Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Greenleaf,” is a sharp tale that is full of spiritual, social, and sexual symbolism. O’Connor’s overarching theme in her fiction is spiritual redemption through violence (Bernardo). In the case of main character in “Greenleaf,” redemption for Mrs. May comes at her life’s expense. Mrs. May is the character in the story who needs redemption because she arrogantly does not believe in religion; though she keeps up the appearance of it, i.e., she is a hypocrite. The conflict of social class struggle is Mrs. May’s main conflict; she cannot reconcile the successes of the Greenleaf family with the failures of her own family. The bull represents to Mrs. May the functional failures of her own social success, her own spiritual understanding, and goes against her strict ideas of sexuality. Overall, the bull functions as a literary symbol for the spiritual, social, and sexual confusion that Mrs. May has.
Social symbolism. The bull is the bane to Mrs. May’s existence; however, she decides the bull must die when she finds out that it belongs to the Greenleaf boys. She thinks that their family is literal filth and that by getting rid of the bull, she could be symbolically getting rid of the Greenleafs: “The yard around her house always looked like a dump and her five girls were always filthy; even the youngest one dipped snuff” (O’Connor). When Mrs. May speaks to her boys of the family, she tells them bleakly that the Greenleaf children are the future of society (O’Connor). Mrs. May wants to remain separate from the Greenleafs and the bull literally eats away the only physical barrier between Mrs. May and the Greenleafs—the scrubrush.
Spiritual symbolism. The bull further symbolizes Mrs. May’s spiritual confusion because she thinks that the Greenleafs are heathens and that they live like animals, i.e. bulls. The bull mainly symbolizes the immovable truth—Christ. The bull is depicted as wearing a “hedge wreath caught in his horns” (O’Connor). This is a reference to the Christ-like imagery of the crown of thorns. Mrs. May thinks that the Greenleafs need spiritual redemption. It is Mrs. May who needs spiritual redemption, which she receives when the bull impales her. It is only after she is dead that Greenleaf follows her orders by shooting the bull. The bull is sacrificed in order for Mrs. May to gain redemption—a theme that is an allegory for Christ’s sacrifice for the redemption of sinners. Mrs. May is the sinner and the bull is Christ. When it comes to spirituality, Mrs. May has none. Mrs. Greenleaf has an openly spiritual relationship and worships in public. Mrs. May believes that the Greenleafs are not good Christians because of how she perceives them to be of a lower social class than she is. She thinks that Mrs. Greenleaf’s public display of worship is disgraceful, even though she herself is a spiritual hypocrite.
Sexual symbolism. The bull functions as a symbolism of sexuality because Mrs. May is alone and has two boys who fail to live up to masculine social conventions; the boys fail to help her get rid of the bull. For Mrs. May, since she has no husband, and her boys do not behave like men, the bull reminds her of her female limitations. She struggles with the idea of whether to fetch Mr. Greenleaf to help move the bull because she anticipates that he will remind her that her boys are failing her, and that she has no husband. Mrs. May is a sexual failure, just as she is a social and spiritual failure. The bull reminds her of these failures: “The bull, gaunt and long-legged, was standing about four feet from her, chewing calmly like an uncouth country suitor” [italics] (O’Connor). Furthermore, Mrs. May has an uptight perception that the bull might ruin her breeding stock. This is analogous to the way that the Greenleafs might ruin her own boys with marriage—a symbol that is made stronger by her son’s threat to marry a woman like Mrs. Greenleaf. The bull represents everything that is contrary to Mrs. May’s belief system: “[The bull] is associated with disorder and with unlicensed sexuality; both of which violate Mrs. May’s sense of decorum” (Rout). Furthermore, the bull is a physical reminder that she is helpless against the male will—for her sons intend to ruin her estate with marriages she disproves of. Therefore, the bull is analogous to Mrs. May’s discontent with her son’s marital decisions, especially compared to the success of the Greenleaf boys to acquire appropriate French wives.
The bull symbolizes Mrs. May’s ideas about social class because Mrs. May affiliates the bull with the Greenleafs. Mrs. May regards the bull’s trespasses as one and the same as the trespasses of the Greenleafs. The Greanleaf family makes Mrs. May feel like she has lost control because in a world where the Greenleafs prosper, it must mean right is wrong and up is down: “Mrs. May… is obsessed with controlling [the bull] because she is obsessed with the idea of imposing her own order of form onto every aspect of her life” (Bernardo). Spirituality is represented in the uncontrollable bull, who in the end is sacrificed in a Christ-like way. The bull dies for Mrs. May’s redemption. Sexuality is also represented by the bull, who threatens the purity of Mrs. May’s breeding stock, and challenges her feelings of power and control. Mrs. May cannot control the spiritual truth delivered by the bull’s horns.
- Bernardo, Karen. “Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Greenleaf.'” Storybites.com, 23 April 2005, www.storybites.com/%E2%80%9Cgreenleaf%E2%80%9D-by-flannery-o%E2%80%99connor.html. Accessed 10 Nov. 2017.
- O’Connor, Flannery. “Greenleaf.” The Complete Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1971, pp.311-334.
- Rout, Kathleen. “Dream A Little Dream of Me: Mrs. May and The Bull in Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Greenleaf.’” Studies in Short Fiction, 16(3), 1979, p.233.