31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 19: “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter

May 19, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

“The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” is about the title character’s death. The story opens with 80-year-old Granny Weatherall on her deathbed, surrounded by her surviving children and Doctor Harry, who is, in Granny’s estimation, a “brat who ought to be in knee breeches.The comment is typical of Granny (whose given name is Ellen), a proud, headstrong woman who remains stubbornly unconvinced there is anything the matter with her: “Get along and doctor your sick,” she says to the physician. “Leave a well woman alone.” As the story progresses, however, and Father Connolly arrives to administer the last rites, it becomes increasingly difficult for Granny to deny her situation.

Porter’s story employs a stream-of-consciousness narration that floats in and out of the present. Granny, in a semi-conscious state, flashes back on the significant moments in her life, the most significant of which was when her fiancé, George, abandoned her on their wedding day. For 60 years, she has pushed the memory of George’s desertion out of her mind, focusing instead on her marriage to John and raising their children. John and their daughter, Hapsy, have long since died, but Granny imagines them both as she lies in bed, her body wracked by fever. Although she refuses to admit that she has reached the end of her life, she does acknowledge that a lifetime of hard living has taken its toll: should John return to find her now, Granny thinks, it is likely he would not even recognize her:

She had fenced in a hundred acres once, digging the post holes herself and clamping the wires with just a negro boy to help. That changed a woman. John would be looking for a young woman with the peaked Spanish comb in her hair and the painted fan. Digging post holes changed a woman. Riding country roads in the winter when women had their babies was another thing: sitting up nights with sick horses and sick negroes and sick children and hardly ever losing one.

Even in her addled state, Granny is forced to admit to herself that she “hardly ever” lost a child; Hapsy is long dead, Granny is stricken with yearning for the absent child:

It was Hapsy she really wanted. She had to go a long way back through a great many rooms to find Hapsy standing with a baby on her arm. She seemed to herself to be Hapsy also, and the baby on Hapsy’s arm was Hapsy and himself and herself, all at once, and there was no surprise in the meeting. Then Hapsy melted from within and turned flimsy as gray gauze and the baby was a gauzy shadow, and Hapsy came up close and said, “I thought you’d never come,” and looked at her very searchingly and said, “You haven’t changed a bit!”

This passage is a striking example of Porter’s symbolic language, complete with Granny’s hallucination of herself and Hapsy changing places, and Hapsy melting and becoming “flimsy as gray gauze.”

Such imagery is appropriate for a feverish mind, but it is also typical of Porter’s technique. A convert to Roman Catholicism, Porter infuses much of her work with religious imagery, and “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” is no exception. In the course of her fever dream, Granny imagines Hapsy leaning forward to kiss her; it is not too much of a stretch to imagine the kiss as symbolic of the kiss Judas bestowed on Christ prior to his capture and death. The implication is that Granny feels Hapsy – her favourite child, the one “she really wanted” – betrayed her by dying, in much the same way George betrayed her by abandoning her on their wedding day.

Indeed, when she thinks of George’s betrayal, she explicitly connects it to the fires of hell:

What does a woman do when she has put on the white veil and set out the white cake for a man and he doesn’t come? She tried to remember. No, I swear he never harmed me but in that. He never harmed me but in that … and what if he did? There was the day, the day, but a whirl of dark smoke rose and covered it, crept up and over into the bright field where everything was planted so carefully in orderly rows. That was hell, she knew hell when she saw it.

Hapsy melts into grey gauze, but the day of George’s betrayal is covered over in “a whirl of dark smoke,” an image that has everything to do with the fire and brimstone of hell in the following sentence. For 60 years, Granny has been tormented by George’s abandonment and Hapsy’s death, torment that is implicit in her desire that her surviving children “pick all the fruit this year and see that nothing is wasted.” “Don’t let things get lost,” Granny thinks. “It’s bitter to lose things.”

If Granny feels betrayed by George, and to a lesser extent by Hapsy, there is one final betrayal waiting for her. As she comes to the final realization that her life is ending, she imagines “a long journey outward, looking for Hapsy.” She is stricken by the notion that she might not find Hapsy and would be left to wander the afterworld alone and abandoned. She sees herself as a point of light, her body “only a deeper mass of shadow in an endless darkness” that would overtake her, and she asks God to give her a sign. And God, like George, abandons her. “For the second time there was no sign. Again no bridegroom and the priest in the house.” At the end of her devout life, Granny – who has truly weathered all that the universe has burdened her with – is relegated to die alone, abandoned by God as surely as she was once abandoned by her earthly fiancé. In its final stages, Porter’s stream-of-consciousness journey through one elderly woman’s mind becomes a head-on confrontation with the existential terror of solitude and defeat.