Summary and Analysis
Part 1: Chapter 2
In this chapter, the Chief of Police (the jefe) informs the lieutenant that he has heard that there is still a priest practicing in Mexico and that this priest attempted to "get away last week to Vera Cruz." The pink and flabby jefe complains that the Governor is pressuring him to capture the priest, although he has no idea what he looks like, and the only photograph of him is one taken years before at a First Communion party.
The lieutenant looks at the aged newspaper photo of the youngish priest, looking plump and harmless, and then he contrasts it with a picture of the bank robber and murderer James Calver, a "true man" in the lieutenant's eyes. The lieutenant, of course, does not realize that the priest has undergone a dramatic physical change since his days as pastor of Concepción.
Meanwhile, young Luis' mother (now recovered) reads a pious book to her family and expresses disgust when Luis questions her about Padre Jose, the priest who disgraced himself by marrying to escape persecution. She feels more kindly about the priest who came to her while she was ill — the one who, according to the smallest daughter, "smelt funny." Without a doubt, the priest-protagonist is a "whiskey priest" — that is, an alcoholic.
About this same time, in another part of town, Padre Jose, a fat, disillusioned man, a married priest, is called to bed by his nagging, overbearing wife. And he is also mocked unmercifully by the neighbor children outside, imitating perfectly the nasal whine of Padre Jose's wife.
Note also in this chapter that the lieutenant, who gazes with dislike at the newspaper photograph of the priest, shares several attributes of this very priest whom he will soon be hunting. The lieutenant's unwilling and ragged soldiers are members of his "parish," the parish to which he is inescapably chained, and note that he walks disdainfully ahead of his sloppily attired and ill-disciplined men. In another parallel, like the priest's clothes in Concepción. the officer's crisp, neat uniform distinguishes him from the rabble. Also, the lieutenant is as fanatical as an ardent theologian would be: he feels that he could easily sacrifice sex in order to build a perfect state. Indeed, says Greene, there is "something of a priest in his intent observant walk."
But the lieutenant's religion is one of vacuity, and, when he looks beyond the evidence of his senses, he pictures the peaceful cold of outer space. His theology reflects the Darwinian theory of evolution, but he brings to it his own brand of nihilism. To the lieutenant, the world is a cold, broken piece of earth which is populated with beings who have evolved from animals for no ultimate purpose at all.
The lieutenant has been deeply influenced by the deprivations of his childhood; the scar on his face and his crooked nose reflect close "escapes," both symbolic and actual. His "religion" — that is, his code of behavior — is spare, menacing, and well-honed, and it reflects his desire to cut from the body politic the institutions that caused him (as a child) and other children much pain. His lean, dancer-like body and his neatness mirror his ardent, almost religious desire to purge the "dross" elements of religion from Mexico. This dapper officer is in direct contrast to his slovenly superior, the jefe.
The jefe, the Chief of Police, is an awkward, flabby, uncommitted bureaucrat, a man who is more concerned with having his tooth extracted or filled than with ridding Mexico of its "last priest." He possesses a tolerance and a passivity that evade his subordinate, the lieutenant. The Chief of Police shares traits with the fat, ineffectual Padre Jose, and he also shares traits with the fatalistic father of young Luis. But the jefe is dangerous, for he simply carries out orders of his superiors — without demur or judgment.
Insights are rare for the Chief of Police, but once in awhile he does reveal a wisdom which shows him to be very much a part of the old, folk-oriented Mexico. For example, he finds some virtue in this "last priest," whom he calls "devilishly cunning" to escape capture for years.
Usually, the Chief of Police plays the buffoon. When he reaches into his pocket to find a pain alleviator for his toothache, his holster gets in the way. In the new, sterile state of Mexico, the jefe remains the stereotype of the ineffectual police officer often portrayed in American movies about Mexico. Thus, the lieutenant's task is a nearly impossible one, for incompetence and corruption are always above him in rank, as well as below him.
The lieutenant's "religion" is ephemeral, and this chapter symbolically shows the beginning erosion of the Mexican totalitarian state: plaster chips from walls expose mud; the soldiers are undisciplined and lazy despite the zeal of their leader; the life of the "liberated" peasant is sterile; and at 9:30 each night, the lights in the plaza go out. Even the children's swings are like gallows on the site of the cathedral.
Antagonism to the anti-religious, cold state (which divides head from heart, which demands order at the cost of passion) is deeply rooted in the nature of the Mexican peasants — especially in their customs and gestures. The occupants of the small, hilltop plaza must have light, and so makeshift globes are strung up over the trees; the remnants of churches still abound throughout Mexico; people still take their early evening walks, "women in one direction, men in the other," acting out their ritual of chaste separation; and in the police station, the peasants sit in archetypal postures with their hands between their knees.
External nature conspires against the state. Note that the plaza is like a small "island," surrounded by swamps and rivers and mountains, where unimpressed vultures (with "moron" faces) stare at the custodians of order, especially at the piglike jefe, whose clothes — his wide hat and flagrant cartridge belt — ironically and unintentionally resemble a bandit's (although he is a police officer).
Young Luis' father, in his resigned wit and in his ability to accept persons as they are, is "of the people." He is a vivid contrast to his wife, who wants to change human nature as much as the lieutenant does. Luis' father accepts the whiskey priest because at least the whiskey priest "carries on." And, then too, he feels that one cannot literally believe the Holy Books since all men are frail, even the saints. Besides, he reasons, if the whiskey priest had been reported and shot, his wife (Luis' mother) would now be reading about the whiskey priest to their son. Luis' father, manifests the splendid ability of the Mexican peasants to penetrate myths — whether they are religious or antireligious myths.
Neither the inner world nor the outside world can be completely expunged from Mexico. One prisoner has hidden a sacred medal under his shirt, and the lieutenant fines him five pesos; Holy Books are smuggled in regularly from Mexico City. And the lieutenant hears a radio blaring out music which might be emanating from Mexico City, or even London or New York. Such remnants of the old society are as difficult to eradicate as the jefe's tooth is to extract. This tooth, incidentally, is finally treated — at the end of the novel, just as the priest-protagonist is being executed.
The picture of the murderer and bank robber, James Calver, stares out from the police station wall, as if in judgment, at the newly mounted (but old) photograph of the plump, complacent priest at a First Communion party of long ago. However, note that we never see the priest really "communicating" with his parishioners until he joins them in physical degradation. Ironically, the lieutenant spends his time hating what the priest was, not what he is now. Symbolically, as well as literally, the priest left Concepción years ago, although he retains traces of his morally smug past.
This idea of "purity'' (which the lieutenant hates) first appeared in the initial chapter of the novel, when Tench was surprised by the expression on the priest's face when he (Tench) mentioned Lopez's former girl friend, now cohabiting with the Chief of Police. The priest's shocked facial expression was caused by his moral code and also because of the unexpected news that Lopez was the man whom he hoped would help him escape, the man who had helped other priests escape.
Before his "rebirth," later in the novel, the priest's pietism is a dramatic contrast to the pietism of Luis' mother, especially her sentimentalized account of the boy martyr, young Juan. The story of young Juan is repugnantly artificial from start to finish, and it becomes the scroll upon which the realistic martyrdom of the unnamed, murdered priest will be engraved. Young Juan accepts even unjust rebuke with gratitude, and, in contrast, the priest thinks cynically of his bishop, who is safe from persecution. Young Juan will bravely cry out, "Long live Christ the King" at his execution, while the priest will be fear-ridden when his own death is imminent. The little play about the persecution of the early Christians, which young Juan acts in before his bishop, is in marked contrast to the priest's dramatic struggle; his own bishop, he is sure, does not even know he is alive. Juan's unthinking morality is unquestionably destructive of true piety, and thus Greene awards him the part of Nero in the skit.
The theme of abandonment is taken up in this section, with the word itself used several times. Luis' father forgives the unnamed whiskey priest and Padre Jose for their lapses. All men are human, all abandoned in a seemingly God-forsaken Mexico.
Other key points in the chapter include the following: first, the lieutenant, in his desire to execute hostages until the last priest is found, reflects the totalitarian commonplace that the end justifies the means, whatever the means.
Second, Padre Jose is being "crucified" daily; his tedious existence with an overbearing wife is a daily martyrdom. (The sixty-two-year-old priest has been forced to marry because of state regulations.) As the chapter ends, he is called to bed by his shrewish wife, while a group of street children ridicule him. Padre Jose is a parody of St. Joseph, the patron saint of a happy family.
Third, the priest's drunken mistake of baptizing a boy "Brigitta," instead of "Pedro," probably (and symbolically) indicates his guilt — Pedro, or Peter, being the first head of the Church.
Finally, the drunken prisoner who cannot pay the five-peso fine and who is told to wash out the lavatories foreshadows the circumstances of the priest's later arrest and imprisonment.