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Literature / The Power and the Glory

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The lieutenant said in a tone of fury: "Well, you're going to be a martyr—you've got that satisfaction." "Oh, no. Martyrs are not like me. They don't think all the time—if I had drunk more brandy I shouldn't be so afraid."

The Power and the Glory is a novel by Graham Greene, published in 1940. It takes place in Mexico in the 1930s during the time when, in several states, religion (and priests) were outlawed by socialists. The hero is a nameless alcoholic priest who has decided, unlike most, to stay in Mexico as a fugitive from the state's police, who hunt him down, and a savior to the people. The novel is generally considered a literary masterpiece. The book is the trope namer for the stock character of the booze-addled Whisky Priest.

The novel was loosely adapted by John Ford as The Fugitive (1947), starring Henry Fonda. Greene hated the movie, but Ford liked it and ranked it among his best works.

No connection to 1933 film The Power and the Glory.


Tropes include:

  • The Alcoholic: The priest, understandably.
  • All-Loving Hero: The priest aspires to be this, and criticizes himself harshly for not living up to this ideal. He feels a great deal of paternal affection for Brigitta, and he's deeply ashamed that he doesn't care as deeply for everyone else he meets.
  • Always Someone Better: The priest has this view of all the other clerics who are better at their vocation than he is. Subverted, though, since ultimately he's the only one remaining in the country.
  • Anti-Hero: The whiskey priest, a vice-riddled, exhausted man who ends up becoming a martyr and in-universe memetic hero by his sheer refusal to stop serving the Church.
  • Anti-Villain: The lieutenant, a Well-Intentioned Extremist with a Dark and Troubled Past who has a couple of Pet the Dog moments.
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  • Bad Liar: A mestizo insists on accompanying the priest on flimsy premises, and can't keep his own story straight when the priest asks him questions. The priest figures out almost immediately that this man wants to betray him to the police. It becomes truly absurd when the mestizo outright admits that he's waiting for the right time to betray the priest—and then he complains that the priest won't trust him.
  • Bittersweet Ending: On the one hand, the priest is executed at the end. On the other hand, he may have found peace in death, and the arrival of another priest in the final scene demonstrates the the Church cannot be destroyed, that the priest's death was not in vain.
  • Bookends: A mother reading stories of the saints to her children.
  • Bus Crash: The priest finds the Fellows family's homestead deserted, and speculates that they had to leave because someone got sick or died, but nothing is known for sure. Later, when we see the family again, one of them is absent and heavily implied to be dead.
  • Circling Vultures: Vultures are present in the very first scene, and reappear in many later scenes, to foreshadow that the priest is not going to survive.
  • Characters as Device: The lieutenant, whose only role in the story is the foil to the priest.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The American convict; the priest baptising a (male) baby Brigitta whilst drunk.
  • Corrupt Church: Playing with this is more or less the entire focus of the novel. The priest sacrifices everything to do his duty, yet charges poor people for baptisms in order to buy alcohol, is often drunk and has a child. The saintly Bishop flees the country to preside over a cathedral in safety. The only other priest remaining, Father Jose, conforms to the demand to marry and abandons his vocation.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: The lieutenant is driven to oppose the Church because he doesn't want any child to suffer as he did. Exactly what happened in his childhood is never detailed.
  • Deathbed Confession: Subverted. The dying outlaw James Calver asks for a priest so he can confess his sins, and the priest comes for him, at great personal risk. The outlaw changes his mind in the interim, and instead tries to give the priest his weapon. The priest reflects on the whole concept of deathbed conversions, and how difficult it is for someone who has run away from God their whole life to truly change their mind in their final moments.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Mr. Tench, the dentist, is the viewpoint character of the first chapter, but only plays a minor role in the story.
  • Dirty Cop: The Chief of Police drinks (illegal) alcohol—ironically, sharing it the priest (unbeknownst to him). Also a larger theme: both the church and the state have corrupt practitioners.
  • Half-Breed Discrimination: Implied. The narrative emphasizes the mixed race of a certain treacherous character by usually referring to him as "the mestizo" or "the half-caste."
  • Hero Worship: Occurs two ways with Luis, the son in the hagiography-reading family, who is thirsty for a heroic male role model. At first he has a certain admiration for the Lieutenant, but by the end of the story he despises the Lieutenant and admires priests.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The police and the mestizo set an Obvious Trap for the priest, and the bait is a dying man who wants to confess his sins. Knowing full well that he'll be captured and killed, the priest goes to visit the man anyway, because he can't let the man die with unconfessed sins on his soul.
  • Hope Spot: Three notable examples, though the entire novel is full of them. The priest's first failed escape. The priest buying wine (needed for the Mass) and brandy, only to have the former drunk. And the priest escaping over the border when it becomes clear that his presence is only putting others in danger. He then returns, knowing it's a trap, in order to do his duty. Throughout the novel, the priest is given the opportunity to escape, only each time something stops him.
  • Humans Are Bastards: A recurring message: Every human is a sinner, and most of the sins are small and pathetic and cowardly.
  • Humans Are Good: Also recurring, and because of, not in spite of, the above. Every character is a sinner, but also everyone is good.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: The priest, constantly. For two reasons: for himself, and for Communion wine.
  • Jumped at the Call: Inverted. The priest did, for his vocation initially, yet never took it seriously and looked only for the perks. When the persecution began, he never intended to stay, yet every time he tries to leave an incident occurs that makes him realise that he is still needed. His spiritual vocation seems to just have grown at some point along the way.
  • Mercy Kill: Implied. After the priest faces the firing squad, the lieutenant walks up and shoots him one more time, in the head. Presumably, he did it to insure the priest's death wasn't too drawn out.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: The lieutenant believes this. Played with, in the case of the priest: he becomes more and more aware of the flaws of the church, but remains ferociously loyal to what it is in spirit rather than what it is on earth.
  • No Name Given: Several major characters just have titles rather than names. "The priest", "the lieutenant", "the mestizo", and "the chief of police" (or sometimes "the jefe").
  • The Noun and the Noun
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: The lieutenant, repeatedly characterized as the most intellectual character in the novel, is also a devoted atheist who repeatedly reflects that by stamping out Christianity and instead forcing humanity to confront the reality of a "cooling world," he is doing a great service to mankind.
  • Out of Focus: Part One jumps back and forth between a number of viewpoint characters aside from the priest: the lieutenant, Mr. Tench, Father Jose, a family reading a book about martyrs, the Fellows family. Beginning in Part Two, the priest becomes the only viewpoint character, and all those other characters (with the exception of the lieutenant) completely drop out of the story. And then they all reappear for Part Five.
  • Police State
  • Secret Police
  • Story Within a Story: We occasionally see a pious mother reading her children a saccharine, sanitized book about a martyr named Fr. Juan, which stands in contrast to the ignoble existence of the whiskey priest.
  • The So-Called Coward: The priest reminds everyone, at every opportunity, that he's flawed and cowardly man.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: The lieutenant, trying to improve his country and its people, which he sees as in thrall to a Corrupt Church. In order to do this, he is willing to order the deaths of men he knows are perfectly innocent and randomly chosen in order to find one priest. Yet the priest believes he's a good man, as only a good man would give money to someone he thought was a worthless beggar.
  • Worthy Opponent: Played with. The lieutenant is a brave and principled man, albeit a ruthless fanatic; the priest eventually comes to see him as a good one. The priest, a good man, is eventually seen by the lieutentant as a brave and principled one.
  • You Cannot Kill an Idea: The implication of the final scene, where a new priest suddenly appears to continue God's work.


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