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  • The Awful Grace of GodPatterns of Liminality in Greene's The Heart of the Matter
  • Mary Ann Melfi (bio)

You think I'll weep;No, I'll not weep.I have full cause of weeping; but this heartShall break into a hundred thousand flawsOr ere I'll weep.

(King Lear 2.4.280–84)

Graham Greene knew the value of pain and grief. A man who experienced bouts of numbing aridity throughout his life, Greene even suggests through Dr. Colin in A Burnt-Out Case that if "God cannot feel disappointment or pain . . . perhaps . . . I don't care to believe in him."1 In The Heart of the Matter Greene creates an unlikely portrait of God in Yusef, the constant and secret friend to Scobie who, in his complicated grief, resists trusting the Syrian.2 It is Yusef, the omniscient accounts keeper who holds everything "in his head," who is at the center of the book, and whose long-suffering bleeding heart is wrenched as Scobie remains frozen in his arrested grief over the death of his small daughter.3 Yusef's name is associated with the passage about the prophet in the Quran, which in translation reads, "Joseph came to you with clear signs, but you never ceased to doubt the message he brought you."4 Yusef reminds Scobie, just as Greene [End Page 83] reminds his readers, that we "have to interpret [the prophet's] words in the modern light" (92). In other words, God's participation in our lives may defy traditional expectations. Greene's suggestion that one cannot "conceive . . . the appalling . . . strangeness of the mercy of God"5 assures us that we can also see Yusef's seemingly criminal machinations in a modern light—as gifts of grace which might cause Scobie finally to weep for the death of his daughter.6 Yet Scobie turns away repeatedly from the enlightenment through suffering that Yusef provides him, and his choice to remain on the edge of consciousness arrests his spiritual development.7

Yusef deals with an insurmountable skepticism in Scobie because, like King Lear, Greene's deputy police commissioner resists vulnerability and therefore growth. The West African coastal country of Sierra Leone mirrors, as so many of Greene's psychological novels do, the terrain of Scobie's mind.8 The rat-infested emptiness and hopelessness of Scobie's "home" is where he "keeps his foothold—on the very edge of a strange continent" (27), that is, on the edge of the metaphorical turf that might remit the gifts of real suffering and full consciousness of his loss. He remains merely on the verge of enlightenment: "Scobie could see the enormous range of the night" but only on the periphery do the "fireflies [signal] to and fro along the edge of the hill" (20). Scobie prefers the dark distractions of poverty, rats, and vermin. He is a boy who remains childlike and defensive, and, like Lear, he will not weep. That Scobie embraces numbness indicates the depth of his protracted and barely conscious grief over the death of his daughter Catherine three years prior to the novel's opening: "Why, he wondered, swerving the car to avoid the dead pye dog, do I love this place so much?" (26).

Sierra Leone is a stultifying wasteland symbolic of Scobie's frozen heart. Though he intellectually realizes that hell "may be a permanent sense of loss" (179), Scobie is in limbo. He has acclimated himself to the abyss. It has become familiar, like home. In this liminal space he avoids his own pain and focuses intensely on that of others. Sweat and fever constantly replace tears in Scobie's life and reveal a twisted [End Page 84] manner in which he exorcises pain without intensity of feeling: "He just couldn't understand . . . bare relations of intimate feeling" (31). Scobie's wound is severe, and Greene reminds us that the "smallest scratch in this country turned green if it were neglected for an hour" (31). Scobie's wound has been neglected for three years. Religious imagery reinforces the ideas that Scobie cannot experience a bleeding heart, that he cannot confess meaningfully the essence of his guilt...


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pp. 83-105
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