Flowering Judas, Katherine Anne Porter - Essay

Katherine Anne Porter


(Short Story Criticism)

"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 Porter herself once acknowledged that this piece, which focuses on an emotionally withdrawn expatriate living in Mexico and participating in that country's revolution, was one of her best writings.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 Characters

Although 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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

"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."

Ray B. West, Jr. (essay date 1947)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Katherine Anne Porter: Symbol and Theme in 'Flowering Judas'," in Accent, Vol. 7, Spring, 1947, pp. 182-88.

[In the following excerpt, West analyzes religious and political symbols in "Flowering Judas."]

Katherine Anne Porter, in writing of Katherine Mansfield's fictional method in 1937, said that she "states no belief, gives no motive, airs no theories, but simply presents to the reader a situation, a place and a character, and there it is; and the emotional content is present as implicitly as the germ in the grain of wheat." Of her own method she has written: "Now and again thousands of memories converge, harmonize, arrange themselves around a central idea in a coherent form, and I write a story."

Enlightening though these statements are concerning Miss Porter's concept of a short story, true as they appear to be of her own fiction and of the creative process, they still leave the reader with his own problem of "understanding" when he is confronted with the individual story. If we disregard the fact that the first statement was made about a fellow artist (it is still descriptive of Miss Porter's own stories), we must yet discover the "germ" which produced the emotion and which flowers into the final form of the story. Though we might say that the converging, the harmonizing, and the arranging constitute a logical, though partly subconscious, activity which serves to bring the objects of memory into some kind of order, still it is the nature of this synthesis—particularly in the predominantly social themes from Flowering Judas (1930) to The Leaning Tower (1944)—which puzzles most readers.

That Miss Porter herself was aware of the nature of her sensibility is clear from her comments concerning Miranda in a late story, who had, she says, "a powerful social sense, which was like a fine set of antennae radiating from every pore of her skin." Miss Porter's own social sense is most obvious (perhaps too obvious) in her latest long story, "The Leaning Tower," but it is not with the most obvious examples that the reader wishes to concern himself; rather, with the seemingly obscure; and since I have nowhere seen published or heard expounded an examination of "Flowering Judas," and since it is perhaps Miss Porter's best known story (to my mind, her most successful single work of fiction), let us examine that with the aim of understanding just what the author means by social sensibility—how it operates within the story itself.

The surface detail in "Flowering Judas" is relatively simple. An American girl who has been educated in a Southern convent is in Mexico teaching school and aiding a group of revolutionaries under Braggioni, a sensual hulk of a man, formerly a starving poet, but who is now in a position to indulge even his appetite for the most expensive of small luxuries. The girl (Laura) teaches her children in the daytime and at night runs errands for Braggioni, acting as go-between for him and the foreign revolutionaries, delivering messages and narcotics to members of the party who are in jail. At the point where the story opens, Braggioni has come to Laura's apartment to discover, if possible, whether it would be worth the effort to attempt an assault upon her "notorious virginity," which he, like the others, cannot understand. Laura is physically attractive, and this is not the first time that she has been courted by the Mexicans. Her first suitor was a young captain whom she evaded by spurring her horse when he attempted to take her into his arms, pretending that the horse had suddenly shied. The second was a young organizer of the typographers' union who had serenaded her and written her bad poetry which he tacked to her door. She had unwittingly encouraged him by tossing a flower from her balcony as he sang to her from the patio. A third person, Eugenio, is unknown to the reader until near the end of the story, when it turns out that he is expected to die of a self-imposed overdose of the narcotics which Laura had delivered to him at the prison. He is, however, the principal figure in a dream which ends the story, a dream in which Laura imagines him to have accused her of murdering him and in which he forces her to eat of the blossoms of the Judas tree which grows in the courtyard below her window.

All of the immediate action takes place in Laura's apartment after she has returned and found Braggioni awaiting her. He sings to her in a voice "passionately off key," talks about their curious relationship, about the revolution, and finally leaves after having Laura clean his pistol for use in a May-day disturbance between the revolutionaries and the Catholics of a near-by town. Braggioni returns to his wife, whom he has deserted for a month to pay attention to Laura, and who, despite the fact that she has been weeping over his absence, accepts his return gratefully and washes his feet. Laura goes to bed and has her dream of Eugenio.

It will be seen, even from this brief summary, that there are a great many details unexplained by the course of the action. There is the concern with revolutionary activities running throughout; there are the comments concerning Laura's religious training: the nun-like clothing, her slipping away into a small church to pray, the May-day demonstration. Obviously, a great many details have symbolic references, not least of which is the title itself.

If we turn to any standard encyclopedia, we discover that the Flowering Judas is a tree commonly known as the Judas tree or Red-bud. We learn further that a popular legend relates that it is from this tree that Judas Iscariot hanged himself. A second fact is that the exact title appears in a line from T. S. Eliot's poem "Gerontion":

In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger
In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas,
To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk Among whispers.

This is scarcely a coincidence, since Eliot's passage so clearly suggests Laura's activity at the end of the story. Our first question is: what use is made of this symbol? The dividing, the eating and drinking among whispers suggests the Christian sacrament, but it is a particular kind of sacrament. "Christ the tiger" refers to the pagan ritual in which the blood of a slain tiger is drunk in order to engender in the participants the courage of the tiger heart. In a sense this is only a more primitive form of sacrament, one which presupposes a direct rather than symbolic transfer of virtues from the animal to man. In the Christian ritual, the symbolic blood of Christ is drunk in remembrance of atonement; that is, symbolically to engender the virtues of Christ in the participant.

If the Judas tree, then, is a symbol for the betrayer of Christ (the legend says that its buds are red because it actually became the body of Judas, who is said to have had red hair), then the sacrament in which Laura participated—the eating of the buds of the Flowering Judas—is a sacrament, not of remembrance, but of betrayal.

This leads us to other uses of the...

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George Hendrick (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "My Familiar Country: Alienation" in Katherine Anne Porter, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1965 pp. 39-43.

[In the following excerpt, Hendrick provides a thematic analysis of "Flowering Judas, " noting its focus on religion, self-destruction, betrayal, and the "wasteland theme."]

"Flowering Judas," (1930) can profitably be read in the light of "Where Presidents Have No Friends," Miss Porter's brilliant analysis of the Obregón revolution. Though feeling a profound respect for the aims of the movement, she sees the confusion and the cross-purposes present at both the highest and lowest levels, as further confused by foreign opportunists who found support from many...

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Sister Mary Bride (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Laura and the Unlit Lamp," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 1, No. 1, Fall, 1963, pp. 61-3.

[In the brief essay below, Bride comments on the relationship between chastity, religion, and spirituality in "Flowering Judas."]

A superficial reading of Katherine Anne Porter's "Flowering Judas" could very well lead one to regard it as a manifesto of what might be called the theology of the aesthete, in which chastity is the first of the capital sins and the refusal of sexual indulgence replaces the oppression of the poor as the sin crying to heaven for vengeance.

Like Browning, however, at the conclusion of "The Statue and the Bust," Porter might...

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Beverly Gross (essay date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetic Narrative: A Reading of 'Flowering Judas'," in Style, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring, 1968, pp. 129-39.

[In the essay below, Gross discusses technical, thematic, and stylistic aspects of "Flowering Judas, " delineating the story's poetic and poetical nature.]

I would like to raise some questions about poetic narrative with the hope of making some sense out of the vague but useful recognition which the term conveys—that narrative form may at some times and in some ways take on some of the qualities of poetry. What these are and how they may affect the nature and powers of narration I propose to discuss through the example of Katherine Anne Porter's...

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Leon Gottfried (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Death's Other Kingdom: Dantesque and Theological Symbolism in 'Flowering Judas'," in PMLA, Vol. 84, No. 1, January, 1969, pp. 112-24.

[Here, Gottfried examines Porter's use of religious symbolism and ideals in "Flowering Judas, " particularly those evinced in Dante Alighieri's writings, as well as her focus on negation and death.]


I have a great deal of religious symbolism in my stories because I have a very deep sense of religion and also I have a religious training. And I suppose you don't invent symbolism. You don't say, "I'm going to have the flowering judas tree stand for betrayal," but, of course, it does....

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Dorothy S. Redden (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Flowering Judas': Two Voices," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. VI, No. 2, Winter, 1969, pp. 194-204.

[In the following essay, Redden examines Porter's use of dualities and balanced tensions in "Flowering Judas."]

Katherine Anne Porter's "Flowering Judas," an unusually cryptic, complex, and challenging story, has been variously interpreted. Of the two best-known and most complete readings, that of William L. Nance maintains that Miss Porter follows "the principle of rejection" [Katherine Anne Porter & the Art of Rejection, 1964], while Ray B. West, Jr., argues that she "embodied an attitude that demonstrated the necessity for the application of...

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David Madden (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Charged Image in Katherine Anne Porter's 'Flowering Judas'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. VII, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp. 277-89.

[In the essay below, Madden discusses symbolism and imagery in "Flowering Judas, " arguing that this story succeeds because it contains the "charged image" structure in which "a created, transcendent image [has] . . . an organic life of its own."]

In Writers at Work, Second Series [1965], the interviewer asked Katherine Anne Porter whether "Flowering Judas" began as a visual impression that grew into a narrative. "All my senses were very keen," Miss Porter replied. "Things came to me through my eyes, through all my...

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M. M. Liberman (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Symbolism, the Short Story, and 'Flowering Judas'," in Katherine Anne Porter's Fiction, Wayne State University Press, 1971, pp. 70-9.

[Liberman discusses the symbolism of "Flowering Judas, " arguing that the symbol of the Judas tree "is employed to enhance and finally to reiterate theme, but not to be a sign of theme as if theme had not been established by other means. "]

If one opens Jean Stafford's Collected Stories to, say, "The Lippia Lawn," which begins, "Although its roots are clever, the trailing arbutus at Deer Lick had been wrenched out by the hogs," he is promised the work of a poet, and this promise the other stories generally keep. It is the...

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John Edward Hardy (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "By Self Possessed: 'Flowering Judas'," in Katherine Anne Porter, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1973, pp. 68-76.

[In the following excerpt, Hardy offers a thematic analysis of "Flowering Judas," focusing on the story's emphasis on love, religion, and revolution. Hardy characterizes this story as "perhaps the best-known of Miss Porter's stories, and a great favorite of symbolist critics."]

"Flowering Judas" is perhaps the best-known of Miss Porter's stories, and a great favorite of symbolist critics. In 1947, Ray West elaborately analyzed the rather elaborately obvious religious symbolism of the story. Many later critics, taking West's study as a point of...

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Thomas F. Walsh (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Making of 'Flowering Judas'," in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 12, No. 1, March, 1985, pp. 109-30.

[In the following essay, Walsh discusses Porter's use of historical detail and personal experience in "Flowering Judas, " noting in particular how historical figures became the basis for several of the story's characters. ]

Over the years Katherine Porter furnished many autobiographical details about her most celebrated story, "Flowering Judas" (1930), stating [in This Is My Best, 1942] that "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...

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Thomas F. Walsh (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Braggioni's Songs in 'Flowering Judas'," in College Literature, Vol. XII, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 147-52.

[Here, Walsh details the relevance of Braggioni's songs and his singing to "'Flowering Judas"'s plot, theme, and characterization.]

"In Mexico, most of the birds, and all of the people, sing." So Katherine Anne Porter began her essay in 1924 on the Mexican corrido [The Survey, Vol. 50, No. 3, 1924]. She might have added later Braggioni, who, in "Flowering Judas," comes with guitar to sing to Laura and win her heart although he gives a "miserable performance" and only earns her contempt. Nevertheless the two songs he sings, "La Norteña" and...

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James Walter (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Revolution and Time: Laura in 'Flowering Judas'," in Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1, Autumn, 1985, pp. 26-38.

[In the following essay, Walter provides a thematic discussion of "Flowering Judas, " detailing Porter's use of language and focus on time and temporality, revolution, and reality.]

In Katherine Anne Porter's "Flowering Judas," the following words take shape as an alienated young woman's conscious summary of her day as she awaits the narcotic of sleep to deliver her from her personal confusion: ". . . it is monstrous to confuse love with revolution, night with day, life with death—ah, Eugenio!" (Collected...

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John Gerlach (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Twentieth Century: New Forms: Imagist Form," in Toward the End: Closure and Structure in the American Short Story, The University of Alabama Press, 1985, pp. 94-107.

[In the excerpt below, Gerlach examines thematic and stylistic aspects of "Flowering Judas, " citing the relationship between Braggioni and Laura as the pivotal element in the story.]

[Katherine Anne Porter's] fastidiousness and the consequent diminution of her total output are legendary. Consequently, we might expect her to be more conscious of closure, and her comments on endings and their relation to structure have a familiar ring: "If I didn't know the ending of a story, I wouldn't begin....

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Darlene Harbour Unrue (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Inner Darkness," in Truth and Vision in Katherine Anne Porter's Fiction, The University of Georgia Press, 1985, pp. 12-59.

[In the following excerpt, Unrue analyzes Porter's emphasis on betrayal and the female principle in "Flowering Judas."]

["Flowering Judas"] almost always is interpreted as a story about revolution and betrayal, and any critical confusion has revolved around the extent to which Laura is in fact the betrayer, the "Judas." Ray West's elaborate analysis of Laura as betrayer because she brings no love to the revolution has been the most widely accepted interpretation for many years ["Katherine Anne Porter: Symbol and Theme in 'Flowering...

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Darlene Harbour Unrue (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mexico," in Understanding Katherine Anne Porter, University of South Carolina Press, 1988, pp. 22-46.

[In the following excerpt, Unrue briefly assesses theme and symbolism in "Flowering Judas."]

Porter did not include "The Martyr" or "Virgin Violeta" in her first collection of stories. She told a student that she had omitted them because she had not been satisfied with them once she saw them in print. A story which did satisfy her was "Flowering Judas," one of her best-known and most often anthologized stories. Although she took notes for the story in 1921, she did not complete it until 1929, the year before her last sustained visit to Mexico. She described...

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Norman Lavers (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Flowering Judas' and the Failure of Amour Courtois," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 77-82.

[In the essay below, in part a response to an essay by Ray B. West, Lavers analyzes the pattern and influence of the tradition of courtly love on "Flowering Judas."]

[In Lodwick Hartley and George Core's 1969 Katherine Anne Porter: A Critical Symposium] Ray B. West, in his essay, "Symbol and Theme in 'Flowering Judas,'" points out that Katherine Anne Porter's most famous story is symbolical, and therefore needs to be interpreted. He then proceeds to give the story a very sensitive reading, examining symbols, and unraveling...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

Heilman, Robert B. "Katherine Anne Porter: 'Flowering Judas'." In Modern Short Stories: A Critical Anthology, pp. 180-94. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1950.

Reprints "Flowering Judas" and then provides a brief critical discussion of the tale.

Ibieta, Gabriella. "The North-American Exile's Vision of Mexico According to Katherine Anne Porter." In Proceedings of the Xth Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, edited by Anna Balakian and James J. Wilhelm, pp. 233-38. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1985.

Examines Porter's depiction of Mexico in "Flowering Judas"...

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