My Take | The Heart of the Matter


Graham Greene is an author who explicitly weaves his life experiences into the fabrics of his
works. We see this in how his Mexican travel was followed by The Power and Glory which
tells the story of a priest in Mexico, while his trip to Haiti inspired The Comedians.
Set in the West Coast of Africa, The Heart of The Matter, which came out in 1948, allows
us a glimpse into Greene’s life as a British Intelligence officer in Sierra Leone, through the
protagonist, Henry Scobie. The war in the book is a reference to World War II.

The stark similarities between Scobie and Greene himself are many. Both the protagonist and Greene are Catholic converts who are skeptical about the existence of God. Greene is stated to have had an affair1 at a later stage in his life, while his character commits adultery with a younger
woman when he is in his late 30s. The similarities point to the fact that Greene has attempted
to bring out the moral, ethical and religious dilemmas that he had faced with adultery, into
this book through the mind of Scobie.

One of the core themes that Greene harps on is the pointlessness of love. Scobie, who does
not love Louise, nevertheless feels a sense of responsibility and pity towards her. The author
wanted to express the essential difference between feelings of love and pity between loving
someone and being corrupted by pity or by sentiment

He wants her to be happy as a sense of duty. Scobie is best summed up by Greene when he states that he is a ‘weak man with good intentions doomed by a sense of pity’. He is complacent and is often seen to do as he is told without much thought or introspection. There is a gaping lack of communication between all the main characters, especially in relation to Scobie. There is no honest interaction between Scobie and Louise and both of them want completely different things in life. While Louise wants to socialise and be accepted by her peers, Scobie just wants to
get on with his work.

Only towards his wife and family, Scobie behaves in an emotionless, monotonous manner
Which in some ways, can be compared to the personality of the protagonist Meursalt in Albert Camus’s The Stranger. For instance, parallels can be drawn between Scobie’s lack of appropriate emotion to the death of his daughter to Meursalt’s indifference to the death of his
mother. The themes of existentialism that outline The Stranger can be seen in Greene’s work.

However, the fundamental difference between The Heart of The Matter and The Stranger lies in Camus’s secularism and Greene’s adherence to Catholicism. Although Scobie seems almost incapable of feeling love, he is different from Meursault in the sense that he is not completely devoid of emotions but feels responsibility and pity towards the people around him.
Sigmund Freud argues that the aim of dreams is wish-fulfilment and that what one views in his
dreams is what he wishes to have in real life. In the dreams of Scobie, he connects
Pembertons’s suicide to his own life, which is one of the signs to show that Scobie wasunconsciously contemplating suicide, which later manifests in the form of planning and implementation.

There is also a clear reference to religion through Scobie’s dilemma on the existence and
belief of God. Although he does not attend mass often, he feels sudden bouts of religious
devotion which causes him to confess to Father Rank.
In Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man (1944), Joseph, the narrator-protagonist of the novel, points
out that man is not totally good nor totally evil, he is a composite of both; for Joseph, “the
world is both [good and malevolent], and therefore it is neither” the world consists of both
and that neither of them can exist without the existence of the other.

Scobie is an example of this due to his inherently good intentions but his weakness which causes him to commit sins like adultery. In my opinion, I think that Greene leans more towards Thomas Hobbes’ idea of human nature. As Hobbes states – during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man. It is the belief of Greene that religion might
be the common power.

Greene is also known for making the setting of his novels an extremely integral theme to the
story. Greene has often been compared to Henry James for his gift of using symbols which
help give personality to the character and become a part of the reader’s understanding. For instance, Scobie feels his experience in images of law, judgement, restraint and punishment. Thus we see the background to become like an extra comprehensive character in the story.

The adultery in this book can be compared to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as both protagonists end their lives due to their unfaithfulness. However, Anna Karenina is different from Greene’s work because the former deals with the societal aspect of adultery while the latter reflects on the religious aspects of the same. Anna commits suicide because she is unable to cope with the rumours, her guilty conscience and her husband’s punitive behaviour.

Scobie, on the other hand, does it as a sacrifice with the intention of protecting Helen and Louise, although neither really reprimands him for his acts.
Even in Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, we see the protagonist, Emma, turn to religion for a peace of mind when she is rejected by the Rodolphe, which is similar to what Scobie does after Louise’s return. This points to the fact that human beings, who were previously non-believers or indifferent to religion, often start looking for answers in their faith, when they are at their lowest or are unable to find answers to deep moral and ethical dilemmas.
Although Scobie is, in fact, committing a sin by ending his life, he does so as a sacrifice to
protect the two women in his life. This brings us back to the point that Scobie is a man of
good intentions who does good by committing a sinful act.

The Heart of the Matter is a clear justification for James Boyd White’s statement that
‘Literature is at once both an ethical and a cultural performance’. The novel causes the reader
to introspect on religion, God and human emotions. It gives us a clear image of the
socio-political practices in West Africa during World War II, such as corruption
and racism. The author puts forth two perspectives of religion – one, being the formal
structured aspect which is characterised by rituals and practices and the second, being the
personal relationship that man has with God.

Greene seemingly advocates that the formally organised system of religion cannot address all the complexities of human life, which is why
man turns to his private relationship with God in search of answers and a sense of solace. Apart from the central theme of religion, other core subjects include love, the human emotion of pity, and the need for conviction to live a fruitful life, which are distinctively brought forth through the depiction of the numerous characters. The amalgamation of these themes is gift for an introspective understanding of not just the protagonist, but also of yourself.

Article contributed by:

Deepa Padmar

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