The Heart of the Matter

This is, probably, up there as one of my favourite books; I can’t exactly state its number, but let’s assume it would float somewhere between the top fifteen and the top ten lists. It’s a fairly classic novel from Graham Greene, and, I would consider, amongst his best works. As I will describe, his characterisations of people is some of the best I have ever seen done; few writers can match the portrayal of humanity like Greene, and this book shines in that field, beating out even The Quiet American would be hesitant to say that it wins against The Power and the Glory.


The novel is set during the war, and follows a police deputy commissioner in an unnamed and fictional African colony of Britain. The deputy commissioner, Henry Scobie, has a wife whom he doesn’t particularly love, but does rather care for, and with whom he has a, well, odd relationship, I guess. One thing leads to another, as Scobie makes his various choices, all falling back to his desire to see his wife safe, and happy somewhere, out of his strong sense of duty. As I’m sure you can guess from such novels, corruption, of a type, sets in, and Scobie takes a bribe as he descends further, having an affair and becoming more entangled in his problems. But the driving feeling of all this, is not greed or lust; Scobie is driven by a sense of duty, and a strong sense of having to care for those involved. Gossip, allegations, MI5 investigations all follow, and one feels only pity for Scobie.

This is where Greene’s strength of characterisation comes in. Maybe we would all, in real life, disapprove of a man who makes Scobie’s choices, and spurn him, as do most in the colony. However, Greene vividly portrays the character; you understand every reason for Scobie’s choices, you empathise, you wish well on him. And then, when Scobie realises that he only has two choices to leave and remedy the situation, the pain he goes through as he decides he cannot just up and stop everything, since the harm and pain it would bring to those whom he cares for, to whom he owes his duty. Yes, I’m sure we would reprimand Scobie; a deputy police commissioner must walk the straight and narrow, but Greene makes us empathise and feel for Scobie, makes us understand all too well his decisions. The supporting cast of the novel are also strong; Greene paints them all with enthusiasm and a poignant understanding of humanity: each character breathes and lives, and seems far too real to be comfortably happy existing only in fiction.

The psychology of the characters, especially Scobie, is what makes this book so great. The story is interesting enough, but the way the characters interact and think is what truly makes the book shine, and places it in my favourite works. There are, however, two more things to say about the book: firstly, Scobie’s Catholicism. Some people may think it is a weakness, and I know several who would claim that it does little good to draw a religious character as the main character, since how are they who are not supposed to relate well? But, honestly, this is one of the strongest points of the novel. Yes, maybe some sections would not be as powerful for those who lack an understanding of Catholicism, but it adds so much more to the psychological study of Scobie. Truly, one can see all the factors playing in Scobie’s mind; the concerns, the cares, what he was taught to do, what he believes he should be, how he thinks he should act, how he reconciles his conflicting choices and actions. It makes the book far more in-depth, and provides such a wonderful analysis of Scobie’s mind; don’t let such a thing turn one off from a masterpiece of human nature.

The second point is the depiction of the Africans and Syrians who live in the colony. Some people would be uncomfortable with it; but I would encourage such things not to dissuade you from reading. Greene portrays his time well, and shows well the varying attitudes of the Europeans to their colonial subjects, and presents interesting descriptions of their  interactions with each other. Indeed, in some characters, it even helps Greene show off his strength of portraying the human condition and his time: Scobie’s ‘boy’, or main servant; his loyalty and trust in Scobie, and, at the same time, the almost loyally distrustful way the pair interact on occasion; Yusef, the Syrian smuggler and businessman, a Muslim who tries to reconcile his faith and culture with his adoption of English culture, and his drinking and corruption. Yes, the book may make a modern reader uncomfortable in parts, but it does not weaken the book. The Heart of the Matter is still a fascinating work, a masterful study of humanity, and, as an aside, a well-written and expertly described novel, to boot!

As you may well guess from this litany of praise for the book, I do love it. It is not perfect, and not the greatest book ever written, but it is fascinating. The development and understanding of the characters is remarkable, and Greene’s portrayal of the human condition well done. There is sympathy and pity for every character in the book, as one understands them and their choices so well; condemnation there is too, from the reader but never Greene, who only shows the characters, but the characters breathe their own breathes. If you’ve been looking for a novel to study humanity, then this is it. Plus, it was this book that made me discover my favourite drink, pink gins, so there is hope that you could also be thus influenced, and so all the more reason to read!



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