Content warning: this post engages in a discussion of suicide.
The Heart of the Matter is a book about a corrupt, cheating cop who kills himself. The book is about more than that, really, with its exploration of (Catholic) metaphysical questions of sin and suicide in its blatantly foreshadowed climax, but in the twenty-first century lens the probative literary value is amateurish and shallow. Greene was a converted Catholic and wanted to explore the question of whether one’s choice to end one’s own life is truly unforgivable by God.
To explore the depths of this question, Greene’s main character, Henry Scobie, first engages in a love affair with a refugee rescued at sea during the Second World War. Scobie is a past-his-prime deputy commissioner in an unnamed British African colony. His wife, Louise, who is presented unidimensionally as a nagging, vapid, socialite nag, wishes to escape the colony to South Africa. Her reason: Scobie has been passed up for the Commissioner role, and his wife beleives her husband’s failures to climb the aristocratic ladder leave her as the target of gossip. Louise finds herself in an affair with the newly-arrived intelligence officer, Wilson, who Greene introduces in the book’s establishing shot by speaking about how much he hates the native Black folk, with no shortage of the N-word deployed to frame the piece.
To support his wife, Scobie takes a secret loan from Yusuf, a Syrian smuggler who Scobie suspects is responsible for an illegal black market diamond trade. He hides the loan from his superiors, while ostensibly telling Yusuf it doesn’t change their adversarial posture. This is a well-intentioned lie. Eventually, the lie and the blackmail lead to the murder of an innocent errand boy.
As Louise leaves, Scobie finds himself falling deeper into the sin of adultry with his 19-year old refugee mistress. Louise eventually returns; Wilson, who was spying on Scobie, reveals the affair. Scobie, unable to deal with the shame of the sin and unable to reconcile his feelings and his failures with his faith, ends his own life.
I am not Catholic except perhaps by technicality: somewhere in my childhood before I could remember, I went through one of whatever-the-rites are, but I have no working recollection of the church outside from an occasional midnight mass, funeral, or Easter service when my parents' own sense of religious guilt compelled them to compel us. I did not grow up knowing what sin was.
Later, when I learned more of the Church from a distant and disconnected perspective, I came to understand the theory of suicide as an unforgivable sin: the commission of the act forecloses the committers ability to seek that forgiveness. Pragmatically, it cuts off the fast-lane to eternal glory. I suppose in the spectrum of Christian ethics, it’s a worthy question of whether someone whose suffering is so great they choose to end their own life is still loved by God. But I’ve also read James Joyce, and he writes about the unforgivable sin of simony. Together, they make the whole question of “unforgiveness” feel a bit contrived.
The whole matter of suicide could be explored instead on the impossible mark it leaves on those left behind, the unpatchable loneliness it burdens our loved ones with, the fury and the helplessness and guilt it induces. There are many reasons not to choose suicide, and if the Catholic argument works, I won’t stand against it. I’m compelled by the topic to say: if you’re struggling with these questions, there is help.
Graham Greene could explored any of these angles. He did not. Instead, he left a mess of a book whose secondary characters are one-dimensional, whose actions don’t align with their purpose, and whose setting adds no value to the plot. The blatant racism adds no character and serves no purpose to the story or its atmosphere.
I’m not alone in these criticisms. A contemporary, George Orwell, panned the novel for the same reasons.
Scobie is incredible because the two halves of him do not fit together. If he were capable of getting into the kind of mess that is described, he would have got into it years earlier. If he really felt that adultery is mortal sin, he would stop committing it; if he persisted in it, his sense of sin would weaken. If he believed in Hell, he would not risk going there merely to spare the feelings of a couple of neurotic women. And one might add that if he were the kind of man we are told he is - that is, a man whose chief characteristic is a horror of causing pain - he would not be an officer in a colonial police force.
This book may be the most misplaced book on the Modern Library’s list—a list which, by the by, excludes To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s biggest exploration is the suffering of contradictions of faith in a man’s soul, but Hugo did better a hundred years earlier. If you crave the intellectual exercise, simply listen to “Stars” on repeat. The Heart of the Matter simply doesn’t stand the test of time.
To read more about my Modern Library project, read this post.
The Heart of the Matter