Friday, 19 May 2000

Graham Greene: The Heart of the Matter (1948)

Edition: Penguin, 1991
Review number: 506

West Africa in the Second World War was probably more remote from the rest of the world than at any time this century, a time when the war in the Atlantic made travel by ship extremely dangerous. European colonial staff in the area always felt isolated, and this feeling was increased by the war. It is this loneliness which forms the background to Graham Greene's novel, and it is heightened by attributes which separate the central character even from those of a similar background. Scobie is a senior policeman and a Catholic, as well as having a reputation for an unusually strong resistance to corruption; none of these qualities serve to make him popular amongst the other administrators in the British colony.

Duty is the central factor in Scobie's life: duty to his job, duty to his wife. Since his daughter died, there is little else left to him. Then he is passed over as a replacement for the retiring Commissioner of Police in favour of a younger man, and his wife starts to find remaining in the colony insupportable. He is able to arrange a passage to more cosmopolitan South Africa to give her some respite, but this means that he has to become indebted to one of the corrupt Syrian traders in the colony.. This begins his disintegration, which continues when he meets Helen Rolt, a refugee from a shipwreck, and begins an affair.

Interestingly, the more things go badly for Scobie and the further he puts himself from the church, the stronger his faith as a Catholic becomes. Despite believing himself damned as an adulterer, he is unable to break off the affair. Yet he had originally joined the church only because he wanted to marry a Catholic.

The Heart of the Matter is about loneliness: a lonely man in a lonely place, cut off by his religion from the only love he has experienced since the death of his daughter (which, though not part of the novel, is the defining moment of Scobie's life). As loneliness and alienation play an important part in modern life, The Heart of the Matter is truly a novel for our times.

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