Summary and Analysis
Part 3: Chapter 2
After seven hours on the road and after drinking some brandy, the priest and the mestizo approach the hut where Calver, the American, is supposed to be dying. He is inside. He refuses to confess to the priest, but he admits that he may have wanted to do so when he wrote the note. Instead, Calver now has other things on his mind: he wants the priest to accept his gun and knife. We realize — at the same time Calver realizes — that he has neither; probably the Mexican police took them away from him. His offer, then, can be interpreted either as a genuine desire to see the protagonist escape, or merely as Calver's wish to kill his enemies vicariously through the priest. In this scene, Calver utters one significant half-statement. Note that in his dialogue with the priest, he hints that perhaps he didn't know about the soldiers! trap: he tells the priest, "I didn't know. . . ."
At this point, of course, the matter is of no real consequence, for the chapter itself focuses upon the priest's consumption of brandy and, as a result, the priest's inability to hear Calver's confession properly. Once again, the priest's addiction to liquor damns him.
Before drinking the brandy, the priest seemed to be a changed man — he was charitable and even careless of his personal safety in the context of his greater calling. After the brandy, however, he returns to his old testy, formalistic ways, and he is partly to blame for Calver's rejection of the last rites.
At the beginning of the chapter, the priest's carefree attitude can be seen most clearly in his dealings with the mestizo. He tells the half-caste to return the mules; he is absolutely convinced that he is likely to be ambushed, shot, or arrested. He will have no need for mules, he says, and then he fulfills the terms of his contract, giving the mestizo forty, pesos (symbolically, forty pieces of silver) for the once-proposed six-day trip to Las Casas. Then he warns the mestizo to flee the place. Perhaps he does this because he remembers that another person (another "innocent," as it were), the little Indian boy, died because of Calver.
The priest is as understanding of the mestizo, whom he believes has betrayed him, as Christ was of Judas, who betrayed him. Here, the priest reaffirms his earlier position that the mestizo "isn't really bad," and then he teases him in a brief interlude of friendly bantering.
Mildly taunting the perpetually whining mestizo, the priest asks him, "Can I do nothing right?" The query is made in response to the half-caste's charge that the priest cannot do "anything in moderation." Then the priest asks the mestizo whether the guards will let him see Calver. The half-caste blurts out, "Of course . . ." without thinking. His hand is tipped.
By using this verbal trick with the mestizo, a trick that is analogous to the card tricks that he wanted to perform earlier in the novel, the priest confirms that the police are indeed awaiting him, and it is then that he takes the brandy to steady his nerves.
The two men finish the bottle of brandy, even though the priest ignores a warning with which he has reminded himself throughout the novel: a man must not drink alcohol quickly unless he has food in his stomach, and he should never drink in hot weather. Then, in an appropriate analogy, one foreshadowing the priest's execution by gunfire, the empty bottle is thrown against a rock, and the explosion, Greene says, is like shrapnel. The half-caste urges caution; people might think the priest has a gun.
Perhaps in response to Calver's telling the priest several times to "Beat it," the priest begins to treat Calver with the same mixture of sanctimonious patronization, superciliousness, and impatience that he used with the penitents of the Lehrs' town on another occasion when he had been drinking.
Calver is genuinely puzzled when the priest begins to hear his confession so formally, asking him in prescribed Church practice how long it has been since he has received the Sacrament. The priest clearly and censoriously intones that Calver's ten-year lapse is serious indeed. This opening comment, however, is only the beginning of his bickering with the dying American outlaw.
In many ways, Calver is the alter ego of the priest, his buried, completely physical and instinctive self; and, accordingly, the clergyman becomes furious when confronted with Calver's obstinacy. The priest's efforts to lead him back down the paths of remembered sin, to engender a budding sorrow within Calver, fail miserably. Calver's confession is, in all respects, a failure. Once again, the priest proves ineffectual, and he knows it, calling the situation "horribly unfair." Basically, the priest relies upon fear tactics rather than expressing the fullness of God's mercy to Calver. Ms method simply does not work with a man who is very brave, even though he is a killer.
Whatever valid gestures the priest does make in regard to Calver's salvation come too late: his contrast of the transitory nature of earthly life with the spaciousness of eternity, and his conditional absolution, given under the possibility that Calver may have repented the moment before his soul left his body, are too late.
As usual, symbols play a crucial part in this chapter. First, the mountain journey of the priest is similar to his own labyrinthine voyage through his mind and soul, with many circuitous and false starts. The mestizo and the priest must travel one hour, two thousand tortuous feet down and then up a ravine in order to reach some Indian huts only two hundred yards away. Second, the sunlight is "heavy" and "stormy' when the priest attempts to shrive Calver, this atmospheric condition contrasting with the clear sunlight that marked the start of his trek away from the Lehrs'. The murky sunlight reflects the priest's brandy-blurred vision of his sacramental functions. Third, the ever-present mouth imagery throughout the novel is once again used to suggest danger, and note how Greene describes the watch tower. He says that it "gaped" over the path of the priest and the mestizo "like an upper jaw."
Finally, the confrontation of the priest and the convict, long anticipated in the novel, becomes a symbolic union of opposites — "the Power" and "the Glory" — and Greene questions which of the men is the saint. Calver's exclamation, "Bastards," is fortuitous; it helps arouse the priest's ire, probably because it recalls his own situation with his daughter, Brigitta. Also, the priest resembles Calver in that the murderer, like the clergyman, looks totally different from the picture of him that hangs in the police station. Both men have been radically changed from the arrogant, confident, and successful people that they once were, when the photographs were snapped.
Last, the priest repeatedly urges Calver to repent, citing the story of the "good thief." (In the Bible, one of the two thieves crucified alongside Christ repented on the cross and rebuked the "bad thief." Christ said that the "good thief" would be with Him in Paradise.) This reference to the "good thief' appeared earlier in the novel when the pious woman who was in prison at the same time that the priest was, told the story to him. The priest's awareness that, although he can hear Calver's confession, there will be no one to hear his own confession, heightens the irony of Calver's stubborn refusal to repent. Here, the priest plays the part of an ineffective Christ-figure, whose offer of Paradise was rejected by the 'bad thief."