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.)