A Burnt-Out Case

A Burnt-Out Case Summary and Analysis of Part Two


Querry finds his new, monkish quarters understandably strange, but rather than abandon his life at the leproserie he consciously establishes a routine, rising early with the fathers before helping Doctor Colin with the lepers. We learn that Deo Gratias has been allowed to stay as Querry’s servant. Querry observes Doctor Colin’s skill at detecting and treating leprosy; he wishes to help in some substantial way but refuses to reveal his vocation to the doctor. When Doctor Colin informs him that he is waiting for a high-tech temperature-taking machine that is crated up in the regional capital of Luc, Querry offers to make the eight-day drive and retrieve the machine.

Deo Gratias accompanies Querry on his journey. Though there are a few settlements along the way, Querry elects to sleep and eat in the truck-bed rather than mingle with the colons. He attempts to make chitchat with De Gratias but proves unable; they eat and sleep separately, not exchanging a word. When they arrive in Luc, Querry searches for “the doctor’s apparatus” (32) in customs, then the European controllers office, without luck. An official in the latter location directs Querry to the cathedral, where, true enough, Querry finds the temperature machine in its crate.

Querry then drives to a supplies station to pick up frozen vegetables for the leproserie and the Order. While in line, a tall, stooping man approaches and greets him by name. He introduces himself as Rycker. Rycker immediately informs Querry that he knows his identity: he is “the Querry,” the famous architect. He says that his wife discovered his picture in a back issue of Time. Though Querry is resistant, Rycker insists that he spend the night at the home he and his wife share next to his factory. Querry finds himself persuaded.

Rycker introduces Querry to his wife, Marie – a very young woman straight out of convent whom Querry initially mistakes for Rycker’s daughter. Marie appears to be childish and immature; Rycker lets on that he married her in order to have sex without sin, saying, “St. Paul wrote, didn’t he, that it was better to marry than burn” (36). After dinner, Rycker insists on showing Querry the old article in Time about him. He also, after sending Marie away, engages Querry in a one-sided theological discussion, much of which centers on Rycker’s difficulty in persuading Marie to submit to her “married duties” (41).

Chapter Three of Part Two finds us back at the leproserie, where we learn that (a month after Querry’s night at his home) Rycker has spilled the beans regarding Querry’s identity. Doctor Colin encourages Querry to help with the design of the new hospital planned for the leproserie. Querry adamantly refuses. He recalls feeling a passion to design churches once but declares that he has “no interest in anything any more,” neither in designing buildings nor even in sleeping with women (46). Colin compares Querry to a burnt-out case. Despite his refusal, Querry accompanies Colin on his tour of the patients, many of whom have developed dreadful diseases in addition to leprosy – elephantitis or tuberculosis. Querry witnesses a mixing of local, tribal remedies – some of them dangerous – along with Doctor Colin’s treatments. Colin hints that with a hospital he would be able to house and care for his patients much more easily.

In his journal, Querry attempts to write out his reasons for refusing to help with the hospital. He declares that he has always worked for himself, out of love of himself, and that he doesn’t feel this love any more, and so cannot work. He sends this explanation to Doctor Colin, who returns it in a crumpled ball, declaring, “Who cares?” (51). Greatly affected by this question, Querry slips into an uneasy dream in which he attempts to speak to Doctor Colin but is repeatedly interrupted. Upon waking, he tells the doctor that he will help build the hospital.

In Chapter Four, we see Querry’s developing relationship with Deo Gratias. The servant struggles to accomplish the routine tasks of life without fingers and Querry appears to be especially patient with the burnt-out case, though he is actually just indifferent. One day, Deo Gratias is missing, and Querry finds him stumbling away from the leproserie as quickly as he can. Deo Gratias avoids him. The next day, he is still gone. Toward evening, another leper brings Querry Deo Gratias’ staff and insinuates that Deo Gratias is in trouble. Querry asks the leper if he will join the search, but the leper refuses, so Querry takes a flashlight and sets out alone to find his servant. He travels the central road on which he spotted Deo Gratias earlier. After a long search, Querry finally finds Deo Gratias waist deep in a marsh. An old bridge had given out and Deo Gratias, without fingers, had been unable to grab onto anything to pull himself out. After a great effort, Querry is able to drag Deo Gratias out. He begins to leave, intending to fetch help, but Deo Gratias stops him. Querry waits the night with the terrified leper, resting his hand beside his as his flashlight dies.

The next dawn, Querry brings back help, later recounting the incident with Doctor Colin. He recalls that Deo Gratias repeated the word “Pendéle” throughout the night. Doctor Colin guesses that the word means something like “pride,” but Querry insists that he was looking for a place he once went as a child with his mother. For the first time since his arrival, Querry then makes a joke – saying that if he should ever come up missing Doctor Colin should know where to find him.


Already, Querry seems to be doing much better in the routines of the leproserie (though he would never admit an improvement even to himself) – already, too, clouds are gathering. The darkest of these is Rycker, a sanctimonious lecher too self-absorbed to notice his many outrageous hypocrisies. (His name, for the record, derives from “rich man,” though this doesn’t evoke the kind of meaning games we see in other characters’ names.) His clearest hypocritical tendency concerns his sex life: he has married a childish, pretty girl, Marie, primarily in order to have sex with her. He drapes this need in language of Catholic “married duties” and Biblical quotations, as though to obey one’s husband’s libido is of a piece with obeying God’s will. That Marie has absolutely no interest in having sex with Rycker doesn’t matter to him at all.

Rycker’s torturous, self-serving logical flights often hinge on a barely concealed equation of himself with God. As he says when he overhears Marie playing with her puppy, “She loves her puppy more than she loves me – or God.” Greene wryly adds, “Perhaps the Van Der Hum [his liquor] affected the logic of his transitions” (41). When Querry suggests that he abandon a parallel between “loving God” and loving his bed, Rycker insists, “There’s a close parallel for a Catholic.” His insistence is all very doctrinaire, all nicely dogmatic – as he says, he “always came out well in moral theology” – but this makes it all the more odious. Rycker embodies the moralizing of the Pharisees. At this point, one can only sympathize with Querry for having to spend even one night in his company – and pity Marie all the more.

The theme of sex comes up in another context in this section as well, when Querry discusses his vocation with Doctor Colin. He draws a parallel between his growing disenchantment with his architecture work and his disenchantment with women. As his vocation faded, so too did his sex drive, as though the two were intimately connected. In both cases, Querry says, he comes to recognize those actions he thought of as motivated by love - love of God, or love of women - were in fact selfish and hollow. His love was mere self-love, and upon recognizing this he lost all interest. Like a priest of sorts, Querry has given up the world - fame and sex alike.

Indeed, the dream that precedes the decision to help Doctor Colin with the hospital illustrates this latent religiosity in Querry – he dreams that he is a priest disguised in layman’s clothes. Ironically, this will be precisely how others come to see him – as a modern-day saint. In the dream, as in his letter to Doctor Colin, Querry expresses scrupulous despair at having “lost his chance” at feeling. The doctor’s response – “Who cares?” – seems to give Querry a much-needed jolt of perspective. Colin spends his life among the leprous; he’s unlikely to find Querry’s scruples impressive. He sees no great narrative of success and disillusionment when he looks at Querry, he simply sees a man who can help him to abate the suffering of the truly miserable. When Querry sees this too, he’s on the road to recovery already. He sees himself not as a grand architect, but as a humble builder. The Querry, as Rycker so obnoxiously addresses him, ceases to be – and thus Querry’s existential problem seems to have found a possible fix.

There’s no denying that Querry’s actions in going to seek Deo Gratias and in staying with him overnight are admirable. They will come to be seen as more than that, however – indeed they'll see these actions as positively saintly. Greene has built in a number of ironic, crypto-religious elements that help to foreshadow the sanctification of this act. For one, Deo Gratias’ cumbersome name, “Thanks be to God,” constitutes a prayer when said aloud, which Querry does repeatedly in his search for the servant. The symbolic meaning of this name comes through clearly when Greene writes: “[T]he absurd name which sounded like an invocation in a church received no response” (55). As in his religious life, Querry does not wish to pray, he does not wish to thank God – but in a cryptic way he does so nonetheless. He doesn’t wish to behave in a saintly way, but seems unable to resist when faced with Deo Gratias’ fear.

All the while, Querry recognizes the absurdity of his quest, the absurdity of Deo Gratias’ name. This very absurdity, however, brings the quest close to religion. Faith, after all, is not a rational entity. It is inherently absurd. Deo Gratias, when he goes off looking for “Pendéle,” a place he cannot possibly find outside the leproserie, acts on absurd faith. Querry, too, finds that he is guided by absurd faith in looking for Deo Gratias on his own. (Note how often these two burnt-out cases mirror each other in the novel.) Though Greene is maliciously critical of the religious hypocrite, he provides room for a reading of Querry as the irresistibly Christian man. No matter how little he wishes to, Querry embodies Christian values. As we will see, Greene even puts an ironic twist on this irony – the hypocritical Christians feel just the same way, that Querry is unable to be anything but a saint.