Flowering Judas by Katherine Anne Porter, 1930
by Katherine Anne Porter, 1930
In "The Eye of the Story," an essay on Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, one of Porter's contemporaries and her equal in the delicate art of short fiction, says that, by using only enough of the physical world to meet her needs, Porter makes us see the "subjective worlds of hallucination, obsession, fever, guilt." In the essay "Irony with a Center," however, the critic and writer Robert Penn Warren notes that Porter's stories are characterized by "rich surface detail scattered with apparently casual profuseness and the close structure which makes such detail meaningful."
Although these two famous comments may initially sound contradictory, they actually complement each other and perceptively pinpoint the central quality of Porter's art—her ability to make mere physical reality resonate with moral significance. By means of a tactic that has dominated modern short fiction since Anton Chekhov, Porter makes works such as "Flowering Judas," which is her most famous story, appear to be realistic situations about people caught in specific moral dilemmas while at the same time they are spiritual allegories in which characters and objects are emblems of universal moral issues.
Although the conflict in "Flowering Judas" takes place in the interior of the protagonist's life—which, as Welty notes, is the case in most of Porter's stories—it is less a psychological study of one individual's act of renunciation than a symbolic parable of the basic nature of renunciation. Laura, named perhaps for the unattainable and thus idealistic object of Petrarch's love in his sonnets, is caught between her desire to embody her own ideals as a Marxist revolutionary in Mexico and her realization that the very nature of idealism means that it cannot be embodied.
The story appropriately opens with Laura face-to-face with the revolutionary leader Braggioni, who is so much an incarnation of flesh that his every action compels both Laura and the reader to confront his bodily being. He sits "heaped" over his guitar and "heaves" himself into song, scratching the instrument as if it were a pet animal and taking the high notes in a "painful squeal." He "bulges" marvelously in his clothes, "swelling" with "ominous ripeness" over his ammunition belt. Porter says that Braggioni has become the symbol of Laura's "many disillusions, for a revolutionist should be lean, animated by heroic faith, a vessel of abstract virtue."
Laura is caught in the disillusionment of all idealists—feeling "betrayed irreparably by the disunion between her way of living and her feeling of what life should be." Externally she projects the image of one who has rejected the flesh, preferring instead to wear the "uniform of an idea"—sound blue serge and a nunlike round white collar—and thus nobody touches her, even though they praise her "soft round underlip which promises gaiety yet is always grave."' Braggioni tells her that she only thinks she is cold, and he puzzles on the "notorious virginity" of the simple girl who "covers her great round breasts with thick dark clothe and who hides long invaluably beautiful legs under a heavy skirt."
The many dichotomies in the story—Laura's Catholicism and her socialism, her sensuality and her ascetic renunciation, her dedication to the people and her renunciation of genuine involvement—coalesce in the symbolic dichotomy of Braggioni, who affirms life even though it means throwing himself into the physical and becoming a "professional lover of humanity," and in Eugenio, the imprisoned revolutionary who maintains his idealism but who negates life and wants to die because he is bored. The key mythic figures embodying this antithesis in the story are Judas, who gives it its title, and Christ, the one he betrayed.
Given the powerful universal significance of these dichotomies, it is little wonder that they cannot actually be resolved but must be resolved aesthetically in a dream, typical of medieval dream visions that the story in some ways resembles. In Laura's dream she refuses to follow Eugenio to death because he will not take her hand. In a dream-distorted reversal of Holy Communion, Eugenio gives Laura bleeding flowers from the Judas tree, the tree from which Judas hanged himself, which she greedily eats. Rather than affirming the inextricable union of body and spirit, as Communion does, Laura's act is a negative one of betrayal for helping Eugenio escape life. The story ends with the "holy talismanic word" Laura always uses to keep her from being led into evil but that also keeps her from being involved in life—"No."
—Charles E. May