I’ve been putting my thoughts together to analyze Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Greenleaf,” but in the meantime I’d thought I post a particular passage that struck me. The story centers around an older woman, Mrs. May and her hired help, Mr. Greenleaf. Mrs. May is very class conscious and has this angst of the lower classes rising above her station. In the passage below O.T. and E.T. are Mr. Greenleaf’s sons, who have been rising in the world. A bull has gotten loose and has been on Mrs. May’s property for days now, and she has recently learned that the bull belongs to O.T. and E.T. The story takes place in the deep South, probably O’Connor’s home state of Georgia, and the two Greenleaf sons both married French women who they met during their service in WWII. Here Mrs. May has driven over to tell the Greenleaf sons to get their bull back.
It was mid-morning when she turned into O.T. and E.T.’s driveway. The house, a new red-brick, low-to-the-ground building that looked like a warehouse with windows, was on top of a treeless hill. The sun was beating down directly on the white roof of it. It was the kind of house that everybody built now and nothing marked it as belonging to Greenleaf’s except three dogs, part hound and part spitz, that rushed as soon as she stopped her car. She reminded herself that you could always tell the class of people by the class of dog, and honked her horn. While she sat waiting for someone to come, she continued to study the house. All the windows were down and she wondered if the government could have air-conditioned the thing. No one came and she honked again. Presently the door opened and several children appeared in it and stood looking at her, making no move to come forward. She recognized this as a true Greenleaf trait—they could hang in a door, looking at you for hours.
“Can’t one of you children come here?” she called.
After a minute they all began to move forward, slowly. They had on overalls and were barefooted but they were not as dirty as she might have expected. There were two or three that looked distinctly like Greenleafs; the other not so much so. The smallest child was a girl with untidy black hair. They stopped about six feet from the automobile and stood looking at her.
“You’re mighty pretty,” Mrs. May said, addressing herself to the smallest girl.
There was no answer. They appeared to share one dispassionate expression between them.
“Where’s your Mamma?” she asked.
There was no answer to this for some time. Then one of them said something in French. Mrs. May did not speak French.
“Where’s your daddy?” she asked.
After a while, one of the boys said, “He ain’t hyar neither.”
“Ahhhh,” May said as if something had been proven. “Where’s the colored man?”
She waited and decided no one was going to answer. “The cat has six little tongues,” she said. “How would you like to come home with me and let me teach you how to talk?” She laughed and her laugh died on the silent air. She felt as if she were on trial for her life, facing a jury of Greenleafs. “I’ll go down and see if I can find the colored man,” she said.
“You can go if you want to,” one of the boys said.
“Well, thank you,” she murmured and drove off.
The barn was down the lane from her house. She had not seen it before but Mr. Greenleaf had described it in detail for it had been built according to the latest specifications. It was a milking parlor arrangement where the cows were milked from below. The milk ran in pipes from the machines to the milk house and was never carried in a bucket, Mr. Greenleaf said, by no human hand. “When you gonter get one?” he had asked.
“Mr. Greenleaf,” she had said, “I have to do for myself. I am not assisted hand and foot by the government. It would cost me $20,000 to install a milking parlor. I barely make ends meet as it is.”
“My boys done it,” Mr. Greenleaf had murmured, and then—“but all boys ain’t alike.”
“No indeed!” she had said. “I thank God for that.”
“I thank Gawd for every-thang,” Mr. Greenleaf had drawled.
You might as well, she had thought in the fierce silence that followed; you’ve never done anything for yourself.
She stopped by the side of the barn and honked but no one appeared. For several minutes she sat in the car, observing the various machines parked around, wondering how many of them were paid for. They had a forage harvester and a rotary hay baler. She had those too. She decided that since no one was here, she would get out and have a look at the milking parlor and see if they kept it clean.
She opened the milking room door and stuck her head in and for the first second she felt as if she were going to lose her breath. The spotless white concrete room was filled with sunlight that came from a row of windows head-high along both walls. The metal stanchions gleamed ferociously and she had to squint to be able to look at all. She drew her head out of the room quickly and closed the door and leaned against it, frowning. the light outside was not so bright but she was conscious that the sun was directly on top of her head, like a silver bullet ready to drop into her brain.
I find that to be a min-climax to the story. Here is her epiphany, a burst of light before her as she sticks her head into the room, that the Greenleafs have made something of themselves and have risen above her in station. There is so much more to the story though, and the climax comes with the killing of the bull. I’ll get into an analysis in the coming week.