Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 941
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 José, however, who has married and accepted the life of a grotesque buffoon, mocked by the children, the whisky priest is redeemed by his keen sense of responsibility for his sins and for the suffering he has brought upon others. His purgatory is in Mexico, in his years of flight, and especially in the torment of his own conscience.
He accepts his loss of peace in the belief that the only reason God denies him rest is so “he could still be of use in saving a soul, his or another’s.” After he sees his daughter, Brigida, his love and sense of responsibility for this child and her blighted innocence overwhelm him. An illegitimate child with the hunted alcoholic priest as her father, she appears to have lost her innocence prematurely and has little hope for joy in the world. Through her—and, ironically, through the sin out of which she was conceived—he finds his salvation. He knows that the love he feels for his daughter should encompass every soul in the world, but “all the fear and the wish to save [are] concentrated unjustly on the one child.” His final recognition that sainthood is the most important destiny for a Christian suggests that he has achieved a form of saintly martyrdom himself.
The lieutenant, on the other hand, is a diminished figure at the end of the novel. For one thing, once the obsession with the hunt has been satisfied, “He felt without a purpose, as if life had drained out of the world.” The child Luis, who earlier had admired him, now hates him, suggesting the lieutenant’s and the state’s failure to win the sympathy of the youth through violent social revolution.
In the providential plan of the novel, the lieutenant’s hunt for and persecution of the priest turns the priest into a martyr in the eyes of the people. The lieutenant hates the rich and loves the poor, he says, but he cannot understand or tolerate pain. He wants to let his heart speak “at the end of a gun,” if necessary, to bring about a social utopia.
To be sure, the whisky priest is a Greene saint, not a Saint Francis or a Saint Anthony whose life shines in the legends of selfless, charitable actions. Greene undercuts any sentimentality in his hero. The daughter he prays and dies for is doomed: “The world was in her heart already, like the small spot of decay in a fruit.” His final prayer is spoken with brandy on his lips. It is the priest’s humanity, however, that Greene celebrates, in contrast with the abstract compulsion of the lieutenant “who cared only for things like the state, the republic.”
The novel concludes with a mysterious stranger knocking at the door of Luis’ home. The stranger identifies himself as a priest, and Luis “put his lips to his hand before the other could give himself a name.” The fugitive Church, the reader is thus assured, continues to be a vital presence in Mexico and will survive the oppression. Greene’s fable of the conflict between spirituality and materialism, between the individual and the state, between love and hatred, comes full circle. Like the phoenix, the Catholic Church rises out of the ashes of its martyrs to challenge desperate measures of a godless state.