Study Guide

The Keys of the Kingdom

by A. J. Cronin

The Keys of the Kingdom Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Utilizing his great narrative powers and ability to show the panoramic side of China, A. J. Cronin offers his view of the fulfilled religious life as exemplified by the mind and heart of Father Francis Chisolm, a Scottish Parish priest who spends the greater part of his life as a missionary in China. The complications in the novel mainly arise for Francis, who, despite his powerful faith, is a self-doubter and a believer in religious toleration.

Cronin begins the novel almost at the very end, when Francis, now an old, worn-out man in his sixties, has returned to Scotland as a parish priest after more than thirty years of being a missionary in China. He has taken on the burden of rearing Andrew, the grandson of his childhood love, Nora Bannon, as no one else wants the boy, and Francis faces retirement at the hands of his superiors in the Catholic Church, men whom he has failed to impress despite his many years of loyal and dedicated service. Monsignor Sleeth, Francis’ immediate superior, is, at this point, all for forcing Francis’ retirement.

The remainder of the novel, until the very end, is a flashback detailing Francis’ life. It begins with his childhood as the son of pious parents who die because of their religious faith and love for each other. Francis then lives a life reminiscent of the novels of Charles Dickens, filled with privation, poverty, and suffering at the hands of unsympathetic relatives until he is rescued by Aunt Polly, his benefactor throughout his life.

Despite finding his vocation in the Church, Francis suffers much uncertainty, which makes his superiors think that perhaps he is not fit to be a priest. Bishop Hamish McNabb,...

(The entire section is 691 words.)

The Keys of the Kingdom Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

As the book begins, Father Francis Chisholm’s quiet rectory life in Tweedside, Scotland, is interrupted by Monsignor Sleeth’s visit to inform him that the bishop would like him to retire. Younger by far and absolutely impatient, Sleeth does not understand why Father Francis does not jump at the chance to move elsewhere, but the older man hopes to remain at Saint Columba’s parish. However, while he is popular with his parishioners and deeply spiritual, his parish business affairs are in a muddle. He has no head for numbers and forgets to pay bills. Father Francis takes a moment to look out the window and thinks it was only yesterday that he was a young boy living a serene life in Scotland in the care of his loving parents.

Francis recalls how the death of his parents one stormy night left him an orphan, and he suffered greatly as a consequence. One stormy night, Protestants beat up his Catholic fisherman father, and after the fisherman’s wife comes to collect him, she decides to take a shortcut home so that he can get into bed sooner. However, they both perish while crossing a bridge in the storm. The young Francis is sent to his grandfather’s house, a Protestant house, where he is not loved by Mrs. Glennie and her young son, Malcolm. He is starved and sent to work at age twelve. After he gets pleurisy, a doctor writes to his beloved Aunt Polly, and she comes to rescue him. His life changes from this day on, and he flourishes with his new family, which includes Polly; her husband, Ned; and Ned’s niece, Nora. He also becomes a brilliant student. Francis and Nora become inseparable friends until he leaves for Holywell College, where it is hoped fervently by Aunt Polly that he will discover a vocation to become a priest.

Francis, however, cannot commit to being a priest because of his feelings for Nora. One day he receives a letter from Polly begging him not to come home for the holidays, but he returns anyway. He finds a severely emaciated Ned in bed, the family pub having been taken over by the disagreeable Gilfoyle, who announces to Francis his engagement to Nora. Nora has changed dramatically, and the family works to hide from Francis the fact that she has an illegitimate daughter named Judy, who was not fathered by Gilfoyle and whom she does not love. Francis wants to help but feels helpless. One day, Nora and Polly go to town, and Nora...

(The entire section is 969 words.)