The Power and the Glory as a Narrative of Sin and Redemption

Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory was written within the genre of the Catholic novel, and yet, prompted a negative report in 1953 from Cardinal Pizzardo, who was evaluating the novel on behalf of the Vatican censors. The final lines of his report, addressed to the archbishop of Westminster, reveal the disapproval of the Catholic Church to Greene’s book:

“I am therefore writing to beg Your Eminence to inform Mr. Graham Greene

with your accustomed tact of the unfavourable verdict of the Holy See on his

book, and to exhort him to be more constructive from a Catholic point of view

in his writings, as all good people expect him to be. As for the book in question,

Your Eminence will not fail to ensure that the author does not allow further reprints

or translations of it to be published without his introducing into it the necessary

corrections that the foregoing remarks would suggest…”

(Roston 43)

This clearly indicates that The Power and the Glory does not espouse the clearly defined ideas of sin, virtue, God and love that the Church does. In fact, it offers an alternative reading of these values, a reading that isn’t black or white, and the Catholic Church is placed almost as antithetical to the essence of Christ and Christianity. Through the figure of the whiskey priest, Greene proposes a different outlook to the morality proclaimed by the Church, and thus, offers a fresh perspective on sin and redemption. By concentrating on the figure of the whiskey priest, I would like to show how The Power and the Glory, as a narrative of sin and redemption, presents Greene’s idea of the essence of Christ.

The unnamed priest in the novel does not fall under the category of a typical hero at all. Even his fist appearance – standing “stiffly in the shade, a small man dressed in a shabby dark city suit” (Greene 3) – deprives any suggestion of him emerging as the central character of the text. Added to this are his numerous faults which distances himself from the role of a priest and which he lists repeatedly to condemn himself: he drinks whiskey, he is a coward, he has fathered a child illegitimately, and above all, he is unable to repent. Yet, Greene chooses this figure to represent the very values of love and compassion that Christ embodied. The figure of the ideal saint, as propagated by the Catholic Church, is ridiculed in the figure of St. Juan, whose story fails to move Luiz when his mother narrates it to him, and whose martyrdom is suggested as being a result of his arrogance in his righteousness, of his “confidence in the celestial reward awaiting him” (Roston 45).  St. Juan’s story puts forward “conventions of sanctity usually defined as normative” (Grob 4). But in a place which is characterized by acute isolation and a sense of abandonment, where lasting personal relationships cannot be formed and where the normal rites of the Church only serve to emphasize the powerlessness of the Church to soothe the human condition, a hero like St. Juan cannot exist. Greene creates in the whiskey priest a character who in some way remains admirable in an age where heroism seems dead, who embodies values contemporary society seems to have abandoned. The whiskey priest thus emerges as the anti-hero, defined by Roston as a “character, although seeming to lack the qualities associated with the traditional hero, succeeds nonetheless in eventually evoking the respect, even the admiration of the reader” (Roston 23).

Since the stature of the anti-hero is self-effacing and unaware of his own righteousness and innate worth, the priest’s depreciating words about his unworthiness cannot be taken to mean what Greene intends to convey about sin and unworthiness. His assertion of being a “bad priest” because he knows how much “beauty Satan carried with him when he fell” (Greene 128), and his deep-rooted conviction that “if there’s ever been a man in this state damned, then I’ll be damned too” (Greene 198) does not condemn him in the reader’s mind. Instead, it stresses the very essential Christian virtue of humility, the opposite of the cardinal sin of pride. So, his condemnation of himself testifies his worth.

The perpetual guilt the whiskey priest feels at having fathered an illegitimate child is something which the rigid rules of the Catholic Church cannot look past: not only is lust a cardinal sin, but a priest indulging in this particular sin is seen as one of the severest crimes against the Church. The whiskey priest is aware of this, and this only adds to his misery. His inability to repent because he has come to unconditionally love the fruit of his sin, his daughter Brigitta, convinces him that he is beyond redemption. But Greene’s narrative eventually makes it evident that it is this act of sin that has enabled him to follow the essence behind Christ’s teaching: “That ye love one another, as I have loved you…” (John 13:34 KJV). His sin enables himself to empathize with the sinners around him. While he was installed as a priest safe within his parish, he was incapable of love, and led a complacent life. It was his act of sin that taught him what it was to love like Christ did, and that helped him to connect with those around him, because he considered himself to be just like them. He is shown to be more at home with the prisoners when he is locked up than when he is reciting mass to a congregation that is anxious to see him leave. In his book, The Heart of the Matter, Greene used a quotation by Charles Peguy: “the sinner is at the very heart of Christianity…No one is as competent as the sinner in matters of Christianity. No one, unless it is the saint” (Wichert 99). The whiskey priest’s discomfort with the woman who was imprisoned for possessing religious texts and with the confessor across the border, who exclaims in astonishment that she is a good woman, reveals that those who believe they are righteous and deserving of eternal life can never experience the extent of God’s mercy. This is something which is accessible only to the sinner, who, knowing that he is by fairness unworthy of God’s love, knows that all he can rely on is the unconditional mercy of a God willing to sacrifice His Son for the sake of redeeming sinners. The narrative of The Power and the Glory does not trace a progression from a state of sin to eventual redemption, but redemption through sin.

The narrative structure of the novel charts the whiskey priest’s journey as a parallel to Christ’s suffering. The priest is nameless, so he is Everyman, just as Christ, who suffered as Everyman. The despair that Christ felt at the cross is present throughout the text. The humiliation Christ faced is paralleled with the constant shame the whiskey priest feels. Like Christ who is tempted by the Devil, the priest faces the temptation of staying on the other side of the border. There is also the figure of Judas the betrayer in the priest’s life embodied by the mestizo. Christ, though he suffered, is depicted as having touched the lives of all those around him, even Judas, who commits suicide at his anguish at having betrayed the Saviour, and Herod, who admits that he does not know what Truth is. In the same way, though lasting relationships cannot be established in The Power and the Glory, the priest is shown to have impacted the lives of those he encountered through the presence of God in him – Coral, Tench, even the lieutenant – and having succeeded in evoking a response in them which significantly alters their behaviour. The aligning of the figure of Christ with the whiskey priest is deliberate: the whiskey priest is, for Greene, the embodiment of Christ Himself in a place abandoned by the Church, steeped in loneliness and desertion. The whiskey priest is undoubtedly a martyr in the end because he is able to imbibe the love of Christ. This is what redeems him not in the very end, but from the beginning of the text. His ability to show compassion is evident from the first chapter, when he sacrifices escape to minister to a supposedly dying woman.

Graham Greene in The Power and the Glory gives an alternative narrative to the rigid and narrow definitions of sin and redemption as dictated by organized religion. Through the figure of the whiskey priest, he represents his image of Christ and his understanding of divine love and mercy as being able to transcend the sins of man. The whiskey priest emerges as a figure who attains the admiration and respect of the readers because of the subtext of love and compassion that Greene provides throughout the text. The fresh narrative of sin and redemption elevates the priest to the position of a modern day martyr, and presents Christ as a God of mercy and love, and not of rituals and rules, able to transcend the sins of man.

Works Cited

Greene, Graham. The Power and the Glory. London: Random House, 2004. Print.

Grob, Alan. ““The Power and the Glory”: Graham Greene’s Argument from Design.” Criticism, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Winter 1969), pp. 1-30.Wayne State University Press, 1969. Web.

Roston, Murray.  Graham Greene’s Narrative Strategies: A Study of the Major Novels. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print.

Wichert, Robert A. “The Quality of Graham Greene’s Mercy”. College English, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Nov., 1963), pp. 99-103. National Council of Teachers of English, 1963. Article Stable URL: Web.


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