Paltry Deities in The Heart of the Matter

Recently, I reread an old college essay I wrote on Graham Greene’s bleak classic, The Heart of the Matter. Immersing myself in thoughts which consumed my every waking hour for a whole semester two years ago, I remembered in a flash how dissatisfied I had been with the resolution of the piece.

Greene’s protagonist Henry Scobie is a policeman at a colonial outpost in Sierra Leone during World War II. Though he is a man of duty and honor, Scobie is joyless, dejected, and despondent. Unhappy in his marriage, Scobie feels trapped in more ways than one as he sticks to his post in a foreign country while war rages beyond the borders. He struggles to see a purpose in his endless fight against immorality and wickedness. Perceiving the suffering of the other wretched souls around him, he fails to identify with their weakness. Instead, he resolves to become their savior and the creator of their happiness.

One thing leads to another and Scobie finds himself enmeshed in an affair with a vulnerable younger woman. This puts Scobie in a terrible fix: he cannot possibly make both his wife and his mistress happy, for the happiness of one necessarily negates the happiness of the other. As this internal conflict mounts to a fever pitch, Scobie pointedly avoids turning to God for answers. Convinced of his own supreme ability to save, Scobie sees the crucified Christ as a weakling deity, just another being requiring Scobie’s effort of pity and love to save Him. Burdened by this self-imposed responsibility for sufferings, both human and divine, Scobie finally decides that he is, himself, causing pain through his sin. Therefore, he resolves to commit suicide to save his wife, his mistress, and his God from all pain. Even as he dies, he hears Christ’s weak cry, begging him to turn back and fulfill God’s need for Scobie’s recalcitrant soul. True to form, Scobie rallies to turn and answer with a salvific profession, “Oh God, I love…” But Scobie dies before completing the phrase.

An obvious question looms paramount in the reader’s mind: Was Scobie’s turn enough to save him? Did Scobie answer the call in time? Or did he reject the salvific pursuer in the end? As a first-time reader, I was stricken with horror at the unfinished quality of Scobie’s journey to redemption. Revisiting the novel now, I am disturbed still more deeply by Greene’s depiction of the nature of God.

Greene’s portrait of human nature is painfully sympathetic. Scobie is as needy and broken as any of the miserable souls he pities, but he is completely blind to his own need. In his own eyes, he is a Savior who has resigned himself to martyrdom, resolving to sacrifice his own happiness to ensure the happiness of others who cannot obtain it themselves. All the while, he is utterly unable to recognize his own insufficiency and ask for help.

Scobie’s inflated self-perception reveals itself when he looks up at a crucifix showing the suffering Christ. He ponders the image critically: “God is too accessible. There is no difficulty in approaching Him…He even suffers in public." Instead of being awed and amazed that an all-powerful King subjected himself to such torture for the salvation of mankind, Scobie sees the suffering figure as just another weakling, broadcasting his need for pity and salvific attention. Scobie scorns this weakness, hating God for willingly subjecting Himself to the violence of men who are every bit as needy as He…and every bit as powerful to save. He decides that it is “cruelly unfair of God to have exposed Himself in this way…allowing man to have his will of Him…to put Himself at the mercy of men who hardly knew the meaning of the word." Scobie sees God’s public display of weakness as an abdication of divine responsibility, which places an unfair requirement on Scobie to come forward and don the divine mantle himself. Having thus relegated God to the position of the needy, Scobie sets himself up as the new sovereign and accepts the Savior’s role, even in relation to God Himself.

Motivated by a final wave of compassion and pity for the suffering Christ, Scobie decides that God needs “saving” from the painful attack of Scobie’s sin. He sees a sudden vision of “the punch-drunk head of God reeling sideways." Imagining his sins as brutal blows to a divine face, Scobie watches God bleed. In this moment, he feels compassion for his miserable opponent. He bemoans his wicked strength and its consequences. Yet his thoughts always focus on his own agency. He murmurs to a passive, vulnerable God: “I’ve killed you. I’ve done this to you. I want to stop giving pain.” Grieved by his obvious power to destroy his Creator, Scobie resolves to remove himself from God’s world through suicide.

While to more optimistic readers this gravity seems to imply a certain penitence or foreshadow a deathbed conversion, Scobie’s attitude in the moment of his death seems to me maddeningly consistent with his initial savior complex. In Scobie’s own eyes, even his rebellious act of suicide becomes a glorious, selfless act. As he dies, he hears the voice of God once more and turns dutifully to respond, but even then the voice seems to him to be weak and desperate, appealing  “in need of him.” He turns to respond with words of comfort and salvation, “Oh God, I love…” but this is nothing more than condescension. He merely acts in accordance with his savior complex from the start of the novel. Though his need is evident to any reader, Scobie remains completely unaware of it to the bitter end of the piece. The absence of a turn, a change in his character, or a humbling of any kind discourages those who hope for Scobie’s redemption.

Yet even as Greene depicts man as arrogant and blind, convinced of his saviorhood despite his need for a Savior, he depicts God as much the same: a creature weak, fallible, and dependent on mankind. Petulant and powerless, this God knocks weakly at the door of man’s heart and calls at the window, begging for pity and waiting on the deathbed choice of man. Even as Scobie’s mortality smothers his life’s spark, he pities this weakling God so needy for attention and respect.

Little as I like to admit it, I identify wholeheartedly with Scobie’s stubborn view of his own state. I too prefer to extend pity to others rather than admit my own need of it. Yet am I not justified in this self-image if Greene’s God is the real one?

If God is to be pitied, if He has willingly put Himself at the mercy of men, who were every bit as needy and every bit as powerful to save, it would then be an abdication of His rightful role and responsibility. If the all-powerful Creator cowers, bloody-faced beneath the blows of his rebellious creatures, someone must rise to fill the governing seat which God left empty. Should we, therefore, hope that Scobie will turn and stoop to save the God of the universe?

And if Greene intended to promote this image of a creature accepting divine responsibility, then why does his protagonist resent and disdain God’s weakness? Why does he who treasures a self-image as the Savior-man not rejoice at the imposition of Godhood on himself? Even Greene’s protagonist seems dissatisfied with this impuissant God.

Did Greene intend for readers too to come away from his book unsettled and unsatisfied? Are we supposed to feel cheated by Scobie’s unfinished profession of love and dissatisfied with his meek, quiet-voiced God? If this was Greene’s intention, then he would be pleased with the consternation he elicited in me. Perhaps Greene only posed these questions to shock readers to attention, showing us our bleak and needy state and urging us to imagine a God greater than Scobie ever envisioned. Maybe he never intended to advocate Scobie’s understanding of God.

Yet here at the Heart of the Matter, I’m left with a staggering sense of the insufficiency of the author's vision concerning God and man. In Scobie’s universe, there seems to be just one species of being: weak, needy, and interdependent. Faced with a God too weak to save even Himself, we finite creatures must take turns at playing the savior. We must be a universe of paltry deities. If each of us depends on our own insufficient powers alone, we must realize that the true salvation we dream of is a fantasy. And if this is truly the case, then we are, of all creatures, most to be pitied. [1]








[1] “And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).