A Burnt-Out Case

A Burnt-Out Case Summary and Analysis of Part Three


Rycker and Marie drive into Luc to have cocktails with the Governor. On the way, Rycker pedantically instructs Marie in how to behave at the gathering. While she suffers through small talk, Rycker gossips with the gathered officials about the Querry, alluding to Querry’s night with Deo Gratias in the marsh. The Governor vaguely approves of his religiosity, though the Bishop, who soon joins them, avoids the subject. The Bishop instead chats amiably with Marie, whom (we learn) has been forbidden to play cards by her husband.

On their way home, Marie dreads the inevitable – Rycker will attempt to sleep with her. He is very drunk and lectures her condescendingly as they drive, unhappy with her lack of admiration for him. When they arrive home, Marie attempts to excuse herself from sex. She tells Rycker that her periods have been irregular lately. Rycker insists that they will risk pregnancy anyhow (though he very firmly does not want a child) and Marie prepares herself in her room. She looks at a magazine with Querry’s face on the cover before going to Rycker to perform her loathed duty.

Chapter Two of Part Three begins with Marie again. She has driven out to the leproserie in order to speak with Querry. The Superior greets her and she presents him with two drums of oil from her husband’s factory. As they chat about Querry a small African child enters and takes a piece of candy from the Superior. Marie tells the Superior that she must deliver a message from her husband to Querry. The Superior attempts to stall her, recalling that Querry gave orders that Rycker should never interrupt him. Finally, Marie prevails and the Superior goes to see Querry.

He finds Querry reading a letter from a woman signed, “Toute à toi” (“All yours”). After making some loud and disparaging remarks about her “wretched husband,” Querry agrees to see Marie. The Superior finds, however, that she has fled. They surmise that she heard Querry’s insults and left in embarrassment. Querry expresses pity for Marie’s life with Rycker, which leads to a theological argument with the Superior about Christianity. Querry declares that the virtues that Christians claim as eminently theirs – self-sacrifice, charity, love, gentleness – are not “Christian” at all; they are common to people regardless of their religious background. When the Superior leaves, Querry asks Deo Gratias about “Pendélé,” and Deo Gratias declares that it was a waterfall where he and his mother were happy.


This Part – one of the shortest of the novel – develops (or, more precisely, illustrates) some of the themes we’ve seen so far. We see, rather than hear about, Rycker’s repulsive sexual habits. He easily shifts from the subject of God to the subject of marital duties; privy as we are to Marie’s thoughts, we hear that this train of thinking is very predictable indeed. Marie, who seems younger and younger the more time we spend around her, has found herself in an awful arrangement. Note two passing facts in the scene before she enters Rycker’s room – that she has been experiencing irregular periods and that she takes a good long look at Querry’s photograph. These will prove important.

At the dinner party, before this unappetizing sex scene, we see the rigid structure of colonial power. Querry instructs his wife in the hierarchy – Governor first, of course, then those in charge of Public Works, and then the commercial businessmen (like Rycker) – through the ridiculous example of exiting from the cocktail party. It’s rude, so he says, to leave before the wife of the Public Works director, because his is the more prominent position. It’s unclear to what extent all of these social rules are merely Rycker’s fantasies. At any rate, the party gives us another glimpse at his hypocrisy. He forbids his wife from taking more than a sparkling water while he, meanwhile, guzzles expensive whisky.

It’s not clear what Mme Rycker wishes to say to Querry in Chapter Two of this Part. Perhaps her husband really did send her to invite the architect to their house; perhaps she is supposed to tell him that his presence at the leproserie has begun to attract the attention of the press (thanks, no doubt, to Rycker’s cavalier disregard for Querry’s request for privacy). Perhaps, on the other hand, she wishes to see him again unbeknownst to her husband. She has clearly taken a fancy to Querry – though who can blame her, given the alternative.

Her sudden escape prompts one of several theological discussions in the novel. This one will come back again. Querry expresses irritation that the Superior tries “to draw everything into the net of [his] faith” (76). In other words, the Superior, because he sees everything through the prism of Catholicism, attributes to all actions a Catholic meaning. Querry’s concern for Marie becomes, in the Superior’s eyes, “a kind of belief.” Querry finds this sort of interpretation infuriating – it’s impossible to argue against, for one thing. When one thinks religiously, one is always right. It’s impossible to be proved wrong. The Superior will attempt a response to this criticism later in the novel.

As a side note, one might sense a parallel between the logic of Catholicism and that of colonialism; both claim territory that is not necessarily theirs to claim, whether the spiritual territory of charity and self-sacrifice or the literal territory of the Congo (though colonialism is as much or more a matter of economic exploitation than of faith). Greene hints at something like this similarity at several points, especially when he compares the native religions of the Africans with the rituals of Catholicism. Greene does not see a major difference – he even slyly refers to Rycker’s St. Christopher medal as “like a fetish” (61), linking the Catholic’s trappings to the objects of ritual revered by the Africans. As with Querry’s argument, the Catholics take the raw materials of all human life – whether hope or love – and simply substitute their trinkets for the native variety. It’s a cynical suggestion, of course, and one perhaps undermined by other elements in the novel, but a fruitful one nevertheless.