Laura, the troubled young protagonist of “Flowering Judas,” is disillusioned with Mexican politics, but her unhappiness goes much further than this. She walks through life feeling anxious and detached, always afraid, though she knows not of what. “She is not at home in the world,” Porter writes, summing up Laura’s state of mind. This overarching sense of ‘homelessness’ may be seen as the crux of Laura’s problem. Home refers to a physical and geographical place and it also refers to a set of feelings—security, belonging, connectedness, even love. Laura has none of these. The entire story takes place inside Laura’s house—her nominal Mexican home—where Braggioni’s overbearing presence makes Laura feel pressured and ill at ease. It is easy to see why she does not feel at home there. It is also understandable why, as a foreigner, a gringita, Laura does not feel at home in Mexico, and why, as a supporter of socialist revolution, she does not feel at home in her native capitalist America. However, not only does Laura not feel at home in any particular place, but she also does not feel at home “in the world” at large. Such alienation—that is, such separation and disharmony between the self and the outside world—is a feeling that many writers of Porter’s generation sought to express in their fiction.
Laura is 22 years old when the story takes place, sometime during Alvaro Obregon’s 1920-24 term as president of Mexico. Born approximately at the turn of the century, Laura may therefore be seen as a representative of what is known as the “lost generation.” The “lost generation” refers broadly to Americans who were born around 1900. Not unlike “generation X,” the “lost generation” found it difficult to put faith in the ideals and beliefs that had given meaning and structure to the lives of their parents. They rejected given values, but remained “lost” because they did not find new ones to replace the old. More narrowly, the “lost generation” refers to a circle of writers who defined the spirit of the age in their fiction, many of whom chose to express their alienation from their native culture by living abroad in self-imposed exile. In Exile’s Return, his canonical portrait of “lost generation” writers, essayist Malcolm Cowley describes the process that defined the generation as primarily geographical. He writes that the generation was lost “first of all, because it was uprooted, schooled away and almost wrenched away from its attachment to any region or tradition.” According to Cowley, the “lost generation” saw themselves as “homeless citizens of the world.” Indeed, being lost suggests being out of place, not belonging anywhere or with anyone.
Central to Laura’s feeling of homelessness is her status as an expatriate. Laura has given up residence in and allegiance to her American homeland. She has renounced the Catholic faith of her childhood and is uprooted from her past. Porter writes, “Uninvited she has promised herself to this place; she can no longer imagine herself living in another country, and there is no pleasure in remembering her life before she came here.” Laura seems to fit Cowley’s description of a “homeless citizen of the world” perfectly, but in other ways she is an atypical figure of the “lost generation.” First of all, all of the writers whom Cowley discusses are men, as are the main figures of alienation they create. Secondly, World War I and its aftermath are considered formative for the generation, with an essentially male experience of war figuring prominently as a source of alienation. In “Flowering Judas” Porter offers a different vision of modernist alienation by setting her story in Mexico and by making her protagonist female. Laura lacks a sense of belonging in the country of Mexico and in the revolutionary belief system, both of which seem compromised to her. Her alienation in each realm relates to her status as a woman. While Laura’s feeling of being “not at home in the world” transcends any specific place, her discomfort in the Mexico setting—and, particularly, in the house where she lives—reflects the gender-specific nature of her alienation.
It is significant that the action of the story unfolds within Laura’s home, rather than in any of the public places mentioned in the story—the school, the prison, or the May Day confrontation. Laura’s sense of being entrapped in her own house with Braggioni’s coercive presence permeates the story. For Laura, home is a site of struggle and anxiety rather than security. She works all day, teaching children whose love she does not understand and delivering messages to people she perceives as strangers, all out of commitment to a political struggle in which she no longer believes. At the end of the day she avoids coming home because she knows that Braggioni will be waiting for her and that her duty as a devotee to the revolution will continue in its most onerous form. “Laura wishes to lie down, she is tired of her hairpins and the feeling of her long tight sleeves, but she says to him, ‘Have you a new song for me this evening?”’ The male revolutionaries in the story act out their commitment through public acts of violence and martyrdom, while their private conduct reveals them as hypocrites. Laura understands that, as a woman, her role in the revolution lies largely within the private realm. She must flatter the powerful man without encouraging his improper advances. Though she sees this role as equally ignoble as the masculine forms of heroism in which she has lost faith, she complies, “like a good child who understands the rules of behavior.” She is not at ease in this role but, because she sees no alternative, she conforms to it passively. “Sometimes she wishes to run away, but she stays.” Her external actions are at odds with her inner feelings, leaving her perpetually at odds with the world through which she moves.
Braggioni draws parallels between his revolutionary love of mankind and his voracious sexual love for women. In his view, a woman’s role in the struggle is as a lover of its male participants. His wife is an almost comically extreme figure of revolutionary/sexual devotion, begging Braggioni’s forgiveness and washing his feet when he finally returns home to her. When Porter writes that Mrs. Braggioni’s “sense of reality is beyond criticism,” it is a way of saying that, despite her misery, she is not alienated, not detached from her place in her world. She is, in this sense, the perfect counterpart to Braggioni—the self-effacing mirror image of his self-love and the passive feminine version of his anti-heroism. Braggioni cannot understand why Laura “works so hard for the revolutionary idea unless she loves some man who is in it” because he sees women as incapable of revolutionary action or the abstract idealism from which it derives. But Laura wishes to adhere to ideals rather than to a man. The men around her are part of the flawed reality she rejects, even as she rejects the parts of herself that are drawn to them.
Like Braggioni, the serenading youth comes to Laura’s home uninvited and sings to her. He is more benign than Braggioni, but the youth also encroaches on Laura’s privacy and contributes to her feeling of uneasiness in her home. While Braggioni’s advances are untoward, she interprets the youth’s actions as the observation of a convention “with all propriety, as though it were founded on law of nature, which in the end it might well prove to be.” This signifies that Laura’s discomfort with his serenade goes beyond her ignorance of Mexican courting rituals and even her ambivalent sexuality. He reminds her of her disconnection from what she sees as the “laws of nature” governing love and romance between men and women. She knows that she does not fulfill the role of a proper revolutionary woman but she is, in fact, still deeply attached to the idea of propriety. However, she simply cannot believe in his ritualized courtship any more than she can believe in Braggioni’s leadership. She feels no connection to him because his feelings are expressed through conventions that seem empty to her. Again, she can envision no alternative kind of connection, so she resorts to rejection and suffers continued isolation. Just as she cannot imagine experiencing security or belonging in the compromised revolutionary movement, she cannot imagine experiencing security or belonging within the compromised conventions of romantic love.
The last man to come to Laura’s house is the ghostly figure of Eugenic, who visits her in a nightmare. In life, Eugenic symbolizes Laura’s failure in the feminine role of comforter of revolutionaries—her soothing sleeping pills enable him to commit suicide. In her nightmare, he is an ambivalent figure, both seductive and accusatory, who pushes her beyond proper, passive actions. He represents a fluidity of roles, pitying her as a “poor prisoner” and offering her flowers to eat, then calling her a murderer and cannibal a moment later. Though he himself was a political prisoner, he recognizes her as imprisoned in her house and in the reality from which he, as a suicide, has fled. He is the first man in the story to invite her out of the house, which he acknowledges as “strange.” “What are you doing in this house?” he asks, and promises to show her a “new country.” Because Eugenio is dead, he is not of this world, not part of the world in which Laura cannot feel at home. He suggests the possibility of escape from the walls of her home and from the compromised forms of connection associated with its worldly reality, even though the escape is still a lonely one—for he refuses to take her hand. But the hand she seeks and the flower she eats are the only examples in the story of Laura’s desire for the comfort and sustenance associated with home. Laura is not so lost in her dreamlike vision of death as she is in the world to which she again awakens.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Katherine Anne Porter, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.
Sarah Madsen Hardy, “This Strange House: Home and Alienation in ‘Flowering Judas,'” for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.