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The Power and the Glory

Graham Greene

Part IV

Part III: Chapter Four

Important Quotations Explained

Summary

Mrs. Fellows lays sick in bed with a handkerchief over her face and Captain Fellows tends to her needs. Notably absent from the scene is Coral Fellows, who has died, and her parents both go to great pains not to mention her. Mrs. Fellows is eager to move back home, but her husband, suddenly defiant, says he refuses to leave. After his wife begins to cry, he relents. They begin to talk about the priest who visited them all those months ago.

Mr. Tench, the dentist, treats his patient, the jefe, whose teeth are in a very bad state of decay. As he works, Tench speaks about his wife, from whom he has unexpectedly received a letter. She writes that she has found religion, and has forgiven him. Looking out the window, Tench sees a firing squad preparing to execute a man in the courtyard. It is, of course, the priest. Tench watches as they swiftly shoot the man. He seems to try to yell something out before he dies, but it comes out garbled and Tench thinks he said something like "excuse." Soon the man is a heap against the wall and the officers drag his corpse away. Tench, overwhelmed by a feeling of loneliness after witnessing the execution, vows that he will leave Mexico for good.

A woman finishes the story of Juan the young martyr, who faces death with complete courage, shouting, "Hail Christ the King!" as the squad in the story raises their rifles. The boy asks whether the man the police shot today is a martyr of the Church like Juan, and his mother tells him that he is indeed a great hero. The boy becomes despondent thinking that since the police have killed the last priest, there are no more heroes left in the realm. Looking out the window, he sees the lieutenant pass, and spits at him.

That night, the boy has a dream about the priest. He dreams that the man is laid out stiffly, as at a funeral. While the boy is watching him, the priest winks at him. Waking up, he hears a knock at the door and goes to answer it. He meets a stranger who tells him that he is a priest on the run from the authorities, and the boy opens the door for him.

Analysis

On some level, this chapter is meant to re-establish a sense of perspective, to emphasize that the story is no longer about one man's struggle with himself and with his enemies, but about his impact on those around him. Fittingly, therefore, having followed the priest for so long, his final day is reported to us only indirectly, as it is registered in the minds of others. We watch the execution of the priest from Mr. Tench's perspective. The priest's life is over, but the struggle against the state, and against the forces of persecution, goes on. He does not die with heroic flourish and defiance, and the novel's distant perspective on the scene only emphasizes this fact. We see him only as a very small figure, dying quickly in a heap against the wall.

On some level, therefore, Greene seems to be arguing that the kind of valiant final gesture we associate with heroes is not what is important, and not what truly defines a hero. One obvious question is why does Greene have the priest's last word be "excuse", or, at least, something that sounds like "excuse." Although it is impossible to say for certain what the priest was trying to convey, the word is nevertheless full of possible meanings. First, it is significant because excuses are one thing the priest never allowed himself to make. Or is "excuse" a verb? Is the priest asking for God to excuse him and his unworthy soul? Or is he, in a final act of forgiveness, asking for God to excuse those who have persecuted and executed him. Its very ambiguity provokes us to turn over possible meanings and, therefore, think more about the priest and his story.

It is striking that at the end of the novel we find all the expatriates fleeing the state, and that their flight coincides with the execution of the last remaining priest, but compared with the others, only Mr. Tench seems to have made a significant improvement in his outlook. His flight seems to represent a first, tentative step towards giving his life some sense of direction, and Greene makes it clear that his brief encounter with the priest had some kind of lasting impact upon him. Mr. Tench, appalled by the sight of the priest's execution and obviously stirred in some way by his wife's letter, decides that he will leave Mexico for good. In the previous chapter, the priest despaired about having to return to God "empty-handed", but it is evident from this scene that he made more of an impact on people than he realized.

The priest's positive influence becomes even more obvious in the book's final episode. The priest's execution has made the priest a martyr in the young boy's eyes and, to his mind, the state has taken away the last hero in the land. The priest and the lieutenant unknowingly vied throughout this novel for the boy's soul, and the boy now makes it clear that he has chosen to emulate the priest not the lieutenant when he spits at the lieutenant in disgust. The spirit of defiance, fueled by the priest's sacrifice, lives on. The boy's dream of the dead priest flickering his eyelids is a kind of mini-resurrection scene. Indeed, the dream itself is an indication that the priest's example and his influence have transcended his death. And in the book's final scene, a man known simply as "the stranger" knocks at the boy's door. The book has come full circle: another unnamed priest has emerged from the shadows to defy the state by remaining among the people. The lieutenant, by attempting to stamp out religion, has only helped it to take root more firmly in the land.

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