The Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the Matter Summary and Analysis of Book Three, Part One


When the rains are over, Scobie heads down to the ship to meet Louise in her cabin. He wishes he could see her in front of strangers but as she is still in her room, he must go there. He kisses her and starts his usual stream of lies, telling her that he loves her. Back at the Scobies' house, Louise tells Scobie that they must start over and begin going to communion and Mass together. The strangeness of their reunion makes Scobie lighthearted, and Louise marvels at his jocularity. After they eat, Scobie lies and tells Louise that he has to check in on Wilson. Although he is really on his way to Helen’s, Scobie makes the pretense of knocking on Wilson’s door for appearance’s sake. To his surprise, Harris is home and answers the door. Scobie rues that his alibi is now ruined, but he cannot help but continue to Helen’s.

Scobie finds Helen happy and relieved to see him, but she is regretful of the change in their relationship. Scobie tells his mistress that he is on his way to Confession. She is surprised and derisive, asking him how he can be with her now if he believes in Hell. It is difficult for Scobie to explain, but he tries, saying it would not be easy to repent for loving her, even if he repented for the lies and his guilt. Helen scoffs at Scobie's beliefs, wondering if he is turning pious now as an excuse to get away from her. Scobie promises that he will never leave Helen, but he needs time to think.

Early the next morning, Scobie gazes at Louise’s sleeping face and thinks that this is the face he once loved. He wants to make sure she never suffers, but knows he can only delay it, not prevent it. After she wakes, she wants them to go to Communion but Scobie says he feels ill and needs brandy to steady himself and ease the pain in his chest. Louise casually says they can go another day, which Scobie feels is an eternal death sentence. He goes with her but does not take the bread and the wine. As Scobie watches Louise and other worshippers kneel, he feels a vast gulf between them and himself – he is now an exile and suffers from the pain of his loss.

Wilson comes over to visit Louise once he sees Scobie leave. Wilson is nervous and flushed, but Louise's attitude towards him is carefree and indifferent. He becomes indignant when she reacts to his poem with mocking surprise. Wilson professes his love for Louise again, but she dismisses him. Frustrated, Wilson angrily reveals the affair between “Ticki” and Helen Rolt. Louise slaps Wilson and says only she can call Scobie "Ticki." Wilson’s nose begins to bleed and he has to lie down. He feels acutely embarrassed, just as he did when Scobie saw him cry. Louise asks Wilson a few questions about Helen, but she does not openly overreact. Wilson tells Louise that Harris saw Scobie going into Helen's hut earlier that day. Wilson also tells Louise that Scobie is involved with Yusef, which Louise finds absurd.

Scobie comes home and helps to stop Wilson's nosebleed. The younger man leaves soon thereafter. Scobie asks Louise why Wilson came by and Louise sighs, revealing that Wilson was trying to make love to her. She warns Scobie to be careful because Wilson is spying on him. She then asks him to go to Communion again. Scobie agrees, but first, he has to run to the station to get some papers. On the way out, Scobie feels blinding pain in his head and almost retches. He thinks of how futile confession is when he already knows the answers to his problems. He wonders if he will take communion, confess, and then commit adultery again. Or maybe he will abandon Helen and let Bagster have her. Or, he wonders, should he should just dive in, leave Louise, and live in sin with Helen? At Church, Scobie waits for Father Rank. He thinks about the photograph on his desk of when he was happy, the little girl who called him 'Father,' and of one of his past cases - of a young black girl who was raped and killed by a soldier.

When Father Rank arrives, Scobie confesses to his adultery but he does not seem very contrite. The priest tells him he cannot yet offer him absolution but will pray for him. Scobie leaves the church, feeling like it was wrong to come. Later, Louise tells Scobie that she wants to go to Mass. He knows that if he refuses, she will know the truth. Scobie feels like a stranger when he enters the church. The words of Mass feel like an “indictment” (223) and he is like a guest at the party who is not introduced to anyone else. Father Rank’s words drone on. Louise asks Scobie if he is okay, but he knows that he cannot leave or else he will have to take the priest’s advice and give up Helen. He stays but feels savagely towards the Cross. At this point, Scobie knows that only a miracle can save him - but is certain that he will not get one. The Host feels like a papery “eternal sentence on the tongue” (225).

Scobie visits the bank manager, Robinson, who has an informal library. Scobie requests to see the medical encyclopedia. Robinson cheerfully hands over the book and tells Scobie to go see a Dr. Travis, the physician who treated Robinson. Scobie reads about angina, a heart condition that he heard Dr. Sykes mention. On the way to the police station, Scobie wonders why he is not being punished. Why are things going well for him – isn't he damned? At the station, the Commissioner tells Scobie that the man who was going to replace him has decided against it, and offers Scobie the Commissioner's position. Scobie marvels at this new twist of fate. The Commissioner confides in Scobie that Robinson has been given two years to live, which is why he is so peaceful. Scobie finds himself envious of Robinson.

Outside, Scobie sees Ali talking to his young brother (the one who works for Yusef). Scobie asks Ali if he has ever been propositioned, and Ali denies it. However, now that Scobie is a liar, he has started to feel paranoid that the people around him are liars as well. He writes a note to Louise to say that he is taking some furniture up to Helen. At her Nissen hut, Helen and Scobie quarrel again about their doomed relationship, and Helen scorns Scobie for his religiosity. She calls him melodramatic and cannot understand why he still holds onto his Catholic faith. Anguished, Scobie says that he is tired of causing people pain and wants to get out. When Helen asks him where he would go, Scobie backtracks and says he needs a little vacation. His anger passes and Scobie mulls over loving both Helen and Louise, and decides internally that God does not need him as much as they do. Scobie hears someone in Helen's garage and finds Ali waiting for him. Ali has brought a message for Scobie from Louise, informing him that she is home. As Scobie leaves, he is nervous because Ali has seen him and Helen together.

Back at home, Scobie writes in his diary. It is the only place where he can be truthful; if there are any lies in those pages, it is only due to omission. Scobie feels desperately alone, with no confidant and his faith feeling like more of an enemy than a boon. He cannot even feel self-pity anymore. Scobie hears a creak outside - someone drops something off for Scobie and the voice says it is from Yusef. The package contains a diamond, and Scobie figures that it is a token of gratitude for his delivering Yusuf's packet safely to the captain of the Esperanca. Ali comes in, clutching a small boy. Ali identifies the intruder as one of Yusef's boys. Scobie tells the child to take the diamond back to his master because he does not want it. Scobie is now very aware of what Ali has seen and knows. Louise calls to Scobie and asks if he is going to Communion. Weary, Scobie decides that there is nothing else to do but continue with the facade.

Scobie plans to visit Yusef one evening. On his way, he asks another police officer if the quay is quiet and the man tells him yes. Then, Scobie runs into Wilson. Their meeting becomes awkward when Wilson blurts out that he loves Louise. Scobie gently tells him he knows and that Louise likes him. Wilson becomes irritated and threatens to ruin Scobie. Scobie walks away, leaving Wilson waiting in the dark, full of hate. At Yusef's, Scobie finds himself talking to the Syrian like a friend and confessing his adultery. Yusef is understanding and says he, too, has had woman trouble before. Scobie also confesses that he has been feeling paranoid about Ali. He then feels an immense sense of relief after shifting his burdens to someone else for the first time. When he expresses his suspicions about Ali, Yusef tells Scobie that he will take care of it. He sends his boy off to fetch Ali, with Scobie's consent.

Scobie waits in the office for a few hours, first alone and then with Yusef. He keeps asking about Ali, but Yusef assures Scobie that the boys are fine. Then, Scobie hears a tortured yell from outside. Yusuf tries to tell him that it's just a drunken man wailing, but Scobie doesn't believe him. He runs outside, leaving Yusef's company for the last time. Scobie heads to the quay and is anguished to find Ali's body. Scobie knows that he is responsible for Ali's death; he suspected all along what Yusef would do. A corporal asks Scobie what happened, and Scobie responds that he loved the murdered boy.


In this section, Scobie's disintegration continues in earnest. He becomes paranoid, consumed by guilt and ambivalence, and increasingly unsure what course of action he should take. Although Scobie does not resign to kill himself until the next section, he starts to consider it as a serious option when he argues with Helen and lets it slip that he wants to go away. Scobie corrects himself, clarifying that he meant that he just needed a vacation. However, Greene gives the reader enough of a lens into Scobie's mind to discern his actual meaning.

Surveillance is one of the main themes of the novel. Scobie's guilt over his own deceitful actions manifests itself in his paranoia about the people around him. His own suspicion increases in proportion to his lies. In one of his many discussions with Louise about whether or not he loves her, he thinks to himself, "the truth...has never been of any real value to any human being – it is a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relationships kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths" (58). As a police officer, Scobie should be the one observing others, but as the novel proceeds, he becomes the target of surveillance instead. Scobie's lies to Louise have laid the groundwork for his future deceptions.

Scobie desperately tries to be the observer, not the observed, and ultimately fails in that endeavor. When Scobie burns the captain's forbidden letter, Frazer cheerfully jests that Scobie is "burning the evidence" (55). Also, Scobie is never able to truly conceal his relationship with Helen Rolt despite his amateur attempts at deception. Meanwhile, Scobie believes that his diary as an expression of truth, but it betrays him to Wilson in the end. Similarly, Louise always accurately reads her husband's true feelings for her. However, she cannot fully comprehend Scobie's feelings for God, which is what makes it impossible for her to predict his suicide.

Ultimately, it is Scobie's paranoia that leads to his downfall. Wilson is actually spying on him, but it does not affect Scobie's job – in fact, he gets promoted to the Commissioner position, just as he wished for at the beginning of the novel. Similarly, nothing ever comes of Scobie's embroilment with Yusef and the stolen diamonds. The loan never becomes an issue either. As for the affair, Louise actually knows about it and does not create a public spectacle or leave him. Rather, she only tries to bring Scobie back to the Church. Helen also tries to make the end of their affair easier on Scobie by deciding to leave the colony. Finally, Ali's purported spying is never confirmed. Louise makes a glib comment about how Father Rank only gossips about things that matter foreshadows the fact that most of Scobie's concerns are only important to him.

However, Scobie's paranoia ends up being fatal for the one person he loves fully without the burden of responsibility or pity - Ali. Scobie allows himself to get so anxious about Ali's motivations that he tacitly allows Yusef to kill the innocent boy. While Scobie himself does not strike the blow, he feels as though he has when he comes upon Ali's dead body. He mourns, "I've killed you: you've served me all these years and I've killed you at the end of were faithful to me, and I wouldn't trust you" (247-48). Scobie's anguished belief that he directly or indirectly hurts everyone he loves finds perhaps its greatest truth in this event.

Finally, to conclude the discussion on surveillance, God is the one force that Scobie cannot hide from. He is ultimately beholden (or at least he believes he is) to his Heavenly Father - and in this case, he cannot hide his sins. Scobie explains to Helen that his faith may not make sense or make him happy but he cannot refrain from believing. He tries to articulate his moral challenge to Helen: "I can regret the lies, the mess, the unhappiness, but if I were dying right now I wouldn't know how to repent the love" (210). Scobie is similarly torn in his confession to father Rank; he cannot promise to refrain from seeing Helen and feels uncomfortable even being in the church. He feels like there is "no hope anywhere he [turns] his eyes" (222). At this point, Scobie feels like he is damned no matter what, and there is no going back. The gulf between Scobie and the true believers becomes irrevocably vast. This internal conflict sets the stage for the events in the final section of the novel.