The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene: Book Review

Power and gloryIn what many experts consider Graham Greene’s masterpiece, a human drama is played out against a background of opposing idealogies.

The Power and the Glory chronicles the struggle by a Catholic priest to evade capture in a country which has outlawed his religion and forced his fellow priests to either renounce their vows or to face execution. Greene pits the fugitive against the forces of law epitomised by a young lieutenant of high principles and a strong commitment to eradicating Mexico of all vestiges of the Catholic faith.

Hunter and quarry circle each other through poor, remote villages and on bleak mountains, encountering desperation and fear among a population who yearn for the consolation of prayer even though they are afraid of the consequences of harbouring a wanted man.

Each time the priest makes a move that will take him across the mountains and into the safety of a neighbouring state, someone in a village or a fellow traveller calls on him for pastoral succour. He goes to their aid knowing that every day he delays his departure, he risks capture and death.

This nameless priest is no saintly figure however. Greene’s protagonist is a flawed character; a  drunk, a coward and a lecher. He prefers alcohol to prayer and has secretly fathered a child.  In one of the key scenes in the novel, when the priest is taken to prison for possessing forbidden spirits, he admits that he craves drink more desperately than he needs God.

Yet though acutely aware of his unworthiness, he still cannot abandon those who need him.

He was a bad priest, he knew it. They had a word for his kind — a whisky priest, but every failure dropped out of sight and mind; somewhere they accumulated in secret — the rubble of his failures. One day they would choke up, he supposed, altogether the source of grace. Until then he carried on, with spells of fear, weariness, with a shamefaced lightness of heart.

His antagonist, the nameless police lieutenant, despises the Catholic church. His revulsion dates from his childhood experience of priests who paid more attention to their own comforts than to the needs of the poor. For him, the Church is a dangerous tool of oppression and injustice, an agency that simply holds out false hope of a better life in the hereafter rather than giving practical help in the here and now.

He is on a mission to remove poverty, superstition and corruption from the lives of ordinary Mexican people and if necessary, he is ready to kill to achieve his desired utopia. The Church is simply the first obstacle that has to be eliminated.

The pair seem to hold diametrically different views of the world and yet Greene shows in the course of three encounters between the men, that there are in fact similarities between them. They both have a vision of a world with “no unjust laws, no taxes, no soldiers and no hunger” though they differ about when and how this vision is to be achieved.

If by the end of the novel, the lieutenant’s idealism is not reconciled entirely with the priest’s disillusioned materialism, reach a kind of qualified understanding of each other and recognise their mutual moral worth.

The Verdict

A powerful and intense novel which poses questions about faith and devotion, about religious and Marxist ideologies. Greene seems to side with the Church but his endorsement of the Catholic world view is not crystal clear which is one reason why The Power and the Glory was put on the Vatican’s blacklist when it was published. In 2005 The Power and the Glory was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the one hundred best English-language novels since 1923. It’s an accolade that is richly deserved. 

About BookerTalk

After a day at the coal face of corporate communications, what better way to wind down than by sticking my nose into a good book. My tastes are eclectic. I find it easier to say what kind of books I don't especially like - gothic, science fiction and science fantasy do absolutely nothing for me. It doesn't mean I will never read them, because I am trying to broaden my reading horizons - that's the idea behind my challenge to read books from each country touched by the Equator or the Prime Meridian. Regardless of the author or country, the acid test of a good book for me is whether the characters are engaging, the plot realistic and the setting evocative. If I make it to 100 pages then I know I'll finish it.

Posted on December 30, 2013, in Classics Club, Europe and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Thanks for an interesting review.

  2. I ‘did’ Greene as part of my undergraduate work and read way beyond our set texts (“Brighton Rock’ and ‘A Burnt-Out Case’ but for some reason this wasn’t one of the books I picked up. Why I haven’t gone back to it I can’t imagine because I loved Greene’s writing and certainly wasn’t put off by having to study him as can so often happen. The only way I am likely to read this this year is if I put it onto one of my reading group lists but I think I might just do that. It clearly doesn’t deserve to go unread.

    • Greene was on our syllabus too so I did read Power and Glory but it all was a blur because it was in the month just before finals. I’m enjoying re-awakening my interest now. it would be a good reading group book

  3. Great review. I loved this one – even dissecting it at school didn’t manage to destroy it. But for me the most powerful of all Greene’s books is ‘The Heart of the Matter’ – up there in my all-time greats list.

  4. I read a different Graham Greene novel last year who’s title is eluding me, but I really love his commentary on Catholicism and his struggle with it. You can tell he’s a man of faith, but he’s constantly questioning and challenging his beliefs. I find that very satisfying and honest, particularly because I’m almost entirely non-religious myself.

    • Might it have been Brighton Rock or Heart of the Matter – those two, together with Power and the Glory are considered his most ‘Catholic’ novels. Karen Heenan-Davies

      ________________________________

  5. Wonderful review. I was completely unfamiliar with the plot of this particular Greene novel, having only heard the title. I will have to add this to my list.

  6. I just finished The P&G – the first of seven Greenes I’ll be reading for a seminar. I marvelled at the brilliance of his descriptions and many other features of his writing, but I had a problem with the narrator’s ironic tone. I felt it distanced me from the characters, evoking an appreciation of their dilemmas which was academic rather than empathetic. Possibly this was the desired result, but it got tiresome at times. Anyway, thanks for your review. Interesting site!

    • I didn’t detect irony in a big way myself Annie but if you did then I can understand how it would distance you. Try heart of the matter for an even better book, at least in my opinion.

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  1. Pingback: Classics Club Spin: Round 5 | BookerTalk

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