Saturday, 16 January 2010

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

The Heart of the Matter is the first Graham Greene novel I've read since I was seventeen, and that would be about half way through my A-level course, so I reckon that makes it about seventeen years! The reason being that after reading The Power and The Glory I despised it, and it's taken me that long to pick up another one. I did enjoy this one though, although I can't say I loved it.

I can't really describe the plot because there isn't much of one. It is more a series of mundane and normal events in the life of Scobie, a brutally honest policeman in West Africa during the war years, and how he copes with the trials, temptations and corruption that faces him there. Unlike most of the police, he is immune to bribery, which paradoxically, makes a lot of the people, both native and British distrust him. He is also trapped in a loveless marriage, but he will not leave as he feels a sense of duty towards his wife, Louise, as well as a sense that as he promised to make her happy, he should do his best to fulfill that vow, whether he loves her or not. Scobie and Louise perform a sort of charade of a marriage, both in public and in private, He is also filled with a sense of regret that it is him that has made her unhappy, and it torments him.

"Fifteen years form a face, gentleness ebbs with experience, and he was always aware of his own responsibility. He had led the way: the experience that had come to her was the experience selected by himself. He had formed her face."

Throughout the novel, Scobie is constantly in conflict, either with Louise, his contemporaries, and most importantly, himself. He seems constantly in a battle with himself over what is right,or what he should do. This comes into force early in the book, when he has a debate with himself over what to do with some perfectly innocent, although contraband letters found on a ship he is searching. The captain, whose letters they are, tries to bribe him not to report them, but as previously stated, he is probably the only police officer on whom this wouldn't work. He enters a moral dilemma over whether he should follow his heart or his head (I won't spoil it by revealing which he does choose).

But this just prefigures the major dilemma he faces, which is at the heart of this novel (the heart of the matter)? I don't think it's spoiling anything to say that whilst Louise is away, he falls in love, and then when she returns he feels a moral duty and obligation towards both women. This also conflicts with his catholic beliefs, because although these are not strong, they are present, and they cause him conflict, but more because he cannot reconcile his own feelings of duty and respect to both women with the duty and respect that his catholic beliefs say he should be feeling towards God.

In fact this internal struggle with the tenets of his faith and his own personal standards towards his fellow human beings is the essential struggle of this book. His decision at the end, and the calculated way he goes about it, shows where his feelings actually lie when it really comes down to it. I actually found the last section of the book the toughest to read, because it becomes very weighed down with theological ideas, mainly in monologue form. And I was unsure what I felt about Scobie in the end. Although I certainly felt some sympathy for him, I also felt that the situation he ended up in was of his own making, and perhaps he could have had a bit more backbone about him!

I did enjoy this book, and it was beautifully written, very wordy and descriptive, but I never felt a description was too long or unnecessary. And I have just realised I haven't really talked about the setting at all and that's really odd because although Greene describes the West African setting in great detail, I felt this book was all about character and ideas so although the setting is relevant to the story, the story could have been told in any setting.


Anonymous said...

I haven't read any Greene, and while I want to change that, I really don't know where to start. This review looks excellent, but so did another one on The End of the Affair.

Glad you enjoyed it :)

Jo said...

I read a good review on The End of the Affair too. I might read that one next. I do also want to read Brighton Rock.

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