The Power and the Glory : Novel Summary: Part 1 – Chapter 1

Mr. Tench, a disgruntled English dentist living alone in a small Mexican town in the 1930s, heads for the quayside. He is expecting the delivery of an ether cylinder, which he needs for his dental practice. At the river bank, he watches as the ship, the General Obregon unloads 140 cases of beer. A small, shabby man carrying an attaché case strikes up a conversation with him, and Mr. Tench invites him back to his home. He assumes the man will be departing on the boat when it sails, but it will not leave for several hours.
Mr. Tench shows the man around his modest home, including his dental surgery. Then they sit in rocking chairs and drink the brandy that the stranger carries around with him. Mr. Tench reveals that he is a separated man with two sons, one of whom is dead. He is disillusioned about life. The stranger comments that the town was a happier place before the Red Shirts (soldiers) came. Mr. Tench says he would like to return to England, but he cannot afford to do so. The stranger then makes inquiries about how long the boat trip to Vera Cruz will last.
They are interrupted by a child knocking at the door. He wants a doctor for his sick mother. Mr. Tench inquires of the stranger, thinking that he is a doctor, but the man says he could do no good. However, he decides to go with the child, knowing that by doing so he will miss the boat. The child leads the way; the stranger rides a mule. He leaves a book behind, and Mr. Tench discovers it is written in Latin. Not knowing what the book is about, he hides it inside a small oven. Then he returns to the quayside, where the General Obregon has just set sail. But he finds no ether cylinders there. Meanwhile, the stranger journeys on the mule. He had tried to escape on the boat that he has now missed, but now he prays that he may be caught.
In the opening chapter, Greene creates a sense of mystery and foreboding, and a gloomy, claustrophobic atmosphere that continues throughout the novel. The reader gets the feeling that something dangerous has been and still is going on in the town. Greene does not say explicitly what it is, though. We learn that a man named Lopez has been killed, for helping “undesirables” to escape. We also learn that this seems to be a not unusual occurrence. Also, a church has been sacked, which is why Mr. Tench is able to have a stained glass window in his dental surgery depicting the Madonna. A group known as the Red Shirts appears to have had a hand in this vandalism.
Although the first chapter is told through his eyes, Mr. Tench a minor figure in the story. Greene begins with him because Mr. Tench’s boredom, depression and loneliness, the feeling that he is trapped in the town and cannot escape, sets the tone of much of the novel.
It is the stranger, who is in fact a priest on the run in a society that is persecuting the Catholic Church, who is the protagonist (central character) of the novel. A hint about the stranger’s character is that he carries a flask of brandy with him. The significance of this will be apparent later.
The experience of the stranger in this first chapter is typical of what he will go through during the novel: he will be near to escape several times, but then something will drag him back.
Greene does not waste space in explaining the nature of the persecution the Church is enduring, but one small incident reveals a great deal. That occurs when Mr. Tench finds the book that the stranger has left behind. It has a lurid cover, but inside, the text is printed in Latin. It is obviously a devotional text of some kind, which the priest (or whoever made the book) has felt the need to disguise by a fake cover. The book is really a symbol of how tenaciously people cling to their faith even when it is dangerous to do so. It cannot simply be abolished because politicians decree that it should be.