The Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the Matter Summary and Analysis of Book Two, Parts Two and Three


Harris shows Wilson their new place and asks if he likes it. Wilson says yes (tentatively) and asks about their neighbors. He then notices a familiar photograph amongst Harris's things and Harris proclaims proudly that it a photograph from Downham. Upon seeing Wilson's copy of the The Downhamian (the school's alumni newsletter), Harris realized he and Wilson attended the same school. Wilson does not seem particularly excited by the news. Harris likens Wilson's reaction to his time as a mentor at school. He would help new students become familiar with the school, but then they would become popular and leave Harris behind. Harris suddenly feels embarrassed about the letter he has written to the Downhamian Association, especially when Wilson offhandedly says they just reach out to alumni to raise money.

Later that evening, Harris and Wilson relax and read in their new quarters, listening to the rain coming down. Harris leafs through Wilson's copy of the Downhamian and resolves to send his letter after all. In reading the updates about his classmates, Harris notices a maudlin poem dedicated to “L.S.", written by an alumnus with the initials “E.W.” Harris mentions the poem offhandedly, suspecting the truth behind those initials, but Wilson lies, saying that he hates poetry. Meanwhile, Wilson feels uncomfortable, disgusted at himself for sending in the poem. He realizes that after a lifetime of lying, it has become very easy for him. Late at night, Wilson stands on the porch of his hut and is startled to see Scobie walking around. Scobie says he that is out for a walk, but Wilson can tell that Scobie is lying and pities Scobie for his awkwardness.

The next day,Wilson summons Yusuf's boy to his U.A.C. office. Wilson offers the boy money to send Wilson news of Yusuf through Wilson's boy, who happens to be the brother of Yusuf's boy. Wilson wants to know who Yusef sees and what they talk about. Wilson tries to come across as powerful, telling the boy that he could become a steward if he is successful but threatening him with jail time if he reveals the nature of their agreement. Wilson asks the boy about Scobie, but learns nothing of note - yet.

Later, Wilson leaves his house and lies to Harris about his destination. He parks his car at the police station but then, walks down a path to a dingy brothel. It is more curiosity than lust that drives Wilson to try the “local product” (173). Once he sees one of the girls, though, Wilson has second thoughts and wants to leave, but the madam goes through her usual rituals for nervous first-time visitors. She instructs the girl to get Wilson a drink and blocks the exit. Here, Wilson's white skin and position do not matter. He ends up staying, but as he surrenders to the girl, he feels a strong “hatred of those who had brought him here” (175).

Scobie and Helen have a wearying conversation that is reminiscent of the conversations he used to have with Louise. Helen accuses Scobie of not loving her, while he protests and assures her that he does. Helen is frustrated that Scobie's Catholic faith prevents him from divorcing his wife, but somehow it does not prevent him from having an extramarital affair. She wants Scobie to take risks to prove to her that he loves her. Despite his repeated proclamations of love, Helen throws him out of her hut and instructs him never to return. On his way out of Helen's hut, Scobie thinks about how much easier his life would be if he were to just stay away from her. When he goes home, however, Scobie writes Helen a note apologizing for their fight and telling her that he loves her more than his wife and even God. The last part gives Scobie pause but he decides to commit to it. He slides the note under Helen's door. Later, Scobie has a drink with Father Rank and notices how dreary and hopeless the man seems. The priest blames his mood on the rain.

In his office, Scobie finds a note from Wilson saying he stopped by, which is odd because the sergeant would naturally inform Scobie of the visit. Then, Scobie meets with the Commissioner and confesses that he took a loan from Yusef. The Commissioner also confirms Scobie's suspicions that Wilson is some kind of spy and has been investigating the local police force for corruption, Scobie included. Commissioner trusts and respects Scobie, however. He feels that their time together in the colony has made them similar. The Commissioner tells Scobie that Wilson has targeted him and Yusuf as his villains "of choice."

After leaving the meeting, Scobie thinks about how he ought to just ignore Helen, go to confession, and return to living an easy and virtuous life. Instead, he goes "reluctantly" to her hut. Helen is immensely glad to see him and thrilled that Scobie did not take her expulsion seriously. She says if he had, she might have committed suicide or gone to Bagster. However, Scobie is surprised when Helen claims that she never received his letter. He comforts her by concluding that her boy must have picked it up, but deep down, Scobie knows that someone must have taken it and now knows about the affair. Helen feels nervous that night, so Scobie goes home.

At home, Scobie discovers a telegram from Louise saying she made a mistake, she loves him, and she is coming home. Scobie feels so nauseous that he cannot even pray and he wonders if he ought to end his life. He knows that suicide is a venal sin, but ponders the fact that God sometimes breaks His own laws. Scobie realizes that he holds two peoples' happiness in his hands. He distracts himself from becoming overwhelmed by responsibility by writing a few lines in his diary. The next day, all Scobie can think about is the telegram from Louise. Fellowes invites him to dinner that night with the promise of Argentinean beef. Scobie is surprised to see Helen among the guests when he arrives. They greet each other easily and no one seems to suspect anything.

Fellowes, Wilson, and Dr. Sykes are discussing the Pemberton case. Scobie is surprised that the young man's suicide has now become a "case." He thinks, "Through two thousand years...we have discussed Christ's agony in just this disinterested way" (193). Suddenly, Helen becomes distressed and tells the men that they should not be talking about this. The party then becomes a little awkward, as they have few topics to discuss besides work and the beef that has now been eaten. Scobie manages to speak to Helen privately and tell her about Louise. She reacts angrily and drops her glass of beer, which shatters. Wilson comes outside to see what happened, and Helen jokes bitterly that she and Scobie are engaged in a "scene of unbridled passion" (196). She asks Wilson to give her a ride home.

When Scobie returns home, he finds Yusef waiting for him. Yusef is there because he needs Scobie to give something to the captain of the Esperanca. While Yusef explains the details, Scobie finds a note from Helen. She apologizes, says she loves him, and tells him that he owes her nothing. After digesting this information, Scobie turns his attention to Yusef's request. He refuses to comply. Yusef tells Scobie that he has the note he wrote to Helen – his boy took it from Helen's home and now he will use it for blackmail if he has to. Yusef is apologetic for the circumstances, but Scobie is beaten down. He has no choice to comply with Yusuf's request.

Scobie finds himself alone with the captain of the Esperanca once again. The captain is deeply thankful to Scobie for his help. Scobie reluctantly tells the captain that he has something for him this time. He hands the captain the packet from Yusef, after which he has to conduct his official search. He catches sight of the captain's face in the mirror and momentarily does not recognize it - but realizes that this is because of the pitiful expression. Scobie wonders, "am I really one of those whom people pity?"


One of the notable themes in The Heart of the Matter is the unreliability of the written word. This becomes apparent in the previous section when Scobie writes in his diary. While his diary contains personal facts about what Scobie did on a certain day, it is completely superficial. It does not account for any of his emotions or feelings, and the simple prose belies the complexity of its content. As Yusef says, “words are very complicated” (197). Critic Elliot Malamet writes: “letters are misspelled or lost or stolen; cables informing Scobie about the illness and subsequent death of his daughter are sent in reverse order; official government telegrams are contradicted by other telegrams; Scobie’s diaries are terse and cryptic…the idea of writing concealing or distorting its own meaning pervades the novel.” In addition, Pemberton’s letter to his father is vague; Scobie omits the truth in letters to Louise, and Helen’s father’s sends her words of comfort that reveal how little he knows her. Words can also be dangerous: Yusef’s boy steals the letter from Scobie to Helen, and Yusef uses it to blackmail Scobie.

In the world Greene has created, it is difficult for characters to truly know each other, therefore making it difficult for the reader to know them, either. In addition to the fragmented communication, the characters in the novel frequently lie to each other. Helen assures Scobie that she will tell any lies he wants her to (197). Meanwhile, Wilson exemplifies the pervasiveness of lying. He thinks to himself, “His profession [is] to lie, to have the quick story ready, never to give himself away, and his private life [is] taking the same pattern” (167). When Scobie lies to Wilson about his reason for wandering through the Nissen huts in the middle of the night, Wilson envies Scobie for being a “novice in the world of deceit” (168).

Scobie may be a novice in the world of deceit, but he throws himself headlong into it. While he is not particularly adept at lying (as noted by Louise and Wilson) he starts doing it excessively. He has always lied to Lousie in a way, claiming his love for her, but Scobie's first official lie is about the captain's letter. He then lies by omission about Yusef’s loans. His lies increase exponentially as he delves into his illicit relationship with Helen. When his passion for her fades, Scobie eventually begins lying to Helen as well.

Greene foreshadows Scobie’s eventual fate in this section when some of the men are discussing Pemberton’s suicide. Scobie even asks Dr. Sykes, “What’s the way out [i.e. suicide] you’d recommend?” (194). The cloud of futility that hangs over Scobie throughout the novel becomes increasingly evident here. Even Scobie has "a sense that he [is] embarking now on a longer journey than he [has] ever intended” (195). Despite recognizing ways to untangle all the complications in his life, Scobie persists on his journey of deceit. After finding out that Louise is coming home, he thinks: “I’ll go back and go to bed, in the morning I’ll write to Louise and in the evening go to Confession: the day after that God will return to me in a priest’s hands: life will be simple again” (186). However, moments after considering this, Scobie goes to Helen’s hut and renews their relationship.

Scobie is profoundly torn between his earthly love and his spiritual love, which becomes clear when he writes to Helen: “I love you more than myself, more than my wife, more than God I think” (181). Right afterwards, he wonders what compelled him to write those words. He whispers, “O God, I have deserted you. Do not desert me” (181). Scobie’s relationship with God is complex because he does not appear to be fully aware of what it entails. He spends most of the novel vacillating between a lack of faith and the desire to obey God’s commands. He tries to say the Lord’s Prayer but cannot, then he wishes for death and thinks of suicide as he washes down aspirin. Scobie refrains from taking his own life because suicide is “the unforgivable sin, the final expression of an unrepentant despair” (190). The broken rosary (which first appears in this section) is a potent symbol of Scobie’s fractured faith.