The Heart of the Matter

heartofthematterWhat does it mean to love others? To love God? How far should we be willing to go to protect those we love from pain? How much should we be willing to sacrifice for love? And at what point does what we call love become something else? These are the questions that went through my head as I read Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter.

Scobie is a police officer in a British colony in West Africa during World War II. His wife, Louise, is a socially awkward lover of poetry who wants to get away to South Africa, but when Scobie is passed over for a promotion, the hope of retirement to a better place seems more distant. In his regret for disappointing Louise and in his desire to make her happy, the morally upright Scobie makes an unfortunate deal with a shady West African and becomes personally entangled with the criminal element. Scobie’s regrets and desire to please send him on a downward spiral, leading him into a destructive affair and yet another love that he desperately wants to make happy.

Along the way, Scobie’s feelings are influenced by his Catholicism. Louise is a devout believer, but Scobie generally goes through the motions. Still, he believes Catholic doctrine, and although he may act in ways contrary to the commandments of his faith, his feelings about his actions are deeply wound up in his Catholicism. And he eventually acts in ways that he believes that it is beyond even God to forgive. The results are heart-breaking.

Even though Scobie appears to be motivated by love, he does not accept that love can be unconditional, unlimited. He believes that Louise will only love him if he makes sure she’s happy. Even God’s sacrificial love is not great enough to cover up his wrongs. As the book draws to its devastating conclusion, Scobie hears God’s own voice, and the love expressed there is too great for him to even hear it and take it in. In trying to be loving, Scobie rejects love itself. And as a reader, I was left wondering, did Scobie feel love at all?

This book raises questions about love, God, faith, and the church and how things that seem good can lead to our destruction when misapplied and misunderstood. Profoundly moving, and a book that will stick with me. Highly recommended.

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9 Responses to The Heart of the Matter

  1. Jenny says:

    I love Graham Greene. My favorite of his is probably Monsignor Quixote, or else Travels With My Aunt, but I have almost never thought what he wrote was second rate. One story about him I love: once, fairly late in his life, he entered a “write like Graham Greene” contest. And won. Shows you the contest was judged fairly!

  2. litlove says:

    I have never read any Graham Greene – and this fine review makes me think I must do something about that!

  3. Teresa says:

    Jenny: The only other Greene I’ve read was The Power and the Glory, which I liked a lot. I’m definitely going to read more. The last 1/4 of this book just knocked me out.

    litlove: I think Greene is one of those authors (like Maugham) who everyone knows about but not a lot of people have read. I can also recommend The Power and the Glory, but I suspect that it’s all good.

  4. Pingback: What Wondrous Love Is This « Seminary on the Side

  5. I read this book probably ten years ago now and remember being very moved by it at the time. Your review made me want to go back and reread it – I think I still have a copy somewhere…

  6. Teresa says:

    Andrew: I do hope you can find your copy and that it holds up on a second read.

  7. Catherine says:

    I love Graham Greene, and this is great review of an excellent novel. I can also recommend the 1953 film of the book which stars Trevor Howard. It differs a bit from the book but captures the atmosphere beautifully.

  8. Teresa says:

    Catherine: Ooh! I didn’t know a movie had been made. I’ll have to see if it’s available on Netflix. Thanks for the tip!

  9. Pingback: January/February 2009 reviews : 1% Well-Read Challenge

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