“The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” was the first of Katherine Anne Porter’s Texas stories, all drawn from persistent memories of her own impoverished and motherless childhood as well as from her memories of her sternly rigorous and religious grandmother, Catherine Anne Porter of Kyle, Texas. Ellen Weatherall is a character distinctly different from grandmother Sophia Jane Gay, who plays an initially important role in the stories that make up The Old Order (1955), but whose influence is beginning to fade in “The Grave.” As does Sophia Jane, however, Granny Weatherall represents Porter’s fascination not with the generation of her prematurely dead mother but with the earlier generation—the women who had weathered first the Civil War, then the drastically fluctuating social and economic times that followed, and finally the steady challenges to the gender expectations of their young womanhood upon which they had depended but against which practical circumstance dictated resistance. Porter, faced in 1928 with physical breakdown and no stranger herself to economic duress and self-doubts about her own role in a patriarchal society, created in Granny Weatherall a figure who would enact not only the author’s personal abhorrence of rejection, loneliness, and passivity but also her marked tendency toward creative self-narrative.
Fear of rejection colors all of Granny Weatherall’s adult life after her fiancé, George, fails to claim her at the altar and thus affirm her womanhood. Granny Weatherall’s literal response to rejection and the loneliness that threatens to follow it has been action: She marries her second choice, John; bears his children; musters her capabilities both maternal and paternal at his early death; and is in all things “dutiful and good.” Or at least she maintains the appearance of being dutiful and good, since it is with those words that she slightingly names the weaknesses of her daughter, Cornelia, weaknesses for which she at 80 is willing to spank her middle-aged child. In reality, her life has been, of necessity, a subtle challenge to the sentimental and romantic standards of her youth.
Her figurative response to rejection and loneliness has been to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. She associates her jilting with dark smoke, a personal image of the spent light of hell that returns decades later to fog her brain as she lies on what she at first refuses to acknowledge as her deathbed. Uncomprehendingly, she watches “a fog [rise] over the valley, . . . marching across the creek . . . like an army of ghosts” (83–84). That vision reminds her of the beauty that lay in “lighting the lamps” (84) as her small children crowd around her to escape the nightly darkness, striking the match that would dispel their nightmares and embodying the strong light of reassurance that the younger generation, whose modern shaded lamps were “no sort of light at all, just frippery” (87), would mourn with her passing.
Her joy at her ability to become the illumination for her own life and the lives of her family is a pragmatic response to the social failure of the cult of true womanhood and the circumstantial failure of her dead husband to see to her needs and the needs of her children. A true woman gives her heart once and forever: If jilted, she remains rejected and unwed, or, if wed and widowed, she mourns for her remaining lifetime. Ellen Weatherall permits herself neither of these cultural prescriptions, choosing instead as a young woman to live on purposefully with John through children birthed, meals cooked, clothes sewn, and gardens made; widowed and without John, she does the work of man and woman, counseling her son on financial matters, post holing and fencing her hundred acres, or seeing to the sick and the lyings-in of other women with equal aplomb. It is not in her to “let good things rot for want of using.”
Yet faced with the imminence of her death, Granny Weatherall becomes aware of the ambiguous legacy she will leave behind her. Will her children’s memories of her be consistent with the self she has created in her lifelong effort to dispel the dark? Or will she be remembered as the mournful and bereft bride at the altar whose revealing letters to her lover and her husband-to-be lie waiting in the attic to be discovered after her death?
As Robert Brinkmeyer suggests in his reading of this Porter story, the hopeful narratives of self created through public acts are gravely at risk in the face of memory’s secret narrative. If Ellen’s children discover the letters, they will know the self she has hidden and the setbacks she has worked to overcome through the years, possibly to think less of her as a result. Fearful of the loss of her consciously created selfhood, Granny Weatherall doubts the efficacy of her favorite saints— probably those of the household and of women’s concerns—in whom she had entrusted the certainty of her heavenly reward. Instead, she pledges herself yet another time to the bridegroom, in words the ironic overlay of which she seems unaware: “Without thee, my God, I could never have done it. Hail, Mary, full of grace.” Expecting God to claim and confirm her at the end of her life, and failing to receive the sign that he will do so, she responds in a manner typical of all her years: Albeit grievingly and sorrowfully, she takes charge of the light once again, blowing it out with the last of her own life’s breath.
Brinkmeyer, Robert H., Jr. Katherine Anne Porter’s Artistic Development: Primitivism, Traditionalism, and Totalitarianism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.
Givener, Joan. Katherine Anne Porter: A Life. Rev. ed. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991.
Porter, Katherine Anne. “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” In The Complete Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Harcourt, 1979.
Stout, Janis. Katherine Anne Porter: A Sense of the Times. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.