By Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980)
A Study Guide
.......Katherine Anne Porter's “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” is a short story told partly with a narrative technique known as stream of consciousness, a term coined by American psychologist William James (1842-1910). With this technique, an author portrays a character’s continuing “stream” of thoughts as they occur,
regardless of whether they make sense or whether the next thought in a sequence relates to the previous thought.
.......“The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” was first published in February 1929 in transition (uncapitalized), an English-language literary journal printed in Paris. The publication featured experimental writing. A year later, the story was published in a collection of Porter's stories entitled Flowering Judas
and Other Stories.
.......The action takes place in a bedroom in the home of Granny Weatherall's daughter Cornelia. Granny, about eighty, is lying face up in the bed. She is dying of an undisclosed illness. The time is probably the late 1920s. Flashbacks, however, date as far back as the late 1860s, when Granny's fiancé abandoned her on the day they were to be married.
Ellen (Granny) Weatherall: Feisty woman of about eighty who ruminates about events in her life as she lies dying in the home of her daughter Cornelia. Because of her illness, she is lucid one moment and disoriented the next. A painful memory, one she had repressed for sixty years, surfaces and haunts her at the hour of her death. It is the
memory of the day—sixty years before—when her fiancé, George, jilted her. After she later married a man named John, she gave birth to four children. John died young but Granny carried on, rearing the children, working her farmland and orchard, and caring for animals.
.......Doctor Harry feels Granny Weatherall's pulse, but she pushes him away, saying, “Get along now. Take your schoolbooks and go. There’s nothing wrong with me.” He then feels her forehead and tells her to be sure to remain in bed.
.......Find him and be sure to tell him I forgot him. I want him to know I had my husband just the same and my children and my house like any other woman. A good house too and a good husband that I loved and fine children out of him. Better than I had hoped for even. Tell him I was given back everything he took away and more. Oh, no, oh, God, no, there was something else besides the house and the man and the children. Oh, surely they were not all? What was it? Something not given back. . . ........Father Connolly, a Roman Catholic priest, arrives to give her the last rites of the church. Granny thinks about how he used to “drop in and inquire about her soul as if it were a teething baby, and then stay on for a cup of tea and a round of cards and gossip.”
.......Granny muses that she has no worries about her soul, for her “favorite saints” have already cleared her a path to heaven. Her eyes open, and the light is blue because of the color of the lampshades. The narrator says Granny's thoughts return to the day of the jilting: “What if he did run away and leave me to face the priest by myself? I found another a whole world better. I wouldn’t have exchanged my husband for anybody except St. Michael himself. . . .”
.......Granny sees the blue light flutter and die. Endless darkness envelops her, and she asks God for a sign.
.......But, the narrator says, there is no sign: "Again no bridegroom and the priest in the house. She could not remember any other sorrow because this grief wiped them all away. “
.......A moment later she dies.
.......In the title, jilting can refer not only to the jilting of Granny by George but also to Granny's belief that God has jilted her. The name Weatherall suggests that Granny believes she has weathered all the adversities of life.
Responding to Loss With Perseverance
.......The overall theme of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” is how one woman, Ellen Weatherall, responds to loss by persevering. First, her fiance, George, abandoned her. Consequently, she lost not only her future husband but also a good measure of her self-esteem. Eventually, she married a man named John and bore him four children. But John died young, leaving her to finish rearing the children. Then one of the children—Hapsy, her favorite—died, too, after bearing a child of her own. Granny's losses make their mark on her, as the following passage indicates. In a flashback, Granny is speaking to her children. Note the boldfaced letters in red that relate to the theme.
I want you to pick all the fruit this year and see nothing is wasted. There’s always someone who can use it. Don’t let good things rot for want of using. You waste life when you waste good food. Don’t let things get lost. It’s bitter to lose things.But Granny lived up to her name by weathering all her losses. She did so through her feistiness, her strong will to carry on, and her repression of the painful memory of the day George jilted her. She is proud of how well she faced up to her responsibilities. The narrator says,
It had been a hard pull, but not too much for her. When she thought of all the food she had cooked, and all the clothes she had cut and sewed, and all the gardens she had made—well, the children showed it. There they were, made out of her, and they couldn’t get away from that. Sometimes she wanted to see John again and point to them and say, Well, I didn’t do so badly, did I?.......When Granny lies dying in the home of her daughter—facing still another loss, the loss of her own life—the repressed memory of George emerges to haunt her deathbed ruminations. The moment comes when, in her disoriented state, her mind conjures the following scene: "A fog rose over the valley, she saw it marching across the creek swallowing the trees and moving up the hill like an army of ghosts. Soon it would be at the near edge of the orchard, and then it was time to go in and light the lamps. Come in, children, don’t stay out in the night air."
.......In this vision of her past, she attempts to banish the memory of George (the fog) by taking the children inside and striking a match to the oil lamps. Her strategy succeeds for a moment, as the narrative reports: "Lighting the lamps had been beautiful. The children huddled up to her and breathed like little calves waiting at the bars in the twilight. Their eyes followed the match and watched the flame rise and settle in a blue curve, then they moved away from her. The lamp was lit, they didn’t have to be scared and hang on to mother any more."
.......But the memory of George comes back.
The pillow rose about her shoulders and pressed against her heart and the memory was being squeezed out of it. . . . . 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 when she had just got rid of Doctor Harry and was trying to rest a minute. Wounded vanity, Ellen, said a sharp voice in the top of her mind. Don’t let your wounded vanity get the upper hand of you. Plenty of girls get jilted. You were jilted, weren’t you? Then stand up to it........Before she slips away and dies, Granny thinks she is facing the ultimate loss, the loss of God Himself, as her internal monologue indicates: "For a second time there was no sign. Again no bridegroom and the priest in the house. She could not remember any other sorrow because this grief wiped them all away. Oh, no, there’s nothing more cruel than this—I’ll never forgive it."
.......Here, Granny responds with typical feistiness--"I'll never forgive it."
.......Instead of facing and dealing with the memory of George's jilting of her, Granny represses it. For sixty years, she keeps it locked in a deep recess in her soul. To what extent her repression of this memory impairs the quality of her life is uncertain. In her deathbed reflections, she seems
to suggest that she was better off without George: "What if he did run away and leave me to face the priest by myself? I found another a whole world better. I wouldn’t have exchanged my husband for anybody except St. Michael himself. . . . "
Following in Christ's Footsteps
.......Granny has many faults, not the least of which is criticizing others. Nevertheless, in her own way, she tries to follow in Christ's footsteps. Consider, for example, that Granny underwent a humiliating public rejection when George jilted her and that she suffered through many
trials, including "riding country roads in the winter when women had their babies" and "sitting up nights with sick horses and sick negroes and sick children." The suffering and rejection endured by Granny call to mind this Bible quotation: "[T]he Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the ancients and by the high priests" (Mark 8: 31).
And . . . after three days [He will] rise again. (Mark 8:31).......At the last moment of her life, Granny believes God has forsaken her, saying to herself, "Again no bridegroom and the priest in the house." This passage calls to mind words spoken by Christ on the cross: "And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying: Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani? that is, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46).
.......When Granny dies, the narrator says, she "stretched herself with a deep breath and blew out the light." Of Christ's last moment, John 19:30 reports, "Jesus said 'it is finished.' With that he bowed his head and gave up his spirit."
.......In her deathbed reflections, Granny resents Cornelia's doting presence. Consider the following passage:
It was like Cornelia to whisper around doors. She always kept things secret in such a public way. She was always being tactful and kind. Cornelia was dutiful; that was the trouble with her. Dutiful and good: “So good and dutiful,” said Granny, “that I’d like to spank her.” She saw herself spanking Cornelia and making a fine job of it.When Cornelia asks Granny whether she wants anything, Granny replies, “I do. I want a lot of things. First off, go away and don’t whisper.” The narration later reports that
[Granny] could just hear Cornelia telling her husband that Mother was getting a little childish and they’d have to humor her. The thing that most annoyed her was that Cornelia thought she was deaf, dumb, and blind. Little hasty glances and tiny gestures tossed around here and over her head saying, “Don’t cross her, let her have her way, she’s eighty years old,” and she sitting there as if she lived in a thin glass cage. Sometimes granny almost made up her mind to pack up and move back to her own house where nobody could remind her every minute that she was old. Wait, wait, Cornelia, till your own children whisper behind your back!One could interpret Granny's resentment of Cornelia as a sign that she is the daughter of George and therefore a constant reminder of him.
.......Hapsy, on the other hand, is a favorite of Granny. A possible reason for her favored position is that she may have been the second of Granny's children and the first born to John. Hapsy's birth thus would have been a declaration of independence from George, whom Granny wished to banish from her mind. Granny would be able to say, "I have my own child now and a husband who stands by me. I don't need George."
.......But was Hapsy the second child? There's a good chance that she was. In one of her internal monologues, Granny says, "When this one [Hapsy] was born it should be the last. The last. It should have been born first, for it was the one she had truly wanted." Notice that the first sentence says should be last, not was last, and that the second says should have been born first, not was born first. Therefore, Hapsy was either the second or third child.
.......The climax occurs when Granny cannot perceive the presence of God as she lapses toward death. Among the possible reasons Granny believes God is "jilting" her are the following:
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the story.
Lighting the lamps had been beautiful.Irony
Development that is the opposite of what is expected
Cornelia says to Granny, “Oh, is there anything you want to tell me? Is there anything I can do for you?” Granny responds with these thoughts: "Yes, she had changed her mind after sixty years and she would like to see George. I want you to find George. Find him and be sure to tell him I forgot him."Metaphor
Comparison of unlike things without using like, as, or than
Her breath crowded down under her ribs and grew into a monstrous frightening shape with cutting edges. (Comparison of breath to an object with sharp edges)Onomatopoeia
Word that imitates a sound
She listened to the leaves rustling outside the window. No, somebody was swishing newspapers.Paradox
Contradictory statement that is actually true
She always kept things secret in such a public way.Simile
Comparison of unlike things using like, as, or than
He had cursed like a sailor’s parrot. (Comparison of a human to a parrot)Fascinating Fact About the Author
.......In an interview with Barbara Thompson (Writers at Work, 1963) Katherine Anne Porter said she always wrote the last paragraph of a story first, then backed up and wrote about all of the events leading up to the events described in the last paragraph. It was important for her to know the destination of her literary journey first so that she could set a course (like sailors and airline pilots) leading to the destination.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1...Granny says she prayed for sixty years to forget George. Why, then, did she keep his letters?
Find him and be sure to tell him I forgot him. I want him to know I had my husband just the same and my children and my house like any other woman. A good house too and a good husband that I loved and fine children out of him. Better than I had hoped for even. Tell him I was given back everything he took away and more. Oh, no, oh, God, no, there was something else besides the house and the man and the children. Oh, surely they were not all? What was it? Something not given back. . . .In your opinion, what was the "something not given back"?
5...Write a pyschological portraint of Granny. Include research from the story and other sources to support your thesis.
6...Why wasn't Granny in a hospital?
7...Granny represents everyone. After all, everyone struggles against loss--the loss of faith, hope, love, respect, self-esteem, prestige, loyalty, power, money, mental health, physical health, and even trivial objects such as car keys. The trick is to persevere. Write an essay about a loss (or losses) you suffered and what you did to carry on.