Narrative Structure and Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1532

In her essay "The Eye of the Story,'' fellow southern writer and critic Eudora Welty observes that "most good stories are about the interior of our lives, but Katherine Anne Porter's stories take place there; they surface only at her choosing." "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall'' is certainly one of these interior stories, as Porter uses Ellen Weatherall's fragile state of mind as a narrative device to connect past and present and the living and the dead.

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While "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" is told by a third person narrator, readers are drawn into the mind of Ellen Weatherall and come to see the events of the story from her perspective. Readers laugh along with her, for example, when she teases the doctor about his youth. Gradually, however, Ellen's grasp of reality slips off its moorings and she begins to journey back into her past. Readers are able to travel along with Ellen Weatherall as her memories slip in and out of the present time during the course of the story. This narrative technique, called stream-of-consciousness, allows the writer to abandon the ordinary constraints of time and space, and invites the reader to enter into the consciousness of the character. Porter's descriptive prose brilliantly portrays the way Granny Weatherall's mind wanders from the sound of whispered voices to remembered breezes, from the feeling of being in one room one moment, to the memory of another room long ago. Important events in Granny Weatherall's life are recounted in fragmented recollections, and readers become privy to these memories in the course of the story. In Eudora Welty's words, "The presence of death hovering about Granny Weatherall she [Porter] makes as real and brings us near as Granny's own familiar room that stands about her bed realer, nearer, for we recognize not only death's presence but the character death has come in for Granny Weatherall." As readers we become the unseen observers in the room, sympathizing with Granny's point of view.

The woman who "weathered all," for whom life has been "a tough pull," struggles first to suppress and then to address the worst moment of her life. This moment occurred on the day when George jilted her at the altar. Granny Weatherall is a woman who likes to take care of details and to make plans, and in exchange she expects certain results. She still believes that her death is not imminent. She thanks God that "there was always a little margin over for peace: then a person could spread out the plan of life and tuck in the edges neatly." But as her conscious control falters, she remembers the day when her faith in order was shattered: "the day... a whirl of smoke rose and covered it, crept up and over into the bright field where everything was planted so carefully in orderly rows.'' In this passage the smoke symbolizes confusion and doubt overwhelming her best laid plans, which are symbolized by the neat rows. These images of light and dark, clarity and confusion, recur in various forms throughout the story and foreshadow the final scene when darkness defeats Granny Weatherall' s careful calculations.

Although Granny Weatherall apparently takes pleasure in recollecting the accomplishments of her life: the children born and raised; the hard work taken on and completed; the "edges tucked in orderly''; she cannot keep the clouds of doubt out of her mind. John Edward Hardy discusses her doubt in his book Katherine Anne Porter. Hardy writes: "the pleasure of her recollections ... is gradually undercut by a recurrent, terrifying sense of something lost, or missed, something that she can never quite define, something so important that the lack of it makes all that she had as nothing." Granny herself reveals what it is she had feared all her life: "For sixty years she had prayed against remembering him and against losing her soul in the deep pit of hell, and now the two things were mingled in one and the thought of him was a smoky cloud from hell that moved and crept in her head.'' There is dramatic irony in that she does not fully understand the connection between these two events, her death and her jilting.

Granny Weatherall believes that her prayers and her exemplary life will ensure that she will never again feel like she did on the day she was jilted. She remembers that day as a time when "[t]he whole bottom dropped out of the world, and there she was blind and sweating with nothing under her feet and the walls falling away." She has spent a great deal of her dying hours coming to terms with her jilting, deciding that she wanted George to be told that she had forgotten him, measuring the husband and children she had despite him against his abandonment of her. In her final moments, however, she is jilted again. She asks God for a sign, and "For the second time there is no sign."

Several important elements in the story converge at this climactic moment, just as the light in Granny Weatherall's consciousness narrows to a tiny point. First, the images of light and dark that have occurred throughout the story are used for full dramatic effect in this scene. "Granny lay curled down within herself, amazed and watchful, staring at the point of light that was herself; her body was now only a deeper mass of shadow in an endless darkness and this darkness would curl around the light and swallow it up." The darkness and obscurity of doubt and betrayal finally completely obscure the light of certainty and faith. Secondly, this scene reveals another meaning of the title. Just as Granny herself had thought that being left at the altar was the worst thing that could have happened to her, as readers we have believed until now that the jilting in the story refers to that horrible day sixty years ago. Several critics have pointed out however, that in this second jilting, the absent bridegroom is not the hapless George, but the Christ of Matthew 25:1-13 in the New Testament,

Porter's suggestion is not that the good and dutiful Granny Weatherall is betrayed by her God. It is rather that she has betrayed, or fooled, herself, into believing that the universe was an orderly place where you were rewarded for "tucking in the edges'' neatly. Ellen Weatherall's characteristic response is outrage, "Oh, no, there's nothing more cruel than this I'll never forgive it." Eudora Welty argues that outrage is Porter's "cool instrument," and that "she uses it to show what monstrosities of feeling come about not from the lack the existence of love but from love's repudiation, betrayal." The final irony for Granny Weatherall is that in death she is finally free of the haunting memory of the day she was jilted. The sorrow of her final jilting is so great that "she could not remember any other because this grief wiped them all away."

"The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" first appeared in Katherine Anne Porter's volume of stories, Flowering Judas, published in 1930. Critics have pointed to a number of echoes of other literature, or allusions, in Porter's story. Granny Weatherall's daughter Cornelia is similar to Cordelia in Shakespeare's tragedy, King Lear, whose unconditional love for her father is taken for granted. More striking are the resemblances of "Weatherall" to Henry James's story "The Beast in Jungle." Like Granny Weatherall, the main character in James's story is terrified of an unnamed emptiness, of having life mean nothing in the end. The name of the house where the story begins, Wetherend, recalls Porter's character's name, and the description of May Bartram's neat household is strikingly similar to the way Granny Weatherall describes her own habits: "The perfection of household care, of high polish and finish, always reigned in her rooms, but they now looked as if everything had been wound up, tucked in, put away.''

Finally, students of American poetry cannot help but be reminded when reading the final scene of "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," of two Emily Dickinson poems. Hardy discusses this aspect of the story in his book as well. Porter's description of Granny's imaginary trip is reminiscent of lines in poem #712. "Granny stepped up in the cart very lightly and reached for the reins, but a man sat beside her and she knew him by his hands, driving the cart." In these words are the clear echoes of the opening lines of Dickinson's poem: "Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me / The Carriage held but just Ourselves / And Immortality.''

Later, in the description of Granny Weatherall's last moments, we find the that Porter pays homage to another Dickinson poem concerning death and dying, #465: "With Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz— / Between the light—and me— / And then the Windows failed—and then / I could not see to see."

Porter's description of Granny Weatherall's death is remarkably similar: "The blue light from Cornelia's lampshade drew into a tiny point in the center of her brain, it flickered and winked like an eye, quietly it fluttered and dwindled."

Source: Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.

Ambiguities Resulting in Varied Interpretations

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1243

The ambiguities in Katherine Ann Porter's "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" have provided fertile ground for widely different interpretations. Most critics, however, agree that Granny dies without a sign from God that her soul will be received into heaven. I would like to present evidence to the contrary: Granny does indeed get a sign, but one that she does not recognize. Her mistake is that she expects to receive this sign from Christ, when it is not Christ whom she should expect, but her own daughter Hapsy.

Hapsy is an elusive character. Even her paternity has been questioned. David and Madeline Barnes, for example, in "The Secret Sin of Granny Weatherall," claim that Hapsy is George's child. Their conclusion contradicts evidence that Hapsy is Ellen's last child, born "forty years ago when [she] pulled through milklegs," a disease that Laurence Becker points out is related to childbirth. Charles Allen symbolically identifies Hapsy with George; Joseph Wiesenfarth argues that Hapsy, like George, never shows up; and John Hardy associates her with the "Blessed Mother" and merges "images of Hapsy's baby [with] the infant Jesus." The significance of Hapsy, however, lies not in her paternity, nor in her similarity to George or the Virgin Mary, but in the fact that she was Ellen's favorite child and that she died while giving birth to her own child.

Granny has demonstrated all her life that she is an independent and pragmatic woman who does what needs to be done with or without a man. Mostly, she appears better off without a man. Although George had the ability to pitch "her soul in the deep pit of hell," and John died and left her alone to fence in "a hundred acres...digging the post holes herself," only Christ can utterly destroy her by not showing up at her deathbed: "There is nothing more cruel than this—I'll never forgive it." Merrill Skaggs calls Ellen Weatherall the

female Romantic [whose] indomitable soul dies unconquered-----Recognizing the endless betrayals of God, lovers and a universe that can randomly "snuff out a dream," she can choose her own last moment, when she is ready for it, and can thus in her own time and in her own way, acting on her own impulse, embrace the dark.

Skaggs's valiant effort to elevate Granny to the position of feminist paragon fails to recognize that her blowing out the light is but a last-minute effort to gain autonomy over her own destiny, and that it comes as a result of her refusal to be humiliated once again.

Granny's last act (and indeed her entire life after John's death) contradicts her own theories that only by submission to a man and by being a mother can a woman achieve happiness and health: "A woman needed milk in her to have her full health," she says after giving birth to Hapsy. Her attitude toward George sixty years later proves not only that she did not forget the jilting, but that she has led a happy life, with a man and children, in spite of it: "I want [George] to know I had my husband just the same and my children and my house like any other woman. A good house too and a good husband that I loved and fine children out of him."

Because of her beliefs, Granny fails to realize the power of the feminine spirit. Her primary mistake consists not of blowing out her own light but of asking for a sign from the wrong person. Although normally quite aware of the proper channels through which requests to God are to be made—she had, after all, a "secret comfortable understanding with a few favorite saints who cleared a straight road to God for her"—on her deathbed she forgets the hierarchies and calls directly to "God [to] give a sign."

Confusing her approaching death with birth, Granny remembers telling John to "get the doctor now, no more talk, my time has come. When this one was born it should be the last. The last. It should have been born first, for it was the one she truly wanted" (my emphasis). Her several references to wanting Hapsy indicate that this last labor will result in the birth of Hapsy. That Hapsy gives birth to her own child is demonstrated by Ellen's command to John to "get the doctor now, Hapsy's time has come" (my emphasis). Clearly, the first time that has come (to give birth) refers to Ellen; the second to Hapsy. That Hapsy's child died with her, probably during childbirth, is evidenced by the fact that Granny, close to death, sees Hapsy and her child during what looks strikingly like an out-of-body experience, from which Cornelia calls her back.

Hapsy has been waiting for Granny for a long time, certainly not fewer than twenty years. If Hapsy died giving birth, then John died after her, inasmuch as Granny asks him to call the doctor for Hapsy's confinement, and John died relatively young. When Granny goes "through a great many rooms" to find her daughter with the baby on her arm, Granny

seemed to herself to be Hapsy also, and the baby on Hapsy's arm was Hapsy and himself and herself, all at once, and there was no surprise m the meeting Hapsy came up close and said, "I thought you' d never come," and looked at her very searchingly and said, "You haven't changed a bit"

Hapsy's words to her mother are formulaic, addressed to a traveler returning from a journey. If we take them literally, however, then Hapsy sees only her mother's immortal and unchanging soul, which has gone "a long way back" to find Hapsy, and which now mingles with the souls of Hapsy and her baby in a threefold unity that fulfills Granny's wish because all along it has been "Hapsy she really wanted.'' This is the sign Granny asks for, and as it appears before she asks for it, Granny fails to recognize it for what it is. Granny confuses her out-of-body experience with reality. She forgets that she had to go a long way back to find Hapsy, and, when she does, she thinks Cornelia can converse with her too: "Cornelia, tell Hapsy to take off her cap. I can't see her plain." Indeed, as if to force Granny toward insight, right before she asks for the sign from God, the very recent memory of Hapsy pops into her mind. And Hapsy repeats her earlier phrase, as if to call her mother home:

You'll see Hapsy again. What about her'' "I thought you'd never come" Granny made a long journey outward, looking for Hapsy What if I don't find her? What then?

Instead of accepting her now inevitable death and trusting Hapsy to wait for her, Granny engages in a futile contest with an absent male god. However, her apparent loss of faith and her doubts as to whether she will find Hapsy again are of little consequence. Because Hapsy spoke to Granny long before Granny realized that she was about to die, it appears to make no difference what she believes. The sign appears regardless of whether or not Granny calls for it, and the only reason Granny fails to perceive Hapsy as the sign is that, through her Catholic upbringing, she has been led to expect something entirely different.

Source: Barbara Laman, "Porter's 'The Jilting of Granny Weathertall'" in Explicator, Vol. 48, No 4, Summer, 1990, pp. 279-81.

The Secret Sin of Granny Weatherall

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1713

As one of Catherine Anne Porter's most brilliant technical accomplishments, "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" has evoked a number of critical responses in recent years. Most commentators admit to a certain ambiguity in the story, brought about largely by Miss Porter's skilful exploitation of the stream-of-consciousness—almost to its ultimate limits of complexity; none, so far as we have been able to discover, has adequately treated the matter of Granny's "sin" and its importance to an understanding of the story. Indeed, most are inclined to dismiss it as at best a venial violation, a natural occasion for concern on one's deathbed, but of little moral relevance otherwise.

There is in the story, however, evidence to show that Granny's concern for the state of her soul is genuine and closely connected with her memories of George, the man who had jilted her so many years before:

For sixty years she had prayed against remembering him and against losing her soul in the deep pit of hell, and now the two things were mingled in one and the thought of him was a smoky cloud from hell that moved and crept in her head when she had just got rid of Doctor Harry and was trying to rest a minute.

While most critics have either assumed or implied that Granny's sin is little more than the "wounded vanity'' she herself speaks of, her injured pride in being left waiting at the altar, "the fear that she has not withstood the shame gracefully," yet a more careful reading will, we think, reveal the true source of Granny' s fear of "losing her soul'': there is more than one indication that her jilting was attented by one further complication—pregnancy—and that Granny' s sense of guilt for her premarital transgression has continued to plague her all those years.

The evidence for such a reading manifests itself principally through the associative pattern of her stream-of-consciousness: in passing successively from consciousness to semi-consciousness and back again (and this is almost without exception the pattern of Miss Porter's extended paragraphs), Granny herself provides the necessary clues to the unravelling of the mystery.

To begin with, in her present semi-conscious state she confuses the purpose of Father Connolly's visit to her bedside:

"Mother, Father Connolly's here."

"I went to Holy Communion only last week. Tell him I'm not so sinful as all that''

"Father just wants to speak to you."

He could speak as much as he pleased. It was like him to drop in and inquire about her soul as if it were a teething baby.... (our italics).

The comparison is an apt one, as we shall shortly see; yet we also learn that "Granny felt easy about her soul," that she had a "secret comfortable understanding with a few favorite saints who cleared a straight road to God for her." Her pact with them was made, furthermore, on "the day when the wedding cake was not cut," the day that John came to her rescue:

He had cursed like a sailor's parrot and said, "I'll kill him for you." Don't lay a hand on him, for my sake leave something to God. "Now, Ellen, you must believe what I tell you...."

"So there was nothing, nothing to worry about any more".... Her confidence in this "secret comfortable understanding'' does, by the end of the story, undergo a severe shock; indeed, her passage from extreme self-confidence to frustrating agnosticism marks the theme of the story as a whole.

If she misinterprets the reason for Father Connolly's presence, she also indicates a similar mistaken notion about Doctor Harry. In a single telling paragraph which presents her train of thought from conscious to semi-conscious level, Granny silently answers Cornelia's solicitation: "Is there anything I can do for you?"

Yes, she had changed her mind after sixty years and she would like to see George. I want you to find George. Find him and be sure to tell him I forgot him. I want him to know I had my husband just the same and my children and my house like any other woman. A good house too and a good husband that I loved and fine children out of him. Better than I hoped for even. Tell him I was given back everything he took away and more. Oh, no, oh, God, no, there was something else besides the house and the man and the children. Oh, surely they were not all? What was it? Something not given back. Her breath crowded down under her ribs and grew into a monstrous frightening shape with cutting edges; it bore up into her head, and the agony was unbelievable- Yes, John, get the doctor now, no more talk, my time has come.

Granny confuses her present pain with the pangs of labor and associates it quite naturally with the "time" of her delivery. Part of this may no doubt be explained by her failure to understand why Doctor Harry has come—she associates "Doctor" here, as she has elsewhere in the story, with childbirth and thus resolves her confusion by assuming that the doctor has come to deliver her of her latest baby. The importance of the passage lies in the fact that it reveals to the reader, once again, her mind's preoccupation with thoughts of a baby. But perhaps even more important, these thoughts may be traced back by association to the question which had triggered them in her mind: the "Something not given back" by George—her chastity.

This train of thought continues to dominate Granny: "When this one was born it should be the last. The last. It should have been born first, for it was the one she had truly wanted." The passage may be viewed as ironic: Granny's "time has come" (i.e., she is about to die), and this labor will, in fact, be her last. That the last-born (Death) "should have been born first, for it was the one she had truly wanted'' may well allude to her wish to die at the birth of her first child. In any case, the text supports both the literal and ironic readings with consistency. Whatever else it may suggest, this passage carries with it the hint that Granny's firstborn may well have been unwanted—at least for a time. Eventually, this same child became the apple of Granny's eye and, as the text seems to indicate, a fated child. We are speaking, of course, of the elusive Hapsy.

Hapsy (perhaps a diminutive form of Hap=Fate?) is clearly Granny's favorite among her children:

It was Hapsy she really wanted. She had to go a long way back through a great many rooms to find Hapsy standing with a baby on her arm She seemed to herself to be Hapsy also, and the baby on Hapsy's arm was Hapsy and himself and herself, all at once, and there was no surprise in the meeting

It seems clear from the story that Hapsy has been long dead, for Granny converses with her only during her lapses into semi-consciousness. Time is inextricably confused in Granny's mind; she waits expectantly for Hapsy to come to her bedside, but each time she catches a glimpse of her in the mist of her imagination, each time she attempts to answer Hapsy, Cornelia intrudes, bringing her back to the world of reality.

There is, moreover, the suggestion that Granny shares true empathy with Hapsy, for Hapsy appears to have given birth to a child with only her stepfather John and Granny in attendance: "John, get the doctor now, Hapsy's time has come." Even in the passage in question there is no indication of Hapsy's having a husband—she is alone with "a baby on her arm"—and if Granny "seemed herself to be Hapsy also, and the baby on Hapsy's arm was Hapsy," so too many Hapsy be a mirror image of her mother, re-enacting her mother's sin with but one difference: she has no John to rescue her in her moment of need.

If we accept Hapsy as Granny's child by George, saved from illegitimacy by Granny's acceptance of John's marriage proposal, we may better understand some of the puzzling references elsewhere in the story. For one thing, her reminiscence of that fateful day when George failed to appear takes on a more pointed significance: "She tried to remember. No, I swear he never harmed me but in that. He never harmed me but in that ... and what if he did?" What, indeed, if he had harmed her more than simply by jilting her? What if he had left her alone and expecting his child? John had saved her from the shame, after all.

From the shame, but not from the guilt. For despite her understandable pride in how well she has succeeded in raising the children, in maintaining the farm all these years, in "weathering all" (as her name clearly suggests), Granny continues to be haunted by the memory, not simply of George, but of her own transgression with him. Her conscious confidence in heaven is, then, so much bravado and rationalization; it is only in her moments of semi-consciousness that the reader is able to perceive Granny's agonizing guilt, guilt which she has carried with her for sixty years, unable to expunge it wholly from her mind. To be sure, it is this same guilt which finally humanizes her for the reader and makes of her something more than a quaint caricature. It is this guilt which has led her do penance— by ministering to the nuns, making altar-cloths for the church, and the like. But perhaps most important of all, it is this which validates her grief, justifies her horror at not seeing any sign of her salvation at the moment of death:

For the second time there was no sign. Again no bridegroom and the priest in the house. She could not remember any other sorrow because this grief wiped them all away. Oh, no, there's nothing more cruel than this—I'll never forgive it. She stretched herself with a deep breath and blew out the light.

Source: Daniel R Barnes and Madeline T. Barnes, "The Secret Sin of Granny Weatherall,'' in Renascence, Vol XXI, No. 1, Autumn, 1968, pp 162-65.

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