Summary and Analysis
Part 2: Chapter 4
Several days after his release from jail, the priest cautiously enters the Fellowses' now-deserted banana station; he is looking for Coral, who, he hopes, will help him cross the mountains (some twenty miles away) before the rains make the journey impossible. He hopes to reach a Mexican state where religion is still practiced and tolerated to an extent, although technically, each ceremony will still be penalized with a nominal fine.
At the banana station, the priest finds only an injured, starving dog, and ravenous himself, he manages to trick the animal out of a bone that has a scrap or two of meat on it.
He goes onward and after a day's journey, he meets an Indian woman and, for a moment, he holds her dying baby. Apparently, the little boy was shot by soldiers; seemingly, too, Coral was either killed in the same manner or was shot when the banana station was (presumably) raided. However, these possibilities remain ambiguous. We never discover how Coral Fellows died.
The priest then accompanies the Indian woman, who has strapped her dead baby on her back, on a two days' journey until they reach a "grove of crosses," where she blesses the tiny body and leaves it at the foot of a cross, a lump of sugar near the baby's mouth. The priest wanders on then, feverish and disoriented, until he is met by a man who guides him to a large white building in the distance — a church.
Immediately, we see that this chapter is subtly tied to the preceding sections of the novel. Once again, time is not measured chronologically; here, it is measured by the ubiquitous rain clouds that threaten to make the priest's escape impossible. When the priest returns to the banana plantation, he does not know precisely how much time has elapsed since his last visit; he recalls only that the rains were some distance away. Now he knows that he has only a week left to cross the mountains.
The storm breaks, and the rain resembles sheets of drenching water; earlier, it fell "like nails" in the priest's coffin as he sat drinking the illegal spirits with the Governor's cousin and two other men. In this chapter, as the priest rushes into the shelter of a hut, he realizes instinctively that he will find nothing. In the distance, ironically, are the mountains -only twenty miles away. The priest's plight suggests Moses' view of the Promised Land, a country which he was forbidden to enter.
A number of parallels between this chapter and the overall novel center upon Coral, who, unbeknownst to the priest, is now dead. He recalls that Coral asked him to use Morse code if he returned to her home, and the priest's thought of her window recalls his brief moment of horror when he misinterpreted Coral's instructions, thinking that she might be awaiting a boyfriend who would be admitted on signal. He realizes in this chapter how much his hopes (like her parents) have depended on Coral; he believes that she is the only one who can help him without endangering herself. In other words, without knowing it, the priest has been pinning his hopes on a dead person. The reader can see clearly the depth of his entrapment.
Symbolically, Coral's discarded essay on the American Revolution contrasts with Mexico's torpid government, which in a sense "taxes" people without their being represented. And Coral's poetry book, which is about "jewels," typifies, antithetically, the barrenness of the girl's life. The book has a blurred coat of arms, an irrelevant Latin motto, and the stamped signature of the persistent Beckley, who symbolizes in The Power and the Glory the impersonality of written communications. Coral's name takes on a high significance as the priest relates it to the adornments given to girls after their First Communion. Ironically, Coral never enjoys "communion" with her parents, and she comes close to only one valid "communication" — that is, her communication/communion with the "celebrant," the fugitive priest.
The poetry in Coral's book consists of verses which are as opaque as Coral's character; the vocabulary is arcane and archaic: the "words . . . were like Esperanto." The poetry is a sharp contrast to the priest's heartfelt description of the world, a description which led his companions in the hotel room to refer to him as "a poet." One of the verses does, however, expose a father's fervent wish to regain his daughter, and his promise to forgive "the Highland Chief." Throughout, the priest's true grief is contrasted with the glib sentimentality of the anthologized poetry.
Other tie-ins in the chapter are less obvious. For example, the priest enters the station as he left it, in darkness. As he battles the mongrel, he flaps his hands to drive it away, his gestures recalling the description of vultures throughout the novel. The dog's yellow eyes are like the mestizos; the bitch, like the half-caste, is unable to do anything but endure the blows which the priest levels upon her back. The priest receives "communion," in a symbolic sense, as he tears the meat from the dog's bone, and the previous description of his stale breath is recalled. Once again, the priest enters a hut, which houses a pile of maize and a rat, and the temporary shelter recalls his visit to the tiny village (where Maria lives), where he was forced to hear a myriad of confessions despite his exhaustion. The Indian's face at the window, in its ignorance and vulgar determination, seems like something out of the Stone Age, suggesting a previous description of the prehistoric nature of Tench's dentistry tools.
When the mother and the priest reach the burial ground, the superstitious woman presses her dead son's innocent loins against a cross in the clear view of the unchaste priest. Finally, as the priest reaches safety, he rests his shoulder blades against the church; this action binds him to the now-dead Coral, who wearily rested her shoulders in the same manner, and thus it foreshadows the priest's own death. It also suggests that he is placing his trust in a false hope — namely, conventional Christianity.
The priest's confrontation with the dog is at the center of the chapter, and it is essentially a microcosm of the novel. The dog resembles the priest even physically, for it drags itself from one place to another and, with her wounded back, she suggests the load, which the priest must bear in his Via Crucis through Mexico. Also, the bitch is like a fossil, with her ribs qualifying her for an exhibit of prehistoric artifacts. Like the priest, she has not eaten in a long time, and like many characters in the novel, she has been abandoned. But in contrast to the priest, with his human ability to feel despair, the dog blindly hopes for life. Yet, like the peasants, and like the priest at times, the dog yearns for past prosperity. She believes that her howling and her empty mimicry of the watchdog will bring back Coral and her family.
The dogs stolid and wrong-headed determination resembles that of the Indian woman, and Greene, in addition, juxtaposes his description of the dog guarding the bone with the desiccated face of the male Indian outside the mosquito wire: both are consumed with dryness. The dog threatens between her teeth, as do other false "communicants" in the novel; the sound is like "hate on a deathbed," foreshadowing the dying Calver's offer of a (nonexistent) gun and knife to the priest, who has returned to hear his confession. Gleaming in the dog's eyes are "hunger and hope and hatred," and with these three nouns, Greene encapsulates many of the novel's themes.
The dog symbolically becomes the altar 'boy" or acolyte for the priest as he uses a Latin expression from the Mass to trick the animal into giving up the sacrificial bone. The bone takes on connotations of an altar stone or relic, and the priest's sudden, evasive twist suggests a celebrant's quick motion in front of a congregation. The near-rancid but still fulsome meat, swarming with flies, is literally a bone of contention, to which the dog, the priest, and the Indian man aspire. Besides showing the depth to which the clergyman has sunk, the episode also typifies the way in which the priest probably treated his congregation when he lived in Concepción. Stealthily, he holds the bitch back with a vegetable rack and then trickily extricates the bone from her feeble grasp.
The dog is also related to Greene's description of the Indian woman guarding the child. Her anxiety for her baby resembles the dog's, as her eyes follow the priest's every movement — keeping at a distance the entire time. Like an animal, she rests on her haunches, ready to rend him with her teeth at the first indication that he might harm her child. And before he tells her that he is a priest, she approaches him in a sinister way, just skirting the ground.
The priest's battle with the dog for the bone both parallels, and contrasts with, his alcoholism and his illicit sex act with Maria: he is still unable to control himself. Despite mentally marking off a place on the bone where he will cease to devour the meat and thus leave some for the animal, he cannot resist the temptation to finish gnawing all the scraps of meat off the bone. And after he eats even the knuckle of meat near the joint, he drops only a stripped bone for the dog. Interestingly, his hunger increases with each bite, as the nausea, which resulted from a completely empty stomach wears off. In terms of alcoholism, one drink did indeed lead to another, though in this episode the priest's culpability is certainly limited by his extreme physical condition.
Even so, Greene calls attention to this failure of will when the priest takes the lump of sugar from in front of the dead Indian child's mouth. He even returns to the burial site, chastising himself for abandoning the mother, and he attributes his irresponsibility to his whiskey habit. Ironically, the Indian mother is gone when he arrives, and so he succumbs to the temptation to pilfer the lump of sugar lying beside the child's mouth.
The priest's refusal to allow the starving dog even a morsel and his theft of an essential part of the child's burial rites are severe lapses in his spiritual reawakening. In this chapter, both acts are fortified by the priest's habit of specious rationalizing. As he continues to gnaw meat from the bone, he reasons (with some validity) that what he previously considered hunger was really nausea; now he must appease a valid sensation.
He reasons, too, that since the dog has sharp teeth, it will be able to eat the bone itself, a gross simplification. As the priest takes the sugar, he rationalizes that the same God who could resurrect the dead could certainly provide sustenance. For a moment, this desperate logic assuages the shame, which he feels when he robs a dead baby who cannot even growl back, as did the hungry dog.
The loneliness and the abandonment felt by the priest as he stands atop the mountain alongside the deserted dead child are themes seen in this chapter as well as in the entire work. The banana station has been abandoned, and Mrs. Fellows' prediction of the family's "lost" nature has been fulfilled in a way, which she could not have guessed. The priest feels that he is in Limbo, a place for lost beings who are not whole, not defined. This twilight state, he reasons, began in prison while the old man who was punished by the clergy rested his head upon the priest's shoulder. Neither good enough for salvation nor evil enough for complete damnation, the lonely priest must reach out for any straw, which might float his way in the sopping environment of the banana station. In his isolation, he becomes the existential wanderer who continues the trek, all the while suspecting that he will find "nothing."
After the priest devours the sugar, with its color suggestive of the Eucharist (the bread/wafer used in Mass), he realizes that he will not see the placid, stony face of the Indian woman again. All forms of life, from reptiles to higher animals, seem to be forsaking the priest; he realizes that he is left with nothing but his breath, the word itself suggesting in this context his life spirit.
The priest's isolation from human communion is fortified by references in the chapter to things, which are empty or useless. On the Fellowses' plantation, everything has been taken away except "the useless or the broken." A cardboard box is filled with scraps of paper. The small chair, which is missing a leg, cannot rock back and forth as do the chairs of the Mexican women that tilt toward the family pictures, evoking memories of better days. A nail is lodged nakedly and alone in a whitewashed wall and suggests a crucifixion. No mirror or picture hangs from it, however, like the photographs of Calver and the priest that hang from the wall of the police station. The absence of a mirror prevents the priest from fully "seeing" himself. And it is fitting that a fugitive with wounded, unshod feet should find a broken shoehorn. Even the river, which flows outside the mosquito wire is symbolically "slow and empty."
Later, as the priest carries the dead child back into the hut, the boy is described as being like a useless piece of furniture — specifically like "a chair" (another recurrent image in this novel) brought outside but quickly withdrawn "because the grass is wet."
References to water contrast with the moral sterility and torpor (pictured in the chapter), which end in false hope. Although the priest crosses the river and emerges on the other side dripping wet, he is not symbolically purified by the water; the crossing does not signal the start of a new life. The movement of the 'slow and empty" river resembles the movements of the starving, abandoned dog, which drags itself across the floor with a "wet noise." This idea of contaminated water also appeared in two of Coral's poems. The first deals with the eternal nature of a river, but is written in grandiose and stereotypical poetic diction; the second poem, with the river symbolizing a means of separation between father and daughter, is an obvious parallel to the priest's own situation.
In the first poem, the two birds are symbolic. The "coot" is an awkward duck-like bird that cannot fly very far or very fast; it is not a game bird at all. "Hem" is short for heron, a bird which lives near the water and feeds on fish; it is a bird often used in a sacramental context — for example, in poems by Hopkins and in the poems of Dylan Thomas. The coot mirrors the priest's broken-winged attempts at flight, and the hem suggests that he is the caught fish, the fish itself being a universal symbol of Christ. The term "bicker" suggests the sometimes querulous nature of the priest's confrontation. In the second poem, the "stormy water" correlates with the passionate bursts of love and need, which characterize the priest's relationship with his distant daughter.
The rains subside at last, and the priest can hear the quiet patter of the raindrops, but he is not at peace. He is still bereft of human company. And soon the rains return, forming a wall as impenetrable as the language barrier between the priest and the one person whom he has managed to communicate with in this seemingly godforsaken country — the Indian woman. This second squall comes after the mother murmurs the word "church," the only reality which the priest and the woman share.
Much of the priest's journey is described, once again, in Christocentric symbols. The tiny Indian baby, whom the priest fails to save with his blend of deficient Christianity and homespun medicine, has been shot three times. The baby becomes a martyr to national exigencies, which place the capture of the guilty over the lives of the innocent. The Indian mother is "crucified" in her tireless march with her dead child slung over her back. As they approach the burial mound, the priest and the woman are seen as a kind of reverse Adam and Eve, the last survivors of a dying world, not its first inhabitants.
The evening star lights their way, and this macabre equivalent of the Star of Bethlehem shines upon the plateau of crosses, the first public symbol of Christianity that the priest has seen in many years. The star, however, does not lead to hope but to a scene in which the crosses manifest a defunct Christianity, composed of superstition and its objectification, trees which have been "left to seed." In this episode, Greene reverses the adage that faith can move mountains — or perhaps restore life on mountain plateaus. The star, like the priest's salvation, seems almost within his grasp, as it hangs low over the plain.
The priest's torments resemble Christ's under the Crown of Thorns, and his head aches as though a "stiff hat-rim" were pressing upon his forehead. He feels a great thirst, and as at Christ's death, the sky blackens suddenly and then a great deluge of water drenches everything. But, again, the water brings no relief: it streams upon the dead child as upon a pile of dung.
The chapter, then, centers on death, and at its center is the parallel between Coral's death and the death of the little Indian boy. Seeing the emptiness of Coral's room, with its wastepaper box and other depleted remnants, the priest has a premonition of death. Coral's loss is all the greater — although, of course, he does not know for a certainty that she is dead — for he remembers how this "adopted' daughter vowed to protect him against all enemies, and he remembers that he last saw his indignant and seemingly already corrupted natural daughter standing by a rubbish dump. Later, he came upon the dying, wounded baby in a darkened hut. When he felt the outline of the child's face, he was horrified to think that once again violence had triumphed. The boy was dying not of a medical disease, but of a malady closer to the heart of human nature, man's capacity for senseless destruction.
The Indian woman kisses the priest's hand, much as the priest's old parishioners once did, but now he cannot provide comfort. In death, the three-year-old child's eyes take on the yellow coloring which has been associated with contagion throughout the novel. The comparison of the dead eyes to "marbles in a solitaire-board" probably contains a play upon the word "solitary" and thus fits into the chapter's theme of isolation.
In response to the woman's pleas, the priest says a prayer over the dead body — in contrast to Padre Jose, who refused to pray for the small, dead Anita. Yet he is convinced that the prayer will be futile, for, he muses, what good are the words of a fallen priest? Here, he experiences the same spiritual aridity that will mark even the few moments before his own death. He is unable to infuse his soul or his emotions into his words; he feels that he is contributing merely a "pious aspiration," a rehearsing of stereotyped phrases. The dead child, with his stoic mother, typifies a defunct faith, one dependent upon the superstitious notion that resurrection comes from pressing a corpse against a crooked and uneven cross. Greene permits the woman to murmur merely "Iglesia" (church) as a response to her son's tragic death.
All of the events in the chapter are made even more terrifying by Greene's use of time, which has become endless and elastic, without beginning and seemingly without end for the fugitive priest. It might be early in the morning when the priest arrives at the banana station -or late; he simply does not know.
As is usual in Greene's writing, philosophy is grounded upon a firm base of literary realism; in this chapter, the priests excessive moralizing and the ugly, explicit epithets which he hurls at the dog who challenges him for a bone add to his portraiture. Also, these negative sides of his character partially insure the "alienation" of the reader, a term for the technique which prevents the audience from becoming too involved with the plight of the protagonist, from feeling too much sympathy for him, or identifying with him. Greene uses "alienation" when he wants the audience to intellectually consider the issues involved and not merely to experience pity or terror. In the chapter, the priest's covetous spirit causes him to erupt in a flood of profanities ("popular expressions picked up beside bandstands") at the old and starving dog.
Greene neatly summarizes this lost world of dead children, of a priest who fights with a dog for a bone, of weird crosses on a blackened plateau, and of fever and futility, with one significant phrase: "It was as if man in all this state had been left to man."