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Heart of the Matter, The

Heart of Darkness, The Heart of the Matter, A Bishop among the Bantus

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: William Hart-Smith Biography to Sir John [Frederick William] Herschel Biography

a novel by Graham Greene, published in 1948, set in West Africa, where Greene worked for British Intelligence during the Second World War. Greene's title echoes Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, though his novel shows Africa not as a dark continent so much as one suffused with the greyness he sees as universally part of human nature. Its stale, sticky background of vultures, rats, and cockroaches reflects and extends loneliness and despair in a snobbish, bickering society of colonial administrators. Only the assistant police commissioner, ‘Scobie the just’, tries to live by black-and-white moral principles. He is destroyed by the attempt, driven to suicide by compromised religious beliefs and his ‘terrible sense of responsibility’—for his lover Helen Rolt, a young widow from a torpedoed ship; and for his wife Louise, whose unhappiness drives him to borrow from the corrupt Syrian trader Yusef, who blackmails him. The Heart of the Matter is part of a phase of strong Catholic interest in Greene's writing, and there has been much debate about whether Scobie's mortal sins truly exclude him from God's mercy. Greene has disclaimed interest in the issue: like most of his fiction, the novel is concerned less with orthodox doctrines and ideals than with their tension with ordinary nature under the pressures of modern history. This is emphasized by a scene in which Scobie finds that the only reading material available to entertain another young victim of the torpedoing is the outdated, idealistic missionary tract A Bishop among the Bantus. He transforms it into a racy tale of betrayal and detection in which the secret agent A. Bishop pursues bloodthirsty ‘Bantu’ pirates. The episode is paradigmatic of Greene's fiction: like Scobie, he challenges and reshapes conventional concepts of virtue and heroism, also showing in this novel the pride—even foolishness—as well as courage of trying to adhere to them at all in an uncertain, unfaithful age.

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