Richard Derus's Reviews > The Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
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Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Graham Greene's masterpiece The Heart of the Matter tells the story of a good man enmeshed in love, intrigue, and evil in a West African coastal town. Scobie is bound by strict integrity to his role as assistant police commissioner and by severe responsibility to his wife, Louise, for whom he cares with a fatal pity.

When Scobie falls in love with the young widow Helen, he finds vital passion again yielding to pity, integrity giving way to deceit and dishonor—a vortex leading directly to murder. As Scobie's world crumbles, his personal crisis makes for a novel that is suspenseful, fascinating, and, finally, tragic.

Originally published in 1948, The Heart of the Matter is the unforgettable portrait of one man, flawed yet heroic, destroyed and redeemed by a terrible conflict of passion and faith.

My Review: An excellent book. Simply magnificent writing, as always, but more than that the story is perfectly paced (a thing Greene's stories aren't always, eg The Power and the Glory) and deeply emotional (another thing Greene's stories aren't always, eg Travels With My Aunt).

Greene himself didn't like the book, which was a species of roman à clef. I suspect, though I don't have proof, that he was simply uncomfortable at how much of his inner life he revealed in the book. Scobie's infidelity and his fraught relationship with the wife he's saddled with must have been bad reading for Mrs. Greene. But the essential conflict of the book is man versus church, the giant looming monster of judgment and hatred that is Catholicism. Greene's convert's zeal for the idiotic strictures, rules, and overarching dumb "philosophy" of the religion are tested here, and ultimately upheld, though the price of the struggle and the upholding aren't scanted in the text.

Stories require conflicts to make them interesting, and the essential question an author must address is "what's at stake here?" The more intense and vivid the answer to that question is, the more of an impact the story is able to make. Greene was fond of the story he tells here, that of an individual against his individuality. He told and retold the story. The state, the colonial power whose interests Scobie/Greene serves, is revealed in the text to be an uncaring and ungrateful master; the rules of the state are broken with remarkably few qualms when the stakes get high enough. It is the monolith of the oppressive church, admonishing Scobie of his "moral" failings and withholding "absolution of his sins", that he is in full rebellion against...and in the end it is the church that causes all parties the most trouble and pain.

Greene remained a more-or-less believing Catholic. I read this book and was stumped as to why. The vileness of the hierarchy was so clear to me, I couldn't imagine why anyone would read it and not drop christianity on the spot. But no matter one's stance on the religion herein portrayed, there's no denying the power of the tension between authority and self in creating an engaging and passionate story. A must-read.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
January 1, 2002 – Finished Reading
March 1, 2013 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-22 of 22 (22 new)

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message 1: by Samir (new)

Samir Rawas Sarayji You've convinced me :-)


message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

This does sound good. Man, I need to get around to reading some Greene.


message 3: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich I as well, I'm way overdue on reading this one. Power and Glory was amazing, I should have kept the Greene coming! Great review, Richard!


Richard Derus Samir wrote: "You've convinced me :-)"

Goody good good! Read it soon so I can read your response to it.


Richard Derus Anthony wrote: "This does sound good. Man, I need to get around to reading some Greene."

This wasn't the first Greene novel I read...don't recall at the moment what was...but I wish it had been. *significant look*


Richard Derus s.penkevich wrote: "I as well, I'm way overdue on reading this one. Power and Glory was amazing, I should have kept the Greene coming! Great review, Richard!"

Thanks, Sven! I think it's a good addition to the Penkevich Memorial Liberry.


Sophie Schiller I read this book around 1990 and it still stays with me. Graham Greene was a marvelous novelist, especially using exotic locations and characters that are richly drawn with all their humanity, flaws, and vulnerabilities. A stunning portrait of both Colonial Africa and her all-too-human denizens.


Richard Derus Sophie wrote: "I read this book around 1990 and it still stays with me. Graham Greene was a marvelous novelist, especially using exotic locations and characters that are richly drawn with all their humanity, flaw..."

I completely agree. Greene knew West Africa in the colonial period due to his time in the intelligence service, and that really comes through in a kind of atmospheric richness that I associate more with Amos Tutuola or Wole Soyinka.


Richard Derus Sophie wrote: "Richard wrote: "Sophie wrote: "I read this book around 1990 and it still stays with me. Graham Greene was a marvelous novelist, especially using exotic locations and characters that are richly draw..."

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with pointing people towards one's own book, Sophie, it is a little disingenuous to do so without saying it's one's own book.


Sophie Schiller Richard wrote: "Sophie wrote: "Richard wrote: "Sophie wrote: "I read this book around 1990 and it still stays with me. Graham Greene was a marvelous novelist, especially using exotic locations and characters that ..."

Please excuse my faux pas. I take it back!!!!


Richard Derus Too late for that. I've already ordered the book.


Jeffrey Keeten Greene is so damn cool. Great review Richard! I'm going to have to read one soon before I start seeing Pink Elephants.


Richard Derus heh. Hurry!


Gspesh "It is the monolith of the oppressive church, admonishing Scobie of his "moral" failings and withholding "absolution of his sins", that he is in full rebellion against...and in the end it is the church that causes all parties the most trouble and pain."

Scobie moral failing is that he wasn't sorry. He wasn't denied absolution but he couldn't be absolved because he wouldn't allow himself. So it is ultimately his moral failings of loving two women at the same time. The Church just simply provides a structure for the drama. But the Church isn't to blame - Scobie is. Afterall, if he doesn't care about ultimately condemning himself to damnation (his belief) for love - why not just divorce his wife?


Richard Derus The Church's rules prevailed in the society of the day. The choice to obey the rules of the society in which Scobie must operate is a coerced one, since he obeys or loses much more than mere notional "salvation" (from what, exactly? From the church's constructed punishment for stepping out of line), which is the ability to make a living.

Of course he could have made that choice, gone on to do something else in another place like America or Australia...but he's a conventional, cowed little Babbitt of a man whose desire for happiness is so limited and selfish in its objects that he simply can't conceive of winning by walking away.


Gspesh I suppose you have a point, however he is a British Catholic and he lives in a far off African colony! He is an absolute minority and the Church has no say in his livelihood. As a matter of fact the upper crust officers and officials are suspicious and mistrustful of Catholics.

But you are absolutely correct that he is indeed the conventional man who acts only out of sense of duty (to wife, Church, mistress, job, etc.)


Anyway - thanks for the discussion, Richard.


message 17: by Cbj (new) - rated it 4 stars

Cbj Really nice review, Richard.


Richard Derus Cbj wrote: "Really nice review, Richard."

Thank you for stopping by to say so!


message 19: by Robert (new) - added it

Robert Not sure how such intelligent people maintained their cognitive dissonance on this but Greene wasn't alone; Tolkien was a Catholic unto his death, despite in one of his letters to his son, Christopher, showing that he was very aware of how corrupt and abusive the clergy as a whole was.


Sophie Schiller Richard, you may enjoy this essay I wrote in 2015, 25 years after first reading "The Heart of the Matter":
http://sophieschiller.blogspot.com/20...


Richard Derus Robert wrote: "Not sure how such intelligent people maintained their cognitive dissonance on this but Greene wasn't alone; Tolkien was a Catholic unto his death, despite in one of his letters to his son, Christop..."

Faith is beyond reason's reach. It's the reason I'm both dismissive and fearful of "people of faith." It's terrifying to imagine a "person of faith" in charge of anything larger than the local bodega. It shouldn't be allowed.


Richard Derus Sophie wrote: "Richard, you may enjoy this essay I wrote in 2015, 25 years after first reading "The Heart of the Matter":
http://sophieschiller.blogspot.com/20..."


An interesting perspective, one that fully highlights the facts behind my dislike of and disdain for catholicism and christianity in general. Realizing you didn't intend any such thing, it still points up the validity of your analysis!


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