Until I read Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory, I was not aware of a time in the 1930’s when one Mexican state outlawed Catholicism and priests were rounded up and shot. This historical backdrop presents both a mesmerizing character study and a psychological and spiritual thriller as two unnamed players make their way to a final showdown.
The lieutenant lives by the law of the land. He is idealistic, rigid in his beliefs, absolute in his thoughts as he pursues the final priest in his state. On the outside, he is cold and calculating, taking and killing hostages from the villages that refuse to give up the priest. Greene gives the the reader a glimpse inside the lieutenant, though. Remembering wrongs committed by the church during his childhood, the lieutenant becomes less black and white and more gray. I would say that this is typical of Greene; however, this is the first of his novels that I’ve read, so I can’t really say what is typical of him. He paints his characters so well that I can’t help but feel I’ve read more of his work than I actually have. The lieutenant, though, is not the focal character of this novel.
As the priest travels from village to village seeking safety that’s never really there, the reader becomes acquainted with his beliefs, too. Beliefs that are a mixture of faith and doubt and resignation and fear. Unlike the lieutenant, the priest hangs on to his idealism by a very thin thread. He’s always one step away from that thread being completely severed. He refers to himself as a “whiskey priest” (no explanation is really needed as to why he calls himself that) and his sins haunt him throughout his running in the form of dreams. He’s also not afraid to charge money for baptisms which are outlawed. Being illegal makes them more valuable.
In spite of his many flaws, the priest is portrayed with a good heart. One of the most tragic scenes in the novel involves the priest attempting to save a boy who had been shot three times in a deserted village. While he exerts every effort to save the boy, the boy’s mother hovers around him at a distance like an animal unsure of the stranger and whether he is helping or hurting her child. This passage of a few pages is probably one of the most frightening I’ve read this year and epitomizes the priest’s isolation.
Greene seemlessly ends his grim tale in what I thought was a humorous note. Even with all of the ambiguity between the beliefs of his two characters, Greene seems to point out that religious faith, for better or worse, is difficult to simply “shoot down”.