The Heart of the Matter§


I know that Graham Greene is not a god and that although he may have been a careful writer and may have rewritten his writings many times, thinking through his words, they’re not perfectly and intentionally written. Nevertheless, what words intentionally and unintentionally were written by him, what is due to his skills and what is the result of literary stumblings is irrelevant in a literary analysis. A good writer can bring words together so as to present images in just the right way to entertain us, to communicate with us, and, in Greene’s case as I will describe here, he can bring us into realizations about ourselves in subtle ways that direct writing cannot do. Good writers can do this intuitively, so to speak, without having to struggle to do so. As a result, there is value in appreciating their writings even if it was somewhat haphazardly achieved.

Having said my apology, let me marvel at Greene’s novel, The Heart of the Matter. This literary criticism is from my perspective as a writer. I’m interested in particular how Greene gets the reader interested with his opening lines, and how he keeps the reader engaged with a somewhat dark plot that shows the complication of the human heart that we each fear others will not understand.

Opening Lines

To begin with, let’s look at the opening lines of the novel. Consider the images and feelings that are conjured as you read the following text. Watch for the word choices and the names.

Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork. It was Sunday and the Cathedral bell clang for matins. On the other side of Bond Street, in the windows of the High School, sat the young negresses in darkblue gym smocks, engaged on the interminable task of trying to wave their wirespring hair. Wilson stroked his very young moustache and dreamed, waiting for his gin-and-bitters.

Look at the images presented in just this first paragraph: a balcony, and Wilson’s bald pink knees. With those two references we get a feeling of heat creeping in — he’s wearing short pants, sitting on a balcony to cool off. There’s a sense of colonialism in the names and setting: Wilson, Bedford, a balcony, and ironwork. Although the names are British, the setting is not in England with a main character feeling hot and socially comfortable enough to sit on a balcony with short pants. Next there is a clang, not a ringing or chimming of a cathedral bell (notice, that it’s singular). What kind of country would present a cathedral with only one bell and one that clangs? Obviously, this is a poor country. Across from this hotel is a high school. This is not a normal positioning of buildings in a city, one that contains a cathedral. And what of the juxtapositioning of the young black girls playing with their wirespring hair and Wilson stroking his very young moustache? What is the contrast that is implied? Or rather, is there really any difference between the black girls and the young white man? Not much, it seems. So, what do we have for a mixture: young black girls in a high school, located across the street from a hotel, in the same city and close to a poor cathedral (which in itself indicates that we’re in the capital or one of the larger cities of the country). Despite the city being a large one for the country, these buildings thrown together as they are indicates it’s a small city as far as cities go. The point is that the reader is drawn in by subtle hints given so economically.

Greene relies on the reader’s natural curiosity to figure out the setting and the players, he relies on the reader’s nature and his hints to draw the reader into the story. Unlike his earlier novels, he’s a somewhat maturer writer when he wrote this. He has learned that shocking the reader is not necessary if one is a good writer. Not long ago I thought daring was necessary not only to hook the reader, but to get the attention of the literature business. As I’m going back and rereading and considering Greene’s works, I’m seeing that good writing, maturity, and self-confidence is all that’s necessary. In time, readers and publishers, agents, and the like will find a good writer and his work. Daring is only useful in skipping ahead, to get a break, to get published initially. It is good writing that is necessary to continue to be published and read. Certainly there are exceptions in which daring and good marketing can make up for good writing to push a writer’s career along (e.g., Rowling). However, good writing is a more dependable method of career development — no one will complain that a popular novel is well written. More importantly, good writing is something of which to be proud; and it’s something to transcend centuries. I cannot imagine that Harry Potter books will be so celebrated centuries from now. I don’t see that it speaks to the readers of the current time, let alone the future. Whereas, a Greene novel gives the reader things to consider about life and relationship, and mostly about oneself. This is the kind of writing that survives the generations and the centuries.

Getting back to the opening paragraphs of this novel, let’s look at another quote excerpt. This one is from the second paragraph. He returns to describing Wilson and his surroundings:

He was alone on the balcony except for one bearded Indian in a turban who had already tried to tell his fortune: this was not the hour of the day for white men… On either side of the school the tin roofs sloped towards the sea, and the corrugated iron above his head clanged and clattered as a vulture alighted.

What peace and decay there are in these lines. What richness of reality: a man from India wearing a turban and trying to tell fortunes for money. What poetry: this was not the hour of the day for white men. The white men were at the beach and they left Wilson behind. He was new and was not yet welcome and wouldn’t be for quite some time in this small community of Europeans — another colonial clue. The comment about a vulture alighting on a corrugated iron (not tin) roof above his head: the vultures are looming and landing above him. These are ominous images, but also they are images of opression of heat and perhaps of life, of the life in this place on the rusty edge of reality. A couple of paragraphs later, Wilson gets his drink and he sipped it very slowly because he had nothing else to do except to return to his hot and squalled room and read a novel |—| or a poem . (4) This is another refence to heat. With so many references to heat, it must mean something more than information about the setting. It could be meant to summon the feeling of opression and submission: opression by the inescapable heat of life and submission to it lest one die of heat exhaustian from railing against it instead.

Jumping ahead another couple of paragraphs, Greene repeats these images and brings them together as a que to the reader to the significance of the imagry and of the main character that is being introduced, that character being Scobie.

A vulture flapped and shifted on the iron roof and Wilson looked at Scobie. He looked without interest in obedience to a stranger’s direction, and it seemed to him that no particular interest attached to the squat grey-haired man walking alone up Bond Street. He couldn’t tell that this was one of those occasions a man never forgets: a small cicatrice had been made on the memory, a wound that would ache whenever certain things combined — the taste of gin at mid-day, the smell of flowers under a balcony, the clang of corrugated iron, an ugly bird flopping from perch to perch (5).

Until this point, until the third page, until reading this paragraph, the reader probably thought that Wilson was the primary character of the story. It is now that Wilson and the reader are introduced to Scobie, the protagonist and eventual hero of the novel. Through the quick repeating of images, like a bell chiming a familiar tune, the reader is told to look at this person and to pay attention to him, carefully. Wilson is told to look at Scobie and the reader is told that this is a moment which Wilson does not yet realize that he will remember. Greene has eased us into the setting without boring us with setting descriptions like novels before his time. Greene introduced us briefly to the observer of the protagonist and gave us time to calmly and serenely warm up to the entry of the protagonist. He let us sit on the balcony in the heat and slowly sip our drinks and see the people around the hotel and the neighborhood, hear the sounds and generally become comfortable before the hero of the story enters and we follow him, leaving Wilson behind and to catch up with us later and at other times in the story. It’s such a majestic start to a novel, much the device of a chorus, but without one.

Plot Appeal and the Protagonist

The plot of this novel is a little elusive or unclear at first. We get a vague sense that we’re following characters along, but where we’re going we’re not sure. We’re given the signal mentioned above that Scobie is where the action is and that Wilson is the observer. However, as we progress through the story, we lose track of the significance of Wilson and wonder why he was introduced at the onset of the novel. Instead we slowly become engrossed in Scobie’s life and eventual moral dilemas. As readers we don’t charge forward, chasing the protaginist through an adventure of intrigue and what not. Instead, we walk along side the protagonist, first with admiration, then with frustration for his morals, and in time with sympathy as we get to the heart of the matter. And we end with disdain for his critics and feel a need to defend him against them in our minds.

What’s particularly appealing about this novel’s plot, more than method of bringing the reader into sympathy with the protagonist, is its subject matter, or rather it’s nature of the protagonist. We begin expecting to dislike him because of his role and setting: He’s a police chief in a difficult part of the world. You’d expect him to be corrupt but he’s not. You’d expect him to be harsh in his nature and he seems to be so on the surface, but underneath he’s not. So, we quickly gain respect for him. We’re given examples in which we see that he is compasionate towards others. We see it in how he loves his wife: He lifted her hand and kissed it: it was a challenge. He proclaimed to the whole club that he was not to be pitied, that he loved his wife… (22)

We see it in how he doesn’t arrest the ship captain. At the same time we begin to see his internal conflicts: Scobie thought, what a fool I have been. What a fool. He owed his duty to Louise, not to a fat sentimental Portugese skipper who had broken the rules of his own company for the sake of a daughter equally unattractive. That had been the turning point, the daughter. (46)

We also see it in how he sits with the child as she’s dying, reminding him of his daughter who had died at a young age: He heard a small scraping voice repeat, ‘Father,’ and looking up he saw the blue and bloodshot eyes watching him. He thought with horror: this is what I thought I’d missed. (112) What’s of particular interest in him is his internal conflict in relation to his goodness: He didn’t drink, he didn’t fornicate, he didn’t even lie, but he never regarded this absence of since as a virtue. (103). His problem lays in the fact that he strives to be a good Catholic in accordance with the rules of the Church. He is flexible with others, but not with himself.

These literary criticisms that I write are not normal to the genre. They are written for my benefit as a writer trying to learn from analyzing the works of writers that I respect. I post them on the web in the event they might be of interest to others, to their benefit. Nevertheless, they include personal reflections and applications to myself. Having offered this apology, let me say that while many readers might not identify with the protagonist of Greene’s novel, with Scobie, I can identify with him. What’s interesting is that on my first reading of the novel, I didn’t identify with him. In reflecting on the novel several times since reading it in the past few months, I find that I do identify with him. I make this point because there’s something about the Scobie character that I warmed to but couldn’t explain why specifically. It seems now that what I appreciated about Scobie was that I identified with him, albeit in intuitive ways. What a work of art, to create a protagonist that is seemingly foreign to the reader, but to which the reader draws an akinship without realizing. That means that from reading the novel, reflecting upon it for weeks afterwards, and rereading it, I come to learn something about myself that I didn’t know was there. I came to see myself in Scobie and he became a mirror in darkness, a mirror that my subconscious looked into and forced me to stare into until my eyes adjusted to the darkness and saw myself.


The novel ends with comments from the parish priest, an interesting choice of characters to conduct the prologue to sum up the story, or rather the characters. Regarding Wilson, the observer, the priest says, Somehow I can’t like a man who’s quite so observant (254). Throughout the course of the novel we go from a disinterest in Wilson to a dislike. So the priest’s comment is one probably shared by the reader. As for Scobie, he says that He never had any trust in mercy |—| except for other people (254). This is certainly our hero: forgiving and caring about others, but not himself. He held himself to the rigid teachings of the church and would not be lenient on himself. However, despite his love for others damning him, he still did what he thought best for them. There’s no greater love than this. Related to the Catholic Church, the priest also makes some jabs at it: I know the Church says. The Church knows all the rules. But it doesn’t know what goes on in a single human heart (254). In a way, that is the heart of the matter, that and the selflessness of Scobie and his compassion for others. The story carefully shows us Scobie’s heart and shows us the heart of the matter and we walk away understanding, having compassion, maybe growing from the experience of having read the novel.

Works Cited

Greene, Graham. The Heart of the Matter. 1948. London: Vintage Classics (Random House Group Ltd), 2004.