The Mexican Revolution
Porter based the story on events she experienced and observed in Mexico during 1920 and 1921, in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution. In 1910 the revolution started as a struggle against political and economic repression; in Mexico at that time, a dictator controlled the government under a one-party system and an elite class of landowners controlled the country’s resources. After the dictator was overthrown, a series of factions formed and struggled for power over the next decade. A socialist agenda of land reform (the redistribution of land to the common people), workers’ rights, and the separation of the educational system from the control of the Catholic Church were among the main objectives of the revolutionary position as laid out in the Constitution of 1917.
However, the revolutionaries who assumed political power failed to live up to these ideals. There was an ongoing struggle for leadership between agrarian revolutionaries who strongly supported the interests of the workers, led by Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, and bourgeois revolutionaries who subordinated these interests to those of developing a capitalist economy. The latter faction eventually prevailed. It included Alvaro Obregon, a former general in the Mexican Revolution who became president in 1920 and served until 1924. The Obregon presidency was marked by compromise and has been referred to as “the rule of the millionaire socialists.” Though he gave lip service to socialist ideals in order to appeal to the radicalized population of Mexican peasants, Obregon’s accomplishments were centrist, pragmatic, and, in the eyes of many, marred by corruption.
The story takes place in the early days of the Obregon presidency when the revolution was over but Mexico was still undergoing a complex political and cultural upheaval. The country was devastated and divided from the years of war. The human costs of the revolution were enormous. War casualties were so great that the Mexican population had declined by a million people since 1910. The revolution had also shaken Mexico’s rigid class system to its base. In the aftermath of the war, many generals of peasant origins who had gained status during the revolution vied for positions in a governmental structure that maintained many features of the earlier dictatorship. Thus the heroes of the socialist revolution assumed roles of the power elite. In the words of Benjamin Keen and Mark Wasserman’s A History of Latin America,” Obregon summed up the problem when he said that the days of revolutionary banditry had ended because he had brought all the bandits with him to the capital to keep them out of trouble.” The ethos of Mexican leaders, who were worn down from years of war and political instability, became marked by a certain amount of irony or cynicism about the revolutionary cause. The character of Braggioni is a hyperbolic representation of this attitude.
Porter spent much time in Mexico during her life. Her first visit to Mexico was in 1920. At first, she went to Mexico for education and adventure and was drawn into revolutionary circles by her artistic friends. By her second visit in 1922 she was completely disillusioned by the country and its government. Porter claimed that the story was inspired by an acquaintance of hers, a young American Catholic woman named Mary Doherty who was a zealous supporter of the revolution, but scholars have shown that some of the events portrayed are also inspired by her own experiences.
“Flowering Judas” reflects not only the political context of 1920 Mexico, but also the aesthetic and cultural ethos among Porter’s artistic peers— most notably, the literary movement of modernism. Modernist writers focused on the aesthetic qualities of language and pushed images to their limits, often resulting in an inconclusive meaning. This style reflected—and often mourned—a loss of faith in those sources of meaning that had organized art and civilization previously, including belief systems such as religion and scientific rationality. Modernist experiments with plot and imagery also reflected the confusing and disorienting aspects of modern life, in which traditional communities and ways of life were uprooted. Porter’s statement that Laura “is not at home in the world” reflects this modernist sentiment.
The flower from the Judas tree that Laura throws to her suitor and recurs in her dream of Eugenic provides the story with its title and ties it to Porter’s aesthetic influences. The Judas tree is named for Judas Iscariot, Christ’s betrayer in the New Testament. According to myth, Judas hung himself from this tree in repentance for his betrayal of Christ. Many scholars have pointed out that the figure of the flowering Judas is an allusion to a poem by T. S. Eliot, one of the great masters of modernism. In his poem “Gerontion” the following lines appear. “In the juvenescence of the year / Came Christ the tiger // In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas, / To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk / Among hispers.” Eliot’s poem relates to the story’s themes of betrayal and loss of faith. Its images of eating and drinking also correspond to the dream at the end of “Flowering Judas”.
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.