Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The novel focuses primarily on the priest’s conflict between sensual and spiritual love. Thus, on one level, the work is primarily a psychological study of the priest’s inner conflict—that is, until near the very end, when the psychological dilemma of Father Dowling becomes elevated to a theological level and the story of Father Dowling’s love becomes an allegorical story of the nature of divine love itself. After the bishop accuses Father Dowling of allowing his love for the girls to degenerate, to become a purely human love, the young priest reaches an epiphany in which he ponders that God could not have loved them except for themselves. Thus, his realization is that it is only through human love that the spiritual can be reached. With a rush of marvelous joyfulness, he realizes that through his love of the two girls he is loving the whole world, just as Jesus Christ did.

The symbolic and theological levels of the work begin to coalesce in the last few chapters, when Father Dowling begins his preparation for writing a commentary on the Song of Songs, in which he will show how human love can transcend all earthly things. Thus, a novel that began as a simple psychological and social study of a young priest tempted to forsake his vows of celibacy to answer his sexual desire for two prostitutes develops into an allegorical story about the complex relationship between divine and human love. The ultimate implication of the novel is that spiritual love...

(The entire section is 423 words.)