Damnation and Redemption: Religious Themes of Suffering and Humanity in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory

Still from John Ford’s The Fugitive, a 1947 film version of Greene’s The Power and the Glory. (RKO Pictures)

The Power and the Glory is set in Mexico in the late 1920s in a period of time when the government had outlawed the clergy and many priests found themselves fleeing persecution.   The story involves the wanderings of a particular priest (we are not given his name, he is described only as a ‘whiskey priest’) as he makes his way through a shadowy and desolate landscape, from village to village, trying to stay ahead of the authorities and relying on the impoverished strangers he encounters for food and succour.  Graham Greene’s protagonist is what we might nowadays describe as an anti-hero in as much as he is both flawed and compromised.   Not only is he an alcoholic, but he has also illicitly fathered a child. When it was still legitimate for priests to proselytize out in the open, he enjoyed every luxury his position provided and burned with greater ambition still: ‘He wasn’t content to remain all his life the priest of a not very large parish. His ambitions came back to him now as something faintly comic’.[1]

The protagonist is a decidedly modern character in terms of his dissolution.  There is contained within him a particle of the anomie and listlessness of a modern world; in a Nietzschean-like fashion, it is all too easy for this often vacillating and timid priest to imagine that God is dead.  The moment of nihilism is encouraged by the darkness which falls over the desert at night, the elemental shadows of the forest, and the sense of this small rotund figure making his way through the murky blackness, a blind creature groping its way toward an uncanny fate: ‘It was evening and forest; monkeys crashed invisibly among the trees with an effect of clumsiness and recklessness, and what were probably snakes hissed away like match-flames through the grass. He wasn’t afraid of them. They were a form of life, and he could feel life retreating from him all the time.’[2]  There are times in the novel when the world itself is regarded from the same lonely, lofty purview: ‘it would roll heavily in space under its fog like a burning and abandoned ship.’[3]

The stark poetry, the sense of a vast cosmological loneliness acts to throw into relief the priest’s own struggle.  Here he is, pressing through the dismal darkness, encountering the fleeting, haunting faces of the impoverished peasants, trying to survive and yet it is in this condition – reduced to an elemental sense of being, stripped of all artifice and privilege – where he most explicitly and violently encounters the most fundamental questions of his existence. In the shadowy hinterlands between life and death it is there where the cardinal elements of his personality – his strengths and frailties – are revealed, laid bare, in all their truth.  As a priest with a comfortable life, both content and privileged, his was an existence taken for granted, a complacent existence – and despite the eloquence of his proselytising – in many ways a thoughtless one.  Now such privilege is removed from him by the brutal mechanics of fate – moving through the isolation and harshness of the plains and mountains, he is compelled to fall through a different type of darkness.  An inner darkness, where he must confront nakedly every unsavoury and pious act of his past, where he is forced to question his faith and to discover those moments in his personal history that might provide the clue to some kind of redemption in the meagre amount of time he has left.

Integral to this is his daughter.  Greene draws children with such arch delicacy, and the small impoverished girl, Brigitta, is no exception.  The priest takes refuge in her village, and does not recognise his daughter at first, a girl whose ‘seven-year-old body was like a dwarf’s; it disguised an ugly maturity’.[4]  The child is dressed in rags, has endured terrible poverty, and yet has adapted to her hardship seamlessly, knowing of no other world outside the boundaries of her village; she is in one moment sly and mischievous, the next wide-eyed and credulous.  For the whiskey priest the child is in some sense is the embodiment of his sin – ‘they had spent no love in her conception: just fear and despair and half a bottle of brandy and the sense of loneliness had driven him to an act which horrified him’.[5]  When he sees her it ‘was like seeing his own mortal sin look back at him, without contrition’[6] but how could the child be ‘contrite’? How could she be ashamed of her own existence, and where is the justice in a world which says she should?  The priest is pulled between the two currents of shame and love, and every time he glances shyly at his child – the living reminder of his indelible sin – ‘this sacred shame-faced overpowering love was the result.’[7]  When he finds her she does not know him for her father, just one more curiosity who has come wandering into her world.  When she finally discovers who he is, she is struck by petulant childish fury, for the other children have teased her about her priest father who they say does not work.  She looks at him reprimandingly:

‘Pedro says you aren’t a man. You aren’t any good for women.’ She said, ‘I don’t know what he means’…

He was appalled again by her maturity, as she whipped up a smile from a large and varied stock.  She said, ‘Tell me –’ enticingly. She sat there on the trunk of the tree by the rubbish tip with an effect of abandonment.  The world was in her heart already, like the small spot of decay in a fruit.  She was without protection – she had no grace, no charm to plead for her; his heart was shaken by the conviction of loss. He said, ‘My dear, be careful…’

He came a little nearer; he thought – a man may kiss his own daughter, but she started away from him. ‘Don’t you touch me,’ she screeched at him in her ancient voice and giggled … He saw her fixed in her life like a fly in amber – Maria’s hand raised to strike: Pedro talking prematurely in the dusk; and the police beating the forest – violence everywhere. He prayed silently, ‘O God, give me any kind of death – without contrition, in a state of sin – only save this child.’’[8]

There is so much of note in these sparse, spare frugal lines, such desolate poetry. The evocation of a little girl who has developed a preternatural maturity coloured with a hint of cynicism, infected as she has been by the remorselessness of the world she has been born into –‘The world was in her heart already, like the small spot of decay in a fruit.’  And yet, it is this intimation of worldliness which makes of her most a child, most vulnerable; in one moment she speaks in an ‘ancient voice’ and in the next she ‘giggles’ – and the priest decides, even in the face of damnation it is the happiness of the child which is most sacred to him: ‘He went down on his knees and pulled her to him, while she giggled and struggled to be free: ‘I love you. I am your father and I love you.  Try to understand that.’’[9]

Like a hunted animal, the priest is forced to move on, to leave his daughter, and to head toward the mountains, though it seems as though he has no real destination. At a river he meets another man, a ‘mestizo’, a ‘half caste’ who has ‘only two teeth left, canines which stuck yellowy out of either end of his mouth like the teeth you find enclosed in clay which have belonged to long-extinct animals’.[10]   Like many of Greene’s characters the mestizo is vividly drawn with just a few deft strokes, he is imbued with profound social realism. In this figure, Greene captures something true about the degrading and warping effects of absolute poverty; the mestizo is a tramp, a fantasist and much else besides.  The hardness of his existence has caused his personality to narrow and ossify into a single abiding aim; he is concerned only with the immediacies of improving his own situation. The people who come into his orbit are merely the means by which this might be affected through sinister, vulpine cunning.  He very quickly registers that the priest – who ineffectively endeavours to hide his identity – is indeed a priest, on the run, with a bounty on his head.  The mestizo trails the priest throughout his wanderings, sometimes crudely and perversely trying to appear in the guise of a friend, soliciting intimacy, sleazy and cajoling – sometimes he resorts to menace and naked threats. Throughout we see the pathetic nature of the mestizo thrown into relief by an absolute and ruthless appetite for survival that is oblivious to the lives of others: ‘‘If you move, I’ll shout,’ the half-caste complained bitterly.  The priest waited: there was nothing else to do; he was at the man’s mercy – a silly phrase, for those malarial eyes had never known what mercy was.’[11] Alongside the mestizo’s ruthless cunning and acquisitive nature, Greene gives his character a strong streak of self-pity – acutely observed – for self-pity is often the corollary of absolute self-interest.  When the mestizo has the priest in his power, he begins to speak his thoughts out loud, wondering ruefully if he will be able to collect the reward for selling the other man out, and lamenting the injustices which might separate him from his prize ‘‘It’s my job, isn’t it, to find you. Who’s going to have the reward if they’ve got you already?’… He brooded unhappily. ‘You can’t trust a soul these days.’’[12]

The mestizo is excellently described; volatile and self-interested, he lurches from cloying sentimentality to murderous artifice.  You get the impression of someone who has been so thoroughly unmoored from the world by poverty and social stigma, that for years he has only known himself – has only had himself to rely on, to talk to – and has thus become pathologically incapable of seeing others as truly rounded or real individuals in their own right.  For this reason, his is a character which is infrequent in the literary pantheon; he is both chilling and wretched.   But although the mestizo is born of social contradictions which are teased out and embodied in his fearful dogged behaviour, there is another level, another aspect to Greene’s character which is less about social realism and more about religious parable.  Along with its reality, there is as well a dimension of unreality to the mestizo; he appears to the priest as he wanders through the shadowy landscape, and with those ‘yellow tusks’ and those ‘malarial eyes’ he could almost be a hallucination visited upon the whiskey priest in the midst of alcohol, hopelessness and delirium. In this sense the mestizo is as much a cipher as a person; he is in some way the materialisation in concentrated form of all the priest’s own most negative traits; the avarice, the duplicity, the self-serving rationalisations and the cowardice.  The mestizo is unshakeable; he becomes as much a part of the priest’s reality as his limbs.  Perhaps, given Greene’s virtuoso ability to channel the most profound religious themes, the mestizo also embodies sin; the sins of the world which could work to fashion such a creature, the sins of the priest himself who must pay penance by pulling the mestizo along in his wake until finally the latter performs his inevitable Judas’ kiss.

If the mestizo represents sin, then the lieutenant who pursues the priest – dogged and implacable – represents fate, the inevitability of destiny, the interminable pressure which is shrinking the priest’s world further and further to the point of nothingness.  The lieutenant is utterly ruthless; he is almost … pure in his hate.  He trails the priest from village to village, and when the poor peasants are reluctant to give up information as to his quarry’s whereabouts he shoots several as an example to the rest.  He has a loathing of privilege, and despite his hatred of religion, he has an almost puritanical devotion to the rule of law and a withering faith in the frailty and corruptibility of his fellow human beings.  In this, perhaps, he has something in common with the Catholicism he is so intent on destroying.  Indeed Greene suggests throughout the novel that there is something of the religious fanatic in the lieutenant; his utterly single-minded pursuit of his quarry, his black and white moral compass, his ruthlessness, and his Spartan indifference to wealth or social standing:

The lieutenant walked home through the shuttered town. All his life had lain here: the Syndicate of Workers and Peasants had once been a school.  He had helped wipe out that unhappy memory. The whole town was changed: the cement playground up the hill near the cemetery where iron swings stood like gallows in the moony darkness was the site of the cathedral …. There was something of a priest in his intent observant walk – a theologian going back over the errors of the past to destroy them again.

He reached his own lodgings … The windows on the street were barred. Inside the lieutenant’s room there was a bed made of old packing-cases with a straw mat laid on top, a cushion and a sheet.  There was a picture of the President on the wall, a calendar, and on the tiled floor a table and a rocking-chair. In the light of the candle it looked as comfortless as a prison or a monastic cell.[13]

The ‘monastic cell’, the ‘theologian going back …’, the ‘priest in his intent observant walk’ – all of it denotes how the dour lieutenant is in the grip of his own religious fervour, only his belief comes from an absolute and dogmatic faith in ‘the Syndicate of Workers and Peasants’ rather than any supernatural power. In this way, the character of the lieutenant is deployed as a quasi-religious allegory – the force of nemesis that has been unleased against the once complacent and self-satisfied priest.   But just as with the mestizo, there are two dimensions to the character; on the one hand the lieutenant is simply a cipher – the transcendental agent of the priest’s downfall.  At the same time, however, Greene is able to humanise that same character with a few deft phrases – to show how the lieutenant has been indelibly shaped by the social-historical contradictions of the world he has inherited.   Behind his pristine devotion to the law and the clinical persecutions he enacts in its name, there is a yawning sense of nothingness – ‘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.’[14]   Underneath this too, there is something else, something more; something unformed and elemental – the distant echo of his own childhood marked out by poverty and suffering: ‘this was his own land, and he would have walled it in if he could with steel until he had eradicated from it everything which reminded him of how it had once appeared to a miserable child. He wanted to destroy everything; to be alone without any memories of all’.[15]  Behind the semblance of law and order, then, there lives this bleak, black nihilism, and behind that, the image of a frightened, poverty-stricken little boy.  Greene handles these psychological details so finely; he never depicts a specific event from the lieutenant’s earliest years, never describes any of the characters he came into contact with as a boy, and yet we are left with the indelible impression that a shattered childhood has set the basis for the reconstruction of an adult personality that seeks an almost religious consolation in the black and white certainties of political dogma and a repressive secular state.  Whereas the mestizo has not a single redeeming quality, the lieutenant is, in a warped, perverted way, trying to seek some level of justice for the impoverished people whom the priests of the past have deceived and exploited.

In the concluding part of the book the priest is given a choice.  He is on the cusp of reaching safety but the mestizo reappears and tells him a dying man has requested the priest’s presence in order to make a ‘deathbed’ confession.  The priest suspects a trap.  In fact he is almost certain of it. And yet there exists the possibility of the man dying in a state of mortal sin so the priest – wearily and exhausted – summons up the energy to make a journey with the ‘half-caste’ one last time in order to tend to the man.  When he arrives his suspicions are confirmed, there is a wounded man, but he has not requested to confess.  The trap is sprung, and the priest is arrested.  In the hours before his execution the priest converses with the lieutenant who has been hunting him so remorselessly.   They play cards.  In one way the scene is quite understated.  Terse.  They talk of wealth and poverty and religion; the lieutenant laconic, the priest holding forth nervously.  What I think is so well handled in the scene is the humanity of the priest which is riven with fallibility – on the very eve of his execution the priest even attempts weak jokes, obviously in a state of nervous anxiety: ‘‘You’ll know all there is to know about me at this rate,’ the priest said, with a nervous giggle.’[16]  The priest is eloquent but at times he rambles, he loses the direction of his thoughts, he vacillates, he wonders to himself if he might bargain for some kind of reprieve as the prospect of his death begins to assume very real dimensions.  In other words, this is not martyrdom or saintliness as we know it; ‘‘Oh no. Martyrs are not like me’, he tells the lieutenant. ‘They don’t think all the time – if I had drunk more brandy I shouldn’t be so afraid.’’[17]  This is as much an inner monologue as one directed toward the lieutenant; the voice of a frightened fallible man trying to come to terms with his impending doom, clutching to his beliefs – those elements in his religion and the life he has known – that will somehow steady him, somehow allow him to bear the feelings of fear, in the moments before the axe falls.

The lieutenant is surely and suspicious throughout the interview: ‘I’ve shot three hostages because of you. Poor men. It made me hate you … Those men I shot. They were my own people. I wanted to give them the whole world’.[18]   And yet, the lieutenant is fascinated by the humanity of the priest, for he has returned to face the more secular judgement of the executioner’s pistol and is not filled with pious platitudes but rather seems to shrink – not only before the prospect of his own death, but also the prospect of God: ‘I don’t know a thing about the mercy of God: I don’t know how awful the human heart looks to Him, but I do know this – if there has ever been a single man in this state dammed, then I’ll be dammed too.’[19] There is, of course, no possibility of a happy ending, and the lieutenant’s political ideology remains unswayed by notions of heaven or damnation, but nevertheless the human ambiguity which underlies the priest’s strange, meek brand of courage does manage to touch the lieutenant on some level.  At the end of the scene the lieutenant, on a whim, decides to acquiesce to the priest’s final request – to have another priest brought in to hear the condemned man’s confession.  A small shift perhaps, but a significant one when we consider the sheer hatred the lieutenant has opposed to religious ritual throughout.  The other priest is not prepared to take the risk, to place himself in such danger.  So the whiskey priest dies without being able to confess to another clergyman.  But he is able to confess to us?  As he lies alone sipping some brandy he has been granted as a mercy he thinks of his daughter again and says out loud in the gloom: ‘Oh God, help her. Damn me, I deserve it, but let her live for ever.’  As an afterthought he thinks to himself:

This was the love he should have felt for every soul in the world: all the fear and the wish to save concentrated unjustly on the one child.  He began to weep; it was as if he had to watch her from the shore drown slowly because he had forgotten how to swim. He thought: This is what I should feel all the time for everyone, and he tried to turn his brain away towards the half-caste, the lieutenant … For those were all in danger too. He prayed, ‘God help them,’ but in the moment of prayer he switched back to his child beside the rubbish-dump, and he knew it was for her only that he prayed. Another failure.[20]

The reader, of course, recognises it as his greatest triumph.  The paragraph is unbearably moving.  And even if the priest dies in mortal sin according to the letter of religious law, in terms of its content, he dies redeemed.

If one puts stock in such things, one can’t help but feel it was an injustice that Graham Greene never won the Nobel Prize for Literature given the sparse, philosophical, almost transcendent perfection of a novel like this one.   In The Power and the Glory Greene creates a landscape in which the single human life is taken toward the very edge of the abyss, peering into the infinite reserves of black beyond, and by so doing the author not only raises to the level of the aesthetic the most profound religious themes of sin and redemption, but is also able to illuminate with tragic poetry the way the little figure of the priest reveals its full humanity before the vast gathering darkness that is arrayed against it. And though Greene never received a Nobel Prize, he was able to obtain a much greater distinction.  In 1960 a teacher wrote to Graham Greene.  She had passed his novel to a Mexican woman who had lived through the religious persecutions of the time.  The teacher recalled of the Mexican: ‘She confessed that your descriptions were so vivid, your priest so real, that she found herself praying for him at Mass.  I understood how she felt.  Last year, on a trip through Mexico, I found myself peering into mud huts, through village streets, and across impassable mountain ranges, half-believing that I would glimpse a dim figure stumbling in the rain on his way to the border.’[21]   After everything else, it seems the whiskey priest does attain life after death.  For he continues his wanderings – his strange crepuscular peregrination – through the softly-lit villages, the eerie shadowy plains, the forests and the mountains, of our minds.


[1] Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (Vintage, London: 2004) p.92

[2] Ibid p.156

[3] Ibid p.23

[4] Ibid p.65

[5] Ibid p.63

[6] Ibid p.64

[7] Ibid p.63

[8] Ibid pps., 78-9

[9] Ibd p.79

[10] Ibid p.81

[11] Ibid p.135

[12] Ibid p.135

[13] Ibid p.18-19

[14] Ibid p.19

[15] Ibid p.19

[16] Ibid p.194

[17] Ibid p.194

[18] 196

[19] Ibid p.198

[20] Ibid p.20

[21] Ibid p.vi  (introduction)

Tony McKenna’s journalism has been featured by Al Jazeera, Salon, The Huffington Post, ABC Australia, New Internationalist, The Progressive, New Statesman and New Humanist. His books include Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective (Macmillan), The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin (Sussex Academic Press), Toward Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art  (Zero Books), The War Against Marxism: Reification and Revolution (Bloomsbury) and The Face of the Waters (Vulpine). He can be reached on twitter at @MckennaTony