The priest spends the night in prison while a couple make love in a filthy corner of the dark cell. He talks with an old man whose daughter has been taken from him by the Church priests because she is illegitimate, and he also talks with a proud, self-righteous woman whose haughty morality he tries unsuccessfully to change.
Next morning, unable to pay his fine, the priest is forced to empty the pails of human excrement and then wash out six prison cells. In one of these, he encounters the half-caste mestizo, who says that he will not turn in the priest — at this time — because he will get a larger reward if he identifies the priest outside of the jail setting. The priest also comes upon the hostage Miguel, who has been badly beaten. Finally, the lieutenant ends the episode by taking pity upon the priest and giving him a five-peso coin because he thinks that the apparently aging protagonist will not be able to work very much longer.
The priest's night in prison and his captivity form a microcosm of the entire novel, and thus Greene pulls together many motifs, symbols, and threads of narrative found throughout The Power and the Glory. The pious woman, whose complacency the priest is unable to shake, combines traits of Luis' mother with characteristics of the hypocritically self-righteous women whom the young priest catered to in Concepción. She contrasts sharply with the love-making couple; because of her pietism and her reliance upon the "forms' of religion, she cannot share the other woman's sense of abandonment to another human being. To the priest, the pious woman typifies those who garner their holy pictures and, like Luis' mother, take pride in the "good books!' in their homes. She is also the type of person described at the start of the preceding chapter, rocking unproductively in her chair amidst family photographs, and she is graphically defined by her teeth: unlike those of the other principals in the work, hers are strong — but they resemble tombstones.
The woman is hard and sterile and comes to symbolize the death of the spirit, especially when she walks off with her sister, both of them wearing black shawls. The pious woman's censure of Catarina's father shocks the priest, whose daughter is also illegitimate and permanently estranged from him. When the old woman insists that the priests were right in taking the old man's daughter from him, the fugitive priest, after only a moment's delay, affirms that he is a priest. Probably the woman's glib enunciation that priests are always correct, even in matters of the emotions, has forced his hand.
After the priest has confessed his identity to the group, the pious woman tries to convert him, seeing him as a possible "good thief." Her actions, ludicrous and supercilious as they are, foreshadow the priest's later attempts to save Calver from Hell as he lies dying. Tireless in her moral sterility, the woman pleads that a drinking problem can be forgiven, but that she cannot forgive his sympathy for the "animals" who are making love amidst the dark stench of the prison. And when the priest frankly states that at the moment he would rather have a drink than God, the furious woman agrees that he is indeed an evil priest. She will write a complaint to the bishop!
The chapter is tied to the rest of the novel in many other, more diverse ways. Note the muffled noise of voices in prison; they resemble the sounds of an electric belt on a small machine, and one is reminded of the chugging dynamo in the hotel, in the previous chapter.
The act of love, consummated in the sour darkness, among the other prisoners, is very much like the passion of the priest for Maria, carried out in the midst of the priest's drinking and loneliness. Also, when the priest expresses his fear of pain at death, he is told that a toothache is much worse. One is reminded of Tench and the jefe. And just as the priest is thinking of himself as a martyr, he giggles and remembers Maria's injunction that it would be wrong to bring ridicule upon the Church. Here, the priest's "sermon" in prison resembles his words to the villagers at Mass earlier in the novel. Now, however, the priest's strident moralizing is tempered by compassion; here, he is the one who is confessing.
Other, smaller similarities relate this chapter to the entirety of the novel. The pious woman's addiction to holy pictures is like the priest's need, now overcome, for the wad of paper that once reminded him of Concepción. His suggestion that the loud woman in prison say an Act of Contrition (since there is no privacy in the cell for Confession) is lame, ignoring the priest's certainty that such an act, for him at least, is impossible. Also, the priest again realizes that he cannot say Mass, and thus, the chapter is related immediately to the preceding one: the wine has trickled away, down the throats of the jefe and the Governor's cousin. And whereas the priest was not able to communicate meaningfully with the other men during the drinking episode, here in prison, he is able to communicate — here, where faces cannot be seen. This last detail is significant because the priest is used to speaking to penitents in a dark confessional. Also, the notion of writing to the bishop blends with a number of other useless messages in the novel.
In addition, Greene uses the recurrent images of a door and an abandoned house to describe the priest's thoughts about his uniform, which he will no longer need — just as a voice in the yard calls out his assumed name, "Montez." The image of a door figures prominently in the dream which the priest has as he dozes off for a few seconds during the pious woman's lament for her missed vocation. The dream manifests much of the guilt which lies just below the priest's consciousness -guilt associated with his need for a password to attain salvation, probably a reference to his inability to formulate an act of Perfect Contrition; guilt associated with Coral; guilt associated with California grape wine; guilt when he claimed to be a "quack" (doctor) in the opening scenes of the novel; and finally, the dream manifests the priest's guilt connected with his inability to affect his daughter's future, to save her from spiritual death and/or middle-aged complacency.
Christocentric imagery, as well, holds the chapter together, as the priest's actions are compared to Christ's. The chapter combines elements of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday with Christ's descent into Hell (or Limbo) after His death, following the Crucifixion on Good Friday. On Holy Thursday, Christ washed the feet of the Apostles; here, the priest empties full buckets of human waste materials into a latrine. When Christ descended into Hell after his death, he freed the worthy souls, who had been waiting since the start of the human race for Christian redemption. In Greene's uncompromising view of the priest's ministry, the effects of the priest's words will never be known.
Greene's priest comes to the cell as empty and as forsaken as Christ must have been on the evening of His betrayal. He has nothing — no cigarettes, or water, or food, or money; and he must give a negative response to all the requests of the inmates. Greene invests the passage with a biblical tone by stating that one could count to forty between the lightning flash and the roll of thunder and, shortly afterward, one can conclude that the cell could not be more than twelve feet deep. The fact that the priest is halfway between the mountains and the sea confirms his desolation; and in the cell, he does not have enough room to move an inch, as he awaits the dawn with cramped legs. Reinforcing the Christocentric symbolism is the pious woman's explanation of the old man's arrest: he was found in possession of a crucifix. The object suggests the old man's crucifixion by ecclesiastical authorities, in the same way that Catarina was taken away.
In addition, the priest's feet, with their cramped soles, hurt him very much, and after the pain, they become numb. The priest shares traits of the "good thief," and the pious woman's allusion to this tradition is more relevant than she imagines. The priest undergoes the pain in his shoulders, for example, as the "good thief" did and as Christ did — for a charitable reason. He wants to give the old man room enough to sleep, and then too, he is sorry for whatever harm priests like himself did to the father when they took his daughter away from him.
The priest is "stripped of his garments" toward the end of his stay in the cell when he realizes that the drill suit has been ruined by the filth of the prison. He obtained the drill suit by a ruse, ironically appropriate to a priest who was distant and pompous in his youth. To make the purchase, he pretended to be a small farmer with grandiose ideas. Here, when he tries to answer the summons by the sergeant, his legs crumble beneath him, and he is subjected to the mockery of his overseer. He stands with bowed head as all of his fellow prisoners, including the pious woman, reject him or merely ignore him. When he empties the pails, he retches. Finally, he is compelled to wait, as was Christ before Pilate, until the lieutenant, taking the jefe's place, is ready to hear his case. All of this Crucifixion imagery is so explicit that it may have been one of the reasons for the Church's initially negative attitude toward this novel.
The allusions to the last events of Christ's life are scattered among details of great physical realism and acuity, concrete descriptions which give the story of the priests plight a foothold in the tangible world. Moral vacantness (with the possibility of rebirth, however) is represented in the chapter as leprosy, as cancer, or even as Miguel's wound near his eye, which flies buzz around. Again, when the priest begins to distinguish forms in the cell, he sees heads surrounding him "like gourds." Later in the chapter, the mestizo sits sprawling in mock majesty as the flies buzz around the vomit on the floor of his cell.
Much of this realism is unified and given form by the stench of the bucket in the priest's cell and by the continual sounds of urine hitting the sides of the pail. These details are both recurring motifs, which help to structure the episode and are a means of constantly reminding the priest of his common physiology with all human beings. Although he has a momentary lapse later in the novel, here the priest's act of emptying the buckets is the complete antithesis of his fastidious life at Concepción.
The imagery of leprosy and cancer is used to advantage in the chapter. The priest's numb feet resemble the appendages of lepers, and the allusion to "haunches" connotes the animal-like level to which he has descended in terms of physical comfort. In addition, a priest with leprous feet would suggest, to most Catholics, Father Damien's work among the lepers of Molokai. Whether or not Greene had this allusion in mind, he is implying that the priest's "leprosy" is balanced by a soul, which is beginning to purge itself.
Cancer too is infused with a supernatural importance. The priest thinks of the man whose insides were so rotted that his family could hardly bear the stench of his illness. Most important, though, is the fact that the priest was able to hear the man's confession, to shrive him. With this unfortunate person, at least, salvation came in the midst of the most pronounced physical decay and suffering. Given the number of times that the priest wants to confess but cannot, the passage is crucial to an understanding of the entire book. In addition, Greene uses the lieutenant's failing attempts to destroy the tiny black insects that scurry across his page to characterize the impossibility of eradicating the Catholic Church. And finally, after the priest-protagonist is dead, another priest arrives at the end of the novel because, Greene says, in Mexico "there was no end to life."
The realistic details in this section correlate with the priest's growing resoluteness of mind. Here, he begins to combine logical reasoning with a concern for people. Coming in disguise at the beginning of the chapter, the priest does not command the same attention that he did in Maria's village during his sermon. However, he does feel a warmth which stems from communication with a "neighbor," the old man whose pitiable loss of a daughter resembles the priest's paternal situation very much. The old man's recitation seems to bring the priest's daughter closer to him, and he pictures her realistically, recalling his last sight of her by the rubbish dump.
The "miserable happiness" he feels is evidence of his new maturity, the ability to combine suffering and joy. Also, the priest's ruminations concerning time and pain are grounded in a new philosophical and psychological realism. He might be killed by a well-located bullet in a fraction of a second, but he wonders how long will that moment seem? In his timeless world of the prison cell, time seems to stretch out indefinitely. What will time seem like, he wonders, at his execution?
In the priest's dealings with the pious woman, whom he tries to save from the possible damnation awaiting those who will not recognize their faults, he reveals his as-yet-unassimilated joining of a new, emotionally fortified intellectuality with his old habit of losing the important things of life in cold logic and fine distinctions. Here, however, it is evident that a massive, heroic struggle is taking place within his soul, one that would have been impossible in his Concepción days. Throughout the chapter, the priests theology deepens and becomes more responsive to basic human needs, cut and honed as it is upon the pious woman's wheel of wrong-headed resolution.
The priest moves from a feeling of horror (shared with the pious woman), when he realizes that love-making is going on in the crowded cell, to a feeling of empathy with at least the female in this sexual coupling. Again, startled by the old man's account of the clergy's role in his loss of Catarina, and thoroughly convinced that he will die in prison, the priest recovers a discarded courage and love of truth; he explains to the pious woman that the priests had no right to turn Catarina against her father. His announcement of his own priesthood is a way of sealing his testimony by his blood, the best type of teaching. He feels it to be his priestly duty to shake the pious woman loose from her "invincible complacency." His failure here, however, and later with Calver, does not mar his rediscovered dedication to the ministry.
The pious woman can see only brutishness in the sex act, and the priest asks her, in a moment of keen insight, what good a confession would do her in such an uncharitable state of mind. Greene then espouses a theme developed as the thesis of his novel The Heart of the Matter: the sinner is closer to the heart of Christianity than is the saint. The real danger of allowing the lovemaking to continue, the priest says, is that "we discover that our sins have so much beauty." Speaking from his experience as a spiritually and socially exalted being who has fallen, the priest insists that the angels who fell into Hell may have been the comeliest. He probably has in mind Lucifer's term, "light-bearer."
The priest's sincerity about helping the pious woman is seen after she has denounced him and declared that the sooner he is dead, the better. He realizes that hatred is "just a failure of imagination." Anyone, no matter how seemingly callous he is, can be pitied if we look at him closely enough. The priest's ability to feel pity (and compassion) for the pious woman marks his new sensitivity, as he tries to find the word that will unlock her emotions. On the other hand, he wonders whether he should have left her with her illusions -that is, should he have permitted her to regard him as a martyr? Seeing her closely and through understanding eyes, he realizes that, bereft of her desired vocation as a nun, the woman has had nothing in her life.
This theology of compassion is matched with the priest's commitment to speak only the truth. His life has been filled with falsity, and now, sure that he will soon be dead, he wants to explain to others who and what he is. He confesses that he is 'a whiskey priest," captured because of a bottle of brandy — but, "pledged to truth,' he rejects the traditional, sentimentalized role of a martyr (a martyr, that is, like young Juan).
This veracity adds piquancy to the priest's thoughtful compassion: in an uncompromising way, he refutes the glib irreligiosity of the man who is making love in the corner. This man equates bravery with unbelief, and the priest deflates his thesis by attacking, paradoxically, the pretentiousness of non-belief. A refusal to believe in the jefe or the prison will not make them vanish; neither will a mere denial of God bring about His non-existence.
Again, the priest is able to see that love is better than authoritarian strictures. He says that the clergy should have taught Catarina to love her father. A criminal among his brethren, he attains a feeling of companionship not possible in his days at Concepción, when parishioners kissed his glove. Waiting for the jefe, he sees his own photograph on the wall — the Concepción, photograph — and he realizes that he was much further from God then, when his sins were merely venial, than he is now because, although he is undergoing a spiritual rebirth, he is still mired in spiritual and physical corruption.
One of the priest's key lessons in pity is taught to him by the lieutenant, who takes compassion on him, a desiccated convict; the lieutenant finds the priest "too old for work," and as the lieutenant gives him a five-peso piece, the price of a Mass, formal religion and the religion of the totalitarian state both become subject to the deeper religion of humanity.
All of this abstruse theology is surprisingly worked out very naturally within the framework of a prison cell, which represents the world at large. Greene states the comparison explicitly: "This place was very like the world elsewhere." The pages are filled with personalities drawn from varied segments of human nature. Several inmates make insistent, specific demands when the priest, only a man in a uniform to them, first enters the cell, and when they are given negative answers, the fumes of resentment which they give off become palpable. One young man is imprisoned for murder, and he tells a sordid tale stressing his need to defend his mother's honor. He stresses the political corruption of the jefe, who, he feels sure, put him in prison. Significantly, his act of revenge has sexual overtones, for the man whom he killed had called his mother a whore. The anecdote leads the old man to begin his recitation. Finally, the peasants do not betray the priest when they see him clearly the next morning, and their acts suggest both their loyalty and their superstition.
The lieutenant too is invested with a share of complexity in [his chapter. Not only does he feel compassion for a peon who will soon be too old to work (perhaps in the vineyards of God's day laborers), but he pities even more the hostages whom he has been forced to execute. When the priest tells him his name, "Montez," and mentions that his cousin was shot at Concepción, the lieutenant quickly retorts that the killing was not his fault. He seems to brood over the necessity of such rigid political control and comes close, for a moment, to placing the individual over the state. The five-peso donation is the result of this transitory rebirth of conscience. The exchange between the priest and the lieutenant ends with fine irony in the lieutenant's warning: "Don't let me see your face again." Of course, the priest, by a combination of circumstances and his conscience, will see the lieutenant again. And he will be executed as a result.
The Power and the Glory, in other words, is not only a religious work, but it is also a novel about a man who happens to be a priest. The now-celibate priest (who once had sex, like an ordinary man) wonders if he is guilty because he loves the product of his sin, his daughter. How is one to feel contrition for an act, no matter how grievously wrong, which has given rise to a human being? Also, the priest is trapped by theology when thinking of a possible future. How terrible he feels it would be if the hostages to be seized were in a state of Mortal Sin, dying without confession. Again, it is so like the lost priest to announce the price of his bounty. Why, he reasons, should an informant be doomed to Hell and not enjoy the fruits of his crime even while on earth? Finally, the priest's theology leads him to look straight in the eyes of the hostages in the prison yard. To look away and feign ignorance of their presence would be a sign that they were required to suffer for him.