Book Club: Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

Last night was the second meeting of the book club that first met in November to discuss Morley Callaghan’s Such Is My Beloved. In keeping with our plan of following some kind of thread from one book to the next, we moved from that sad story of failed religious idealism to a still sadder–but, perhaps, ultimately more uplifting–one, The Power and the Glory. For all of us, it was our first reading of the novel, and for some of us, our first serious encounter with Graham Greene. I include myself in this last group: I had read The Comedians years ago for an undergraduate class, and my copy of The Power and the Glory has my [unmarried] name and then “88” inscribed in it, as if it too was part of my course readings, but I have no recollection of ever actually having worked through it. That’s it, for me and Graham Greene!  (I’ve also seen the movie adaptation of The End of the Affair, but I’d be the first one to insist that doesn’t really count!)  It’s hard to imagine that I could have read it and not remembered it: it certainly seems to me now a highly memorable book, the kind of book that leaves deep and not altogether welcome tracks in one’s literary and moral imagination.

As before, our group discussion was wide-ranging and open-ended rather than conclusive, but also as before, the process of hearing a range of ideas and trying out my own helped me sort my preliminary impressions. I am left with a number of uncertainties about the novel, some quite literal (what happened to the girl Coral, for instance? I thought she had died, perhaps from whatever caused her sharp stomach pains, but it turned out other people had not inferred that, and we couldn’t find any specific information), some more abstract (what is the place of women in the moral and religious universe of this novel, for one? except for Coral, they seem mostly very limited in their roles and their agency and are generally peripheral to the novel’s central dramatic conflict–is it a misimpression that in the priest’s struggle between material and spiritual needs, women are sidelined because they belong to the world of the flesh?). But I am also left feeling I appreciate at least some aspects of it, particularly about how its very dreariness–its immersion in corruption, failure, sin, inadequacy, disappointment, dirt, and death–helps us make the same journey the whiskey priest makes towards a particular idea of God and salvation. Listening at one point to the confession of the mestizo who ultimately will betray him, the priest reflects on the unoriginality of his sins, on the mestizo‘s inability to understand that he is “only a typical part” of “a world of treachery, violence, and lust in which his shame was altogether insignificant.” But the moral ugliness of the world illuminates rather than obscures the greatness of God:

It was for this world that Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay in death. 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 the corrupt.

This is the world–these are the people–for whom the whiskey priest, too, ultimately dies, as, unable to turn away from his duty to a dying Christian, he knowingly allows the mestizo to lead him into a trap. Even before then, he has risked his life repeatedly by hearing confession and performing mass for the motely assortment of variously ugly, corrupt, ignorant, even evil people he encounters on his grim travels. And there is a kind of glory in the fleeting moments of grace he achieves, as well as a kind of heroism in the ruthlessness with which he admits his own inadequacies and failures even as he doggedly serves the God he believes may damn his soul to Hell. He is no saint, if being saintly means transcending the needs and temptations and vulnerabilities of ordinary human life. But if a saint is someone who is fully human and yet who, despite sharing those needs and temptations and flaws, still persists in honoring the ideal he may never reach–then, perhaps, the whiskey priest is closer than he thinks to being “the only thing that counted.” The mother’s story of Juan the Martyr provides an ironic commentary on this perspective on sainthood: our priest, too, may become the subject of such legends and be given in death the purity of heart, the courage, the heroism he lacked in life. But Greene lets us see the superficiality of that simplistic version, which is no more than a story for children. His imperfect man is, I think the lesson is, a perfect priest, truly a man of God.

I found Greene’s prose very effective, especially the unexpected similes which I learned he called “leopards” (because they “leap” at you): “She carried her responsibilities carefully like crockery across the hot yard”; “The world was in her heart already, like the small spot of decay in a fruit”; “the watch-tower gaped over their path like an upper jaw”; or, most poignant of all, “He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place”–that’s the line, I think, that will stay with me. For all the spiritual beauty that oozes out, though, from dark scenes such as the priest’s nights in prison or the remarkable mass he performs in the darkness in his home village even as the soldiers draw near–for all that, I found myself repelled by the vision Greene presents, of humanity as well as of religion. I found myself thinking of Swinburne’s lines (in the “Hymn to Proserpine”) expressing horror at the replacement of pagan joy with Christian suffering. “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean;” says his speaker, “the world has grown gray from thy breath”: “O lips that the live blood faints in, the leavings of racks and rods; / “O ghastly glories of saints, dead limbs of gibbeted gods!” I don’t usually align myself with Swinburne, but Greene’s world is certainly gray and ghastly. I was also reminded of Cardinal Newman (like Greene, of course, a convert to Catholicism) and his eloquent rant about the fallen world he saw around him: “the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary, hopeless irreligion …all this is a vision to dizzy and appal,” from which he draws the conclusion that “if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible calamity.” You don’t need to be a cock-eyed optimist to consider this a very partial account of the world and man’s nature, one that drives us towards hatred and suspicion of ourselves and legitimizes suffering and misery. “I hate your reasons,” the lieutenant says in exasperation to the cornered priest; “If you see somebody in pain, people like you reason and reason. You say — pain’s a good thing, perhaps he’ll be better for it one day. I want to let my heart speak.” Though Greene doesn’t vilify the lieutenant, he makes him the priest’s antagonist and thus implies, I think, that his principles serve only worldly or material, not moral or religious, interests. But I think in this one thing I’m with the lieutenant, though clearly that goes against the grain of the novel itself. It won’t surprise anyone who knows me or reads my blog that I greatly prefer a moral vision that (rather than offering us a get-out-of-Hell-free card if we repent for our wrongdoing at the last minute, or that expects us to be good under threat of punishment or promise of reward, or in service to the glory of some hypothetical deity) is based on the human capacity for sympathy and the intrinsic value of reducing suffering and increasing joy.

The book we chose for March is The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Graham Greene once called Brian Moore his “favourite living novelist,” and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne apparently contains both excess drinking and a priest, so the two reads are connected in several ways!

3 Comments to Book Club: Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

  1. January 18, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    It is a long time since I read any Greene. Like you I encountered him on my undergrad syllabus, in my case at a College named after Cardinal Newman. (Actually we always referred to him as John Henry, but as the College cat was also called John Henry that did sometimes lead to confusion.) From what I remember your question ‘what is the place of women in the moral and religious universe of this novel’ would seem to me to be one you could ask about Greene’s fictional world in general. Try reading ‘Brighton Rock’ and see what you think. As far as I was concerned, the most powerful book we read was ‘A Burnt-Out Case’ which is set in a leper colony. If you do have time for another I would definitely recommend that.

  2. Matthew's Gravatar Matthew
    January 19, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Much of the book felt to me like an attempt to make sense of Romans 5. Annie’s mention of _Brighton Rock_ links that thought for me with that so-often used quotation of Greene’s priest in that novel that we cannot conceive the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.

  3. Dr V. Pala Prasada Rao's Gravatar Dr V. Pala Prasada Rao
    March 15, 2011 at 5:15 am | Permalink

    Graham Greene’s novel Power and Glory celebrates ambivalence that one is baffled to find in many of the focal characters in the novel. As a word belonging to the domain of Psychology, ambivalence is “the coexistence within an individual of positive and negative feelings toward the same person, object, or action, simultaneously drawing him or her in opposite directions”.
    The contrary pulls are obviously dismantled by the novelist.The whistky priest acts against the injunction of the Catholic Church and fathered a child. His name sheds much light on the nefarious ways that he has clung to. Notwithstanding the ungodly ways, he displays great heroism to attend to the confession of the dying man though he suspects that the one who ( The Mestizo) has informed about it would enact Judas’ role. So is the case with the lieutenant who is hell-bent on capturing the whisky priest as he despises catholic creed and more importantly as he is obliged to obey the authorities’ dictates. He is convinced that socialist pattern of society can redeem people from their poverty.
    Here is a novel which will delineate characters in many shades> The beauty of the novel indeed is in its prismatic quality.

    Dr V. Pala Prasadara Rao
    JKC College, Guntur-6

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