governed, war-torn West African state, Scobie is bound by the strictest integrity and sense of duty both for his Colonial responsibilities and for his wife, whom he deeply pities but no longer loves. Passed over for a promotion, he is forced to borrow money in order to send his despairing wife away on a holiday. When in her absence he develops a passion for a young widow, the scrupulously honest Catholic finds himself giving way to deceit and dishonor. Enmeshed in love and intrigue, he will betray everything he believes in, with tragic consequences. The Heart of the Matter is one of Graham Greene's most enduring and tragic novels.… (more)
  1. 10
    On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (akfarrar)
    akfarrar: Another serious book with marriage at the heart of it and the tug of war between being an individual and uniting with an 'other'. Both deal with a generation of people on the edge of change and with matters both earthly and spiritual.
  2. 10
    Morte d'Urban by J. F. Powers (christiguc)
  3. 00
    The Mission Song by John le Carré (John_Vaughan)
    John_Vaughan: The two books reflect the supposedly 'catholic' viewpoint so often attributed to Greene. The Mission Song is from a catholic African's view.

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When you get right down to the heart of the matter, the heart is difficult to know and even more difficult to control. A good man can do bad things, and a bad man can get away with murder. Henry Scobie is a good man, in fact a rarer thing, a good policeman, who finds himself trapped in a situation in which there is no way out that won’t damage someone. Henry Scobie is not a man who is comfortable with damaging someone else to save himself. In fact, Greene seems to think it is ironically his very goodness that dooms him.

Despair is the price one pays for setting oneself and impossible aim. It is, one is told, the unforgivable sin, but it is a sin the corrupt or evil man never practices. He always has hope. He never reaches the freezing-point of knowing absolute failure. Only the man of goodwill carries always in his heart this capacity for damnation.

Henry carries this capacity like a millstone. He finds himself damned for being human, for being frail, and he comes to believe that he has failed the ultimate test. Like Abraham with Isaac, he has been asked to put his love for God above his love for the human beings he sees as being in his care, and he finds himself incapable of doing so.

He seems to feel, as well, that the suffering is his fate, unavoidable as breathing.

He put his head in his hands and wouldn’t look. He had been in Africa when his own child died. He had always thanked God that he had missed that. It seemed after all that one never really missed a thing. To be a human being one had to drink the cup. If one were lucky on one day, or cowardly on another, it was presented on a third occasion.

Graham Greene has written a staggering treatise on what it is to be human. He has shown how choices can collapse around a man like dominos and carry him down a road he never thought to travel. I love the way he looks at the human heart and sees what is good and kind and valiant; and what is cruel and evil and cowardly. I found so many of these characters so believably self-serving, so consummately unaware of any struggle that was not their own, so cruel in the demands they made in the guise of love, that I winced at the irony of Henry doing so much to spare their feelings and protect their futures.

There is also Greene’s tussle with religion. Scobie is a Catholic and he tortures himself over his beliefs and the surety that he will be punished forever if he fails to follow the religious dictates. Greene appears to think the Church might have it wrong, that what is in the heart might be what really matters, and therein lies whatever hope there might be for the Scobies of the world.
( )
  mattorsara | Aug 11, 2022 |
I found this to be one of Graham Greene’s better books; I am presently reading a couple of his other books that I don’t fully appreciate, and which I will not be giving five stars.

The story takes place in West Africa during the Second World War.

Major Henry Scobie is a police officer and deputy commissioner, married to Louise. There are various other characters, including Wilson, Harris, Yusef and Ali, Scobie’s “boy”.

The white men have servants called “boys””, who have names, and also “small boys” who are just called that; we never learn their names.

Scobie does not really love Louise but he has a neurotic need to please her and keep her happy, in fact keep everyone happy. Louise seems to believe she loves her husband and perhaps she does, perhaps she doesn’t. After all, to quote Prince Charles, “What is love?” (And when he said that, we knew he didn’t love Diana.)

I found the beginning of the book rather boring. But then Louise, who doesn’t feel accepted by the other wives, feels the need to go on holiday and does so.

I had difficulty in finding out where she goes to until later in the story it is revealed that it is South Africa.

To send Louise on holiday, Scobie borrows money from Yusef, who later blackmails him.

I found there to be various obscurities in the book; the author doesn’t always state matters directly, so one has to guess, which is not my forte.

A number of persons arrive in an open boat; they have been travelling for forty days. Some die, including two children.

I never found out where these people in the open boat came from; there may have been an incident involving a submarine.

There is also a 19 year-old widow, Helen, who is carried in on a stretcher grasping a stamp album, with her eyes shut.

Helen recovers and, with Louise out of the way, Scobie seemingly falls in love with Helen and immediately starts an affair with her.

It is from this point that the book gets interesting.

Scobie is in love with Helen, who is half his age, but feels he loves Louise too.

Louise returns and is aware of her husband’s relationship with Helen. Wilson and Louise are both fond of poetry and communicate well with each other and Wilson falls in love with Louise.

Scobie is a Catholic like many of the characters in Greene’s books and he has a crisis of conscience owing to his adultery.

Not being a Catholic myself, there is much I don’t understand about Scobie’s moral/ethical/religious problems.

He seems to feel that it is a sin for him to go to Mass or Communion, and I don’t really know the difference between these. It is as if Greene assumes that everyone understands all about Catholicism so he fails to explain adequately the reason for his problems and feelings of sinfulness, He feels damned.

Scobie feels he loves both Louise and Helen, but it is doubtful whether he really does, and who knows? He knows his adultery is a sin but can’t give up Helen because that would hurt her, and he can’t abandon Louise for the same reason.

The book turned out to be very readable, and Scobie’s character plausible and well-rounded. ( )
  IonaS | Jul 31, 2022 |
Amazing book. Character study. West Africa (Sierra Leone?) 1940's, policeman Scobie is middlingly married. He converted to Catholicism at marriage and is knee deep in it, though conflicted. Wife demands to leave / go to S. Africa due to frustration with location/climate. Scobie has to borrow money almost illicitly from Yusef, the Syrian to send her. This begins a slide to the ill side. A woman/widow is washed up from a sunken ship and he begins affair with her because he is sorry for her. Wife returns and he is stymied. Can't leave either woman because he pities them both. What to do? What a great story and milieu. Bravo. ( )
  apende | Jul 12, 2022 |
37/20. ( )
  Will_Trent | Jul 4, 2022 |
“The Heart of the Matter” drew me in with its depictions of mean gossip at the club and general loneliness of the British inhabitants in a West African colony based on Sierra Leone. The protagonist Scobie is a policeman and the one white character who gets on with the locals, who are not developed beyond a shadowy presence of saying “yes sah” or, in the case of women, stirring forbidden lust as they walk by. The setting is just a background allowing the British characters to be significantly alienated and inward looking, their small closed society becomes very claustrophobic. When the rainy season comes this feeling is further intensified.

Scobie’s wife Louise is a burden on him, she is falling apart in West Africa while he wants to stay. He risks his reputation as a straight-shooting cop and borrows money from a Syrian business man so he can send her to South Africa. While she is away he starts an affair with a younger woman, Helen, who has survived forty days in a lifeboat after her ship sank, presumably because of a German submarine attack. The novel is set during the Second World War, but in general the war feels far away in West Africa. Helen’s husband died, and Scobie’s affection for her seems created by pity.
Wilson, a newcomer to the colony, falls in love with Louise before she leaves and will not let Scobie get away with his behaviour. Never mind Wilson, Scobie’s Catholic faith won’t let him tolerate his own actions. Yusef, the Syrian he has borrowed money off wants part of his soul too – and there is a subplot about the Muslim Yusef and his Christian Syrian rival accusing each other of smuggling diamonds. Yusef is a sleazy character, who claims he wants Scobie friendship but just ends up manipulating him.

Perhaps the most brilliant part of this book is the relationship between two Brits in the colonial service: Scobie's enemy Wilson and the pitiable Harris. The two men bond over a game involving killing cockroaches Harris has developed. They end up as flatmates in a nipper hut and find out they went to the same public school back in England; although they won’t admit it their alienation began there. Both, however, still wish for belonging – Wilson publishes a poem in the school magazine, and Harris wants to send a letter to tell the old boys of his whereabouts, which they have requested – although in his heart he knows they just want to hit him up for a donation.

Ali, Scobie’s boy (servant) plays an important part in the book but he is hardly sketched out. Such a character would be better handled by Anthony Burgess, who would give Ali a lot of comic idiosyncrasies and include scenes of him talking to other Africans about the Europeans. Burgess’s characterisations of locals would be far from politically correct by today’s standards, but through comic portrayals he would show at least some interest in them. Burgess’s Yusef would be better too: although Greene has it that Yusef can’t read or write, the Syrian speaks perfect English; Burgess would have attempted a more realistic speech pattern and thrown in the odd word of Arabic. “The Heart of the Matter” is interesting to compare with Burgess’s “Devil of the State”, which is influenced by Greene and dedicated to him. Greene didn’t rate it though. Burgess’s fictional Dunia in East Africa (based on Brunei, see my review [b:Devil of a State: A Novel|230115|Devil of a State A Novel (The Norton Library)|Anthony Burgess|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1491221594l/230115._SX50_.jpg|1596134]) is more alive than Greene’s West Africa. But Burgess doesn’t have much of a plot in his vivid portrayal of a colony on the verge of independence. Local politics don’t interest Greene, but his book is tightly written and gripping for the first 150 pages or so. Then he goes deep into Scobie’s agony of guilt, I’m interested in Catholic themes of sin, guilt and redemption, but Greene takes an indulgently long time over the fall here. This was my first work by Greene in almost a decade, I enjoyed it without getting bowled over. Originally gave it three stars - who am I kidding it needs four. ( )
  FEBeyer | Oct 25, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 75 (next | show all)
A policeman's lot is not a happy one. The white (and dark) man's burden must always be heavy. And man's debt to man will be forever in arrears -- from West Africa to the West End, from Brooklyn to Bucharest. Generations of novelists have wrestled with these melancholy truisms. It is a pleasure to report that Graham Greene, in "The Heart of the Matter," has wrestled brilliantly with all three -- and scored three clean falls. Mr. Greene (as a well-earned public knows) is a profound moralist with a technique to match his purpose. From first page to last, this record of one man's breakdown on a heat-drugged fever-coast makes its point as a crystal-clear allegory -- and as an engrossing novel.
One thing I admire with the Heart of the Matter is the introduction of several other characters that in a way or another adds up to the genuine plot. They all seem to have a story to tell and each story affects and adds up to the conflict that has been surfacing within the inner self of Scobie.


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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Greene, Grahamprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Puchwein, ErichTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wood, JamesIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"Le pécheur est au cœur même de chrétienté.
. . .Nul n'est aussi compétent que le pécheur
en matière de chrétienté. Nul, si ce n'est le saint."
-- Péguy
First words
Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork.
He Had no sense of responsibility towards the beautiful and the graceful and the intelligent. They could find their own way. It was the face for which nobody would go out of his way, the face that would never catch the covert look, the face which would soon be used to rebuffs and indifference that demanded his allegiance. The word 'pity' is used as loosely as the word 'love' : the terrible promiscuous passion which so few experience.
Outside the rest-house he stopped again. The lights inside would have given an extraordinary impression of peace if one hadn't known, just as the stars on this clear night gave also an impression of remoteness, security, freedom. 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?
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In this widely acclaimed modern classic, Graham Greene delves deep into character to tell the dramatic, suspenseful story of a good man's conflict between passion and faith. A police commissioner in a British-governed, war-torn West African state, Scobie is bound by the strictest integrity and sense of duty both for his Colonial responsibilities and for his wife, whom he deeply pities but no longer loves. Passed over for a promotion, he is forced to borrow money in order to send his despairing wife away on a holiday. When in her absence he develops a passion for a young widow, the scrupulously honest Catholic finds himself giving way to deceit and dishonor. Enmeshed in love and intrigue, he will betray everything he believes in, with tragic consequences. The Heart of the Matter is one of Graham Greene's most enduring and tragic novels.

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