Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory” is based upon “less than two months spent in Mexico in March and April of 1938,incuding five weeks of grueling, solitary travel in the southern provinces of Tabasco and Chiapas.” John Updike asserts “There is something about the Roman Catholicism which infuses with it Manichaean darkness and tortured literalism .”
There is the conflict between idealism and practicality as echoed here as by the lieutenant and the Priest who are diametric opposites. The Lieutenant aims at an ideal republic devoid of all corrupt institutions such as religion, and does not bother about the means as long as the end is reached. His totalitarian regime practises his own version of socialism to breed a better future for the generations to come in terms of equality and tolerance in the state. Though, his version of idealism remains an unrealizable paradigm. Paradoxically, in his coercive stance, life becomes meaningless as echoed in his act of crushing an insect ruthlessly as he did with human life. The Lieutenant reminds one of The Wisest Fool or Tughlaq in Girish Karnad’s play Tughlaq who adopted impractical means such as the shifting of the capital from Delhi to Daulatabad to achieve his goal, and implements ruthless measures to attain his ultimate vision. The Lieutenant’s single-minded purpose also reminds one of Javert in Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. The priest on the other hand, accepts suffering and struggle as an inevitable part of his life. He places instinctive humanism above the constructed Manichaean notion of ritual and custom. The whisky priest deems it his duty to his people and to God to survive, evading each attempt to get caught. But when humanism comes in the way, the Priest does not falter though he is aware of the trap set for him by the Mestizo towards the end of the novel, and prefers to administer last rites to the dying Gringo. He does this in spite of the fact that he is aware that he would lead a life of peace in the mountains.
There is also the conflict between representation and reality as the Chinese box story of Juan echoes. It goes in parallel with the story of the priest who attains martyrdom towards the end and Juan who is idealized beyond reality. The story-telling symbolizes the mythification of religion that is far removed from stark reality. Greene shows vice to be an inseparable part of life and how man attains redemption through his guilt and humility. The pictures in the station are totally unlike the Priest where he looks rather like the gringo and his hands are from being fragile like a typical priest. There is also the disparity between “life lived as it is lived and life as it is told.” The different identities of the fugitive-priest also highlight the idea of the conflict between representation and reality. What may appear as lies to the onlooker is his attempt to survive and not forgo the life entrusted upon him by God. The Gringo who is romanticized as a larger-than-life villain is a feeble man succumbing to death. Human beings appears to be better soldiers of God. Yet, what separates the instinctive world of the human beings and the dogs is the realm of lies and corruption.
There is the objective view of the priest of himself as a sinner beyond redemption as viewed by Maria who constantly reprimands him, and a subjective view of himself to keep away from glory consciously by magnifying his flaws: ”He was a bad priest, he knew it; they had a word for his kind-a whiskey priest-but every failure dropped out of sight and out of mind: somewhere they accumulated in secret-the rubble of his failures. One day they would choke up, he supposed, altogether the source of grace.”
Dichotomies are projected as extreme opposites to the world, but are in actuality they are two sides of the same coin, as the lieutenant endeavors to bring about good through evil; the sins of the priest cause him to be a better priest indulging in the humility of guilt rather than reveling in the glory and stature of priesthood. He considers himself to be inferior to Padre Jose.
He prayed silently:”O God, send them someone more worthwhile to suffer for.”
The Mestizo is an evil projection of the priest in the form of temptation to succumb to death as that would be the easiest resort; but the dominant good side of the priest sees it as ’suicide’ or eternal damnation. Therefore, he sees to it that it was his duty not to get caught. The mention of wine throughout the novel functions as this powerful symbol of duality that manifests itself throughout the novel. It was to lead one to sin, and yet it was also an inevitable part of the Mass where it was to be transubstantiated into the blood of Christ. The novel seems to come a full circle as these seeming-opposites the Lieutenant and the Priest, idealism and practicality, justice and mercy, the hunter and hunted, inherent goodness and projected evil, sin and salvation, combine to form a unit or an organic whole towards the end. The title “The Power and the Glory” comes across as ironic as it appears and is assumed that these two entities go together, that glory accompanies power. But for the true Christian, these are complementary elements as with the Priest it is not the power of priesthood that confers upon him the glory of martyrdom, rather the humility of humanism and the attempts to evade power that leads him to glory in the end.
Parallel to the theme of opposites is the theme of incompleteness. The whisky priest without a proper name points to his anonymity despite being the protagonist of the novel. He is defined in terms of an inanimate entity-whiskey. Throughout the novel, his identity is incomplete as he is in disguise. There is the Mestizo who is half-caste. Coral is a half-child, half-woman. Mr.Trench is a half family-man. Padre Jose is a priest, but with a wife; the protagonist is one with an illegitimate child and weakness for wine. The lieutenant in all his single mindedness of purpose is still human and falters in his own attempts at eradication of religion as he calls for a priest to hear the whiskey priest’s confession before he is shot. Brigida suffers from an acute identity crisis.
There is the important motif of escapism as projected by the hunter- lieutenant and the hunted- priest. John Updike states in this regard. ”Greene’s masterly facility of concocting thriller plots and his rather blithely morbid sensibility had come together at a high level of intelligence and passion, with the strict terms of an inner religious debate that had not wearied him.” The lieutenant has first-hand experience of exploitation at the hands of the church in the form of child sexual abuse. He seeks an escapism from this memory, his tortured soul and for the future generations by killing the all probability of the disease of corruption. He fails to comprehend that it was the disease to be killed and not the diseased. The Priest escapes being caught, and constantly tries to evade eternal damnation for, giving in would be akin to suicide. Coral tries to escape to maturity and defy childhood in a sensitive atmosphere. Brigida tries to run away from her internal anguish of being a fatherless child. Padre Jose chooses to escape from death through marriage, and later marriage provides him an escape from religious duties as his wife deters him from hearing the confession of the priest though the Lieutenant allows it. There is also escape as basic survival instinct as symbolized by the dog with the bone.
There is also the theme of lack of communication where a cell full of hardened criminals appear to connect more than a state characterized by reform and order. Mr.Tench fails to communicate with his family without any solid reason. His memory lapses signify his lack of communication with himself. Mrs. Fellows and Mr Fellows live alienated from the rest of the lot and fail to establish any sort of meaningful rapport with each other. Mrs. Fellows is more in contact with death and stagnation than life. The Lieutenant with his narrow high-powered purpose fails to bond with fresh ideas or suggestions.
There is also the highlighting of moral dualism as practised by some religions where ritual gains precedence over moral obligations. In such a stance the priests exploit the downtrodden in the name of ritual. This Manichaean hypocrisy of the church makes a mockery of the basic principles of the religion and underlines moral dualism as practised by religions .The Priest is an inch taller in that he never allows himself to be complacent in the sacrifices that he has made. Coercion is a motif that is practiced by the State in the form of stringent actions of eradicating religion. On the other hand, Religion is also shown to be such a coercive force where priesthood is shown to be cut off from natural human instincts such as sex. Consequently, the priests resort to unnatural methods such as child abuse. The child Luis in the story of Juan has hatred fostered in him due to such hypocrisies. This is why he sides with the Lieutenant at the outset.
There are autobiographical elements here as echoed in Greene’s autobiography, Ways of Escape ,”I think The Power and the Glory” is the only novel I have written to a thesis. The whisky priest comes across as entirely human and Christian in his humane qualities. The difference between “sinful behavior and sacramental function is clear to the debased priests of the Power and the Glory”, says John Updike. This is what makes them avoid the real sins. Padre Jose and the Whisky priest are not shown to be immoral or unfaithful to the spouse/partner out of choice. The church relegates the abject poverty of the people, and is yet ready to take money from them. The fact is stressed that there should be concern and consideration for sins on part of the church and the approach of the church should be far from authoritarian and should be one of compassion. If there were no sins committed then there would be no use for the ritual of confession. ”It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization-it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and corrupt.”
However, Greene does advocate the continuity of the Catholic Church astowards the end of the novel as Luis spits over the Lieutenant, and prefers the Priest over him. The arrival of a priest at the end of the novel underlines his thesis. Greene admitted that he wrote “to a thesis”—a fact he felt might count against the novel aesthetically—yet in grappling with questions of grace, salvation, justice, and mercy a simple “thesis” becomes the material of eternal drama. Greene’s thesis is simply this, according to John Murphy: “at the end there was only one thing that counted—to be a saint.”
The priest falls, but with this fall he rises in stature.
©Rukhaya MK 2012