Literature Annotations


O'Connor, Flannery
Greenleaf


Genre Short Story (30 pp.)
KeywordsCommunication, Family Relationships, Freedom, Human Worth, Nature, Obsession, Power Relations, Prayer as Medicine, Religion, Society, Spirituality, Trauma
Summary

A stray bull has been grazing on Mrs. May's farm for several days. She is outraged that her tenant/farmhand, Mr. Greenleaf, hasn't chased the bull away; and her outrage only grows stronger when she learns that the bull belongs to the tenant's sons, who have settled not far away with their French wives and bilingual children.

Mrs. May is a widow lady whose two sons, both in their mid-30s, live on the farm with her, but have no interest in farming. One sells life insurance to black folks; the other is an intellectual. Mrs. May thinks she knows how to "handle" Mr. Greenleaf; she has employed him for 15 years despite his stupidity and shiftlessness. His wife is a religious fanatic and faith healer. His twin sons, unlike Mrs. May's, went away to the war in Europe, rose in the ranks, came home with European wives, and now each had a piece of good land and three children in a convent school. They also have a bull that escaped, but they evidently don't it want back.

Mrs. May becomes more and more obsessed with the bull that is eating her out of house and home. Finally, she demands that Mr. Greenleaf shoot it and insists on accompanying him to make sure the deed is done. When the bull escapes to the woods, Greenleaf follows it. Shortly thereafter, it comes charging out of the wood directly toward Mrs. May. Mr. Greenleaf finally shoots the bull just after it has gored Mrs. May in the chest and killed her.

Commentary

Mrs. May is a respectable person who has devoted her life to being "right." She is socially blameless. Thus, it doesn't make sense that bad things happen to her. For example, first, her husband died; and now her two well-educated sons continue to sponge off her largesse, but care nothing about the farm and have little or no respect for her. Meanwhile, look at that ignorant, socially inferior Greenleaf family! They raised two productive, prosperous, and apparently happy sons. It isn't fair.

Whatever the bull is, it can't be controlled. The bull transcends petty human efforts to assert authority over nature. This fact appears evident to the Greenleafs, who need not maintain an image or mastery or respectability. They acknowledge that the bull is a force of nature (or God's will), and we just have to adapt ourselves to it.

However, to Mrs. May the bull is simply someone else's property and it is damaging her property. Disposing of it is potentially a simple matter, if it weren't for Mr. Greenleaf's laziness and her sons' indifference. She takes the matter into her own hands, hounding Mr. Greenleaf to his breaking point. But neither one of them can predict the outcome. As she achieves her goal (Greenleaf kills the bull), the bull impales and kills Mrs. May, reminding the reader of the old TV commercial: "Don't mess with Mother Nature."

SourceEverything That Rises Must Converge
PublisherFarrar, Straus, & Giroux
Edition1965
Place PublishedNew York
Alternate SourceComplete Stories of Flannery O'Connor
Alternate PublisherFarrar, Straus & Giroux
Alternate Edition1981
Place PublishedNew York
Annotated by Coulehan, Jack
Date of Entry 10/11/04
Last Revised 11/12/04