Summary and Analysis
Part 3: Chapter 1
This chapter is a romantic idyll in the midst of the priest's harrowing, ambiguous quest for self-reform. Accordingly, Greene's description of the Lehrs' house suggests the dreamlike, transitory nature of the priest's stay in this oasis of "the good life." The details used to depict the Lehr family are diametrically opposed to those of the preceding chapters, and the priest's reaction to the Lehrs reveals several previously undeveloped aspects of his character.
In the Lehrs' house, all news is outdated, contrasting with the imminence of the priest's flight. Mr. Lehr scans a three-week-old New York magazine, which contains pictures of legislators whose well-stuffed and clean-shaven faces suggest the priest's former years. Even the pages of the magazine are clean and crackling; Lehr leafs through it as he gazes at his mountain pasture, whose grasses sway in the wind. Nearby, a tulipan tree blossoms.
In this Mexican Shangri-La, priests are virtually inviolate, although they might incur a slight fine for dispensing the sacraments. One priest, however, committed an offense apparently so heinous that he was jailed for a week. The fugitive priest cannot help but contrast the sordid idea of prison with the peace and gentleness of this "nearly free" state. The village, however, is not wholly immune from moral decay. As he haggles over the price of brandy with the wine seller, the priest wonders whether the old life in the forbidden state was not better, that perhaps "fear and death were not the worst things."
Greene suggests that the superficiality of the Lehrs and of their fellow townsmen is ultimately more destructive than the visible wickedness of the Judas-like mestizo. In fact, the priest's vision of the hypocrisy surrounding him in the town forms part of his motivation for returning with the half-caste to certain imprisonment and death.
Miss Lehr becomes Greene's embodiment of the superficial life. Although she means well, note how mechanically and tritely she speaks as she heads for the stream, asking her brother for the thousandth time how cool or warm the water is. Greene calls attention to her "shortsightedness," as she peers at the ground while padding across the grass for her "cleansing." Later, she recounts her feelings of horror and uncleanness when she accidentally came upon a copy of Police News. She says firmly, however, that the sordid accounts "opened my eyes" (about how evil the world really was). She feels guilty, however, because she read about "the other side of life," and she does not dare tell her brother about her slight "loss of innocence." She becomes the spokesman in this novel for the unexamined life, and thus, she is a prime target for Greene's dissecting comment: "It is knowing, isn't it . . . ?"
So attentive is Miss Lehr to appearances that she is upset when the priest arises too early and sees her wearing a hairnet. Later, she declares that there is probably no harm in a peasant kneeling to a priest, although she notes that her brother frowns upon such subservience. As she delicately and calmly wraps the priest's sandwiches in grease-proof paper for his trip, she resembles a figure from a dream, having a "curious effect of unreality." The message from the mestizo wakes the priest from his preoccupation with the "promised land" of Las Casas, and so he goes off, allowing Miss Lehr to believe that he will return. This conventional world no longer attracts him.
With his half-formed concept of Catholic ritual, Mr. Lehr, who lightly ridicules what he has made no attempt to understand, is clearly kin to his unthinking sister. In a masterful stroke, Greene puts him to sleep halfway through the chapter, and his physical lethargy correlates with his spiritual apathy. Significantly, he is sleeping when the priest leaves to set out for what will be a journey to his subsequent death.
With a weary phrase or a gesture, Lehr dismisses ideas, which the priest has lived with in a very visceral way, theological concepts which have, in fact, driven him to near-madness. The holes, which Miss Lehr looks for in her brother's stockings symbolize chinks in the coldly idealistic armor that he has placed between himself and the vast world of emotion.
Lehr's comments about Catholicism are stereotyped, common to those who criticize Church practices without examining their bases. Before, Greene examined the pietism and morbidity of Catholics; now he turns his attention to Lutherans. Lehr's comment concerning Church luxury and the starving parishioners is hackneyed — but effective. It irritates the priest. He carps, as does the schoolmaster, on the priest's money collections, and he fails to connect his dilapidated condition with his ideas of clerical munificence. In discussing the Gideon Bible left for salesmen, Lehr mutters the commonplace that Catholics do not read the Scriptures. More dead than alive, Lehr ironically resembles an etched figure of a bishop on a burial monument. It is no wonder that the priest does not bother to disturb him before he sets out on his journey.
Resembling Captain Fellows so closely, Lehr does not exhibit curiosity even about human affairs, which are close to him. He never asks how the priest came to be rescued by his foreman. He censures Senator Hiram Long for the most pragmatic of reasons: his caustic comments might cause trouble abroad. In a key episode, he insists that the bedroom door be closed so that the priest might not accidentally glimpse Miss Lehr bathing — at quite a distance from the house. In fact, the two men cannot leave the room until Lehr's sister returns from her bath.
Lehr "allows" tiny fish to tug at his breasts as he bathes himself; this slight permissiveness is a contrast to the priest's total giving of himself. The Lehrs' Bible, with its glib moral slogans for businessmen, is as mechanical as any of the indulgence mythos of Catholics. Although Lehrs bedroom is monastic — like the lieutenant's — it is scarcely Christian, and the absence of a cross symbolizes more than an aversion to the physical object. The Bible, Lehr says, was used by Miss Lehr in a hotel, which she once operated. This background helps to account for the coolly efficient charity, which she extends to the priest.
Finally, Greene uses the schoolmaster to depict the surface quality of the totalitarian state. He is simply a bureaucrat, a law-and-order man, who repeats maxims noised about by the government. Even the mestizo sees through the superficiality of this teacher who has nothing important to say; he judges him to be a "bad man."
Forced to choose between the cold and efficient "brave new world" of the Lehrs' pasture habitat and between the mountains and swamps of downtrodden Mexico, the priest unearths long-buried personality traits. Once again, he becomes a complex person, not merely a plaster caricature from a morality play. He nimbly rejects Lehr's castigation of the Friday fast, citing his host's Prussian background, with its need for military discipline. He is not dissuaded in his argument by the fact that Lehr left Germany to avoid army service. Quickly projecting his own shame onto the situation, he embarrassingly voices his self-detestation. Greene lets the reader know where his sympathies lie by having Lehr, shortly after the discussion of fish on Friday, tugged at by the creatures in the stream during the bathing episode.
In spite of the flawed reception, however, the priest manifests a very human desire to stay at this island of lotus-eaters. The Lehrs have rescued him. They are a family, albeit a shallow one, and during his stay, he has breathed once again the intoxicating air of his old authority.
The priest is almost seduced into returning to the old path of easy, moral blindness, and in a sense, the mestizo is the priest's means of possible salvation. He is amazed at how quickly the years of privation can be put aside by the show of respect accorded by the townspeople. In fact, Lehr's comment about Church laxity leads him to wonder at the beginning of his visit whether he might not again be "settling down to idleness." Clearly, the old voice of parish authority has returned to him, and he reacts as "the symbol" whom the people think he should be. He even begins to patronize them, as they haggle over the price of baptisms, resurrecting his old view that the price must be kept high for the sacrament to be appreciated.
The priest begins to picture himself arriving in Las Casas with respectable clothing, in garb befitting the dignity of the priesthood. Perhaps influenced by the Lehrs' home, he sees himself living in decent lodgings and settling into a more organized existence. He speaks officiously to the cantina man, who responds with that mixture of respect and flippancy that a former treasurer of the Blessed Sacrament Guild might use to a pastor. This small businessman, alternately haughty and patronizing, tries to ingratiate himself with the priest by dropping names: he asks the priest to look up a friend of his in Las Casas, another treasurer of a guild.
The old life returns most clearly when the priest is hearing confessions. He wants to tell the parishioners all that he has learned about lust and love and the true meaning of sin but, instead, he utters banalities. The coldness of his old formalism erects itself like a wall between him and the sinners in this stable/confessional, which stands near a church that resembles "a block of ice' in the darkness.
Greene's themes are carried through in this chapter by reference to shoes, to the priests recurrent brandy habit, to dreams, and to water. At the start, Miss Lehr's comfortable existence is signaled by her removal of her shoes as she sews her brother's stockings. When the priest realizes that he has accomplished nothing during his stay at the Lehrs' house, he looks at his host's elegant shoes, which he is now wearing. He is beginning, literally, to follow in Lehr's footsteps. Again, when voicing his lost hopes, he glances at the new shoes. Thus, the shoes become as important to the chapter as Macbeth's new, ill-fitting royal clothing: ". . . he was perpetually conscious of some friction, like that of an ill-fitting shoe." Only when the priest returns to shrive Calver can he walk "unshod" again, for then he has resumed his mission in life.
The priest's drinking brandy with the wine seller reminds him of his unworthiness as he recalls the previous brandy-drinking session with the Governor's cousin and, before that, the episode in which Maria saved his life. The brandy leaves a bad taste in his mouth, and he tries to hide the smell from Miss Lehr. So great is his need for alcohol, however, that later, he is willing to sacrifice decent clothing and a triumphal entry into Las Casas for a few bottles of brandy. The priest's alcoholism and his spiritual degeneration are explicitly yoked in this chapter, especially in his thought that he will need only three bottles of brandy — that he will be "cured" of drinking when he reaches the haven of Las Casas. But, as Greene puts it, "he knew he lied."
In this chapter, the priest's brandy leads to his increased attachment to the sexual sin of his past that sired his daughter. Under the influence of the brandy, he lovingly hugs his evil deed.
Dreams in the chapter reflect the transitory nature of the priest's peace with the Lehrs' Miss Lehr, at one point, vanishes like a dream, and at another, the priest muses that unhappiness has become so deeply ingrained in his makeup that any calm must be a dream. Third, the priest's nightmare of Christ relates to the dream, which he had while in prison, and it mirrors his present spiritual state.
In this dream sequence, the eyes of the statue saints roll toward him and connote both classic guilt symptoms and the episode with the Indian woman on the mountain plateau. The vision of Christ as a dancing prostitute suggests that the priest has sold himself for a few words of respect in the Lehrs' town. Most important, it raises significant doubt about Christ's validity. The priest wonders if the Savior is really hollow, a sham, and he awakens with the horrifying impression that he has sold his life for false coinage. Coming out of the dream, the priest experiences what theologians call a "desolation of spirit," a state of despair in which salvation seems impossible.
In contrast to the previous locales in this novel, the Lehrs' home offers an abundance of water, which turns out, however, to be only an apparent good, not (symbolically) an agent for permanent cleansing. The priest is offered water by Miss Lehr and is bemused by her assertion that it need not be boiled. The priest drinks fully, and, for one of the few times in the book, he is no longer thirsty. He docilely follows his benefactor, the water-dispensing Mr. Lehr, into the bedroom to change. An aspect of the priest's peasant nature emerges when he wonders why so much ado is made about bathing: to him, sweat seems to cleanse just as well.
Water, then, does not always purify, and pseudo-purification becomes an important theme in the chapter. The priest muses that the Germans place cleanliness, not purity, next to godliness. Accordingly, Miss Lehr's shock over the stories in Police News proceeds more from prudish pietism than from true conviction, and note that despite all of his soaping, Lehr remains a superficial person.
As usual, the individual chapter here is related to the overall novel by a number of striking parallels. The Lehrs exist, as do the Fellowses, by refusing to recognize the existence of unpleasant things. Like Mrs. Fellows, Miss Lehr preserves her existence by simply ducking out of sight. As she shows the priest to the door, she keeps herself hidden from the outside world by standing behind him.
The priest's attack upon the surface faith of a woman penitent recalls his treatment of the pious woman in jail. The women respond with the same angry hauteur, proudly citing their unstinting belief in God. Both expect to gain Heaven by adhering to the prehistoric relics of Catholic forms.
Other parallels are briefer, but they also add strength to the novel's structure. A man named Pedro appears in this chapter, and one is reminded of the other people named Pedro, or Peter, in the work. The priest hears confessions in a barn, as he did in a previous village. With a mouth dry from brandy, the priest reflects that he is merely a play actor, reminding one, again, of young Juan. Again, Las Casas is said to have electric lights, a contrast to Greene's previous description of lamps strung together above a tiny plaza. Moreover, the mestizo brings up a matter which has been on the priest's mind: the half-caste could indeed use the reward money because of his dire poverty.
Significant too is the piece of paper, which summons the priest to Calver. As did the scrap of paper from Concepción that the priest dropped at Padre Jose's wall, Calver's message demonstrates the incontrovertible influence of the past upon the present and the future. The fragment, with its childish scrawl on one side, suggests Coral's homework and, in its allusion to the indecisive Hamlet, underscores the priest's own dilemma. Calver's exclamation, "For Christ's sake, father," confirms the motivation for the priest's return. The priest will, in Christ's name, die — at last having fulfilled the role of "father." The summons comes as a natural culmination of all the priest's woes, and when he decides to answer it, he feels true peace for the first time in the novel.
At any rate, how could the priest have gone to Las Casas and confessed to his bishop that he allowed a man to die in Mortal Sin by not hearing his confession? He is trapped by his virtuous sense of duty. The mestizo's gibes play only a minor part in the priest's almost sublime, even though transitory, vision of eternity.
In keeping with the priest's decision to fulfill his office — no matter what the consequences — the Christocentric allusions in the chapter are meant primarily to define the protagonist's heroism, not to parody him. The priest periodically sees through the Lehrs' false Eden; at one point he asks his host whether there are snakes on the property. In addition, the church ruin resembles Dante's picture of ultimate Hell, combining ice with consuming fire. Like Christ, the priest operates once again in a stable, even though his counsels are a failure. The Indians' gestures while blessing themselves are similar to a priest's imposition of hands to anoint the dying in Extreme Unction, now called in Catholic liturgy the Sacrament of the Sick.
Last and perhaps most significant of the symbols in this chapter is the bit of song that the priest recalls: "I found a rose in my field." The rose is a common Spanish symbol for Christ, whom the priest has rediscovered by looking into himself. As he reverses direction, walking by the sterile, whitewashed church, the sun shines blindingly, lighting the way as a sign to the priest's destiny.