Katherine Anne Porter: 
Critical Essay on "Flowering Judas"

  Picture of Short Story Book


Self-imposed Isolation in “Flowering Judas”

by Julia Anglin

After betraying Jesus with a kiss, guilt took over and Judas Iscariot hanged himself from a tree.  Christians today believe that the tree Judas selected has scarlet blossoms to symbolize all the blood shed.  The title to Katherine Anne Porter’s short story, “Flowering Judas,” refers to this biblical event and immediately suggests ideas of mental anguish, betrayal, denial, and murder.   As Ray B. West, JR. acknowledges, the Judas tree symbolizes the betrayer of Christ.  When Porter describes Laura eating the buds of the Flowering Judas, Laura is participating in an act of betrayal (92).  The main character, Laura, is unable to connect with the people or institutions that would bring her happiness.  Her self-imposed isolation and missed opportunities are represented by images of clay-mask strangers, crumbling stone, and flowers.
Some may argue that Laura is a victim of circumstances and her depressing situation is not self-imposed.  Leon Gottfried writes a few statements in support of this view, “Within the frame of reference of what her world could offer her, she seems to have done her best” (118).  He continues with an example, “she could no more overlook the failure of her church to meet the social injustice of the society in which she found herself than she could overlook the vanity and cruelty of the revolutionary leaders” (118).   However, time and time again she willfully walks away from people and institutions that could bring her joy.  Laura realizes the emptiness she feels inside, after endless hours of self-reflection, and starts to welcome death.  She can no longer imagine an escape to a new world.  She believes “she has been betrayed irreparably by the disunion between her way of living and her feeling of what life should be, and at times she is almost contented to rest in this sense of grievance as a private store of consolation.   Sometimes she wishes to run away, but she stays” (35).   Again, Porter suggests the possibility of change but Laura actively decides to remain and do nothing.   Laura will not better her situation by moving away from Mexico nor will she do more than contemplate death.
           Surrounded by people, Laura still leads a solitary life because she never allows anyone to get too close.   Daily, she interacts with Indian children at school and adults secretly involved in the Revolution in Mexico .  Porter describes both groups as clay-masked strangers for they are one unfamiliar blur to Laura; she does not know any of them by name.  “Every day she teaches children who remain strangers to her” (42).   She does not allow herself to grow attachments to these innocent children who love and trust freely and even praise her with smiles.   Her entire livelihood centers on this teaching during the day and then relaying messages for a power-hungry revolutionary figure, Braggioni, at night.   She runs “errands into strange streets, to speak to the strange faces that will appear, like clay masks with the power of human speech” (47).   Every night she must wait in fear with her voice caught in her throat until the door opens, and the intended recipient of her knocking emerges from the dark hole.   Laura knows nothing more about the person on the other side of the door, beyond being the intended recipient.  She is alone, uninvolved in life, because “the very cells of her flesh reject knowledge and kinship in one monotonous word.  No.  No.  No” (42).   All relationships are strictly professional with her, and when she has time to sit and reflect on life she is left with nothing.  
           Just as Laura destroys any opportunity to be involved with people, she ruins her relationship with the church.  The idea of destruction, or crumbling stone, symbolizes Laura’s spiritual foundations being demolished over time.   For instance, Laura is of Roman Catholic descent but she tries to hide this fact so as not to create a huge stir among revolutionists.   People in Mexico criticize her for dressing like a nun and choosing to remain chaste, a moral decision supported by her religion to ward off lustful behavior.   Gottfried wrote, “She lost her ability to believe in [Catholicism or the revolution] and was consequently cut off from every possible heaven except one of private commitment and belief that she might construct, but she was unable or unwilling to undertake such a labor of construction” (118).   Laura lets the motivation she originally had for both causes to fade away because fighting to uphold institutions requires a lot of energy.   She is unable to enjoy living because she has no inspiration.   Laura relays messages for the revolution without feeling and only steps into a church occasionally.  “She slips now and again into some crumbling little church, kneels on the chilly stone, and says a Hail Mary…” (35).  The conditions and religious ornaments of this unspecified church are in poor shape; however, she cannot take any action for improvement since her religious doings are not common knowledge.  Laura allows fear of others’ thoughts and actions to dictate her own behavior.  One evening, after analyzing her place in life, she slips into sleep and begins to dream.  Thoughts from her subconscious become illustrated in a nightmare: the Judas tree outside her window leads her “to the jagged wave of a sea that was not water but a desert of crumbling stone” (48).  Her entire world has been flipped upside down because she is denying her inner self.  Nothing makes sense anymore; water is a desert and even that is falling to pieces.  Laura perpetuates her depressing situation by forcing earlier constructed ideals, like her spiritual beliefs, to try to survive without her care.  She ignores her religious background.  Gottfried also recognizes that Laura is paralyzed in life, “[i]ncapable of loving either man or God, she has no positive good to which she can turn and so remains motionless” (107).  Stuck in a monotonous daily routine, Laura exists without feeling or motivation for progress because she refuses to exert much energy in one cause.
           Furthermore, Laura turns her back on all emotional involvement.  Flowers are woven in throughout the progression of the story to represent hopeful moments that Laura ignores: lost chances for love.  West outlines that “Laura [is] unable to participate in love upon any of the levels suggested: …a divine lover… a professional lover… an erotic lover” (93).  A young scholar sung like a “lost soul” beneath Laura’s bedroom window and all she could concentrate on were dull purple blossoms and his dark shadow (41).  Laura threw him a flower so that he would leave, not because she appreciated his affection.  She filled him with false hopes and he followed her “with the flower withering in his hat,” symbolizing the end to a love that was never returned (41).  Eventually, Laura confuses the children that bring her flowers for her desk with the prisoners she visits and thinks to herself, “the poor prisoners who come every day bringing flowers to their jailors” (48).   She feels guilty that she cannot do more for the children but stand in front of class and lecture.  Instead of a warm mentor, she feels like a cold jailor towards the children.   Gottfried summarizes the meaning behind the different flowers present in the story well when he writes, “the ‘fresh garden flowers’ left on her desk each day by the adoring children in her classroom represent immaculate love, the ‘warm bleeding flowers’ of her dream represent a perversion of spiritual love, and the flower that she heedlessly tossed to her anonymous young suitor… represents a failure of human love” (118).  When flowers appear in the story, Laura has the opportunity to gain a lover or a friend but she never acknowledges the hopeful moment and chooses to linger in despair instead. 
Laura is not one of the prisoners that she visits, trapped behind bars and confined to a small cell.  She is free to act on her intuitions.   She cannot claim to be a victim because she had the opportunity to change or escape.  Laura is the destructive force behind her own undoing.  In reality, she has no close friends, no spiritual connection, and no lover to share an embrace.   As West writes, Laura’s character supports that “[m] an cannot live divided by materialistic and spiritual values, nor can he live in the modern world by either without faith and love” (96).   Laura is void of happiness and allows herself to just act out the motions of daily living.  Everything would fall into place if only Laura allowed herself to love.

  Picture of Flowering Judas Tree

Works Cited

Gottfried, Leon. “Death’s Other Kingdom: Dantesque and Theological Symbolism in ‘Flowering Judas.’”
       Flowering Judas. Ed. Virginia Spencer Carr. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1993. 99-120.

Porter, Katherine Anne. “Flowering Judas.” Flowering Judas. Ed. Virginia Spencer Carr. New Brunswick,
       New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1993. 31-49.

West, Ray B., JR. “Katherine Anne Porter: Symbol and Theme in ‘Flowering Judas.’” Flowering Judas.
       Ed. Virginia Spencer Carr. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1993. 89-97.

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