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An Atheist in West Africa

On Reading Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter

Jonathan Russell Clark

April 24, 2015

The Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the Matter

by Graham Greene

Penguin Classics, 2004

In an interview with The Paris Review in 1953, Graham Greene had this to say about his work: “I write about situations that are common, universal might be more correct, in which my characters are involved and from which only faith can redeem them, though often the actual manner of the redemption is not immediately clear.”

Reading Greene's The Heart of the Matter, I find I object to this statement. In fact, I actually think it's the exact reverse. To be sure, the subjects in Greene's masterful novel are universal ones—the complexity of one's faith, the role of pity in our relationships, the suicide question—but as explored by Greene, these topics are given such specificity in Henry Scobie and his surrounding West African colony that any notion of “universality” does not enter into the picture. Scobie's predicament is too uniquely his own, too drenched in the rains of West Africa, for us to extrapolate it for our own comparisons. On the whole, Scobie's dilemma is not mine. Especially since I am not a Catholic.

But the real part of the quote that bothers me is this: “...from which only faith can redeem them...” How does an atheist approach a novel by a Catholic, albeit a less than strict one? Or maybe the better question is: Can I write about The Heart of the Matter and see only what I wish to see, authorial intention be damned? Countless pages have been dedicated to the role (or lack thereof) of the author in a text's interpretation, but what do I do in this instance? Greene's Catholicism is notorious (we even know the date he converted: 1926), and as a consequence his novels have always been viewed through a religious lens. Though he objected to this analysis of his fiction (“I am a writer who is a Catholic,” he said once, syllogistically employing the cliché happens to be), it would be impossible not to acknowledge that the characters (and certainly the novelist) at least believed in God enough to worry about their eternal damnation. Whether it is Catholic or Protestant or some hybrid form, it's still theist, and that still gives me analytical pause. Because what I'm reading and what I know Greene intended are just completely antithetical.

To explain a little further (I'm getting a bit worked up here): The Heart of the Matter introduces us to Scobie, the Deputy Commissioner in West Africa. At almost fifty, he's become resigned to his life with Louise, with whom he has a relationship that can be summed up thusly: “The less he needed Louise the more conscious he became of his responsibility for her happiness.” He doesn't love her, but pity spurs him on. His police work is the only thing in his life that he values, and he hopes to die doing it, even going so far as to set up his life insurance to be “payable only on death.” No golden years playing shuffleboard with Louise for him. And when Louise flees the rain and heat of the colony for more temperate climates, Scobie enters into an affair with a young widow. He then experiences guilt in extreme proportions. He believes, in effect, that he has doomed himself to hell. But so strong is his pity (now for Helen, the widow, too) that he would rather ensure the happiness of his wife and his mistress than save himself from eternal punishment.

Scobie's religious crisis is the crux of the novel, and it is this fact that begins to separate me the atheist from Greene the Catholic. For him, as he said, “only faith” can save Scobie, but looking at his situation, I reach a completely different conclusion: that it is faith that got him into the situation in the first place. The Heart of the Matter, if you'll follow my thread for a bit, can be read as a didactic story against religion, for much of Scobie's misery stems from his beliefs, and since his moral dilemma seems relatively banal in the face of an ethically corrupt world, faith here functions more like a villain than a potential savior. After all, Scobie's worst crime is having an affair. Not exactly devil's work, right? And more, he doesn't even love the spouse on whom he's cheating. Helen, the fragile widow, provides the weary Deputy Commissioner with some much-needed intimacy. Without the supreme hindrance of faith, Scobie would be able to recognize the situation for what it is—a hefty push for him to leave his wife and be with his mistress. He wouldn't be happily-ever-after or anything, but he would surely rid himself of the burden of perpetually ensuring his wife's happiness. Granted, I've reduced a complicated emotional struggle down to simple edicts—goodness knows how difficult it is to leave a spouse, especially one who elicits such strong pity—but Scobie's knack for elevating his personal turmoil to biblical proportions prevents him from seeing everything from this human (i.e., secular) point of view. Instead, he worries about Hell, and that's the whole problem.

George Orwell questions Scobie's sudden shift into moral ambiguity, wondering why, at fifty, he breaks his heretofore-unbroken code of ethics. If Scobie had it in him to act shadily, Orwell argues, then he would have done it long before turning a half-century. I don't entirely agree with this criticism, for Scobie's descent is depicted with subtlety and nuance. Here is a man stuck in a loveless marriage, in a thankless job and a winterless colony. The only promising outcome of his marriage—a daughter—was taken from him, a fact he learned about from a telegram. But in particular, the event that leads to Scobie’s so-called descent contradicts Orwell’s criticism. While inspecting a cargo boat moored in the docks, Scobie finds a letter the captain had written to his (the captain’s) daughter. Though such correspondence is illegal, Scobie does not turn the man in. This moment initiates Scobie's moral fall, but his choice is fully justifiable and, more importantly, understandable. Thus, we witness the slow process of his own undoing, initiated, appropriately, by the love of a man for his daughter. Scobie's resignation, by this point in his life, has worn him down, and his desire for peace has grown. Fifty can be viewed as a turning point in a person's life, and for Scobie, the turn ignites a search for calm and simplicity, something his obligations have been preventing him from obtaining. It is Scobie's ethics, in a sense, that have been keeping him unhappy; thus, it is his ethics that must change.

More accurately, though, it is his religion that is causing him such misery. Would Scobie believe with such ferocity that he's destined for Hell if he didn't subscribe to a religion? Would he struggle so helplessly? Would he, as he does, take his own life? It could be argued that religion in Scobie's case functions as a scapegoat for his own cowardice, that it is not really the Hell of Satan that Scobie worries about, but the hell of Louise's unhappiness. But even if this were true, would Scobie look to suicide as a viable recourse if he didn't have such a perfect stand-in? Religion's dexterity (i.e., that it can mold and shape itself to any outlook and thus legitimize said outlook by virtue of “divine” origins) is its most important trait, and without it Scobie would have to face his own spinelessness. After all, this is all over a breakup.

But the larger issue here remains: how are atheists to analyze literature that so clearly has a religious bent? Are we staying true to the work if we bend its meaning (like religion so often does) to our own beliefs? Or must we acknowledge the religious content of the book and ignore our own interpretations? For scholarship, I think the answer is clear, but for the emotional experience of reading a novel, for the sheer joy of following a character through turmoil and crisis—are we to ignore meaning that we find in its pages, even if it may be antithetical to the book's aim?

As far back as the Sophists in ancient Greece, people have understood the duality of all things: “To put the matter generally, all things are seemly when done at the right moment, but shameful when done at the wrong moment.” So says the anonymous author of Dissoi Logoi, and I think this aptly summarizes my feeling about this topic. Sometimes it gets to me and sometimes it doesn't. I can never really know. When I read Flannery O'Connor's “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” I cannot see past the religious implications, especially the moment when the grandmother says to the Misfit, “You're one of my own children,” and he springs back “as if a snake had bitten him.” Coming as it does at the end of the story, this line spoils everything for me, limiting the emotional impact. Or when I read Anna Karenina, it's impossible for me not to see Tolstoy's hand in granting Levin a happy marriage and a quiet, lovely life and condemning Anna to the smash of the train. And when I read The Heart of the Matter, it's hard for me not to see the novel's plot pointing to the opposite conclusion than what the author so clearly means to espouse.

No matter how well-written or well-acclaimed a work is, there is a component to reading that is so often unacknowledged—namely, that our own views and situations affect our experience of literature. After all, literature is a conversation, a kind of dialectic, in which ideas and emotions are explored. We cannot ignore our own beliefs as we read, which means that, though a novel may be popular, influential, or in some sense important, sometimes it is impossible not to become blocked by what we perceive to be its meaning. Now, of course I don't mean that I can only enjoy novels written by and about atheists—I still love Anna Karenina. I only mean to say that philosophical agreement goes a lot farther than critics often give it credit for.

Religion is storytelling, and storytelling can be like a religion, with tales told to investigate the many quandaries of human experience. The difference, though, is immense: fiction acknowledges its artifice. There's no need for transcendent truth. In fact, by wearing its fictive nature on its sleeve, storytelling does religion one better: it allows us to see ourselves in the story, find where it aligns and where it doesn't, and go off and create our own stories, ones that are no less true than those that inspired us to make them.


Jonathan Russell Clark is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review and The Millions. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, The Atlantic, LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, Chautauqua, PANK, and numerous others. For more, visit jonathanrussellclark.com or follow him @jrc2666.