Graham Greene was born October 2, 1904, at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England, the fourth of six children. His exposure to books at an early age fueled his ambitions to travel and to write. After a troubled adolescence, during which he ran away from home and ended up in psychoanalysis, he enrolled at Oxford University, where he studied from 1922 to 1925 and wrote his only collection of poetry, Babbling April (1925). During that time, Vivien Dayrell-Browning, his future wife, wrote to him about an error concerning Catholic beliefs she had noticed in one of his film reviews; her letter triggered his examination of and eventual immersion in Catholic thought. Greene married Dayrell-Browning in 1927. He converted to Catholicism in 1926, and his religion greatly influenced his writing for the next 25 years. The End of the Affair (1951) marked his last novel written from a Catholic perspective.
The Power and the Glory chronicles the plight of a Catholic priest who, for eight years, has continued to say Mass and administer the sacraments, even though Mexico’s revolutionary government has outlawed these practices. Knowing that he will be executed if he is caught, the priest moves from village to village carrying on the work of the Church. He is relentlessly pursued by a nameless young lieutenant of police, a revolutionary who believes that the new government can help mitigate poverty; the lieutenant despises the Church for ministering to spiritual needs while ignoring poverty. The priest, however, believes that faith in the Church’s teachings provides hope for the poor and oppressed. Because he considers himself a sinner, the priest empathizes with others who are weak, and feels compelled to fulfill his priestly duties despite the threat of execution. But the lieutenant sets traps for the priest by killing hostages in the villages where the priest has held Mass and by luring him with liquor. The inevitable confrontation between these two men brings the novel to a dramatic climax.
The conflict between the novel’s two main characters, the “whisky priest” and the lieutenant, parallels the tension between the novel’s two overlapping themes-the spiritual theme of religious faith and devotion, and the political theme of the Church’s obligation to aid the poor. Although Greene seems to sympathize with the priest, and thus with the belief that the Church’s primary obligation to the poor is spiritual rather than political or economic, his novel is more than a simple-minded tale of faith and devotion.
Greene uses several techniques that complement his religious themes. For example, the priest is detained three times when he is on the verge of escaping, called back each time to administer last rites to a dying person. This kind of repetition is common to all mythologies, and the particular plot motif of calling three times is deeply rooted in the Bible. Greene, a master of suspense, plays myth against plot line. The reader, as well as the priest, knows that the half-caste must betray the whisky priest so that the priest can attain martyrdom, but no one is sure when the betrayal will happen or how it will affect the symbolic crucifixion.
Greene has always been a provocative, controversial writer, often offending people either because of their political or religious beliefs. Although there is nothing offensive about the story itself in The Power and the Glory, the underlying views about Catholicism might cause concern. According to Greene, even the Vatican was divided. Pope Paul VI, on hearing that the book, which he had read, had been condemned by the Holy Office, replied: “Mr. Greene, some parts of your books are bound to offend some Catholics, but you should pay no attention to that.”
VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. In what ways does the lieutenant believe the Church has failed the people? What evidence does the novel produce to support his view?
The Power and the Glory was adapted for the screen by Dudley Nichols and directed and produced by John Ford as The Fugitive in 1947. Although Ford is considered a great filmmaker, the movie was not commercially successful, and it is considered by many critics to be Ford’s weakest film. The film did receive some good reviews when it was first released, notably from the New York Times, which called it a “thundering modern parable on the indestructibility of faith.” But the film tried to cater to conventional expectations of priestly conduct: Henry Fonda, as the priest, is a stronger person than Greene’s character, and the lieutenant, who is portrayed as a complete fanatic, is made the father of the illegitimate child. These attempts to purify the priest rob Greene’s vision of its power. On the other hand, in 1961 CBS produced a television version that was more faithful to the novel, and viewers were outraged at Sir Laurence Olivier’s portrayal of the priest. The television adaptation cast George C. Scott as the lieutenant and Julie Harris as Maria, the woman with whom the whisky priest fathered a child.