In her essay “The Eye of the Story,” fellow southern writer and critic Eudora Welty observes that “most good stories are about the interior of our lives, but Katherine Anne Porter’s stories take place there; they surface only at her choosing.” “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” is certainly one of these interior stories, as Porter uses Ellen Weatherall’ s fragile state of mind as a narrative device to connect past and present and the living and the dead.
While “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” is told by a third person narrator, readers are drawn into the mind of Ellen Weatherall and come to see the events of the story from her perspective. Readers laugh along with her, for example, when she teases the doctor about his youth. Gradually, however, Ellen’s grasp of reality slips off its moorings and she begins to journey back into her past. Readers are able to travel along with Ellen Weatherall as her memories slip in and out of the present time during the course of the story. This narrative technique, called stream-of-consciousness, allows the writer to abandon the ordinary constraints of time and space, and invites the reader to enter into the consciousness of the character. Porter’s descriptive prose brilliantly portrays the way Granny Weatherall’s mind wanders from the sound of whispered voices to remembered breezes, from the feeling of being in one room one moment, to the memory of another room long ago. Important events in Granny Weatherall’s life are recounted in fragmented recollections, and readers become privy to these memories in the course of the story. In Eudora Welty’s words, “The presence of death hovering about Granny Weatherall she [Porter] makes as real and brings us near as Granny’s own familiar room that stands about her bed realer, nearer, for we recognize not only death’s presence but the character death has come in for Granny Weatherall.” As readers we become the unseen observers in the room, sympathizing with Granny’s point of view.
The woman who “weathered all,” for whom life has been “a tough pull,” struggles first to suppress and then to address the worst moment of her life. This moment occurred on the day when George jilted her at the altar. Granny Weatherall is a woman who likes to take care of details and to make plans, and in exchange she expects certain results. She still believes that her death is not imminent. She thanks God that “there was always a little margin over for peace: then a person could spread out the plan of life and tuck in the edges neatly.” But as her conscious control falters, she remembers the day when her faith in order was shattered:”the day… a whirl of smoke rose and covered it, crept up and over into the bright field where everything was planted so carefully in orderly rows.” In this passage the smoke symbolizes confusion and doubt overwhelming her best laid plans, which are symbolized by the neat rows. These images of light and dark, clarity and confusion, recur in various forms throughout the story and foreshadow the final scene when darkness defeats Granny Weatherall’s careful calculations.
Although Granny Weatherall apparently takes pleasure in recollecting the accomplishments of her life: the children born and raised; the hard work taken on and completed; the “edges tucked in orderly”; she cannot keep the clouds of doubt out of her mind. John Edward Hardy discusses her doubt in his book Katherine Anne Porter. Hardy writes: “the pleasure of her recollections … is gradually undercut by a recurrent, terrifying sense of something lost, or missed, something that she can never quite define, something so important that the lack of it makes all that she had as nothing.” Granny herself reveals what it is she had feared all her life: “For sixty years she had prayed against remembering him and against losing her soul in the deep pit of hell, and now the two things were mingled in one and the thought of him was a smoky cloud from hell that moved and crept in her head.” There is dramatic irony in that she does not fully understand the connection between these two events, her death and her jilting.
Granny Weatherall believes that her prayers and her exemplary life will ensure that she will never again feel like she did on the day she was jilted. She remembers that day as a time when “[t]he whole bottom dropped out of the world, and there she was blind and sweating with nothing under her feet and the walls falling away.” She has spent a great deal of her dying hours coming to terms with her jilting, deciding that she wanted George to be told that she had forgotten him, measuring the husband and children she had despite him against his abandonment of her. In her final moments, however, she is jilted again. She asks God for a sign, and “For the second time there is no sign.”
Several important elements in the story converge at this climactic moment, just as the light in Granny Weatherall’s consciousness narrows to a tiny point. First, the images of light and dark that have occurred throughout the story are used for full dramatic effect in this scene. “Granny lay curled down within herself, amazed and watchful, staring at the point of light that was herself; her body was now only a deeper mass of shadow in an endless darkness and this darkness would curl around the light and swallow it up.” The darkness and obscurity of doubt and betrayal finally completely obscure the light of certainty and faith. Secondly, this scene reveals another meaning of the title. Just as Granny herself had thought that being left at the altar was the worst thing that could have happened to her, as readers we have believed until now that the jilting in the story refers to that horrible day sixty years ago. Several critics have pointed out however, that in this second jilting, the absent bridegroom is not the hapless George, but the Christ of Matthew 25: 1-13 in the New Testament.
Porter’s suggestion is not that the good and dutiful Granny Weatherall is betrayed by her God. It is rather that she has betrayed, or fooled, herself, into believing that the universe was an orderly place where you were rewarded for ”tucking in the edges” neatly. Ellen Weatherall’s characteristic response is outrage, “Oh, no, there’s nothing more cruel than this I’ll never forgive it.” Eudora Welty argues that outrage is Porter’s “cool instrument,” and that “she uses it to show what monstrosities of feeling come about not from the lack of the existence of love but from love’s repudiation, betrayal.” The final irony for Granny Weatherall is that in death she is finally free of the haunting memory of the day she was jilted. The sorrow of her final jilting is so great that “she could not remember any other because this grief wiped them all away.”
“The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” first appeared in Katherine Anne Porter’s volume of stories, Flowering Judas, published in 1930. Critics have pointed to a number of echoes of other literature, or allusions, in Porter’s story. Granny Weatherall’s daughter Cornelia is similar to Cordelia in Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear, whose unconditional love for her father is taken for granted. More striking are the resemblances of “Weatherall” to Henry James’s story ‘ The Beast in Jungle.” Like Granny Weatherall, the main character in James’s story is terrified of an unnamed emptiness, of having life mean nothing in the end. The name of the house where the story begins, Wetherend, recalls Porter’s character’s name, and the description of May Bartram’s neat household is strikingly similar to the way Granny Weatherall describes her own habits: “The perfection of household care, of high polish and finish, always reigned in her rooms, but they now looked as if everything had been wound up, tucked in, put away.”
Finally, students of American poetry cannot help but be reminded when reading the final scene of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” of two Emily Dickinson poems. Hardy discusses this aspect of the story in his book as well. Porter’s description of Granny’s imaginary trip is reminiscent of lines in poem #712. “Granny stepped up in the cart very lightly and reached for the reins, but a man sat beside her and she knew him by his hands, driving the cart.” In these words are the clear echoes of the opening lines of Dickinson’s poem: “Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me / The Carriage held but just Ourselves / And Immortality.”
Later, in the description of Granny Weatherall’s last moments, we find that Porter pays homage to another Dickinson poem concerning death and dying, #465: “With Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz— / Between the light—and me— / And then the Windows failed—and then / I could not see to see.” Porter’s description of Granny Weatherall’s death is remarkably similar: “The blue light from Cornelia’s lampshade drew into a tiny point in the center of her brain, it flickered and winked like an eye, quietly it fluttered and dwindled.”
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Katherine Anne Porter, Published by Gale, 1997.
Elisabeth Piedmont-Marlon, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.