The Heart of The Matter tells the story, principally, of Scobie, a colonial policemeant trapped in a loveless marriage. Scobie has an overdeveloped sense of pity and responsibility which spell his doom. He is never so moved by his wan, cheerless and complaining wife than when she looks ugly and vulnerable.
As you might expect from any novel by Greene there is plenty of wrestling with religious faith. The state of Scobie’s own is neatly symbolised by the broken rosary he keeps in his desk. His difficult relationship with religion isn’t hard to understand once you learn that he and his wife lost their daughter when she was just a young girl, Scobie spared the ordeal itself by indifference (noted in his diary with the simple ‘C. died’) but cruelly taunted by two telegrams arriving in the wrong order: the first telling of her death, the second almost miraculously talking of the doctor’s hope that she might survive. His memories of that painful loss resurface after a group of shipwreck survivors are found after enduring over a month on the open sea. Having escaped the immediacy of his own daughter’s death he is forced to witness the last moments of a young girl, Helen Rolt, who later became his mistress. At the same time, he is pursued by a Syrian merchant, who runs a grocery store but suspected of diamond smuggling.
Scobie also found an enemy in the young Wilson who is an accountant cum informer. Young Wilson is infatuated with Scobie’s wife, Louise and has been plotting his downfall so that he can have Louise.
They had been corrupted by money, and he had been corrupted by sentiment. Sentiment was the more dangerous, because you couldn’t name its price. A man open to bribes was to be relied upon below a certain figure, but sentiment might uncoiled in the heart at a name, a photograph, even a smell remembered.
A victim of sentiment, Scobie found himself compromising his integrity and found himself blackmailed and conducted corrupted act to cover up his adulterous ways. If you think personal life and professional life don’t mix, the development of Scobie’s demise will make you think differently.
It is true that life always comes back with the same nightmares that haunt you. Scobie is repeatedly placed in sufferance ways. First he is called to deal with the aftermath of a suicide involving Pemberton, a young district commissioner (Scobie thinks Pemberton should be absolved for sin of his suicide, because he is so young), the shipwreck, and the eventual death of his loyal servant.
But Greene makes clear how ingrained religious teaching can be. As Scobie embroils himself in adultery and corruption his real terror is of damnation, of receiving communion without having been absolved of his many sins.
Despair is the price one pays for setting oneself an 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.
Thinking that it might be more meaningful if I read the book then read the introduction later, turns out to be a good thing to do. James Wood introduction seems like a spoiler rather than an intro or analysis.
The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human being – it is a symbol for mathematicians, and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and ties are worth a thousand truths.
What I like about Greene’s novels are the tales about good people turning bad due to unforeseen circumstances, self-preservation or what not, rendering no clear distinction of the hero and the villain, about the good and bad of the human nature. Perhaps due to his faith and unbelief that he is acutely aware of good people who did bad things, but trying to be perfectly good and acceptable in the eyes of God.
Another of Greene’s novel which may keep you thinking about it long after you put down the book.
Paperback. Publisher: Vintage Classics [originally published 1948, this edition 2004]; Length: 255; Setting: WWII Sierra Leone. Finished reading at: 10 Jan 2010
About the Author:
Graham Greene, OM, CH (2 October 1904 – 3 April 1991) was an English author, playwright and literary critic. His works explore the ambivalent moral and political issues of the modern world. Greene was notable for his ability to combine serious literary acclaim with widespread popularity. The Heart of the Matter (1948) was the winner in 1948 of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. During World War II, Greene worked for the Secret Intelligenc Service in Sierra Leone, which became the setting for the novel. Time Magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.