A young American woman, Laura has come to Mexico City in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution in order to work for the revolutionary cause, in support of a socialist regime. She is a schoolteacher and also acts as a go-between for the local revolutionary leader, Braggioni, and his adherents. Braggioni has a personal interest in the lovely but cold young woman and he pays her nightly visits, hoping to seduce her. As the story opens, Braggioni is in Laura’s room, singing to her. It is the end of the day and Laura is tired, but she receives Braggioni’s attention politely, not wishing to offend the powerful man.
There is little action in the story. The events are mostly internal, as Braggioni’s terrible singing and bantering conversation triggers Laura’s thoughts and emotions. Laura knows that Braggioni would like to seduce her and that she “must resist tenaciously without appearing to resist.” She finds him grossly sensual and corrupt, but Braggioni is a local hero, embodying all of the hypocrisy that threatens the ideals of the socialist revolution. Laura longs to flee from him and from the disillusioning cynicism of the revolutionaries, but she sees no other option than to continue her commitment.
As they sit together, Braggioni flaunts his elegant clothing, telling Laura that she is more like him than she realizes and warning her that she will be as disappointed in life as he is. Laura wonders about her devotion to the cause, thinking about her duties teaching English to Indian children, attending union meetings, and delivering messages and supplies to political prisoners. Despite her disgust with Braggioni’s blatant hypocrisy, Laura has her own lapses as good socialist. The revolutionaries are politically opposed to the Catholic Church, but Laura sometimes goes to church and prays, though she is no longer faithful. She also has a secret love of luxury, favoring handmade lace, which also runs counter to socialist ideology.
Braggioni continues to sing to Laura and flirt with her. Laura has had several suitors in Mexico in addition to Braggioni. She has skillfully rebuffed the pass of a former soldier in the army of another revolutionary faction. She draws a parallel between this “rude folk-hero” and the children she teaches, who express a surprising and unrequited affection for her.
The other suitor is a young union activist who serenades her according to the Mexican tradition. Laura’s maid advised her to toss him a flower from the Judas tree outside her window in order to stop his singing. She does this, not realizing that this is actually a signal of encouragement. The young man continues to follow and watch her. She ignores him, but does not regret her mistake. She maintains an attitude of stoicism and negativity in all of her interactions.
Braggioni goes on to tell her about the confrontation planned for the next day in the nearby town of Morelia, where a Catholic festival for the Blessed Virgin will coincide with a celebration of labor activism by the Socialists. He predicts violence and asks her to clean and oil his weapons, which she does obediently. She returns his guns to him and, with uncharacteristic boldness, tells him to ‘ ‘go kill someone in Morelia, and you will be happier.” She then reveals that a prisoner, one of Braggioni’s adherents, whom she had visited earlier that night, had committed suicide by taking sleeping pills she had brought to him the day before. Braggioni pretends indifference, but he leaves abruptly and reconciles with his wife.
After Braggioni leaves, Laura undresses and goes to bed, plagued by oppressive feelings of guilt and alienation. When she finally falls asleep she has a disturbing dream. The prisoner who committed suicide is beckoning her from the house. She says she will follow him only if she can hold his hand, but when he refuses her, calling her a murderer, she follows him anyway. He offers her flowers from the Judas tree to eat, and when she consumes them greedily he again calls her a murderer and cannibal. She awakens to the sound of her own voice crying “No!” and is afraid to fall asleep again.
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.