Greene’s Is Published

One of Britain’s leading novelists, Graham Greene, published his first significant novel since the outbreak of World War II. It was a specifically Catholic novel, raising questions about theological issues, as well as about aspects of British colonialism, and paralleling Greene’s own life. It was very well received, though proving controversial.

Summary of Event

Graham Greene, one of the leading British novelists of the mid-twentieth century, had volunteered to work for the Secret Intelligence Service Secret Intelligence Service, British (SIS) at the beginning of World War II. He had been sent as an SIS agent to the British colony of Sierra Leone in West Africa in 1942, under the guise of working for the Criminal Investigations Department (CID, the plainclothes police division equivalent to an American detective squad). (He had already briefly visited the area in 1935 while trekking through Liberia with a cousin.) Heart of the Matter, The (Greene)
[kw]Greene’s The Heart of the Matter Is Published (1948)[Greenes The Heart of the Matter Is Published]
[kw]Heart of the Matter Is Published, Greene’s The (1948)
Heart of the Matter, The (Greene)
[g]Europe;1948: Greene’s The Heart of the Matter Is Published[02230]
[g]United Kingdom;1948: Greene’s The Heart of the Matter Is Published[02230]
[c]Literature;1948: Greene’s The Heart of the Matter Is Published[02230]
Greene, Graham

Graham Greene.

(©Amanda Saunders)

On his return to Britain in 1943, Greene found himself unable to write further serious novels until the end of the war and had to content himself with what he called “entertainments.” In 1947, he conceived the idea of using his Sierra Leone experience either as another entertainment or as a serious novel. In the end, the serious novel idea triumphed, as did the novel itself in its reception by the general public upon its publication in London in 1948: The Heart of the Matter assured Greene of financial independence to pursue further his career as a novelist.

The plot of the novel is somewhat autobiographical. It centers on Deputy Commissioner of Police Scobie’s activities in Sierra Leone, a tropical, underdeveloped colony, whose main commercial industry is its diamond mines. Scobie has a difficult marriage with Louise. They lost their only child while Louise was back in England. She has now joined Scobie, but she dislikes the climate and the snobbish coterie of expatriates (colonialists) that make up white society and asks her husband to book her passage on a ship to South Africa.

Travel is difficult and expensive because of the danger from German submarines, which are sinking many ships in the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, Scobie decides to borrow the money for the passage from Yusuf, one of the many corrupt African merchants, who is widely suspected of smuggling diamonds. Scobie should tell his superior, the police commissioner, of his business dealing with Yusuf, as it might compromise him in future investigations. He fails to do so, however. Scobie has a complex relationship with Yusuf. There is some friendship in it, especially on Yusuf’s side, though Scobie can never tell how much is genuine. Scobie until now has enjoyed a reputation of being incorruptible.

A boat is torpedoed, and a small group of survivors lands in the colony soon after Louise’s departure for Cape Town, South Africa. Among the survivors is Helen Rolt, a very young woman whose husband died in the wreck. She and Scobie strike up a friendship: Both feel free to be very open with each other, and this is an immediate relief to Scobie, who has had to pretend to many emotions to his wife, including love and a strict belief in Roman Catholic doctrine. Scobie and Helen quickly begin an affair, which Scobie must disguise, but various indiscretions allow evidence of the affair to come to Yusuf, as well as to Scobie’s faithful servant Ali.

Scobie finds himself pressured by Yusuf to pass on a packet, doubtless containing diamonds, to the captain of a neutral ship returning to Europe. Meanwhile, Wilson, a young man ostensibly representing a commercial interest in the colony but in reality a spy, has previously taken a great interest in Louise. Now he finds Scobie’s behavior more and more suspicious. Louise suddenly returns, having been warned by an acquaintance of her husband’s affair. Scobie now has further secrets to hide. Moreover, Louise insists, as a test, that he take Communion, which entails going to confession beforehand. He goes to confession, but when the priest insists he give up Helen, he refuses and so is not given absolution. In the end, he receives Communion unabsolved, which in Catholic doctrine is a mortal sin.

In the end, Scobie compromises himself further by allowing Yusuf to have Ali murdered to keep him quiet. Ironically, at this moment Scobie receives a promotion to the rank of commissioner, although he has been passed over many times before. At this stage, Scobie can see no way out of his dilemma except suicide, the only unforgivable sin in Catholic theology. To spare his wife’s feelings, he tries to disguise his suicide as a heart attack. After his suicide, it turns out that few people have been deceived, and his efforts to spare other people, and even God, it is suggested, have been in vain.

Autobiographical parallels between Greene’s life and elements of the novel abound: for example, the setting and the use of Wilson as a spy, as was Greene. Also, in 1942 Greene had both a wife and a mistress, although both were back in England. However, he was clearly torn between loyalty to both. A good deal of the character of Louise was modeled on Greene’s wife, Vivien. Diamond smuggling, too, was a major issue for Greene while he was in Sierra Leone, because the German war effort was dependent on industrial diamonds to cut the precision tools needed for its rocket program. As in The Heart of the Matter, Portugese ships were one of the main means of smuggling such diamonds. The death by suicide of a minor British official in the novel has a parallel in Greene’s own experience as well. Even the cockroach-killing contest between Wilson and his friend was drawn from a real incident in Greene’s life. As Greene was finishing the novel, he was engaged in a love affair with an American woman, Catherine Walston, and it seemed this spurred him in describing Scobie’s passionate inability to give up Helen.


The immediate reception of the novel enhanced Greene’s reputation. It was grouped with his prewar The Power and the Glory
Power and the Glory, The (Greene) (1940; reissued as The Labyrinthine Ways), set in Mexico. The two novels were seen as part of Greene’s questioning of traditional Catholic dogma in the light of modern human experience, while maintaining the ongoing importance to human life of faith. To this extent, Greene’s work anticipated a loosening of some Catholic teaching by the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican in the 1960’s. Certainly, at the time it was published, The Heart of the Matter divided Catholic opinion. Greene tried to emphasize that many of the opinions expressed in the novel were Scobie’s, not his, but the distinction was often lost in debate. Greene’s theological perspectives were finely nuanced, as later discussion revealed.

At a moral level, most readers, Catholic or not, saw in Greene’s novel a new portrayal of pity—as distinct from compassion—as a cruel vice. Greene depicted pity as something that kills love and leads to dubious moral choices. Scobie’s fall is as much a moral one as a theological one. In his own life, Greene was troubled by guilt and did attempt suicide at one point, but many readers identified more intensely with Scobie’s guilt and saw the character as more heroic than Greene seems to have intended. Greene wanted his readers to see Scobie’s pride, rather than his despair.

With the advent of postcolonial Postcolonial literature literary theory, the novel took on a new significance, showing the corrupting influence of colonialism. British colonial rule in the book is completely ineffective against the ongoing corruption of the cultures of the colonized peoples of Africa, and it brings its own corrupting influence to make a bad situation worse. The horrific exportation of war is also portrayed as a legacy of colonialism. Yusuf, the merchant, cannot understand the intense significance placed upon industrial diamonds, which under normal circumstances would be worth far less than are diamonds for jewelry. Indeed, Yusuf and his perspective on the British stand at the center of any postcolonial interpretation of the novel. Later, in The Quiet American (1955), set in Saigon, Greene was to make further criticisms of French and American colonialism. Heart of the Matter, The (Greene)

Further Reading

  • Baldridge, Cates. Graham Greene’s Fictions: The Virtue of Extremity. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000. Reconsiders Greene’s novels, trying to set aside much of the previous criticism. Sees Greene as one of the leading British novelists of the twentieth century.
  • Sharrock, Roger. Saints, Sinners, and Comedians: The Novels of Graham Greene. London: Burnes and Oates, 1984. A literary account that does full justice to the theological significance of Greene’s work.
  • Sherry, Norman. 1939-1955. Vol. 2 in The Life of Graham Greene. London: Jonathan Cape, 1994. The official biography of Greene. Sherry had unparalleled access to Greene, his family, and his writings and researched extensively. He does not try to hide the intimate details of Greene’s life where they are relevant to understanding his books. Full notes and index.
  • Sinyard, Neil. Graham Greene: A Literary Life. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Sinyard looks to Greene’s novels as a source of information about the author’s life equal in value to his memoirs. He sees Greene as an elusive and enigmatic figure.
  • West, W. J. Quest for Graham Greene. London: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. West is especially good at digging out material about Greene’s spying activities and his ties with master spy Kim Philby, as well as with the Hollywood mafia.

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