The Heart of the Matter

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


Scobie is in Pende due to the arrival of several shipwrecked passengers who have survived at sea for 40 days. He converses with Druce, Perrot (the District Commissioner), and Mrs. Perrot at their mansion. Wilson is also in Pende to inspect the U.A.C. store (or so he claims). Their conversation soon turns to a recent incident - Tallit's cousin has been caught transporting diamonds within a parrot's crop. However, Tallit claims that Yusef framed him by swapping out his cousin's parrot with the diamond - filled parrot.

Scobie writes in his diary every evening. He acquired this habit while he was a young student, and he has kept it up because he feels that his diary entries are "the barest possible record" of the important details in his life (114). The entries are brief, cryptic, and unemotional. Scobie also says his prayers every night out of habit. However, he does not think he is important enough for God to take notice. Scobie does not drink, fornicate, or lie, but he does not see his lack of sin as a virtue - rather, he feels that God should not have much of a reason to take notice of him.

The next morning, Scobie waits on the shore for the group of survivors to arrive. Many have died, and many of the living survivors are injured. One of the survivors, Miss Malcott, wonders how long she will be on the West Coast because she wants to get back to work. Scobie realizes that Louise could have easily been one of the patients being carried to shore on a stretcher. Wilson joins Scobie and asks what he is thinking about, and Scobie comments that he is glad Louise is safe. Scobie watches the stretchers pass by one by one, carrying the cold bodies of a dead man and a young boy, followed by a little girl who appears to be deathly ill. Scobie wonders at a God that would let this child survive in misery for forty days after her parents have drowned. The next stretcher holds a sickly young widow carrying a stamp album; Scobie learns that her husband of one month died in the wreck.

That evening, the Perrots, Druce, and Scobie gather. Scobie reflects on the distress they have witnessed. Later, he feels the profound weight of his responsibility, which makes him weary. The doctor informs Scobie that the little girl will die soon, but the young widow's fate is as yet unknown. Scobie remembers Pemberton and ruminates, "what an absurd thing it [is] to expect happiness in a world so full of misery" (123). He is glad that he has so few needs at this point in his life.

Scobie goes to the rest-house where the patients are recovering and meets Mrs. Bowles, the forbidding wife of the local missionary who is acting as nurse. She wants to know what Scobie is doing, and he cannot articulate how restless and full of pity he feels. He just tells Mrs. Bowles that he has come to check in. Scobie is surprised when Mrs. Bowles asks him to wait there while she runs to the dispensary for something; Scobie is anxious that something might happen to any of the patients while she is away. Scobie looks down at the sickly little girl and prays for her. She awakens and calls him "Father." He lets her believe that he is her father, and tries to console her by making rabbit signs with his fingers. When Mrs. Bowles returns, she harshly instructs Scobie to stop talking to the girl because she is dead.

The child is buried the next day. Scobie is unable to bring himself to attend the funeral and returns to the rest house. Mrs. Bowles tells him dourly that an old lady from the ship is dying, but that the young widow, Mrs. Rolt, may be out of danger. Scobie says he wants to help, so Mrs. Bowles grudgingly says he can read to a young boy. There are few good books to choose from, so Scobie randomly picks A Bishop among the Bantus. He sits down with the boy, Fisher, who is curious about Scobie and the book. He asks a lot of questions and Scobie tries to make the book sound interesting. He is surprised to see that Mrs. Rolt is awake and listening to him. He reads for a little bit before Mrs. Bowles comes back and tells him that it is time to finish. Scobie looks down at Mrs. Rolt before he leaves, and sees the sorrow and loss etched on her face. Mrs. Rolt asks Scobie when he will read again, and Scobie muses that he must bring her some stamps for her album.

Wilson waits for Scobie outside. He insinuates that he knows about some arrangement between Scobie and Yusef. Scobie doesn't crack, which agitates Wilson. Wilson brings up Louise and tries to provoke Scobie by telling him he is too good for her. Scobie tries to head off the conversation before Wilson embarrasses himself. He remains calm, blaming the bright and hot sun for the younger man's outbursts. Meanwhile, Wilson is furious that Scobie has seen him cry.

The next day, a siren signals a raid and the rain pours down unceasingly. Scobie walks around the Nissen huts where "the minor officials" live and wonders if he might actually be happy "in darkness, alone, with the rain falling, without love or pity" (135). He sees that a recently vacant hut has a light on and knocks on the door to see who the new tenant is. He is surprised to see Mrs. Helen Rolt. He offers to come in and fix her light. She still looks emaciated in her oversized pajamas. She explains that she is in the Nissen hut because she did not want to be in the hospital anymore or stay with Mrs. Carter, one of the other female survivors of the shipwreck.

Helen asks Scobie to stay at her place until the rain stops. She pours him a shot of gin and he asks her about herself. He correctly senses that all she really needs right now is aimless conversation about anything but the shipwreck. As they chat, Mrs. Rolt begins to come alive, describing her childhood and her life in England. He listens "with the intense interest one feels in a stranger's life, the interest the young mistake for love" (138). The sirens soon end but Scobie and Mrs. Rold do not notice; Mrs. Rolt keeps talking. Finally, she comments that she might actually sleep that night. She tells Scobie she likes him and he says he likes her too. He leaves, feeling an "immense sense of security: they [are] friends who [can] never be anything else than friends – they [are] safely divided" (140) because of their age gap and his marriage.

The next morning, Scobie has to deal with a case of petty larceny. He tries to write a letter to Louise. He writes about various things, including how he spends his time, and, as he cannot bring himself to lie, he tells Louise that she is often on his mind often during the day. Then, he signs the letter "Ticki" because he knows she will like it.

Scobie is summoned to the Commissioner’s office. The Commissioner is accompanied by Colonel Wright, the Colonial Secretary, who has come to discuss the Tallit business. Scobie becomes defensive, commenting that it is his job to stop diamond smuggling. At this point, the evidence against Tallit was only sufficient for an interrogation and not an arrest. Nevertheless, Tallit is angry and has hired lawyers. The officials once ask Scobie again how he knew about the diamonds in the parrot, and he wearily repeats that Yusef was his source. They ask how often Scobie sees Yusef, and at one point, they ask circuitously how Scobie could afford to send his wife away on his meager salary. Scobie does not tell them the truth about his loan but still feels resentful; fury surges in his breast as he rises to leave. On his way out, Scobie comments that if anyone wants him for the next half hour, he will be at Yusef’s.

Scobie wonders why he has claimed to have an appointment with Yusuf, because it is a lie. Nonetheless, Scobie goes over to Yusef’s house. On the way, he runs into Harris, who invites Scobie to come see the house he plans to share with Wilson. He asks Scobie if he will read a letter he has composed to his old school (Downham, where Wilson also went) telling them what he has been up to since graduating. At Yusuf's house, Scobie finds the Syrian in a bromide-induced slumber. Scobie thinks about how he and Yusef are trapped together in a marriage of sorts. Eventually, Yusef struggles to wake up. He finally admits to Scobie that he framed Tallit. Scobie sighs and says he feels like a fool. Yusef tries to defend himself, claiming that his actions against Tallit were in everyone's best interest.

Scobie tells Yusef he will continue to pay back his loan but after that, he wishes to sever their connection. Yusef protests, saying they are friends, but Scobie sees through the Syrian's pleas and departs. Yusef tells Scobie that one day he will need his friendship, and Scobie wonders if he will ever be that desperate. On his way home, Scobie goes to Confession. He tells Father Rank that he feels empty and tired of his religion. Rank encourages Scobie to take a leave of absence. On his way out of the church, Scobie thinks, “God [is] too accessible. There [is] no difficulty in approaching Him. Like a popular demagogue He [is] open to the least of His followers at any hour” (154).

Scobie brings Helen some stamps for her collection. Once again, they talk easily and comfortably. Helen tells Scobie that she feels bad for not missing her husband more, and Scobie tells Helen about Catherine (his late daughter). Their shared experiences with death bring Scobie and Helen closer. She tells him she does not know what she would do without him, confessing that the other survivors are afraid of her and that a man named Bagster is constantly flirting with her. Later, Helen mentions that her father is a clergyman, but she is not religious.

Helen seems to want to stay on the West Coast, and Scobie comments that he might be able to get her a job as a secretary. They drink on it. Scobie feels comfortable with Helen in a way he has not felt with a woman since Louise was young. He knows that his body has forgotten the feeling of lust, and he thinks that Helen is ugly, which precludes anything physical from happening between them. However, Bagster soon arrives at Helen's hut and pounds drunkenly on the door. Helen instructs Scobie to stay quiet and they wait silently until Bagster departs. Then, suddenly, they kiss, and it is clear that “what they both thought was safety [proves] to have been the camouflage of an enemy who works in terms of friendship, trust and pity” (160).

Hours later, Scobie feels a sense of jubilation - a feeling he thought he lost in his youth. As he makes his way home, Scobie considers his future criminal-like actions. He knows that sadness lurks in the future, and feels "tired by all the lies he would some time have to tell; he felt the wounds of those victims who had not yet bled.”


In this section of the novel, Scobie’s situation becomes increasingly problematic. He enters into a romantic relationship with Helen Rolt, he becomes further enmeshed with Yusef, his superiors start to question him, and he begins to feel increasingly dubious about his faith.

Scobie feels a sense of futility as he enters into his illicit relationship with Helen. It seems as though when he made the decision to burn the captain’s letter, things started to go wrong for Scobie, but he he does not take decisive action to improve them. He finds himself in situations without having taken dynamic steps to get there; he lacks self-awareness and is unable to interpret his own motivations. He does not consider the ramifications of his involvement with Yusef, remains oblivious to Wilson’s true identity, tries to deny his attraction to Helen, and, later on in the novel, Scobie remains obdurately ignorant about what Yusuf might do to Ali after Scobie voices his paranoia about the boy. Louise, meanwhile, is remarkably astute about her husband's thought process. She comments wryly to Wilson, “I think sometimes he’s got a kind of selective eyesight” (74). Critic Elliot Malamet refers to Scobie’s “murky self-awareness” and notes his “limits of vision.”

This sense of futility also pervades Scobie's relationship with Yusef, which Scobie sadly compares to a marriage because of the two men's shared commitment and mutual responsibility. Earlier in the novel, Scobie feels a sense of pride in his marital responsibility to Louise, which is what leads him to borrow money from Yusef in the first place. Meanwhile, Scobie’s aforementioned lack of insight leads him to ignore Yusuf's obvious lies about Tallit and the parrot. Scobie really only has himself to blame for the consequences of doing business with Yusef. Earlier in the novel, he thinks to himself that he loves living in the colony because “here human nature hasn’t had time to disguise itself” (35). Yusef is one of the most honest and unapologetic characters in the novel and certainly does little to disguise himself, but Scobie chooses not to see the obvious warning signs.

In this section, Greene also explores Scobie's relationship to his Catholic faith. One night (before starting his affair with Helen), Scobie prays, but he does not even think he is worthy of God’s attention. “He didn't drink, he didn’t fornicate, he didn’t even lie, but he never regarded this absence of sin as virtue” (115). The next day, Scobie witnesses the aftermath of the shipwreck and wonders how God could have let such suffering occur. Rather than disavow God, though, Scobie concludes that “he could believe in no God who was not human enough to love what he had created” (121). However, he also feels that God was looking out for him by keeping him away from Catherine while she died. When he attends confession in this section, Scobie admits to Father Rank that he feels empty and that his religion seems meaningless. He considers his faith part of a routine and wonders if “God [is] too accessible” (154).

Greene provides more insight into Scobie's deep sense of responsibility and the pity he feels for others in the aftermath of the shipwreck. He rues that he shed one responsibility (Louise) for another. Curiously, Scobie is irrevocably committed to things/people over which he has little control. Occasionally, this aspect of his personality can result in kindness, such as when he reads to the little boy in the rest-house, but it is mostly dangerous to his psyche. He likens the little girl dying in the rest-house to "carrying a weight with great effort up a long hill: it was an inhuman situation not to be able to carry it for her" (125). He pities the childish and ugly Helen, but he does not feel any responsibility for beautiful or intelligent people because they can make it on their own. Scobie uses pity "as loosely as the word 'love': the terrible promiscuous passion which few experience" (159).