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Death, Where is Thy Sting?
The purpose of death in Flannery O'Connor's "Greenleaf"

© 18 January 2005 Stephen Sparrow

In her essay "Happy Endings"1, Sally Fitzgerald opined that Flannery O’Connor’s Catholic faith "taught her that both death and life must be understood in the context of divine love." Fitzgerald cited novelist John Cheever’s question, "How can a people who do not understand love hope to understand death, and who will sound the alarm?" She went on to tell how O'Connor through her fiction sounded the alarm by turning that question around and asking, "How can a people who do not understand death hope to understand love?"

Aversion to death is doubtless the reason so many first time readers of "Greenleaf" become incensed at the author for handing out such a brutal fate to the story’s central character. O’Connor portrayed Mrs. May as a woman of substance and integrity; a character most readers could sympathise with and warm to, but then at the story’s end and with what seems callous indifference, she allowed Mrs. May to be killed by a bull. But that ending begs a good question: Is death ever fair? Is it ever fair that children or young mothers should die? And I’m sure we’ve all heard similar comments following some unexpected death, “oh how terrible; she was so beautiful,” or, “he was so nice,” as if the attributes of beauty or niceness should somehow bestow immortality. The very banality of such remarks highlights the implicit fear of death that resides permanently in each of us despite any public claims we may make to the contrary.

This reluctance to confront our own mortality lies at the core of the world’s oldest lament, which is the anguished craving of every human being to be comforted. From the most ancient book of the Bible (Job), to the latest pop song, this lament constantly intrudes upon the human psyche signifying that throughout history human beings have lacked the spiritual dimension of comfort, and modern science, being powerless to explain this lack, consigns it to the realm of mystery. But many people reject mystery out of hand, and even though burdened with discontent and bitterness, they live convinced that blind circumstance is to blame for their problems and that with better luck and planning they can retake control of their lives and get even with an unfeeling world that dared deny their expectations.

In "Greenleaf", Mrs. May is one of those people. She doesn’t understand the world around her because she cannot understand the purpose of death, and by association suffering. Mrs. May, like all of us, knows that death ends every human life, but continually she ducks the question of why humanity exists. O’Connor’s omniscient narrator informs us that Mrs. May thought of herself “as a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not of course, believe any of it was true.” She is like those who give Christianity the same seal of approval that they extend to the Armed Forces. They’re glad each exists but have no intention of being a part of either. On the surface Mrs. May comes across as a good woman, but for all her apparent virtue, she is in reality extremely arrogant and cannot cope with the notion that everything in this world is providentially geared toward helping each individual soul seek salvation by acknowledging and accepting the gift of Christ’s redemption.

The setting for "Greenleaf" is a dairy farm in Georgia peopled with a typically O’Connoresque clutch of characters. Widowed Mrs. May owns and runs the place. Still living at home with her are two grownup bachelor sons Scholfield and Wesley. Then there are Mrs. May’s farm help, the Greenleafs. Living down the road on their own land are the Greenleaf’s twin married sons OT and ET. We never meet the twins but Mrs. May tells us all we need to know about them. Mrs. May carries the world on her shoulders and spends a lot of time complaining to herself, especially about the Greenleafs who she’s had to put up with for years because she couldn’t find anyone better. She regards Mr. Greenleaf as incompetent; someone who would neglect to inform her of a sick cow until it was too late, sow the ground with the wrong seeds and in all probability, if the barn were to catch fire, would first call Mrs. Greenleaf to see the flames before making any attempt to extinguish them. However Mrs. May considered the man to be an aristocrat when compared to his wife. Mrs. Greenleaf was large, ignorant, and slovenly; a natural mystic more interested in the spiritual life than in keeping her household clean and tidy, and her do-it-yourself religious rituals appalled Mrs. May. But Mrs. May seemed to be down on everyone and didn’t let her two sons off lightly either, harbouring as she did dark thoughts about the pair and their inconsiderate natures.

The action kicks off with the arrival on the May place of a stray bull; a scrawny mongrel animal that treats fence lines with impunity, and given the purebred nature of Mrs. May’s herd, if it mates successfully with any of her cows the result will be barely saleable offspring. Mrs. May first becomes aware of the animal’s presence when it wakes her one night while noisily browsing on the hedge surrounding her garden. From that point on everything foreshadows some event of major significance. In fact, the end of Mrs. May’s life is coming up fast and she is definitely not prepared for either it or its method of arrival. Peering at the bull over Mrs. May’s shoulder the omniscient narrator informs us that the animal is wearing caught on its horns some greenery torn from the hedge that resembles first a wreath and a short time later as it settles further down on the animal’s head, a prickly crown. Symbolically, a crown of thorns represents suffering, and a wreath, death. The bull munching noisily outside her bedroom window was “like an uncouth country suitor,” but with a radically different message from what could be expected from any conventional beau.

When the next morning Mrs. May tells Mr. Greenleaf about the stray bull, she is horrified to learn the animal has already spent the last three days on her property. She orders Greenleaf to pen it up, but its wild nature makes it impossible to keep confined and it repeatedly breaks free. Mrs. May then finds out from one of her sons that the bull belongs to the Greenleaf twins. Suspecting all along they were well aware of where their unruly animal was, a coolly furious Mrs. May drives to their place to tell them to come and collect it. She doesn’t find either OT or ET, but their six children troop out of the house and with a curious intensity stand and stare silently at her sitting in the car, leaving her with the distinct impression that "she was on trial by a jury of Greenleafs", more foreshadowing of the major event to come. While looking for someone responsible to pass on her message, Mrs. May takes the opportunity to inspect the Greenleaf twin’s modern milking facility and sees first hand the extent of Government assistance they’ve qualified for as a result of their military service during World War II. At various times in the story Mrs. May’s envy shows through as she reflects on the struggle she’s had to keep her own place profitable without any outside help at all, backing up her conviction that material success is independent of either Government or Divine Providence. She has only herself to thank for getting where she’s got, which is in strong contrast to Mr. Greenleaf’s avowal to her one day, “I thank Gawd for everthang.”

Looking at Mrs. May, a reasonable assumption would be that she wasn’t too far off a quiet retirement. After all her two sons, although still living at home, were both in their thirties and had well paying jobs. Then out of the blue, suffering—in the form of the Greenleaf bull—charged into her fairly well ordered life, and nobody seemed to care, least of all her two self-centred sons, both of who positively gloat over their mother’s misfortune. Their attitude descends into mockery when they suggest she emulate Mrs. Greenleaf and resort to prayer healing. Poor, ignorant Mrs. Greenleaf at least knew all about the mystery of evil and the purpose of suffering, even if her method of dealing with it was bizarre. What Mrs. May refused to acknowledge was the real greatness of Christianity; a greatness that lay not in providing a supernatural cure for suffering, but rather in the paradox of making supernatural use of it. Writing to Louise Abbot, O’Connor put it this way, “what people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”2

Certainly Mrs. May knew about virtue and practised her own version of it, but what she practised lacked the dimension of Christianity. Her charity was of the tit-for-tat sort, as evidenced by her rebuke to Mr Greenleaf over the indifference of his sons in the matter of the marauding bull, while at the same time she reminded him of her "generosity" to the twins in giving them cast off clothing and allowing them to hunt and fish on her land. All of which had been, until then, part of an unspoken economic exchange with Greenleaf. When it came to charity Mrs. May never invested more than she expected some day to gain in return.

In "Greenleaf", the question of whether death has a purpose hits the reader at the same time the bull hits Mrs. May. Okay, so no measurable thing lasts forever; at some stage everything surrenders, and neither the universe nor Microsoft Corporation can escape its end. Only the immeasurable creative power of God lasts forever. The creative power of God being Divine Love, without which nothing makes sense. God creates and God concludes, which means God judges His creation, not the creation judging God (something all too common these days). 

In this concrete world love comes in two sorts: the emotional bond that exists between husband and wife, or parents and children; and altruism, which is the unconditional help given by one person to another irrespective of relationship, and which distinguishes human beings from animals. In the Great Commandment3 Christ spelled out to the Apostles the obligation of altruism; the awesome obligation to love one another as He had loved them, and the punishment looming for those guilty of willfully flouting that commandment. The Day of Judgement signals the end of time when all humanity will rise up transfigured: to be called to account like servants who must justify how they have used their talents4 : has the servant increased his deposit of love? Or through neglect of or fear of losing what he started with, has his God given talent withered to nothing?

Spiritual inertia occaisioned by neglect or fear is a well-known form of sin. O’Connor defined sin as "the interference, of a greater good by a lesser good."5 Apathy toward helping those whom we could most easily help, especially by giving time, being its most common manifestation. And the effect of sin? St Paul made it clear in Romans 6:23, "for the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal Life in Christ Jesus our Lord." So, this eternal life: what can it mean? What does it mean when we say that on the Day of Judgement all humanity will rise up transfigured? O’Connor explained it in one of her many letters to Betty Hester.

“When I know what the laws of the flesh and the physical really are, then I will know what God is. We know them as we see them, not as God sees them. For me, it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul she says that will rise but the body, glorified… The resurrection of Christ seems the high point in the law of nature.”6

In that extract O’Connor made clear how the physical dimensions of time and space are subservient to the supernatural dimension of Divine Love; the corollary being that death has a purpose. We may regard death as an unmitigated evil, the last enemy: and yet Christ came to defeat sin, to conquer death. "O Death where is thy sting, O Grave where is thy victory," wrote St Paul in 1 Corinthians 15: 54-57. 

Mrs. May's horror of death was limited to this world and bound up with anxiety for the future--would her two selfish sons be able to cope without her? Snobbishness caused her to regard with horror the prospect that the establishment, of which she saw herself as an integral part, would one day succumb to a new order in which the Greenleaf grandchildren would be considered “company”. That there was a God who could be trusted was anathema to Mrs. May and that viewpoint left her unable to see that the suffering caused by the Greenleaf bull was the cross she was being asked to bear. As far as she was concerned the animal was just a nuisance to be got rid of, whereas in reality, it was God’s instrument calling Mrs. May to judgement. Unbelieving Mrs. May had spent her adult life sitting in judgement on God and His followers, and now at the hour of her death, the table had been turned and she was about to be asked to reconcile her tit for tat charity with the talent God gave her to go out and make the world a better place.

1. Fitzgerald, Sally. "Happy Endings." Image Magazine: A Journal of Religion & the Arts. 16, Summer. Fitzgerald and her husband Robert befriended O’Connor when she first commenced writing as a career.

2. O’Connor, Flannery. Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988. 1110-1111. Undated Letter to Louise Abbot 1959. 

3. New Testament. John 15: 1 - 17. 

4. New Testament. Matthew 25: 14-30. Luke 19: 11-27. 

5. O’Connor, Flannery. Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988. 976. Letter to A. 16 Dec. 1955.

6. O’Connor, Flannery. Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988. 953. Letter to A.  6 Sept. 1955. 

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