Greenleaf by Flannery O’Connor
In Greenleaf by Flannery O’Connor we have the theme of faith, grace and control. Taken from her Everything That Rises Must Converge collection the story is narrated in the third person and begins with the main protagonist Mrs May waking in the middle of the night and seeing a bull tearing at her hedge. O’Connor’s description of the bull ‘with a hedge-wreath that he had ripped loose for himself caught in the tips of his horn,’ is important because it is through this description or symbolism that the reader realises that O’Connor is comparing the bull to a Christ like figure. Something which is further reiterated when Mrs May is looking out her bedroom window and the narrator tells the reader that ‘the bull lowered his head and shook it and the wreath slipped down to the base of his horns where it looked like a menacing prickly crown,’ (Christ’s thorn crown at crucifixion). Both these incidents are important as they in many ways act as foreshadowing.
Another interesting thing about the bull is that throughout the story the only character who wants the bull penned up or shot is Mrs May. If anything she wants the bull controlled. This may be important as it is possible that by informing the reader that Mrs May wishes to keep the bull under control or have it shot, O’Connor is also symbolically highlighting Mrs May’s lack of faith or her inability to let God into her life, unlike Mrs Greenleaf. It is however worth noting that both O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf are glad to be rid of the bull when he escapes to Mrs May’s farm. This may also be important as it again suggests the idea of control, neither O.T. or E.T. are able to control the bull (and later in the story the reader realises neither is Mrs May). However they don’t go to the same extremes as Mrs May. Having the bull shot also reasserts Mrs May’s authority over the Greenleafs (control).
O’Connor uses symbolism again later in the story, this time the sun (or lack of it), to highlight to the reader the idea of Mrs May’s lack of faith (or not allowing God into her life). While Mrs May is looking out the window, after she finds out that O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf own the bull, the reader is told that behind the cows ‘fencing them in, was a black wall of trees with a sharp sawtooth edge that held off the indifferent sky,’ the reader aware that the sun is blocked by the trees. This is in contrast to when Mrs May visits O.T. and E.T.’s farm and the milking parlour is ‘filled with sunlight that came from a row of windows head-high along both walls.’ Later in the story O’Connor again uses the symbolism of the sun to highlight the idea of faith when Mrs May is dreaming and ‘she became aware after a time that the noise was the sun trying to burn through the tree line and she stopped safe in the knowledge that it couldn’t, that it had to sink the way it always did outside her property.’ Again O’Connor highlighting that Mrs May is not open to letting God into her life.
Already the reader is aware that despite considering herself a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, Mrs May doesn’t actually believe any of it is true (religion). This is again in contrast to the Greenleafs. Mrs Greenleaf is a religious woman who prays every day. She cuts out snippets from the paper and buries them in the ground and lies down praying (seeking redemption). Mrs May on the other hand looks down on Mrs Greenleaf because of her beliefs. She believes that Mrs Greenleaf would be better off washing her children’s clothes rather than spending her time lying in the dirt praying. Mrs Greenleaf’s ‘prayer healing’ is important because it acts as a foreshadowing to Mrs May’s death. Mrs Greenleaf, while lying on the ground, can be heard saying ‘Oh Jesus, stab me in the heart,’ and later that is exactly how Mrs May dies, stabbed through the heart by the bull’s horns.
Grace also plays an important part in the story and despite running a successful farm (through the efforts of Mr Greenleaf), Mrs May is not a willing recipient of (or does not acknowledge) grace, in fact if anything she rejects it (disapproving of Mrs Greenleaf’s actions is an example). Even though Mrs May was left the farm by her husband and knew nothing about farming, she believes the reason the farm is successful is because of her efforts rather than the efforts of Mr Greenleaf. It doesn’t register with Mrs May that the farm only became successful after the arrival of Mr Greenleaf and his family.
The idea of grace also plays an important part at the end of the story when Mrs May is killed by the bull. It is through death that Mrs May achieves grace something the reader senses she may be aware of when the bull gores her for ‘she continued to stare straight ahead but the entire scene in front of her had changed – the tree line was a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky – and she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.’ At the end Mrs May possibly realises that her way of life (materialism and social status) is not the way or path to God.