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.
Mrs. May, a widow for 15 years, runs a small farm left to her by her husband. She has two sons (Scofield and Wesley) who are unmarried, irresponsible, full of self-pity, and still living at home. The help that Mrs. May has put up with for 15 years, because she has not been able to find better, are the Greenleafs. Living down the road on their own land are the Greenleaf’s twin married sons O. T. and E. T.
Mrs. May regards Mr. Greenleaf as incompetent, lazy, and indifferent to her best interests. But as low as her views of Mr. Greenleaf are, he is an aristocrat compared to his wife. Mrs. Greenleaf as a walking scandal in the eyes of Mrs. May. She is a large, ignorant, religious fanatic who is more interested in prayer and the woes of the world than she is in keeping her household clean, neat, and tidy. All in all, Mrs. Greenleaf is everything Mrs. May is not.
- Mrs. Greenleaf ignores all the things that Mrs. May felt were vital for respectability — she doesn’t keep her yard up to Mrs. May’s standards, doesn’t make a garden, and doesn’t make sure that her children are clean and neat. [Everything we see about Mrs. Greenleaf's family appears to contradict this judgment, however. Mrs. Greenleaf's sons have an immaculate dairy, neat, air conditioned homes, and clean, respectful children. If Mrs. Greenleaf has been so careless and neglectful of her family, how does it happen that her sons are so different?] To Mrs. May, Mrs. Greenleaf is clearly more concerned with the “healing” of all things than she is to the things that really matter — clean clothes and propriety.
- Mrs. Greenleaf takes her faith seriously. Every day she spends time in what she calls her “prayer healing.” She “cut 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” and took them into the woods, dug a hole and buried them, and then lay down on the ground over them praying that the Lord would heal the pain of the world (and note that we are told she prays with groanings and mumblings). Mrs. May’s son, Wesley, says that the secret of Mrs. Greenleaf’s prosperity is her devotion to prayer, “You ought to start praying, Sweetheart,” he tells his mother in a nasty voice. But Mrs. May thinks religion taken immoderately is unhealthy. She tells Mr. Greenleaf, “I’m afraid your wife has let religion warp her. Everything in moderation, you know.”
- Mrs. May thinks that the name “Jesus” is embarrassing and obscene. It should be “kept inside the church building like other words inside the bedroom.” When she comes upon Mrs. Greenleaf praying in the woods, she rebukes her for her shameful behavior, “Jesus would be ashamed of you. He would tell you to get up from there this instant and go wash your children’s clothes!” Mrs. May knows that Jesus is concerned precisely for the same things that she believes to be important. Clean clothes for the children and a neat yard are far more important than praying for their healing. Wesley in an effort to irritate his mother, gives her this sarcastic rebuke, “Why don’t you do something practical, Woman? Why don’t you pray for me like Mrs. Greenleaf would?” It’s as if Wesley speaks in the place of Jesus, addressing his mother with the same title that Jesus spoke to his mother (“Woman”) and calling for her to pray. Praying for her children like Mrs. Greenleaf would be far more practical than all her labors put together. But Mrs. May doesn’t see it that way. She concerns herself with “reality” and can’t be distracted by religious fanaticism.
- Mrs. Greenleaf acknowledges by her prayers, her helplessness to heal the world or to bring blessing by her own efforts. By contrast, Mrs. May sees the world as something she can and must control. She even thinks of her death as something she is able to determine. When her sons mock her about how often she speaks of her death, she says to herself out loud, “They needn’t think I’m going to die any time soon, I’ll die when I get good and ready.” When she finds that she can’t control the world, she views herself as a victim of the unfeeling, unjust universe. She says to herself, “Everything is against you, 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 is nothing for it but an iron hand.” Everything was against her because she was against her Creator. But rather than being humbled by her folly, her response is to seek to exert a more firm and unyielding control over her world.
Mrs. Greenleaf surely has her shortcomings but, in spite of all her faults, the Lord has exalted her — answering her prayers in her own children and who knows how many others. Humility before God had given her great strength. Mrs. May, by contrast, presumptuously seeks to control everything and everyone around her, and all she has to show for it is bitterness, discontent, and increasing frustration over her impotence. God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.
(to be continued)