Graham Greene has been called a theoretical or automatic writer, in that he uses the objective perspective, with his narrative point of view roaming around from one image to another and one scene to the next without much commentary. In The Power and the Glory, for example, he presents a man on the run from both the law and his own uneasy lack of connection to the world. The narration does not need to dig deeply into the man’s thoughts to establish what is awry in his view of the world, though. How can readers be shown that he ruminates about his existence without going into his thoughts? Simple—the man is a priest. And how do readers know that he is more than just a living embodiment of the spirituality that priests aspire to? Because he is often referred to as a ‘‘whiskey priest,’’ which shows his understanding of what the world thinks of him. Oh, and any doubt about his moral complexity can be settled by the fact that he has fathered a child after giving in to his drunken lust one night, which is certainly not something that a Roman Catholic clergyman is supposed to do. The point is that Greene knows how to tell a lot about this character from his external circumstances, and he can tell a lot about the society that is persecuting the man by giving detailed accounts of his actions.
There are several characters in the novel who, though they are rendered with precision, are also functional, revealing what it meant to be a priest in Mexico in the early to middle twentieth century. Almost all of the children are used for pathos, as examples of innocence either lost or found. Coral Fellows, the daughter of the English plantation owners, is a good example. She has been raised a Protestant, and readers might expect her to follow her upbringing, but her imagination wanders toward Catholicism after she meets the fugitive priest; she represents the kind of clean-slate, childlike curiosity that only the wealthy can afford. Pedro, the boy who is the priest’s emissary to the people of the village where he finds himself finally able to operate in the open after months underground, is the conscience that keeps him tethered to the deep faith that has gotten him through his ordeal, as he finds himself thinking of squeezing the village’s peasants for greater and greater payment for his services.
Brigida, his illegitimate daughter, is also easily recognized as a force of conscience for the whiskey priest, though she has a dour, adult look in her eyes that makes the priest fear that his sins are out in the open for everyone to see; she stands in contrast to Pedro, whose trust in the priest projects a reputation that he feels he must live up to. In addition, the young boy Luis serves such a symbolic function that he does not even interact with the priest: his story runs through the novel on a parallel track, as he grows from a sadistic little cynic, a totalitarian tool in training, into a pro-religion revolutionary after the story read to him by his mother teaches him about a child like himself who stood up against religious persecution.
It is not only the young characters who function as symbolic objects in the novel. Green provides a range of characters who clearly have little purpose in the story except for their symbolic significance. Those are the characters who do not seem very bright, who do not appear to have much going on beneath their surface: the Lehrs, for instance, or the half-caste, or Padre Jose´.
Mr. Lehr’s function in the novel is fairly obvious. He is the man who comes from a traditional, calcified old European culture where religion is not a sentiment or a way to understand man’s place in the universe; it is nothing more than a cultural habit. This is driven home by the Gideon Bible that the priest finds in Mr. Lehr’s house: in a country where Bibles are forbidden texts and people are literally dying to get their hands on one, this particular version aims to sell its scripture to jaded travelers with the cheerful message that it is all about ‘‘Good News.’’ Mr. Lehr’s sister, Miss Lehr, has a little more complexity, but not much: She is the Lutheran who is broad-minded and good natured enough to wish well to anyone of any faith, charmingly naı¨ve in the way that she pines for her lost life in Pittsburgh while she sends the priest off to his death with sandwiches for the trip.
In another situation, the half-caste might seem to have a hidden personality, as he proves to be very clever for an uneducated man, with the constant evasions and protestations that he uses to hide his true intentions. In this book, though, his ruses only serve to show that the priest himself is too cynical about the world to let himself be fooled. In another context, the tragedy of Padre Jose´, who has saved his own life at the expense of any sliver of self-respect, could have borne enough weight in itself to carry the whole novel, but in The Power and the Glory his story just serves to highlight one facet of the whiskey priest’s complex psyche.
In light of all of these easily identifiable character functions, it may surprise the critics who call Greene cold, methodical, and impersonal that he would relate the book’s moment of high drama, the actual death of the character who has been running for his life, through a scene with two characters whose function is not all that clear. When the actual execution takes place, Greene’s narration is with neither the priest nor his philosophical counterpart, the police lieutenant: the shot that ends the priest’s life is heard from within the office of Mr. Tench, the alcoholic dentist, as he is working on the tooth that has been bothering the chief of police throughout the entire novel.
On one level, it is easy to see how these two characters function in the book. They have the same duty that Padre Jose´ has: showing limited versions of characters more complex than themselves. When Mr. Tench ushers the book through its first few pages, he establishes a lower standard for behavior than readers are probably used to in their own lives. He drinks whatever he can get his hands on and he has no aspiration beyond drunkenness. Even his name prepares readers for the hopelessness that they are going to encounter in the coming pages: he is called ‘‘Mr.’’ and not ‘‘Dr.,’’ while ‘‘Tench,’’ used in a dentist office, is an echo of trench mouth, an oral infection that was prevalent throughout World War I. This dentist is neither accredited nor sanitary. When he meets the priest, their alcoholism forms a bond between them. Tench mistaking the priest for a doctor has a dual function. On the one hand, it is as careless to call him a doctor as it would be to call Tench one, showing that this is a place where formality is irrelevant, but readers soon learn that the priest is just as conscientious in his duty to care for people’s souls as a doctor is sworn to be about caring for their bodies.
The chief of police, the jefe, is of course used to throw light on the lieutenant who serves under him. The lieutenant follows through with capturing the priest for a number of reasons, ranging from a sense of duty to a sense of solidarity with the peasants, who he feels are being exploited by religion. The jefe has no such high-minded motives. His only concern is his toothache. He is below ideology; his only enemy is his own body.
These two characters are significant for what they can show readers about the book’s two main characters. Even so, it is strange that Greene should put them into such an important strategic position in the book. If execution is the culmination of the struggle that has been going on between the hunted and hunter, priest and policeman, spiritual and worldly representatives, then one would expect that the jefe’s trip to the dentist is meant to provide a parallel-world interpretation of that struggle, a parody of it.
In fact, that is exactly what it does. In the main story, bureaucratic efficiency triumphs over religious sentiment. The fugitive priest is captured and almost immediately executed, in part because the lives of innocent hostages have been taken. In the office of the shabby pseudo-dentist, however, the authority figure is at the mercy of the same entropy that is pulling Mexican society apart. Focusing on this scene allows Greene to show that it is not a land of efficient lawmen who enforce constitutional mandates against the clergy after all. It is a land of drunken priests and married priests, of police informants who delay their informing in order to enjoy the good life in jail, and where hopeless refugees are the best available practitioners when dental work needs to be done. One reading of this scene could be that the jefe treats his toothache as more important than the death of a good man, but Greene makes it clear that, the physical world being what it is, so long as men like Mr. Tench have even the slightest glimmer of what it used to be like to have a conscience, the totalitarian government will always be vulnerable.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Graham Greene, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
David Kelly, Critical Essay on The Power and the Glory, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.