ELDERLY WOMAN, FARMOWNER, GORED BY BULL- This is what the newspaper headlines would have said on the morning after Mrs. May’s tragic death in “Greenleaf” by Flannery O’Connor, and is the only thing that some people might get out of reading the short story. However, O’Connor wrote with a deeper meaning behind her words, and “Greenleaf” is not just the absurd, grotesque tale that it might originally appear. Through Mrs. May’s prideful, bossy, and self-righteous character the author conveys her message. O’Connor’s story is about the futility of being judgmental and absorbed in oneself, and how that can be countered by putting one’s faith in the Almighty God.
Mrs. May, the main character of the story, is quickly established as an egotistical and critical woman. At the beginning, the reader almost begins to feel sorry for her because her grown sons are very disrespectful and the hired help for her farm, Mr. Greenleaf, is difficult to work with and has a troublesome family. However, soon enough the reader realizes that Mrs. May has plenty of problems of her own, and before long they also notice that the initial problems are not as bad as Mrs. May thinks they are. She constantly treats her sons as if they are still helpless small children, and she nags them and complains about every detail in her life. She is incredibly demeaning to Mr. Greenleaf, thinking of him and his family as lesser than her and ordering him about endlessly. She always defends her sons, who Mr. Greenleaf hints are lazy, to the “impudent” man because she does not even consider him and his sons to be at the same level as her. Mrs. May is also congratulates herself for keeping her farm on its feet even though, when she moved there because it was...
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... The last sentence of the short story says that when Mr. Greenleaf reached her moments after the tragedy, Mrs. May is bent over the bull which Greenleaf shot a moment too late, and it is as if she is “whispering some last discovery into the animal’s ear.” Was her last discovery that her power was finite and she was a tiny, inconsequential being compared to God?
In Flannery O’Connor’s outwardly simple and compact story, the pervasive message is that apathy toward faith and God is a destructive woeful mistake. Upholding herself as an idol, Mrs. May ignored the things that were of deeper importance in life and she paid for that mistaken thinking dearly. O’Connor seeks to remind her readers that they cannot do everything on their own. They need God’s saving grace, his salvation, and nothing else that they can do to attempt to meet that necessity will be adequate.
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