​Twice in Greenleaf we see lilies that allude to the Biblical verse “Consider the lilies of the field.” What connections do you see between this verse and O'Connor's characterization of the...

​Twice in Greenleaf we see lilies that allude to the Biblical verse “Consider the lilies of the field.” What connections do you see between this verse and O'Connor's characterization of the Greenleafs and Mrs. May?

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msmeow-7867 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We can look just at Matthew 6:28: "Consider the lilies, how they grow. They do not toil, nor do they spin," but in order to really understand how this message applies here, we need to look at the larger context of that verse (and O'Connor would have been right to assume the majority of her audience would have known it). The whole passage of Matthew 6:27-29 reads:

27 And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? 28 And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, 29 yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these (NASB).

O'Connor references this passage, as does Mrs, May:

"Over the years they had been on her place, Mr. and Mrs. Greenleaf had hardly aged at all. They had no worries, no responsibilities. They lived like the lilies of the field, off the fat that she struggled to put into the land" (319).

Although Mrs. May means this as an insult, the Greenleafs live this passage to their benefit, and we can see evidence of that in the story. Actually, the first piece of evidence is a lack of evidence. Most doctors today know that worry and stress can cause premature aging, but there is no evidence in the story that the Greenleafs worried about much of anything. Their sons have been successful, they have married well, and despite the fact that their grandchildren are often dirty from play, even Mrs. May admits that at least one of them is "mighty pretty" (324). Second, Mrs. Greenleaf did not worry about clothing: "Instead of making a garden or washing their clothes, [Mrs. Greenleaf's] preoccupation was what she called 'prayer healing'" (315), and her prayers have been powerful: "She cured a man once that half his gut was eat out with worms" (332). At another point, when Mrs. May is sarcastically thanking God that the Greenleaf boys are not hers, Mr. Greenleaf responds sincerely, "I thank God for ever-thang" (324), which gives us an understanding that his is not solely self-reliance. Unconscious as it may be, Mrs. May recognizes that the outcome of this thankful, prayerful lifestyle will be that after she is gone from "overwork and worry," the Greenleafs will be "healthy and thriving" (319). 

To the contrary, Mrs. May believes that she and she alone provides for and keeps the farm running. Instead of viewing the weather, with its rain and sun, and the dirt, with its inherent nutrients, and the Greenleafs' assistance as gifts from God that allow the farm to keep going, she curses them: "[T]he weather is against you, and the dirt is against you, and the help is against you" (321). Worse, she takes all the credit for any success the farm has: "I work and slave, I struggle and sweat to keep this place for them" (315). Mrs. May, in her self-righteous self-reliance, fails to recognize that it is God's grace and Mr. Greenleaf's efforts that have allowed her farm to run as well as it has. In one of the story's most dramatic and ironic moments, after pointing out the Greenleaf boys' lack of gratitude for allowing them to wear her sons' castoff clothing and play with their no-longer-wanted toys, she declares, "Some people learn gratitude too late, Mr. Greenleaf, and some never learn it at all" (329). Mrs. May, in stark contrast to the Greenleafs, who thrive in the sunlight, who are thankful for what they have, who don't worry about how their physical needs will be met, imagines herself dying from "overwork and worry" (319), and we can see then that she does not live and thrive as one of the lilies of the field that God cares and provides for; rather, her sons point out that she is so frail her hand "would dangle from her wrist like the head of a broken lily" (322). It is not until the moment of her death that Mrs. May recognizes her lack of gratitude: "she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored" (333). Sadly, her revelation is too late.

Read the study guide:
Greenleaf

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