The Heart of the Matter – Graham Greene

Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter is more a thought experiment than a novel. It puts characters, all humanely flawed, under a set of circumstances and let the inevitable unfold. Unlike a standard novel, it is not the expression, the narrative or the plot and setting that characterizes The Heart of the Matter as does the psychological state of its characters.

In an unnamed British colony in West Africa during World War 2, racked by malaria, tropical storms and barely habitable conditions for the civilized folks and where postings are punishments more than advancements, Major Scobie has spent the last fifteen years without asking for a transfer or taking a holiday. Paper pushers upstairs pass him up for promotion, wife Louise gets edgier every day about moving away from the closed gossipy social circle in the colony, and all the while Scobie silently goes on about his work and grieving for the death of his only child many years before.

Major Scobie though is not a stoic. He feels but not jealousy, anger, empathy or greed but pity. Combined with his Catholic beliefs about a better afterlife, provided he passes through this one without missteps, every relationship is a duty. It is therefore Scobie’s duty to make sure that Louise is not sad, natives are not discriminated, a paternal letter though illegal is not punished, a young widow is consoled, and a lover is cared for. This exacting sense of duty often incongruous with reality drives Scobie into an abyss of despair.

In his review, George Orwell claimed that Major Scobie’s flaws wouldn’t have allowed him to survive the fifteen years before the novel starts, and hence the novel’s plot lacks integrity. And that the setting in West Africa has no significance either to the plot or narrative structure. Or that religious beliefs need to tempered with survival instincts for a believable character. Orwell is right on all these counts. The Heart of the Matter falls short in narrative technique and character subtlety.

Yet in magnifying one very human trait and the resulting tragic consequences, The Heart of the Matter becomes a Shakespearean tragedy. Much like Hamlet had his pride and King Lear his vanity, Scobie has his pity. The novels greatness lies in the fact that every reader will see in Scobie an exaggerated reflection of his own self. And in Greene’s narrative an alternate to his or her own life at that point.

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