A Burnt-Out Case

A Burnt-Out Case Summary and Analysis of Part Four


Querry and Doctor Colin begin this Part examining a leper with elephantitis. The man has an enormous scrotum that, Colin says, is inoperable. Meanwhile, across the way, the Superior is overseeing the weekly Mass. Querry listens to the sermon and realizes that the Superior is responding to his criticisms of the other night. The priest suggests that love is Christian love because God created humanity. He adds that God created only the good things and not the bad because evil is simply the absence of God – it does not exist except in this negative fashion. Doctor Colin and Querry point out several logical flaws in the sermon and Doctor Colin wishes to move on, but Querry sits all the while, listening. After, Doctor Colin suggests that Querry has more of a need for Christianity than he readily admits. Colin, on the other hand, has neither need nor interest in the religion.

We join the priests at their post-Mass dinner, for which the nuns have provided a rather bad soufflé. One of the priests, Father Thomas, insistently praises Querry in a similar way to Rycker. The Superior is wary of casting Querry as a crypto-Christian and asks Father Thomas to have a word after dinner. At this conference, he expresses his concern with Father Thomas’ schoolboy, dogmatic brand of faith and wonders whether Thomas wouldn’t be happier in another Order. Father Thomas dismisses the Superior’s concerns and instead enthusiastically continues on the subject of Querry, whom he sees as a modern-day saint. The Superior is highly skeptical of this sort of motive-attribution.

Late in the night, Father Thomas lies in his bed. He is afraid of the dark and desperate for a confidante. Querry passes his room and Father Thomas asks him in. Querry is friendly but brushes off Father Thomas’ attempts to flatter his modesty (which has the paradoxical effect, of course, of showing such flattery to be true). Father Thomas confesses difficulty sleeping and Querry offers him some pills. When Thomas persists in attributing faith to Querry, the architect swears that he doesn’t believe at all. Nothing he can say affects Thomas’ opinion in the slightest.

Chapter Two of Part Four opens as the Bishop’s boat arrives once more. Doctor Colin, hoping for an x-ray machine, leads Querry to the boat, where they find instead a passenger. They step aboard to have a customary beer with the captain and he informs them that the mysterious, English stranger has paid his way to the leproserie. The stranger lies suffering a fever melodramatically. Colin and Querry arrange for the man to be transported to a sickbed, though he is very fat and thus difficult to carry. Querry notices the man’s typewriter and the man, who introduces himself as Parkinson, declares that he is looking for Querry. Father Thomas volunteers his room to house the sick man, apparently acting on the principle of “What would Querry do?”

As Doctor Colin works through his queue of patients in Chapter Three, he recalls the story of an old Greek shopkeeper in Luc who was cuckolded by his African clerk. He ran the clerk over – destroying the clerk’s reproductive potential – and then shot himself in front of the police. His last words, “It is not a case of what have I done, but of what I am going to do” (103), have always remained with Doctor Colin.

Colin treats a man who is undergoing madness as a side effect of D.D.S. tablets (the cure for leprosy) and who worries for the safety of his child at night. Then he checks on Parkinson, finding him much improved. Parkinson has been asking Father Thomas a great many questions about Querry – and Thomas is only too happy to confirm the pious lies that Rycker has been spreading. Colin looks at Parkinson’s story and finds it saccharine and false – but Parkinson defends his right to fudge the truth for the sake of a story. Apparently, he had been in Africa to cover an uprising in British territory and had happened to meet Rycker at Luc. Impervious to Doctor Colin’s insistence that he leave Querry alone, Parkinson bumps into the famous man and arranges a chat with him.

At their interview, Parkinson attempts to cast Querry as a saint in Rycker’s mold. Querry vehemently denies this identity; he insists that Parkinson can understand him simply because they have some parallels. Parkinson once wanted to be a writer and fell cynically into journalism; Querry was once an architect, burned-out, and became a mere builder. Parkinson refuses to write about Querry the nihilist, preferring Querry the saint. Nonetheless, he discusses Querry’s past with women, noting that Querry once drove a young woman (whom he identifies as Anne only to be corrected by Querry, who says that she was named Marie) to suicide. Querry sets him straight on this story, saying that Marie wanted to escape him. He paints himself as an egotistical monster who worked and loved for no one but himself. Querry even gives the corpulent Parkinson advice in the art of wooing married women. In the course of the interview, Querry comes to enjoy talking to Parkinson – who, for all his sliminess, at least believes his confession of depravity, whereas Father Thomas or Rycker would take the same words and twist them to spell “saintliness.” To Querry’s chagrin, Parkinson refuses to print any of the bitter truths Querry confesses, instead determining to “build him up” as a modern-day desert prophet of sorts.


The new “villain” of the novel, Parkinson, is actually quite a comic fellow, forever complaining about his “weak heart” (and if ever a malady were a metaphor, that one is) and misquoting the literary canon. As Querry observes, Parkinson is rather refreshing after the insufferable pieties of Rycker and Father Thomas. Whereas those two figures stubbornly interpret Querry’s every confession of disbelief and no-goodness as “aridity” (“in the theological sense a kind of insensibility in devotion, contrary to unction or tenderness” (OED def. 2)), Parkinson at least sees a cad for a cad – but then refuses to paint him that way in prose, insisting that the “Querry as saint” narrative makes for better copy.

The figure of Parkinson gives Querry a good opportunity to test out the most prominent metaphor in the novel – that of life (or vocation) as leprosy. As Querry sees it, he is like a leper who, though cured, finds himself repulsive. At first, he thinks that Parkinson might be like him – another “burnt-out case” – but in the course of their interview, Querry sees that Parkinson still has something to lose. He still seeks to justify his vocation the way Querry once did, before he became wholly disillusioned. Greene compares Parkinson to a man who wants “to prove that there was no thickening, no trace of a nodule, nothing that might class him with the other lepers” (111). Proving one’s vocational worth and proving one’s lack of leprosy, in this bleak metaphor, are of a piece. We are all of us leprous in the eyes of Querry – and maybe Greene – but only some know it. Those who try to fend off this basic truth, who pretend that their petty successes and failures have meaning, are like lepers in denial of their condition.

Casting disease as metaphor has a long – and, in the case of leprosy, distinctly Christian – history, and it’s a matter of interpretation to what extent Greene wishes to continue rather than interrogate this tendency. He clearly has an eye on the long Christian tradition of dealing with leprosy. Early in the novel, Doctor Colin observes that people have inherited an irrational fear of leprosy from the Bible (21). On the other hand, certain pious souls – “leprophils,” as they are called here – are attracted to leprosy by virtue of its miserable reputation. So Greene explores a disease with a simultaneously negative and a positive metaphorical spin, with both traditions reaching back to the Bible. He gives us characters who consider leprosy in what we might call the “Old Testament” valence – Rycker, for instance, who for all his professed godliness is squeamish around the lepers – and the “New Testament” valence – such as the nuns who depend on lepers to test their holiness.

Rather than endorse one or the other of these traditional Christian metaphors, in the talk between Querry and Parkinson (as well as elsewhere) Greene seems to present us with a new way of looking at leprosy. He reverses the dominant historical trend – casting the general human condition as akin to leprosy rather than looking on the leper as a special unholy or holy case. For Querry, we lie to ourselves about the truth of our condition just as lepers lie to themselves about their disease. Querry has reached a point of total self-awareness, a kind of dark nirvana, from which he can survey his existence and see it for what it is – or was: utter selfishness and self-deceit. He is working toward a “cure” – a new sense of purpose – but this change cannot replace his realization. Querry does not hope to rekindle his ambition in the leproserie; all of that is gone forever. He doesn’t plan on moving beyond his burned-out state. He simply wishes to build a new, simple life that fits his changed identity.

In this, Querry is much like Deo Gratias. Although that man hardly speaks for himself in the course of A Burnt-Out Case, he is very important as a parallel for Querry. Like Querry, Deo Gratias cannot return to his former life. He is a true burnt-out case; he must re-learn the simplest of tasks, perform them without fingers or toes. Likewise, Querry must re-conceive of the basic skills of his life – building rather than architecture – in order to be of use around the leproserie. He represents physically the essential loss that Querry has felt psychologically.

All of this thematic material can seem fairly muddled – leprosy, Christianity, existential doom – and Greene doesn’t necessarily want it all to add up to a simple “take.” To venture a point at which it might all come to coherence, though, reconsider Deo Gratias’ name. His absurd name is in fact a prayer. To look at this more broadly, his life itself is a prayer. Deo Gratias doesn’t pray, but he is a prayer. Similarly, Querry doesn’t believe in Christianity, but he is a Christian. He embodies Christian behavior though he lacks faith. Greene perhaps suggests that this is an honorable way to follow the example of Christ – to embody his actions rather than preach his gospel. Greene sets up a theory/practice dualism in which the former category – represented by such vapid pedants as Father Thomas and Rycker – decidedly suffers.