The Jilting of Granny Weatherall | Study Guide

Katherine Anne Porter

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The Jilting of Granny Weatherall | Themes

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Betrayal

Ellen Weatherall's first taste of betrayal in the story comes when she is left alone at the altar by George, her fiancé, who fails to come to his own wedding. To back out of an engagement without a word and humiliate the bride in public is a bitter betrayal, so traumatic that it stays with Ellen the rest of her life. It made her feel helpless. She asks, "What is a woman to do when she has put on the white veil and set out the white cake for a man and the man doesn't come?" She compares the memory of George to "a smoky cloud from hell" that blots out the green day of her ruined wedding, a memory she has tried to avoid for 60 years.

The second betrayal in the story is spiritual. Ellen Weatherall is confident she has been a good Catholic, "surely signed and sealed." She waves away the priest who attends her deathbed, telling him she has just been to Communion the week before. After all, she is "not so sinful as all that." She thanks God for her life, and she feels serene about dying. However, when death arrives, she isn't carried away by the bridegroom Christ; instead she is betrayed again. All that her faith assured her about death has been a lie. There is no Christ, no sign from God, no Hapsy, nothing but darkness. The grief she feels at the ultimate betrayal dwarfs all the other pain she has felt in life. Again she is abandoned by the one person in whom she had faith.

Order

The trauma of her jilting gives Ellen Weatherall the drive to create outward order and attain a sense of control over her life. Ellen delights in making things orderly. Even as she is dying she considers the things she still needs to do, including giving Cornelia jewelry and gifting "the Forty Acres" to Lydia, who will need it "with that worthless husband of hers." She thinks fondly of the things she has accomplished in her life, including fencing the entire farm nearly by herself and having all the bottles and dishes of her kitchen neatly arranged and the clothes folded up and placed in drawers. She gets a sense of peace thinking she can "spread out the plan of life and tuck in the edges orderly."

The patterns and structure of Catholicism appeal to Ellen's desire for order. She derives confidence from the fact that she regularly attends church, so much that she doesn't think she needs a priest at her deathbed. She has just been to Communion the week before. The ritual words of the Hail Mary prayer come to her as she thinks of her life, and she holds the rosary in her hands as she nears death.

Ellen seeks inner order through organizing her external world, but sadly she finds that the order of her world has only been an illusion. She has been confident that she was prepared, but in the final moments of her life she feels only a cruel abandonment and grief. She discovers that the inherent chaos of the world cannot be controlled by visible order.

Loss

Over the course of her life Ellen has experienced a number of significant losses. The first is the wedding and life she thought she would have with George. She wishes she could show him her life and tell him "she was given back everything he took away and more." Yet she feels that even though she had a husband, children, and home, something was lost, "something not given back." George has taken away her ability to trust completely. Thus Ellen wants to warn her children against wasting the fruit on the farm, thinking, "Don't let things get lost. It's bitter to lose things."

The bitterness Ellen feels toward George permeates much of the story, and it is followed by other losses. She claims John was a good husband to her, one she wouldn't trade for even a saint. But when she loses him, she loses her role as a housewife and is forced to take on all the responsibility of running a farm.

It is the loss of Hapsy, who died in childbirth, that grieves her most. Hapsy, not John, is the one with whom Ellen longs to be reunited in death. Ellen imagines Hapsy waiting for her, and as she leaves life she looks for Hapsy first, then a sign from God.

But finally, Ellen loses hope. For most of the story she is confident in her faith and the hope of an afterlife. When there is no sign from God, no bridegroom of Christ, she suffers the worst loss of all, one that eclipses all other pain.

Female Defiance

As literary critic Caroline Collins has noted, jilted women in Southern literature often take on roles outside the traditionally female domestic domain. They respond, eventually, to the adversity and stigma of having been jilted with defiance and strength. This is certainly true of Ellen Weatherall. Although a man catches her as she falls at the altar in shock, after John's death Ellen stands on her own. She takes on the management of the farm. Instead of hiring a man to do the backbreaking job of fencing in the property, she gets out there and digs the postholes herself, with only a child to help. She also defies the pain and shame of her jilting, telling herself to "stand up to it." No constraints, physical or social, keep her down.

She has gained a great deal of confidence in her self-reliance, defying anyone to question it. She shoos away Doctor Harry, calling him a brat. She tells him "I pay my own bills" as evidence of her independence. Throughout the story she tells Cornelia to stop fussing over her and leave her alone. She doesn't even think she needs a priest. Ellen Weatherall defies anyone to tell her what to do.

Some critics interpret Ellen Weatherall's final act as one of defiance. When God fails to send a sign and Christ does not appear, Ellen chooses her own ending. She turns off the light. She ends her own consciousness. Other critics read the final act as one of despair, a silent resignation to the betrayal of faith. In either case, the final act belongs undeniably to Ellen Weatherall herself.

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