Literary Qualities

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 also uses the conventions of the stories of the saints’ lives. At the opening of the story, a woman is reading the story of a martyr to her children. Greene parodies the romantic nature of these stories: the martyr pardons his executioners and dies crying out, “Viva el Cristo Rey!” At the end of The Power and the Glory, Greene echoes the stories of the saints by telling the more realistic story of the whisky priest’s final night, which he spends drinking brandy and wishing he were somewhere else. The reader is prepared to accept the whisky priest as a saint without benefit of embellishments on the story of his life. Yet, as the same woman recounts the story of the priest’s execution, she records him as shouting “Viva el Cristo Rey!” Although the woman’s version seems hopelessly romanticized, it is consistent with Greene’s theme: gaudy as the imagination may be, through it a human being finds some form of redemption.

A complex theological novel that defies simplistic analysis, The Power and the Glory has provoked dissension among both Catholic and secular critics. Greene’s departure from conventional piety-his decision to make his priest a “sinful” man-has helped lead modern Catholic literature in a less sentimental direction. Four years after The Power and the Glory appeared, Evelyn Waugh published an unsentimental view of Catholicism in Brideshead Revisited, (1944) and American Catholic writers, such as Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, have furthered Greene’s themes and opened the way for stories that would have been considered offensive before Greene’s work.

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