The Power and the Glory | Study Guide

Graham Greene

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The Power and the Glory | Part 1, Chapter 3 : The River | Summary



Captain Fellows, a cheerful man, is the administrator of an outpost of the Central American Banana Company. His wife is ill and feeble, neurotically obsessed with death and anything that can be interpreted as a reference to death, even phrases like "go west" or "turn to the wall." She informs her husband of the arrival of a policeman the previous evening, whom their daughter, Coral, has allowed to sleep on the veranda. Only 13, Coral is more responsible for the outpost than either of her parents and insists her father see the policeman.

The policeman—the lieutenant—searches for the priest. Captain Fellows says the priest is not there and assures the lieutenant they are not Catholic. The lieutenant leaves, thinking the Fellowses will turn the priest in and spitting to show his hatred. Coral announces she did not allow the police to search their property because the priest hides in one of their buildings. Captain Fellows wants to send him away, but then advises the priest to wait until after dark for safety. The priest asks for some brandy; his obvious need for alcohol offends Captain Fellows.

Against her father's wishes, Coral brings the priest some food and a bottle of beer. Full of curiosity, she asks the priest many questions but has little ability to understand his thoughts. When she encourages the priest to get away or to renounce his faith, he indicates he has no ability to do so: "This is my parish ... it's out of my power." Having finished the beer, the priest readies himself to leave. Coral tells him to come back if he needs help. He is reluctant, but she likes the idea and teaches him some Morse code so he can signal to her if he returns.

Later "the stranger" enters a small village where an old man recognizes him as the priest. The priest asks if they have any drink, any food, or a place to rest. The old man says they have little but agrees to have a boy stand guard so the priest can sleep. Yet before the priest can fall asleep, the old man begins to whine about how long it has been since he had the sacrament of confession. He complains until the priest agrees to hear his confession, although the priest drifts in and out of sleep through most of it. The old man begs to have the village women confess as well, and the exhausted priest begins to weep from fatigue. The old man interprets it as weeping for their sins and hurries to bring the women, even though they complain about participating so late at night.


This chapter introduces the Fellows family: Captain Fellows, his ill—or hypochondriac—wife, and their oddly precocious daughter, Coral. The priest's interactions seem to take place mostly with people who live outside of society in some way. As foreigners, the Fellows family and Mr. Tench, introduced in Chapter 1, are outsiders. As Mr. Tench responds to life in Mexico by complaining of a vague, unspecified illness, the Fellows family members also have their own ways of coping. Captain Fellows doesn't really need to cope, however, for he is happy in this dangerous place: "In only one other country had he felt more happy ... wartime France, in the ravaged landscape of the trenches." Captain Fellows thrives in dangerous environments. On the other hand, his wife does not and suffers from crippling anxiety and physical illnesses, which may or may not be imagined.

Then there is Coral, the young girl who somehow runs the entire operation for her parents. Throughout the book, children, who represent the future, are often at odds with adults, and Coral is one of these. She knows how to manage the policeman better than her father does. The policeman is in fact the lieutenant already introduced and not an easy man to "manage." Yet Coral knows how to do it. She doesn't believe in God, having lost her faith when she was 10, but nevertheless chooses to help the priest, even promising she will "never forgive them" if they kill him. She shows kindness and humanity, traits that seem lacking in many others, certainly among the believers who give the priest nothing, not even the rest he needs so badly. Coral is an unusual blend of adult and child. She understands the risks involved in helping the priest and finds ways to minimize them. She takes on her parents' responsibilities but cannot see why the priest feels an obligation to his community. She protects the priest from the lieutenant, but is childlike enough to envision flashing Morse code signals to the priest on the run in the jungle.

Near the end of the chapter, Greene shows the priest "at work," hearing confessions, now known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Sacraments are rites Catholics believe to be symbols of God's blessing on Earth. A person can receive the sacraments from a religious figure, usually a priest. Baptism, confirmation, matrimony, and taking holy orders are once-in-a-lifetime sacraments, according to Catholic teaching, whereas confession and the Eucharist are practiced frequently. Thus, the priest's arrival is so important for believers. After hearing a penitent's confession, the priest may give advice and assign penance, which usually is the recitation of prayers on the rosary, a string of beads each containing a prayer; the whisky priest assigns such penance in this chapter. The old man's eagerness to have his confession heard is understandable, for dying without confession can lead to eternal damnation. But because confession focuses so much on the sinful nature of people, it must be painful for the priest to listen to confessions, hence his reluctance. In addition, he is exhausted and less than eager to perform church rites, despite his calling and refusal to abandon it. He is only human, as are the people in the town. He also is well aware of his own sins, but to whom can he confess?

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