The Power and the Glory
Part II: Chapter Three
In the dark jail cell, the priest stumbles around, confused amid the prone bodies of the other prisoners. Voices ask him for cigarettes, money, for something to eat, and he hears the sound of two people making love somewhere in the darkness. He finally finds a place to sit in the crowded cell. Almost immediately, the conversation turns to priests. One of the prisoners blames priests for all of his problems.
Feeling that there is no use in trying to hide his identity any longer, the priest speaks up and announces that he, in fact, is a priest. In response to criticism from one of his cellmates, the priest admits that he is a bad priest, a whisky priest. He admits his fear of death, denies that he is worthy to be considered a martyr, and confesses that he has an illegitimate child. A prisoner tells him that he need not be afraid of being turned in by any of them because they are not interested in taking the state's "blood money." The priest feels an overwhelming affection for these people, and a sense of companionship he sorely lacked during his time on the run. A pious woman, who is in jail for keeping religious articles in her house, speaks to the priest. A self-righteous person, she is outraged at the other prisoners, and at having to be in the same cell with them. The priest tries to explain that, to a saint, even the most ugly scene of suffering still contains beauty, but the woman is offended that a priest could sympathize with people whom she considers utterly repugnant. "The sooner you are dead the better," she concludes, and then, with idiotic bluster, implies that when she gets out of prison she will inform the higher church authorities of the priest's behavior. But the priest is not really all that scared of the bishops anymore.
The next morning, the priest awakens, sure that the police will soon identify him. They call all of the prisoners outside, but pull the priest aside, telling him that his job is to empty the buckets of human waste from the jail cells. Entering one, he notices that its occupant is none other than the mestizo, who is staying in a jail cell as a guest of the police. The priest attempts to ignore him, but the mestizo persists in trying to get his attention. After the priest finally replies to him, the mestizo recognizes to whom he is speaking. But the mestizo does not immediately turn the priest in, reasoning that he won't receive the reward money if the priest is already in police custody and besides, he is comfortable living temporarily in the jail cell. The priest continues cleaning the cells, and when he is finished, he is brought before the lieutenant. Although the two men have been face to face once before, the lieutenant does not recognize the priest. He asks the priest where he is headed, to which the priest replies, "God knows." The lieutenant replies that God doesn't know anything, and asks him how he will live without any money or anyplace to go. The priest says, vaguely, that he will find some sort of work and the lieutenant, taking pity on a man who seems too old to be much of a worker, gives him five pesos and sends him on his way. The priest tells the lieutenant that he is a good man, and then leaves.
In a cell full of murderers and thieves, it is ironic that it is the pious woman who turns out to be the least admirable figure. Actually, this is a classic Christian story, reminiscent of many stories in the New Testament. Although it is not an exact parallel by any means, this scene resonates thematically with the gospel story in which Christ intervenes between a mob of self-righteous people and a woman whom they are about to stone to death for adultery. Jesus, alarmed at this violent display of self-righteousness, tells the crowd that only those who are without sin are allowed to condemn her. As both the Christian story and this scene in the novel seem to indicate, hypocritical confidence and pride in one's own moral rectitude are in many ways worse than sins of the flesh. As we saw with the lieutenant, this woman's outrage at the sins of others prevents her from seeing the hypocrisy of her own attitude.
In many ways, moreover, the pious woman is the least admirable character in the novel, worse even than the mestizo and the lieutenant. Although at first glance, this may seem ridiculous, given the fact that the lieutenant is, for all intents and purposes, a murderer and the mestizo is a conniving betrayer, Greene asks us to think beyond our customary sense of good and evil.
Indeed, being able to think past our customary, ingrained ideas is the overall theme of this chapter. The lieutenant is sure that he knows exactly what kind of person he is searching for, and he lets the priest slip from his fingers. He is once again face-to-face with his target, and he once again fails to recognize him as the man he has been searching for. In these scenes, Greene seems intent on highlighting the lieutenant's blindness. The lieutenant's attitude towards priests is to hate them all indiscriminately and, as a result, he is unable to think of them as anything other than stereotypes. This priest, however, thanks to his long months on the run, no longer resembles or behaves like a stereotypical priest. The lieutenant's single-minded hatred makes him unable to adjust his expectations and, once again, he misses his prey. And, once again, his intense focus on achieving his goal has made him blind to what should be most important.
Lastly, through the scene in the jail cell, Greene asks us to re-examine our conventional notions about where goodness can be found. The priest, as harried, uncomfortable and seemingly doomed as he is, elatedly feels a sense of solidarity with his fellow prisoners. The jail cell is a metaphor of sorts for human society as a whole. Moreover, the jail cell indicates that suffering must reach a certain peak before positive change seems possible. Only when the state tightens its grip most firmly on the people can they find a certain strength in brotherhood and common suffering that allows them to resist the state's coercion.
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