Brigida is the whiskey priest’s child, born from his one night of drunken passion with Maria more than six years earlier. In his absence, she has grown to be steely and unsentimental, a child of poverty who seems to have no interest in religion. She has adult features, and her face and her cynicism haunt the priest throughout his escape.
Carver is an infamous American gangster who has escaped to Mexico to evade the law. He is often referred to in the novel as ‘‘the Gringo,’’ an ethnic slur Mexicans in this novel use to describe Americans. The same policemen who are charged with capturing the whiskey priest are after him, and their photos are hung side-by-side over the desk of the police lieutenant. The priest is captured when he hears that the gangster, who has held an innocent young child in front of him to shield himself from bullets, is dying and wants to say confession. When the priest does show up, Carver denies asking for him, and he tries to chase the priest away before he can be trapped. Because he is a man of violence, he offers the priest his gun and knife with which to fight the law.
Captain Fellows runs the Central American Banana Company plantation. The whiskey priest hides out at his plantation for an evening while the Captain is away, having been invited by Captain Fellows’s daughter Coral. Later, when the plantation has been closed down and Coral has disappeared, Captain Fellows disagrees with his wife, who would like to go back to England, and wants to stay in Mexico instead.
Coral Fellows is a thirteen-year-old girl from England who is being raised in the Mexican jungle by her father, who runs a banana plantation, and her mother, who is chronically ill. Although she is a Protestant, not a Catholic, she has compassion for the whiskey priest when she finds him running from the law, and she lets him hide on the plantation. She teaches him a small amount of Morse code, which becomes a symbol for religious understanding between them. At the end of the novel, the plantation is deserted and her parents are living in a hotel. There is no mention of Coral’s fate, whether she has been arrested for aiding the priest or has run away.
Captain Fellows’s wife, Trixy, is presented as a coddled Englishwoman, taking to her bed for days at a time because of her headaches while around her the people of Mexico are dying of starvation.
As he is being pursued by the police, the whiskey priest is recognized by a half-caste, also referred to as a mestizo, a person of mixed racial background. This man rides beside the priest, asking leading questions intended to make the priest confess his identity. In crossing a river to catch up with him, the half-caste catches a fever, and the priest is able to leave him behind. Later, when the priest enters the capital city, he sees the half-caste in the company of police officers and finds out that they need him because he is the only person who can identify the priest. When he is in jail, the half-caste recognizes him but decides that the priest must continue to be hunted if the police are going to keep treating him as their honored guest, and so he says nothing. Later, when the priest has escaped across the border and is safe, the half-caste comes to him and says that the American gangster is dying and has requested a priest for confession. The priest knows that it is a trap, but he goes with the half-caste, giving the man who has led him to his doom his money and his brandy before the trap is set, and telling him to ride away before he is caught in the gunfire that is to come.
The jefe is the chief of police in the capital city. When the governor of the state orders that the last remaining priest must be caught and executed, the jefe turns the responsibility over to his lieutenant, not wanting to be responsible for the consequences if the political situation ever shifts back in the other direction.
Padre Jose´ When the law declared that priests had to renounce their priesthood or be executed, Padre Jose´ renounced his vows. To prove it, he married his housekeeper, which canceled his vow of celibacy. It is a loveless marriage, and Padre Jose´ avoids going to bed at night when his wife calls for him. Sitting in the darkness, he hears the neighborhood children mocking him from outside the gates of his home. When the whiskey priest comes to him for help with hiding from the police, Padre Jose´ refuses to take the chance because he is afraid of prosecution. At the end, the police lieutenant comes to Padre Jose´ with the whiskey priest’s request to say his confession, but Padre Jose´, fearing that it is just a trap to catch him participating in a Catholic rite, refuses to accompany the lieutenant to the jail.
Miss Lehr once lived in Pittsburgh, where she ran a hotel for musicians. She moved to Mexico to run her brother’s household after his wife died. She is not a Catholic, but she had a revelation once when she saw atrocities in a newspaper, and she seems to be on the verge of some religious revelation. Miss Lehr has aided another priest in his flight out of the state and tries to be helpful to this priest as well. She tells him thoughts and fears that she would not share even with her brother, indicating her loneliness.
Mr. Lehr is a German man who owns the plantation where the priest takes refuge when he crosses the border. He is a pacifist who left Germany when he was just a boy in order to avoid mandatory service in the military. Mr. Lehr does not believe in Catholicism. He is a businessman. Still, he is a congenial man who is glad to have the company of an intelligent person, and he allows the priest to stay in his house and even use his stables to conduct Mass, even though it is illegal.
The lieutenant is the police official in charge of capturing two wanted men, the American gangster and the fugitive whiskey priest. He is a devoted public servant: when the jefe suggests that he should take hostages from among the peasants to find the priest, he is personally opposed to the tactic, although he goes along with it. Readers can see that the lieutenant is actually a good man in the scene in which he releases the priest, who has been held in jail overnight: he does not recognize the priest from the old picture that is tacked to the wall behind him; taking him for a poor beggar, the lieutenant takes a coin out of his pocket to give to him. Later, when the lieutenant traps the priest and arrests him, the two of them have a philosophical discussion about the nature of goodness and government, and it becomes clear that the lieutenant sincerely feels that the government treats the people better than the church ever did. The lieutenant does what he can to make the priest’s last hours on earth bearable, going so far as to try to bring another priest in to hear his confession, although it is illegal and he himself does not believe in its redemptive powers.
Luis is a little boy who, along with his sisters, is read an inspirational story about a boy who was martyred. Although he is young, he is cynical and rejects the message that his mother is trying to impress on her children. At the end of the book, however, it becomes clear that the story his mother told him has in fact had an effect on Luis, as he invites a priest to hide in his house.
Maria is the mother of the whiskey priest’s daughter. When he returns to her village for the first time in six years, he does not recognize Maria, partly because of how she has changed and partly because they had little to do with each other, despite their brief affair. She is hard and cynical toward him when he comes back to the village to hide, but she helps him evade capture by pretending to be his wife. To save his life, she destroys the bottle of grape wine that he needs to conduct Mass and throws away his religious paraphernalia.
Miguel is the innocent hostage taken away from the small village in the jungle. He is taken by the police to force the priest to identify himself or to encourage one of his neighbors to turn the priest in, but no one speaks up. Later, when he is in jail in the capital, the priest sees Miguel, who has been beaten.
Mr. Tench is an alcoholic dentist who came to Mexico fifteen years ago, leaving his family behind in England. As the economy worsened, he gave up the idea of being able to send any usable money home. One of his two sons has died while he has been gone. He is stranded and miserable, despairing, in part because all alcohol stronger than beer has been outlawed by the revolution. When Tench tries to write a letter to his wife, Sylvia, he has to address it to Sylvia’s mother’s home because he does not know where his wife currently lives. At the end of the novel, Tench is working on the teeth of the chief of police when he hears the whiskey priest being executed outside; he is drawn to the window, recognizing the priest as someone he once talked to, and finds himself thinking about the political situation, which is something he has avoided for a long time.
The Whiskey Priest
The priest who is the protagonist of this novel is given no name, and is referred to only as ‘‘the priest’’ or ‘‘the whiskey priest.’’ The latter expression is a common one in the culture described in the story, used to describe a priest who has let himself fall into alcoholism. In the story, he avoids alcohol, mostly because it is unavailable. When he has a little money and finds someone who sells alcohol illegally, he tries to buy grape wine, which he can use for saying Mass. When he arrives in a safe haven, though, and he is able to charge the peasants for performing his priestly duties, he lets a seller of brandy talk him into buying three bottles, proving that his abstinence from liquor was driven by necessity and not by a desire to lead a cleaner life.
He is the last priest surviving in the southern Mexican state where religious practice has been outlawed. The authorities are hunting him with the same techniques they are using to hunt down a legendary thief and bandit who has come to their state to hide. His flight to the border, to another state where he might be able to live freely, is hindered throughout the novel when people beg him to perform sacraments for them with the power invested in him as a priest: he is asked to say Mass, hear confessions, and perform baptisms. Although doing so puts him at risk of exposure, he feels duty bound to comply.
His flight through the jungle takes the priest to the small village where he once had a church. It is there that he meets Brigida, his illegitimate child. Although he abandoned her long ago and finds that she has come to despise him in his absence, his thoughts constantly go back to her. The night before his death, when he finds himself locked in a cell and unable to clear his sins through confession, he thinks of her as a true reason for his life.
The whiskey priest makes no pretense of being a good man or motivated by his faith. He does not think much of the good things that he does, but only of his race to save his own life because he fears the pain of being shot.
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.