Porter once wrote that her stories grew primarily out of her passion for the feelings and motivations of individual people, claiming “I have never known an uninteresting human being, and I have never known two alike.” For her, however, fascination with the individual did not preclude an interest in broader social and historical issues. Unique individuals were, in her view, the very building blocks of history—”these beings without which, one by one, all the ‘broad movements of history’ could never take place.” The central character in “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” is someone who seems curiously removed from the time and place in which she lives—unable herself even to distinguish past from present. Yet, for Porter, individuals like Granny Weatherall provide the vehicle for an exploration of the broader social and historical forces of her time.
Progress and Social Fragmentation
First published in 1929, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” appeared at the end of a period of relative prosperity in America and the beginning of what was to become the Great Depression. Emerging victorious at the end of the first World War, America in the 1920s was poised to undergo rapid economic growth and social progress. For women in particular, many new opportunities and roles were available. The decade began with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which for the first time gave women the right to vote. During the war, when many young men had left to fight in Europe, more women had entered the traditionally male worlds of work and higher education. In fields ranging from fashion to politics to literature, a new generation of women were expressing themselves with new levels of confidence.
The general prosperity of the 1920s, however, was not enjoyed by every segment of the population. Much of the economic growth, as well as the experimentation with social norms, was concentrated in large cities and industrial centers. The country was in many ways becoming more fragmented, as economic disparities and social distances between the urban Northeast and the rural South and Midwest deepened. Intergenerational conflicts were also heightened as the young seemed to adapt to changes more quickly than their elders. In the South, racially motivated murders occurred at the highest rate since the Reconstruction period immediately following the Civil War. A variety of radical movements including Anarchists, Socialists and Black Nationalists gained notoriety in calling for fundamental reforms, and such groups would gain more momentum in the coming years after the stock market crash in 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression.
Many writers and thinkers of Porter’s generation felt the need to leave their native country before they could write about it. Despite the United States’ new economic and military prominence, European cities were still considered to be the most important centers of cultural activity. Like most of America’s leading writers from this period—including Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and many others—Porter travelled extensively and lived abroad for much of her lifetime. Yet, despite the relative isolation in which they lived and worked, many of these writers sought to convey something quintessentially American through their stories. Porter was joined by other young writers, like Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner, in using settings and dialects identified with particular regions of the country.
On the other hand, while these American writers wanted to tell stories about farmers, small town folks and other characters living what could be called “traditional” lifestyles, they were also interested in exploring “non-traditional” ways of telling stories and in describing experiences that seemed new and contemporary. One of the strongest influences on these American writers was the literary and intellectual movement known as modernism. A large and diverse movement which originated in Europe and affected virtually every field of artistic endeavor, the modernists sought to develop radically new techniques and forms of expression, which they felt were required to convey the rapidly changing experiences of life in the 20th century. Modernist experiments in literature included “stream-of-consciousness” writing and the use of absurd or surreal imagery. Porter’s work quickly won support and admiration within this closely knit international community of intellectuals, though Porter would not have a very wide reading audience among the general public until much later in her career.
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.