The Power and the Glory | Study Guide

Graham Greene

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

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Summary

Having safely crossed the border, the priest is staying with Mr. and Miss Lehr, a German-American man and his sister who have given him shelter on their plantation after their foreman found him ill. Mr. and Miss Lehr do not approve of him: they are Lutheran, not Catholic, but are willing to let him stay with them until he recovers. The priest bathes in the stream with Mr. Lehr. When he gets back from his bath, he finds a Bible in his room. Miss Lehr used to run a hotel and brought a Gideon Bible with her when she sold her hotel. (The Gideons, a Christian group, are known for placing Bibles in hotel rooms.) The priest is somewhat perplexed by the list of biblical references in the front of the Bible, directing readers to a particular text for comfort or inspiration according to their spiritual needs.

The priest borrows Mr. Lehr's horse to visit the village, where he is treated with great respect. People are eager for the sacraments: Eucharist, reconciliation, and baptism. He haggles with them over the price of each sacrament, and he begins to feel himself growing more formal and demanding of respect, "the old life hardening round him like a habit." Another man approaches him, offering to sell him wine for Mass and brandy for himself. While the priest no longer enjoys being on the run, he feels tremendous guilt for having survived. He does not believe he deserves the comforts of this life and now thinks almost longingly of his days in hiding.

Miss Lehr tells the priest about a time when she accidentally read a little of the Police News, horrified by this view of the world. The priest reflects on her reaction as he listens to confessions, most of which involve minor misdeeds or human error. He feels jealous of those who confess trivialities to him and receive absolution; he, on the other hand, cannot believe he will be absolved of his much greater sins.

The next morning, he says Mass for the people in the village, an act he enjoys without fear of being interrupted. But when he emerges from the Lehrs' stable, he finds the mestizo waiting for him, claiming to have come "on an errand of mercy." The Yankee (the American criminal on the run in Mexico) has been shot and is dying. The priest does not believe the mestizo, but the mestizo produces proof: a handwritten note. He describes how the American grabbed a child to try to protect himself when the police found him, but they shot both the American and the child. The priest thinks of the dead child he saw, the one the Indian woman carried. He knows some of what the mestizo says is true but nevertheless does not trust him.

The moment he realizes he will do his duty and go back with the mestizo, the priest feels happier, for "he had never really believed in this peace ... it was time he woke up." As he leaves with the mestizo, the priest sees the schoolmaster, who did not approve of him. He offers the schoolmaster the money he earned from saying Mass and hearing confessions. The mestizo howls, but the priest says, "I shan't need money again, shall I?" and they set off on their travels.

Analysis

The Lehrs play a small role in the book but serve two significant purposes. First, they are German-American. The book was published in 1940, during the early years of World War II. At the time Germans were seen as fiercely militaristic, yet the narrator says Mr. Lehr left Germany to avoid military service. So, the Lehrs, in their way, are out of place in their culture, much the same way the priest of out of place in his and the others out of theirs. The Lehrs also are Lutheran; the different religion permits Greene to address some of the Christian criticisms of Catholicism, which have reverberated throughout the ages. The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century led to the creation of many "protestant Christian" religions that objected to certain tenets of Catholicism while still maintaining some of its beliefs. Centuries later Mr. Lehr raises several of those same objections, as he notes, "Too much luxury, it seems to me, while the people starve." The Catholic Church has long had a reputation for elaborate churches and formal ritual, of which Mr. Lehr disapproves, and the priest acknowledges he may be right. Such agreement would be almost heresy to most Catholics—a priest agreeing with Protestant criticisms of the Catholic Church—but in these later chapters Greene is beginning to differentiate between the Church and the faith. The Church is fallible; the Church makes mistakes: it is made up of men. The faith, however, is not wrong.

The priest struggles with guilt in this chapter, particularly Catholic guilt and survivors' guilt. The Catholic guilt centers on a life of deception and sin: becoming a priest for material reasons, being a bad priest, being an alcoholic, committing adultery, fathering a child and not repenting for it. Survivor's guilt often appears in people who live through a traumatic experience and wonder why they survived while others did not. The priest feels himself unworthy of the clothes he has borrowed from Mr. Lehr, of the money he can earn from doing his duties, and of the respect he receives in this safer town. He tries to make promises to mend his behavior, and when he says the brandy "will be the last I'll ever drink ... he knew he lied." He feels impatient with the minor sins confessed by the good people of the town, feeling "an odd sense of homesickness" for the old places, dangerous as they are. He is also envious of these people, who can confess their sins to him and go home feeling free. Catholics believe penitents confess their sins, agree to do penance, and then are absolved—sins are wiped away as if they never happened. Such spiritual cleansing is impossible for the priest, who loves Brigitta, the result of his sin. Of course, to many modern readers, the real sin might be the failure to love one's own child, but readers should keep in mind the Catholic Church's traditional views on sin. The priest can never confess and be absolved because it would require him to wish Brigitta had never been born. So, he is trapped. Some readers may interpret his release from prison as "forgiveness," but in Catholic tradition, forgiveness can be given only by a priest during confession.

This dilemma may explain why he goes with the mestizo at the end of the chapter. He doesn't have to do it. In fact, he resists, initially, and the mestizo can do nothing about it. The mestizo is not a police officer and has no weapons. Furthermore, the villagers are respectful of the priest; if he told them the mestizo was a threat to him, they would drive the mestizo out of town. But he doesn't do it and goes along without a fight. He even takes the money he has earned—money he might be able to use to bribe someone or to escape—and gives it to the schoolteacher to buy food and supplies for the villagers. His comment to the mestizo"I shan't need money again, shall I?"—shows he is not fooled. He knows he is going to his death and seems relieved, if not almost happy, about sacrificing his body for the salvation of his soul. This scene may remind readers of the biblical story of Jesus, who goes willingly, knowing he will be betrayed and handed over to the authorities.

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