The title, A Burnt-Out Case, refers to a condition identified by Doctor Colin in the novel: some lepers develop severe psychological numbness as a result of their disease. Even after they are cured and cease to feel the pain of their condition, these "burnt-out cases" fail to re-enter society. They must relearn their humanity, in a way, and come to accept a changed, mutilated state.
The novel reflects a study of a man who has similarly burned out on life in a metaphorical sense. Querry, a world-famous architect, has grown disillusioned with his talent, his fame, and his love life, and decides to escape it all into the jungles of the French Congo, where he ends up at a leproserie. The novel dramatizes his ensuing return to a meaningful life -- and the problems that arise when a local palm-oil merchant, Rycker, learns of his true identity.
Graham Greene himself credited the germ of the novel to the success of a previous book, The Heart of the Matter. That work had proved tremendously successful and appealed to a vast Catholic readership, some of whom petitioned Greene for inspiration in their faith. Being a "Catholic novelist," according to Greene, was the last thing he wanted; he writes in Ways of Escape: "I had no apostolic mission, and the cries for spiritual assistance maddened me because of my impotence" (218). In this atmosphere, Greene conceived of Querry, the disillusioned man hedged in at all sides by pious busybodies insisting on his sanctity.
Upon its release in 1960, Greene's novel received mostly positive reviews. Some critics have considered it one of his less successful works, but others, such as Agnus Wilson, recognize in it Greene's powerful ability to interweave a rich philosophical interest and a suspenseful plot-line. It has since taken its place as a representative novel in Greene's later period of greatest disillusionment. Greene himself once remarked, "I am a Catholic atheist," and in the character of Querry one finds an example of just what such a creature looks like.