Analysis of Flannery O’Connor’s Greenleaf

By emphasizing intense archetypal imagery, Flannery O’Connor raises her short story “Greenleaf” to a complex level. O’Connor’s choice of symbolic names, her suggestion of mythological fertility cults, and her use of light and dark images all serve to raise the reader’s consciousness regarding class prejudice, and to paint an accurate picture of the New South, where individuals of little heritage have begun a systematic takeover from those landowners once identified as aristocrats.

O’Connor uses a third-person limited omniscient point of view to tell the story of Mrs. May (a questionable aristocrat with limited potential) and her two sons, Wesley and Scofield. These sons are contrasted with the earthy Greenleaf, a lower-class hired man whom Mrs. May has employed to look after her property, and to Greenleaf’s twin boys, O. T. and E. T. Mrs. Greenleaf also serves as a FOIL to Mrs. May as the hopeless widow who, forced to undergo a self-evaluation, tries at the same time to come to terms with the changing conditions of her environment. Her former feelings of power in her household have shifted strangely, and the rise of individuals like the Greenleaf family (whose name suggests progress and growth) suggests to her that the control she so values is gradually being subsumed by “white trash” people whose social heritage is questionable at best.

Flannery O’Connor/Literary Hub

O’Connor uses a scrub bull ordinary and lacking in pedigree, belonging to O. T. and E. T. as a symbol for the encroaching aggression of this “lower” class. The archetypal bull (indicative of mythical sexuality, as in the Minoan culture in general and the Greek myth of Europa in particular), having escaped from the Greenleaf boys’ pasture, first appears outside Mrs. Greenleaf’s house, devouring her foliage. Mrs. May views its escape as a threat to her own herd of cattle, indeed to her very existence. If the bull, with its inferior genes, is allowed to breed with her herd, the offspring will no doubt be inferior as well. The bull’s desire to mate and its less-than-satisfactory breeding quality suggest a parallel to the Greenleafs, who also pose a threat to the “superior” May family. While her two sons dissipate their lives with disappointing occupations (Scofield sells “nigger” insurance and Wesley teaches at a second-rate university), Mrs. May observes that the Greenleaf boys have had distinguished military careers, married French wives, and produced offspring as well as developed a state-of-the-art milk farm. Automated and advanced by its owners’ persistence and determination, the Greenleaf farm is shown to be productive, as opposed to the sterility represented by the Mays. The narrator implies the takeover of a lazy, unconcerned society by a tough (although genealogically less impressive) new working class.

Once again O’Connor centers on the sin of pride. As Mrs. May egotistically bewails her fate at the hands of inferiors, it becomes obvious that despite her socalled iron hand, her farm has withered and her own offspring have lost respect for her. Their sarcastic and mocking back talk suggests their own awareness of their mother’s flaws, while their apathy toward their own situations implies that there are real reasons behind their failure to obtain the success attained by their doubles.

Mrs. May shows her determination to regain control and assert her power in her attempt to force Mr. Greenleaf into killing the scrub bull and eliminating its potential to “romance” her. Combining light and dark imagery (Mrs. May’s growing insight is suggested through recurring sun images), O’Connor asks a protagonist to confront who she really is as opposed as to whom she mistakenly identifies with and who she desires to be. Unfortunately, Mrs. May persists in her delusions, seeing herself as her own God and dismissing the primitive religiosity of Mrs. Greenleaf as meaningless ritual rather than a true trust in a higher power.

Mr. Greenleaf is expected to perform his god’s/ employer’s every demand, and, as he reluctantly contemplates the task of tracking down and shooting the bull, Mrs. May is ironically led to confront her tormentor and nemesis face to face. O’Connor again employs light imagery as Mrs. May appears deliberately to close her eyes to the truth despite the bright ness that encompasses her. Instead she envisions Mr. Greenleaf being gored to death by the bull and thus removed as a potential threat. Because of her impatience with Greenleaf’s hesitancy, she attempts to summon him by honking a truck horn, an act that infuriates the bull, which not only charges Mrs. May but inflicts an ironic reversal on her by goring her to death, burying its horns in her lap. This act completes the sexual merger that O’Connor’s imagery has implied throughout the story and reiterates a frequent O’Connor theme: Only in death does understanding of self become complete. O’Connor closes by describing Mrs. May as one who has regained her sight but who cannot bear looking at the brilliant light. As her life expires, her final discovery is shown to be in vain: Human pride is revealed as the most destructive element in the effort to discover one’s true self.

Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Short Story

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