"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Short Story Analysis: “Greenleaf” by Flannery O’Connor, Part 2

In Part 1 I discussed the backstory and context of O’Connor’s “Greanleaf.”  Please read Part 1 if you haven’t already.  I apologized for taking so long to post the second part.  Life doesn’t always allow me to ponder and write as much as I would like.  But the interim delay has let the story settle and allow me to really think it through.  Now I’ll get to the story’s main narrative, the finding of a loose bull on Mrs. May’s property, and the attempts to get it off and then finally kill it.

The first four paragraphs of the story capture all the themes, motifs, and symbolism that the bull carries throughout.  So it’s worth reproducing those paragraphs here.

Mrs. May’s bedroom window was low and faced on the east and the bull, silvered in the moonlight, stood under it, his head raised as if he listened—like some patient god come down to woo her—for a stir inside the room.  The window was dark and the sound of her breathing too light to be carried outside.  Clouds crossing the moon blackened him and in the dark he began to tear at the hedge.  Presently they passed and he appeared again in the same spot, chewing steadily, with a hedge-wreath that he had ripped loose for himself caught in the tips of his horns.  When the moon drifted into retirement again, there was nothing to mark his place but the sound of steady chewing.  Then abruptly a pink glow filled the window.  Bars of light slid across him as the venetian blind was slit.  He took a step backward and lowered his head as if to show the wreath across his horns.

For almost a minute there was no sound from inside, then as he raised his crowned head again, a woman’s voice, guttural as if addressed to a dog, said, “Get away from here, Sir!” and in a second muttered, “Some nigger’s scrub bull.”

The animal pawed the ground and Mrs. May, standing bent forward behind the blind, closed it quickly lest the light make him charge into the shrubbery.  For a second she waited, still bent forward, her nightgown hanging loosely from her narrow shoulders.  Green rubber curlers sprouted neatly over her forehead and her face beneath them was smooth as concrete with an egg-white paste that drew the wrinkles out while she slept.

She had been conscious in her sleep of a steady rhythmic chewing as if something were eating one wall of the house.  She had been aware that whatever it was had been eating as long as she had had the place and had eaten everything from the beginning of her fence line up to the house and now was eating the house and calmly with the same steady rhythm would continue through the house, eating her and the boys, and then on, eating everything but the Greanleafs, on and on, eating everything until nothing was left but the Greanleafs on a little island all their own in the middle of whatever had been her place.  When the munching reached her elbow, she jumped up and found herself, fully awake, standing in the middle of her room.  She identified the sound at once: a cow was tearing at the shrubbery under her window.  Mr. Greanleaf had left the lane gate open and she didn’t doubt that the entire herd was on her lawn.  She turned on the dim pink table lamp and then went to the window and slit the blind.  The bull, gaunt and long-legged, was standing about four feet from her, chewing calmly like an uncouth country suitor.

Here we already see two of the same themes that were in the backstory: the lower classes encroaching upon Mrs. May, and her paranoid belief the lower classes are plundering her belongings.  The bull is referred to as “some nigger’s scrub bull,” meaning it’s associated not with pure breed bovines but with the contaminated and lowbred, as she views the lower classes.  And Mrs. May dreaming that the bull is eating away at her property signals the reader toward her perception of the Greanleaf’s rise at her expense.  That there is so much sexual suggestion (the bull “coming to woo her” “like an uncouth country suitor” for a “stir inside her room” and she “hanging loosely” in her nightgown) calls forth the fertility motif, and her rejection of the wooing establishes her sterility, symbolized oddly by the “egg-white paste” upon her face. 

But the bull doesn’t just symbolize some scrub lower class such as Mr. Greanleaf.  The bull is “like some patient god” and is identified with light and has a wreath crown across his head.  A bull deity wooing a woman alludes to the classical myth of Europa, where Zeus, disguised as a white bull, seduces the nymph Europa and carries her away to Crete where their progeny become the three judges of the underworld.  The whole main narrative of the bull culminating with a sexual embrace at the story’s climax constructs a story of a modernized retelling of an ancient myth.  James Joyce made this famous with his novel Ulysses, a modern retelling of the Odyssey.  In such a retelling, while there are parallel events and details, there is usually an inversion of some kind that makes the modern character an anti hero.  While Leopold Bloom parallels Odysseus in Ulysses, he is hardly heroic.  Joyce has inverted a key element while maintaining the parallel.  Another example of a modern retelling is how Joe Christmas of William Faulkner’s Light in August is an inversion of Jesus Christ, though the events of his life parallel Christ’s.  Here Mrs. May is an inversion of a fertility goddess, and clearly the inversion of fertility is sterility.

But the Bull stands for more than a pagan deity.  The wreath across his head is a kingly crown, and a few paragraphs further we are told it’s a “prickly crown.”  And given the “light” and the glow that comes off the bull into Mrs. May’s room and the connotation of the prickly crown to a crown of thorns, we can easily make the association that he also represents Christ.   Notice too how in the first paragraph quoted above the bull bows before her, beckoning.  O’Connor is suggesting through this pantomimed allegory Christ calling Mrs. May.  In fact the whole main narrative of the bull showing up and the attempt to drive him away is an analogue of Christ calling upon the woman and her driving Him away.  Notice her first interjection to the bull: “Get away from here, Sir!”  The use of “Sir” as an honorific address is very natural to southern articulation, though here used cynically.  But “sir” is just a shade away from “lord” and what O’Connor wants the reader to hear once the analogy is identified is, “Get away from me, Lord.”  And to pursue this a bit further, “get away from me” is an inversion of what Virgin Mary says at the embrace of God at the Annunciation “Let it be done unto me.”  And May is Mary’s month, as I pointed out inmy reading of Hopkins’ poem, “The May Magnificant.”  O’Connor is working on several planes simultaneously. 

One can also see the attempt to get the bull off her property as a sort of liturgy.  In fact there are implied liturgies throughout, almost as a sort of bass rhythm that modulates the story.  We see the repetitive return of the bull calling as a ceremony; we see Mrs. May’s reaction to the bull as a ritual; we see Mrs. May sitting at table with her sons as a rite, the broken table from the son’s fighting as a sort of black ceremony.  O’Connor portrays liturgies as gratifying or disdained.  We see Wesley’s ritual of his commute and teaching at school as sort of a bitter observance.  But the most important ritual presented is Mrs. Greenleaf’s healing ritual.  The first time Mrs. May saw her perform this ritual, she was taken aback.  It was in the field, by the woods, the about the same place the bull would later gore Mrs. May.

Out of nowhere a guttural agonized voice groaned, “Jesus!  Jesus!”  In a second it came again with a terrible urgency.  “Jesus!  Jesus!”

Mrs. May stopped still, one hand lifted to her throat.  The sound was so piercing that she felt as if some violent unleashed force had broken out of the ground and was charging toward her.  Her second thought was more reasonable: somebody had been hurt on the place and would sue her for everything she had.  She had no insurance.  She rushed forward and turning a bend in the path, she saw Mrs. Greenleaf sprawled on her hands and knees off the side of the road, her head down.

The “violent unleashed force charging” is an allusion to the bull which would later come toward her, which is also clearly an allusion to Christ.   Throughout the story you can find several instances of things charging toward Mrs. May, setting up the climatic ending.  Mrs. Greenleaf’s embrace of ritual and Mrs. May’s rejection of it (she winces at the scene before her, but especially at the articulation of Jesus’ name) furthers the theme of fertility in the numinous sense as opposed to the sterility of a secular world view.  It is significant that Mrs. May is the cause for breaking the ritual. 

“What is the matter with you?” she asked sharply.

“You broken my healing,” Mrs. Greenleaf said, waving her aside.  “I can’t talk to you until I’m finished.”

And then Mrs. Greenleaf goes on in her charismatic state of mind to call out, “Oh Jesus, stab me in the heart!  Jesus, stab me in the heart.”  That is foreshadowing, yes, since it is Mrs. May that gets literally stabbed in the heart by Jesus, but more than foreshadowing.   O’Connor is suggesting that the avoidance of numinous ritual is impossible.  Mrs. May will eventually meet Jesus, will be stabbed in the heart, and the broken ceremony will be completed.  You can avoid and reject Jesus, but Jesus through life’s rituals and rhythms of life is still going to call on you.

And the overarching rhythms of life are suggested in a number of places.  The story flows with intervals of day and night.  The interweaving of past and present and future (the future through Mrs. May’s projection of her son’s futures and her death) as the story unfolds, and then emphasized when Mrs. May lays back on the hood of her car waiting for Greenleaf to kill the bull: “With her eyes closed, she didn’t think of time as divided into days and nights but into past and future.”  There is also the bull’s “rhythmic chewing.”  There are the frequent images of round configurations, the circle of the wreath around the bull’s horns, “the rim of the pasture” with the bull in the center, the circle of the trees on Mrs. May’s property.  The circle is a loop back to itself, and so associated with rhythm.  There are the seasons of the year, especially spring, the season of return.  That is the significance of the names Greenleaf and May, and Mrs. May even exclaims, “Spring is here!” on the morning of going out to kill the bull.  And there are the rhythmic allusions to light and the sun throughout the story.  The rhythms and rituals connect the story to a sacramental fabric that O’Connor sees woven into the world.

And finally the climatic event ties together all the elements of the story.  She is waiting on the hood of her car for Mr. Greenleaf to have killed the bull.

In a few minutes something emerged from the tree line, a black heavy shadow that tossed its head several times and then bounded forward.  After a second she saw it was the bull.  He was crossing the pasture toward her at a slow gallop, a gay almost rocking gait as if it were overjoyed to find her again.  She looked beyond him to see if Mr. Greenleaf was coming out of the woods too but he was not.  “Here he is, Mr. Greenleaf!” she called and looked on the other side of the pasture to see if he could be seen coming out there but he was not in sight.  She looked back and saw that the bull, his head lowered, was racing toward her.  She remained perfectly still, not in fright, but in freezing unbelief.  She stared at the violent black streak bounding toward her as if she had no sense of distance, as if she could not decide at once what his intention was, and the bull had buried his head in her lap, like a wild tormented lover, before her expression changed.  One of his horns sank until it pierced her heart and the other curved around her side and held her in an unbreakable grip.  She continued to stare straight ahead but the entire scene in front of her had changed—the tree line was a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky—and she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.

Mr. Greenleaf was running toward her from the side with his gun raised and she saw him coming though she was not looking in his direction.  She saw him approaching on the outside of some invisible circle, the tree line gaping behind him and nothing under his feet.  He shot the bull four times through the eye.  She did not hear the shots but she felt the quake in the huge body as it sank, pulling her forward on its head, so that she seemed, when Mr. Greenleaf reached her, to be bent over whispering some last discovery into the animal’s ear.

In the first post on this story, I started this analysis by questioning the worthiness of the ending, and now that I’ve gone through the story in micro detail, I conclude the ending is most definitely fitting.  My qualms on the initial read had to do with whether the reader was prepared for such an ending.  Her death from the bull seemed to come out of the blue.  But most definitely the climaxed was foreshadowed.  It was foreshadowed from the subtle allusions in the story to Mrs. May’s future death, all in a hypothetical context, and from the various things that are metaphorically “charging” toward Mrs. May.  The other complaint that might get placed on this ending is that it’s rather awkward, if not contorted.  O’Connor does revel in the gothic, and she is identified as an author of Southern Gothic, and the American Southern Gothic Movement Such a grotesque situation is at the essence of the gothic, so one shouldn’t be surprised.

But more importantly the ending pulls all the themes together.  We can see the ending as the sexual union with the pagan deity, culminating the Europa myth.  We can see the ending as a final answering to Christ’s call.  No matter how she tried to reject Jesus, ultimately you cannot avoid Him.  We can see the ending as enlightenment, an epiphany: her “sight has been suddenly restored.”  We can see that the gradations of humanity that she was so concerned about in life are in the end unimportant: she consummates with a “scrub bull.”  We can see the sterility of her life ended and transformed into a new fertility.  Christ through His sacrifice is an agent of fertility.  We can even see the climatic death as a crucifixion, pinned and suffering, her life now transfigured.  We can see the ending as the closing of the circle, the return to the bull beckoning outside the window.  We can see the ending as a healing, perhaps inspired by Mrs. Greenleaf’s prayer.  All the hurts, the paranoia, the concerns, the burdens are now relieved.  And finally the culminating act can be seen as acceptance of fate and God’s will.  Here Mrs. May finally transforms into the Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation and has God’s will be done unto her.  I would like to think that the whispering in the bull’s ear contains the word “yes.”

It is astounding how rich and deep this story is, as rich and deep as any ever written.  A masterpiece.


  1. It never ceases to amaze me how well read you are Manny. I've always found it difficult to read - no patience as such. I suppose having to learn a lot of Shakespeare at school has something to do with it.

    I've always wanted to read Tolstoy's War and Peace. But it's so big. I did watch the movie with the subtitles on; so I suppose I have read it really.

    God bless.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. But actually Victor don't read War and Peace. Read Tolstoy's short stories and short novels. He has the same approach to writing fiction as you do, to provide a moral, and he's at his best in his shorter works. Check out the short stories listed here:

      I can vouch for the stories, "Master and Man," What Men Live By," "How Much Land Does a Man Need," and a short novel called The Death of Ivan Illych. You can find the stories on line if you search around and if you don't mind reading off a computer screen. I know Literature Network has most of those:

    2. Thanx for the links Manny. Much appreciated.

      God bless you always.

  2. Manny this analysis is remarkable. I said it on the first half, but now I truly have to go back and read it again! Sort of like rewatching the movie The Sixth Sense once you understand what's going on. lol.
    Good heavens, you outdid yourself!

    1. Thank you Kelly. But the work was rich and I only needed to see what she wrote. I only wish I could write a story that rich. O'Connor is a great short story writer. It's a shame she died so young.

    2. Not too many of us see what you see in a story though. :)