Study Guide

The Power and the Glory Themes

  • Lies and Deceit

    Lying is a way of life for the characters in The Power and the Glory. In fact, they can't live without lying. Sound dismal? Just remember that this story is set in a place where professing what you believe to be the truth can get you thrown in jail or riddled with bullets. Yeah, no thanks. There's definitely no freedom of speech or freedom of religion, or freedom in general for that matter. The novel shows the social cost of this tyranny: a culture of deception emerges that make it difficult to do your job, whether you're with the police or the clergy. Is this the paradise they were intending? We're gonna go out on a limb and say…probably not.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. What methods does the government use to expose the lies it sees at the heart of Catholicism? Which of these tactics proves most effective?
    2. How does The Power and the Glory depict the morality of lying? Does the novel take a stand on whether it is ever justifiable to deceive others?
    3. Why do the alleged lies of the Church anger the lieutenant so much?
    4. Is the priest more of a truthful character or a deceitful character? How so?

    Chew on This

    The mission of a priest includes teaching the truth of the Gospel, but the whisky priest cannot perform this mission without deception.

    In his own way, the lieutenant is just as pious as the priest: he lives unquestioningly by his own illusions.

  • Fear

    Everybody in The Power and the Glory lives in a state of fear: the people suffer from poverty and illness, the religious are persecuted for their faith, the clergy are hunted and killed, and the agents of the government look over their shoulders. Parents fear for the lives and souls of their children, whose only contact with God are old stories and the occasional appearance of a whisky priest—a less than, uh, ideal role model. It's a real dog eat dog world in these parts. For Greene, fear is a natural response to dangers but to quote Yoda—a path to the dark side as well. Fear can keep you alive, but it can also kill your soul.

    Questions About Fear

    1. What is the link between fear and despair in the novel?
    2. The lieutenant claims that he's not afraid of other people's ideas, and yet he's willing to murder innocent people to purge the country of certain ideas. Does he only despise the ideas of the Church, or does he also fear them?
    3. In the prohibited book the mother reads to her son and two daughters, the martyr Juan is depicted as free of fear. The son, Luis, scoffs at this depiction. What do you think?
    4. What does the whisky priest fear most?

    Chew on This

    Both the lieutenant and the priest try to motivate people by instilling fear: the lieutenant with a gun and the priest with the doctrine of hell.

    Because the priest loves his daughter, he cannot escape his fear for her future. Fear comes with love.

  • Mortality

    When a book starts with an image of vultures, you can probably bet this story has something to do with death. And guess what? You're totally right. The Power and the Glory is, at is core, a story about death—not just physical death, but spiritual and emotional death as well. Along with imagery of malarial eyes, tooth decay, and a dead child, Greene gives us the walking dead. No, not zombies chasing conventional plots, but real people who suffer so much in their day-to-day lives that death becomes almost meaningless. Wednesday Addams would be pleased.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Why is the lieutenant indignant at suffering but indifferent to death?
    2. How does the priest's understanding and approach to his mortality develop throughout the novel?
    3. Does the novel present the death of the Church as a real possibility? Why or why not?
    4. What is the relationship in the story between sin and death?

    Chew on This

    By ending the novel with the arrival of a new priest, Greene leaves his readers with the hope that the Church will overcome death.

    Because Padre José refuses to hear the priest's confession, the priest dies in a state of mortal sin and therefore has no hope for heaven.

  • Duty

    The Power and the Glory would have been plenty tense if it had merely dramatized the struggle of a hunted priest trying to minister to persecuted people, but Greene doesn't stop there. Instead, the book goes full Drama on us by putting the priest's chief duties into question. He's torn not only by the trial of doing his duty, but also by his uncertainty about where his responsibilities lie. Should he serve a populace when his ministry puts both him and those he serves into mortal peril? Should he really be the singular figure representing the Church when he's quite the opposite of a decent fellow? And ultimately—should he stay or should he go?

    Questions About Duty

    1. How do the Catholics that the priest serves understand their duty to him? What do they see as their responsibilities when the priest is present and also when he is away?
    2. Why do Mr. Lehr and Miss Lehr take in the priest?
    3. Why does Padre José tell his wife that he is a priest?
    4. What does the priest feel his duty is to the half-caste?

    Chew on This

    Both the lieutenant and the priest feel themselves duty-bound to the truth.

    Doing one's duty isn't always the right thing to do.

  • Power

    The Power and the Glory is a story concerned with power—you can tell that much just from looking at the title. The whole story is premised on an authoritarian government purging the state of all vestiges of Catholicism, but in addition to the power of the state, Greene explores the power of the Church, the power of the rich, and even the power of the poor. As an author, Greene is well aware of how all these levels of power interact and he's not afraid to show all their warts. Quick, someone get the duct tape—it's about to get bumpy.

    Questions About Power

    1. Which character has the most power in this story? How so?
    2. Why does the lieutenant fight against the influence of the Church and its ideas?
    3. Why does the priest say that it is out of his power to renounce the faith?
    4. How does the priest have more power while on the run than when he lived in relative luxury? How does he have less?

    Chew on This

    The lieutenant believes that getting rid of priests will eradicate the ideas they teach. He seems to think that these ideas get their power from the priests and not also the people, but the continuation of the faith in places where no priests can go proves him wrong.

    The Power and the Glory is as much a critique of clerical power as it is of governmental power: the novel highlights the corruptions of both equally.

  • Sin

    The Power and the Glory seems to have a subversive take on sin. According to Catholicism, sin always leads one away from God—sometimes in small ways, sometimes in large. The Church says that, as a rule, if one wants to be restored to a right relationship with God and avoid hell, they must confess to a priest with a contrite heart. Greene flips this notion on its head and presents us with a priest who's not fully contrite and cannot confess to another cleric, yet ultimately does the Lord's work with periodic heroism and grace. Is Greene standing on heretical ground? We wonder what the Pope would have to say about this.

    Questions About Sin

    1. Why does the priest tell the half-caste that the betrayal of friends is worse than theft and murder?
    2. How do the priest's known sins affect his ministry?
    3. Why does the half-caste perpetually insist on his innocence?
    4. How do the priest and the lieutenant differ in their understanding of suffering?

    Chew on This

    The lieutenant wants to make a world free of sin.

    Sin can be beautiful.

  • Hate

    Hate! Hate! Haaaaaaaate! Almost everyone in The Power and the Glory succumbs to hate—the ill will that seeks destruction. The priest falls to it. The lieutenant is motivated by it. The world of the novel teems with it. What distinguishes the characters is not the presence or absence of hatred, but what they choose to do out of whatever hatred they feel. Some hate passively, others actively; but in whatever way they hate, they close themselves off to one another. Those who live by hatred slowly die by hatred. They do not find peace even when they rid their world of what they despise.

    Questions About Hate

    1. What does Greene mean in the novel when he writes that hate is just a failure of imagination?
    2. What are the causes of hate in The Power and the Glory?
    3. Based on your reading of this novel, what might Greene think of the motto "Hate the sin, love the sinner"?
    4. Why does the love the lieutenant felt for the children of the state die out after he executes the priest?

    Chew on This

    The lieutenant's willingness to imprison and murder innocent people shows that he doesn't mind being hated.

    The lieutenant's attempt to reach out to the children in the capital suggests that he desires not to be hated.

  • Violence

    The Power and the Glory juxtaposes two conflicting beliefs about salvation and social order. In the priest, we get a man grudgingly bent on saving souls through his non-violent priestly duties. In the character of the lieutenant, we see a man intent on saving the world by shedding blood. The lieutenant trusts in violence to make a final and eternal purge of everything he calls evil. Pretty crazy, huh? For him, violence is the primary means of saving and ordering the world. He will cure the world from behind a gun. He's a firm believer in the saving power of destruction, and he's definitely the kind of guy we would not want to run into alone in a dark alleyway.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Why does the priest never consider fighting to be an option for him?
    2. Why do both the priest and the lieutenant not include killing among the worst of sins?
    3. Does Greene seem to believe that violence is necessary for the social order? Why or why not?
    4. Why does the novel depict violence either "off screen" or from a distance?

    Chew on This

    The lieutenant's reliance on violence proves to be effective.

    The lieutenant's reliance on violence proves to be ineffective.

  • Society and Class

    When a major character in a story is an idealistic socialist, chances are that the story will involve social and class conflicts. The Power and the Glory does not disappoint. It's like an even more miserable version of Les Miserables. Most of the action in the book takes place among the poor and impoverished. Basic needs like food and shelter motivate important decisions. Prospects of wealth and comfort tempt key individuals. Social inequalities abound, as do ideas about what ought to be done about them. If you want to understand the difference between the two lead character's moral visions, you have to account for how each responds to the divide between the rich and the poor.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. What does the lieutenant dislike about the Church's answer to poverty?
    2. According to the priest, what is the relationship between wealth and sin?
    3. Does the lieutenant really care about the suffering of the poor? Why or why not?
    4. Does the priest believe that, as a priest, he ought to live as a beggar? Explain.

    Chew on This

    The persecution of the Church has lowered the social standing of priests, but not raised the standing of the poor.

    The Power and the Glory supports the notion that being a saint matters more than being rich.

  • Religion

    What happens to a religion when its leaders are killed, its practices are outlawed, and its buildings are destroyed? The Power and the Glory explores these questions in a story about the suppression of the Catholic Church in Mexico. Greene isn't afraid to shake things up. The religion he depicts rides as much on fear and superstition as it does on charity and hope. It has its graces and its rot, its truth and its hypocrisy. This book is no attempt to prove the existence of God or the validity of the Catholic faith; it's a sympathetic and critical account of a people's religious struggles.

    Questions About Religion

    1. How is the practice of religion different after the persecution? How it is the same as before?
    2. Padre José has forsaken the priesthood, but does he still believe in God and the Church? What about the mestizo, who claims to be a good Christian, but plays the role of Judas—does he sincerely believe?
    3. How does the practice of Catholicism continue in places where there are no priests?
    4. Who in the story has the most faith or is the most religious? Why do you pick this character?

    Chew on This

    Greene sees hope for the Church's future in the inquisitive atheist Coral and the angry boy Luis—children who have grown up without the Church but who are in different ways deeply moved by it.

    Religious ceremony is less important than religious service.