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

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Short Story Analysis: “Greenleaf” by Flannery O’Connor, Part 1

The best way I think to approach an analysis of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Greenleaf” is to initially disengage the surface narrative (the present time sequence of events) from the back story.  The total story comprises the surface narrative and the backfilled events, details, and personalities that give context to the surface narrative.  The surface narrative here comprises of finding a stray bull on Mrs. May’s property, trying to get the bull off the property, and then finally killing the bull in the story’s dramatic and contorted climax.  (I personally never feel anguish from spoiling endings, so, beware, I will eventually divulge it.)  The back story is a study of contrasts, a contrast between families, that of Mrs. May and her boys against Mr. Greanleaf and his family and a contrast in values.  Let’s start with the back story and understand the context, and then move to the surface narrative, and its relationship to the back story, and then finally understand and assess the climax, which I can’t quite make up my mind as to its worthiness.  Perhaps as I write this, I will reach a decision.

The most distinguishing difference between the May’s and the Greenleaf’s is notion of class.  Mrs. May considers herself to have come from a higher class.  Her husband was a businessman, which in the milieu of the south during the first half of the twentieth century carried the implication of someone more well-to-do than your average Southern white laborer.  And given the South’s consciousness toward gentility, the May’s were probably gentry if not quite patrician, since her husband still worked for a living.  That is, until her husband died, and if I do the timeline, he died premature, since Scofield, the eldest son, would have been twenty-one.  If May’s are gentry then the Greenleaf’s are lower class, “scrub-human” as Mrs. May refers to them.  Mr. Greenleaf is a hired hand, and not particularly an ambitious person.  When the bull first woke her up in the middle of the night, she was tempted to get dressed and go to the Greenleaf’s house to get Mr. Greenleaf.

Weighing it, she decided not to bother Mr. Greenleaf.  She returned to bed thinking that if the Greenleaf boys had risen in the world it was because she had given their father employment when no one would have had him.  She had had Mr. Greenleaf fifteen years but no one else would have had him five minutes.  Just the way he approached an object was enough to tell anybody with eyes what kind of a worker he was.  He walked with a high shouldered creep and he never appeared to come directly forward.  He walked on the perimeter of some invisible circle and if you wanted to look him in the face, you had to move and get in front of him.  She had not fired him because she always doubted she could do better.  He was too shiftless to go out and look for another job; he didn’t have the initiative to steal, and after she had told him three or four times to do a thing, he did it; but he never told her about a sick cow until it was too late to call the veterinarian and if her barn had caught on fire, he would have called his wife to see the flames before he began to put them out.  And of the wife, she didn’t even like to think.  Beside the wife, Mr. Greenleaf was an aristocrat.

If there is anyone who is the complete contrast to Mrs. May, it’s Mrs. Greenleaf, a “large and loose woman” who’s “yard around her house looked like a dump and her five girls were always filthy; even the youngest one dipped snuff.”  Contrast that to Mrs. May’s skinny, wiry frame and obsession to keeping her property cultivated and proper.  The contrast is acute, a country gentlewoman versus a junkyard mongrel, prim versus unwashed.    

Not only is there a class distinction, but Mrs. May has an obsession with the rising of the under classes to supersede her station.  As it turns out Mr. Greenleaf’s twin sons, E.T. and O.T, have risen in life.  Yes, they have their parent’s lower class idiom, but through work and good luck they have built up a farm that has surpassed Mrs. May’s. 

The Greenleaf boys were two or three years younger than the May boys.  They were twins and you never knew when you spoke to one of them whether you were speaking to O.T. or E.T, and they never had the politeness to enlighten you.  They were long-legged and red-skinned, with bright grasping fox-colored eyes like their father’s.  Mr. Greenleaf’s pride in them began with the fact that they were twins.  He acted, Mrs. May said, as if this were something smart they had thought up themselves.  They were energetic and hard-working and she would admit to anyone they had come a long way—and that the Second World War was responsible for it.

They had joined the service and, disguised in their uniforms, they could not be told from other people’s children.  You could tell, of course, when they opened their mouths but they did that seldom.  The smartest thing they had done was to get sent overseas and there marry French wives.  They hadn’t married French trash either.  They had married nice girls who naturally couldn’t tell that they murdered the King’s English or that the Greenleaf’s were who they were….They had both managed to get wounded and now they both had pensions.  Further, as soon as they were released from the army, they took advantage of all the benefits and went to the school of agriculture at the university—the taxpayers meanwhile supporting the French wives.  The two of them were living now about two miles down the highway on a piece of land the government had helped them buy and in a brick duplex bungalow that the government had helped them build and pay for.  If the war had made anyone, Mrs. may said, it had made the Greenleaf boys.  They each had three little children apiece, who spoke Greenleaf English and French, and who, on account of their mother’s background, would be sent to the convent school and brought up with manners.  “And in twenty years,” Mrs. May asked Scofield and Wesley, “do you know what those people will be?”

Society,” she said blackly.

One has to take with a grain of salt all of the apparent gratuities the government has provided the Greenleaf boys.  This was all told from Mrs. May’s point of view, and you can tell she feels a certain anxiety to events stacked against her life and stacked for others.  Obviously the French wives found something attractive in the men.  It’s also hard to imagine the government giving all those benefits.  The point is that Mrs. May feels a suspicion—a conspiracy—that fate is working against her and for them.  But the Greenleaf boys both ended their military service as “some kind of sergeants” while Schofield, Mrs. May’s eldest son ended as a Private First Class, and Wesley didn’t serve at all due to his poor health.  Those facts aren’t part of any conspiracy.

If the Greenleaf boys flourish, there is something stunted about the May boys.  Both are in their thirties—Scofield thirty-six and presumably Wesley a few years younger—unmarried, and lead somewhat dysfunctional lives.  Scofield is a business man similar to his father, but one reduced to selling insurance of the kind “that only Negroes buy.”  It must be an inexpensive type, but what’s significant about it is he’s fallen a rung on the ladder of society when compared to his father.   What concerns his mother is that “nice girls” are just not interested in him.  We don’t quite understand why.  He is personable and has a broad smile, but there is just something creepy enough about him that must turn nice girls off.  On a number of occasions we see a sense of humor that cuts to the bone, a mean spiritedness. 

If Scofield is creepy, Wesley is downright macabre.  He is “an intellectual,” teaching at the local university.  He had rheumatic fever as a child, and this apparently had altered his personality, at least according to his mother.  He too has problems with women.

Scofield only exasperated her [Mrs. May] beyond endurance but Wesley caused her real anxiety.  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 it all he said, he never made any move to leave.  He talked about Paris and Rome but he never went even to Atlanta.

I think the undercurrent to the May boy’s personalities can be summed up with the word, sterility.  They are a dead end.  There is no fruitfulness to their lives.  Their jobs are monotonous; their love lives are perverse; their happiness is nonexistent.  Compare that with the Greenleaf boys who prosper at their farm, marry interesting women, and each have a flock of children. 

But the contrast of families goes even further.  Despite the initial poverty and the lower class outlook habits which cause derision, the Greenleaf family is a harmonious one.  Mr. Greenleaf is always ready to express pride in his sons, and even his wife, who is rather odd, and of which I’ll get to in a moment.  O’Connor suggests this by making the two boys twins, and they work together as a harmonious unit.  Even their names E.T. and O.T are just a blur of a letter.  They are indistinguishable.  What is suggested is a brotherhood of men who help each to form one family.  In contrast, the May family is dysfunctional.  The two boys are “as different…as night and day.  The only thing they had in common was that neither of them cared what happened on the place.”  Not caring what happens on the place is the same as not caring for their family.  At one point the two boys torment their mother by jesting they are not really her sons.  At another point, in response to Mrs. May claiming she prevented the boys from getting up early and milking cows for the household, Wesley turns to her and says, “I wouldn’t milk a cow to save your soul from hell.”  If the Greenleaf’s represent a brotherhood of men, the May’s represent a family at war.  The jokes between them are not harmless fun.  They aim to cut and to hurt.  The family doesn’t bond; it pulls apart.  The scene where Scofield and Wesley physically altercate indicates a division of brothers.

 What these individual contrasts lead to is a more general contrast of approaches to life.  Mrs. May has tried to control her life, at least since her husband died, but probably before that too.  As a widow who was not left good finances, she put her situation in order and built the farm.  “Her city friends,” we are told, “said she was the most remarkable person they knew, to go, practically penniless and with no experience, out to a rundown farm and make a success of it.”  She’s the one who controls Mr. Greenleaf; she’s the one who arranged for her sons to not have to work the farm; she’s the one who fights the elements, fights the “conspiracies,” and, more importantly, fights fate itself.

“Everything is against you,” she would say, “the weather is against you and the dirt is against you and the help is against you.  They’re all in league against you.  There’s nothing for it but an iron hand.”

Her life is lived by that “iron hand,” which is to say she lives by force of will.  Scofield loves to ridicule her “iron hand.”

“Look at Mamma’s iron hand!” Scofield would yell and grab her arm and hold it up so that her delicate blue-veined little hand would dangle from her wrist like the head of a broken lily.”

Notice the difference between the reality of her little delicate hand versus her metaphoric iron hand.  The reality is that she’s not in as control as she thinks she is.  Then in a moment when her sons ridicule her for thinking about their future when she’s dead, her will tightens.

For some time she sat where she was, looking straight ahead through the window across the room into a scene of indistinct grays and greens.  She stretched her face and her neck muscles and drew in a long breath but the scene in front of her flowed together anyway into a watery grey mass.  “They needn’t think I’m going to die any time soon,” she muttered, and some more defiant voice in her added: I’ll die when I’m good and ready.

Not only is she trying to control her sons’ lives after she dies, but she thinks she can control her own fate, which is ironic given her unexpected death at the story’s conclusion. 

The Greenleafs on the other hand “lived like lilies of the field.”  The phrasing is striking.  Mrs. May’s hand is like “broken lily” while the Greenleafs are compared to flourishing lilies.  That’s actually a biblical allusion and worth quoting since it characterizes both the May’s and the Greenleafs, albeit in opposite directions.  From the Gospel of Matthew (6:25-34, NASB), my emphasis in bold, Christ says,

“For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.  So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

In contrast to Mrs. May putting her trust in her will, the Greenleafs put their trust in God.  They have setbacks; they’re not rich.  Yes they prosper, through work as seen with the two sons, but they don’t obsess over things and fate has a way of working out.  None of the Greenleafs ever show anxiety, even with an escaped bull on the loose.  They don’t try to control.  And they thank God for their good fortune.  “I thank Gawd for ever-thang,” Mr. Greenleaf “drawled” once to Mrs. May, and he meant it.  On the other hand Mrs. May is a “good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”   The Greenleafs, poor as they are, have seven children, which suggests lack of forethought; Mrs. May has two, which suggests regulation.

And then there is Mrs. Greenleaf, a woman completely antithetical to Mrs. May.  Unlike Mrs. May’s controlled bearing, Mrs. Greenleaf goes through daily charismatic prayer, and by charismatic one means a complete emotional loss of oneself into the divine.  She performs daily prayer healing.

Every day she cut out all the morbid stories out of the newspaper—the accounts of women who had been raped and criminals who had escaped and children who had been burned and of train wrecks and plane crashes and the divorces of movie stars.  She took these to the woods and dug a hole and buried them and then she fell on the ground over them and mumbled and groaned for an hour or so moving her huge arms back and forth under her and out again and finally just lying down flat and Mrs. May suspected, going to sleep in the dirt.

And later, apparently waking up, “out of nowhere a guttural agonized voice groaned, ‘Jesus!  Jesus!’  In a second it came again with a terrible urgency.  ‘Jesus!  Jesus!’”  And later we see Mrs. Greenleaf fall “back flat in the dirt, a huge human mound, her legs and arms spread out as if trying to wrap them around the earth,” an embrace of the supernatural.  Later Mrs. May would tell Mr. Greenleaf that his wife “has let religion warp her.”  And Mr. Greenleaf responded, “She cured a man oncet that half his gut was eaten out with worms.”  O’Connor’s point isn’t that this sort of simplistic understanding of religion is fact but that such faith is beneficial as it permeates the Greenleaf’s lives.  Such trust in God washes away class distinction, builds a brotherhood of men, nourishes lives, and flourishes with fertility.  The Mays are arid and barren.  One of the most significant moments in the story comes when Wesley who, after being lectured by his mother on being practical, turns to her and says, “Well, why don’t you do something practical, Woman?  Why don’t you pray for me like Mrs. Greenleaf would?”  


  1. Very astute observations, Manny. Especially the contrast of the two families , and the contrast between their faiths.
    I noticed Mrs. May said of O.T. and E.T., that they "managed to get themselves wounded," as though it had been their plan all along as a way to receive government benefits. Never mind that they had actually been wounded! Lol! Also that O'Connor had them both get wounded, taking that family unity theme even further.
    I also find it interesting that Mrs. May's sons names, Scofield and Wesley, are the names of two prominent Protestant theologians. Whatever significance that might have to O'Connor, I am not sure, except we know she is a Catholic writer and the sons are certainly painted in a negative light. Sort of as being without any love or compassion for their mother or even each other.
    I do find the Greenleaf family really interesting. The way Mrs.May describes them, and all their unlikely successes in life, gives the impression of simple people with a simple faith, giving and receiving love among their family and with God.And gives the sense of God's smiling love for them with all their eccentricities.

    1. A lot of good points. Let me see if I can respond to all of them.

      I did not realize the two sons were named after Protestant theologians. The angle on the names I was trying to pursue was how they were connected to nature. Greenleaf is obvious and May is a spring month where things blossom. But that's not a contrast so I didn't know what to make of it. I thought Scofield might be a play on scrub-human, only scrub-field. But then I didn't know what to do with Wesley. I should have known Wesley the theologian, but I had never heard of Scofield. I've since looked him up. It is interesting that they are both named after theologians, though I can't see the significance. The only name I'm sure has significance is Greenleaf. The nature fertility of it fits.

      Yes, O'Connor is Catholic and definitely has Catholic perspectives in all her stories. But I have found most of her characters are Protestant, which makes sense since she's from the deep South. Even the Greenleafs here are Protestant; Mrs. Greenleaf prayer healing is not Catholic, though as i will point out in Part 2 of my analysis, it is liturgical.

      Yes I think you have it right that their faith connects the Greenleaf family.

  2. You really have a nice way of explaining things. Have you ever thought of being a teacher; or have you been one? I'm sure you could write books that would be of great help to pupils studying literature.

    God bless.

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