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Study Questions

Study Questions

Study Questions

Study Questions

One striking feature of the novel is that its protagonist goes unnamed throughout. Discuss the significance of naming with specific reference to the namelessness of the priest.

A name is what helps to define a person or give a person a sense of identity. It is telling, therefore, that the protagonist of the novel is referred to as "the whiskey priest" or simply as "the priest." "Whiskey priest" seems to define him in terms of weakness, something he tends to do himself throughout the novel. "The priest" reinforces the idea that, as the last remaining priest in the state, he in many ways represents the priesthood itself. Furthermore, a name has a social function: it allows other people to refer to you or to call you. It can be said with affection. The priest's lack of a name indicates how cut off from other people he is. Lastly, for the majority of the novel, the priest is unsure of who he is, where he belongs or what he ought to do with himself, and this uncertainty is reflected in his lack of a name. While it at first seems that his lack of firm definition is a negative aspect of his character, it is what allows him to change so much and become the estimable, even saintly, person he is by the novel's close.

Although this is a story about a spiritual journey, Greene's protagonist doesn't move from a beginning place to an ending place, but seems instead to continually circle back and revisit places he has already seen. Why do you think Greene chose to structure his novel in this way?

On one level, the visiting and revisiting structure lends a sense of entrapment to the novel. The state in which the novel is set is a kind of snare and by having the priest circle around within it, rather than move on a straight path through it, helps to lend the work a sense of confinement. The structure also pertains to the priest's inner condition, which, for the majority of the novel, seems more akin to wandering and confusion than to forward-looking, goal- oriented momentum. The priest is caught within his own thoughts, constantly revisiting mistakes from the past and "dwelling" in places he has already been. But on some level, the instances of circling-back mark progress of a different kind. When the priest returns to the capital city the narrator says, "This was the town to which it had been his ambition to be promoted." He is a different man now, and words like "ambition" and "promotion" mean little to him anymore.

Is this novel an allegory? Why or why not.

Allegory, a genre in which the inner condition of characters is represented by or reflected in their external environment, is often employed in literature of spiritual development. Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and Spenser's The Faerie Queene are perhaps the two most significant allegorical works in English literature, and they both are about the quest for spiritual perfection. Greene's work is allegorical in the sense that the external environment seems at times to mirror the inner condition of the characters. This is especially noticeable in Chapter Four of Part II, where the exhausted priest seems to stumble into an exhausted world, and the loneliness and despondency he feels within him are mirrored in the abandoned house and village he comes upon. Allegorical figures are also often "types"; that is, the hero of Pilgrim's Progress is called, simply, Christian because he is meant to represent a typical Christian. The priest, the last one in his land, also finds himself to be a representative of his kind. But Greene questions whether he is a typical priest or a typical saint. Greene endows him with enough individuality to make it hard to view him simply as a type. Allegory is an abstract kind of literature that is interested mainly in concepts, and not in the inner life of characters. Greene is too interested in representing the harsh texture of reality, and subtle shadings of human emotion to invest his work too heavily in the world of symbols and ideas. So, while there are certainly allegorical features and what you might even call an "allegorical atmosphere" about the book, it is probably not accurate to call this work an allegory.

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