The Heart Of The Matter Summary

Graham Greene

The Heart Of The Matter

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

The Heart Of The Matter Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Heart Of The Matter by Graham Greene.

English author Graham Greene’s 1948 novel The Heart of the Matter is the story of Henry Scobie, a police officer in British West Africa during the World War II era. He finds himself facing a difficult period in his life defined by a moral dilemma. The book’s setting was inspired by Greene’s personal experiences as a British intelligence officer. The novel was included on lists of the best of the twentieth century by both the Modern Library and Time magazine. The title comes from lines near the middle of the text which say, “If one knew, he wondered, the facts, would one have to feel pity even for the planets? If one reached what they called the heart of the matter?”

Scobie is working in a colony in British West Africa. He wife Louise is an intellect. Their only child, a daughter named Catherine, died many years before. As a Catholic, Scobie feels responsible for his wife and whether or not she is happy, as well as feeling a sense of pity for her. He is not, however, in love with her. Amid rumors of police corruption and personal infidelities, Scobie does not get a position as police commissioner. This frustrates his wife but Scobie is comfortable in his job. Louise hates living in the colony and asks Scobie to send her to live in South Africa where he can then join her after he retires. He agrees to this but needs to raise the money for her passage there.

A new arrival to the colony is a man named Wilson. Later it becomes known that he is a spy and an inspector. A mutual appreciation of poetry draws Wilson and Louise into a friendship. In short order, Wilson falls in love with her but she does not feel the same way about him. Scobie, at the same time, is trying to secure a loan from a bank but is turned down. This leads him to an unscrupulous trader, the Syrian, Yusef. This allows Louise to leave the colony as she had wanted. Her departure gives Scobie a feeling of relief and serenity.

In time a shipwreck takes place and the survivors end up in the West African colony where Scobie is living. One of the survivors is a young woman named Helen Rolt whom Scobie befriends.Their friendship turns into a romantic relationship. Scobie begins to feel a similar responsibility for Helen as he had for his wife. This leads him into a series of lies in an attempt to keep their relationship a secret. He needs to fabricate additional lies to keep himself from being implicated as Yusef has been dealing in stolen diamonds. Complications mount as Helen accuses Scobie of not loving her and hiding behind his religion as an excuse for not getting a divorce. He remains committed to Helen in spite of their frequent skirmishes. While Scobie has lost some of his faith, he still feels conflicted between his feeling for Helen and his religious tenets.

Another fight ensues between Scobie and Helen when Louise sends her husband a telegram saying that she was wrong to leave and is on her way back. Helen later tells Scobie that she will do anything she can for him while he feels trapped and wonders if there are spies watching him. Adding to his woes, he is being questioned in the case against Yusef, and he starts to suspect the motivations and intentions of people around him, like Wilson and Ali. Ali is a trusted young boy who works as his servant. When Louise returns to the colony she pushes Scobie to begin attending church services with her. He agrees to do so but puts it off, feeling guilty over his actions. Eventually he confesses to the priest, Father Rank, that he has committed adultery. The confession adds to Scobie’s feelings of guilt as he cannot find himself fully repentant over his relationship with Helen. His paranoia gets the better of him and he tells Yusef that he fears what Ali might know and is not certain of the boy’s loyalty. Yusef kills Ali to eliminate the problem. Scobie did not know what Yusef planned to do, but feels added guilt over Ali’s fate.

Although still having difficulty feeling comfortable with the church, Scobie’s life takes an upward turn when he is finally elevated to the position of commissioner. He has not spent time with Helen since the return of Louise, but runs into her and learns that she is leaving the colony and wants to make it as easy as possible for him. He still wants the relationship with her and says he will make some sort of plan. His actual plan is to take his own life. He is able to obtain a prescription for heart medication.He takes a little at a time, but saves a larger amount to eventually be used to make his suicide look like a natural death. He goes through with it after deciding he could no longer live in a constant state of guilt from his adultery, with no desire to repent.

Louise was aware that Scobie was involved in an affair, and that was her incentive for returning to the colony. Wilson realized that Scobie created diary entries to make it look like he had a history of heart problems as part of concealing the true way he died. Louise meets with Father Rank who tells her that the rules of the church are not what decides the eternal fate of a person and that to him, Scobie seemed to love God more than anyone—including himself.