The Jilting of Granny Weatherall | Study Guide

Katherine Anne Porter

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The Jilting of Granny Weatherall | Context

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Modernist Short Story

Modernism is a movement in literature associated with the era after the bloody battles and mass deaths of World War I (1914–18), a global conflict that shook people's confidence in the foundations of humanity and Western civilization in particular. Modernist literature conveys a grappling with disillusionment and a struggle to make sense of a world changing quickly. Moving away from a romantic portrayal of life toward realism, modern literature—and the short story in particular—focus more on characters' psychological motivations and the impact of their actions than the events of the plot. Modern literature requires readers to participate in creating meaning through interpreting the text.

While the genre of legend and tales, particularly in their oral form, is as old as human history, the short story is perhaps a uniquely 20th-century genre. Its format, shorter than a novel, exercises economy of plot and setting to convey a psychological conflict instead of a physical one. With its interest in the impressions and motivations of characters, the modern short story often utilizes the technique of stream of consciousness as narrative. By conveying the sensory experience and thoughts of characters, stream-of-consciousness narrative seeks to capture the inner monologue of characters with all the inherent disorganization, free association, and fragmentation of real pre-speech thought.

The short story "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" is a prime example of a modernist short story using stream-of-consciousness narration. The short story exists nearly entirely inside the mind of the dying elderly woman, focusing on her recollections and subsequent emotions. The stream-of-consciousness style follows the meandering, often confused, ruminations of Ellen Weatherall, conveyed with fragments and sometimes startling comments directed to her attending daughter and visiting doctor and priest—all of whom, unlike the reader, are not privy to the rich story playing out through her inner monologue. It is through the thoughts and feelings of the main character that the author creates meaning in the story, with much room for interpretation and association from the reader, a hallmark of the genre.

Jilting

The word jilt originates in the 17th century with the word Gill or Jill, meaning a promiscuous woman who suddenly rejects her lover. The verb form of the word has more recently come to mean "to back out of a romantic relationship without notice, also known as 'leaving someone at the altar.'" In the short story "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," the term jilting refers to the day when Ellen was left standing at the front of the church on her wedding day with no groom. The trauma of the jilting is lifelong and haunts Ellen until her death. She is jilted again at the end of the story when she awaits Jesus Christ upon her death, only to find herself alone again. Jesus is often symbolized in Christian literature and teaching as a bridegroom to the church, his "bride."

The jilted bride is a staple of literature. Perhaps the most famous jilted woman in literary history is Miss Havisham in the 1861 novel Great Expectations by British author Charles Dickens (1812–70). Scarred and embittered, Miss Havisham wears her wedding dress for the rest of her life. The clocks in her home are all stopped at the hour she received news of the jilting, and the wedding breakfast was never removed from the table where it was laid out that fateful morning. Two contemporaries of Katherine Anne Porter and fellow southern writers, Flannery O'Connor (1925–64) and William Faulkner (1897–1962), also include jilted women in their work. The power of a spurned woman, and her lingering pain and resentment, provide rich emotional underpinnings for modern fiction in particular. Jilted women, like Ellen Weatherall, are often forced or inspired to take on roles outside the traditionally female domestic sphere, which adds to character development.

Autobiographical Influences

Biographer Darlene Unrue states that Katherine Anne Porter used her own experiences as inspiration for much of her work, drawing on her past for material. There are a number of autobiographical elements in "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," the most central of which is the character of Ellen Weatherall. After Porter's mother died as a result of birthing complications when Porter was just two years old, Porter's father moved himself and his children to live on a farm near his mother's house in rural Texas. Like Porter's grandmother, Catherine, Granny Weatherall is the matriarch of the family, the one who runs the farm and makes sure that all her children's needs are met. Catherine Porter's farm gradually diminished in size as she gave parcels of the land to her offspring until it was quite a small farm in her old age. Porter lost her grandmother when she was just 11, so the deathbed scene of Ellen Weatherall may also be drawn from experience.

Sent to a convent in New Orleans for her education, Porter was steeped in Catholic tradition, although she abandoned her faith in midlife and reclaimed it later in life. Like Porter, Ellen Weatherall is a Catholic, and the priest in the story administers last rites for her, an action Ellen humorously misconstrues as tickling her toes. The story uses Catholic symbolism as well, including the bridegroom Jesus Christ, upon whom Ellen futilely waits only to be disappointed and jilted again.

Ellen Weatherall's desperation over her estrangement from George, the fiancé who left her at the altar, as well as her separation from her beloved Hapsy, is drawn from Porter's own inability to maintain long-term, healthy relationships. Porter had difficulty connecting with people to create meaningful lifelong relationships, marrying and divorcing four times. Although she joked that she attracted insane people, she also admitted that she had married otherwise decent men but had been unable to make marriage work with any of them. Both Porter and Granny Weatherall long for meaningful connection.

After the trauma of being jilted and losing her husband at a young age, an event beyond her control, Ellen Weatherall seeks control by establishing outward order. Biographer Darlene Unrue identifies order as one of the central themes of all of Porter's work, perhaps stemming from the traumas and losses of her own youth. Ellen Weatherall idealizes order on her farm and in her home. She recalls the fence she put up to delineate and protect her land, the meals made and clothes mended, as she kept the family running all those years. Like Porter, the need to create order, to make meaning out of chaos, motivates Ellen. Even as she is dying she is making mental lists of what needs to be done. Sadly, external order does not translate to inner structure or meaning, as the short story makes evident. Porter reveals order to be an illusion as Ellen dies in the dark without a sign, despite all her efforts.

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