Compared to many other successful and renowned writers, Porter published a rather small amount of writing. Among the reasons were that, by her own account, she burned many of her manuscripts and made no attempt to publish anything at all until she was thirty years old. Her fiction comprised twenty-three short stories, four short novels, and one long novel. Perhaps another reason for this rather small amount of published fiction is that Porter had to earn her living in ways other than writing, primarily as a teacher and lecturer.
Her fiction is closely related to her firsthand experiences, thus avoiding generalizations in favor of close observation, deeply felt emotions, and careful craft. Although the work is not obviously autobiographical, it is clearly based on places and people that she knew. Three distinct groups constitute Porter’s fiction: working-class or middle-class families, situations and persons in Mexico or Germany (including a ship voyaging between the two countries), and various relationships explored against a background of the South and the Southwest.
Porter lacks what could be called “vulgar appeal,” but her meticulous devotion to clear, plain writing and her conviction that human life has meaning, even in the chaos of world catastrophe, made her a writer whose themes—love, marriage, other relationships, and alien cultures—appeal to readers who value serious subjects treated seriously and language that is precise and pure.
In a foreword to Flowering Judas, Porter wrote about her craft and asserted her faith in “the voice of the individual artist” and in the unchanging survival of the arts, which, she said, are indestructible because “they represent the substance of faith and the only reality.” It is this conviction and this spirit that informs in some way everything Porter wrote.
With her own credo in mind, Porter’s fiction can be seen to have a meaning that is related to her views of human nature and her ideas about the human spirit. For example, Ship of Fools, her only novel and her most ambitious work, explores the ways that human beings reveal themselves—in all their meanness, self-centeredness, vanity, lust, and greed. In the foreword mentioned above, Porter indicated the connection between her fiction and her effort to “grasp the meaning” of threatened world catastrophe and to “understand the logic of this majestic and terrible failure of the life of man in the Western world.” Her attempts to deal with this large question are found primarily in Ship of Fools, but her faith in the larger human spirit of love, generosity, and tenderness is present only by implication as she exposes without pity that side of human nature which is least admirable, least lovable.
In her shorter fiction as well, Porter presents the same ambiguity. For example, Noon Wine, “Theft,” and “Magic” are only three stories that portray human nature at its worst—weak, dishonest, and cruel. By contrast, the stories set in the familiar world of her girlhood, the seven stories included under the heading “The Old Order” (such as “The Source,” “The Last Leaf,” and “The Grave”), are tender, gently humorous, and poignant evocations of people and situations that were part of Porter’s past. These stories and others portray a view of humanity that is in strong contrast to the harsher realities of Ship of Fools.
A notable quality of the fiction that depicts people in friendly, loving, close relationships, such as Old Mortality, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and “The Fig Tree,” is that of timelessness. These works are not dated in the way that Ship of Fools is. Thus Porter seems to be asserting the faith that is mentioned in the foreword to Flowering Judas, though the title story seems to belie it.
It is these contradictory elements that make Porter’s work ambiguous, not easy to summarize or categorize. Within individual works, Porter uses counterpoint to underline the ironies of life.
In “Holiday,” for example, she contrasts the busy, matter-of-fact lives of the Müllers with the lonely, strenuous life of the crippled mute who is a member of the family yet totally ignored by them. Another counterpoint is that of the narrator, a young woman who may well be Miranda, though she is not named. (Several of Porter’s stories have as their main character a girl or young woman named Miranda or someone like her; she is a kind of stand-in for the author.)
Porter’s relatively small body of work encompasses a notable variety of characters, situations, and settings. In itself, that is not a remarkable achievement, but when one also notes the skill with which Porter selects her details, the concentration of effect, the way that the impact of the story is sometimes felt only after one has finished it and put it aside, and perhaps most especially, the transcendent beauty of the style, one understands why Porter’s work is so admired by critics, academicians, other writers, and readers.
First published: 1930 (collected in Flowering Judas, and Other Stories, 1930)
Type of work: Short story
A young woman works so diligently and selflessly to help Mexican revolutionaries and children that she seems untouched in her secret inner self.
Laura, the principal character in “Flowering Judas,” is a young woman who spends her days teaching English to Mexican Indian children, attending union meetings, and visiting political prisoners, for whom she runs errands and brings messages. Despite all this activity, Laura appears emotionally uninvolved, doing her work, listening to the children and the prisoners, and particularly, listening courteously to the wretched singing almost nightly of Braggioni, a revolutionary leader. Egotistical and cruel, Braggioni appears unaware of Laura’s unspoken revulsion and anger at him.
Laura does feel betrayed by the discrepancy between the way she lives and what she feels life should be. She also feels fear—of Braggioni, who symbolizes her disillusionment, of danger, of death. She is caught between her commitment to her present life and her rejection of her life before she came to Mexico.
Laura has been courted by a young captain in the army, but she rejects him, making her horse shy when the soldier tries to take her in his arms. Another young man has serenaded her as he stood under the blossoms of the Judas tree on her patio, but again she is only disturbed by him; she feels nothing more for him than she does for her pupils, who she realizes are strangers to her.
Wearing a nunlike dress with a lace-edged collar, Laura strives to attain stoicism, drawing strength from a single word which epitomizes her aloofness and fear: no. Using that word as a talisman, she can practice denial, fearlessness, detachment.
Eugenio, the third young man in Laura’s life, is not a suitor; he is a prisoner to whom she brought the narcotics he had requested.
When she tells Braggioni that Eugenio has taken all the tablets at once and has gone into a stupor, Braggioni is unmoved, calling him a fool. He then departs, and Laura senses that he will not return for a while. She realizes that she is free and that she should run, but she does not leave. She goes to bed; in her sleep, Eugenio appears and takes her to “a new country,” which he calls death. He makes her eat of the flowers of the Judas tree,...
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