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The Heart of the Matter, 1948First edition
By Graham Greene
Novel, 1948
approx. 88,000 words
On Greatest lists
Notable lines
First line

Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork.

Great lines

He was like a dog. Nobody had yet drawn on his face the lines that make a human being.

Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either extreme egotism, evil—or else an absolute ignorance.

In our hearts there is a ruthless dictator, ready to contemplate the misery of a thousand strangers if it will ensure the happiness of the few we love.

In human relations kindness and lies are worth thousand lies.

When something became a case it no longer seemed to concern a human being.

“You must promise me. You can't desire the end without desiring the means."
Ah, but one can, he thought, one can: one can desire the peace of victory without desiring the ravaged towns.”

No one can speak a monologue for long alone—another voice will always make itself heard; every monologue sooner or later becomes a discussion.

We are all of us resigned to death: it's life we aren't resigned to.

The greying hair, the line of nerves upon the face, the thickening body held him as her beauty never had.... It isn't beauty that we love, he thought, it's failure—the failure to stay young forever, the failure of nerves, the failure of the body. Beauty is like success: we can't love it for long.

Last line

"He certain loved no one else," she said.
"And you may be in the right of it there too," Father Rank replied.

The Heart of the Matter


Sorry about how life has gone

By rights, there should be little interest remaining in the 1948 story of a white colonialist policeman, wracked with Catholic guilt over his lapsed religion, corruption, career failures and duplicitous relationships.

The Heart of the Matter was a massive hit when it came out and has remained high on lists of the great novels of the twentieth century. But how well can all this self-absorbed agonizing possibly still hold up now?

Surprisingly well, actually. Now, maybe it doesn't hit home as incisively as it did some years ago. Certainly not as well as some of Greene's later more politically and socially aware novels, whose issues resonate still. Today reading The Heart of the Matter it's hard to take very seriously the arguments of central character Henry Scobie with a god he only partly believes in and his struggles to weigh eternal life or damnation against happiness in this earthly life.

It's also difficult to ignore that the narrative is concerned almost entirely with the small white ruling colony in the unnamed West African country (taken to be British Sierra Leone). The only non-Anglo character to get much attention is Yusef, a Syrian smuggler and criminal boss, who blackmails Scobie. When Ali, a native who has served Scobie for fifteen years, is killed at some point we don't know him or his relationship with Scobie enough to feel much about it, except to add it to the list of things Scobie can feel guilty about.

Yet, The Heart of the Matter is still a powerful novel, saved by great writing and by a great understanding of—it's unavoidable—the human heart.

Page after page of insights into thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Mostly of a contrarian nature, such as when he explains why a cold heart should be valued higher than a warm one. No greeting card aphorisms, nothing inspirational, but concise stabs that take us aback, thinking, "Right, forget all that other crap, this is the real-world stuff." Not always healthy or even correct, but containing enough truth to draw you into the main character's bleak outlook.

Graham's writing at this period, with its flawed characters in futile quests for peace and its creation of atmospheric settings in exotic locales, almost bordering on claustrophobia, is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's work a generation earlier, though without Conrad's genius for style and narrative structure.

In The Heart of the Matter, as in his other novels, Graham is a more straightforward writer, with an understated, seemingly easy-going style, despite all the moral heavy-going moral. It's common to miss entirely a story turning point as it slides by, only to catch you up later when you realize something significant has changed. The narrative moves along in a relaxed third-person voice that lets the main character slip back and forth between exposition and observation, and occasionally to give up the floor to other characters—especially to great effect at the beginning and end of the novel, before and after Scobie's story.

Even through Scobie's eyes though, it's apparent there are no truly all-good or evil people. This may be one of the man's great weaknesses: if he doesn't really love anyone (see the last lines), it's also true he doesn't really hate anyone either. He understands—or wilfully misunderstands may be closer to the truth—even those who are antagonistic him.

Closer to the heart

At his core he's one of the cold-hearted people but not exactly psychopathic, as he has something like pity for everyone and everything, almost indiscriminately.

If one knew, he wondered, the facts, would one have to pity even the planets? If one reached what they called the heart of the matter?

Admittedly, the story does plod occasionally, such as when Scobie's loving wife returns from abroad and he agonizes over how to balance his life between her and his unfortunate mistress whom he feels sorry for.

Of course, he brings God and eternity and the local priest into it—and, frankly, it's hard to care about all that in the context of his shoddy dilemmas. Just make a decision and stick to it, you want to shout at this shoddy Hamlet. 

But once he does settle on a course of action, albeit one of the worst possible choices, the winding down of his story—and his life—is tensely, inexorably and beautifully written. Only to be undercut by a postscript of sorts from others' perspectives, mocking his utter, final failure.

Which may finally get to the heart of what this novel's about.

— Eric McMillan




The Quiet American

See also:

Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness

On Amazon:

The Heart of the Matter

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