“Prince of Darkness” concerns the conflict between spiritual and material values in a priest who has followed a false vocation, become morally impoverished, and failed in his duty to both humanity and God. The key question, raised by the archbishop, is this: Where is the devil today? He answers that the devil is within us. Like Satan in Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus (1592) and in John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), Burner is damned and lives in his own earthly hell.
Author J. F. Powers subtly suggests, however, that Burner is not all evil and even has some redeeming features. He is slightly repelled by Tracy’s insurance pitch and thinks of him as a buzzard. He feels sorry for the mother whose son’s star is missing from the church servicemen’s flag. He buys hamburgers for the eighth-grade boys, is touched by a lad’s desire to be a priest (“like you, Father”), and wants to spare him the terrible fate of a false vocation. He is embarrassed by the child’s reluctance to name the seventh sin of Gluttony. He is saddened to have to disappoint (once again) his aged mother, who hoped to be the housekeeper in his own parish. He is thankful for the example—if not the advice and judgment—of the exemplary archbishop. The archbishop (who quotes Matthew 10:34, “I come not to send peace, but a sword”), has disturbed his complacency and forced him to look within himself. If he heeds the archbishop’s warnings, he may still be saved.