Summary and Analysis
Part 1: Chapter 4
In this chapter, structured like a multi-scene collage, Greene shows us: Mr. Tench, the dentist, waiting for a patient and beginning a letter to his estranged wife, Sylvia, and then hearing the bell of the General Obregon; the frail old ship has returned from Vera Cruz.
Meanwhile, Padre Jose fearing that little Anita's relatives might boast if he were to say an "official" prayer over her body before it is placed in the ground, refuses to do so. In another part of town, Luis rejects the cloying piety of his deeply religious mother as she reads to him and his sisters. And in still another part of town, the thirteen-year-old Coral Fellows, assuming the responsibilities of her deficient parents, orders a load of bananas to be carried quickly to the quay for shipment on the General Obregon. In the cantina, the lieutenant learns that the Governor has given permission for him to shoot hostages so that the "last priest" can be taken before the rainy season sets in; neither the jefe nor the Governor, however, will put such orders in writing. Luis and some other boys admire the lieutenant's pistol, an act which will be in vivid contrast to what happens in the last chapter of this novel, when Luis, after the priest's execution, spits on the lieutenant's gun.
Clearly, each of the characters in this episode seeks to draw sustenance from the past, and in every instance the effort is doomed to futility. Tench writes to his wife merely to let someone know that he is still alive. Ironically, he relies upon time obliterating the memory of his handwriting from the mind of his dominating, interfering mother-in-law, Mrs. Marsdyke. As a dentist, he is used to pain; pain has little meaning anymore. He has ceased to feel, and like Padre Jose, he would rather feel homesickness than feel nothing at all.
In this context, note that Luis' father excuses his wife's devotion to the sentimentalized Holy Book because the tome represents all that is left of the feelings of childhood within the Mexican people. In contrast, young Coral Fellows has never had a child's past; she lost both her faith and her feelings of sentimentality and tenderness when she was ten. She has been "crucified" psychologically — and here, physiologically, as well, particularly in the scene when she wearily leans her aching shoulder blades against the scorching wall.
In the most dire straits, the characters think mainly of etiquette and social image. The family members of the dead little girl, Anita, we are inclined to believe, will want to boast that Padre Jose, said a prayer at her grave. Anita's mother feels that Padre Jose, should explain why her daughter died so young and caused so much inconvenience; Padre Jose, feels a sense of pride at being addressed again as a priest, even though he is too timorous to conduct a brief religious ceremony. Likewise, the lieutenant fears that the gross, anticlerical, painted murals might damage the image of his progressive state: "He wanted to eliminate anything in the state at which a foreigner might have cause to sneer."
In this chapter, then, these characters, so concerned with appearance, are revealed to be thoroughly selfish. Tench, for example, realizes that his letter might prove embarrassing to his wife if she has married again, but he reasons that she need only tear it up. He never considers that the letter might be intercepted. Tench's selfishness, as with the selfishness of the others, is born of the deep and hopeless emptiness that has overwhelmed the Mexican state.
At times, spiritual emptiness finds its correlative in physical objects. A sign enjoins "Silence" as Padre Jose, enters what was once the Garden of God; inside the larger tombs in the cemetery, the atmosphere resembles that of a kitchen in an abandoned house, perhaps one like that which the Fellowses are soon to leave behind. The coffin of Anita can be moved by a slight push of a shoe, for it seems to house nothing but bones. The 9:30 curfew helps create a sense of sterility when the resigned father of Luis stares out into the dark street, while beetles crawl on broken wings across the floor of his home. The lieutenant, thinking of his vacant universe, explains to Luis that he has never killed anyone with his gun-not yet, but the deadly weapon is a copy of an American pistol.
Empty words, empty dreams, and empty futures figure prominently in the chapter. The Tenches have exchanged letters only once since their little boy died. In addition, the death of Tench's child relates him to Fellows, who is soon to lose a daughter, and to the priest, whose daughter, we will discover, is spiritually dead. The letters which Coral receives from Private Tutorials, Ltd., are, at best, perfunctory and always six weeks late. The phony certificates which she gains from her studies are not even signed by Henry Beckley, the director, but are simply rubber-stamped.
Perhaps Luis' father best illustrates the emotional void of the Mexican people. Although he admits that he was not a good Catholic when the Church still flourished in Mexico, he truly misses the ceremonies the music and the lights. Now there is nothing: "If we had a theatre, anything at all instead, we shouldn't feel so -left" -in other words, so abandoned. His attitude is contrasted with the futile hope of Anita's relatives. They were content to live with the hopelessness of burying the girl without proper religious obsequies, but with the appearance of Padre Jose and his rejection of their pleas, they experience an emotion even worse than before: despair.
Padre Jose is filled with despair, and he knows that he is committing a terrible sin by living in despair; he believes that he is so damned that God's mercy and grace cannot operate for him. Despair and presumption (the belief that God will save every man no matter what he has done) are the two sins which cannot be forgiven since they preclude a state of being contrite -that is, having a sincere, remorseful heart. Padre Jose is in the grip of despair when he acquiesces to the jeers of the mocking children and returns to his bed of sin. As Greene puts it, he commits the "unforgivable sin" — that is, succumbing to despair.
The characters' desolation of spirit is also seen in their complete lack of trust. Tench hesitates before opening his door to a patient. Anita's relatives beg Padre Jose to trust them — as their spokesman, an old man, repeats the word "trust" for emphasis. Padre Jose knows, however, that they cannot be trusted, that they will boast of the prayer, uttered by a priest, to the other townspeople.
Tench's crucible, with its gold alloy, resembles a blemished chalice. And with this in mind, note that Padre Jose washes his hands of responsibility in refusing to pray for Anita, as does Fellows in his lack of concern for the fugitive priest, who is himself corrupted.
The fat jefe and the thin lieutenant resemble a vaudeville team as they walk up the street. The comic futility of the Chief of Police is seen in the useless handkerchief which he wears knotted around his jaw in a wasted effort to stop the pain of his toothache. The exchange of the comedians is played out while the lieutenant attempts to force the jefe to commit himself about the killing of hostages.
Coral Fellows' characterization embraces many of Greene's motifs. Coral's premature sense of responsibility and her suffering at the hands of her inept parents are heightened by Greene's subtle description of her biochemical change. She has a slight headache, and her mother tells her that she thinks it will soon pass. Mrs. Fellows, however, avoiding issues as usual, doesn't explain the cause of the discomfort. When Coral asks about the Virgin Birth, her mother reacts like many parents who believe that references even to non-sex are verboten. Coral wonders why she feels so tired early in the day, and in a brilliant Christocentric symbol, which suggests that Coral is sacrificed to her parents' ignorance as well as to her blossoming body, Greene has Coral lean against the wall until her shoulders are scorched. Greene splendidly captures Coral's confusion as she experiences menstrual cramps for the first time. Like a child, Coral reasons that her pain is not caused by worms and then intuits that her body, in some near-miraculous way, has readied itself for these as-yet-not-understood changes. Greene is at his best in describing the wondrous moments of Corals's beginning womanhood, which is soon to be cut short by death.
Paralleling references to Coral's emotionally stunted youth are Greene's allusions to the delightfully pert aspects of a girl who could have offered a great deal to the world. Coral reminds her forgetful mother what day it is, and she also finds out on her own that her father has not gotten the produce ready for the boat. Accepting her responsibilities, she crisply orders the Indian worker to quicken his pace; then, when the job nears completion, Coral questions the workers twice to make sure that each batch of bananas has been accounted for. Hard-fact reality fills Coral Fellows' world.
In contrast, the falsity of the story of young Juan is diametrically opposed to the reality of Coral's fate — and to the fate of the fugitive priest. In a traditional and saccharin manner, Juan's family "mourns" the loss of young Juan, for he has decided to devote his life to God and to forsake family and the secular world. Ordained as a priest, Juan distributes the Holy Eucharist to his family, as Greene implies the dramatic discrepancy between a hard-won human communication and the formalized communion service in the Holy Book of Luis' mother.
In addition, unlike the indulgent, alcoholic priest, young Juan spends his days mortifying (not satisfying) his flesh; that is, he denies himself even small physical comforts in return for spiritual rewards. In contrast, Greene's more human anti-hero, this "last priest," is so undisciplined that he cannot stop himself from begging brandy and from robbing a dying dog of a bone. But Juan subjects himself to utter mortification and physical deprivations which require the permission of a priest in Confession, and Juan has followed the appropriate forms. In all of this syrupy excess, Greene is saying that the Gospel according to John or, in this case, Juan, is not to be taken very seriously. In fact, the story of young Juan brings about the opposite of its intention. Luis, after listening to his mother's fervid recounting of the saintly lad's doings, gazes with rapt devotion at the lieutenant's pistol, an instrument of death. And finally, the play that young Juan will act in is set in the catacombs, ironically foreshadowing the resurrection of the hunted priest in prison.
Once again, this chapter reveals Greene's ability to tie a novel together by parallels and by a multitude of deftly connected scenes. The villagers who hound Padre Jose are like those villagers who would not let the priest sleep in the previous chapter. And here, as Coral Fellows enters the barn and finds crosses chalked on the wall, the action jumps ahead four days to the cantina where the jefe is chalking his billiard cue and is interrupted by the lieutenant. In his use of ironic juxtaposition, which is so much more important than mere chronology, Greene is suggesting that all things, both great and small, must be measured completely against the fullness of humanity.
Taking into consideration the many viewpoints of the characters in this chapter, the inked-in halo above the priest's picture on the prison wall suggests that he is closer to sainthood now than he was at Concepción, although he is the last one to realize this.