The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene – thoughts and quotations

Set in Mexico, often considered Graham Greene’s best book, The Power and the Glory is oppressive and beautifully written.

Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory is a feverish tale of fear and abandonment read in the feverish throes of bronchitis and influenza (or, less dramatically, just a cold and cough), alternating between consciousness and oblivion, with the logic of day and night losing all semblance of reality. At least I wasn’t being attacked by beetles.

Unlike the priest in this short novel, who is travelling incognito, denying adamantly that he is a priest because under the Mexican regime of the time, the Catholic Church is banned. As the novel progresses, we realise that he is deeply flawed, trapped in his role of priest, when he could have given in and married, like many other priests. However he isn’t so much brave as unable to escape. In one village that begs him to perform a mass, he repeatedly refuses, denying he is a priest, hence echoing Peter’s denial of Jesus. Harking back to this story, on p.100, “a cock crew”, which rather surprised me because in every version of the Bible I have read it says “the cock crowed three times.”

The setting for the book is both dismal, with abject poverty, an oppressive regime and various scenes set in unlit rooms. The whole feeling is oppressive.

In spite of this, it was a fascinating tale which draws you in. The priest has done enough illegal or immoral things to make us alternately sympathetic and repulsed. The action and the pursuit of the priest by the lieutenant keeps the plot moving along. There are moments of humour, moments of pathos, moments of horror.

At one point the priest is captured, but he has changed since the photo on the wall that the soldiers are using to identify him was taken, but it is not only his appearance that has changed, it is his whole outlook. Back in the past, “Then, in his innocence, he had felt no love for anyone; now in his corruption he had learnt . . .” (p.139)

I hadn’t really expected to enjoy this book and yet I did, mostly because of the language, which was beautiful. I’m not sure why that was my feeling going in. I’ve read and enjoyed two Graham Greene books in the past: ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Brighton Rock’, but with those it was very much the plot that kept me interested rather than the prose. I’ve written out a number of quotations below and commented briefly on some.

Final verdict: I need to read more Graham Greene!

Quotations and imagery

Dedication: To Gervase
Gervase Mathew OP (d.1976) was an English Dominican friar who lived for many years at Blackfriars, Oxford. He was a member of the famous ‘Inklings’, a group that included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Th’ inclosure narrow’d; the sagacious power
Of hounds and death drew nearer every hour.

A phrase repeated: Ora pro nobis – pray for us

I loved these images of a pile of postcards, of memories and the future:

Home lay like a picture postcard on a pile of other postcards: shuffle the pack and you had Nottingham, a Metroland birthplace, an interlude in Southend. Mr Tench’s father had been a dentist too – his first memory was finding a discarded case in a wastepaper basket – the rough toothless gaping mouth of clay , like something dug up in Dorset – Neanderthal or Pithecanthropus. It had been his favourite toy: they tried to tempt him with Meccano, but fate had struck. There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in. The hot wet river-port and the vultures lay in the wastepaper basket, and he picked them out. We should be thankful we cannot see the horrors and degradations lying around our childhood, in cupboards and bookshelves, everywhere.” (pp.11 – 12)

What a fabulous piece of writing! The image of shuffling through a pile of postcards, then the fossilised remnant from the wastepaper basket and the humour of the parents trying to tempt a child with Meccano. Then the impact of the philosophical line about a door opening, followed by the humour about the damage our childhood can create. Marvellous!

“The glittering worlds lay there in space like a promise – the world was not the universe. Somewhere Christ might not have died. He could not believe that to a watcher there this world could shine with such brilliance: it would roll heavily in space under its fog like a burning and abandoned ship. The whole globe was blanketed with his own sin.” (p.29)

Beautiful, though the concept of being blanketed in sin is not particularly pleasant.

“He remembered Holy Week in the old days when a stuffed Judas was hanged from the belfry and boys made a clatter with tins and rattled as he swung out over the door.” (p.91) This reminds me of a similar practice in the Netherlands during Carnaval when a figure called Woeziks Jupke is burned at midnight on Shrove Tuesday to mark the end of Carnaval and the start of Lent –

An odd stillness dropped over the forest, and welled up in the mist from the ground. The night had been noisy, but now all was quiet. It was like an armistice with the guns silent on either side: you could imagine the whole world listening to what they had never heard before – peace.

A voice said ‘You are the priest, aren’t you?’

‘Yes.’ It was as if they had climbed out of their opposing trenches and met to fraternize among the wires in No Man’s Land. He remembered stories of the European war – how during the last years men had sometimes met on an impulse between the lines. (pp.100-101)

“It was odd – This fury to deface, because, of course, you could never deface enough. If God had been like a toad, you could have rid the globe of toads, but when God was like yourself, it was no good being content with stone figures – you had to kill yourself among the graves.” (p.102)

The poem the priest reads in Coral’s abandoned book is The Brook by Tennyson

Background reading:

  • A lecture given by Marisha Pessl, author of Special Topics in Calamity Physics (as yet unread by me):
  • Contemporaries of each other, the two Catholic writers, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, were divided by one religion. Greene later seemed to see the list of Catholic sins as a challenge, whereas Waugh was a family man and saw the restrictions imposed on him as helpful boundaries, not to be crossed. This is discussed in this Guardian article:
  • An interesting article on the book:
  • The book was filmed as The Fugitive in 1947, starring Henry Fonda as the Priest. A version for US TV and later released to cinemas elsewhere was also made in 1961 starring Laurence Olivier, of all people!