“The Heart of the Matter” by Graham Greene

“The Heart of the Matter” by Graham Greene (1948) – 255 pages

“Doing nothing, badly.” – Graham Greene  

No writer did comic desolation better than Graham Greene.  I recently re-read one of his classic novels, “The Heart of the Matter” which takes place during World War II in a west African British colony which fortunately for it remains nameless.  The war is far away; the British empire is winding down, almost finished, but the people here, especially the British, don’t know it yet.     

 Major Scobie, our main character in “The Heart of the Matter”, is the number 2 man in the customs office.  Even when the number 1 man leaves, he does not get promoted, because then there would be no one who could do the important customs work that Scobie does.  It doesn’t bother Scobie very much that he is passed by for promotion, but it upsets his wife Louise.  Louise and Scobie have reached that stage in their marriage where they annoy each other constantly, but it is comfortable except when Louise calls Scobie by her pet name for him, ‘Ticky’.           

 It is extremely hot in this colony, a breeding ground for all kinds of bugs and vermin.  Termites and other wood-boring insects eat the exposed wood in the houses which then allow the cockroaches and many kinds of beetles to enter the rooms.  Soon enough, small lizards and mice also get in.  One of the favorite pastimes of the colonials is inventing games which involve killing bugs. There is really very little for anyone to do here except at the post clubhouse where the post bar and restaurant provide a refuge, except that you might run in to obnoxious British colonial types like Wilson.

 The actual natives of the colony all work as servants for the British for next to nothing, and the British colonials call all the native men ‘Boy’ no matter what age they are.   There are two Syrian businessmen, Tallit and Yusef, who control most of the trade in the colony, and these two are very competitive.  They report on each other, accusing each other of smuggling diamonds which is one of the main moneymaking opportunities here.  One smuggling ruse is to get someone’s pet parrot to swallow the diamonds.  All Scobie can do to determine if the parrot is actually carrying diamonds is to cut the parrot up and see what is in its craw.  Of course there may not have been any diamonds in the first place.

Graham Greene has a way of describing these circumstances that makes me laugh, so when the story switches from comic desolation to real desolation, it is difficult to keep a straight face.  Scobie’s Catholicism plays an important role in this novel, and you can tell that Greene takes his religion seriously.  Somehow this serious religious talk doesn’t fit in real smoothly with the rest of the story, but it only lasts for a few pages, and by the end of the novel Greene is comfortably back to his normal tongue-in-cheek style.

I read several other reviews of “The Heart of the Matter”, and no one else recognized the comic aspect in the novel. These other reviewers found the novel dramatic, even depressing, but not humorous.  “The Heart of the Matter” finished number 40 on the Modern Library list of the Top 100 novels of the 20th century.  Just like Scobie, Graham Greene was bypassed, in Greene’s case for the Nobel literary prize.


10 responses to this post.

  1. I will confess that I did not pick up on the comedy when I first read this. In my defense, I was a teen and the English instructor who assigned the book also did not see or point out any comic effects. I only remember it as somewhat dreary, bathed in Catholicism, and (SPOILER) about the spiritual consequences of suicide. I would go back and read this to see if I saw/enjoyed the comedy now, but first I would want to read The Power and the Glory which seemed a very important novel to me when I read that (also as a teen).


    • Hi Kerry,
      I read a little Graham Greene when in my twenties and didn’t much care for him then. Then about seven years ago I picked him up again and have been absolutely devouring his books since. Now I see his all-encompassing world weariness as quite humorous, though there are a lot of other ways of interpreting the stories.


  2. There is a wonderful audio-book version of this, read by Michael (Foyle’s War) Kitchen. He captures the world-weary voice of Scobie perfectly.
    Re the comic aspects: I would call it wry rather than comic, because Greene was a man very much aware of the absurdities of life.


    • Hi Lisa,
      Yes “Wry” rather than “Comic”. For me when Greene piles absurdity upon absurdity and at the same time it all seems a quite accurate description of the way things are, it strikes me as humorous, and thus I am not prepared for Greene’s heavy duty soul searching.


  3. I think that soul-searching is very revealing: his characters are almost always trapped in some situation (relationships, work, needing money) and they can never see any release in sight. The character is always brutally aware of the entrapment – perhaps this is a consequence of that Catholicism which (back then anyway) encouraged examining one’s conscience on a daily basis not just at Confession (which is now called something else, I forget what).
    For Greene, the only way the character can deal with situations which are at odds with the conscience is with cynicism.


    • Hi Lisa,
      I just read that Graham Greene was severely bipolar. That probably explains why the first part of “The Heart of the Matter” is wry, comedic, and almost whimsical in its description of Scobie’s life, yet the later part of the novel turns to his real desolation and pain.


  4. I haven’t had a chance to go through this yet…
    wonderful review though!


  5. Posted by priya on September 30, 2012 at 4:54 PM

    the narrative techniques in the heart of the matter are-use of aphorism,rapid narrative pace,abundance of similes,imagery,emotional intensity, epithets, cinematic techniques ,the stream of consciousness,element of sex,&also he had added an epigraph to it.


    • Hi Priya,
      Yes, Graham Greene used all of these techniques to produced many, many excellent novels. “The Heart of the Matter” is one of his best. I admire his fiction.


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