The power and the glory

by Graham Greene

Hardcover, 1990




New York, N.Y., U.S.A. : Viking, 1990.


In a poor, remote section of southern Mexico, the Red Shirts have taken control, God has been outlawed, and the priests have been systematically hunted down and killed. Now, the last priest strives to overcome physical and moral cowardice in order to find redemption. 240 pp.

Media reviews

This is the story Greene was born to tell. With this novel, Greene brings all his considerable talent, craft, and gift for suspense to bear on a story that penetrates the heart of one tortured man’s mystery. For all its darkness and intensity, it’s a thrilling, page-turning read: the story is structured essentially as an extended chase across the barren landscape of Mexico—mirroring the even vaster desert spaces in the heart of the pursued Priest. Greene evokes the heat and dust and sweat of the country and its inhabitants with cinematic immediacy. The atmosphere is stifling, almost unbearably intense, and Greene’s capacity for storytelling invention never flags.

User reviews

LibraryThing member baswood
By the time The Power and the Glory was published in 1940, Greene had eschewed his flirtations with modernism and had turned back to writing in a clear narrative style, intent on creating memorable characters and tackling some of the most contentious issues of his generation. Perhaps the overriding theme here is the indomnitable human spirit. Europe was at war and for many people suffering and death were becoming a part of daily life. Greene takes an unnamed catholic priest as his anti-hero; a priest who gives in to most forms of temptation including the cardinal sin of Pride, and yet by the choices he makes and despite himself he achieves some sort of dignity and even redemption in our eyes. The novel is by no means a paean to the catholic church, in fact Greene is continuously critical of it and its ministers throughout, but he does suggest it offers hope in times of oppression.

Greene was commissioned to visit Mexico in 1938 to report on the religious persecution being enacted there and this provides the subject matter for the novel. A catholic priest is being hunted down by a fanatical lieutenant, who sincerely believes that the state will benefit by his elimination. Most of the priests have fled and so this last one (the whiskey priest) has become a bit of a cause celeb-re, who may or may not escape his fate if he makes it across the border.

Greene's visit to Mexico cannot have been a particularly enlightening experience for him because from the very first sentence the reader is plunged into a night mare world of filth, heat and deprivation:

"Mr Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder, into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust. A few vultures looked down from the roof with shabby indifference: he wasn't carrion yet".

This first part of the novel takes alienation as its theme. Mr Tench: a dentist has no money to leave the shabby port town. A gringo bank robber and murderer is on the loose. Padre Jose has been forced into marriage and a rebuttal of his catholic faith. Mr Fellows the plantation owner is trying to make a home of a land where his wife is made ill by the heat. In the villages the whiskey priest is finding it harder and harder to find shelter.

The second and by far the longest part of the novel deals with the priests ever more desperate attempts to keep body and soul together as he flees the red shirts. He has to offer a mass as a kind of bribe in the village where he has fathered a child. Greene fills in some of his background, he is not a good priest but no different from many; "an energetic priest was always known by his debts". He is befriended by an informer a sort of vampire figure with yellow fangs and provides him with many of his moments of self knowledge:

"No, if he had been humble like Padre Jose, he might be living in the capital now with Maria on a pension. This was pride devilish pride, lying here offering his shirt to the man who wanted to betray him. Even his attempts at escape had been half-hearted because of his pride-the sin by which the angels fell"

This section also contains some of Greene's most unforgettable scenarios: a night the priest spends in a filthy overcrowded cell, hiding his identity from the authorities but trusting his fellow prisoners with his true identity, leaving it to fate to save or condemn him, then the shameful fight with the broken backed dog for a meaty bone and finally his futile attempts to save the life of an Indian women's child.

Part three finds the priest safely across the border but the informer finds him and the priest is tempted back to certain death by the chance to save the soul of the fatally wounded gringo murderer. Here Greene superbly captures the cowardly priests dilemma. A chance for salvation a chance to be true to his faith, a real chance to make some difference. This leads to the most fascinating part of the novel where the Lieutenant and the priest come to accommodate each others views. Both think the other is basically a good man.

Part four steps back from the priest and we see the results of his actions through the eyes of the dentist Mr Tench.

I think this is an important novel of it's time that raises many issues concerning a persons struggle to make sense of his life. In this case it is a Catholic priest and so faith and the catholic church are high in Greene's scheme of things, however there is much to be enjoyed by any reader with an interest in the human condition. Greene is at the top of his game here bringing so much to the table for discussion. The book can be read and interpreted in a number of ways. My advice if you are at all interested in Graham Greene's novels is to make sure you read this one.
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LibraryThing member stevage
The only Greene I've read. This is the book that suddenly make me realise what "literature" is. Basically because I'm an uneducated ignoramus. I loved his descriptions, I felt the oppressive heat, I enjoyed the existential ennui. And I even sympathised with the protagonist, a priest — who would have thought that possible?
LibraryThing member Petroglyph
I really liked this book. It was set in an epoch I was unfamiliar with -- Communist, religion-banning Mexico in the 1930s -- and its portrayal of a self-doubting whiskey priest on the run from zealous priest-hunters and his own demons alike was nothing short of enthralling.

What I’m sure I will remember most about this novel is just how very well written it was: Greene definitely has a way with words and images that makes his prose feel so absolutely right and impeccably assembled that no other words or images could really be acceptable substitutes.

This was my first Grahame Greene, but it will definitely not be my last.
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LibraryThing member figre
The first person we meet in this book is Mr. Trench, a dentist who appears to have trapped himself in this small Mexican town. We learn how he wound up here and, more importantly, we learn, in a relatively short time, his motivations as well as the character flaws which have got him caught in this rut. We are not told; we are shown. He turns out to be a supporting actor in this play – maybe no more than a bit part. And yet, he is real, he breathes, he is alive – so much so that I would have liked to have learned more about him, seen him as a central character.

Don't get me wrong; the fact that the novel does not revolve around Mr. Trench is not a problem. In fact, the book is full of these kinds of characters. At every turn there is someone equally interesting – real characters who grow in a real environment. And the result is a book which deserves its classic status.

As noted, the book is set in Mexico in an area where the socialist have taken control. Among the many changes, they have outlawed religion – effectively making it a crime punishable by death. In practicality, the success of this shut down is mixed – the people have not completely bought in to the idea. However, priests have the choice of rescinding their vows or being shot.

The main protagonist is Catholic priest on the run. He is unnamed, but often referred to as the "whiskey priest" because of how far he has fallen (including, obviously, alcoholism). All he wants is to live and to escape. However, his loyalty to his beliefs continues to draw him back in. That loyalty is best exemplified in the fact that one would think it would be quite easy for him to rescind his vows. However, no matter how far he has fallen he cannot do this. We follow him as he tries to escape and, through this journey, see his effect on other people (intended and unintended) and the effect on his own belief in himself. At its core, it is a book about how good exists within everyone, but that puts too trivial a homily on the complicated individuals contained herein.

Graham Greene spent time in the area – using his experiences in the area as research for the book. And it is evident because there is nothing that draws you out of the moment. His descriptions feel accurate. He has put the reader in a world few of us ever have experienced, but recognize the moment he describes it.

And, as noted the characters are real. Even the slightest of them refuse to be cut from cardboard, but are three-dimensional people who have motivations and lives we can glimpse. As I have indicated, any one of them is fleshed out sufficiently that you can see a separate novel being written about their lives.

Ultimately, we believe in the character of the "whisky priest" and we believe the tale that is told. And, in the process, we have been told a very good story which has depth, heart, and (an aspect so often missing in books considered classics) readability.
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LibraryThing member thornton37814
A priest who enjoys the sacramental wine a bit too much and a gringo who has robbed an American bank are being sought by police in Mexico during the time communists were in charge and Catholicism was outlawed. The priest accepts money from people for services such as hearing confessions or performing baptisms, but his love of strong drink is what causes the biggest problems for him. Anyone caught hiding the priest could also receive harsh treatment from officials. While Greene's writing is strong, I didn't really identify with the characters although they were well-drawn. A strong sense of place is also present in the novel. I'm certain there are layers to the story that I did not pick up in my quick read of the novel.… (more)
LibraryThing member Cecrow
There's a cinematic opening scene here, with a dentist emerging onto a Mexican street causing a vulture to take flight which then soars over the town, and we get a literal bird-eye view of its layout as the dentist makes his way to the docks. I'd read Greene before, but immediately on page one I was reminded of how much a master he is. This novel is often cited as his best work, taking place during the persecution of the Catholic Church in southern Mexico during the 1920s. The idea of Christianty being persecuted to the extent depicted seemed so far-fetched, I was convinced Greene had made it up until I researched the Cristero War. While Greene doesn't name his setting, it is clearly the state of Tabasco under the governorship of Tomas Garrido Canabal. Canabal was an extremist, and while he did introduce women's suffrage and made improvements to Tabasco's education programs and economy, his legacy is deeply overshadowed by his persecution of Catholicism. It is not hard to see Canabal in the novel's figure of the Lieutenant. Similarly the protagonist, a runaway priest, might reflect the real life Padre Macario Fernandez Aquado who remained one step ahead of the authorities and death at their hands.

Graham Greene writes with enormous economy, and yet still manages to paint his scenes and characters so vividly. Nothing feels rushed or condensed, but in 200 pages he can transmit a very complex story and explore all the corners. Both 'power' and 'glory' call upon preservertion of the next generation as their highest value, seeking to 'save' them from evil. The priest is more pressed to examine his life and assumptions due to circumstances, and he is in the best position to learn from what he experiences assuming that he can survive them. The lieutenant is more free to indulge in might-makes-right and therefore less introspective as he justifies any extremity, but he faces incomprehensible stubborn resistance by the very people he is trying to help as he exorcises the menace of the church. Neither side seems to grasp, for the lack of either side making the appeal, that it is ultimately hearts and minds which will decide the victor.

One quirk I dislike about Greene's style is his penchant for suddenly introducing scene cuts to feature unidentified characters, leaving me foundering. It can take some flipping pages back and forth to figure out if these are new characters or familiar ones, and who was being referred to as whom. That frustration aside, reading more of Greene is always sure to be a pleasure whatever his subject.
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LibraryThing member kukulaj
Most every institution has some core of validity, its way of contributing to human welfare. Then layers get added, on the one hand some kind of comfortable complacent corruption, on the other hand a fanatic crusading partisanship. Here we have the complacent priest and the fanatic lieutenant. Greene shows us a glimmer of the humanity of the lieutenant, but here on full display is the humanity of the priest, as he reflects on the complacency, the self-righteous piety he has indulged in along with his parishioners.

I read this book right after reading about the Spanish Civil War, where the reds got crushed and the church came out on top. The sides are remarkably symmetric. Here in the USA we seem to be taking sides and taking up arms for another round of fanaticism and bloodshed. A book like this is probably good medicine for the situation, but the disease is such that a book like this is hard to read. We want simple purity, not this kind of complex mix.
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LibraryThing member mausergem
This novel was originally published in 1940. It tells the story of life in Southern Mexico where the communists ruled and Catholic religion was banned. The priests fled the country and some were prosecuted and later assassinated. The story revolves round a priest who decides not to leave the country but gradually falls into bad habits. He starts drinking and is called the "Whiskey Priest ". He leads a life in hiding and Is constantly on the run. As time passes his own grip on the religious duties fades. He is finally captured and killed.

This novel deals with the priest's struggle with the people prosecuting him as well his own struggle dealing with the gradual loss of faith and moral bindings. It would probably carry deeper meaning for a religious person but for me it was uninteresting. The pace is slow and the book goes nowhere. The language is beautiful.

A 2.5/5 read.
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LibraryThing member grheault
Well, its Mexico. Chiapas, or therabouts. Its 1938, or thereabouts, and its dangerous to be a priest, and the main character is indeed a priest on the run. Deeply depressing book, but gripping, and graphic with that spaghetti western tone to it. Oddly reminiscent of Death Comes for the Archbishop, in focusing on the flawed, conflicted man-of-god, ministering to the people, in all the rote ways. The institutional Church is absent, except for the remnant priests, who are humiliated or hunted, and the continuing sacramental grip the ritual Church holds on the minds and hearts of older peasants. Greene draws out the the classic contradictions of the Church : its alliance with the rich, yet its message of the good of suffering and hope in the hereafter to the poor. He draws out the contradictions in the secular, revolutionary, anti-Church authorities who purport to ally with the poor, yet rob them of the rituals of religion and whatever consolations it might bring. Disturbing book.… (more)
LibraryThing member kvrfan
A great novel, wonderfully profound. I "read" it as an audio book, but there was so much to ponder here I believe I'll be taking up the written version to literally read it all over again.
LibraryThing member Mromano
The power and the glory is slow reading at first but it is one of those books that continues to mount surprises and suspense until you are left at the end with a feeling that you have completed a great work. Easily one of the top novels of the last 100 years and certainly Greene's best work. The fact that Greene did not win the nobel prize (while many lesser artists have) is a bitter reflection of the politics in the nominating and selection process.… (more)
LibraryThing member Narshkite
This is a hard one for me. I love Graham Greene, and have read many of his books and loved them all across genres. (He writes across so many genres!) I know this is considered his masterpiece, but the truth is I did not much enjoy the read. I generally love to wade around in physical, moral and religious decay. But this whiskey priest and his martyrdom did not move me. The prose and structure are, as one expects from Greene, spectacular. The man can write dialogue so authentic you feel like you are listening in on an actual conversation. No question this is a well crafted novel. I can't say why I did not connect with this, why I was never drawn in. Maybe it is that it felt like Greene really disliked all of his characters (including Mexico, which is definitely a character in this story.) All I can say is that I never felt drawn in to this story, I felt like I was sitting in the audience with Greene, and a safe distance from all the ugliness.… (more)
LibraryThing member Sandydog1
Wow. As an ex-Catholic, an afficienado of 20th century Mexican history, a lover of wine (uhm, Brandy - not so much), I was enthralled with this book. It was at least as good as The Quiet American; perhaps it was even better. 'Chock full of guilt, humanity, sin, alcoholism, greed, lust, righteousness, ideology, betrayal, redemption, attempts at redemption, blind loyalty, harshness, innocence, suffering.… (more)
LibraryThing member sianpr
A classic Graham Greene- a tale of a whisky priest in Mexico at time when certain states had outlawed the church. Sharply observed descriptions of Mexico and poverty & quite engrossing tale.
LibraryThing member hbergander
Controversial novel about the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. Greene deals with the topic in the congeniality of a writer as André Gide.
LibraryThing member tzelman
Travails of a whiskey priest in a country which has abolished God
LibraryThing member charlie68
A deeply written book about a man's spiritual journey and his struggles with his conscience. Another classic by Mr. Greene. I love how he can convey a mood.
LibraryThing member kwohlrob
I'm always in awe of Graham Greene's writing. This book in particular just stuns me. There is a great portrait of Graham Greene in England's National Portrait Gallery. Greene is portrayed as being able to just peer through soul, seeing you for what you really are. Having seen that painting, I always think of his writing in that context -- Greene seeing us all for the horrible creatures we truly are. The Power and the Glory is a gritty and tough novel. It comes alive because of Greene's experiences traveling the world. It is never flowery or preachy, it just gives you a stark reality that is ugly and yet infinitely more compelling.… (more)
LibraryThing member gwendolyndawson
A priest flees from the authorities (headed by "the lieutenant") who are trying to eradicate the Catholic church in a Mexican state. A story of redemption and the underlying good of humanity in the face of relentless oppression. A remarkable book for its style, its symbolism, and its near-perfect construction.
LibraryThing member Schmerguls
A truly wondrous book! I have long wanted to read it, and finally bought it at 5 PM on Jan 29 and finished it a little after midnight on Jan 30. It was first published in 1940 and it is excellent. Graham Greene, even better, I am inclined to think, than his later books though not as pretentious. It is not as searching a book, it is more telling a story than exploring a theological problem. It tells of a priest hunted in Mexico. He is a "whiskey priest" and the father of a child. He is afraid, he is lax about the doing of his priestly duties. But he is humble, and though he fears his bad example has counteracted any good he does, he does the big things well--he returns to a dying man, though he knows he'll be captured, and he influences the rabid priest-hunting police officer. The book does not gloss over abuses that may exist in practices in the Church, and yet one feels this priest a glorious exemplar, despite his very human failings. The book was a penetrating illustration of the difference between conventional and unusual saintliness. All the usual Greene attitudes are here: the hierarchy of sins by conventional order seems out of place. i cannot but tend to agree with his emphasis. All in all, essily the finest book I have read in many months.… (more)
LibraryThing member Sean191
This was the longest Greene work I've read to date (still pretty short though) - unfortunately, I didn't like it as much as the others. It had its moments, but even though it was lengthier, I still thought the character development was a little thin. It won't deter me from reading his other works - I still feel it was a better novel than what I read from others, but it wasn't as enjoyable as previous works.… (more)
LibraryThing member irinipasi
I want to recommend this book to anyone who is clergy or is thinking of becoming clergy- priest or otherwise. The whisky priest's introspection, his grappling with his own guilt over his very visible and very invisible sins, make him a very powerful character, one who should remind us all of what is really at stake in the world of religiosity and faith.… (more)
LibraryThing member ostrom
What a great novel, superb stylistic control, wonderful use of setting, a splendid, complexly flawed main character.
LibraryThing member WhatTheDickens
An intriguing book . . . an introspective treatment of human beings as they really exist .. . . warts and everything. The is a constant backdrop of the human struggle against life and death . . . one's mortality . . .and the existence of God. No answers but it causes one to think about the major unanswered dilemmas life has to offer us. Great read!… (more)
LibraryThing member HearTheWindSing

This little gem turned out to be quite a surprise. It is indeed powerful and it is glorious. Greene's writing seems really simple and is easy to read, and yet is so full of meaning. I am still soaking it all in.

As the lead character, the 'whiskey-priest', moves from one place to another, Greene takes us along on a journey taut with suspense and tension. However, it is really his moral journey which is the most captivating. We not only witness the priest's struggle to escape, we also get to look into his tormented soul and his ambivalence. He is constantly torn between following what his religious faith has taught him while his worldly sense seems to make more practical sense. He feels guilty for his sins, but he loves the fruit of his sin. He almost wishes that he be caught so that he could be rid of the fear and the misery. But doesn't his faith teach him that it is his duty to save his soul? He has sinned and is immoral, but he is also full of compassion and love for fellow human beings.
A question that haunts the priest and the reader throughout is whether he will find redemption and if his soul will achieve salvation? Or do immoralities and sins always overshadow a man's goodness? Greene makes it so easy for one to understand his characters. The priest, with his virtues and his flaws, feels like a very real person. It is not at all difficult to imagine such a person walking some part of this earth in flesh.

While we read the thoughts and the convictions of the priest, the lieutenant serves as the opposing voice. Both have some ideals which I do not completely agree with, but I also don't consider either of them to be totally wrong. I also liked that the priest and the lieutenant, though rivals, are able to see the good in each other and have mutual respect. Through these two characters, Greene brings forth the impermanence of beliefs through which one defines what is "right". Life can always take such turns that one's firmly believed ideals cease to make sense anymore.

As the journey proceeds and we encounter various places and characters, Greene also reveals the misery, poverty, disease and utter desolation that has engulfed these wastelands. He captures the feeling of the place and the moment with just the right words. Through his words, you can almost feel the oppressive heat or the thundering rainstorm or the tranquility and freshness of an early morning. Different characters that we meet give a sense of how bleak and despairing their life is. There is a person who cannot shirk off the idea of death, there is another with a desperate cheerfulness who has to constantly remind himself that he is happy. There are several instances where we see the difference between the world-view of adults and children. Adults who have known better times and have only those memories to draw any happiness from. While the only world their children have seen is this world of misery. These children haven't known what happiness, hope or faith means. They have matured before they have aged. All the playfulness and innocence of childhood has been drained away.

Another frequently encountered theme is that of abandonment. The words 'abandoned', 'abandonment' crop up very it a man who has abandoned his family, a child abandoned by her father, a man deserted in the forest. However, what Greene is really hinting at is the abandonment of this land and its people. They are cut-off from the rest of the world to rot in suffering, while the world and civilization outside progress. The future holds no promises, all hope and faith has vanished. Life has ceased to have any meaning, God himself has ceased to exist. Death is an everyday affair for them and life is just a duty to be performed from day-to-day without ever knowing its joy and charm.
She said: "I would rather die."
"Oh," he said, "of course. That goes without saying. But we have to go on living."

"She was one of those garrulous women who show to strangers the photographs of their children: but all she had to show was coffin."

For the most part the novel is bleak and grim, but it speaks of hope as well.
"It is one of the strange discoveries a man makes that life, however you lead it, contains moments of exhilaration: there are always comparisons which can be made with worse times:even in danger and misery the pendulum swings."

Greene also reminds us of how peace and beauty can exist in the smallest of moments, which people often fail to notice until it has been left far behind.
"It was nearly like peace, but not quite. For peace you needed human company-his alone-ness was like a threat of things to come. Suddenly he remembered - for no apparent reason - a day of rain at the American seminary, the glass windows of the library steamed over with central heating, the tall shelves of sedate books, and a young man - a stranger from Tucson - drawing his initials on the pane with his finger - that was peace. He looked at it from outside: he couldn't believe he would ever again get in."

There is so much more I have to say about this novel, I could never cover it all in a review. Let me just say it is so very human.

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