The Power and the Glory | Study Guide

Graham Greene

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The Power and the Glory | Part 1, Chapter 1 : The Port | Summary

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Summary

In a small town in Mexico, Mr. Tench, a British dentist, goes out to the port to fetch an ether cylinder being delivered on a ship. Mr. Tench is unhealthy: something is wrong with his stomach, and he continually forgets what he must do. Mr. Tench sees a pretty girl on the arriving boat and in English comments on her looks. A man near him responds in English, to Mr. Tench's surprise. Although the man is Mexican, he speaks some English. Poorly dressed and carrying a cheap novel, he tells Mr. Tench he is a "quack," a seller of "patent medicines." Mr. Tench regularly says "ora pro nobis" as a casual expression, which startles the man. The man offers to share some brandy he has, and Mr. Tench invites him home, assuring him there is time to catch the boat.

The men talk and drink. Mr. Tench reminisces about his family, and the man wonders what the town was like "before the Red Shirts came." Mr. Tench insists there was little difference, but the man says the people had God then. The man and Mr. Tench talk about catching the boat to Vera Cruz. A child knocks on the door, asking for a doctor. The stranger is unhappy about going, but he gathers his things, saying he is "meant to miss" the boat. Mr. Tench reflects on how good it was to talk to someone, even a stranger. He finds the stranger's novel, which was left behind. Inside the book is not a story at all, but something written in Latin. Mr. Tench hides the book, uneasy.

Meanwhile, the stranger leaves with the child. He hates the child and the sick woman who have kept him from catching the boat. He thinks himself "unworthy of what he carried" and hopes to be caught soon.

Analysis

Greene starts with a minor character—Mr. Tench, the dentist—to provide an outsider's perspective. Mr. Tench is not Mexican and not clear on anything, even his own plans. He is uncomfortable—nauseous, in fact—for no discernible reason other than the water, which by this time he should be used to. With the continual presence of illness and pain, Greene builds a sense of discomfort from the very beginning. Mr. Tench also allows the reader to see the main character, the priest, through another's eyes. Initially, this character seems to be only a poor man, but readers learn he is a priest known simply as the priest, or the whisky priest. Readers also may note the spelling of whisky, which is the spelling indicating Scotch rather than Irish or American whiskey. Mr. Tench notices the priest's "protuberant eyes" and "impression of unstable hilarity, as if perhaps he had been celebrating a birthday, alone." Indeed, the man is in poor physical shape, with an aura of death about him, in his "hollowness and neglect." His "dark suit and sloping shoulders reminded [Mr. Tench] uncomfortably of a coffin." If the priest reminds Mr. Tench of death, Mr. Tench appears as a man devoid of real feeling, spiritually numb, and his shipment of ether—an anesthetic—appropriately comments on his character.

In this chapter, Greene doesn't state the man is a priest, but he does supply hints. The man is startled by Mr. Tench's use of ora pro nobis, the Latin term meaning "pray for us." Until the mid-20th century, the Catholic Mass was recited in Latin, and the unidentified priest asks if Mr. Tench is Catholic. It is a strange phrase to use in casual conversation, yet Mr. Tench does so multiple times. When the two men discuss events in the country, the stranger mentions how the people used to have God; when they depart, he offers to pray for Mr. Tench. Most significant, Mr. Tench finds the stranger's novel with its deceptive cover—called La Eterna Martír (The Eternal Martyr) is in fact a book written in Latin—not something most people would carry around in such times, and whose title foreshadows the stranger's destiny.

Greene offers multiple clues about the times. There are repeated references to generals: the statue of an "ex-general ... ex-human being" that Mr. Tench passes and the boat named for General Obregon, the revolutionary leader and former president of Mexico. Obregon was assassinated by a Catholic man who blamed him for the persecution of the Church. Whether the statue and the boat both refer to Obregon is unclear, but the country does seem to have gone through more than its share of political turmoil. In addition, Mr. Tench refers to various government rules about alcohol, and he talks with the priest about a man named Lopez, who helped people escape and who was shot. When someone knocks at Mr. Tench's door, he hesitates to open it. Life in Mexico is neither straightforward nor safe.

Mr. Tench often compares himself to the stranger. Both speak English, both enjoy a drink, and both are "educated." He talks about how the man can get away to Vera Cruz, although he himself cannot afford to leave. Yet the man's behavior at the end of the chapter demonstrates his inability to leave. In a way, he also has invested in this place and cannot afford to leave.

The priest is full of self-loathing. When he first speaks to Mr. Tench, he refers to himself as a "quack," a questionable doctor who uses phony medicines and promises cures. Although some characters in the book might consider priests as quacks because they promise what cannot be seen or guaranteed, like salvation and heaven, the priest genuinely believes in his faith, despite his questionable behavior. He calls himself a quack because his sinfulness makes him "unworthy of what he carried," referring figuratively to the religious items he brings with him to celebrate the Mass, including the liturgical text he accidentally leaves behind. To Catholics, the priest carries the ability to transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ during Holy Communion. The whisky priest sees himself as an unworthy vessel for such a task. But, he does not flee. He is the only priest, and a priest has an obligation. Later in the book he explains his thinking and why he did not flee. At this point in the book, Greene wants the reader to understand the priest's perspective and his belief that he cannot escape.

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