Greenleaf by Flannery O’Connor, 1956
The magic trick:
Giving the reader Mrs. May’s perspective and mindset, so that we understand just how infuriating her conversations with Mr. Greenleaf are to her
This story seems to encapsulate a little bit of all of O’Connor’s stories. It’s like a Greatest Hits collection. We’ve got the single mother, the disappointing children, the clash of classes, the hired help, the generational values divide, an animal at the center, a farm, economic stress, social pressures, religious overtones, and, of course, violence.
What’s the best part?
I’ll suggest the conversations between Mrs. May and Mr. Greenleaf. They stand on their own as remarkable scenes of conflict, perfectly illustrating the characters, making us laugh, making us nervous, building tension – all while driving the plot forward.
But they are even better when paired with the running train of thought from Mrs. May that we have access to as the reader. Because we know what she is thinking in between these conversations, we understand just how disappointing and infuriating these interactions with Greenleaf really are.
And that’s quite a trick on O’Connor’s part.
She had not found out about this until the Greenleafs had been with her a few months. One morning she had been out to inspect a field that she had wanted planted in rye but that had come up in clover because Mr. Greenleaf had used the wrong seeds in the grain drill. She was returning through a wooded path that separated two pastures, muttering to herself and hitting the ground methodically with a long stick she carried in case she saw a snake. “Mr. Greenleaf,” she was saying in a low voice, “I cannot afford to pay for your mistakes. I am a poor woman and this place is all I have. I have two boys to educate. I cannot . . . .”
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