Graham Greene would have made a good blogger—he knew how to push buttons and provoke. The Power and the Glory is obviously critical of religious persecution, but Greene seems to hit hardest when narrating the faults and failings of the Church. The words "pious" and "piety" are not meant as virtues:
He wondered why she was here—probably for having a holy picture in her house. She had the tiresome intense note of a pious woman. They were extraordinarily foolish over pictures. (2.3.79)
The point isn't that religious pictures are bad, but that they're not worth a night in prison. Catholicism uses pictures in worship, but worship can still occur just fine without them. Hence the priest's criticism of the pious woman in the jail cell with him.
Greene, of course, is critical of more than pious women who love religious artifacts. We get to know only two priests: one's a cowardly drunk and the other is a cowardly vow-breaker. Your run-of-the-mill Catholic is no better. An old man insists the priest hear everyone's confessions despite the fact that everyone—including the priest—is super tired. A woman who shares the priest's jail cell scolds him because he won't condemn a pair of prisoners in the packed cell who are having sex—she threatens to write his bishop. No wonder the novel provoked a negative response from the Vatican.
The novel's provocative tone might have helped it to achieve lasting success. Because it's just as critical of the religious characters as of the characters persecuting them, it has a mature moral complexity. This isn't a sanitized-for-children story about a saint; it's a gritty tale that blurs the line between saint and sinner better than Ariana Grande.
Graham composed The Power and the Glory after taking a trip to Mexico to report on the anti-clericalism taking place. The novel follows a fictional priest, but the regimes and social policies described in the novel were very real. The Red Shirts, for example, were a real paramilitary organization that carried out the murder of Catholics and the destruction of churches.
We might call it realistically dystopian, but it's not a book you'd go to for detailed historical accuracy. Its focus is rather on the timeless question of what it means to be a saint.
And in addition to addressing the meaning of sainthood, the story portrays the social eruption that occurs when Big Ideas get taken out of books and discussions and become the bedrock of major social movements. The lieutenant speaks for his idealistic atheistic socialism that he believes can bring an end to suffering. The priest speaks for his own foundational ideas: that sin is real and calls for atonement, that suffering can be redemptive, and that freedom means submitting to the will of God. This isn't the classroom or a fireside chat. Their respective worldviews have major consequences for the worlds in which they live—particularly for who has power and what they do with it.
The words of the title come from the concluding praises—called a doxology—that sometimes follow the saying of the Our Father. It goes, "For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, now and forever." For all the controversy the novel caused among the powers that be in the Church, the story is rather hopeful for the victory of Catholicism. The arrival of the new priest at the end suggests that the Church will go on—the gates of Hell will not prevail against it, as the Bible says. God's power and glory will win—they don't call him God for nothing.
To be sure, the novel doesn't prove the truth of Catholicism. It's not meant to persuade or convert readers. However, it is something of a response to the persecution of Christianity wherever it happens. Greene seems to say that no matter how effective the suppression or how wicked the religious leaders, the Church will survive—as long as it knows how to love…
It turns out that the last priest is not the last priest. In the wake of our protagonist's execution, a priest arrives at the home of the faithful mother and is let inside by the once skeptical boy. He's about to tell the boy his name when the youth kisses his hand. And so another nameless priest has come, presumably with his own struggles, but facing the same dangers. Like the Energizer Bunny, the Church keeps going and going.
Greene is hinting at the traditional Catholic understanding of the Church. For the faithful, the Church is a human institution, and in that sense fallible, but it is also a divine and eternal institution. The Church exists beyond death. The saints are as much members of the Church as the living are. With this in mind, Greene is standing athwart the history of anti-clericalism, yelling, "Look, guys, this persecution just isn't going to work out for you. Sorry."
The Power and the Glory is loosely set in the southern Mexican state of Tabasco during an anti-Catholic purge. Greene had visited Mexico during this time of religious persecution and had seen its effects up close and personal.
The events in the novel transpire years into the suppression of the Catholic Church: houses of worship have long been destroyed or converted into government buildings, children have no memories of going to Mass, and most of the priests in the state have been hunted down and executed. The protagonist of the novel is apparently the only living priest in the area—no pressure or anything.
The action takes place mostly in small villages and plantations the priest visits or in the unnamed Capital. The narration follows the priest around, but also adopts the point of view of people near and far away from him.
While Greene keeps the exact locations somewhat vague (he doesn't actually name the state), he brings them to life with vivid description. We're treated to the sights, sounds, and smells of a river port, a city square, a tiny dental office, police barracks, jail cells, city residences, impoverished huts, plantation barns, and a seedy hotel where you can buy illegal booze.
Forests, rivers, and mountains dominate the terrain and make both travel and escape difficult. Gee, thanks Mother Nature. The mountains on the border are passable, at least when it's not raining, but come rain season you'd have better luck scaling the Wall in Westeros with a couple of toothpicks than getting over that terrain. The priest knows that once the rains begin, he has no chance of escape. Dry time is the only escape time.
In this world, it's always blazingly hot…until the rains come. Then it's wet and muddy, and being on the run is even less fun than when it's sunny. A climate of extremes, right? Just like the political climate in the state. Once the Church was prosperous and powerful, and now it is intensely and violently suppressed, kind of like the two main characters of the novel. The lieutenant is hot on the trail of the priest, and the priest muddles through his mission like a man lost in a downpour.
"Th' inclosure narrow'd; the sagacious power
Of hounds and death drew nearer every hour."
- John Dryden, From "The Hind and the Panther, The Second Part"
Sounds like a description of the priest's struggle, doesn't it? His path becomes narrower as the novel progresses, until he decides that he has no choice but to walk towards certain death. This alone makes it a worthy epigraph, but there's more: Dryden's poem, "The Hind and the Panther," is largely about Catholicism and its conflicts and controversies in the world. Like Greene's The Power and the Glory, it presents the Catholic Church as an ultimately indestructible institution that will rise above religious divisions and conflicts. Like Celine Dion, its heart will go on, even if it sinks from time to time after colliding with an iceberg. In Dryden's time, the Church faced political and religious pressure from Protestantism. In Greene's time, atheism.
The Power and the Glory is a relatively short novel with only a handful of major characters and the basic plot conventions of a good thriller. You know where you're going. However, you don't always know right away who you're with. Only a few characters have names, and Greene will sometimes refrain from identifying a character, using suggestive description instead. So that's the first main difficulty. The second challenge is the religious and political content. You don't have to know the nuances of Catholic theology or the history of anti-clericalism in Mexico to follow the narrative, but it helps if you really want to get deep into the themes. But hey, that's why Shmoop is here!
Like a good preacher's sermon, The Power and the Glory is meant to be heard. We love listening to it, anyway. With brisk dialogue and just enough detail to form a picture, Greene keeps the narrative moving. Sure, he sometimes writes long sentences, but he breaks them up into concise clauses—rapid fire treats for the eyes and ears. Seriously, read this aloud:
He leant his head back against the wall and half closed his eyes—he remembered Holy Week in the old days when a stuffed Judas was hanging from the belfry and boys made clatter with tins and rattles as he swung out over the door. Old staid members of the congregation had sometimes raised objections: it was blasphemous, they said, to make this guy out of Our Lord's betrayer; but he had said nothing and let the practice continue—it seemed to him a good thing that the world's traitor should be made a figure of fun. It was too easy otherwise to idealize him as a man who fought with God—a Prometheus, a noble victim in a hopeless war. (2.1.294)
The paragraph has three relatively long sentences, but read aloud, it seems to be seven shorter ones. To the eye, the dashes, colon, and semi-colon convey closely-knit ideas. To the ear, the structure keeps the mind in motion, ready for the next idea to come. And to both, the selective use of descriptive words paints a picture in motion. The prose reads like a movie.
In more ways than one, actually. A lot of the book is dialogue. But don't worry: these are the sort of conversations you'd just have to eavesdrop on (or retweet) if you heard them in real life. See the Quotes section for examples.
These scavenger birds make their first appearance right at the start of the novel, indifferently eye-balling Mr. Tench. He's a curiosity, but not yet carrion. There must be carrion around, however, as these birds wouldn't be alive if there was nothing dead to eat. Vultures are a sign of impending death, and Greene places them here for precisely that reason. When, in a "faint feeling of rebellion," Mr. Tench throws a piece of the road at the birds, he's protesting his own mortality and mortality of everything around him (1.1.1). He's not dead yet!
But the birds also signify life. After all, they are living things. They show that life continues after death—and that sometimes life continues because of death. Pretty meta, huh? Death doesn't always have the last word, even when being interviewed by Bill O'Reilly. This is a major theme in The Power and the Glory. We don't know if the priest reaches heaven or falls into hell, but we do see that the Church continues after he is gone. Who'd have thought a vulture could figuratively point towards the Catholic Church? Well, Graham Greene, apparently.
Not too many folks in The Power and the Glory have pearly white teeth, but there's more than enough rot to go around. The dentist Mr Tench observes death in the "carious mouth" of the priest (1.1.75) and later, in the mouth of the police chief, a "very bad state" that could soon lead to periodontal disease (4.68). The impoverished half-caste (mestizo) has only a couple teeth remaining. We're going to go out on a limb and guess that none of these people have dental insurance.
Like these men's teeth, the world of the novel is falling into decay. The boat on which the priest hopes to escape shows signs of ruin: damaged rail and rotting cords (1.1.4). The policemen who accompany the lieutenant are a disorderly bunch who walk raggedly and sling their rifles anyhow (1.2.1).
The persecution of the Church was meant to create a new and better order, but Greene has no illusions about such idealism. Killing priests hasn't brought an end to poverty. Destroying church buildings hasn't delivered the faithful from their hunger. With decay all around, the people with the power to leave opt to do so. Others, like the family, stay, hoping for a rebirth and renewal. Maybe they should start with flossing.
The lieutenant aspires to create a place where no memories of the Church remain, but signs of the old religion persist despite his best efforts. What did he expect? To just erase the Church from society's collective memory? That might be a little ambitious, even for us.
No bells ring at noon, as they once did, but on Sundays shops still close at noon, a "relic of the old time" (1.4.77). On his way to the docks, Mr Tench passes by "the Treasury that had once been a church" (1.1.2).
Religious books are banned, but pious mothers still acquire them and read them to their children. The people still believe in God even though many years pass without their seeing a priest.
Both out in the open and behind closed doors, the suppressed Church continues to shape the society that persecutes it. In Greene's reckoning, the Church survives, even under widespread persecution.
Busted for carrying a bottle of brandy and unable to pay the fine, the priest ends up in a crowded jail cell. Feeling a strange companionship with his fellow prisoners, he tells the others there that he's a priest. He is struck with affection for them, as if they were his parishioners.
Here, in the cell, with only one stench-emanating bucket to share among them (Ew!), the priest sees himself as one criminal among others. Here, they are equal, united by some wrongdoing or other. The priest is not better than they are, as he thought before the time of the persecution.
He had once believed that being a priest meant a life of comfort, deference, and respect. The persecution robbed him of that notion, but it's in the exceedingly uncomfortable jail cell that he really begins to feel the meaning of his vocation. He's moved by "an irrational affection for the inhabitants of this prison" (2.3.77). He's moved to love as he believes God loves.
For the priest, the prison is a place of grace. It's the life of luxury that is truly most dangerous for him—a lesson he learns only after he has escaped the state and the police tracking him. About time he learned his lesson.
Like most of the imagery in The Power and the Glory, alcohol has opposing meanings that are actually complementary. Like yin and yang. Bert and Ernie. Biggie and Tupac.
On the one hand, alcohol is a sign of the priest's drunkenness. It's an image of sin. The term "whisky priest" is not a compliment (1.2.85). His drunkenness also affects his job. We hear a rumor, mostly likely true, that the priest performed a baptism while drunk and gave the child the wrong name: Brigitta instead of Pedro (1.2.82)! Oops.
On the other hand, alcohol is a sign of the priest's mission. He needs wine to celebrate the Mass. He can get by without the book and the altar stone, but without the wine there's no Eucharist. Aside from hearing confessions, there's nothing he can do that the laity (Catholics who are not clerics) couldn't do.
These two meanings come together when the priest tries to buy wine from the police chief's cousin only to leave almost empty-handed because the chief's cousin, the chief himself, and the beggar who introduced them all drink the wine before the priest can leave with it. He has to leave with a little brandy. And, of course, he gets arrested for having it in his possession.
Poor guy. He was trying to be good.
Children are our future, the saying goes. If so, the future doesn't look too bright for the Church.
Most of the children we meet in the novel have no memories of a time before the persecution. The only priests they know are Padre José, the priest who renounced the faith and married in conformity with the new law, and the whisky priest, whose stench is as putrid as his sin.
Some of these children are more inclined to believe the government than they are to believe the stories their parents tell them. Luis, whose mother has been reading a book about a fearless young martyr, erupts in anger at the incredulity of the tale: "Nobody could be such a fool," he tells her furiously (1.4.33).
His imagination is lured by the sight of soldiers in the capital and the gun at the hip of the lieutenant. The sights, sounds, and smells of the church are entirely foreign to his mind.
Greene, however, has hope. It's Luis who arguably changes most in the novel—from a skeptical, angry boy to a responsible lad who helps hide a newly-arrived priest.
In each section, Greene tends to dwell in the head of just one character, but occasionally he gives us a sneak peek into the minds of multiple individuals. When, for example, the priest is seeking a place to hide from the Red Shirts who caught him with brandy, he begs for help from Padre José. Up to this point in the scene, the narrator has followed the actions, thoughts, and feelings of the priest. Here it switches momentarily to those of Padre José: "He [Padre José] tried to gather up his venom into spittle and shot it feebly at the other's face: it didn't even reach, but fell impotently through the air" (2.2.222). Granted, the priest wouldn't be stretching his imagination to conclude that being spit upon was not a sign of endearment, but as the narrator is telling us the former priest's intentions and referring to the whisky priest as "the other," we're clearly outside the priest's consciousness and somewhat inside Padre José's.
Our protagonist, the whisky priest, has been living in rags for many years. He's a wanted man, not for a specific crime, but simply for being a priest, which seems a little overkill if you ask us. At the start of the novel, the priest is close to escaping the threat on a boat, but a child begging for help for his dying mother pulls the priest back into danger.
The initial successes aren't very successful. The dying woman really didn't need him. People he meets pester him to hear their confessions even though he's exhausted from travel. With the lieutenant taking and murdering hostages, even those closest to the priest don't want him around. He decides to abandon them and escape over the mountains. They'll have to do without the Church. No God for you!
Typically everything goes wrong in this stage, but for the priest, the crisis he experiences isn't being captured, but escaping. He's able to return to a life of comfort and wealth, and with this seemingly positive change, his worst character traits reappear. He realizes that he's not so great a person here. Well, he's a less than stellar individual anywhere, but he's at least a better priest when the threat of martyrdom stares at him from behind a gun.
The priest returns to danger land knowing he won't ever escape and will instead soon be caught. He's even a little cheerful, having finally found his purpose. The only question that remains is how he'll face death. Will he act triumphantly like a martyr in a children's saint book or more like the coward he believes himself to be?
The priest is executed. We see the scene from a distance, so how he faced death remains unclear. One can only hope that the priest found heavenly riches.
The last priest in a Mexican state hides from the authorities while doing his best to minister to villagers he meets. If he's caught, he'll be killed. He knows it, the villagers know it, and now we know it.
Should he stay or should he go? That is the question. If the priest stays, the people will be able to practice their religion, but they'll be corrupted by his sinful lifestyle. If he flees, the people—the children especially—will be free of his bad example, but they'll have no access to the sacraments. This conflict torments the priest throughout the whole story.
Like a ruthless terminator—No pity! No remorse!—a police lieutenant hunts for the priest. He hatches a plan to take hostages from the villages and shoot them if the people who give the priest shelter don't turn him over. When the priest hears of this, he's even more tormented.
The priest has escaped. He's free—or at least not in mortal danger. But then his enemy shows up with news that his priestly faculties are needed for a dying man. The priest knows it's a trap, but also that he really is needed.
The priest decides to help the man and so forsakes a future of comfort for a death just over the horizon. This is the turning point because there's no turning back. He's a dead man going to help a dying man.
The lieutenant has the priest in custody. We don't expect any miraculous rescue, and none comes. The priest is quietly executed—quietly but for the sound of the rifles.
The last priest is dead, but a resurrection soon comes with the arrival of another man of the cloth. Seems the Church isn't so easy to destroy.
In the first act of the novel, the priest alternates between fleeing from the police and ministering to the remaining Catholics who desire his services. The lieutenant keeps on his trail. The mestizo bides his time for the right moment to betray the priest for a reward. This action ends when the priest follows the mestizo certain that he'll be captured by the lieutenant.
The priest tries to talk the dying American criminal into making a confession, but fails. He's subsequently captured by the lieutenant, taken to prison, and brought before the firing squad. Another one bites the dust.
With the last priest now dead, the lieutenant's plan seems to have worked, but unbeknownst to him, a new priest arrives in the capital.