Politics and Religion
Like a number of Graham Greene novels, The Power and the Glory deals with the interaction of politics and religion. In this case, there is utter hostility between the two. Politics, as represented by the socialism of the lieutenant, concerns itself with improving social conditions, especially for the poor. Religion, as represented by the priest, concerns itself with the salvation of souls. The novel suggests that both ways of approaching life are flawed. The lieutenant cannot see that his zealous idealism may well create as much harm as it does good (a danger to which the history of political revolutions in the twentieth century gives ample testimony.) In trying to stamp out religion, the lieutenant’s approach ignores the deep longing people have for a transcendental reality. But on the other hand, there are plenty of hints about the hypocrisy of the church, which is always ready to take people’s money while ignoring the miserable social conditions in which they live. And the priest as a representative of the church is of course a badly flawed figure. But the fact that he constantly indulges in an orgy of self-reproach about his own sins may raise questions for the reader about the value of a religion that leads its representatives into such an overwhelming, soul-destroying sense of guilt. After all, the priest does his best in extremely difficult circumstances.
The Meaningless of Life?
Although the priest never wavers in his belief that as a priest he has the power to save souls, and to communicate, through the Mass, the essence of God, the novel is so bleak that it raises questions about whether God is active in the world at all, or even if He exists.
The question is posed through imagery of insects, which are mentioned frequently in the novel. In one incident, the lieutenant sees a tiny insect racing across the page of a book in front of him. He crushes it with his finger. Another insect appears on the book, “scurrying for refuge: in this heat there was no end to life” (Part II, Chapter 3). In another passage, beetles rush around aimlessly and get crushed or injured; insects seem to be everywhere. The imagery seems to raise the possibility that human life has no more purpose or value than that of an insect, and is easily crushed by a superior power. At least in part, this is what the lieutenant believes. He looks on the earth as a “dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all” (Part I, Chapter 2).
The episode with the dog abandoned by the Fellows, in which the dog and the priest struggle over a bone, shows life reduced to its essentials, the struggle for survival. This is not a pretty world—everything in it is in pain or want of some kind.
Seen against this bleak background, the priest’s attempt to cling on to some higher meaning and purpose to human life may seem either heroic or a contradiction of the facts, according to one’s point of view.
Politics and Religion