The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
Penguin (1940). 240 pp.
There is something inextricably fascinating about the Catholic church. It’s quite a public denomination, and one that lends itself to political involvement quite easily. Especially in Mexico during the 1930s, when recognizing oneself as Catholic or, even moreso, a Catholic priest, was an automatic verbal signature to your death wish.
The whiskey priest, the only identification we’re given of our protagonist, plagues himself with the struggle between giving himself up as a martyr, and validating his mission on the physical earth. The government has given him two options: marry and live life as an ordinary citizen, or die. Our priest can’t justify either as less of a cop-out, so he chooses option three: run.
The irony of this all is that as he is running he is trying to make a martyr of himself. While he is “home” to hide out for the night, the military comes through town demanding information regarding the rogue priest. The entire town knows that the priest is in and among them–his tattered clothing blends him into the rest of the citizens–but no one, including him, speaks up. They run through the line of men, asking names and relations. The priest gives a pseudonym, and for further incentive to confess the officers take a young man hostage. The priest cries out, “take me!” but he does not confess to being the priest. Had he said, “take me! I’m the priest!” they would have killed him in the morning. Instead he just looks like a heartbroken mentor.
Greene originally titled this book and had it published under the title”The Labyrinthine Ways.” A labyrinth is a maze that consists of one non-branching path the entire way through. Interestingly enough, nothing about this book represents a labyrinth. A labyrinth suggests that no choice is required, but whichever way this book lies the subjects are faced with two or more opportunities, and they are forced to make a decision.
What’s interesting about this novel is that Greene does not paint a clear picture of who should be sympathized with and who should be loathed. The priest is most sympathized because he is the hero of the novel, but he is constantly endangering those around him by not voluntarily martyring himself. He is a very human image of leadership within the Catholic church, but his obsession with brandy highlights the weaknesses in his morality. His counterpart, the lieutenant, is loathed because he is pursuing the whiskey priest throughout the novel, but one scene particularly reveals his intense compassion for children. The mestizo is probably the most hated character in the novel. But why shouldn’t he turn the priest in? He needs the money, after all.
A reader need not know the inner workings of Catholicism in order to appreciate this novel. It is strikingly grounded; every character, whether meant to be hero or villain, is united in their humanness. There is no perfection in this book. And more than anything, that element draws the reader into the pages and beyond the story.