The high quality of Porter’s work is almost universally accepted, with critics referring to her stories as “masterpieces of compression,” “perfect” gems, beautifully molded pieces, and carefully wrought art. Yet such consensus does not exist with regard to the interpretation of the stories: Critics often provide quite diverse interpretations of particular stories, especially of the intricate symbolism found in them.
Although Porter’s symbols may be traced to many sources, one major source, as she herself acknowledged, was religion. A notable example occurs in “Flowering Judas,” in which the title sets up the major symbol. In an ironic inversion of the Eucharist, Laura eats not the body and blood of Christ but the buds of the flowering Judas, an action that symbolizes her act of betrayal. The influence of James Joyce is readily evident as well, not only in the theme of moral paralysis but also in technique, including symbols. Joycean symbols occur in “Theft,” with the empty purse that symbolizes the emptiness of the young woman’s life; in “Rope,” with the rope that evokes not only a binding tie but also a rope with which to hang oneself; and in “The Cracked Looking-Glass,” with the cracked mirror that symbolizes an imperfect marriage beyond repair or replacement.
Much literary criticism concerning Porter’s stories has centered on psychological and feminist approaches that emphasize her exploration of the duality of womanhood. In the contemporary world, being a woman means being torn between conflicting needs for love and for individual identity and expression. Porter expresses these conflicts through dual characters (María Concepcíon and María Rosa in “María Concepcíon”) or through internalized conflict in a single character (Laura in “Flowering Judas” and the narrator in “Theft”).
The pull toward the traditional feminine role is symbolized by such articles as handmade lace in “Flowering Judas” and the gold purse in “Theft.” The desire for independence is often reflected by support of a cause or principle (such as the revolution in Mexico) or by pursuit of an artistic career. In depicting the duality of womanhood, Porter’s work suggests that the more advanced or complex the society, the more difficult the integration of the female becomes. Thus, the female finds herself paralyzed, unable to act or able to act only in a self-deluding and self-destructive manner.