Surprise-Graham Greene’s Turn of a Phrase

What stood out to me in Graham Greene’s novel The Heart of the Matter was the unique turns of phrase throughout the book. These phrases had an expected twist or comparison that upon closer examination reveal more about the characters or setting.

The first unexpected comparison dealt with Wilson’s secret love of poetry. In the novel, Greene compares Wilson’s reading of poetry to illicit drug use—both are done in secret, with the disclaimer that the poetry is taken in small doses (Greene 4). Drug use has a negative connotation to it; comparing it with poetry reading is unexpected since poetry reading is seen as civilized behavior. Wilson, a government employee, has a reputation no better than a drug user because he’s real job is to spy on his fellow workers.

Prison is another subject of an unexpected comparison. Major Henry Scobie’s (a policeman) assistant Ali has spent time in prison, which Scobie dismisses because “[t]here is no disgrace about prison; it was an obstacle that no one could avoid forever” (14). While that may be the common sentiment at this particular West African coastal town, the attitude expressed by Scobie is unexpected because most people do avoid prison forever and see imprisonment as more than just an obstacle. A prison term here is expected and no one is looked down upon for having done some prison time; one could even surmise that if a local hasn’t done prison time it’s because the authorities aren’t smart enough to catch him in an illegal act. It’s a turn on the common perception of prison, all the more unexpected because it comes from an officer of the law.

A dark sense of humor is also present in these unexpected phrases. At one point in the novel, a group of civilians is rescued after forty days at sea in open boats, after their ship is sunk by the Germans. Some of the survivors, elderly men, are described as “cannon fodder for such occasions: elderly men with the appearance of plumbers who might have been brothers if they had not been called Forbes and Newell” (105). Describing survivors of a deliberate sinking as ‘cannon fodder’ is dark; seeing them as not very different from each other lumps them together and seems to make them less sympathetic; maybe another way to impersonalize the war.

Greene’s use of metaphors and the unique turn of phrase reveal much about his characters and the small, isolated part of the British Empire in which they live. Using unique metaphors and comparisons is a different way to reveal much about the characters in a novel because the reader is forced to really think about the unusual pairing of words. It’s a tricky way to reveal a character—an author must have the ability to pull it off without coming across as trite or trying too hard to be clever. Failure to pull off this type of comparison draws attention to the author and detracts from the story, but not in Greene’s novel.

Greene, Graham. The Heart of the Matter. New York: Penguin Books, 1976. Print.


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