The Heart of the Matter

I spent the whole of the day reading The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene.
“The Heart of the Matter” is the sad story of a man tormented by an inability to live up to the dictates of his religion. Deputy Police Commissioner Scobie begins the book as a rare subject, an English colonial policeman in Africa not on the take. He is cursed, however, with a wife who constantly, if not always overtly, reminds him that the life he has provided for them is beneath her. Louise Scobie is one of those Catholics of the mid-twentieth century that believes things like missing mass on Sunday is a mortal sin, but unfortunately can’t bring herself to “avoid superbia” as the nuns used to admonish schoolchildren in the fifties and sixties. In other words, Louise is a snob. When it’s announced that her husband won’t be promoted when the commissioner retires she simply can’t deal with the shame of it.
Most of Scobie’s capacity for love died several years earlier at a boarding school in England when their nine-year-old daughter was taken by a sudden illness–the difficulty of communication and the fact of World War II prevented him from even attending the funeral–and the third person narrator notes how he retreated into his job, but “[t]he less he needed Louise the more he felt responsible for her happiness.” Louise does see Scobie’s struggles, even gently accusing him of wishing she were dead. He responds, as he always does, that her happiness is his priority, and promises to find a way to pay for her passage to South Africa, where she’ll be able to be with friends and without the ignominy of not being the new commissioner’s wife. The only way to find the money is to borrow it from a well known but smooth Syrian crime boss who likes Scobie because he can trust him to be incorruptible.
Crossing the proprietary line of borrowing the money flows into crossing the mortal sin line as Scobie takes up with a much younger woman. While he grows to love Helen, whom he meets in a hospital while she recovers from nearly dying in a shipwreck, he cannot love what he sees himself becoming. Scobie’s struggles with despair are moving and genuine, even as the reader perhaps wishes Scobie were just a little bit smarter than he is. If he were of course, he wouldn’t be Scobie, never able to attain his desired simple life where he can do his job and feel loved and loving, redeemed and free.

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