Published:  01:43 AM, 27 July 2017

Why did Henry Scobie commit suicide?

Why did Henry Scobie commit suicide? Trevor Howard and Maria Schell in a 1953 English movie named, 'The Heart of the Matter' adapted from the same name novel by Graham Greene.

Graham Greene (1904 -1991), the British Nobel Laureate novelist wrote a number of remarkable novels of which The Heart of the Matter (1948) is one.  His other notable novels are The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, The Quiet American and The Human Factor. In this intercontinental novel, Africa and England have been involved in the plot.

The action of the novel takes place in West Africa, in Sierra Leone, to be more specific. It is in Freetown where the central protagonist Major Henry Scobie is stationed as a British Intelligent Officer during World War II. As a high ranked police officer his principal role is to supervise the movement of in-coming and out-going ships in order to check and control contraband items smuggled in or out.

Henry Scobie lived there with his wife Louise whom he did not love but performed all possible things for making her happy. Their daughter Catherine died nine years back while they were in England. Their love started dwindling since their daughter Catherine died and presently reached the zero level.

In another sub-plot we see that Edward Wilson, a new Inspector of Police arrives and falls in love with Louise though she does not reciprocate his advances.  As a matter of fact Wilson is a British spy who keeps eye on things happening around.

In another episode Henry develops an affair with Helen Rolt, a widow, whom he brought home after a shipwreck. In the beginning he took her for his daughter as she reminds him of her, but the relation takes a different turn as they get involved in passionate love. Understanding her dull relation with Henry, Louise proposes that she should be sent to South Africa to live with some of her relatives there.

He noticed that Louise was secretly contemplating suicide that worried him greatly. Now Henry tried to arrange money (two hundred pounds) for her passage by taking a loan from the bank. But his loan application was not granted. So he accepted a loan from Yusef, a local Syrian trader and sent Louise to South Africa.  But Ali, Henry"s home servant delivered a letter addressed to Helen to Yusef, who used the letter as a tool for blackmailing Henry comfortably.

On Louise' unexpected return from South Africa, Henry Scobie was greatly surprised but adopted the highest caution in order to keep his Helen affair secret from Louise's eye. He started attending the Church regularly but perfunctorily. Their relation got no progress; so Henry suffered from a deep sense of guilt that he was involved in an adulterous and clandestine affair with Helen.

In the mean time Ali, 15-year long trusted boy was murdered through the machination of Yusef to whom Henry once complained against the boy's loyalty. Under the heavy burden of self-accused charges Henry suffered from inordinate compunction that he was partially responsible for Ali's death.  

Finding no alternative way Henry contemplated suicide that was induced by his knowledge of Pemberton who committed suicide as he failed to repay a loan from Yusef.  In the last event Henry committed suicide by taking extraordinary doze of medicine that he used to take for heart ailment. When   Louise met Father Rank, the local church priest, the Father said that Henry committed suicide perhaps because he loved God more than Louise or even himself.

Here we see that Henry was a clear-hearted man whose conscience operated innocuously and in an upright style. He did not love Louise but was extraordinarily careful of wife's comfort and happiness. His sufferings were multiple; he held himself responsible for being unable to love Louise but maintained an adulterous relation with Helen. In addition he felt that Ali's death was caused by him though indirectly.

He also felt that his soul could not be salvaged as per the Catholic creeds. He was so clear-sighted that he saw himself a sinner because of the mentioned reasons of which he could not find any light of hope for salvation. His greatest sin was his adulterous affairs with Helen whom he took for his dead Catherine but turned it to sex-based relation. He could not excuse himself of the sin.

Henry Scobie felt that his married wife Louise had the valid claim over his love; nobody else had any such right, so his indomitable passion for Helen was just illegitimate. This sense of guilt came over him as an unbearable burden against which he had to punish himself. His right sense of justice could not excuse himself as he knew that a mistress could not be replaced by a daughter.

The other accusation that he felt was that he deprived Louise of her rightful due. Henry being over conscious of his duties and responsibilities could not console himself that he was free from charges only as he performed things for Louise's worldly comforts and pleasures. He escaped from his holiest duty to give his genuine love to Louise that could not be substituted by any other commodity in life. In his judgment it was all act of utter fraudulence  with Louise.

Henry's acute sense of crime added as he charged himself of a subtle share in killing Ali. He never asked Yusef to kill him (Ali) but Yusef got it done of his own; as a result Henry suffered more bitterly because Yusef committed to protect Ali but treacherously got him killed. Henry felt as if he induced Yusef for killing Ali. He felt it an act of blatant treachery because the boy had a bond of long-time loyalty and love.

The killing of Ali appeared a murder of innocence, loyalty, love and humanity.  Henry did not count Ali's handing over the letter to Yusef and some information about his viewing some objectionable scene of Henry's embracing Helen. In comparison Ali's offense was far little than that of Henry as Henry judged it.  

The other factor that promoted Henry's intention for suicide was his knowledge of Pemberton's suicide. He would perhaps never think of following Pemberton's path had there been no precedence done by Pemberton. We see that it was all a case of self-accusation ad self judgment that Henry decided to commit suicide.

The novelist Graham Greene considered Henry a weak character burdened with clear conscience added to utter pity for fellow beings. A man of such moral and neurological constitution paves his way to ruin where we search for reasons but fail to find it.    


The writer is a professor of English at Deffodil International University, Dhaka

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