Summary and Analysis Part 2: Chapter 1


A few weeks after his life has been saved by Coral Fellows, the priest, desperately trying to evade the soldiers, arrives in a tiny village. Maria, the mother of his child, Brigitta, who is now about six years old, lives here. The villagers ask the priest to say Mass for them, but they also urge him to leave very soon because a hostage named Pedro Montez, from Concepción, was shot by the police after wine (used in Mass) was found in the village.

The priest performs Mass, hurrying the service as the soldiers arrive. He barely avoids capture because his daughter identifies him first as "father" — then, as her father. Miguel, a young villager, is taken hostage because no one will betray the priest's presence, and later, Maria disposes of the priest's wine supply lest it be found by the authorities.

The second half of the chapter is linked to the first section because the priest must journey to a larger settlement in order to find a new supply of wine. There, he meets a mestizo, or half-caste, the 'Judas figure" of the novel. The man insists on accompanying the priest to Carmen, the priest's birthplace. Unable to rid himself of the ill and persistently questioning half-caste, the priest finally admits that yes, he is a priest. But because of this confession, the priest is now unable to enter Carmen, for he knows that the mestizo will report him and collect the reward. Thus, at a fork in the road, two hours from the village, the priest sends the ill and feverish half-caste forward, helplessly ill astride a mule, into Carmen. The half-caste, deprived of his seven-hundred-peso reward, weakly shouts back to the priest that he will not forget his face.

Because of this chapter's length, Greene wisely divides it into two narrative parts. Note, in this respect, that the priest is turned away from Maria's village at the end of the first part, and, at the conclusion of the second part, the priest is unable to enter Carmen because of the mestizo; he has to turn away, like Moses, who was almost at the destination where he hoped he would find peace.

Of interest also is the fact that the priest's estrangement (even with Maria and his daughter, he is merely a prisoner among prisoners) and, later in the chapter, his incipient charity toward the half-caste are both delineated by biblical allusions. Maria easily becomes Mary, the sister of Martha who once ministered to Christ. In addition, the cock crows three times during the chapter, suggesting Peter's betrayal of Christ, arid, here, the "betrayal" of the murdered Pedro (Peter) Montez, and later, the half-caste's future betrayal of the priest. The "weight" at the back of the priest's tongue during his sermon correlates with the unworthiness he feels at receiving the Holy Eucharist while in the state of mortal sin.

The half-caste's two teeth, as well as his plump, yellow toe, which slithers forward like a forest animal's, place him squarely in Satan's camp, and the priest sees him as a mock Judas figure, like the one hanged during Holy Week ceremonies at his old parish. But, like the Good Samaritan, the priest lets his enemy use his mule as he himself walks Christ-like, with bleeding feet. Symbolically, the mule becomes the donkey which Christ rode into Jerusalem, and finally, the expression "watch and pray" in the flashback to Concepción suggests that the priest is now undergoing his Gethsemane.

The relationship of the priest to his daughter parallels the relationships of other adults to other children in the novel, all defining the dual nature of the priest's role as a spiritual parent and as a physical parent. Like Coral Fellows, Brigitta, the priest's "old-young" child, has had no typical "childhood." She is seemingly mature before her time, and she also seems to have Coral's godless bent. Brigitta laughs at her father much like the children ridicule Padre Jose, and she refuses to say her catechism, just as Luis will not listen to his mother read from the Holy Book. Like Luis, too, she reaches up to the lieutenant when he is on horseback. And also, like the dead Anita, she has been sickly from birth. In addition, the priest wants to show his daughter the card. trick that he was previously unable to demonstrate to Coral. Again, symbolically, there are no cards.

Most significantly, both the priest and the lieutenant feel that children are more important than anything else in the state, and the use of the expression "my children" by Padre Jose, and the escaping priest recalls similar sentiments of the lieutenant, who wants to obliterate the privations of his youth by reconstructing a new social order, especially for the children.

During his stay with Maria, the priest is exposed to all the ingredients of a "valid" family life, but he is unable to grasp them. He cannot "communicate" with Maria even though she provides him with bread and wine, hides him in bed when the soldiers approach, and has him chew an onion to cover the smell of wine on his breath.

Their lack of ultimate union is symbolized by the interrupted Mass which the priest says. Because of the approaching troops, he finishes the Consecration, but is unable to distribute Communion. In his lonely world, the priest, by theological mandate, consumes the Host himself rather than have it found and be desecrated by the police.

With justification, the priest reasons that Maria would have made a good wife, that he could be living with her in safety, were it not for his pride. Clearly, he trusts Maria completely, and although he knows she has reason to hate him (since she was only a sex partner for him), he goes to the village convinced that she will not betray him. Maria is a full woman — practical, informal, and even a bit proud that a priest once made love to her. She bridges the years easily, and like a wife, she complains of the priest's meager clothing, which makes him look so common. She would have repaired his former dark garb and hidden it. With her practical suggestion that the priest join her in bed to hide from the police, Maria is an excellent contrast to both Mrs. Fellows and to the slovenly, self-centered wife of Padre Jose.

Many of the priest's difficulties come from a formalistic theology and a tender conscience. Thinking of the Archangel Michael driving Satan from Heaven, he feels damned, a mortal sinner distributing the Eucharist. He feels guilty about his emotions for Brigitta, his child, conceived by serious sins. Constantly flickering through the priest's mind is the thought that by continuing his ministry in Mexico, he is violating a prime edict of the Church: a man is responsible for saving his own soul, first of all.

The priest's Jansenistic conscience is seen in his fear that returning to the place of his sin might be wrong; but he assuages his scrupulosity by considering the visit, the first one in six years, to be his duty. He worries, as well, about not using an altar stone during Mass, but he reasons that he is far from Church authority. He wishes to call the villagers "my children," but he concludes that only the childless man has the right to do so. The priest's ministry is objectified by the chipped cup which he uses for the Sacrament in place of his lost chalice.

Such lachrymose sentiments, however, are laced through with flashes of the priest's remaining sturdiness and integrity. He authoritatively reminds the peasants that his presence in the village is neither his business nor theirs — only God's. He remains in the forbidden country because of his stark thought of Gods absence from so vast an area of land; without God, the country would be the empty universe of the lieutenant. Accordingly, the priest sublimates his deprivations in his sermon when he sincerely preaches that pain and joy are inextricable and that only by accepting pain can one gain Heaven, the end of all suffering.

The priest's rebirth begins with his realization that his attempts to be the only clergyman in good standing left in Mexico might have proceeded partly from pride, that the humble Padre Jose could well be the better priest. He begins to realize also that Christ died even for the downtrodden half-caste. From the priest's despair comes a human love, which is seen in his dire concern for his daughter, although here the priest still struggles between two types of fatherhood — spiritual and physical fatherhood.

The priest's previous exchange of clothing with the peasant reflects his now-growing humility, as does his telling the mestizo that the scrap of paper, clinched in his fist, and remaining from his days at Concepción, is a list of seeds. The seeds of his ministry only now have begun to bear fruit.

The beginning of the priest's rebirth is seen most clearly in his renewed love and respect for the impoverished congregation. The villagers bear pain and mortification voluntarily, whereas his pain and mortification have been forced upon him. Now he can begin to understand their ordeal, for he is no longer the aloof clergyman that he was in Concepción, Now he resembles the two men who kneel with arms outstretched in the form of the Cross during the Consecration, offering up their pain to God in expiation of their sins.

The redemption is starting just in time for the priest to be saved theologically. For example, the prayers which he says when he fears being shot by the lieutenant do not constitute "perfect contrition" — that is, sorrow for sin which proceeds solely from a love of God. Salvation through "imperfect contrition" (fear of Hell) demands that a priest hear the penitent's confession.

Theologically, if the priest were shot and killed at this time, he would be doomed.

In his dilemmas, the priest differs utterly from the glib clergyman who ran up debts in Concepción, told insipid and inappropriate jokes to the solemn women of the parish, and spun pietistic tales much like the sugared stories of Luis' mother. Greene allows the priest to remember his recital concerning the eleven-year-old girl who died contented, from consumption, because Greene is implying that young Juan might well have become such a pompous, unchallenged, and unchallenging priest.

Maria acts as a realistic corrective to the phony religiosity of Luis' mother when she points out that the martyrdom of a whiskey priest would be a scandal. And, too, the priest adds reality to the novel when he realizes that his death and the death of the hostages might be occasioned by mere religious superstition. In fact, superstition becomes a major theme in the overall book, a theme that is seen later in the Indian mother's burial rites for her three-year-old child.

One last point about this chapter: Greene reinforces the priest's sinful act of love by including several references to the color scarlet in the section: a turkey's pink membrane, riding boots fringed with scarlet, and a snake hissing through the grass "like a match flame." Also, the smuggled book has a direct bearing on the priest's adultery: A Husband for a Night.

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