Themes and Meanings

The story provides a convincing dramatization of the moral complexity of life, even for someone as saintly as Father Macdowell. As an elderly priest who is well acquainted with the stratagems by which people seek to excuse wrongdoing, Father Macdowell would certainly agree with the maxim that the ends do not justify the means. Hence, it is ironic, if somewhat comic, that the priest is forced into a mild deception in order to carry out his mission of mercy.

Thematically more interesting is the story’s contrast between priestly and conjugal love. In Father Macdowell’s scale of values, love of God is preeminent. Although he does not overlook or despise the temporal world, his eyes are fixed on eternity. There is something both wonderful and frightening about this single-mindedness. He is a kind and tolerant priest. However, he allows nothing to stand in his way when it comes to the dictates of his religion.

Contrasted with his love for God is the love of John and Elsa for each other. There is something both wonderful and frightening about this love as well. It has the power to transform and enrich human life. They, however, have made gods of each other, and this exclusive devotion seems destined for tragedy, given human frailty and limitations. Thus, there is considerable insight into complex human emotions in this story, which at first glance might appear to be no more than an anecdote about an ordinary incident in a priest’s life.