There’s always a danger in commenting on an O’Connor story. She often protested about the tendency of literary critics to see things that weren’t present; importing into her stories all sorts of symbolic meaning that she never intended. She wanted to preserve the ambiguity and mystery of her stories and never appreciated the strained efforts of English teachers to explain them (“If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable as along as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction.”). But, since I’m not a literary critic or an English teacher, I guess I’m free to make a few observations (and where I’m off-base, feel free to let me know). John Updike picked “Greenleaf” for inclusion in his Best American Short Stories of the Century so this is a good place to start.
In “Greenleaf” O’Connor draws a number of contrasts — the chief being that between Mrs. May and the Greenleafs (and especially Mrs. Greenleaf). The narrator informs us that Mrs. May thought of herself “as a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.” Stephen Sparrow observes, “She is like those who give Christianity the same seal of approval that they extend to the Armed Forces. They’re glad each exists but have no intention of being a part of either.” On the surface Mrs. May comes across as a good woman, but for all her apparent virtue, she is in reality small-minded, small-hearted, and insufferably self-righteous. (more…)