“If I could just arrange for her happiness first, he thought, and in the confusing night he forgot what experience had taught him – that no human being can really understand another, and no one can arrange another’s happiness” (p. 85).
There are two things that concern Scobie most: love and faith. Overshadowing both of these things is his ultimate desire for happiness, a desire that consumes and manipulates him. Because no one can arrange another’s happiness, Scobie’s dogged insistence upon making others happy leads only to heartache and destruction.
It is exactly this heartache that brings him to abandon and desecrate the idea of a good God: “that was the mystery, to reconcile [suffering] with the love of God” (p. 121).
Graham Greene never seems to shy away from the heavy things; instead, his words plunge like spears straight into them, piercing through flesh and bone, puncturing the depths of the heart. His novels are like surgical scalpels that operate on themes of love and versions of love, guilt and shame, trust and betrayal, atonement and damnation, mercy and wrath, suffering and salvation. The roots of Greene’s Catholic faith run deep throughout his stories, and there is no question that his characters’ struggles are birthed out of his own.
“The Heart of the Matter” is a book about man’s pursuit of the unattainable ideal of happiness – but “what an absurd thing it was to expect happiness in a world so full of misery” (p. 123). Scobie is a British police officer stationed in a war-torn West African country who is passed up for promotion to commissionership. His wife Louise – though already miserable – becomes more miserable at this news, so Scobie borrows money to send her away to South Africa. In her absence, he begins an affair with a young widow named Helen. This prompts a series of events (and a hardening conscience) that ultimately leads to the shattering of all of Scobie’s efforts to create “happiness for others and solitude and peace for himself” (p. 189).
Scobie’s version of love is agonizing. Love, to Scobie, is nothing more than a sense of pity and responsibility. He has somehow assumed a savior complex that makes him believe he must make people happy, whatever the cost to his own life.
Because of this, he can only love those who are vulnerable and in need. “He had no sense of responsibility towards the beautiful and the graceful and the intelligent. They could find their own way. It was the face for which nobody would go out of his way…that demanded his allegiance” (p.159). Enter: Louise and Helen.
Scobie’s love for his wife Louise is a twisted and practically defunct love, existing only because of a promise. “No man could guarantee love for ever, but he had sworn fourteen years ago…that he would at least always see to it that she was happy” (p. 59). This promise becomes his duty, and this duty is the only strand of attachment between him and his wife.
Helen, too, is vulnerable in her aloneness and foreignness. She is washed up on shore after a shipwreck during which she loses her newly-wed husband; thus, Scobie first begins a relationship with her out of pity. This pity consumes him and transforms into a sense of responsibility, eventually transliterating into his language of love.
And yet: Scobie is eternally conflicted by this. “Do I, in my heart of hearts, love either of them, or is it only that this automatic pity goes out to any human need – and makes it worse? Any victim demands allegiance” (p. 206). Did Scobie ever genuinely love? I’m firmly convinced he didn’t, although he was convinced he did. But this is one of those beautiful ambiguously-ending books that could make you interpret this otherwise.
While Scobie’s love is agonizing, his faith is deeply depressing. Fundamentally, he believes in God. Helen challenges him numerous times about how he can reconcile his affair with his faith: “‘If there’s one thing I hate it’s your Catholicism. It’s so bogus. If you really believed you wouldn’t be here'” (p. 232). But Scobie is insistent upon convincing her he does believe: “‘But I do believe and I am here. I can’t explain it, but there it is. My eyes are open. I know what I’m doing'” (p.232).
And he does. He fears God, but he knows full well his own sin. “The trouble is, he thought, we know the answers – we Catholics are damned by our knowledge” (p. 219). “Even self-pity was denied him because he knew so exactly the extent of his guilt” (p. 235).
This would appear to be the perfect set-up for a story of redemption. But instead, this is where we meet devastation and defeat. Scobie possesses a deadly knowledge, yet an absence of hope. His faith has made him believe that love towards God is the same as his love towards man: nothing more than duty. When he sins, he must confess, be ordered to stop sinning, make an act of contrition, and take communion. But none of these things is enough for him. “When he came out of the confessional box it seemed to Scobie that his footsteps had taken him out of sight of hope. There was no hope anywhere he turned his eyes. The words of Mass were like an indictment: ‘I will go in unto the altar of God; to God who giveth joy to my youth.’ But there was no joy anywhere” (pp. 222-223).
This terrible lack of hope leads Scobie to do nothing about his sin, nor trust God to do anything about it. What he does do, however, is submit himself to damnation. He accepts judgment and hell as his rightful rewards from God.
Scobie refuses to abandon neither his sin, nor Louise, nor Helen. In his guilt, he believes righteousness before God is unattainable. Though he knows his confessions are hollow and futile, he continues to lie through them and attend Mass only because Louise wants him to (he must make her happy). He sacrifices his own peace with God for the sake of her and Helen’s happiness. Ultimately, he chooses to cling to his love for man and abandons his God: “He was desecrating God because he loved a woman – was it even love, or was it just a feeling of pity and responsibility?” (p. 223).
In his final moment of despair, Scobie encounters a voice “from the cave of his body: it was as if the sacrament which had lodged there for his damnation gave tongue” – the voice of God, speaking of a great Love for him:
“I made you with love. I’ve wept your tears. I’ve saved you from more than you will ever know; I planted in you this longing for peace only so that one day I could satisfy your longing and watch your happiness. And now you push me away, you put me out of your reach. There are no capital letters to separate us when we talk together. I am not Thou but simply you, when you speak to me; I am humble as any other beggar. Can’t you trust me as you’d trust a faithful dog? I have been faithful to you for two thousand years…” (p. 259).
This is one of those moments you wish you could shake the author out of his grave, ask him to reverse his story, plead with him to change his ending. But you can’t, and he won’t. And so you must stomach Scobie’s response and inevitable fate: “I don’t trust you. I’ve never trusted you. If you made me, you made this feeling of responsibility that I’ve always carried about like a sack of bricks. I can’t shift my responsibility to you. I can’t make one of them suffer so as to save myself. I’m responsible and I’ll see it through the only way I can” (p.259).
It’s a miserable ending. I can’t give it away… but there’s so much there to chew on.
Regardless of your interest in any of these themes, Greene is worth reading for the quality of his craft alone. His sentences stun me. Each page of this novel is like a traffic light that is most often stuck on yellow and red: slow down, they say – take in these words; stop, they compel – feel them seep in, re-read them again. There is such impregnation, such meaning, such weight in each of Greene’s carefully chosen words and deliberately structured lines. He somehow manages to take five words and make them weigh a ton. His writing leaves me in awe. This is reason enough to read him. And when you do, you will not only encounter the beautiful force of words, but the indispensable force of truths that will demand you to dig deeper into the heart of things.