The Power and the Glory

The Power and the Glory

First edition
Author Graham Greene
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 216

The Power and the Glory (1940) is a novel by British author Graham Greene. The title is an allusion to the doxology often recited at the end of the Lord's Prayer: "For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever, amen." It was initially published in the United States with the title, The Labyrinthine Ways.

Greene's novel tells the story of a renegade Roman Catholic 'whisky priest' (a term coined by Greene) living in the Mexican state of Tabasco in the 1930s, a time when the Mexican government was attempting to suppress the Catholic Church.

In 1941, the novel received the British literary award, the Hawthornden Prize. In 2005, it was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the hundred best English-language novels since 1923.[1]


The main character is an unnamed 'whisky priest', who combines a great power for self-destruction with pitiful cravenness, an almost painful penitence, and a desperate quest for dignity. By the end, though, the priest "acquires a real holiness."[2] The other principal character is a police lieutenant tasked with hunting down this priest. This Lieutenant – also unnamed but thought to be based upon Tomás Garrido Canabal[3] – is a committed socialist who despises the Church.

The story starts with the arrival of the priest in a country town in an area where Catholicism is outlawed, and then follows him on his trip through Mexico, where he tries to minister to the people as best as he can. He is also haunted by his personal demons, especially by the fact that he fathered a child in his parish some years before. He meets the child, but is unable to feel repentant about what happened. Rather, he feels a deep love for the evil-looking and awkward little girl and decides to do everything in his power to save her from damnation. The priest's opposite player among the clericals is Padre José, a priest who has been forced by the government to renounce his faith and marry a woman and lives as a state pensioner.

During his journey the priest also encounters a mestizo who later reveals himself to be a Judas figure. The lieutenant, on the other hand, is morally irreproachable, yet cold and inhumane. While he is supposedly "living for the people", he puts into practice a diabolic plan of taking hostages from villages and shooting them, if it proves that the priest has sojourned in a village but is not denounced. The lieutenant has also had bad experiences with the church in his youth, and as a result there is a personal element in his search for the whisky priest. The lieutenant thinks that all members of the clergy are fundamentally evil, and believes that the church is corrupt, and does nothing but provide delusion to the people.

In his flight from the lieutenant and his posse, the priest escapes into a neighbouring province, only to re-connect with the mestizo, who persuades the priest to return to hear the confession of a dying man. Though the priest suspects that it is a trap, he feels compelled to fulfil his priestly duty. Although he finds the dying man, it is a trap and the lieutenant captures the priest. The lieutenant admits he has nothing against the priest as a man, but he must be shot "as a danger". On the eve of the execution, the lieutenant shows mercy and attempts to enlist Padre José to hear the condemned man's confession, but the effort is thwarted by Padre José's wife. The lieutenant is convinced that he has "cleared the province of priests". In the final scene, however, another priest arrives in the town – which, among other possible readings, suggests that the Catholic Church cannot be destroyed.


Greene visited Mexico from January to May 1938 to research and write a nonfiction account of the persecution of the Catholic Church in Mexico, that he had been planning since 1936.[4][lower-alpha 1] The persecution of the Catholic Church was especially severe in the province of Tabasco, under anti-clerical governor Tomás Garrido Canabal.[7][8][9] His campaign succeeded in closing all the churches in the state. It forced the priests to marry and give up their traditional garb. Greene called it the "fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Elizabeth."[10] He chronicled his travels in Tabasco in The Lawless Roads, published in 1939. In that generally hostile account of his visit he wrote "That, I think, was the day I began to hate the Mexicans"[11] and at another point described his "growing depression, almost pathological hatred ... for Mexico."[12] Pico Iyer has marveled at how Greene's responses to what he saw could be "so dyspeptic, so loveless, so savagely self-enclosed and blind" in his nonfiction treatment of his journey,[13] though, as another critic has noted, "nowhere in The Power and the Glory is there any indication of the testiness and revulsion" in Greene's nonfiction report.[14] Many details reported in Greene's nonfiction treatment of his Tabasco trip appeared in the novel, from the sound of a revolver in the police chief's holster to the vultures in the sky. The principal characters of The Power and the Glory all have antecedents in The Lawless Roads, mostly as people Greene encountered directly or, in the most important instance, a legendary character that people told him about, a certain "whisky priest", a fugitive who, as Greene writes in The Lawless Roads, "existed for ten years in the forest and swamps, venturing out only at night".[12]

Another of Greene's inspirations for his main character was the Jesuit priest Miguel Pro, who performed his priestly functions as an underground priest in Tabasco and was executed without trial in 1927 on false charges.[12][14]

In 1983, Greene said that he first started to become a Christian in Tabasco, where the fidelity of the peasants "assumed such proportions that I couldn't help being profoundly moved."[15]

Despite having visited Mexico and published an account of his travels, in the novel Greene was not meticulous about Tabasco's geography. In The Power and the Glory, he identified the region's northern border as the U.S. and its southern border as the sea, when Tabasco's northern border is actually the Bay of Campeche and its southern border is Chiapas to the south.


The Priest: The unnamed main character in the novel, the priest is on the run from the authorities, who will kill him if they catch him. A "whisky priest," and not the finest example of his profession, he is an alcoholic who has also fathered a child. In his younger days he was smug and self-satisfied. Now as a fugitive, he feels guilt for his mistakes and sins. Nevertheless, he continues to perform his priestly functions (often in great difficulty and sometimes reluctance) and it is his determination to attend to the spiritual needs of a dying man that leads to his eventual capture and death.

The Lieutenant: The lieutenant is the chief adversary of the priest. He hates the church because he thinks it is corrupt, and he pursues the priest ruthlessly. He takes hostages from the villages and kills them when he feels it is necessary. However, the lieutenant is also idealistic, and believes in radical social reform that would end poverty and provide education for everyone. He is capable of acts of personal kindness, as when he gives the priest (whom he believes to be a destitute drunkard) money on leaving the jail.

The Mestizo: The mestizo is the half-Indian peasant who insists on guiding the priest to Carmen. The priest knows that the mestizo will at some point hand him over to the authorities. The mestizo encounters the priest again in the prison, but prefers to wait for the right moment to betray him, which he does when leading him to the dying American.

Maria: Maria is the mother of Brigitta, the priest’s daughter. She keeps brandy for the priest and helps him evade the police when they come to her village looking for him. Although she shows support when the "whisky priest" reappears, the narrative leaves the character of Maria incomplete... with implications of resentment.

Brigitta: The young daughter of Maria and the priest.

Padre José: A priest who obeyed the government’s instructions and took a wife. He is dominated by her and has lost both the respect of the town and his self-respect. He refuses to do any priestly duties, even when people beg him to, because he fears the authorities.

Mr. Tench: Mr. Tench is a dissatisfied English dentist who longs to return from Mexico to England. He befriends the priest, whom he meets at the quayside, and later witnesses his death.

Coral Fellows: The thirteen-year-old daughter of Captain and Mrs. Fellows. She befriends the priest and offers refuge to him for the future. Her fate at the end of the novel is not revealed. Her parents have promised each other not to talk about her again.

Captain Fellows: A happy Englishman who works on a banana plantation who is displeased to find that the priest has taken refuge in his barn.

Mrs. Fellows: The wife of Captain Fellows. She is neurotic and fearful and hates life in Mexico.

The Woman: The unnamed woman reads to her children the story of Juan and his martyrdom. The Catholic faith is important to her and she wants her children to take an interest in it.

Luis: This young boy shows little interest in the story his mother reads to him, but his interest is awakened by the news of the priest's death.

The Gringo: An American fugitive called James Calver, he is wanted for murder and bank robbery.

The Chief of Police: Mostly concerned with playing billiards and assuaging his own toothache, he doesn't share the Lieutenant's idealism and wilfully breaks the law.

The Lehrs: Mr. Lehr, a widower, and his sister, Miss Lehr, are an elderly couple who allow the priest to stay with them after he crosses the state border. They are Lutherans, and have little sympathy for Catholicism, although they treat the priest with kindness.

Juan: Juan is a character within a story that the unnamed woman reads to her family. Juan is a young Mexican man who enters the priesthood, lives a pious life and faces his death by firing squad with great courage.


In 1947, the novel was freely adapted into a film, The Fugitive, directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda as the priest. It was faithfully dramatized by Denis Cannan for performance at the Phoenix Theatre in London in 1956, the whisky priest acted by Paul Scofield, and in 1958 at the Phoenix Theatre in New York City.[16] The dramatization was Play of the Week on US television in 1959, with James Donald as the priest.[17] A highly acclaimed 1961 US television version, released theatrically overseas, featured Laurence Olivier in the role.[18][19]


The Power and the Glory was somewhat controversial and, in 1953, Cardinal Bernard Griffin of Westminster summoned Greene and read him a pastoral letter condemning the novel. According to Greene:

The Archbishop of Westminster read me a letter from the Holy Office condemning my novel because it was "paradoxical" and "dealt with extraordinary circumstances." The price of liberty, even within a Church, is eternal vigilance, but I wonder whether any of the totalitarian states ... would have treated me as gently when I refused to revise the book on the casuistical ground that the copyright was in the hands of my publishers. There was no public condemnation, and the affair was allowed to drop into that peaceful oblivion which the Church wisely reserves for unimportant issues.

Evelyn Waugh in Greene's defence wrote, "It was as fatuous as unjust – a vile misreading of a noble book." In 1965, Greene met Pope Paul VI, who assured him, "Mr. Greene, some aspects of your books are certain to offend some Catholics, but you should pay no attention to that."[20] Many novelists consider the novel to be Greene's masterpiece, as John Updike claimed in his introduction to the 1990 reprint of the novel. On its publication, William Golding claimed Greene had "captured the conscience of the twentieth century man like no other."


  1. It is sometimes claimed that Greene fled England in 1938 to escape a lawsuit that 20th Century Fox brought against him for a review he wrote of the Shirley Temple movie Wee Willie Winkie in Night and Day magazine. Greene's friend, the Brazilian-born film director Alberto Cavalcanti, wrote: "Graham was warned that the Americans producing the film had introduced a writ of libel against him, meaning that not only would the backers of Night and Day pay a large fine, but he, Graham himself, faced a prison sentence. The only solution was to find a country without extradition. They chose Mexico and our poor Graham went away very quickly indeed. Very likely Shirley Temple never learned that it was partly thanks to her that, during his exile, Graham Greene wrote one of his best books."[5] Others have noted that the trip had been planned long before the review appeared, Greene paid UK£600 to settle the suit, and was never threatened with imprisonment.[6]


  1. "All Time 100 Novels". Time. 2005.
  2. H.J.Donaghy, Graham Greene, p.40
  3. The Power and the Glory New York: Viking, 1990. Introduction by John Updike.
  4. name=brennan>Brennan, Michael. Graham Greene: Fictions, Faith and Authorship (London: Continuum, 2010), pp. 47, 56–59.
  5. Editors (18 November 2007) "Shirley Temple scandal was real reason Graham Greene fled to Mexico." The Independent.
  6. Brennan, Michael. Graham Greene: Fictions, Faith and Authorship (London: Continuum, 2010), pp. 47, 56–59.
  7. Tuck, Jim (December 1, 2000). "Plutarco Elias Calles: Crusader in reverse". Mexconnect. Retrieved January 5, 2014.
  8. Needler, Martin C. Mexican Politics: The Containment of Conflict: Politics in Latin America (NY: Praeger, 1982), p. ??
  9. "Mexico: Palm Down". Time. 10 December 1934. Retrieved 25 May 2010.
  10. Graham Greene, The Lawless Roads, page ??
  11. Riding, Alan (December 2, 2001). "Greeneland Revisited". New York Times. Retrieved January 5, 2014.
  12. 1 2 3 Schweizer, Bernard (2001). Radicals on the Road: The Politics of English Travel Writing in the 1930s. University Press of Virginia. pp. 77, 123–4.
  13. Heyman, Stephen (December 4, 2011). "Bookshelf". New York Times. Retrieved January 5, 2014.
  14. 1 2 Veitch, Douglas W. (1978). Lawrence, Greene and Lowry: The Fictional Landscape of Mexico. Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. pp. 4, 67.
  15. "The Uneasy Catholicism of Graham Greene". New York Times. April 3, 1983. Retrieved January 5, 2014.
  16. Details given in the Who's Who 2007 article about Denis Cannan
  17. IMDB entry for Play of the Week episode "The Power and the Glory"
  18. Sochurek, Howard (Sept 1961), "Power and Glory of Sir Laurence", Life, issue 29
  19. The Power and the Glory 1961 television movie at IMDB
  20. Graham Greene. Paul VI, in 1953, a decade before becoming pope, had defended The Power and the Glory against other churchmen who wanted to censor it. Peter Godman. "Graham Greene's Vatican Dossier", The Atlantic, July/August 2001.
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