April 25, 2005

Katherine Anne Porter: Staring into the Abyss

A lot of people really hate stream-of-consciousness writing, but I am not one of those people. Sure, it's hard to get used to at first, and sometimes it can get annoying, but it makes for some rather spectacular writing most of the time. Stream-of-consciousness has the potential to completely eliminate the distance between the reader and the reading, and the result is not merely a good story, but an intimate experience.

The key to this is an interesting "voice." Virginia Woolf in "The Mark on the Wall," for instance, allows us a chance to climb inside of her own head and peer around. Other talented authors give us the opportunity to look in on a mind whose perspective we might never otherwise experience. Benjy, the retarded man in The Sound and the Fury, will of course come to mind. And to this growing list of interesting narrators I add the dying old woman in Katherine Anne Porter's The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.

Granny Weatherall, as her name might suggest, has not had an easy life. But she doesn't let this get her down. She has met every challenge as it surfaced: the death of her husband, the death of a child, the hard work of providing for and raising a family alone. Now, at the age of nearly eighty, she feels she has nothing to prove to anyone. As she lies in bed, sick and (though she doesn't accept that this is so) with the life ebbing slowly out of her, a steady stream of visitors pass, some by her bed, some through her mind, and she cannot always tell the difference between the two.

Doctor Harry and Granny's daughter, Cornelia, plus Father Connolly and two of her other children, Lydia and Jimmy, float in and out of the room, and all gather together around her in the last moments of her life. But in her mind they are joined by her dead daughter, Hapsy, her dead husband, John, and George, the man who stood her up at the altar when she was a young woman. From her memories of these people and reactions to them we begin to form a picture of her life and character within a very short space of time. Two things about Granny are crucial: Her buried feelings about George and what he did to her, and the state of her salvation. These two things are intertwined, but must be approached separately.

About the former, we begin to see that it has shaped her life far more than she would want to admit, even to herself. As she thinks back on what she has accomplished in her time on earth, her thoughts continually return to George. She feels an uneasy satisfaction with regards to him. Her mind never strays very far from what he did to her during her last hours, but always when she thinks of him her reaction is smug. The reader almost feels that everything Granny ever did, everything she ever accomplished throughout her life was entirely in response to being jilted. She had to prove to George that she never needed him . . . that life was possible without him. But George wasn't around to notice or care, and in the end she was most desperate to prove it to herself. As her time to die approaches and she thinks frantically of all she has left undone, we wonder whether she has truly convinced herself or not.

As for the state of her salvation, she feels she has the afterlife completely under control. She is secure with her spiritual state. After all, she has a "comfortable understanding with a few favorite saints who [will clear] a straight road to God for her." She is not afraid to die . . . "the whole bottom dropped out of the world" for her once already, and there was someone waiting to catch her then. And yet, when death comes, she is still "taken by surprise."

Death is a great, black void, looming in front of her, and her own tiny light is rapidly dwindling. The great darkness begins to swallow her up, and she calls out for that sign from God . . . that sign which lets her know He is waiting to catch her as she falls. What happens next I feel incapable of re-expressing, so I'll just quote the story:

"For the second time there was no sign. Again no bridegroom and the priest in the house. She could not remember any other sorrow because this grief wiped them all away. Oh, no, there's nothing more cruel than this -- I'll never forgive it. She stretched herself with a deep breath and blew out the light."

As she blows out the light of her own life, you know that Granny Weatherall will know nothing but lonely, cold darkness for the rest of eternity. What could she have learned . . . What should she have learned from the first jilting that might have saved her from the second? Why, having already experienced a taste of the emptiness of the abyss, was she so complacent when approaching it a second time?

A life spent full of activity and incident, holding back painful memories or trying to wash them away "through works" as it were, is no solution to the pressing problem of eternal security. What happens to Granny Weatherall is something I wouldn't wish on anyone, ever . . . how shocking to watch it happen while we are inside her head.

Posted by Jared at April 25, 2005 02:28 AM | TrackBack