The first chapter of The Power and the Glory centers upon the meeting between Mr. Tench, the English dentist who is living in Mexico, and the priest-protagonist, who presents himself to Tench as a "quack." The priest secretly plans to escape further religious persecution by sailing to Vera Cruz (a Mexican seaport city) on the General Obregon, which is harbored at the quay, even though he is told by Tench that a man named Lopez, who has helped other priests escape, was shot by the police some weeks ago.
Tench and the priest then retreat to Tench's office, where they drink brandy together. They are interrupted by a boy (later, we discover that he is Luis, a Mexican boy who will play a key, symbolic role in the novel) who says that his mother is dying and that she needs a doctor (obviously a euphemism for a priest, who can administer Last Rites to the dying). The priest follows the boy, and in the distance, the General Obregon pulls away from the river bank. By chance, the priest inadvertently leaves his breviary behind, disguised inside the covers of a sleazy novel, La Eterna Martir.
One of the first things one should notice in this first chapter are Greene's many references to decay; they prefigure symbolism which will occur throughout the rest of the book. For example, consider the thirty-yard-long General Obregon. It looks as if it will soon sink; at best, the ship will probably survive no more than two or three years, or less if she meets a severe storm. Her leaving on time is thoroughly unexpected.
Moreover, Tench's first memory is of a discarded clay cast of a mouth, thrown away by his dentist-father into a wastebasket; Tench's life is "rootless," as he readily admits, remarking that in his profession, he "cast[s] in sand," and, thus, not surprisingly, when he takes down two glasses for the brandy, he must wipe sand out of them.
As Tench walks down toward the dock to see whether or not his ether cylinder, with its symbolic sleep-inducing gas, has arrived, he is shaken with nausea and frequently forgets the purpose of his errand. Tench is constantly clearing phlegm from his throat and spitting bile into the blank and melancholy streets. His days are futile, for no one will come to his dentist's parlor before five o'clock, and his advice to the priest is as worthless as his dentistry practice.
Tench's decay, however, is only a small part of the disintegration of a self-important historical movement in a totalitarian state which is continually being absorbed into history. The more pompous the Red Shirts become, the more ephemeral their state seems. Sentries either sit sleeping or glare silently beside walls and empty crates; the statues of dead generals are already mildewing; the water causes dysentery; in the rainy season, the village is engulfed in mud, and then the sun turns the streets into long strips of searing stone for the barefooted peasants.
Disarmingly, just as we applaud the priest's hopefully life-giving decision to go to the sick woman, an act which symbolically surpasses the sterile ethic of the Mexican state, we discover that the roots of the disreputable Tench go even deeper than those of the Mexican Red Shirt zealots. Tench's dentist-father's cast of a mouth set in clay resembles an archeological discovery unearthed in Dorset, perhaps Neanderthal or Pithecanthropus, and as he stands in his workshop, he is described as a benighted and confused caveman among fossils. Even the priest, too, in Greene's description, takes on a totemic importance in his case, that of a West African king, one who is virtually indentured to his tribe.
Greene's abundant animal imagery in this chapter correlates the central image of decay with pictures of other types of decay. There are buzzards, turkeys pompously strutting around, hungry sharks just offshore, and ants which crawl like disciplined soldiers through the priest's spilled brandy.
As the buzzards flap overhead, they foreshadow — literally as well as symbolically — the death that will soon blacken the peace of this tiny plaza. One of these relentless creatures is seen as the black hand of a clock; another, as a cold, impartial observer. The deceiving buzzards resemble domesticated fowls, but, like their counterparts among the Mexican leaders, they are really parasites.
Few spots of real worth remain in this world of false values and artificiality. No one cares if the General Obregon sinks, since all the passengers are insured. Tench lies to a customs official, promising to have the officer's set of false teeth ready by nightfall. He takes pride in his battered-up dentistry shop. When the priest states that at least Mexico had God before the Red Shirts, Tench answers, "There's no difference in the teeth." To Tench, money is all-important, a cash down payment for promised dental work.
None of the characters in the novel is morally fit to receive the Eucharist, and, accordingly, allusions to physical mouths and teeth throughout the book suggest the characters' spiritual corruption. Even the priest's teeth are carious since he too is spiritually unfit for the Sacrament. Later, Greene calls attention to the "fangs" of the half-caste and to the police chiefs swollen jaw. In addition, Tench's mouth frequently hangs open.
Tench and the priest are more similar than would at first be supposed. The men meet as Tench ogles a girl aboard the General Obregon, and, although the priest censoriously points out the girl's youth to Tench, he too is sinful, having committed, while a priest, an illicit sex act with Maria.
In Tench's shop, the dentist plays the symbolic part of the Mass celebrant. He pours the "wine" and urges the priest to "drink up" — that is, to receive. As the priest sips the brandy, the drink is like an "indulgence," a gift of God's grace. In a turnabout of roles, the priest asks Tench for advice about whether or not to accompany young Luis to the boy's dying mother.
The priest's spiritual death, from which he must resurrect himself in the novel, is perhaps best represented by his deathlike appearance. The disheveled, gaunt, unshaven little man, carrying a small attaché case and a breviary hidden under the covers of a pornographic book, wears a suit which suggests a coffin to Tench. The priest is a mystery, a question mark, and, above all, a hollow man.
La Eterna Martir, the title of the pornographic book, suggests the priest's resemblance to the cruel lover at whose feet the Edwardian woman crawls and begs. At present, the priest cannot accept Maria or his own daughter because she was conceived in sin.
Another feature of this chapter concerns the exposition, which is provided in a dialogue between Tench and the priest. In answer to the taciturn stranger's question, Tench explains that the General Obregon is bound for Vera Cruz; consider, at this time, that, symbolically, the priest's "true cross" (his vera cruz) is still to be found in the aggressively anti-Catholic Mexican state if he is to spiritually resurrect himself. The city of Vera Cruz is safer for priests than this village is, but an escape to safety would prevent the priest from progressing spiritually. Tench, of course, does not know that the priest is a priest; all he knows is that the man has said that he was a "quack" and that he inquired about the destination of the General Obregon. Thus, Tench says, without realizing the impact it will have on the priest, that Lopez, the man whom the priest inquired about, was shot by the police some time ago for helping "undesirables" (meaning priests) escape from the country.
Tench does not realize that the darkly dressed stranger cannot leave the country easily. He assumes that the stranger doesn't have his capital tied up in this part of Mexico, but remember that Tench doesn't know that a priest's "capital" is found in the souls of his countrymen.