Style and Technique

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“The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” was published soon after British novelist Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) and American novelist William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929). Following these innovators in the stream-of-consciousness technique, Porter employs multiple points of view, combining stream of consciousness and ironic detachment. Often in the same paragraph and sometimes even in the same sentence, the omniscient author devolves into Granny Weatherall. The effect of this innovative technique is often ironic and always realistic. By tightly controlling point of view, Porter enriches Granny’s persona, making it easy for the reader to empathize with her. Empathy is further enhanced by the use of dialogue, which places the reader directly at the scene. The experience of reading this story is to enter Granny Weatherall’s mind, to share in her memories, and to experience the pain of her rejection.

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Porter’s clear and simple diction and syntax contrast with the complex point of view. Simile and metaphor are the predominant rhetorical devices. They serve largely to render Granny’s death experience in recognizable terms. Dr. Harry’s hand is “a warm paw like a cushion on her forehead” and he “floated like a balloon around the foot of the bed.” Granny “floated around in her skin,” and when her eyes closed involuntarily, “it was like a dark curtain drawn around the bed.” “Her eyelids wavered and let in streamers of blue-gray light like tissue paper over her eyes.” Her hallucinatory vision of Hapsy with the baby “melted from within and turned flimsy as gray gauze and the baby was a gauzy shadow.” As death approaches “she saw Dr. Harry with a rosy nimbus about him,” and Cornelia’s voice “staggered and bumped like a cart in a bad road.” It “made short turns and tilted over and crashed.” The earlier floating images are replaced by images of falling. “Her heart sank down and down, there was no bottom to death, she couldn’t come to the end of it.” As Granny “lay curled down within herself” she grew one with the surrounding darkness that “would curl around the light and swallow it up.” The light from the bedside lamp “flickered and winked like an eye.” The final sentence describes her death: “She stretched herself with a deep breath and blew out the light.”

Historical Context

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Porter once wrote that her stories grew primarily out of her passion for the feelings and motivations of individual people, claiming "I have never known an uninteresting human being, and I have never known two alike." For her, however, fascination with the individual did not preclude an interest in broader social and historical issues. Unique individuals were, in her view, the very building blocks of history—"these beings without which, one by one, all the 'broad movements of history' could never take place." The central character in "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," is someone who seems curiously removed from the time and place in which she lives—unable herself even to distinguish past from present. Yet, for Porter, individuals like Granny Weatherall provide the vehicle for an exploration of the broader social and historical forces of her time.

Progress and Social Fragmentation
First published in 1929, "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" appeared at the end of a period of relative prosperity in America and the beginning of what was to become the Great Depression. Emerging victorious at the end of the first World War, America in the 1920s was poised to undergo rapid economic growth and social progress. For women in particular, many new opportunities and roles were available. The decade began with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which for the first time gave women the right to vote. During the war, when many young men had left to fight in Europe, more women had entered the traditionally male worlds of work and higher education. In fields ranging from fashion to politics to literature, a new generation of women were expressing themselves with new levels of confidence.

The general prosperity of the 1920s, however, was not enjoyed by every segment of the population. Much of the economic growth, as well as the experimentation with social norms, was concentrated in large cities and industrial centers. The country was in many ways becoming more fragmented, as economic disparities and social distances between the urban Northeast and the rural South and Midwest deepened. Intergenerational conflicts were also heightened as the young seemed to adapt to changes more quickly than their elders. In the South, racially motivated murders occurred at the highest rate since the Reconstruction period immediately following the Civil War. A variety of radical movements including Anarchists, Socialists and Black Nationalists gained notoriety in calling for fundamental reforms, and such groups would gain more momentum in the coming years after the stock market crash in 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression.

Intellectuals Abroad
Many writers and thinkers of Porter's generation felt the need to leave their native country before they could write about it. Despite the United States' new economic and military prominence, European cities were still considered to be the most important centers of cultural activity. Like most of America's leading writers from this period—including Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and many others—Porter travelled extensively and lived abroad for much of her lifetime. Yet, despite the relative isolation in which they lived and worked, many of these writers sought to convey something quintessentially American through their stories. Porter was joined by other young writers, like Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner, in using settings and dialects identified with particular regions of the country.

On the other hand, while these American writers wanted to tell stories about farmers, small town folks and other characters living what could be called "traditional" lifestyles, they were also interested in exploring ' 'non-traditional'' ways of telling stories and in describing experiences that seemed new and contemporary. One of the strongest influences on these American writers was the literary and intellectual movement known as modernism. A large and diverse movement which originated in Europe and affected virtually every field of artistic endeavor, the modernists sought to develop radically new techniques and forms of expression, which they felt were required to convey the rapidly changing experiences of life in the 20th century. Modernist experiments in literature included "stream-of-consciousness" writing and the use of absurd or surreal imagery. Porter's work quickly won support and admiration within this closely knit international community of intellectuals, though Porter would not have a very wide reading audience among the general public until much later in her career.

Literary Style

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Early in her career, Porter came to be admired as an innovative and masterful stylist. In "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," she uses experimental, modernist narrative techniques in creating a moving and believable portrait of an eighty-year-old woman on her deathbed.

Stream-of-Consciousness Narration
One of the most striking stylistic aspects of ' 'The Jilting of Granny Weatherall'' is its unusual narrative perspective. Though the story is written in the third person, its narrative point of view is extremely close to that of the central character, Granny Weatherall. The story is told through stream-of-consciousness. Granny's thoughts are presented in a spontaneous fashion, as if readers had access to her thoughts at the moment each one occurs to her. Porter conveys what it is like to be an eighty-year-old woman whose mind tends to wander by enabling readers to experience some of the same confusion Granny feels. Since Granny sometimes mistakes one daughter for another, for example, the characters in the story sometimes dissolve and become other characters. Because Granny's awareness slips back and forth between her present reality and her remembered past, events in the story are presented as they occur to Granny rather than chronologically.

Symbolism and Allusion
The disjointed way in which the story is told gives it a poetic, dreamlike quality and enables its author to juxtapose certain recurring motifs and images. Much of Granny's reminiscing about the past seems to be triggered by people and events in her present. The untidiness of the room in her daughter's house where she is lying, for example, reminds Granny of her own housekeeping, which reminds her of the box of letters in her attic that she has been intending to go through and of the man, George, who wrote some of those letters. As certain images appear and reappear throughout the story, they take on more associations with the events of Granny's life and acquire multi-layered, symbolic significance. The dust Granny worries about as it gathers on the objects around her, for example, could be seen as representing the disorder in Granny's life and the painful memories she has tried unsuccessfully to sweep away.

The layers of meaning within some of the recurring images in the story are multiplied since they allude to motifs from the Bible. As the story's title suggests, the most significant of these are those associated with Granny's "jilting." The story returns to Granny's abortive wedding day most vividly, perhaps, when her daughter Cornelia announces that a priest has come to visit. His arrival seems to trigger Granny's memories of the day when "the bottom dropped out of the world" and she found herself being supported by the arms of a man offering to kill the fiance who had failed to show up. It appears that Granny, on her deathbed, is once again left alone waiting in vain for the arrival of a loved one—in this case her daughter Hapsy—with only the inadequate comfort offered to her by a priest. Parallels between Granny's situation and that of the "foolish brides" in the biblical parable in which Christ is compared to a bridegroom are suggested in the story's last paragraph: "Again no bridegroom and the priest in the house."

The symbols and allusions in the story are constructed so that they can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Granny can be judged as a woman who, like the "foolish brides," has not accepted Christ and for whom death therefore represents a spiritual and physical collapse. Another interpretation views the closing reference to the biblical parable as a product-of Granny's own imagination as she reflects on her life and judges herself. The subtlety of Porter's art lies in the fact that she offers no definitive answer to questions of interpretation. Porter leaves readers with a portrait of a woman facing death who is confronting the unanswerable questions of life.

Compare and Contrast

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1929: Most people died at home, surrounded by family members.

Today: Most deaths occur in a hospital setting, and death is often prolonged by drugs and other medical devices.

1920s: Only 23 percent of the American workforce is comprised of women according to Historical Statistics of the U.S.

Today: In 1994, women made up 46 percent of the American workforce according to the U.S. Board of Labor Statistics.

1920s: Most doctors make house visits to sick patients.

Today: Doctors who make housecalls see an average of 8 to 12 home patients a year—less than one percent of the average practitioner's patients.

Media Adaptations

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Collected Stories: K. A. Porter is available on audiocassette, published by Audio Partners, read by Siobhan McKenna, 170 minutes.

The Jilting of Granny Weatherall was produced by PBS in 1980 for the American Short Story Series. The adaptation stars Geraldine Fitzgerald, Lois Smith, and William Swetland; hosted by Henry Fonda, 57 minutes; available on video-cassette from Monterey Home Video and Karol Video.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Carson, Barbara Harrell. Essay in The Authority of Experience: Essays in Feminist Criticism, edited by Arlyn Diamond and Lee R. Edwards, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1977, pp 239-56.

Hardy, John Edward Katherine Anne Porter, Ungar, 1987.

Hendrick, George, and Willene Hendnck. Katherine Anne Porter, Twayne Publishers, 1988, pp. 1-73.

Warren, Robert Penn, editor and author of introduction Katherine Anne Porter: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1979, pp. 1-19.

Welty, Eudora "The Eye of the Story," Katherine Anne Porter. A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Penn Warren, Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1979, pp 72-80.

Wilson, Edmund "Kathenne Anne Porter," in The New Yorker, Vol. XX, September 30,1944, pp. 72-4.

Further Reading
Allen, Charles A. "Katherine Anne Porter: Psychology as Art," Southwest Review, Vol 41, 1956, pp 223-30.
An essay in which Allen identifies Hapsy with George symbolically.

Unrue, Darlene Harbour Understanding Katherine Anne Porter, University of South Carolina, 1988.
A good place to begin researching Porter's life and career, Unrue's book makes connections between various stories and between Porter's life and work.

Wiesenfarth, Joseph. "Internal Oposition in Porter's 'Granny Weatherall'," Critique, Vol 11,1969, pp 47-55.
Wiesenfarth argues in his essay that Hapsy, like George, never shows up at Granny's deathbed in the story.

Bibliography

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Austenfeld, Thomas Carl. American Women Writers and the Nazis: Ethics and Politics in Boyle, Porter, Stafford, and Hellman. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Katherine Anne Porter: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

Brinkmeyer, Robert H. Katherine Anne Porter’s Artistic Development: Primitivism, Traditionalism, and Totalitarianism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.

Busby, Mark, and Dick Heaberlin, eds. From Texas to the World and Back: Essays on the Journeys of Katherine Anne Porter. Fort Worth: TCU Press, 2001.

Fornataro-Neil, M. K. “Constructed Narratives and Writing Identity in the Fiction of Katherine Anne Porter.” Twentieth Century Literature 44 (Fall, 1998): 349-361.

Givner, Joan. Katherine Anne Porter: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

Hartley, Lodwick, and George Core, eds. Katherine Anne Porter: A Critical Symposium. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1969.

Spencer, Virginia, ed.“Flowering Judas”: Katherine Anne Porter. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Stout, Janis. Katherine Anne Porter: A Sense of the Times. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

Walsh, Thomas F. Katherine Anne Porter and Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

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