Greenleaf by Flannery O’Connor

Greenleaf - Flannery O'ConnorIn 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.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "Greenleaf by Flannery O'Connor." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 3 Jan. 2014. Web.


  • Great write up. The Greenleaf twins also wanted to be rid of the bull. When she goes to their farm, she’s told that the bull is nothing but trouble and the Greenleafs will not come and get him. I appreciate the symbolism in the story, that O’Connor plays with it. Having the bull be the instrument of Mrs. May’s death is a wonderful turnabout.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Arsen. Just had another read of the story and you’re right, both O.T. and E.T. do view the bull as trouble. I’ve updated the post to reflect this.

  • “You can’t be any poorer than dead” by Flannery O’Connor
    I have been enjoying the authors craft and would like to find an analysis on above short story.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment John. O’Connor is an excellent writer. I don’t actually have a copy of that story. But if I come across one. I’ll post an analysis.

  • If the bull in the story symbolizes Jesus Christ, why would he kill people (Mrs. May being stabbed in the heart by the bull)… I don’t understand.. Are people who do not believe in Christ deserved to be killed?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Choco. It’s a good question. The bull is purely symbolism and does not necessary equate to the practices of religion but rather it is an expression or viewpoint of the author (O’Connor who was Catholic). Though Mrs May does lose her life at the end of the story she does however achieve (or receive) God’s grace. Which may be the point that O’Connor is trying to make. She may be suggesting that an individual regardless of how they choose to live their life may still receive God’s grace. Though in this case it cost Mrs May her life.

      • I see. Thank you so much for the reply and clarification. Your explanation was very helpful.

        There’s something else I don’t get… In the story Mrs. Greenleaf is a religious person then why is she so unsociable and isolated..? (I mean she never shows up with her husband nor she initiates a conversation with Mrs. May) I think the hatred which Mrs. May holds against Mrs. Greenleaf is because of a lack of communication. It seems from the start that Mrs. May family weren’t a religious family so she cannot understand Mrs. Greenleaf’s extreme behavior toward religion and churches.

        As far as I know, praying is a way to talk to God and to the prophets. This action shouldn’t be disturbing to others. Things like crying out loud and shouting or getting yourself dirty and being covered in germs (just like what Mrs. Greenleaf did) is not approving even to God. True prayers, pray gracefully and quietly to God and cry gently. (It’s inside which counts)

        However, It feels like the author is pointing out that the way Mrs. Greenleaf prays is the true way of praying… (I’m not very familiar with Christianity so it seems peculiar to me that she prays like that and the author approves it.)

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          Thanks for the comment Choco. Mrs Greenleaf is indeed a religious person though she may have some unorthodox methods when it comes to praying (newspaper cuttings). I think the point that O’Connor is trying to make is that regardless of how an individual prays the important things is that they do pray to God, unlike Mrs May who only at the end of the story becomes a believer.

          The distance between Mrs May and Mrs Greenleaf throughout the story may also stem from a belief in a hierarchical system. With Mrs May as the owner of the land being on top and as such Mrs Greenleaf may feel inferior to her and as such does not talk to Mrs May. She may not feel worthy. Though as you suggest it is also possible that Mrs May has no time for religion (unlike Mrs Greenleaf) and as such does not understand Mrs Greenleaf.

          • I get it now. So the author is trying to say that the “praying” itself is important, not “how” you pray. Thank you very much again for the explanation.

            And about the next part, you’re saying that their distance might be because of their position in society not necessarily their attitude toward religion. I see.

            Thanks again

            • Dermot (Post Author)

              Thanks Choco. When it comes to the second point. That’s how I would interpret the story. Mrs May doesn’t necessarily like the Greenleafs.

        • Different people, different faiths, pray in different ways. As long as other people are not injured, each person;s prayign should be respected. Even if we find it distasteful.

          I have a friend who likes to go out on a boat and call out to God……

          You are giving great consideration (or were in 2016) to something (ie, praying) that many people find to be the center of their spiritual life. What works for each person is what’s vest for that person. One of my most heartfelt prayers came through my unconscious: my 1 yr old twins and I had been in a car accident, and I woke up saying “Jesus. Jesus. Jesus” Not as an exclamation, as a prayer. It surprised me when I went back and thought about it…

  • Mrs. May’s death could be symbolic of the “born again Christian,” who must first die (symbolically), then be born again in Christ. Her old self was full of judgement. She tried to manage every aspect of her life, instead of giving it to God.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Anneka. You make a valid point. One I hadn’t thought of before.

  • Where is the irony in this story? Could you help point it out and explain it?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment David. I’m not too sure that there is any irony in the story. Perhaps the fact that Mrs May achieves grace despite not believing in religion or God may be considered ironic.

  • Wouldn’t you consider it ironic that Mrs. May who thinks she is better than the Greenleafs has two sons who are unlike able to the extreme, and still live with her as not very productive members of society, while OT and ET are just the opposite much to her chagrin. She wants to hear that they fight and are unsuccessful, but the truth is that they are very pleasant,as far as we know, and productive members of society.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Pat. It would be ironic. OT and ET appear to be hard working, well-behaved boys. This is something I missed when I red the story.

  • What do you think the irony of this story is?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Perhaps the fact that Mrs May achieves grace despite not believing in religion or God may be considered ironic.

  • The Greenleaf twins, ET and OT. Where/DO you see as the meaning of their names? I can see OT as Old Testament, but ET doesn;t ring any Presbyterian bells (leading a discussion group 5.16.18, 11 am)

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I’m sorry Anne I don’t see any symbolism in either E.T or O.T’s names. Though considering we’re talking about Flannery O’Connor there is sure to be some symbolism.

  • Do you see any symbolism or meaning in the names of the Greenleaf twins??

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I’ve just come across a proverb (Proverbs 11:28) which might be important.

    • Brilliant!!!! Thank you so very much!!.. This is too apt to be coincidence

      This story and our last one (Martha Gellhorn’s Miami-New York) will be/have been the best of the 8 week series American Short Stories. I just lead it, but I also do most of the background research and prod the discussion when it lags.

      I appreciate what you had to say in your essay (food for thought for me, a Unitarian) and what it made ME consider


      • I just re-read the story, for a new class. What I said in 2018 is baloney as is the uber-religious, uber-Christian interpretation of the story. Please!

        Yes, I DID read your essay. Three times. I simply couldn’t disagree more. But my class starts in 15 minutes and I don;t have time…. Mrs May and Mr Greenleaf are equally snobby, disdain each other with equal lack of grace, and their sons have been brought up to see themselves as better than everyone else. In Mrs May’s case, as better than their mother. She has been unable to rid herself of Mr Greenleaf, now of the bull, and her inability to PUSH have become her downfall. It’s a tragic story

  • Thank you for your analysis of this story, and for your notation, in these comments, of the revealing proverb. I have a high regard for Ms. O’Connor’s work, and consider “Greenleaf” to be one of her top twenty published stories. However, I also believe the story should have ended with the penultimate paragraph, because the actual final paragraph is far too overworked and “writerly” to be believed. It’s worth noting the volume in which “Greenleaf” appears, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” was published following Ms. O’Connor’s death. I wonder if her editor(s) chose to retain that final paragraph primarily out of a sense of loyalty to her. In any case, I’m willing to listen to any thoughtful arguments asserting that the final paragraph is indeed necessary to bring the reader to a fuller understanding of the story.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I would agree the final paragraph of the story may not be necessary and it could be that the editors put it in or left the story untouched as a mark of respect to O’Connor. They might have served the reader better to remove the paragraph.

  • Hi Dermot, thank you for your analysis. I am currently reading, and loving, F O’C’s complete works, but, not having a religious background would miss a lot of her symbolism without reading analyses.
    Something that stands out strongly in the stories to me is the dislike/hatred that is directed – often without any apparent justification – towards a parent or guardian figure by their children (adult or otherwise)- as is the case in this story towards Mrs May.
    Have you noted this? I would be interested in your opinion.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I would agree with you. It is in several of O’Connor’s stories. As to why I’m not too sure. Perhaps O’Connor is trying to give a voice to the young who may or may not have been as tainted as the adults in the stories. I know in Circle of Fire that the children are playing while Mrs Cope acts with an extreme sense of authority. While in Revelation Mary Grace acts as foreshadowing to Mrs Turpin’s moment of realization. It is as though O’Connor is suggesting that adults can learn from children.

      • Yes, that’s possible. They seem to see through the adult’s veneer and judge them harshly and unflinchingly. Thank you!

      • Grace not as we understand it, perhaps, and hard to accept. Mrs. May “saw the light” but I believe she met her doom to eternal hell. She did not rely on Jesus, the Only Way to eternal life, in life and was too late for repentance in her death. Not for our understanding this side of heaven.

  • Thank you for this write up. I am taking a literature class and this is one of the short stories we analyzed in a seminar. I am writing an analysis now and this post was very helpful. One thing I noticed that you did not point out (or I might have missed in read) is the symbolism in the name greenleaf. With the sun as a symbol of God, and the sunlight being used to symbolize his presence/grace, and the name greenleaf implies that they soak up the sunlight, which is God. Just a little thing that I thought was interesting.

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