The Heart of the Matter achieves the rare feat of being a riveting page-turner and, at the same time, a thought provoking, serious novel. It is curiously reminiscent of George Orwell's Burmese Days. In both books the hero is an English colonial official in a tropical country with a harsh, unforgiving climate. Each of John Flory of Burmese Days and Henry Scobie of The Heart of the Matter stands out from his contemporaries because of his inherent goodness, his sense of belonging in the colonial outpost and his lack of condescension towards the natives. Where the two novels differ is the fact that The Heart of the Matter is essentially a book about Catholicism.
Scobie is a the Deputy Commissioner of police in a nameless, underdeveloped country in West Africa during World War II. For fifteen years he remains scrupulously honest and incorruptible despite ample opportunity for self-enrichment in the murky commercial environment of the colony. Business is conducted by thoroughly dishonest Syrians who love nothing better than a bent policeman in their pay. Notwithstanding many entreaties from Yusef, a fat, unscrupulous Syrian merchant, Scobie keeps himself clean.
He feels trapped in a loveless marriage to Louise, a pathetic, unattractive, tearful woman, who causes him nothing but anguish. His stern Catholicism does not permit him to contemplate divorce from her and he suffers feelings of guilt about being in some way responsible for her piteous state. Louise's continual weeping and moaning about her unhappiness and the bitter feelings of pity this evokes in Scobie leads him down the path towards self destruction. To ease her suffering - and his own - Scobie compromises his high principals and takes a loan from Yusef to send Louise to South Africa.
In Louise's absence, Scobie falls in love with yet another pathetic woman called Helen Rolt - Scobie seems incapable of falling in love with a woman unless he pities her - and by so doing seals his fate.
Scobie is a complex character imbued with contradictions. He does not like to cause suffering but yet is a senior police office officer in a West African colony; he yearns solitude and peace but yet can't bring himself to untangle the mess his life is in between two damaged, needy women; he is a strict Catholic who believes in eternal damnation but yet commits mortal sin and cannot seek absolution by making confession; he pities a man who has committed suicide and then by his own hand places himself beyond the reach of God's mercy.
The Heart of the Matter explores the extent to which pity and love can come into conflict with the strictures of the Catholic Church. Scobie is a good Catholic who is bitterly tormented by the enormity of his sins. He feels he has failed the women he loves, himself and even God. In the end he comes to accept that God is powerless to protect him from eternal damnation and offers himself up as a sacrifice for Louise, Helen and God himself.
Like he does in The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair, Graham Greene forces one to rethink Catholicism. Is God's mercy powerless in the face of the rules of the Church? Can God protect and forgive the persecuted and weak, however sinful they may be? If suicide, for instance, is so damnable, what about God's own suicide on the Cross?
Greene offers no answers to these questions. Instead he has given us a book to delight in and think about over and over again.