51 pages 1 hour read

Graham Greene

The Power and the Glory

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1940

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (originally published in 1940) recounts the tragic story of the whisky priest. His religion has been outlawed, his faith shattered, and his history—like his name—all but erased. He’s relentlessly pursued by the lieutenant, whose secular beliefs are as passionate as others’ spiritual beliefs. The priest’s mere presence endangers those he once served, and he constantly struggles to fulfill his duty to bring comfort and absolution to others at the expense of his personal safety, though he falters in his faith and considers himself a bad priest (an attachment to drink led him to father a child). Often regarded as Greene’s masterpiece, the novel grapples with questions of belief and authority, of doubt and compassion, in a bleak setting where poverty and struggle rule the day. The novel was awarded the Hawthornden Prize and was loosely adapted into the 1947 John Ford film The Fugitive, starring Henry Fonda.

All quotations in this guide refer to the 1986 Penguin paperback edition. This edition retains British standards of punctuation and spelling.

Content Warning: The book contains racial stereotypes and uses outdated terminology.

Plot Summary

The whisky priest is on the run. His vocation makes him a traitor in the eyes of the authorities, since the Mexican state has outlawed the Catholic Church. The other priests either fled the territory or, like Padre José, agreed to enforced marriages, effectively severing their sacred vows. The whisky priest, however, stayed behind, traveling from place to place, hearing confessions, and secretly holding Mass.

In Part 1, at a coastal village, the priest meets Mr. Tench, the local dentist, who is delighted that this stranger speaks some English. The priest seeks Lopez, whom Mr. Tench informs him was shot. In addition, the priest hopes to board a boat to get to the next town. All alcohol but beer is banned, so when Mr. Tench hears that the priest has brandy, he invites him into his home. As they drink, Mr. Tench tells the priest about his wife and children, with whom he hasn’t spoken in years, back home in England. A knock at the door interrupts them: A child begs the priest to help his sick mother, so he leaves, bitter over being discovered again and missing his boat. While Mr. Tench doesn’t know the stranger is a priest, he suspects that the book the man left behind is a Bible.

Meanwhile, the lieutenant has learned that another priest still roams his territory. He’s to capture and execute this priest, along with an American fugitive wanted for bank robbery and murder. The lieutenant is most intent on finding the priest because he considers religion and (especially) the Church corrupt and useless. Nevertheless, the people still believe: As the lieutenant receives his orders, a mother reads her children the story of Young Juan, a boy who becomes a priest and is martyred by the authorities. Her son, Luis, has heard the story too many times. Besides, his experience of priests is limited to Padre José (a mockery now that he has consented to marry) and the whisky priest, whom the family briefly sheltered. Instead, Juan admires the soldiers who march by their window.

The priest seeks shelter at a banana plantation, operated by expatriate Captain Fellows, and befriends his daughter, Coral, who brings the priest beer and food despite her father’s objection and her rejection of religion. The lieutenant has questioned Captain Fellows, so he knows that the priest can bring his family nothing but trouble. The priest leaves in the morning. After a day’s grueling travel, he comes upon a small village whose residents haven’t seen a priest in years and all clamor for his ministrations. He’s exhausted but acquiesces to their demands.

In Part 2, the whisky priest returns to his former parish in Concepción but receives a cold greeting: The lieutenant and his men have started taking hostages from the villages to extract information on the priest’s whereabouts. Maria, the mother of his child, lets him stay the night, and he plans to perform a brief Mass before daybreak. His daughter, Brigitta, is disobedient and disrespectful toward him; he nevertheless feels deep love for her, refusing to repent her existence.

The police arrive early the next day and round up the villagers. No one betrays the priest, though the police take a hostage. The priest leaves his former parish, bearing a heavy burden of guilt. He decides to follow the police; he must get to a town because Maria discarded his wine, which he needs to perform a proper Mass. On his journey, he encounters a mestizo, who offers to accompany him. However, the priest knows that the impoverished man is motivated by greed: He intends to betray the priest and reap the reward money. When they stop to rest for the night, the priest tries to escape the mestizo, who grows feverish with illness, but he has hidden the mule’s saddle. Once they set off again together in the morning, the whisky priest extricates himself from the mestizo, who has become increasingly ill and agrees to attest that the priest hasn’t been to the neighboring village—no more hostages will be taken—while the priest heads for the capital.

In the capital, the priest secures some wine, but the men who sell it to him consume it. He drinks brandy instead and is arrested when he encounters police since alcohol is illegal. After spending the night in a cell, confessing that he’s a priest, he’s sure that he’s finally caught. However, in the morning, no one will betray him, not even the mestizo, who has likewise traveled to the capital. The mestizo wants to wait until the priest is free again; his reward will then be substantial. The lieutenant, in turn, doesn’t recognize him—in the old photo he has, the priest is overweight and happy—and sets him free.

Returning to the Fellows homestead, the priest finds it mysteriously deserted. Starving and desperate, he stumbles upon an Indigenous woman guarding a dying child in another deserted village. The boy was shot and quickly dies. The woman speaks little Spanish, but the priest understands that the American fugitive shot the boy; this must be why the Fellows family fled their property. He follows the woman to a graveyard, where she lays the boy next to a cross. The priest moves on, feverish and weak from hunger. He hears a voice saying that he has reached “our church” (158) and falls into a deep sleep.

Part 3 begins with the whisky priest resting at the residence of the Lehrs, German American Protestants, who took him in and gave him fresh clothes and food. Though Mr. Lehr mildly disapproves of Catholic rituals, they allow him to hear confession in their barn, and he plans to hold Mass in the village church. The priest thinks he can earn enough to escape to Las Casas, where he won’t be pursued or persecuted, and set up a home. Before he can leave, however, the mestizo arrives: The American was mortally wounded and has asked for a priest. The priest knows without a doubt that this is a trap yet follows the mestizo.

Finding the gringo near death, the priest implores him to confess his sins. The American refuses, instead urging the priest to save himself. After the gringo dies, the lieutenant approaches. The priest is finally caught. The lieutenant, however, affords him some respect: They’ll travel to the capital for the trial and execution, and he’ll honor the priest’s request to seek someone to hear his confession. Padre José refuses—his wife won’t let him leave—but the lieutenant gives the priest a flask of brandy as he awaits execution in the morning. The priest spends the night lamenting his life’s uselessness. If only, he thinks, he’d been a saint.

Part 4 begins the next morning. The many bystanders who encountered the whisky priest react to the execution. The Fellowses are leaving Mexico, unable to speak of their daughter’s death. Captain Fellows wonders whether the traitor who is being shot is the priest with whom Coral was so taken. Mr. Tench recognizes the man being executed as the stranger with whom he spoke of his long-lost children over drinks. He resolves leave Mexico for good. The mother finishes reading the story of Young Juan to her children, and Luis asks if the man who was shot is a martyr. His mother, despite her previous reservations about the often-drunken priest, says yes. That night, Luis dreams of the whisky priest, but a knock at the door startles him awake. He answers it and finds another priest in need of shelter. Before the man can introduce himself, Luis bends to kiss his hand.

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