31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 23: “Greenleaf” by Flannery O’Connor

May 23, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Everything That Rises Must Converge

Everything_That_Rises_Must_Converge“I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace,” stated Flannery O’Connor in an address at Virginia’s Hollins College in 1963. “Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.” Writers are often the least reliable sources of information about their own work, but it is difficult to quarrel with O’Connor’s assessment here, as it regards her stories and novels. A deeply devoted Catholic writer, the moment of grace she felt was offered her characters in moments of violence exists at the core of much of her fiction, nowhere more so than at the climax of “Greenleaf,” which sees the protagonist, the haughty landowner Mrs. May, gored by a bull that has been stalking her farm.

Mrs. May’s fate is sealed relatively early in the story, when she encounters Mrs. Greenleaf, the wife of a worker on her farm, engaged in a kind of ritualistic devotion in the pastures around her property. Mrs. Greenleaf is sprawled out on the ground, in what appears to be a religious reverie, repeating the invocation, “Jesus, Jesus.” Mrs. May’s response is typical, and indicative of characters in O’Connor’s fiction who are ripe for comeuppance:

Mrs. May winced. She thought the word, Jesus, should be kept inside the church building like other words inside the bedroom. She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true. “What is the matter with you?” she asked sharply.

It is the “of course” that settles things, an ironic twist after the assertion that Mrs. May is “a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion.”

In fact, Mrs. May does not have respect for much of anything at all, including her hired help, the Greenleafs, or even her own sons. Scofield, an insurance salesman, is thirty-six years old, and Mrs. May worries that he is past his eligibility for marriage, particularly since he specializes in selling policies to black folk in the area. “What nice girl wants to marry a nigger-insurance man?” Mrs. May asks derisively.

Her other son, Wesley, is a university professor, one in a long line of O’Connor intellectuals held forth for mockery and ridicule. “Wesley … had had rheumatic fever when he was seven and Mrs. May thought that this was what had caused him to be an intellectual,” O’Connor writes. Wesley causes his mother “real anxiety” as a result of his intellectual tendencies:

He was thin and nervous and bald and being an intellectual was a terrible strain on his disposition. She doubted if he would marry until she died but she was certain that then the wrong woman would get him. Nice girls didn’t like Scofield but Wesley didn’t like nice girls. He didn’t like anything. He drove twenty miles every day to the university where he taught and twenty miles back every night, but he said he hated the twenty-mile drive and he hated the second-rate university and he hated the morons who attended it. He hated the country and he hated the life he lived; he hated living with his mother and his idiot brother and he hated hearing about the damn dairy and the damn help and the damn broken machinery. But in spite of all he said, he never made any move to leave. He talked about Paris and Rome but he never went even to Atlanta.

Intellectuals do not fare well in O’Connor’s fiction, and Wesley is no exception: he is a comic figure, made ridiculous by the disconnect between his pomposity and the reality of his situation.

Both sons are doppelgängers for O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf, the scions of Mrs. May’s hired hand, and the owners of the bull who is marauding around her farm, tearing away at her hedges and threatening to despoil her herd of cows. Mrs. May is envious of the Greenleaf boys, who have served overseas and whose children stand to gain in social status as a result:

“And in twenty years,” Mrs. May asked Scofield and Wesley, “do you know what those people will be?

“Society,” she said blackly.

Mrs. May’s sin is pride. She feels superior to both the Greenleaf family and her own sons, and although her sense of self-righteousness has a certain reasonableness to it (she is a widow who has worked hard to maintain the dairy farm that provides for her and her family), she is nevertheless ripe for a fall.

The instrument of her reckoning is the bull, first seen through Mrs. May’s bedroom window looking “like some patient god come down to woo her” – a clear intimation of what is to come. The scene in which the bull gores Mrs. May is shot through with implication; the bull’s horn pierces the woman’s heart, which recalls Mrs. Greenleaf on the ground in the woods, shrieking, “Oh Jesus, stab me in the heart!” The image of the bull with its head buried in Mrs. May’s lap, “like a wild tormented lover,” has ironic echoes of the widow’s fixation on her sons’ prospects as marriage material.

What makes the ending of the story so shocking, in part, is precisely this insistence on language that interprets the congress between Mrs. May and the bull as that between two lovers – the culmination of the opening image of the bull as a “patient god come down to woo her.” More so than elsewhere in O’Connor’s fiction, the divine and the carnal are united in the closing images of this story. As Miles Orvell puts it in his study, Flannery O’Connor: An Introduction:

In short, what O’Connor is dramatizing in “Greenleaf” is an image of the discovery of the mystery of Reality, and the language in which that discovery is portrayed suggests an association with the coming of Christ to the unsuspecting Mrs. May. Does Christ come like a bull? Does he gore those he saves? Not literally, of course, but in the sense that his coming is, presumably, an agony and, at the same time, a lover’s embrace. What makes “Greenleaf” convincing, finally, is the rich psychological dimension of the characterization: the various dreams, half-perceptions, fears, and anticipations of Mrs. May validate, it seems to me, the possibility of theological meaning.

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