The short story "Greenleaf" shows us some of the central themes of Flannery O'Connor's literary work.
Religion is one of the main themes in her works and also in "Greenleaf." In this short story, the Southern writer exposes two of her major preoccupations about religion:
- The conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism
- The revelation of Christ's grace in the main characters
These aspects of the religious theme are especially important in the development of the plot of "Greenleaf."
The tension between Mrs. May and the Greenleafs symbolizes the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism. Mrs. May embodies all the features of American Protestantism. She is morally smug and she believes that she has within herself everything she needs to be "good" and respectable person. Mrs. May thinks that she can control her destiny. But the author considers that this is not a proper relationship with God.
On the other hand, the Greenleafs follow the natural order of things and they do not try to change it. They are conscious of their dependence on supernatural forces.
We can appreciate this conflict through the words of the characters:
Mrs. May usually says that "I have to do it for myself" and in one of these instances she adds "Thank God for that." Mr. Greenleaf reply to this affirmation: "Thank God for ever-thang." Mr. Greenleaf is aware of his dependence on God.
These arguments sum up the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism. Protestantism defends that each person determines her or his own beliefs and salvation comes from a personal relationship with God. Catholicism maintains that salvation comes through a proper relationship guided by the laws of the Catholic Church.
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... it time after time.
At the end, the bull kills Mrs. May, but the author wants to show that the animal gives her a final chance to accept grace. O'Connor describes this final scene: "she seemed, when Mr. Greenleaf reached her, to be bent over whispering some last discovery into animal's ear." This scene seems to be like a kind of confession.
The appearance of the bull, how it is rejected and how it offers grace to Mrs. May are the three ways O'Connor makes the bull a symbol of Christ.
Thanks to the bull, Mrs. May finally learns a new meaning of life which destroys her false security and satisfaction. This new sense of life implies a personal encounter with God's grace usually comes from a violent and traumatic situation in O'Connor's literary work. In "Greenleaf" the main character, Mrs. May, discovers the true meaning of life through her violent death.
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