Places: A Burnt-Out Case

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1961 (first published in Swedish translation from manuscript, 1960)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Bildungsroman

Time of work: Mid-twentieth century

Places DiscussedLeprosaria

Leprosaria. Burnt-Out Case, ACongolese village located hundreds of miles inland from the provincial capital Matadi and loosely structured upon leper communities that Graham Greene had visited during his travels through the Belgian Congo and what were then the Cameroons. Situated on a tributary of the “great river”–presumably the Congo River–the leprosaria is part mission and part treatment facility for those who suffer not only from Hansen’s disease (leprosy), but also from sicklaemia, tuberculosis, or elephantiasis. Its Roman Catholic church and state-supported hospital symbolize the spiritual and medical work being done to comfort the needy who wander among the squalid rows of two-room brick houses that bake in the noonday sun. Sermons about the existence of God and arguments about evolution occur within sight of gross suffering and human deformity, over which darkness mercifully falls. The central narrative of the novel involves a new hospital that is being built in order better to serve the eight hundred people who drift in and out of the village. The struggle against disease is concurrently a struggle for human justice.

Hidden from the world, the leprosaria suddenly becomes a center of interest after Monsieur Querry arrives. An ex-husband and father, ex-lover, ex-Catholic and ex-architect, Querry abandons Europe for anonymity in a place far removed from civilization. Although he professes to be a “burnt-out case,” no longer of use to anyone, this does not prevent others, particularly Montague Parkinson and Marie Rycker, from using him. Ironically, Querry reenters human affairs while at the leprosaria, but his reentry leads to his death. After being shot as an adulterer, Querry is buried alongside other impenitent sinners in the village’s unkempt cemetery.


Luc. Regional capital that is ten days’ journey by steamship and four days’ journey by road from the leprosaria. Its cathedral, government buildings, hotel, and modern pink flats make it a feeble replica of a contemporary European city. At the invitation of the governor, Europeans gather here to socialize under strict rules of propriety and etiquette. Querry goes to Luc on two occasions. First, to locate an electrical apparatus for Dr. Colin, and then months later to bring Marie Rycker to see a doctor about her presumed pregnancy. During his latter visit, he is compromised by being found in Marie Rycker’s hotel room at night in order to tell her a bedtime story.

Palm oil plantation

Palm oil plantation. Managed by André Rycker and located some six hours from the capital at the first ferry on the road from Luc to the leprosaria. The “ramshackle factory” is ugly but functional, and the governor has previously “decorated” Rycker for the work he has accomplished here. During his last leave in Europe, Rycker marries a young woman, Marie, and for two years he keeps her isolated on the plantation so he can educate her about her duties as a good Catholic wife. Like his factory itself, Rycker’s marriage falls into a shambles, as Rycker squeezes every drop of genuine human love from it. Marie dislikes her husband as much as she dislikes the rancid blasts of hot air that emanate from his palm-oil furnaces. While Rycker patronizes Marie with eloquent speeches about Christian grace, she schemes for an opportunity to escape from Africa, having uncovered more than she had bargained for in the unexplored regions of her heart.


Pendélé (pen-DAY-lay). Village in which Querry’s leper servant, Deo Gratias, grew up, that is an elusive symbol of peace and happiness that are never attained.

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. Graham Greene. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Contains critical essays on all the major novels, with three essays dedicated to A Burnt-Out Case. Contains a chronology of Greene’s life and works and a brief bibliography.Kurismmootil, K. C. Joseph. Heaven and Hell on Earth: An Appreciation of Five Novels of Graham Greene. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1982. Kurismmootil sees A Burnt-Out Case as the last of Greene’s religious novels and addresses the novel’s “Christian insights.” Offers good coverage of characterization. Includes a bibliography of Greene’s works and Greene criticism.O’Prey, Paul. A Reader’s Guide to Graham Greene. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988. An excellent source for discussion of Greene’s major works. Analyzes plot, character, and theme, and includes a bibliography of all Greene’s publications.Thomas, Brian. An Underground Fate: The Idiom of Romance in the Later Novels of Graham Greene. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988. An outstanding exploration of eight Greene novels in terms of the romance myth (in which the hero descends into the underworld but then emerges reborn and triumphant). Thomas’ work is remarkable in its argument that Greene’s later works end in hope rather than despair. Offers an extensive bibliography of criticism about Greene’s works.Van Kaam, Adrian, and Kathleen Healy. The Demon and the Dove: Personality Growth Through Literature. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1967. Written from the perspective of psychological criticism, the chapter “Querry in Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case” offers an outstanding analysis of characterization and symbolism in the novel.
Categories: Places