The Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the Matter Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How do Wilson’s character traits inform his actions?

    Wilson loses his temper when his pride is injured (like when he plays games with Harris or hotly tries to provoke Scobie about Louise). He also has a tendency to lie to protect his pride (like not revealing the truth about his poetry to Harris). The fact that he works in the field of espionage suits Wilson and informs his duplicitousness. Louise is the only one who recognizes this and as a result, warns Scobie to watch his step around the mysterious new Brit. Scobie is not always the most perceptive man, but he does recognize Wilson's eagerness to please and his curious inclination to change himself depending upon the context. In one of Wilson’s interior monologues, he expresses his desire to appear as other men do, but Greene notes that Wilson's sensitive eyes betray him. Overall, Wilson desperately wants to be loved, accepted, and esteemed, but his propensity to lie and his temperamental nature can be an obstacle to intimacy.

  2. 2

    What is Greene's perspective on the Catholic Church in The Heart of the Matter?

    The Heart of the Matter is part of Greene’s “Catholic Trilogy” because the central conflict is Scobie’s struggle with his faith. However, Greene does not adhere to traditional Catholic dogma and doctrine. Instead, he poses provocative questions about the Catholic Church’s teachings, especially in terms of understanding human impulses and emotions. Some critics have even described the novel as heretic because Greene calls the immutability of the Church's laws into question. Scobie wonders (inconclusively) whether or not Pemberton was able to escape eternal damnation even though he committed suicide. Father Rank, whose title positions him as the mouthpiece of the Church, tells Louise she cannot be too sure that Scobie went to Hell after committing suicide because the Church cannot know what goes on in a human heart. Ultimately, Greene exposes the limitations in the rules of the Catholic Church.

  3. 3

    What does Scobie’s preoccupation with pity/responsibility lead him to do?

    Initially, Greene presents Scobie’s preoccupation with responsibility as a positive character trait. Even though he does not love his wife, Scobie feels responsible for her happiness and works to secure her passage to South Africa. He also continues to engage in the hollow platitudes and rituals that keep their marriage functioning (at least on the surface). However, as the novel progresses, Scobie’s sense of responsibility begins to appear more disingenuous. Scobie feels pity for people that he believes to be unattractive or deficient in some respect, and helps them because he prides himself on being a good and honorable man. That pride leads Scobie to lie, engage in corrupt business practices, and tumble down a slippery moral slope. By the end, Scobie's responsibility for others is inextricably attached to his own unhappiness as well as his inability to be forthright and decisive. Ultimately, Scobie ends up hurting almost everyone with whom he comes into contact with.

  4. 4

    How does the setting of the novel affect the characters' actions?

    Several characters in the novel reference the setting and the climate. Scobie describes the colony as a place where the inhabitants are honest and open their flaws. He also notes that this is not a place for strong emotions like “hate or love” (31) because they can carry a man away. When Wilson attacks Scobie angrily, he tries to convince Wilson that his aggression is a result of the climate. Similarly, Father Rank confesses to Scobie that he is feeling low and blames it on the rains. The colony is a place of extreme weather (rain, heat, and dryness) and it brings out strong emotions in its residents. This means that people living in the colony need to recognize this effect and quell their extreme emotions in order to stay sane. Pemberton, meanwhile, is an example of someone who could not moderate his behavior to accommodate the setting.

  5. 5

    Is Father Rank’s belief that Scobie loves God more than anyone, including himself, accurate?

    Scobie chooses to commit a mortal sin and ostensibly doom himself to an eternal separation from God, which does not appear to be an act of love on the surface. However, Scobie's internal monologue reveals how desperately unhappy he is to be disappointing God, especially towards the end of the novel. After Ali’s death and during Louise's campaign to get him back into Church, Scobie's guilt for his sins lead him to want to punish himself. He feels desperately alienated in Church and feels that his presence alone is an affront to God. Scobie believes that he will always feel this distance from God as long as he lives, even if he does ask for forgiveness. Therefore, Scobie chooses remove himself from God's protection in order to save his Heavenly Father from further insult. In this way, Scobie's love and respect for God ultimately lead to his demise.

  6. 6

    How and why does Scobie choose to commit suicide and why is it significant?

    Scobie spends most of the novel fighting his desire to commit suicide - his religious faith keeps him from following through. Scobie is not very self-aware - when he starts his affair with Helen, he seems taken aback by his own actions. The affair is contradictory to Scobie's usual behavior because he tries to refrain from immoral activity. The affair, coupled with Scobie's decision to burn the captain’s letter signals his moral descent. Also, Scobie’s life is characterized by futility. Once he starts his affair with Helen, he cannot seem to extract himself from it. Ultimately, the magnitude of Scobie's sin begins to weigh on him, and he feels incapable of repentance. Even if he were to ask for forgiveness, Scobie would feel like he was insulting God every time he went to Church. Scobie is trapped, and ultimately decides that suicide is his only release. His devotion to God (although he may not recognize it as such) finally leads him to take action rather than simply coasting along on a river of defeat. Then, he tries to conceal his suicide by planting false evidence supporting him dying from angina. He does this because he is ashamed of his sinful choice, and also that he wants to save Louise and Helen from the certain pain of his decision to give up.

  7. 7

    How is Yusef relevant to Scobie’s narrative and to the plot as a whole?

    Yusef is a foil to Scobie in the sense that he knows himself, what he wants, and how to attain it. He is openly manipulative and duplicitous but is far more authentic than Scobie. Yusuf is the only character with whom Scobie feels like he can be himself. With Yusuf, Scobie does not have to pretend to be above suspicion and is honest about his troubles. The conspiracy surrounding Yusef, Tallit, and the diamonds allows readers to recognize Scobie's tendency to become embroiled in situations without really considering the ramifications. His first rash act is burning the captain's letter and his second is taking loan from Yusef. As a result of these two decisions, Scobie ends up trapped in a position where he is passing Yusuf's contraband to the captain and lying to his superiors. Thus, the diamond plot reveals that ever-present sense of futility that hangs over Scobie; he never regains control of his affairs and his deceit keeps pulling him down.

  8. 8

    What role does Louise play in the novel?

    Louise can sometimes be whiny and depressive, she is also quite perspicacious and intelligent. She is the only character who sees Wilson for what he is from the first time she meets him. She is also very committed to her marriage even though it is loveless, and cares deeply for her husband’s eternal soul. As for her role in in the plot of the novel, she represents Scobie’s perverse commitment to responsibility. Louise is the embodiment of Scobie's religious commitment - he feels so guilty about the fact that he does not love her that it consumes him. In Freudian terms, Louise is the superego while Scobie struggles with his id (which is represented by his affair with Helen and his spiritual despair).

  9. 9

    Do the events in the novel support Scobie’s claim that no one can truly understand anyone else?

    Greene suggests that human beings can never truly know one another. The consistent lapses in communication are proof of this assertion. The characters in The Heart of the Matter have difficulty connecting with each other. While Louise does understand the fact that Scobie does not love her, she is not able to save him from himself. Characters perform actions that even they don't understand (Wilson goes to the brothel but hates himself for it). At the end, Greene appears to believe that only God can truly understand the human heart, which reinforces the notion that human beings can never fully comprehend each other’s motivations, desires, and fears.

  10. 10

    What is the importance of Ali to the plot of the novel?

    Ali is the only character with whom Scobie has an uncomplicated relationship. Scobie loves Ali without feeling a sense of pity or responsibility. When Scobie is with Ali, he feels a sense of peace. Ali does not ask Scobie for any emotional support nor does he openly judge Scobie for his choices. When Scobie and Ali travel to investigate Pemberton’s suicide, Scobie thinks that he “could be happy with no more in the world than this – the grinding van, the hot tea against his lips, the heavy damp weight of the forest, even the aching head, the loneliness” (85). Unfortunately, Scobie’s descent into lies and questionable moral behavior leads him to suspect even Ali of betrayal, and he tacitly endorses Yusef's offer to “take care” of Ali. Scobie is shocked out of his paranoia when he finds Ali's dead body - but it is too late. For Scobie, Ali's death represents a point of no return. His own moral indiscretions lead Scobie to suspect the same kind of behavior in even the most innocent of souls.