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The Heart of The Matter

The Heart of The Matter

The Heart Of The Matter (1948) is a psychological novel by English author Graham Greene (1904-1991). Henry Scobie is trapped in a loveless marriage but feels a sense of duty to his wife and his faith. When he begins an affair with a young woman, he is overwhelmed by guilt and struggles to find a way out. The Heart Of The Matter is Greene's mediation on the limits of faith and the cost of morality.

The Heart Of The Matter: Summary

The Heart Of The Matter is set in a small colony in an unnamed African country during WWII.

Book One

Major Henry Scobie is a British police officer who protects a small town of European settlers. His wife, Louise, is unhappy and withdrawn. Henry and Louise are still reeling from the death of their infant daughter years before. Although Henry no longer loves Louise, he feels a profound duty to the marriage. Henry converted to Catholicism for marriage, so the unhappy couple cannot get a divorce.


The Heart of the Matter, Map of West Africa, StudySmarterGraham Greene was stationed in Sierra Leone during WWII. Wikicommons

Henry enjoys his job but feels unappreciated when he is passed over for promotion. He discovers that untrue rumors are circling the colony, suggesting he may be corrupt, and believes they cost him the job. Louise tells Henry she can no longer live in the remote outpost and wants to move to South Africa.

How does Henry deal with the pressure of his personal and professional problems? Does he display healthy coping mechanisms?

A new inspector named Wilson arrives in Scobie's region and begins a friendship with Louise. The pair bond over a shared love of poetry and develop romantic feelings for each other. As Scobie desperately tries to raise money to send Louise to South Africa, he takes a loan from a Syrian smuggler named Yusef. While investigating a suspicious suicide, Henry begins to fear the victim had also taken out a high-interest loan from Yusef.

The smuggler denies this and warns Henry that a new British inspector has been dispatched to the region to break up a diamond smuggling ring. Henry uses the money to send Louise to South Africa.

The Heart of the Matter, Diamonds, StudySmarterDuring WWII, the Nazis attempted to circumvent international laws by illegally smuggling diamonds for use in industrial tools. Pixabay

Book Two

Henry is sent to the neighboring district to recover survivors from a shipwreck and falls for one of the survivors, Helen, a 19-year-old English girl. The couple begins an affair, and Henry is consumed by guilt at committing the sin of adultery. When Yusef discovers a love letter from Henry to Helen, he uses it to blackmail Henry into smuggling diamonds for him.

What kinds of words and images does Greene use to describe Henry's guilt and shame?

Louise returns from South Africa, and Henry desperately tries to hide his affair with Helen. Racked with guilt, he attends confession but is unable to stop cheating. He commits another grave sin by taking Holy Communion without having received absolution. He confines his problems with Yusef and shares his suspicions that his house servant, Ali, knows about the affair. Days later, Ali is murdered by a group of burglars.


The Heart of the Matter, Man covering face with hands, StudySmarterHenry is overwhelmed by despair and guilt. Pixabay

Henry knows that his conversation with Yusef lead to Ali's death and the knowledge further compounds his guilt. He rationalizes the only honorable thing he can do is to free Louise and Helen from his presence and plans to commit suicide. Henry visits the doctor and fakes heart problems to get strong medicine which he will use to make his death look accidental. A few days later, he overdoses and dies, knowing he will face eternal damnation for having committed a mortal sin.

Does Greene present Henry's suicide as a noble or tragic act?

After Henry's death, it is revealed that Louise knew about the affair with Helen and that Henry's death was self-inflicted. She refuses Wilson's request for marriage but says she is open to the possibility in the future. Helen cannot understand Henry's actions; instead of seeing them as a sacrifice, she sees him as selfish and immature.

The Heart Of The Matter sold over 300,000 copies in its first run. Many critics lauded the book as Greene's best. However, George Orwell (1903-1950) thought the book was unrealistic and melodramatic.

The Heart Of The Matter: Characters

Here is a look at the most important characters in Graham Greene's The Heart Of The Matter.

Henry Scobie

The novel's protagonist is a police officer trapped in a loveless marriage who wants more out of life. Henry feels a heavy responsibility and pressure for his wife and knows he can never leave her through a divorce. Often his feelings for other people manifest as pity rather than empathy.

Louise Scobie

Henry's wife, Louise, is a devout Catholic woman who enjoys literature and yearns for a better life away from the isolated colony. Although she knows Henry no longer loves her, she cares about him and implores him to look after his spiritual needs by attending mass and confession.

Helen Rolt

Having lost her young husband in the shipwreck, Helen is vulnerable when she meets Henry. Described as unattractive and immature, Helen connects to Henry's sense of pity at the beginning. However, he develops strong feelings for her as the book progresses. Helen has no strong religious convictions and can not understand Henry's guilt and struggle.

Yusef

The book's most dangerous character, Yusef, is a Syrian smuggler and gangster who operates several businesses in the small colony. He wants to profit from the lucrative diamond smuggling trade which dominated the black market during WWII and will stop at nothing to crush his competition. Yusef is portrayed as both charming and utterly ruthless.

The Heart Of The Matter: Themes

In The Heart Of The Matter, Graham Greene uses Henry Scobie's dilemma to examine the more significant theme of morality and the struggle to live by a strict religious code.

Religion and morality

The Heart Of The Matter is dominated by the teachings of Catholicism and the dilemma of temptation. Catholicism dominates Henry and Louise Scobie's lives; even though both feel unfulfilled and unloved in the marriage, they cannot get a divorce due to the rules of the Catholic Church. The Church views marriage as one of its seven Holy Sacraments; in marriage, couples enter into an indissolvable union and a partnership that can only end with one or both partners' death.

The Heart of the Matter, Symbol of Catholicism, StudySmarterHenry struggles to live by the strict teachings of Catholicism. Wikicommons

Catholicism teaches that its adherents must strictly follow the Church's teachings to accept salvation and enter heaven. If they break or ignore the rules, they risk eternal damnation in Hell. Catholics can receive absolution from their sins by going to confession and obtaining forgiveness from a priest. When Henry visits confession, he cannot receive forgiveness because he can not stop seeing Helen.

Henry is entirely ruled by his faith; he cannot think of any other recourse but to kill himself to free his wife and mistress from his presence. He views his suicide as an unselfish act for others and as some form of penance to make up for his sins against God. However, the act of suicide is considered a mortal sin in Catholicism and means his soul will not be allowed to enter heaven.

Since the novel's publication in 1948, the Catholic Church's teachings on suicide have softened. The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides the official doctrine and teachings for all Catholics. In 1992, Pope John Paul II updated the Catechism to reflect God's ability to forgive and accept those who have taken their own lives.

As a writer, Graham Greene is most famous for his later spy novels and thrillers like The Quiet American (1955) and Our Man in Havana (1958). However, his earlier career was dominated by more serious literary works like The Heart of The Matter. The novel is Greene's most personal work as it mirrors many aspects of his life and experience.

Like Henry, Greene converted to Catholicism to marry and was profoundly influenced by the faith. Having suffered from depression in his teens, Greene found the teachings of Catholicism beneficial and saw his belief as a stance against the world's evil.

The Heart of the Matter is often placed alongside two other classic Greene novels, Brighton Rock (1938) and The Power and the Glory (1940), and collectively referred to as the "Catholic Trilogy." All three works deal with characters struggling with forces of evil or personal temptations while attempting to live righteously.

In The Heart of the Matter, Greene dives even further into his personal life for material as the writer was stationed in a remote colony in west Africa during WWII. Working for British intelligence, Greene was tasked with uncovering illegal Nazi diamond smuggling rings. Like Henry, he was engaged with the seedy underground characters who operated outside the law.

Greene also conducted many extramarital affairs during his lifetime and was racked by the guilt of his sins. The book is the author's mediation on the limitations of religious dogma. Since Henry believes he must adhere absolutely to the Church's teachings, he sees no other option but suicide. Greene argues that this rigid thinking is ultimately destructive.

The Heart Of The Matter: Analysis

The Heart of the Matter contains elements of several genres, including romance and drama. Graham Greene's unique narrative style makes the book a work of psychological fiction.

Psychological fiction is a literary genre that focuses on a character's inner development or struggle. The genre often employs narration, giving readers a view of the character's consciousness. By showing the character's reasoning, authors can drive the plot with insight rather than action.

In The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene uses an omniscient third-person point of view. This perspective allows the author to observe the thoughts and actions of several characters rather than focusing on one person's view. Greene sometimes uses an omniscient view to explore Henry's inner thoughts and struggles with his sins. Other times, he switches to other characters' perspectives to drive the story along with dialogue and action. This narrative view also allows the writer to build details, summarize events and comment on the story.

Stream of consciousness is a narrative technique that presents the character's inner thoughts in a disjointed and nonlinear matter, similar to how actual thought processes occur. Writers often use the method to deliver a series of sensations, emotions, and memories flowing like a river or stream. While Greene does not employ the first-person narrative in the novel, he uses a stream of consciousness in sections of the book, giving the reader key insights into the character's inner struggles. At points, the novel's narration presents the character's thoughts directly, and the reader is addressed as "you."

Title Meaning

The novel's title is symbolic as Greene uses the heart to represent a number of the book's key concepts. In the beginning, Henry suffers emotional heartache over his failed marriage and dead child. His heart desires to leave Louise and be with Helen. However, his heart clashes with his mind, demanding he follows the Church's rules and remains faithful to his wife. When Henry visits the doctor, he fakes heart trouble to get the medicine he needs to commit suicide.

In the end, Louise visits a priest and tries to understand how Henry could have taken his life when he knew it meant facing eternal damnation. The priest attempts to console her by telling her that the Church's dogma on his sin does not take into account what goes on in a person's heart and that no one can know what goes on in the heart of others.

The Heart Of The Matter: Quotes

The Heart Of The Matter displays Graham Greene's direct but powerful prose style. The author weaves major themes of religion and morality into his narration as he builds a vivid picture of life in the colony. Here is a look at some important quotes from the book.

He gave her a bright fake smile; so much of life was a putting-off of unhappiness for another time. Nothing was ever lost by delay." (Book One, Chapter One)

Greene uses his narrative technique to provide key analysis into each character's insight. In the case of Henry, we learn that he is stuck in a loveless marriage and sees this as part of life's struggle. Many of the novel's character's suffer in silence as they trudge through an unhappy existence dreaming of something better.

Christ had not been murdered: you couldn't murder God: Christ had killed himself; he had hung himself on the cross." (Book Two, Chapter Five)

As Henry tries to rationalize his upcoming suicide, he contemplates the crucifixion of Christ. Christians view Christ's death as a sacrifice that allows his followers to enter into heaven. Similarly, Henry weighs his own life with the happiness of two others (Helen and Louise) and feels this his death can free others and repair his broken relationship with God.

The Heart of the Matter - Key takeaways

  • The Heart Of The Matter is a novel by English author Graham Greene.

  • The book follows Henry Scobie, a British police officer in west Africa, as he struggles with the guilt of infidelity.

  • Greene drew from his conversion to Catholicism and time in west Africa for the basis of the novel.

  • The book deals with themes of morality and the teachings of Catholicism.

  • The novel is an example of psychological fiction, using the third-person narrative.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Heart of The Matter

The novel's title is a reference to the idea that the issue at the center of any matter is often obscured and difficult to discover. 

The Heart Of The Matter was written by Graham Greene.

The book's title is symbolic of the novel's deeper themes. Henry Scobie suffers both emotional and physical heartache as he tries to improve his life. While he battles feelings of guilt and shame, he is unable to confide his real feelings to anyone. 

The Heart Of The Matter deals with the ethical dilemmas of Catholicism. The protagonist is trapped in a loveless marriage and unable to get a divorce. Greene presents the protagonist's struggle to live by the strict dogma of Catholicism as dangerous. 

The Heart Of The Matter is an example of psychological fiction.

Final The Heart of The Matter Quiz

Question

Who wrote The Heart Of The Matter?

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Answer

Graham Greene

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Question

On which continent is The Heart Of The Matter set?

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Answer

Africa

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Question

Which character is the protagonist of The Heart Of The Matter?

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Answer

Henry Scobie 

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Question

The Heart Of The Matter deals with which major faith?

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Answer

Catholicism

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Question

Henry and Louise Scobie enjoy a loving marriage. 

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Answer

False

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Question

Louise Scobie wants to leave the colony and move to ________. 

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Answer

South Africa

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Question

The Heart of the Matter is part of Graham Greene's "Catholic Trilogy". 

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Answer

True

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Question

Which narrative view does Graham Greene use in The Heart of the Matter

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Answer

Omniscient third-person

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Question

The Heart Of The Matter was a financial and commercial success for Graham Greene. 

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Answer

True

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Question

Which genre best describes The Heart Of The Matter? 

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Answer

Psychological fiction 

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