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Last Updated on September 22, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 875

Discordant Value Systems

Mrs. May believes she is superior to those around her because she ascribes her values to everyone she encounters. In particular, she prizes—and is almost obsessed with—her feelings of superiority over the Greenleafs, who she sees as shiftless white trash. Mrs. Greenleaf's prayer healings, a practice involving the burial of tragic newspaper clippings followed by rolling around on the ground in prayer, horrify Mrs. May. These practices seem tasteless and barbarian; to her, they indicate that Mrs. Greenleaf is an ignorant and lower-class woman. She puts no credence in prayer, and it never occurs to her to consider that Mrs. Greenleaf's prayer might be effective. When her sons mockingly suggest she attend church, Mrs. May responds scathingly. She tells them they should go, but not for spiritual reasons. Instead, she tells them it is a place to meet nice girls.

Because of her secular outlook, Mrs. May believes her work will save her. She feels a smug satisfaction and a self-righteous sense of martyrdom because she works harder than anyone else—especially the Greenleafs, who are the yardstick by which she finds a sense of self-worth. She constantly compares Greenleaf's shiftlessness to her work ethic but never considers that it may be her faith—and not her work—that may constitute her judgment. Hers is the central folly of the short story, as Mrs. May fails to realize—until it is far too late—that her value system is neither monolithic nor perfect.

The Effects of Isolation and Control on Relationships

Mrs. May is isolated from meaningful human relationships. She views the Greenleafs with contempt and refuses to treat them with kindness or respect; in her mind, she is a member of a class "above" the Greenleafs, and they are "below" her. Beyond her social isolation, she finds herself severely alienated from her two adult sons. She is highly critical of them, and they treat her with barely-disguised distaste. The family home is a toxic environment smoldering with hate. Mrs. May might have class, but her way of maintaining relationships means she lacks love and companionship.

One of Mrs. May’s key motivations is the desire to control every aspect of her life. This desire is a symptom of her need for perfection in the eyes of high-class society. Anything other than this lofty goal is a failure and reflects poorly on her. Thus, her attempts to exert control become a dominating motivation that overshadows her entire life and those in it. Her need for control and self-determinism means she does not truly believe in God. Her superficial faith does little to alleviate her struggles, and it often feels that the weight of the world rests on her shoulders. By the end of the story, she feels overburdened by her isolation and overpowering need for control. In this moment of weakness and need, Jesus comes to her, for she is weary and heavy-laden.

The dueling combination of isolation based on her sense of superiority and need to control builds to a head in the final part of the story. She exults in forcing Mr. Greenleaf to accompany her with a shotgun to shoot the bull because she knows it inconveniences and saddens him. The ability to force another person to do her will gives her a sense of vindication and triumph. However, as the story shows, control is an illusion: as the bull gores her, readers realize that Mrs. May is, in reality, in control of nothing; her life and all that occurs within it is in the hands of a higher power.

The Feeling of Revelation

At its core, the short story is an allegory for spiritual revelation, as the main character is an arrogant secular woman surrounded by Christian imagery. The bull, which she finds an annoyance and intends to kill, is a figure of Christianity and acts as a symbolic figuration of Christ, as it wears a wreath that appears as a “menacing prickly crown.”

Mr. Greenleaf, a spiritual man, likes the bull and constantly refers to it as a "gentleman." Mrs. May, however, does not want it invading her life. Its mere presence bothers her, and she wants to rid herself of it. The beast symbolizes the disruption of the contrived order she has imposed on her world, an alteration to her perfect vision of life that she cannot abide by.

When the bull gores Mrs. May, O'Connor describes the act romantically, almost as if the violence is a lover's embrace. Using the language of the Catholic saints, Mrs. May is "pierced" by the symbolic Jesus, who holds her in an "unbreakable grip." The encounter with him changes everything, in ways that, for a person like Mrs. May, are "unbearable," a word that has both negative and positive connotations in this context. Undoubtedly, the encounter has changed her, as such experiences with the divine inevitably will. As O’Connor describes Mrs. May’s appearance post-goring: 

She continued to stare straight ahead, but the entire scene in front of her had changed—the tree line was a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky—and she had the look of a person who, upon the sudden restoration of their sight, finds the light unbearable.

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