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Greene and Kipling’s Prodigal Sons

August 30, 2015

What happened next

Luke’s version is a story of redemption. A wastrel lose his inheritance “with riotous living”, admits his error, “I […] am no more worthy to be called thy son”, but his father forgives him, kills the fatted calf, and tells his resentful older brother to rejoice “for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found”.

In Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote* the communist Mayor recounts the parable before dinner. In his version the son from a bourgeois family objects to inherited wealth and, in a Tolstoyan gesture of solidarity with the poor, gives his share away and lives as a peasant until, his courage failing, he returns to his father for forgiveness.  But then he is disgusted for a second time, pines for the hard earth floor and broods on the saying of a wise peasant – Lenin’s words – that capitalism is a machine invented by capitalists to keep the working class in subjection. As the travellers enter Botin’s restaurant, the Mayor calls for suckling pig and a bottle of the Marques de Murrietta’s red wine, and Greene exposes his hypocrisy.

“I am surprised that you favour the aristocracy” says Monsignor Quixote, referring to the wine.

The mayor splutters the conventional communist excuses, and the priest admits he only eats horse steaks at home.

Rudyard Kipling also sends the prodigal son back to poverty for a second time. In this case to escape his stifling family, and especially his sanctimonious elder brother.

The Prodigal Son

Here come I to my own again,
Fed, forgiven and known again,
Claimed by bone of my bone again
And cheered by flesh of my flesh.
The fatted calf is dressed for me,
But the husks have greater zest for me,
I think my pigs will be best for me,
So I’m off to the Yards afresh.

I never was very refined, you see,
(And it weighs on my brother’s mind, you see)
But there’s no reproach among swine, d’you see,
For being a bit of a swine.
So I’m off with wallet and staff to eat
The bread that is three parts chaff to wheat,
But glory be! – there’s a laugh to it,
Which isn’t the case when we dine.

My father glooms and advises me,
My brother sulks and despises me,
And Mother catechises me
Till I want to go out and swear.
And, in spite of the butler’s gravity,
I know that the servants have it I
Am a monster of moral depravity,
And I’m damned if I think it’s fair!

I wasted my substance, I know I did,
On riotous living, so I did,
But there’s nothing on record to show I did
Worse than my betters have done.
They talk of the money I spent out there –
They hint at the pace that I went out there –
But they all forget I was sent out there
Alone as a rich man’s son.

So I was a mark for plunder at once,
And lost my cash (can you wonder?) at once,
But I didn’t give up and knock under at once,
I worked in the Yards, for a spell,
Where I spent my nights and my days with hogs.
And shared their milk and maize with hogs,
Till, I guess, I have learned what pays with hogs
And – I have that knowledge to sell!

So back I go to my job again,
Not so easy to rob again,
Or quite so ready to sob again
On any neck that’s around.
I’m leaving, Pater. Good-bye to you!
God bless you, Mater! I’ll write to you!
I wouldn’t be impolite to you,
But, Brother, you are a hound!

Rudyard Kipling

Greene made a political point, but Kipling got to the heart of the story. It’s not sufficient to kill the fatted calf. We need to shed our smug piety at the sinner’s misfortune.

* Graham Greene. Monsignor Quixote. The Bodley Head, London. 1982. p 38.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Tom permalink
    September 13, 2015 2:47 am

    I do enjoy your posts Jim; a reliably different take on things.

    Anarchist that you are, I’m not entirely surprised that your sympathies lie with the young Prodigal, and relish the idea of him thumbing his nose at his family a second time. My response to Kipling’s final stanza would be a bored groan.
    I can see how a passive-aggressive acceptance of a wayward but penitent son might turn the stomach. If you saw any of the ubiquitous Breaking Bad series, this is explored several times with Jesse, the waster son, constantly returning to and leaving his beige, hand-wringing parents – a drama played out in the lives of almost every addict, I suspect.

    But for me, the wisdom of Ecclesiastes is what the Prodigal discovers. “There is nothing new under the sun”. I like what Rowan Williams (and others) say about this sort of thing; that the idea of sin (whatever you think of that concept) being interesting, vital, exciting, unique to you, a means of self-expression and self-realisation, doing it “your waaaaaaaay” and so on… it’s a hollow deception. There is nothing as homogenous, narrow and sclerotic as rebellion. To think otherwise is to be taken in by ice cream adverts.

    This, I believe, is why so many religious traditions have as a goal – or somewhere along the journey – the notion of giving up your will, dying to self, meeting oblivion. To stand before God and know you are valued despite your universal insignificance is, to my mind, far better than the pathetic toil for autonomy and recognition that so many seem to engage in, and far more liberating.

    I would suggest that the Prodigal was far free-er in the embrace of his father than he ever was with the pigs or the prostitutes. As for his brother, his tragedy is that this freedom was so close to him all along, and yet so far.

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