Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Greenleaf,” the author depicts an embittered and self-centered old woman who is incapable of seeing the grace present in those she does not consider her social equals. Mrs. May’s false pride is typical of many of the characters in O’Connor’s work, and if there is a common humanistic moral in O’Connor’s stories, it is that those who think too well of themselves generally get their just desserts in the end. However, Flannery O’Connor was not trying to give her stories a humanistic moral; she did not consider herself a humanist at all, but first and foremost a evangelist of the Roman Catholic faith.
In “Greenleaf,” the major conflict is between the self-righteous Mrs. May and her handyman, Mr. Greenleaf. Mrs. May embodies all the characteristics Americans (and not coincidentally, Protestants) have traditionally held dear: she thinks that if she behaves respectably, she is blameless in the sight of God; she thinks that one’s social standing has something to do with one’s degree of righteousness. Of course, O’Connor believed quite the opposite; she felt that people like Mrs. May is shut out from a proper relationship to God, not because Mrs. May is knowingly evil, but because she is morally smug; she thinks she has within herself everything she needs to be “good.”
Essentially this boils down to an argument between Protestantism and Catholicism— Protestantism holding that each person ultimately determines his own belief and salvation comes wholly from a personal relationship with God, and Catholicism maintaining that salvation comes through a right relationship to God through the action of His Church. We see this conflict brought down to a concrete level in Mrs. May’s frequent observation that “I have to do for myself.” In one of these instances, she adds that she “thank[s] God for that!” to which Mr. Greenleaf dryly remarks that he “thank[s] God for ever-thang.” O’Connor adds, from Mrs. May’s point of view: “You might as well, she had thought in the fierce silence that followed: you’ve never done anything for yourself.”
O’Connor’s point is that from a spiritual standpoint, there is nothing one can do for oneself. Mrs. May’s refusal of her sons’ help reflects her refusal of God’s Son’s help; her insistence that she can do it all alone is a false and arrogant belief. She cannot “hire” everything done, as she attempts to do with Mr. Greenleaf; the world of the spirit does not function by imperiously hiring those one considers to be one’s inferiors to do the grunt work, but by submitting to God’s will and enlisting in his service. According to O’Connor, God does not help those who help themselves, but those who depend on his grace.
Another illusion under which Mrs. May operates is that the world operates by cause and effect. If she behaves like a respectable woman, good things will happen to her; those who behave like trash will reap nothing but sorrow. This is why she is so puzzled by the Greenleaf family. She has always behaved respectably, and has raised two well-educated sons, one a professor and another an insurance salesman. But her grown sons sponge off her by continuing to live off her bounty even after they’ve become adults, and they mock and taunt her; one goes so far as to tell her that he “wouldn’t milk a cow to save your soul from hell.” Mr. Greenleaf, on the other hand, sired two fine young boys who made their mark in the Army, married French wives, and now live in an attractive brick duplex, working their joint farm in harmony. This Mrs. May cannot fathom. As much as she reassures herself that “No matter where they [the Greenleaf boys] go, they came from that,” she misses the point that God does not judge a person by where they came from, but by on whom they rely.
The Greenleafs’ and Mrs. May’s dramatically differing reactions to the stray bull epitomizes their feelings toward life. The Greenleafs see the bull as a force of nature that cannot be contained, and therefore one needs to just move over and provide room for it as a fellow member of God’s creation. Mrs. May, on the other hand, is obsessed with controlling it because she is obsessed with the idea of imposing her own order of form onto every aspect of her life; trying to control a force so much bigger and so much more powerful than she is becomes her undoing. Although the last line shows Mrs. May, impaled on the bull’s horn, slumped forward as if whispering some last discovery into the animal’s ear, we never learn what that discovery was; however, from O’Connor’s point of view, it may have been the altogether revolutionary revelation that there was some form of order in the universe that superseded Mrs. May’s own.
For O’Connor the most important thing was to shock her smug characters out of their complacency and bring them sharply into an awareness of their total inadequacy before the eyes of God. This epiphany is seldom, if ever, accomplished without violence of some kind. In “Greenleaf,” O’Connor has given us another example of her conviction that a person whose entire life does not reflect an ultimate dependence on the means and workings of grace, is out of touch with God—and the violence which accompanies the person’s realization of his real relationship to God is less a penance than a blessing.
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