The Power and the Glory
The Power and the Glory
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in Mexico in the 1930s; first published in 1940.
An unnamed priest struggles with fear and a sense of unworthiness in a region of Mexico where it is a capital offense to function as a priest. Pursued by a relentless police lieutenant, the priest ultimately meets with a dire fate.
Born in 1904, Graham Greene grew up in a world where duty, tradition, and moral virtue were primary emphases in a boy’s upbringing. His father, Charles Greene, was headmaster of a well-regarded boarding school that Greene attended. Young Graham was expected not only to exhibit exemplary behavior, but to inform his father when his fellow pupils misbehaved—that is, engaged in sexual vice. Charles Greene believed masturbation to be a physically degenerative act that would lead boys to perdition. Offenders were summarily expelled. In this stifling atmosphere, the son rapidly learned to be quiet and unobtrusive—secretive, even. This behavior continued in his university career at Oxford, where Greene entertained German spies in his room. Indeed, many of his relatives (and Greene himself) engaged in more or less regular professional spycraft. Greene did a fair amount of professional spy work, in an official capacity during the Second World War and as a freelance agent-for-hire well into the 1970s. If it was unusual for a novelist to serve as a paid intelligence agent, it was not unusual for a novelist to write about spies, which Greene did throughout his life. Some of his novels were bald thrillers, others more serious stories, but virtually all of them featured deeply troubled protagonists in the throes of moral dilemma, personal treachery, and tortured religious identity. Greene converted to Roman Catholicism in 1926, and Catholic themes of good and evil, guilt and redemption, and the nature of faith appear in many of his novels, including Brighton Rock (1938), The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948), The End of the Affair (1951), A Burnt-Out Case (1961), and Monsignor Quixote (1982). The Power and the Glory stands out as Greene’s most single-mindedly Catholic novel, leaving other favorite topics (politics, espionage, and adultery) aside, as the protagonist struggles with the most basic elements of his faith.
After a period of intermittent civil war (c. 1867—76) under the progressive but ineffectual president Benito Ju&arez, the infamous Porfirio D&az seized power in 1876, maintaining an iron control over Mexico until 1910. The length and stability of Diaz’s regime were unprecedented in Mexican political history. First a fighter for reform, he later became a dictator who monopolized power for his own sake. Lower-class Mexicans grew poorer during Diaz’s regime, many losing their lands because of legal maneuvering. Mexico grew ripe for rebellion, and in 1910 it descended into a state of unrest and revolution from which it would not emerge for 30 years.
It is perhaps a misnomer to speak of “the” Mexican Revolution; it was actually a series of insurrections, civil wars, guerrilla campaigns, and regional conflicts, punctuated by various periods of anarchy and relative peace. The principal characters were multiple, and they had wildly varying motives and goals. In 1924, after a series of rebellions, counter-rebellions, and assassinations, the presidency fell to Plutarco Calles, the architect of the Mexican socialist revolutionary state. Calles energetically furthered the process of wresting control of the country from the wealthy landowners, but he was no humanitarian—his methods were brutal and oppressive, and he and his supporters profited handsomely from the new order. He campaigned vigorously against the Catholic Church, doing his utmost to eliminate it entirely from Mexican society. This provoked a series of uprisings by forces loyal to the Church, and much blood was shed on both sides. Called had to leave office in 1928 (the constitution allowed for one four-year term, with no provision for reelection), and Alvaro 0brégon had his eye on the job. He was elected but was then assassinated before he could take office. Pascual Rubio was elected to replace Obrég’on, but Called remained in the background, taking the title o& Jefe Maximum (Supreme Chief) and continuing to exercise power. Disgusted with Calles’s interference, Rubio resigned in 1932, and Abelardo Rodriguez was appointed to finish Rubio’s term. The year 1934 saw the inauguration of L&azaro C&árdenas, a capable army general; he succeeded in expelling Calles from the country in 1936. In a bold move that carried his predecessors’ socialist programs into uncharted waters, C&árdenas in 1938 seized all foreign-owned oil companies operating in Mexico these firms had long flouted Mexico’s labor laws. The last major rebellion was suppressed in 1938, and in 1940 C&árdenas peacefully and voluntarily left office. Political stability had returned to Mexico.
The Power and the Glory is not a political novel, nor does it concern it self much with the issues that drove the Mexican Revolution (with the notable exception of the campaign against the Catholic Church). Nevertheless, the Revolution is the situational context of the story, and it provides the motivation for one of its main characters, the lieutenant; without revolutionary ideology, he could not exist. In how revolutionary ideals are personified in a pure and uncorrupted form; the revolutionary leaders were often ambitious, treacherous, vain, and rapacious, but the lieutenant is none of these things. His firm belief in the program of national reform is supported by a fundamentally principled and honest disposition. He pursues the priest not because he will profit by his capture, but because he firmly believes that priests are a threat to the revolution. He succeeds in attaining his object, but other revolutionary programs are depicted as failures in the novel because they are under the control of unprincipled, self-seeking men. For example, liquor was outlawed by the government because alcohol abuse was viewed as a social evil. The law, however, was ineffectual because smuggling and the illegal sale of liquor are common practices; in the novel, the cousin of the governor is happy to sell brandy to the priest. In a more general sense, the overall revolutionary goals of establishing and maintaining equality, peace, and contentment among the people, of ensuring the availability of food and education for all, are not met. Instead there is rampant hunger, profiteering, cronyism, and bullying by the police. To whatever degree the Mexican Revolution might ultimately achieve anything, little progress had been made by the time the novel takes place.
The Church vs. the state
The long history of anticlericalism in Mexico began in 1857, with the ascendancy of Benito Ju&arez. In that year and under his direction, Mexico issued a new constitution that sought to break the awesome power of the Catholic Church—a power that had almost invariably maintained a staunch alliance with conservative political interests and the landed aristocracy. Some provisions of the constitution seem quite modest to twenty-first-century ears: It promised freedom of religion, the recognition of civil marriages, and the establishment of free public schools. Other provisions were more extreme: the constitution mandated that the extensive landholdings of the Church be nationalized, Church schools be closed, the income of the Church be subject to taxation, and the activity of the clergy be suppressed. The degree to which these provisions were enacted and the length of time they were observed varied from region to region. During the presidency of Porfirio D&az (1876-1911), they were ignored almost completely. By 1911, the Church had reacquired vast real-estate holdings, enjoyed a virtual monopoly on quality education, and wielded considerable political influence. In short order, this would change radically.
The constitution issued by the administration of President Carranza in 1917 decreed that the Church be entirely subject to state control. This was in keeping with the revolutionary ideology that informed his presidency; socialist movements worldwide (Mexico was no exception) saw religious establishments as obstacles to their quest for political supremacy and as vast holders of land and wealth to be plundered and redistributed. Faced with such a threat, the Church in Mexico allied itself with conservative politics and the wealthy landowning classes and declared itself an implacable enemy of the revolution from the beginning. Mexico’s 1917 constitution consequently enacted strong anticlerical legislation designed to break the Church’s power and hold over the people. The Church was forbidden to operate schools of any kind and was deprived of its legal status as an institution: it could not own property, take legal action, collect revenues, or receive a legacy in a will; in short, in the eyes of the government, it ceased to exist. As a result of this official stance, parochial schools, convents, monasteries, seminaries, and churches were closed and despoiled of their property and furnishings. What was once the Church became simply a group of individuals, whose activities were severely regulated by a series of complex laws that were often overlapping and contradictory. Public religious activity was outlawed; active clergymen had to be of Mexican birth; and if they were of Mexican birth, they lost their citizenship. Though these measures were far more draconian than those promulgated by Ju&arez, the degree of their enforcement varied from state to state and from year to year. In some regions the Church was effectively wiped out; in others it simply had to keep a very low profile. The presidency of Calles (1924—28) saw a renewed wave of persecution; the laws of 1917 began to be more strictly enforced, and many priests lost their lives. Finally driven to armed insurrection, supporters of the Church, who called themselves
CALLES AND THE CHURCH
Calles has been described as inconsistently ruthless. As president, he upheld the rights ot the Indian masses but was an oppressor of the Yaquis Indians. He formed strong political ties with organized labor, but he struck out at workers who went on strike at a friend’s mine in Sonora, having them machine gunned. He was a rich man but hated the rich. He was large landowner but condemned landowners as a class. In two things he was consistent. One was his abiding enmily for the Catholic Church. The other was the ¿eal with which he pul down real or suspected opposiliort.
(Johnson, pp. 279-BO]
Cristeros, began an organized challenge to the authority of the government. Shouting their battle cry of “Viva Cristo Rey” (“Long live Christ the King”), they seized partial control of a number of states, including Jalisco, Colima, Michoac&an, Zacatecas, and Nayarit. At one point there were 50,000 Cristeros in the field, and the government army only escaped being overwhelmed with difficulty. Cristeros also engaged in guerrilla activity, such as blowing up trains full of government soldiers. In the end, appalling atrocities were committed by both sides; the uprising claimed 80,000 Mexican lives.
The rebellion subsided when the government relaxed enforcement of some of the more restrictive anticlerical measures, but Calles and his successors in the 1930s never failed to suppress and oppress Church activity and clergy when the opportunity arose. As before, the level of persecution varied by state. In some states, such as Tabasco (the model for the unnamed state in which The Power and the Glory is set), religious activity was driven almost completely underground, and priests were regularly hunted down and killed. Such extreme measures more or less ceased with the renewed stability that came with the peaceful transfer of power in 1940, but several decades passed before the Church was fully integrated back into Mexican society.
Part 1 of the novel opens in a city in 1930s revolutionary Mexico. The Catholic Church has been suppressed, and the socialist government now wields moral authority. Liquor is banned outright, and even beer is a government monopoly, sold at a prohibitively high rate. Mr. Trench, a dentist and expatriate Englishman, is on his way down to the river to meet a boat. A lifeline to the outside world, the General Oberon means a new supply of ether (an anesthetic used by dentists in the days before Novocain) for Mr. Trench and a means of escape for a hunted priest waiting on the riverbank. This priest is un-named and remains so throughout the novel. They meet, strike up a conversation, and decide to return to Trench’s office to share the priest’s bottle of brandy. The priest sympathetically listens to the dentist’s account of his troubled life. He has a wife and son back in England with whom he has not communicated in years, is unable to earn enough money to return home, and exudes a deep sense of sadness and futility. The first chapter ends with the priest leaving the city on the back of a mule; in response to the plea of a child (who evidently knows his true identity), he abandons his intention to flee the state on the General Oberon and sets off to attend to the child’s sick mother. He does so with ill will (thinking the child’s mother is probably not sick at all) and prays to God for his own capture.
The reader is then introduced to the priest’s nemesis—a lieutenant (also unnamed) who will pursue the priest throughout the novel. Unlike the priest, he is a man of firm resolve and iron discipline. For him, the Church is a cancer that eats away at the strength of Mexico and its people, and yet his beliefs have an almost religious quality to them:
It infuriated him to think that there were still people in the state who believed in a loving and merciful God . . what he had experienced was vacancy—a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all. He knew.
(Greene, The Power and the Glory, pp. 24-25)
The lieutenant learns of the priest’s existence and resolves to apprehend him. He also must look out for James Calver, an escaped American murderer and bank robber, who has been seen in the region.
Other significant figures appear early in the novel as well. One is Luis, a boy whose pious mother nightly reads aloud to him accounts of Mexican priests, who ministered to their flocks with bravery and devotion before being caught and executed by the authorities. Meant to instill a sense of devotion and religious identity (especially since the family can no longer attend church), these stories unsettle the boy. He is openly critical of their message and asks questions about the two priests with whom he has been in recent contact. One is Padre José, a local priest who, rather than flee the state or go underground, has decided to conform to the law by ceasing to serve as a priest and by taking a wife. According to Luis’s mother, he is a disgrace to the Church. The ex-priest is fat and timid, his wife is a vulgar harridan, and the neighboring children mock him mercilessly. The other is the hunted priest himself, who stayed briefly with Luis’s family. His predilection for drink became obvious to them, and Luis’s mother worried that his defects would set a bad example for her children. She tells her husband a story she has heard about the priest—that once, the worse for liquor, he had baptized an infant boy with the name of Brigitta. Later in the novel, it is revealed that Brigitta is the name of the priest’s illegitimate daughter.
Finally the reader is introduced to Coral Fellows, the young daughter of an English banana merchant. Captain Fellows is a hale and amiable man, his wife Trix a somewhat quarrelsome semi-invalid, and his daughter Coral a quiet but thoughtful girl on the verge of adolescence. Mrs. Fellows is educating Coral at home through a mail-order series of courses from England, to which Coral applies herself diligently. When the reader first encounters her, she has just allowed the priest (now on the run from the lieutenant) to hide in her father’s barn. Not Catholic or even religious, she is oddly (even fiercely) solicitous for his safety. Before he goes on his way, they discuss his situation. He confesses to her his sense of unworthiness and despair and his desire to be caught. Quite logically, she suggests that he give himself up. His answer is that he does not possess the necessary resolve either to suffer execution or abandon his sense of duty: “There’s the pain. To choose pain like that—it’s not possible. And it’s my duty not to be caught. You see, my bishop is no longer here. . . . This is my parish” (The Power and the Glory, p. 40).
Time passes. The priest, shabby and careworn, arrives at a poor village. The people have not seen a priest in five years, and there is much to do—baptisms, the hearing of confessions, the saying of mass. Amid visible displays of anger and resentment, the priest does his job. Back in the main town, the ex-priest Padre José does not. At the burial of a young child, he is asked by the grieving family to say a brief prayer, and after a struggle with his conscience he refuses—word
FROM GREENE’S RECORD OF HIS TRAVELS IN REVOLUTIONARY MEXICO
In The Lawless Roads, Greene interviews a resident of Tabasco, a state with particularly harsh anticlerical laws: “He said the church schools were far better than those that existed now . . . there were even more of them, and the priests in Tabasco were good men. . I asked about the priest in Chiapas who had fled. “Oh,” he said, “he was just what we call a whisky priest.” He had taken one of his sons to be baptized, but the priest was drunk and would insist on naming him Brigitta. He was little loss, poor man . . . but who can judge what terror and hardship and isolation may have excused him in the eyes of Cod?” (The Lawless Roads, p. 150).
would get out; he would be caught and punished. He returns home in a sink of despair while the children’s mocking voices ring in his ears. Young Luis meets the lieutenant on the street and is transfixed by the sight of his gun. The manifest potency of the weapon enthralls the boy, and the lieutenant is hit with an overwhelming sense of mission:
It was for these he was fighting. He would eliminate from their childhood everything which had made him miserable, all that was poor, superstitious, and corrupt. They deserved nothing less than the truth—a vacant universe and a cooling world, the right to be happy in any way they chose. He wanted to begin the world again with them, in a desert.
(The Power and the Glory, p. 58)
Affectionately pinching the boy’s ear, the lieutenant departs, “a little dapper figure of hate carrying his secret of love” (The Power and the Glory, p. 58).
Part 2 opens with the priest arriving at a village he knows quite well—it is the poor and squalid home of his onetime mistress Maria and their daughter, Brigitta. His presence causes a stir among the villagers. They welcome his pastoral ministration, but it also puts them in danger. Maria provides for his lodging. However, she treats him somewhat contemptuously, and Brigitta (who does not know her father) is a detestably unpleasant child. He says mass quickly, preaching a sermon on the joys of heaven: “Heaven is where there is no jefe, no unjust laws, no taxes, no soldiers and no hunger. Your children will not die in heaven” (The Power and the Glory, pp. 69-70). As he finishes, the lieutenant arrives. Possessing only an old photo of a younger, plumper version of the priest, the lieutenant does not recognize him, and the priest successfully passes himself off as a poor farmer. Assembling the villagers together, the lieutenant announces that he is searching for a priest and, in a way, preaches his own sermon:
You’re fools if you still believe what the priests tell you. All they want is your money. What has God ever done for you? Have you got enough to eat? Instead of food they talk to you about heaven. Oh, everything will be fine after you are dead, they say. I tell you—everything will be fine when they are dead, and you must help.
(The Power and the Glory, p. 74)
When no one will admit to knowing the priest’s whereabouts, the lieutenant declares that he will take a hostage. If he discovers that the priest has in fact been in the village, he will execute the hostage. The priest attempts to volunteer, but is refused, and the lieutenant departs with a villager in tow. Taking his leave first of Maria and then Brigitta (both encounters are hostile and recriminatory), the priest soon departs too.
On his way to Carmen (the village of his birth), the priest encounters a persistently disagreeable fellow, a mestizo (person of mixed Indian and European ethnicity). The mestizo immediately suspects that he is a priest and insists on following him. Talkative and very demanding, the mestizo pleads poverty and illness and makes continual reference to the idea of Christian charity. The priest must help him, must trust him, must not abandon him, because he is called to a standard of conduct that requires non judgemental love for one’s fellow man. After parrying the mestizo’s questions for a while, the priest eventually admits to being what he is, knowing that the man will eventually betray him. The mestizo is quite open about his moral dilemma. He is poor, he argues, and so how can he be blamed for turning in the priest for the substantial reward money? Nevertheless, he promises, he will not do so. The priest is not fooled. The mestizo’s very appearance proclaims his wickedness; his gait is shambling, his manner furtive, and he has canine teeth that protrude like fangs. As they proceed towards Carmen, the mestizo sickens, and finally the priest must give up his place on the mule. Nearing the village, the priest changes his mind—he will not go there after all. His plans for betrayal thwarted, and now physically unable to pursue the priest, the mestizo is furious: “Of course, he had every reason to be angry: he had lost seven hundred pesos” (The Power and the Glory, p. 102).
Needing wine to perform the rites of mass, the priest attempts to obtain some in the main city of the province (home to Padre José, Luis, and Dr. Tench). A helpful beggar leads him to the house of a local gentleman—the cousin of the governor and a purveyor of illegal drink. The priest manages to make a deal for the purchase of a bottle of wine, but he is coerced not only into buying a bottle of brandy as well, but into opening the bottle of wine and sharing it with the Governor’s cousin and the local chief of police—the lieutenant’s boss, who is not nearly so diligent and incorruptible as his underling. The precious wine is slowly consumed, with the priest suffering wretchedly. He had only enough money for the one bottle. The priest consoles himself with the brandy. When the wine is gone, he leaves, walking the streets with the half-empty bottle of brandy in his pocket. When he is momentarily jostled by some young soldiers, his pocket gives a telltale clink, and he is forced to produce the illegal bottle. With the soldiers in hot pursuit, he flees but is apprehended, brought to the police station and charged with possession of illegal spirits. Unable to pay the fine of five pesos, he is sentenced to a night in jail, followed by a morning of work. The lieutenant is there but does not recognize him. Thrust into a pitch-black, crowded cell, the priest encounters the stench of unwashed prisoners and their excrement. A pair copulates noisily in the comer as he makes his way blindly to a vacant space on the floor.
The priest spends a long night in conversation with the other prisoners in the cell. In a moment of epiphany, he realizes that he is guilty of the sin of pride. The call of duty that had kept him a fugitive is suddenly revealed as a delusion, a self-serving conviction of his that he was better than the priests who had conformed to the law by renouncing their priestly duties and taking wives, better than the people he was supposed to be serving with humility. On impulse, he not only confesses to them that he is a priest, but that he is a bad priest—a drunk, a coward, and the father of an illegitimate child. Some of his fellow inmates respond with charity, some with indifference, and some with hatred and scorn, but he emerges in the morning feeling somewhat cleansed and ready to meet his fate. While performing his prescribed duties (emptying the latrine buckets from the cells of the prison), he encounters a guest (not an inmate) of the prison—the mestizo. Recognizing him immediately, the mestizo realizes the inadvisability of turning the priest in; the mestizo has been fed and housed for some time by the authorities while helping them in their search for the priest, but if he accuses the priest while the priest is in custody, he will not receive any reward money. Openly he announces his decision to the priest; he will keep silent and allow the priest to be released, then find him “out there” and take his reward. Upon the completion of his duties, the priest is led into the presence of the lieutenant, who treats his prisoner kindly and, before releasing him, gives him a five-peso coin, the same amount charged by the priest to say a mass. Astonished, the priest tells him that he is a good man.
On the run again, the priest returns to the banana station of the Fellows family and finds it deserted, except for a starving dog who weakly strives with him over a bone with some meat still on it. The house is in disorder, showing signs of a hasty departure. He does not know it, but Coral Fellows has fallen ill and died. A storm breaks, and he seeks shelter in a nearby hut. Inside he finds a three-year-old Indian boy, drenched in blood and dying. Outside an Indian woman warily darts to and fro. She is unwilling to abandon her child but is clearly afraid of the priest. The Indian woman speaks almost no Spanish, but he finally manages to convey to her that he is a priest. Despite his frantic efforts, the child dies, and the woman keeps saying a word— Americano. The priest wonders whether the child’s death has something to do with the escaped American gangster. The woman straps her dead son to her back, and she and the priest walk into the mountains. After a considerable distance, they arrive at an Indian graveyard, full of bizarre crosses and grave markers. No priest, the priest thinks to himself, had ever been here. The Indian woman deposits her child at the foot of a large cross and goes on her way. Afterward, the priest struggles on through the mountains until he arrives at signs of civilization and meets a man with a gun. Automatically, he tells him not to worry—he is a priest, but he is moving on and will not bring them any trouble. The man’s reaction is unexpectedly joyful and welcoming. Unintentionally, the priest has crossed into a neighboring province, where priests are uncommon but not subject to the death penalty.
Part 3 opens several days later with the priest sitting comfortably on the veranda of Mr. and Miss Lehr (brother and sister), who run a successful farming compound. It was their man who found the priest in the forest, and they have invited him to stay as their guest. Setting immediately to work, the priest schedules masses, baptisms, and confessions. Each service carries a price, and he expects to make a substantial amount of money very quickly. His epiphany in the jail cell becoming a distant memory, he becomes somewhat haughty and demanding. He at the same time continues to drink, arranging with a local merchant for the purchase of a large quantity of brandy. He cannot, though, rid himself of an overwhelming sense of his own sin. The priest thinks to himself, “A virtuous man can almost cease to believe in Hell, but he carried Hell about with him” (The Power and the Glory, p. 176). After he earns enough money for the journey, he plans to travel to Las Casas, where the Church is alive and relatively unpersecuted. There he can confess his sins and receive absolution from a fellow priest.
While preparing for departure, the priest again encounters the mestizo. He has come, the mestizo explains, on an errand of mercy. The American fugitive has been shot by the police and is dying. A Catholic, he wishes to receive absolution from a priest before the end. His sins have been great. The priest learns that while fleeing the police, the American attempted to use the Indian boy as a shield, and the boy was hit. The mestizo produces a scrap of paper as evidence. Coincidentally, it is a school essay of Coral Fellows, a discussion of the indecision of Hamlet. On the reverse side, the American had written, “For Christ’s sake, father. . . .” Though the mestizo protests his good intentions, the priest is naturally suspicious and questions him about the exact location of the American. It is just this side of the border, the mestizo promises—you will be safe. Now certain of the man’s treachery, the priest comes to a sudden decision. His duty is with the persecuted church, and his destiny does not lie in Las Casas. Giving his newfound wealth to the local schoolmaster to buy food and books for the local children, he follows the mestizo back into the forest, knowing full well that death awaits him.
After a considerable journey, the priest discovers that the mestizo had not been lying entirely. The American lies wounded in a small hut and will not last much longer. He is indeed Catholic but is unwilling to confess. He keeps insisting that the priest get away while he can, and savagely calling the police “bastards.” The American dies while attempting to convince the priest to take the American’s knife and flee, and as the priest is intoning the words of conditional absolution, the lieutenant enters the hut and asks him whether he has finished. He is surprised to learn that the priest was expecting him.
Of course, the mestizo betrayed him, but the priest does not seem to mind. His duty is done, and his fate awaits him. The lieutenant is curious about the character of his long-pursued quarry, and they have an extensive discussion. As always, the lieutenant is firm, businesslike, and unshakable in his convictions. He bears the priest no personal animosity, telling him, “You’re a danger. That’s why we kill you. I have nothing against you, you understand, as a man” (The Power and the Glory, p. 193). The priest surprises him by essentially agreeing with the nature and implications of this distinction; in a moment reminiscent of his night in the jail cell, he confesses his many faults to the lieutenant, but he affirms the moral superiority of the Church he unworthily represents. He also commends the lieutenant for his sense of duty and self-discipline and, to a certain extent, his humanity:
That’s another difference between us. It’s no good your working for your end unless you’re a good man yourself. And there won’t always be good men in your party. Then you’ll have all the old starvation, beating, get-rich-anyhow. But it doesn’t matter so much my being a coward— and all the rest. I can put God into a man’s mouth just the same—and I can give him God’s pardon. It wouldn’t make any difference to that if every priest in the Church was like me.
(The Power and the Glory, p. 195)
In spite of himself, the lieutenant is impressed and wonders why, of all the priests in the region, this man was the one who stayed true, the one who did not conform to the law and marry, who did not flee to safer provinces. Upon their return to the city, the priest is put in a cell, and the lieutenant, trying to make his prisoner’s final hours easier, asks if there is anything he can get the prisoner. The priest wishes to make a final confession, but the only priest available is Padre José, and he refuses to come. Moved by pity, the lieutenant tells him that his death will be painless, and he leaves him alone in the cell with a bottle of brandy. Throughout the night, the priest struggles with a sense of failure, a feeling that he has made no difference in the world at all.
The fourth and final part of the novel is short, touching on the lives of the people who have in fact been affected by the priest—for the better. Dr. Trench is in his office attending to the Chief of Police, who suffers from an agonizing toothache. Leaving the Chief in pain for a moment, Trench looks out his window to witness the execution of the priest. It upsets Trench. He remembers that the priest spoke with him about his wife and son, and he resolves to return to England as soon as possible to be reunited with them. Mr. Fellows attends his sickly wife, who is as quarrelsome as ever and is unwilling to recognize the grief they both feel over the death of Coral. Recalling the brief stay of the priest, Mr. Fellows ponders the change that it wrought in their daughter and her apparent sense that he stood for something important. Finally, young Luis (who had watched the lieutenant returning to the city with the captive priest) renounces his ambivalence about the Church. After spending another evening with his mother and the stories of martyr-priests, he asks her about the priest who was just shot. His mother (forgetting her earlier antipathy) replies that he was a true martyr and very likely a saint. Going to the window on his way to bed, he looks out to the street and sees the lieutenant walking by—and he spits on him. Later in the evening there is a knocking at the door; a new priest has arrived in the province, and Luis welcomes him into the house.
The problem of evil
Any religious system must at some point confront the problem of evil. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the wicked prosper? How can a world created by a perfectly just and infinitely benevolent God contain disease, earthquakes, and murderers? And what is the duty of a good man (or a bad man who wants to be good) in response to this situation? The Power and the Glory involves a situation where the above difficulties are combined into an almost worst-case scenario. The priest is haunted by the fact of his own sins (which are substantial) and by his sense of failure and worth-lessness (which is even greater). His nemesis embodies everything that he is not. The lieutenant is purposeful, sober, incorruptible, and unflinchingly dedicated to his beliefs. The world in which these two men play out their drama is in many ways a hell on earth. The poor starve, the rich are parasites, and an authoritarian government casts an oppressive pall over the citizenry. Even the hope of heaven is denied to the people because the government tells them that it does not exist. In this setting, the novel presents the problem of evil in a distinctly modem form, and the question is raised—how can religious faith supply an adequate response?
The 1930s were a time of intellectual and social turmoil throughout the world. Socialist political movements, on both the right and the left, existed in all major countries of the world. Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, Adolf Hitler’s Germany, and Calles’s Mexico all sought to remake the fabric of society in a manner never before seen in the world. The government was to be socialist yet authoritarian, egalitarian yet oppressive, and, perhaps most significantly, militantly secular. Religion was seen as a threat, both to the centralized power of the state and to the social well-being of the people. The reason for this is succinctly stated by the lieutenant in the novel: organized religion caused people to look for happiness in the afterlife, rather than in this world. The socialist agenda, whether communist or fascist, was predicated on the notion of the perfectibility of society, that man’s true goal was to serve the cause of the state. His only function, his only value, was as a member of the social group, and his individual life and happiness were meaningless. Good and evil were therefore social concepts rather than norms for individual behavior, and there was no permanent or objective referent for judging behavior. The only meaningful standards were the immediate needs of the state.
Greene formulated a response to this ideology in The Power and the Glory, one that was fully orthodox in terms of Catholic doctrine, but which also borrowed certain elements from the seeming moral vacuum of socialist ideology. In his long conversation with the priest at the end of the novel, the lieutenant is surprised to discover that he and the priest agree on a number of issues and that he finds himself gaining considerable respect for the priest. The priest represents the same Church that the lieutenant passionately hates—the wealthy and complacent Church that pervaded Mexico before the revolution. However, that Church no longer exists, and the priest is not defending it; indeed, he is not even defending himself. The lieutenant, as a true and dispassionate socialist, bears the priest no ill-will and will execute him not because he believes him to be a wicked man, but because he believes the interests of the state demand it. The priest, who has learned the virtues of humility and resignation, similarly does not hate the lieutenant (quite the opposite, in fact) and goes to his death simply hoping that he is worthy of martyrdom. For both men, personal good and evil are lacking in larger significance. The priest realized in the darkness of his crowded prison cell that he was guilty of inordinate pride, and it was in fact this pride that led him to stay in his parish rather than flee. In other words, the motive was evil, but the object was good. This could work in the opposite way, too; he loved his daughter so much that he offered up his own damnation to God in exchange for her safety, but how was it proper to love the fruit of his sin? This time, his motive (parental love) was good, but the object, his daughter, was evil—at seven years of age, she exhibited a precocious level of moral degeneracy. The inference to be made by the reader is clear: if the priest can love his daughter so, despite her sinful birth and repellent character, then God can love him. God’s love is the great leveler, something that the priest tries to explain to the lieutenant as they converse beside the body of the dead gangster. God embraces the good and the bad, all of whom in some measure reflect his nature; even the mestizo, for all his faults, possesses qualities (his sense of justice, perhaps?) that stem from his creator. He is evil, and yet his demands for charity must be answered. The Church and the anticlerical state each have aims, motivations, means, and ends that are both good and evil, and the priest, with his newfound humility, is as unable to deny the defects of the Church as he is the wickedness of the world in general.
The sorrows of this world are real and cannot be escaped or explained. The universe is perennially hostile to human life and happiness. What can be done? For the priest, the answer is that all will be made right in heaven, but by the end of the novel he does not expect anyone to be comforted by this. There is a sadness at the core of his faith, one that remains with him to his death.
Sources and literary context
The literary context for The Power and the Glory is not to be found in the literature of the Mexican Revolution. Greene visited Mexico in 1938 to report on the persecution of the Catholic Church there (his nonfiction account of what he found, The Lawless Roads, was published in 1939). His visit certainly provided Greene with much of the authenticating detail and local “color” of the novel, but the story he tells is not, in the final analysis, as much about Mexico as about a human soul in torment. While the novel literally concerns a hunted priest in anticlerical Mexico of the 1930s, the moral dilemmas that lie at the heart of the book transcend any particular time or place. The
HOW CAN A SINFUL PRIEST SERVE GOD?
Like the Mexican Church in the 1920s and 1930s, the early Church had its share of martyrs and also its share of apostates—those who chose to save their lives by renouncing their faith. One of the heresies that confronted the Church centered around what to do with these failed Christians. A body of Christians (known as Donatists) held that apostates were not to be readmitted to the Church and that if they were priests, any sacraments administered by them were invalid. In 411 C.E. the Church categorically affirmed that this view was an error and that sacramental grace proceeded from Cod through the priest to the recipient irrespective of the moral status of the priest. It is this idea, perhaps above all others, that gives the priest in The Power and the Glory the will to persevere. Acutely conscious of his own grave sin, he nevertheless knows that he can still administer valid sacraments. The Church Try be persecuted, and individual Christians may fail to live up to their obligations, but the Church itself will live on because its power and glory remain undiminished by such individual lapses.
priest could just have easily have been a fugitive Jesuit in Elizabethan England, when the Protestant queen routinely executed Catholic priests caught in her realm. The charge was even the same—treason. In fact, the literature that largely informs The Power and the Glory is that of persecuted Christianity (deriving from the first through the fourth centuries of the Christian era, when Christians suffered under Roman oppression) and persecuted Catholicism (deriving from sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Protestant England, when professing Catholics were punished as traitors to the crown). Many of these texts were known as “saints’ lives”—biographical accounts of the lives and (in most cases) martyrdoms of steadfast Christians, who heroically suffered death rather than renounce their faith.
As an English Catholic, Greene was acutely conscious of the long and troubled relationship between his Church and his country. From c. 1533 (when Henry VIII separated the English Church from papal authority) until well into the nineteenth century, Catholics were not regarded as full citizens of England. When they were not actively persecuted, they still had to pay fines for not attending Anglican church services, they could not serve in the governmental or legal professions, they could not attend English universities, and so forth. In fact, it was only in 1926 that most of the remaining legal disabilities were removed, and some remain to this day. The Catholic Church in revolutionary Mexico and sixteenth-century England suffered in similar ways, and Greene’s awareness of the marginal status of Catholicism in England figures into The Power and the Glory. Other important contexts for The Power and the Glory are the literatures of modernism and existentialism—narratives that tended to feature flawed, psychologically damaged protagonists confronting an empty and uncaring cosmos. While Greene cannot be conveniently grouped with either of these schools of thought, they both exercised considerable influence on his literary method. The existentialist dilemma—how to live when the only measure of one’s life is personal experience, and how to face the world when only personal experience is useful or relevant—is one that confronts the hunted priest, but it does not overcome him. Literature in the modernist school, such as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (also in WLAIT 4: Bri&üsh and Irish Literature of Its Times), poses the problem of an empty world full of hollow men, but it gives no solution. The only sane response is disillusionment, even despair. In contrast, Greene’s priest does accept the answers provided by his faith. Greene himself was fond of a quote by the Spanish writer Unamuno that aptly expresses the kind of faith that is meant:
Those who believe that they believe in God, but without passion in their heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, without an element of despair even in their consolation, believe only in the God Idea, not in God Himself.
(Unamuno in Sharrock, p. 23)
Reception and impact
The reception of the novel was a mirror of the state of “Catholic” literature (in English) at the time. If the position of the Catholic Church in England was somewhat marginal, so was that of its literature; there was a general suspicion that it was narrow and intellectually lightweight and an expectation among many Catholics that it should serve more or less uncritically to promote Catholic teachings. The Power and the Glory fulfilled neither role, but it was a bestseller, and reviewers for the most part praised it highly. The Power and the Glory sold 30,000 copies in 1940-41, an amazing figure given the fact that this was the time of severe wartime austerity measures and that German bombs were raining down on London on a regular basis. The book also won Greene the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for 1940.
On the other hand, the Vatican’s reaction was strongly negative. In 1953 Cardinal Pizzardo, Secretary of the Holy Office, wrote to the Archbishop of Westminster (the Catholic primate in England) to complain:
The author’s aim was to bring out the victory of the power and the glory of the Lord in spite of man’s wretchedness, but this aim is not attained, since it is the latter element which appears to carry the day, and in a way which does injury to certain friendly characters, and even to the priesthood itself.
(Shelden, p. 271)
For the most part, though, Greene enjoyed a combination of commercial and critical success that most authors only dream about. In many ways, the continuing success of his works stems from the initial reception of The Power and the Glory; it first brought Greene to the world’s notice, and in it readers found the unique treatment of Catholic themes that have always been such a major element in his appeal. Novelist and literary critic David Lodge sums up this appeal neatly, writing that Greene “made Catholicism, from a literary point of view, interesting, glamorous, and prestigious. There were no Anglican novelists, or Methodist novelists . . . but there was, it seemed, such a creature as a Catholic novelist” (Lodge in Shelden, p. 130).
Britton, John A. Revolution and Ideology: Images of the Mexican Revolution in the United States. Lexington, Ky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1995.
De Vitis, A. A. Graham Greene. Boston: Twayne, 1986.
Greene, Graham. The Lawless Roads. 3rd ed. London: Eyre & Spottiswode, 1950.
____. The Power and the Glory. 1940. Reprinted, New York: Penguin, 1971.
Johnson, William Weber. Heroic Mexico: The Violent Emergence of a Modern Nation. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968.
Kelley, Francis Clement. Blood-Drenched Altars. Milwaukee: Bruce, 1935.
O’Prey, Paul. A Reader’s Guide to Graham Greene. London: Thames & Hudson, 1988.
Ruiz, Ramón Eduardo. Triumphs and Tragedy: A History of the Mexican People. New York and London: Norton, 1992.
Sharrock, Roger. Saints, Sinners and Comedians: The Novels of Graham Greene. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.
Shelden, Michael. Graham Greene: The Man Within. London: Heinemann, 1994.