Reflections on the Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels
Book 74: The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

The Power and the Glory is set an unnamed state where the persecution of the church is similar to the Mexican state of Tabasco in the 1930s. The governor of the state attempting to eliminate the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in his state by either eliminating the priests, closing the churches, eliminating alcohol, and punishing those who aid or hide clerics. The main character is a priest who has been traveling around the province conducting services for the past eight years and is the only non-married and still practicing priest remaining. His antagonist is a police lieutenant who zealously believes in the reforms of the government and spends the book chasing this final priest through the villages and countryside, eventually taking hostages in each village to deny the priest places he can return to.

The priest, who remains unnamed throughout the story, is also dealing with his own broken past where he as a ‘whisky priest’ had numerous sins which he could not confess to anyone: a daughter he had fathered in one of the villages he served, a fondness for alcohol, and his own questions about the church and the pious. Yet, even though the priest does not have a pristine past, he continues to attempt to carry out his ministry and even in the end knowingly walks into a trap to hear the confession of a murder. The lieutenant who has tracked him zealously and has an avid hatred of the church finds he can no longer hate the priest once he is captured and they speak. The book ends on a defiant note with the priest’s death, but in the aftermath another priest appears in town. The church and the priesthood somehow endured.

The land and the crippling poverty that many of the people face become characters in the book. The descriptions of the land with its heat, mosquitos, and beetles and the poverty of most of the villagers in the book make the environment appear almost hellish. The loss of the church has not alleviated the suffering of the people and in the minds of many of the characters it has made things worse. The church is not depicted as perfect nor and the priest has some of his harshest thoughts for the pious of the church. Yet, many people desire the services of the priest even in the midst of the danger until they begin taking and executing hostages from the villages to attempt to capture the priest.

The environment of the book and the slow pace of the priest’s movement from town to town gives the story a bit of an arid feel. It is hard to love the land as it is described, but it does evoke compassion for the people who live in this harsh place. The lieutenant is not an evil man, nor is the priest a saint and I found myself wishing both characters could find themselves in a different story.

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