The Heart of the Matter

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


In his room, Wilson struggles with his cummerbund. Harris comes in and informs Wilson that he does not have to dress up for Tallit, the Syrian with whom Wilson will be having dinner. Wilson wonders aloud how Scobie came to marry Louise. Harris agrees, but is surprised when he realizes that Wilson thinks Louise is too good for Scobie instead of the other way around.

The Indian soothsayer waits outside Wilson’s room and persists in asking to read his fortune, so Wilson agrees, just to get it over with. He pays the Indian man and Harris sits down to watch. The Indian begins, suggesting that Wilson is a policeman. He tells Wilson that he will marry the lady of his dreams and sail away; that he is ambitious, a dreamer, and a poet; he is also secretive and shy. The Indian man suggests that Wilson be courageous. Wilson scoffs to Harris that the Indian man did not get much right, especially the part about the poetry.

At Tallit’s house, Wilson finds only one other guest - Father Rank, a Catholic priest. They sit in Tallit’s dining room, which is set up like a dancehall with chairs pushed up against the side walls. Some of Tallit’s family members are present as well. As none of the other guests speak English, Father Rank talks about them volubly, which makes Wilson uncomfortable. Father Rank is roguish and loud, and shares that Tallit was "taken in" by Yusuf's fake diamonds the previous year. Wilson says he has heard of Yusef and Tallit's rivalry, and calls Yusuf a bad man.

Wilson contemplates Father Rank’s joviality and cheeriness, wondering whether or not he has actually ever comforted anyone. When dinner begins, the men sit down and converse. Tallit comments that he heard that Yusef has also invited Father Rank to dinner. The priest laughs and says that Tallit’s food is better. Apparently, it is not particularly seemly for officers to be seen at Yusef's anyway. Tallit repeats a rumor that Scobie and Yusuf were seen together the other night.

When Wilson comes home that night, Harris comes over. He wants to engage Wilson in a game that Harris has invented. They compete to see which man can smash more cockroaches. The competition quickly becomes heated, and Wilson leaves Harris's room in anger. The next morning, Wilson and Harris apologize to each other. Wilson runs into Scobie, who invites him over to take Louise out for a walk. Wilson wonders why he regards Scobie as an enemy. Scobie asks Wilson why he came to West Africa, as he does not seem the type; Wilson replies, lying, “One drifts into things” (73).

Louise and Wilson do end up going for a walk, climbing up into the hills to look out across the bay. Wilson finds himself incapable of small talk with her – he does not know how to be just friends with a woman. He finds himself attracted to her fierceness and intellect; plus, she has been kind to him. They stop at an old abandoned station. Louise sighs and says that she is glad she will be leaving soon. Wilson feels a dart of pain upon hearing this news. He tells Louise that Scobie will miss her, but in his head, he hears himself saying that he (Wilson) will miss her. He boldly kisses Louise. She keeps talking as if nothing has happened, saying she hates her husband. Wilson implores her not to leave. He kisses her again.

They see Father Rank coming up the path. He says hello in his friendly manner and continues on. Wilson is scared because the man is a gossip, but Louise says he does not pass along things that do not matter. Wilson is morose because of Louise's placidity and repeatedly tells her he loves her. She responds by saying she is too old, and tells Wilson that his poetry has made him too romantic.

It begins to rain. Wilson tries to touch Louise but she rolls her eyes at his attempt at “petting.” She tells him firmly: “I’m not a nursing sister who expects to be taken whenever she finds herself in the dark with a man. You have no responsibilities toward me, Wilson. I don’t want you” (78). His only response is that he loves her. They speak again about Louise leaving. Louise believes that Scobie will get the money for her to go even though he does not love her because he has “a terrible sense of responsibility” (79). Wilson tries to touch Louise again but she yells for him to leave her alone because she loves Ticki. She classifies this encounter with Wilson as a “funny” experience.

When they return from their walk, there is a police car waiting in front of Scobie's house. It appears that there is trouble with a young deputy commissioner named Pemberton and Scobie needs to take a short trip to sort it out. Louise is dismayed and tells Scobie that she does not want him to go. Scobie kisses Louise goodbye, and Wilson doesn't feel jealous, only dreary. Scobie departs. Wilson says sadly that he had better go as well, but Louise asks him to go upstairs first to check her room for rats. He complies and when he goes into the Scobies' bedroom, Wilson drinks in all the details, just as he has been taught to do. He thinks wryly, however, that “his employers had never taught him that he would find himself in a country so strange to him as this” (82).


In this section, Greene provides a great deal of insight into Wilson's character without overtly sharing details of the man's background. The fortuneteller's words will prove amazingly prescient as the novel continues, but so far, the reader can only see the truth in the comment about Wilson's love of poetry. Indeed, Wilson is secretive, sentimental, ambitious, and a dreamer. However, these are not traditionally "masculine" qualities, and rare to find in a man who does such intense and dehumanizing work. However, Wilson does his best to dismiss the fortune teller's claims. Wilson's quick, hot temper also becomes evident; he takes the roach-killing game far too seriously. Wilson's temper and shame in losing control both factor into other crucial plot points later on in the novel.

Wilson further reveals his character through his behavior towards Louise. Louise is one of the most consistently insightful characters. Her assessments of the men around her usually prove to be true. She is correct in assuming that Wilson is overwhelmed by his poetry and thus has unrealistic ideas about love and courtship. His ideal of love is youthful and foolish - he decides that he is in love with Louise just because she has been kind to him. Wilson’s sensitivity is not inherently problematic or undesirable, but when his emotional tendencies combine with his hot temper, it can lead him to rash decisions that may hurt others.

While the novel takes religion quite seriously for the most part, Greene characterizes Father Rank as gregarious, voluble, and friendly. Rank is known as the local gossip; he calls himself a “garrulous fool” (70). When Wilson is worried that the priest has seen him with Louise, he identifies Rank as “the biggest gossip in town” (77). Instead of being cruel and inflexible, Father Rank reveals himself to be pragmatic, discerning, and very much human. Ultimately, Rank's words at the end of the novel encapsulate Greene’s ideas about religion (see the final analysis).

Gossip is a pervasive part of life in this West African colony, and rumors swirl quickly regardless of whether or not they are true. Scobie does not get the promotion because of the rumors about his corruption and extramarital affairs. The Commissioner accepts that there are always rumors circulating about foreign men in official positions, but that does not change his decision not to promote Scobie. Louise worries about the gossip surrounding Scobie’s failure to be promoted, and then later hears the truth about her husband’s behavior from a friend. Gossip swirls about Scobie’s finances and his relationships with Yusef and Helen, even in this early section of the book. Tallit mentions that Scobie gave Yusef a ride home, which the community sees as disreputable.

Sometimes gossip can be harmless or simply a way to pass the time or get business done, but in Scobie’s case it dooms him to incessant lying, worrying, and the eventual destruction of his life. Listening to gossip and passing it on is also Wilson’s official job, as he is in the colony for the purpose of spying on the police officers. Wilson’s personal shortcomings combined with the necessities of his job make him a particularly dangerous enemy for Scobie and contribute to his unraveling.