The Power and the Glory is one of the most powerful of Graham Greene’s novels, and many critics consider it his finest. The story arose from Greene’s journey through Tabasco and Chiapas in 1938. President Plutarco Elías Calles, in the name of revolution, had closed the churches and exiled and murdered priests and practicing Catholics. In Greene’s journalistic account of his visit, The Lawless Roads (1938), he describes characters and settings that reappear and form the basis of his novel.
The theme of the hunted man establishes an exciting and nightmarish atmosphere to this novel and makes it a thriller. Greene has, moreover, created characters who are at once human and symbolic. The priest and the lieutenant embody the extreme dualism in the human spirit: godliness versus godlessness, love versus hatred, spirituality versus materialism, concern for the individual versus concern for the state. After the lieutenant captures the priest, Greene provides an extended dialogue between these two figures that forms a disputation that lies at the heart of his parable of good and evil.
The lieutenant is the antithesis of the priest, but ironically his obsession with the hunt and with the task of eradicating all traces of Catholicism from his country leads him to live a life that is ironically priestlike. His simple lodgings, for example, are described as “comfortless as a prison or a monastic cell.” Like the priest, he has an abiding concern for the children and the suffering poor.
The priest, who has endured pain, anxiety, and guilt for years, recognizes in his suffering the purposeful presence of God’s love: “It might even look like—hate. It would be enough to scare us—God’s love.” This philosophic insight is hard won. The priest is keenly aware of his weakness and failure as a man and as a priest. An alcoholic, a scandalous priest with an illegitimate child, a man terrified of pain and death, he harbors no illusions about himself. It is, in fact, his self-knowledge that raises him to the level of the heroic.
When he is in prison for possessing brandy, he tells one of the pious inmates who thinks he is a martyr, “My children, you must never think the holy martyrs are like me. . . . I am a whisky priest.” Unlike Father...
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