“Flowering Judas” by Katherine Anne Porter: an analysis

Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

Taking a cue from Judas who revealed Christ’s identity to his persecutors with a kiss, “Flowering Judas” by Katherine Anne Porter, a short story published in 1930, revolves around the theme of betrayal. 

Laura, an adventurous young woman from the southwest U.S. has an identity crisis, questioning her own values and her involvement in the Mexican revolution of 1910 – 1920.

At age twenty-two, she resembles Katherine Anne Porter herself, who traveled often to Mexico in her thirties, after the war ended. Characteristic of Porter’s heroines, Laura is one for whom personal choices have serious political implications.


Despite her distaste for the powerful leader Braggioni, she endures his oppressive, off-key serenades. Her inauthentic denial of self and her complicity in Eugenio’s death lead her to rethink her own status as savior or betrayer. 

 

Laura’s self-betrayal

“It may be true,” she thinks, “I am as corrupt … as Braggioni.” Her way of living, she decides, betrays her sense of what life should be. Risking her safety for a dream of social justice, she notes flaws in an international enterprise that operates by means of deception and exploitation.

The dreamy, highly abstracted conclusion of the story suggests no pat interpretation, but complicates Laura’s decision to involve herself in a faraway conflict and her denial of human connection: “She is not at home in the world.”

The gringa Laura is an unlikely player in the Mexican revolution. Her little betrayals of the Socialist cause seem fairly insignificant. She insists on handmade lace rather than products of the worshipped machine. A Roman Catholic convent graduate, like the author, she pauses now and then in a church to indulge her religious tendencies, also forbidden by the revolutionaries. 

Laura’s real transgressions concern her betrayal of self, her rejection of “knowledge and kinship,” and the fact that she has lost a sense of wonder as she looks about her “without amazement.” As her illusions of heroic social transformation crumble, she understands: “it is monstrous to confuse love with revolution.” 

Teaching children English in Xochimilco by day, smuggling secret messages and sleeping pills to prisoners by night, she appears brave and daring, yet exhibits fear in many forms.  Rather than thrilling to the sustaining pulse of life about her, “she is gradually perfecting herself in the stoicism she strives to cultivate against that disaster she fears, though she cannot name it.”

The anxiety Laura lives by reveals the lack of faith she feels in her project and manifests itself most clearly in the nightmarish scene at the end of the story. The clear betrayal, when she fails to save or even connect with the martyred Eugenio, manifests her inability to live fully in the world, in the service of a genuine, human cause, including that of her own fulfillment.

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Laura’s hardening, Braggioni’s heartlessness

Laura has hardened herself in a way different from her employer Braggioni’s heartlessness. Sexually repressed in her long, tight sleeves and high collar, she is unmoved by suitors, and in Braggioni’s eyes, “notorious[ly]” virginal. Does she deny her womanhood or rather take measures necessary for one dealing in a “man’s world” of political intrigue?

The appealing appearance of her body, “great round breasts” and “invaluably beautiful legs” under long skirts serve as a decoy for danger in a patriarchal system. True peril lies in her would-be suitors. 

Nevertheless, her body itself strives to protect her, as Porter writes in the style of literary naturalism: “the very cells of her flesh reject knowledge and kinship in one monotonous word. No. No. No.”  Her adaptation to and survival in these circumstances depends on such rejection of human connection, and her instincts direct her actions: “No repeats this firm unchanging voice of her blood.”

Braggioni, a powerful, flawed figurehead, leads the Socialist insurrection under Pascual Ortiz Rubio in his region of Mexico City.

A complicated character, he seems a buffoon at times, a manipulator, an apocalyptic visionary, and an indiscriminate user of women. Empathetic yet deeply critical, Laura understands his sensitivity, the way his cruelty rests on “the vast cureless wound of his self-esteem.”

His “gluttonous bulk” is a symbol of her disillusion, for she had mythologized a revolutionist as “lean, animated by heroic faith, a vessel of abstract virtues.”

 

Images of total destruction

Near the end of the story, Braggioni glorifies images of total destruction: “Some day this world, now seemingly composed and eternal, to the edges of every sea shall be merely a tangle of gaping trenches, of crashing walls and broken bodies. Everything must be torn from its accustomed place where it has rotted for centuries …” What has young Laura gotten herself into?

If Braggioni fails to fit the bill of a true revolutionist, so does Laura. The author plays up the surprising similarities between the young seeker and the coarse commander by drawing parallels between the two.

Laura’s twenty identical hand-made lace collars, echoed pathetically in the dropped drawers of the priest figurine, also parallel Braggioni’s yellow silk handkerchief scented with Jockey Club cologne from New York. 

Such affectations and indulgences seem out of place in a cause that proclaims freedom for the peasants and for political prisoners in tortuous conditions. Whereas Laura’s “knees cling together under sound blue serge,” Braggioni “balanc[es] his paunch between his spread knees.” 

Later, he lays his laden ammunition belt across Laura’s knees to solidify his dominance and their connection.  The author’s subtle artistry and figurative patterning enables Laura’s self-knowledge as she declares herself “corrupt, callous… and incomplete” as Braggioni.

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Flowering Judas and other stories by Katherine Anne Porter

Katherine Anne Porter page on Amazon

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The shattering of illusions

The illusions Laura had about joining a great revolutionary movement to better society prove false. Braggioni, the supposed great leader, is a gluttonous sham. His definition of freedom is a travesty of his wife’s trust.

He confides to Laura, “One woman is really as good as another for me, in the dark. I prefer them all.”Laura strokes his ego because he provides her entrée into the inner workings of the movement.

“She cannot help feeling that 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.”

Her temptation to trade feelings of self-pity for action proves dangerous, especially because many of the activities she does carry out seem hardly worthy of lofty ideals of political improvement. For example, she moves money between the Romanian and Polish agitators, both of whom are being shamelessly used by the Mayan-Italian Braggioni.

 

A false martyr

After a month’s abandonment, Braggioni returns lovingly to his oft-betrayed wife and she humbly washes his feet in the manner of Christ bathing his disciples. Despite his hard-hearted dismissal of Eugenio, he seems quite moved by the loss after all.

So he is at once a brute symbol of violent revolution, and a more ironically rounded, human figure, a false martyr to balance the true sacrifice to despair, Eugenio.   

In the final dream-scene, a skeletal Eugenio calls Laura a murderer, and beckons her to a new country, to death. Laura experiences a deeply sensual capitulation to the great feeling behind her paradoxically daring and timid revolutionary activity.

Denied his guiding hand, Laura devours the lush blossoms of the Judas tree he feeds her. Her literal hunger and thirst signal further corruption rather than spiritual communion. 

The physicality of her gesture, reminiscent of both Christian sacrament and Braggioni’s appalling gluttony, turns all into a false ritual, and again links her to her antagonist. 

In the presence of an un-resurrected Eugenio, Laura can no longer repress her human need for connection, nor her affective responses of wonder and compassion. Yet she remains confused, fragmented, and alienated, as she wakes trembling with a cry.

 

A beautifully crafted tale

Various critics report that this beautifully crafted tale that secured Porter’s literary reputation was written in a single evening of December, 1929. Porter typically started her stories by writing the final line first and this example pulls inexorably towards its surrealist end. The story’s conclusion provides an overflow of repressed emotion for both Braggioni and Laura. 

— Contributed by Sarah Wyman, Associate Professor of English, SUNY-New Paltz, ©2018

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