Unnamed for the entirety of the novel, the priest or "the whiskey priest" as he sometimes refers to himself, is the protagonist and the character upon whom the novel's most important moral questions center. He spends the majority of the novel on the run from the police, friendless and homeless and searching for some sense of purpose in his life. His decadent, indulgent life as a parish priest takes place before the novel begins, but it is present in his thoughts throughout the novel as a source of deep humiliation. He spends the novel pursued by the police who believe the Church exploits the poor, and tormented by his own sense of guilt. He meets his daughter, the product of a secret affair with one of his parishioners, and finds that his love for her makes it impossible for him to repent the sin of conceiving her. He often chastises himself for impulses and reactions that are very normal and very human.
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A believer in the law, a staunch opponent of the Catholic Church, and the priest's pursuer. The lieutenant's hatred of the Church stems from a traumatic event in his childhood, and it is a memory he wishes to eradicate along with all vestiges of religion. He lives a modest, almost monastic life, uninterested in any kind of sensual pleasure and desiring only the attainment of his goals. His "dapper", well-kept appearance stands in striking contrast to the confusion and grime that surround him. The ruthless tactics he employs in his pursuit of the priest seem to contradict his left-wing political and social ideals. But his conversations with the priest and a few of his more generous gestures at the novel's close indicate that he is a conflicted person, capable of empathy and perhaps even change.
A person the priest meets about halfway through his journey and who continues to reappear throughout the last half of the novel. The mestizo is from the very beginning an untrustworthy character who seems intent on betraying the priest. Impoverished, occasionally delirious and always calculating, the mestizo sees in the outlawed priest an opportunity to make money. His yellow eyes and fangs are noteworthy physical features that suggest menace and evil. Like Judas in the story of Christ, the mestizo becomes an unwitting participant, even catalyst, in a story about one man's path to glory.
Coral is a young American girl whom the priest meets early on in the novel when she discovers him hiding on her family's property. Independent-minded and responsible, she anchors her family emotionally and takes charge of the business when her hapless father neglects it. Although a self-professed atheist since the age of ten, Coral is deeply affected by her brief encounter with the priest, and she, in turn, remains a presence in the priest's mind during his journeys.
A youngster growing up in this violent and impoverished land. The boy listens with skepticism to stories about Juan, a martyred boy. He meets the priest in the beginning of the novel and, by the end, is impressed that the man he encountered has become a martyr for his faith. He represents the human ability to better itself by teaching its youth.
The priest's illegitimate daughter. Brigida meets with her father briefly during his stay at her village. Mocked because of her ignominious parentage, she is less than thrilled to meet her long-lost father, and their brief exchange is a tense one. The priest worries about how she will fare in the dangerous, cruel world, and fears that her heart has already become hardened by what she has been through.
Brigida's mother and the woman with whom the priest had a brief but extremely significant affair. Maria is unhappy to see the priest return, although she helps him to escape capture when the police come to her village.
The only other priest in the novel besides the protagonist. Padre Jose opted to renounce his faith rather than flee the state or face execution. Forced to marry, Padre Jose is allowed to remain in his town as a symbol of the weakness of the priesthood. He is mocked regularly by the children in his neighborhood and feels a deep and abiding sense of shame over the choices he has made.
An Englishman living in Mexico and working as a dentist. Mr. Tench is living a life of apathy and vacancy. A portrait of spiritual deadness, estranged from his wife and filled with a low-level loathing of Mexico, Tench is the first character the reader encounters.
An American outlaw, and the other "hunted man" in this novel. The gringo is wanted for murder. Although his reputation seems to fill people with a strange admiration, when we finally encounter him near the novel's end, he turns out to be little more than a common criminal.
Coral's father. Captain Fellows is a benign, if ineffectual, plantation owner, who tries to remain cheerful and optimistic in the face of difficult times and an isolated existence. He is unhappy when he learns that the priest is hiding in his barn, but turns a blind eye to his daughter when she insists upon assisting him. He and Mrs. Fellows leave Mexico after Coral's death.
Coral's mother. Mrs. Fellows is a neurotic, hysterical woman who confines herself to her bed out of fear of death.
A German-American living in Mexico. Mr. Lehr is the first to come upon the priest after he crosses the border. A Lutheran who is mildly disapproving of Catholicism, he engages the priest in muted religious debate, but is basically a kind person living a rather easy life.
Mr. Lehr's sister who came to join her brother in Mexico after his wife died. Miss Lehr is somewhat more curious and also somewhat more naïve than her brother.
Nameless like her son, she tries to keep her children in touch with the Catholic faith by reading them stories of saints' lives. She is concerned that her young son, the boy, is losing interest in religion.
A young man whom we encounter in this novel only through the stories that are told about him. Juan lives his life with perfect piety and generosity, and faces death with bravery and with perfect composure.
A person the priest meets during his night in jail. The pious woman is too proud of herself and her convictions to be truly pious. She looks down on the priest for having sympathy for the other prisoners in the cell.
The lieutenant's boss. The jefe is not nearly as concerned about the capture of the priest as his crusading underling, and is content to play billiards and delegate authority.