The Heart of the Matter is very pure Graham Greene, centered on a tortured but good man's loss of faith, his infidelity, the impossibility of reconciling human passion and divine order, and the ragged reality of British colonialism expiring in the dust of World War II.
The heaviest burden in this novel could be putting up with the protagonist's (Henry Scobie) literal interpretation of Roman Catholic edicts. Trapped in a loveless marriage (as they say), Scobie succumbs to a surprising and moving attraction to a shipwrecked 19-year-old, yet cannot break his sacramental ties to his wife (of course, he sleeps with the 19-year-old, but he won't just tell his wife, and thereby the Church, that in his heart the marriage is over...long since over.)
This being 2009, and the novel being written in the 1940s, one must make allowances for Scobie's pain. Graham Greene himself endured a lot of pain over similar quandaries. And yet it's hard to see Scobie ending up a suicide as a result--believable, but hard.
The lightest burden in the book (full of West African tedium, petty intrigue, and personalities distorted by the experience of living an expatriate, overseas life) is definitely the early romance between Scobie and the shipwrecked Helen (who lost her husband of one month when a German sub sank their ship). They flirt lightly in the first pass through and then simply realize, on reencountering one another, that "this is it; you're the one." It's not often that a writer has the mastery to propose a sincere coupling of this kind without having done more spadework, laid deeper foundations, and so forth. Henry and Helen are fast but not frivolous, a match that cracks the shell of solitude in which Henry has been encasing himself out there on the West African coast these last fifteen years.
The surrounding cast of misfits, dreamers, schemers, time-servers, compromised servants, and gossipers reinforce Greene's basic message that quotidian reality is a thin experience sustained, in the main,by unthinking, shallow people. This gives piquancy to Henry's chance at escape, and brings him down, as well.
The novel has a few choppy passages, where the narrative seems to flow along faster than the explanatory details, and one of its best characters, the Syrian Yusef, lacks the kind of background one would like to explore, but Greene is a strong, interesting tale-teller, very economical, and superb in capturing human thoughtlessness and incidental cruelty without writing all of life off as not worth the candle. Somehow the studied way in which Scobie emulates Christ, sacrificing himself in the service of belief, justifies the passing tragedy of being merely human.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund