Volume > Issue > The Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the Matter


By Robert Coles | April 1996

I first read Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter in 1948, when it came out. I was 18 at the time, a college sophomore enrolled in a course taught by Perry Miller, titled “Classics of the Christian Tradition.” Miller was a passionate student of New England Puritanism, but also was interested in contemporary novelists who dared concern themselves with spiritual matters. He did not put Graham Greene or François Mauriac on our reading list, but he strongly urged both of them on us, and many of us obliged, especially with regard to the above-mentioned novel. I can still remember myself struggling with Henry Scobie, the colonial functionary of Greene’s story — a quite ordinary, if somewhat scrupulous and introspective man when one first meets him. The Second World War rages in Europe, but Scobie is living in one of the English colonies on the western coast of Africa. There he has staked his all on the ladder of the imperial bureaucracy, only to learn that he is not to be promoted. Meanwhile, his wife, Louise, wants to live the comfortable life of the imperial caretakers who then had the responsibility and privilege of ruling vast stretches of land and people. Scobie borrows money from Yusef, a Syrian black-marketer, so that he can enable his wife to live a better life, materially — and in no time, things go downhill morally, to the point that an apparently honorable, decent man is being blackmailed, is smuggling diamonds, is involved in an adulterous relationship with a widow who has been rescued from a torpedoed boat. Soon enough he is under suspicion, and closely followed by a government agent who has begun to document the errant ways of a man only months before utterly at a remove from such reason for moral humiliation, never mind legal jeopardy. Overcome by despair, deeply ashamed of himself, utterly determined to call himself to account, Scobie takes his life — and if he leaves behind his perplexed, frightened wife, his hurt, melancholy mistress, and his coolly impersonal, pitiably self-important fellow bureaucrats, he also walks away from the reader with an abrupt, provocative finality that prompts a responsive continuation of the introspection that has informed the novel from the very start.

Suicide is, of course, an awesomely momentous event, both psychologically and spiritually. “The unconscious is timeless,” Anna Freud once pointed out — and by that she meant, among other things, that deep down within ourselves, death is unimaginable, unthinkable, notwithstanding the everyday evidence that everyone dies. To terminate one’s own life is, in a way, to become godlike: to go against what seems to be nature’s mandate of survival, to challenge the tenacious hold on this existence that even the most vulnerable and troubled people ordinarily aren’t willing to relinquish. Put differently, suicide is a kind of ultimate willfulness — and here psychology connects with theology. Those who believe God has given us life know full well that it is for Him to end it. Those who don’t believe in God have no such reason, clearly, to abstain from taking their lives; and yet, millions of avowed agnostics and atheists have never come near doing so — in a sense, then, affirming a commitment to self-preservation that persists to the last breath. No wonder, then, many of my psychiatric colleagues want to call all suicides “sick”: men and women who, finally, were overcome by an illness — though, a good number of people who end their lives by their own hands show no evidence to anyone that they are in any psychological (or physicabptrouble, and by far the majority of those who are struggling with serious illness (with respect to the body or the mind) don’t come near contemplating suicide with any seriousness.

What, then, does Graham Greene have in mind for us to consider when he has Scobie, once a sincere, thoughtful man of Catholic faith, abruptly end his life as a response to his marital infidelity and his illegal commercial dealings? I suppose we can become allegorical, regard Scobie as a representative of a smug, corrupt, exploitative colonial world — its mainstay, actually: the small-time official who does the daily dirty work. Such a world the author knew first-hand — he himself lived in Britain’s western African territory during the Second World War — and such a world he surely knew, even then, was on its last legs. Indeed, much of this novel exposes the dreary moral stupidity of that very world — exposes the so-called normal life that, arguably, is sicker than any illness doctors know to diagnose: an arrogant egotism of race first, then class, that gives a grimly concrete meaning to the sin of sins, pride. Not long into his story, Greene has us squirming amidst the details of such a life: the lunches and dinners, the cocktail hours, the pretenses, the gossip, the constant effort to fit in or show off or come out first in this or that bit of silliness — a landscape of phoniness and deception that no one wants to question, only bleed, day by day, for all it’s worth. Step by step, though, Scobie leaves that terrain. He is denied a promotion — a rebuke, a refusal. Thereupon, he becomes an outsider, a stranger, with all the consequent vulnerability, to be sure, but also with the heightened awareness of an observer whose broken ties have enabled a far more acute comprehension of what is, what ought to be. Scobie’s “fall” enables his (and our) enlightenment. The dirty business below the surface of an Empire’s “majesty” surfaces, much to everyone’s chagrin: that of Scobie, needless to say, but also the chagrin of the other characters in the story, and not least, the chagrin of the reader, who is meant to learn something very important, to take it to heart, as the title more than implies.

Boldly, a novelist with strong religious interests, if not loyalties (at the time Greene was still a Catholic churchgoer), dares wonder whether suicide isn’t somehow, sometimes an expression of religious experience, even if of a kind gone awry. Scobie, after all, is not crazy, not a clinical “case” unsuccessfully, futilely treated. Nor is he yet another of this century’s existentialist antiheroes — as in the writings of Camus and Sartre, who were both in their post-World War II ascendancy among the secular, Western intelligentsia around the time Greene dared publish this novel, with its sincerely, then desperately, self-scrutinizing Catholic layman whose distinguishing characteristic (in the exploitative, ultimately materialistic circle of colonial henchmen) is, ironically, his capacity for a troubling, unnerving interior life, that of a Catholic communicant. It is precisely this conscience, this religious sensibility, this instrument of divine judgment, killed with the rest of Scobie by his act of self-destruction, that we readers are asked to consider — how to regard what happens to it: the failure of an agency of God’s justice, or another kind of failure, namely, someone’s frantic effort to escape that conscience, that justice?

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