"Flowering Judas" Katherine Anne Porter
The following entry presents criticism of Porter's short story "Flowering Judas." See also Katherine Anne Porter Short Story Criticism (Volume 43), Katherine Anne Porter Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 7, 10, 13, 27.
The frequently anthologized "Flowering Judas" is known for its tight technical construction, its rich symbolism, and its thematic unity. Porter herself once acknowledged that this piece, which focuses on an emotionally withdrawn expatriate living in Mexico and participating in that country's revolution, was one of her best writings. She also stated that the tale was first inspired by her stay in Mexico in the early part of the twentieth century: "All the characters and episodes are based on real persons and events, but naturally, as my memory worked upon them and time passed, all assumed different shapes and colors, formed gradually around a central idea, that of self-delusion." Despite the story's autobiographical beginnings, critics acknowledge that the imagery, tensions, and language of "Flowering Judas" are the work of a master writer of fiction; in appraising Porter's work, David Madden has noted Joseph Conrad's junction that '"[a] work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line.' 'Flowering Judas' realizes that aspiration to an uncommon degree."
Plot and Major CharactersAlthough frequently incorporating flashbacks, "Flowering Judas" chronologically takes place in the span of one evening in 1920s Mexico shortly after the Obregon revolution. The story opens with the protagonist, an American woman named Laura, returning to the hacienda where she lives. A lapsed Catholic and a virgin known for her nun-like costume, Laura teaches English to local children, delivers messages and narcotics to political prisoners, and does various errands for leading members of the movement. Waiting for her at home is Braggioni, a leader in the revolution who attempts to seduce her through conversation and song. Laura's thoughts reveal her distaste for Braggioni, other men's ill-fated attempts to pursue a romantic relationship with her, and the lack of true emotional commitment or involvement in her life—she cares little for her teaching, finds no joy in her chastity, struggles with her religious beliefs, and participates in the revolution for strictly intellectual reasons. Eventually Braggioni leaves and returns to his long-suffering wife with whom he achieves a momentary reconciliation, but not before Laura reveals that one prisoner whom she regularly visits, Eugenio, will be dead by morning. Eugenio has stockpiled the drugs brought by Laura and taken them all in an attempt to kill himself. Though discovered by Laura, he has asked her not to call a doctor, a request to which she has complied. Like Laura, Braggioni honors this request, albeit out of contempt for the prisoner. "Flowering Judas" ends with Laura dreaming of Eugenio, who promises to take her to a new country—the land of death. She is lowered onto the ground by the Judas tree outside her bedroom window and finds herself in a variety of landscapes. She keeps asking Eugenio to take her hand, but he refuses, offering instead flowers from the Judas tree. Laura accepts and eats the blossoms only to discover that Eugenio's hands have been reduced to bone. Eugenio accuses her of being a murderer and a cannibal; echoing lines from the Bible, he claims the blooms are his body and blood. Laura then awakens from her nightmare, afraid to fall back asleep.
Thematic analyses of "Flowering Judas" typically emphasize the story's focus on love and betrayal, the latter most obviously evoked by the name Judas, the name of the apostle who betrayed Jesus, in the title. On the most simplistic level, Laura has betrayed Eugenio by participating in his murder. Though technically a suicide, Laura is, to a degree, responsible for his death, a fact that her subconscious realizes in her dream. Braggioni is similarly a betrayer; he is guilty of adultery and, like Laura, has sent men, including Eugenio, to their deaths. Critics additionally note there are more elaborate examples of betrayal in "Flowering Judas." For instance, Laura's lack of true political conviction and enthusiasm for the revolution are often seen as acts against the movement as a whole. Laura's role in Eugenio's death and her ambivalent attitude toward her pupils—she does not feel warmth for the children but appreciates "their charming opportunist savagery"—are also seen as a betrayal, or rejection, of life in general and love in particular. Porter's thematic focus on love is further reflected in the relationship between Laura and her various suitors. She ultimately rejects each of their advances, but her misleading attitude of tolerance and her, at times, thoughtless actions are misconstrued as encouragement. Her relationship with Braggioni, specifically his visit in the story—the imagery of which contains sexual connotations—is often viewed as a brief study of sexual repression, physical erotic love, and spiritual love. Other thematic interpretations of the story emphasize the importance of revolution and religion.
"Flowering Judas" is often discussed in conjunction with Porter's "Miranda" tales and other stories of hers having a Mexican setting. Whether discussed in this light or examined for its own literary merits, "Flowering Judas" is frequently praised as a stylistically and thematically unified masterpiece of the short story genre. Critics typically focus on the final scene of "Flowering Judas," the dream sequence, as well as Laura's visit with Braggioni, and much criticism has been generated about the tale's thematic focus on death, betrayal, denial, and love. "Flowering Judas" has also garnered praise for various stylistic features, including the use of flashbacks and the present tense, as well as the lack of a formal, linear story line. Commentators have also emphasized the semi-autobiographical story's inherent religious aspects, including allusions to the apostle Judas, works by T. S. Eliot and Dante Alighieri having religious overtones, the foot-washing scene involving Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and the sacrament of eucharist as first celebrated at the Last Supper. Nevertheless, such a focus, as critics assert, does not imply that "Flowering Judas" is solely a religious tale but a rather a sophisticated exercise in mood and outlook. As M. M. Liberman has written: "'Flowering Judas' owes its greatness not at all to some opportunistic employment of a conventional religious symbol to signify theme but to a brilliant narrative practice throughout, one capable of representing a feeling that, once apprehended by the reader, permits him to see with what overriding intelligence Miss Porter knew her Laura, 'the desperate complication of her mind' and what it meant."