Top 100 Novel Review: The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene (1948)

Take Control Scobie!

But is our protagonist even capable of doing that? He always misreads the situation, using pity to guide actions. 


My Rating: cropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-star

I felt bad at the end of this book. Scobie is a man who mostly wants to be left alone, but others keep pulling him in multiple directions. He isn’t a bad person per say, but his laissez-faire attitude matched with his inability to read the direness of situations leads to a combustable situation; he slowly gets pulled down an unscrupulous path, over relying on pity to guide decisions.

Graham Greene (1904-1991).


Major Scobie lives in Africa and is head of the local security during World War II. He gets passed over for a promotion, which barely upsets him but really bothers his wife Louise. They are in an unhappy marriage and Scobie can’t help but blame himself for its failure. She is ostracized by the other British Elites at the colony and only finds companionship with with the newcomerWilson — someone sent by Britain to spy on their own officers.

A big part of Scobie’s job is to search local ships that might be hiding contraband, especially diamonds. This leads him to getting involved with a local con-man Yusef; he befriends Scobie under the guise of being interested in his affairs. This leads to Scobie borrowing money from him to send his wife away to South Africa and doing favors. Yusef uses him to frame his opponents and Scobie unknowingly helps him. These interactions do not escape the notice of Wilson, who has since fallen in love with Scobie’s wife Louise.

A ship wreck washes survivors ashore, and Scobie starts an affair with a 19 year-old, now-widowed Helen. A love letter he writes to her ends up in Yusef’s hands, and he successfully blackmails Scobie into slipping contraband past authorities. Louise decides to return from South Africa, still unhappy, and now Scobie is involved in multiple scandals.

Scobie decides to kill himself, but makes it look like it was a heart attack. He visits a doctor with chest complaints and writes symptoms in his journal before he overdoses on sleeping pills. Thinking that his death would solve all the problems he started, they only continue post-Scobie’s suicide.



The book is a a commentary on morality, free will, and pity. Some words from the author himself:

“I had meant the story of Scobie to enlarge a theme which I had touched on in The Ministry of Fear, the disastrous effect on human beings of pity as distinct from compassion. I had written in The Ministry of Fear: ‘Pity is cruel. Pity destroys. Love isn’t safe when pity’s prowling around.’ The character of Scobie was intended to show that pity can be the expression of an almost monstrous pride.”

I liked what Greene did with this.

“The Heart of the Matter” is a tragedy, and the tragic flaw of Scobie is his pity. The reason he stays with Louise is that he pities the way she feels and blames himself for it. Instead of taking steps to fix it (like getting out of the marriage), he gets stuck in this quagmire of feeling bad enough to not do anything to solve it.

The same could be said for Helen; 19 and now a widow, Scobie pities her predicament and decides to have an affair with her. Instead of considering what she really needs, he ends up destroying her further by pitying her predicament.

This tragic flaw blinds him from ever analyzing a situation correctly. Wilson is clearly the inspector the town is talking about; there are many scenes alluding to a new person in town who was sent by the British Empire to investigate the integrity of its officers, but Scobie is somehow the last one to piece this together. Yusef is clearly using him and has no interest in being his friend, but somehow he even has a sense of pity for the clerk, not realizing each step he takes with Yusef is down the path of impropriety.

The ending is another representative of his use of pity, but this time it’s directed at himself. In such a dire situation on multiple fronts, he begins to pity himself and pity the pressure he has put on others. This leads him to conclude that death is the only way out, once again failing to realize what effect this is going to have on others.



Scobie was a benevolent person. His inner thoughts were ones of peace and a happiness with life as it was. Then, he allows pity to warp every action he begins to take, ruining himself and others. I wanted Scobie to take control (just do something for you!), but his pity made him feel like it would be selfish to think of himself. This, in turn, made him extremely selfish.

Greene successfully shows the monstrosity that is pity.

Other People’s Take:

  • UG-SATIRE: “One thick lesson from this novel is that: ‘Not all, always seems what it is, a keen view matters.’ ”
  • A Strange Kind of Peace: “The erosion of his scruples are what drags him down, and his lack of trust following his own betrayal, sends him to Yusef who causes him more pain, and he can simply see no way back.”
  • Scotinprogress: “I felt that Scobie, despite his choices, was a man who loved God.”

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