A Burnt-Out Case

A Burnt-Out Case Summary and Analysis of Part Six, Chapter Three


Querry returns from Luc bearing champagne for the celebration that will come with the completion of the hospital. They raise the rooftree and the ceremony begins. Father Thomas consecrates the new building with holy water and leads a church service as some strangers from the Lower Congo sing competing hymns to their god, Nzambi. After the service, the champagne flows. The priests are rather inexperienced drinkers, but enjoy their time – all except for Father Thomas, who finds the revelry discomfiting. A storm brews in the distance and when Querry goes to close the front door he sees Deo Gratias standing apart. Deo Gratias tells Querry that he knows he will leave now that the hospital has been completed and he asks to travel with him.

As Querry is away, the fathers discuss his great importance to the hospital. Father Thomas, predictably, leads the huzzahs. The telephone rings and Doctor Colin answers. He calls Father Thomas to the phone. Thomas soon shows extreme distress and announces that something terrible has happened. The nuns have called with news about Marie Rycker. After briefly questioning Querry, Father Thomas announces that Marie is pregnant with Querry’s child. He begins weeping, utterly betrayed by his hero. Querry offers to talk to Marie at the nun’s quarters.

The nuns greet Querry and Father Thomas with a look like Querry is the devil himself. They find Marie with Mother Agnes. Querry asks Marie to tell them the truth – that the baby is Rycker’s, not his – but she tells them that the child is Querry’s. She also declares her love for Querry. He asks to see her alone, which the nuns agree to with some reluctance. When alone with Querry, Marie reveals that on the night she was impregnated – the night after the Governor’s party – she imagined that Rycker was Querry; thus, she reasons, her lie is really only half a lie. Querry asks Marie what happened between her and Rycker in Luc and Marie says that Rycker exploded at her and struck her. She says that she tried to convince Rycker that the child was his, but that he wouldn’t listen, at which point she fled to the nuns.

Mother Agnes reenters, fully convinced of Marie’s innocence. Querry tries wearily to set the record straight but to no avail. He leaves and takes shelter in Doctor Colin’s house, where he finds the doctor quite sympathetic.

Back among the fathers, Father Joseph cautions against condemning Querry too quickly; Father Thomas, though, is not in a forgiving mood. As they debate their course of action, Parkinson appears suddenly, looking for Querry. He announces that Rycker has come to the leproserie seeking revenge. They can hear Rycker trouncing about in the storm, shouting for Querry. Rycker suddenly bursts into their dining room and ascertains that Querry must be at Doctor Colin’s house. As he leaves, he makes a melodramatic pronouncement – “There isn’t a jury that would convict me” (190). Brother Philippe takes this as a warning that he ought to head him off before he can get to Querry.

We rejoin Querry and Doctor Colin as they hear Rycker shouting in the distance. They speak about what to do next and the conversation turns – as usual – to religion. The doctor notes that Querry, for all his avowed atheism, finds Christianity too troubling to be a true atheist. Rycker’s shouts grow unmistakable and, despite Doctor Colin’s warning to the contrary, Querry goes outside to meet him. Instead, he finds Brother Philippe, who recommends that Querry hide in Doctor Colin’s house as Rycker is likely carrying a gun. Just as he’s about to retreat, Rycker stops him. Querry tries to explain the truth, but Rycker thinks that Querry is mocking him. Querry laughs and Rycker shoots him twice. As he dies, Querry explains that he was not laughing at Rycker, but at himself.

Querry is buried in the “atheist corner” of the graveyard near Doctor Colin's wife, just as he said he wanted to be, without a cross or Catholic ceremony. The Superior, having returned from Luc, speaks with Doctor Colin about the events. Rycker confessed to the killing and expects to be acquitted on the grounds of a crime of passion. There’s also talk of annulling his marriage to Marie. As they talk about Querry – the Superior arguing for his Christian spirit and the doctor criticizing the Superior’s urge to appropriate everything under the auspices of Christianity – a little boy enters the doctor’s room. It is the little boy who went to the Superior for candies. Doctor Colin confirms that the boy is infected with leprosy, but that he will be cured “in a year or two, and I can promise you that there will be no mutilations” (199).


Graham Greene is famous for, as The Times critic Agnus Wilson calls it, his “extraordinary power of plot-making,” and in the last chapter of A Burnt-Out Case we find a tour-de-force example. So many elements come to bear on the story so quickly – character reversals, forebodings made clear, all drawn along by a dead-right sense of irony.

To isolate one such ironic foreshadowing, at the close of Part Six, Chapter Two, Querry attempts to cheer up Marie by recounting his youth. He says, “I suppose, like the boy in the story I told you, I persuaded myself to believe almost everything with arguments. You can brainwash yourself into anything you want – even into marriage or a vocation” (172). He goes on to discourage her from such a course – to give up the “mumbo-jumbo” of faith – but Marie resists. She says, “And what about the mumbo-jumbo of birth?” […] “If only it hadn’t him for a father” (172).

Of course, we know where that train of thought leads. Querry’s advice has precisely the opposite effect that he intends – it inspires Marie to “brainwash” herself, in a way, with theological mumbo-jumbo. At the nuns’ place, she explains this theological logic to Querry, referring to the night she conceived with Rycker: “If I hadn’t thought all the time of you, I’d have been all dried up and babies don’t come so easily then, do they? So in a way it is your child” (183). Greene continues, “I would have needed a theologian to appreciate properly the torturous logic of her argument” (183-4). Like so many other weak souls in the novel, she uses Querry for strength; she dresses up her love for him in saccharine lies and hypocritical pieties. Again, Greene and Querry show surprisingly little sympathy for Marie. She is presented as both a foolish child who does what she can to escape an impossible marriage and as a calculating egotist who can stand toe-to-toe with the greatest egotist of them all, Querry.

A related ironic trend concerns the reversal of faith among the Pharisees, Rycker and Father Thomas. Throughout the entire novel, these two pious fellows have refused to listen to a word Querry has had to say. Every proclamation of his atheism was met with a knowing cluck of the tongue and a word of sympathy for his “aridity.” Little wonder, then, that they refuse to hear a word of explanation from Querry when he’s found in a compromising – but innocent – situation with Marie. The Saint Francis turns into Judas before their eyes, no trial necessary. Both Querrys are pure fabrications, of course. All along, as with Marie, Querry was nothing to them but a chance to prove their own importance. A famous man is not himself – he is what others think of him. The fall of Querry allows them to play righteous men on an even more glorious stage.

Speaking of stages, at several points in the final plot sequence characters step back and note the similarity of the events to farce. As Father Jean, the comedy fan among the fathers, remarks: “[I]t’s a little like one of those Palais Royal fares that one has read… The injured husband pops in and out” (190). Of course, the somber Father Thomas does not get the joke, but we ought to. Greene deliberately bases the last “Act” of his novel, as it were, on the ridiculous comedies of manners performed in French theaters. These comedies almost always featured cuckolded husbands chasing after dashing heroes. Of course, in this case, all of the elements are ironic lies – the cuckold hasn’t really been cuckolded, the hero hasn’t really gotten away with a conquest, and the whole ordeal ends in a pointless, absurd murder. As Querry remarks, “The innocent adulterer. That’s not a bad title for a comedy” (193). It turns out to be more of an absurd tragedy. Querry’s last words – “Absurd…this is absurd or else…” (196) – capture the bleak spirit of the moment.

To keep piling on the ironies, Querry’s moment of death corresponds very closely with his existential cure. In expressing this, Doctor Colin returns once more to the leprosy metaphor. Querry says, “I think I’m cured of pretty well everything, even disgust. I’ve been happy here.” The doctor replies, “Yes, you were learning to use your fingers pretty well, in spite of the mutilation” (193). Earlier, he remarks that Querry is cured, and that “no further skin-tests are required in your case” (186). The malaise and discomfort has been replaced by something like the human condition – Querry has returned to a life of suffering. He has something to lose again – his life at the leproserie. And just then, he loses it.

The novel closes – of course, ironically – with news that Rycker will likely be acquitted. Everyone likes a tawdry, moralistic narrative, and that’s the role he stupidly forced on everyone. But the very last pages stray somewhat from this tidy, bleak viewpoint. They show us the Superior and Doctor Colin engaged in a battle for interpretation. The Superior, as he always has done, seeks to universalize the Christian message of the story. He sees Querry as redeemed, Father Thomas and Rycker as pitifully misguided – everything fits nicely into his package. Doctor Colin, however, expresses disgust and rage at this tendency. He points out that the young boy – the one who likes candy – is leprous and adds “in a tone of suppressed rage” (199) that he will be able to cure the child.

One might find this aside, this “suppressed rage,” puzzling. The whole novel long, Doctor Colin has been a model of cool-headedness and composure. After the ordeal with Querry – and faced with the Superior’s, well, superior quotation of theology – he seems to have changed. The Superior declares that, whatever happens, God cannot feel pain or disappointment. “Perhaps that’s why I don’t care to believe in him,” Colin responds – and by the novel’s end we might feel a good deal of sympathy for his position. Graham Greene has a reputation as a Catholic novelist, and there is certainly room to interpret Querry’s actions and his struggle with faith in the light of dogma. However, at the end, the overwhelming message seems to be the inadequacy of dogmatic theology in the face of true, absurd, stupid suffering. The leprosy of an innocent child; the meaningless death of a happy man – Greene asks us to consider, if these things do not disappoint God, does God disappoint us?