A portrait of an eighty-year-old woman on her deathbed,’ “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” is an exploration of the human mind as it struggles to come to terms with loss and mortality. Porter offers no clear resolution to these fundamental issues, but instead interweaves themes of betrayal, religion, death, and memory in a moving and poetic character study.
The titles of both the story and the anthology (Flowering Judas) in which it first appeared suggest the idea of betrayal, a central theme underlying many of Porter’s stories. Judas was the disciple who betrayed Christ with a kiss. At the heart of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” are Granny’s memories of her betrayal by George, the fiance who abandoned her at the altar some sixty years earlier. This is just one of a series of betrayals experienced by Granny, who also feels “jilted” by her daughter Hapsy for whom she calls out in vain several times in the story.
God and Religion
Many readers have suggested that the ultimate betrayal of Granny involves God and that the story is primarily a portrait of a woman at the end of her life facing a devastating spiritual crisis. When Father Connolly comes to visit Granny Weatherall on her deathbed, she is cordial to him. It is stated that Granny “felt easy about her soul.” Yet, his arrival seems to trigger Granny’s most vivid and painful memories of the day sixty years earlier when she was left by her fiance. The final paragraph appears to include a reference to the Biblical parable of the “foolish brides,” in which Christ is compared to a bridegroom. Seen in this light, the ultimate jilting of Granny is her reluctance to acknowledge her own weaknesses and accept some form of spiritual salvation. Just as Granny was left alone with the priest on her wedding day as a twenty-year-old, at age eighty she faces death alone, accompanied only by a priest who seems unable to offer her sufficient comfort.
Death and the Cycle of Life
Early in the story, the suggestion is made that Granny Weatherall considers herself to be already at peace with her mortality. Some twenty years earlier she had made “farewell trips” to see all her loved ones:”She had spent so much time preparing for death there was no need for bringing it up again.” However, death proves to be not so easily dismissed and seems “clammy and unfamiliar” now that it is truly imminent for her. Granny Weatherall struggles against death, and though she lacks the strength to get out of bed, denies even being ill. She tries to dismiss her doctor and imagines herself the next day “rolling up her sleeves putting the whole place to rights again.” The final image in the story—of Granny blowing out a candle—evokes the notion that her life is coming to an end. Yet, there is no sense of closure to Granny’s life, no sense that the conflicts raised in her memories have been resolved. The final realization in the story is that “there was no bottom to death, she couldn’t come to the end of it.”
As death approaches, many of Granny Weatherall’s reflections on her life concern her role as a mother and caretaker. Besides the memories of being “jilted” early on in her efforts to find a mate, she thinks mostly of her children. In one passage, she remembers her favorite daughter, Hapsy, who has herself apparently become a mother. The identities of mother, daughter, and grandchild all seem to merge in Granny’s mind. Death and birth also become hard to distinguish as Granny, in pain on her deathbed, in a memory relives the pain of giving birth to Hapsy. She finally welcomes the presence of a doctor as she cries out ambiguously, “my time has come.”
Memory is a double-edged sword in this story where the central character moves back and forth between the present reality and the remembered past. On the one hand, Granny Weatherall’s memories are a source of strength for her; she seems to take pride in remembering her life’s accomplishments, particularly in overcoming the setback she experienced in being “jilted. “She values occasional moments for reflection when she is able to “spread out the plan of life and tuck in the edges orderly.” She also finds comfort in remembering her late husband John and is confident that he would still understand her despite all the changes she has gone through since his death—”She wouldn’t have to explain anything!”
On the other hand, Granny’s reminiscences also seem to reopen old emotional wounds and bring back painful experiences she thought she had put behind her. Her memory of the other man in her life, George, seems to undermine her sense of order and self-worth and to create a kind of debris she has had difficulty throwing out. She is made “uneasy” by the thought of her children discovering the box of letters from George which she has kept in her attic all these years. At one point, she even fantasizes about going to the absurd length of instructing her daughter to find George and “be sure to tell him I forgot him.”
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.