The Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the Matter Study Guide

The Heart of the Matter (1948) is one of Graham Greene's most famous novels. Critics consider it to be part of Greene's "Catholic Triology" alongside The Power and the Glory (1940) and The End of the Affair (1951). The Heart of the Matter has remained immensely popular over the past several decades because it is profoundly insightful and intellectually rigorous. The novel explores themes of pity, suffering, religion, and responsibility. Additionally, Anthony Burgess lauded Greene's ability to "encapsulate the essence of an exotic setting in a single book."

Green based The Heart of the Matter on his experiences in Sierra Leone as a member of the British Secret Service during World War II. However, Greene chose not to name the West African colony in which the novel takes place. Greene describes the complex protagonist, Henry Scobie, as a "weak man with good intentions doomed by his big sense of pity." He adds, "the character of Scobie was intended to show that pity can be the expression of an almost monstrous pride." Surprisingly, Greene actually considered The Heart of the Matter to be a failure, even though readers and critics have never agreed.

Upon its release, The Heart of the Matter sold over 300,000 copies. It earned very favorable reviews. The New York Times wrote, "Mr. Greene (as a well-earned public knows) is a profound moralist with a technique to match his purpose. From first page to last, this record of one man's breakdown on a heat-drugged fever-coast makes its point as a crystal-clear allegory -- and as an engrossing novel." One notable detractor was George Orwell, who reviewed The Heart of the Matter for the New Yorker. Orwell wrote, "to put it as politely as possible, [the novel is] not one of his best, and gives the impression of having been mechanically constructed, the familiar conflict being set out like an algebraic equation, with no attempt at psychological probability."

Nevertheless, The Heart of the Matter won numerous prizes, including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 1948. It occupies the 40th spot on Modern Library's list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century and is also on Time Magazine's list of the top 100 English-language novels from 1923 onward.