Submitted by: Hebzibah Nancy, II BA English
The protagonist of the story, the priest is waging a war on two fronts: haunted by his sinful past, he struggles internally with deep qualms about himself, and pursued by the authorities, he works to evade capture by the police for as long as he can. The priest is not a conventional hero: he is at times cowardly, self-interested, suspicious, and pleasure-oriented. That is to say he is human. The extraordinary hardships he has endured on the run from the government for eight years have transformed him into a much more resilient and mentally strong individual, although he still carries around with him strong feelings of guilt and worthlessness. He is self-critical almost to a fault.
What is remarkable about Greene's depiction of this person is that he refuses to spare us the priest's less-than-noble side, and yet also convincingly shows him overcoming his weaknesses and performing acts of great heroism. The most important single act comes near the end of the novel, when he decides to accompany the mestizo back across the border, to the state in which he is being hunted, in order to hear the confession of a dying man. The priest does not recognize the real value of his actions, nor does he fully comprehend what kind of impact he has had on people's lives. He tends to hear only from those people who have been hurt or disappointed by him in some way: Maria, Brigida, the pious woman. He does not see the many people whose lives have been touched merely by coming into contact with him or hearing about his death; Mr. Tench and the boy are the two most notable examples. Because this positive influence remains hidden to him, the priest does not have a true conception of the value of his life, and therefore, remains an extremely humble man to the day of his death. He also feels that he can never be truly penitent for his sexual relationship with Maria, since it produced Brigida, his daughter, whom he loves very deeply.
The priest un-named for the entirety of the novel, the priest or “the whisky priest” as he sometimes refers to himself, is the protagonist and the character upon whom the novel’s most important moral questions center. He spends the majority of the novel on the run from the police, friendless and homeless and searching for some sense of purpose in his life. His decadent, indulgent life as a parish priest takes place before the novel begins, but it is present in his thoughts throughout the novel as a source of deep humiliation. He spends the novel pursued by the police who believe the Church exploits the poor, and tormented by his own sense of guilt. He meets his daughter, the product of a secret affair with one of his parishioners, and finds that his love for her makes it impossible for him to repent the sin of conceiving her. He often chastises himself for impulses and reactions that are very normal and very human.
At the beginning of the novel, the priest is waiting for a boat that will take him out of the capital city. He is on the run from the police because religion has been outlawed in his state and he is the last remaining clergyman. While talking to a man named Mr. Tench, he is summoned to a dying woman's house and misses his boat. He hides out in a barn on the estate of a plantation owner, befriending the owner's daughter. Forced to move on, he heads to a village in which he used to live and work as pastor. There he meets Maria, a woman with whom he has had a brief affair, and Brigida, his illegitimate daughter. He spends the night in the town and wakes before dawn to say mass for the villagers.
The lieutenant—a sworn enemy of all religion—arrives at the end of mass, leading a group of policemen in search of the priest, and the priest goes out to the town square to face his enemy. No one in the village turns him in, however, and the lieutenant does not realize that he has foun d the man he is looking for. Instead, the lieutenant takes a hostage, whom he says he will execute if he finds that the villagers have been lying to him about the whereabouts of the wanted man.
The priest heads to the town of Carmen, and on the way he meets a man known simply as the mestizo. Uninvited, the mestizo accompanies the priest on his journey, and it very soon becomes clear that he is an untrustworthy figure, and most likely interes ted in following the priest so that he can turn him in and collect the reward money. The priest finally admits that he is, indeed, a priest. But the mestizo, who has become feverish by the second day of their journey together, does not have the strength t o follow the priest when he veers off course. The priest knows that if he enters Carmen he will surely be captured, and he lets the mestizo ride on towards the town by himself. The priest, aware that he is walking into a trap, finally agrees to accompany the mestizo back across the border. There he meets the gringo, who refuses to repent for his sins and then dies. Then, as expected, the lieutenant arrives and ta kes the priest into custody. The two men have a long conversation about their beliefs and then, when the storm front clears, the lieutenant takes the priest back to the capital city for his trial.
Driven by an obsessive hatred for the Catholic Church, the lieutenant will stop at nothing to apprehend and execute the priest, who, he believes, is the last remaining clergyman in the state. The lieutenant is a principled, disciplined man with a strong sense of justice. He is committed to political ideals that he thinks will help the poor and create equality and tolerance in the state. Unfortunately, he oftentimes allows his focus on his noble goal to obscure questions about the means he is employing to reach that goal. The most striking example of this is his decision to round up hostages and execute people if the villagers lie to him about the priest's whereabouts. As we see, the selection process is entirely arbitrary, hardly just, and extremely violent. It is easy to see why the people are as skeptical of the state as they are of the church. But even this person is capable of change. From time to time throughout the novel he shows that he is not an unkind person. After his conversation with the captured priest, he softens considerably, trying to find someone to hear the priest's confession and bringing him a bottle of brandy to quiet his fears. The political movement to which he belongs has taught him to look at people in generalized terms: that is, all priests are bad and all those working for the lieutenant's cause are good. The priest, who proves himself to be modest, intelligent and compassionate, disrupts the lieutenant's habitual way of looking at the Catholic clergy. By the end of the novel, he has accomplished his mission, but he feels a strange sense of emptiness and despondency. Without a target, his life has no meaning or sense of purpose and Greene suggests that lingering doubts fill the lieutenant's mind troubling him about whether he has done the right thing by killing the priest.