A Burnt-Out Case

A Burnt-Out Case Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Doctor Colin is the character who most explicitly compares Querry to "a burnt-out case." Explain what is meant by this term and unpack the metaphorical comparison.

    "A burnt-out case" is a leprosy patient who has been cured but has suffered severe mutilation. Deo Gratias is a case in point -- though he no longer has leprosy, he also no longer has his fingers and toes. Psychologically, the burnt-out case has lost his sense of himself -- he feels repulsed and depressed by his new physical shape. Doctor Colin considers fame to have mutilated Querry. Fame is like leprosy -- it eats away at the natural man, leaving something different. Querry, in coming to recognize the change in his identity, has grown deeply depressed and disaffected, much like a burnt-out case.

  2. 2

    Do you consider A Burnt-Out Case to be a pro-colonial novel? An anti-colonial novel? Why or why not?

    There is room for arguing either side of this question. On the one hand, Greene regularly dramatizes the apparent futility of imposing Catholicism upon the Africans. They have no interest in giving up their traditional religion. On the other, Doctor Colin - who wishes to spread western medicine throughout Africa - is treated with real understanding. His version of progress, one might say, finds a tentative endorsement; the Catholic version is depicted less generously. Since both "prongs," as it were, make up the colonial project, one might conclude that Greene is ambivalent with regard to the value of colonialism.

  3. 3

    Graham Greene is often criticized for his treatment of women. Consider Marie in this novel. Do you find her character realistic? Sympathetic? Do you consider this criticism of Greene warranted?

    While Greene does provide Marie with reasons for her behavior - Rycker is an absolutely horrible husband - and while her selfishness is no worse than that admitted by Querry and demonstrated by her husband, Greene's treatment of Marie is unquestionably condescending. She is consistently described as infantile. Neither Querry nor Rycker nor Greene - nor, I fear, the reader - takes her seriously. Because she is not taken seriously, she can hardly be thought of as sympathetic. The question of whether Greene's treatment amounts to misogyny is, of course, much more speculative; but he certainly shows comparatively little interest in developing the psychological complexity of his women characters.

  4. 4

    Consider the depiction of the Africans in A Burnt-Out Case. How does Greene describe them? Do they seem well-developed as characters?

    Greene, like most novelists of his era, does not have a particular interest in developing the individuality of his African characters. They exist largely as a psychological backdrop: a sort of chorus commenting on the misery of leprosy. Otherwise, they show the hopelessness of "conversion" - the Africans, while they show some interest in Christianity, show just as much interest in their traditional gods. Similarly, they hold their traditional medicines equal to the prescriptions of Doctor Colin. In all cases, the Africans (and Africa in general) exist as a foil for the European characters in the novel. Greene has little interest in them otherwise.

  5. 5

    Examine the difference between Doctor Colin's atheism and Querry's (professed) atheism.

    Querry, it seems, would like to be as assured in his atheism and Doctor Colin is able to be. Alas, he is too tormented by thoughts of Christianity. As Doctor Colin says, by the novel's end Querry has been more-or-less cured of all his psychological ailments but one: he still cannot leave alone his fascination with God and Christ. Colin describes Querry as someone who continues to bother a wound, reopening it, never allowing it to heal. Colin, on the other hand, accepts Christianity for a myth and has no further interest in the faith.

  6. 6

    Consider the novel from Rycker's point of view. Why does this man place so much importance on Querry? Why does he ignore Querry's request to be left alone? And why does he turn so suddenly on Querry after the scene in Luc?

    As Doctor Colin observes, Rycker wishes he were much more important than he is. The appearance of Querry -- a representative of piety, for better or worse -- excites Rycker because such a famous man raises the general significance of his location and his life. Rycker is suddenly at the center of a great Catholic narrative. Similarly, Querry's non-affair with Marie in Luc gives Rycker a sense of great importance. If the famous Querry desires this thing he has -- his wife -- Rycker must be quite a fellow after all. In general, Rycker's character relishes a display of righteousness and indignity. Killing his "rival" is the ultimate high for such a man: he can simultaneously play the wronged man and the righteous avenger, all while capturing the attention of an international audience.

  7. 7

    Two categories -- "vocation" and "sex" -- are consistently linked in this novel. Why? How do the characters themselves link these categories, and what does such a link suggest about their attitudes toward life?

    Querry frequently links his work with his sex life. When he was a productive architect, he was simultaneously a productive womanizer; after he lost interest in his calling, he also lost interest in sex. In both categories, Querry was searching for love - love of God, love of fame, love of women - only to realize that his love had all along been self-directed. He finally realizes this when, first, his obsessive womanizing leads to the suicide of one of his mistresses, Marie, and, at nearly the same time, he becomes disillusioned with his vocation. Both his sex and work drives were intrinsically linked by his ambition; when he loses ambition, both vocation and sex life stop interesting him.

  8. 8

    Is Querry a Christian? He acts like a Christian, in the sense of "how Christ might act," but he disavows belief. Explore this paradox. Does Greene want us to think of Querry as a Christian or not.

    Or course, it's impossible to be sure of what Greene really wants us to think about Querry. He gives the man all of the best deeds in the book -- staying (and praying, perhaps) with Deo Gratias, helping Marie Rycker in her time of need, making long trips to Luc to fetch supplies for the Order and the leproserie. But on the other hand, Querry firmly denies being a Christian. He insists upon his innate badness. But then, to consider things from Rycker and Father Thomas' points-of-view, insisting on one's innate badness is an utterly Christian thing to do.

    What does Greene accomplish with his presentation of this paradox? Perhaps he simply wishes to show that not all who act like Christians are Christians. Christianity doesn't have a monopoly on decent behavior - so he claims, though the Superior disagrees. Greene's ultimate target is not the example of Christ, but those followers of Christ who insist on idealistic dogma rather than the realities of suffering in the world.

  9. 9

    The novel ends with Doctor Colin "surppress[ing] rage" in a conversation with the Superior. We never learn exactly why Doctor Colin is so angry. Unpack this scene and analyze possible motivations for Doctor Colin's anger.

    The last scene of the novel features yet another theological discussion between the Superior and Doctor Colin. Despite the events of the novel, the senseless death of Querry, and the continued suffering of the leprosy patients, the Superior continues to abide by his Christian dogmatism, accepting God's plan (whatever it may be). The Superior's quietistic attitude likely infuriates the doctor, who has devoted his life to battling leprosy.

  10. 10

    Who do you consider the most sympathetic character in the novel? Why?

    Though nearly every character is handled with some degree of understanding, Doctor Colin emerges in the course of the novel as the most sane and sympathetic member of the cast. He accepts Querry's good deeds and friendship without burdening him with the laurels of sainthood; he quietly and consistently goes about the selfless business of the leproserie; and he expresses an attractively idealistic theory of human development. Of course, many of the priests in the book have also given their lives to aiding the lepers, but they do so out of a sense of eternal reward. Doctor Colin is motivated by nothing but his sense of decency and duty.