Katherine Anne Porter’s Place in the Catholic Literary Tradition

At age sixteen, novelist Katherine Anne Porter entered the Roman Catholic Church because she thought she was in love. In reality, she just wanted to get out of her small hometown. Her marriage to John Henry Koontz did not last and the Catholicism did not stick until much later in her life. She did succeed in escaping Indian Creek, Texas though. By the time she was living in Greenwich Village in New York City, she was not a practicing Catholic, but Porter was still drawn to the faith, especially during her trip to “ancient, exotic, Catholic Mexico,” which “informed her earliest triumphs in fiction.” And although she may have converted for the wrong reasons, even Porter’s early writing shows a strong sense of love, betrayal, and forgiveness that pervades her work.

One of the stories that she is best known for, “Flowering Judas,” takes place in Mexico during the Revolution and was inspired by Porter’s experiences during her travels. Written in a single night in December 1929 and published in 1930, it later became the titular story for her debut short story collection. “Flowering Judas” is a story of infidelity, redemption, and reconciliation in which the two main characters, Braggioni and Laura, are Peter and Judas figures. This core artistic choice both holds up a mirror to readers and reveals an essentially Catholic point of view in the early work of a writer who did not fully embrace the faith until old age.

Laura, the story’s protagonist, is a twenty-two-year-old American woman who—much like Porter herself—came to Mexico to support the socialist cause. She teaches indigenous children and visits political prisoners, and also hides that she goes to Mass from the people who attend union meetings with her. While living in Mexico, Laura boards in the home of Braggioni, a self-inflated local leader who is more interested in his own power than any real political cause. Despite being married, he heavily flirts with Laura. And as she witnesses corruption amid the revolution, Laura wrestles with her own contribution to it—particularly when a prisoner, Eugenio, overdoses on pills she gave him. Eugenio’s suicide prompts a significant response from both Braggioni and Laura. The character who begs forgiveness, though, takes readers by surprise. The broken relationships and corruption that these characters experience and participate in articulate the deep, spiritual desire for love innate to all human beings that—whether her own conversion stemmed from true love or not—Porter uncovered even in her early work.

The opening paragraph of “Flowering Judas” presents Braggioni “heaped” in a straight-backed chair waiting for Laura, which right away points out his dominance in Laura’s life and prominence as a figure in the story. Lupe, the housemaid, tells Laura with “a flicker of a glance towards the upper room, ‘He waits.’” Laura avoids him as much as she can, but he is hard to avoid. He “heaves” himself into song, singing “passionately off key” with a “prolonged painful squeal” from the “vast cureless wound of his self-esteem.” Here, Porter’s word choice shows how large Braggioni is—in girth, in voice, in power. His “gluttonous bulk” haunts Laura’s dreams. Laura must “resist without appearing to resist” and does so by finding ways to keep Braggioni singing so that he will not try to seduce her. This particular detail recalls another notable Laura: the beloved of the Italian poet Petrarch and the subject of his love lyrics. Braggioni, though, is not a poet. He is a revolutionary leader whose followers say “has a real nobility, a love of humanity raised above mere personal affections.” This is ironic, though, and contrasts with the various betrayals of Braggioni that go against a supposed love for people and only serve a love for himself.

Braggioni’s deepest betrayals are to his fellow revolutionaries and his wife. He has the power to help those in prison, who tell themselves he will save them, and yet he does nothing except enjoy the material comforts his status allows him. Ironically, he also keeps his wife in a prison, so to speak, and lets her sacrifice herself for him. He brags to Laura that his wife is “pure gold” and if she were not, he would lock her up and she knows it. Braggioni used to be scrawny as a boy and “too many women loved him and sapped away his youth.” He could never find enough to eat when he was young, but now “he has good food and abundant drink, he hires an automobile and drives in the Paseo on Sunday morning, and enjoys plenty of sleep in a soft bed beside a wife who dares not disturb him; and he sits pampering his bones in easy billows of fat, singing to Laura.” When he comes to Laura again later, as he prepares for the clash between the Festival of the Blessed Virgin and the memorial for the socialist martyrs, he leans towards her “balancing his haunch between his spread knees” with his “balloon cheeks.” He “bulges” and “swells with ominous ripeness” and tells her he is rich in power, not money.

By presenting his character this way and choosing words that emphasize his immensity, Porter demonstrates how poor Braggioni really is. He is physically stuffed and eats and drinks plentifully, yet he is deeply hungry. The true wound of his life is that he was used instead of loved as a child and now, in turn, he uses others and loves no one. He confides to Laura: “One woman is really as good as another for me, in the dark. I prefer them all.” If the meaning of the word “love” in Latin is from “diligo,” which means “I prefer,” then by preferring “all,” in actuality, Braggioni prefers no one. He loves no one. On a certain level, Braggioni seems to understand this. Alluding to Christ on the Cross, he sighs to Laura, “It is true everything turns to dust in the hand, to gall on the tongue.” He goes on to say, “I am disappointed in everything as it comes. Everything.” Possibly without understanding exactly what he says, Braggioni acknowledges that what he truly hungers for is not of this world. In another moment of lucidity, he asserts to Laura, “We are more alike than you realize in some things.” While this gives Laura a “chill” and a sense of danger, of “warning in her blood that violence, mutilation, and death await her,” it is not incorrect. Braggioni and Laura are alike in more ways than she realizes. And with this subtle statement, Porter asks her readers to see how the two characters are similar and, by extension, how the readers are like them too.

Laura’s betrayals are of a different variety than Braggioni’s, however. She does not really know what she believes and she remains in isolation for much of the story, never actually joining a revolutionary group or feeling fully connected to her students as a foreigner in their country. Her soul feels the effects of being disconnected, even if she does not recognize it fully, for “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 yet, “sometimes she wishes to run away, but she stays.” She stays and yet “she is not at home in the world.” Porter suggests that Laura’s true home, along with the reader’s, is in a world beyond this world—in the world all people long to return to, united with their Creator. Every day, Laura “knocks at unfamiliar doors not knowing whether a friend or a stranger shall answer, and even if a known face emerges from the sour gloom of that unknown interior, still it is the face of a stranger.” Like Braggioni, she hungers for love and connection but cuts herself off from it. She is not known to herself and as a result, she knows no one and loves no one.

Failing to love another person truly is one of the ways Braggioni and Laura are alike, as he had asserted to her. Laura does not open herself to others. She makes deliveries for those in prison and brings them cigarettes and such, but she purposefully chooses not to find out who they are—Romanian or Polish—she does not care. Porter writes that the “very cells of [Laura’s] flesh reject knowledge and kinship.” Instead, she “draws her strength from this one holy talismanic word which does not suffer her to be led into evil. Denying everything, she may walk anywhere in safety, she looks at everything without amazement.” Laura constantly says the word “no.” Laura is cut off even from people and from nature, without the desire to know anyone and with no awe for creation. Opposite of the Blessed Virgin, whose festival is being celebrated around this point in the story, Laura says “No” instead of “Yes.” Much is made about Laura being nun-like, full, and virginal. She even wears lace and blue serge—white and blue—which are the colors of Mary. But she is different from the Blessed Virgin in that she does not make herself open to the will of God. She denies everything, whereas Mary humbly says, “Thy will be done.”

The questions that the story’s ending raises also have to do with Braggioni and Laura. Symbolically, this occurs as the Festival of the Blessed Virgin and the memorial for the socialist martyrs are about to clash on the same day. Braggioni senses there will be violence as these two events coincide. And in fact, in a way, these two worlds also come together for Braggioni and Laura. With this, Porter seems to present the readers with moments of possible conversion and conviction for both characters.

Braggioni, who seems more sinful and inflated, surprisingly experiences a moment of humility and forgiveness. Originally, when he comes to Laura, he “stretches his eyelids at her, and his ill-humored cat’s eyes waver in a separate glance for the two points of light marking the opposite ends of a smoothly drawn path between the swollen curve of her breasts. . . . His cheeks are bellying with the wind of song.” Next, he asks her to oil and load his pistols. The text says, “Standing up, he unbuckles his ammunition belt, and spreads it laden across her knees. Laura sits with the shells slipping through the cleaning cloth dipped in oil.” The story has been building towards Braggioni’s seduction of Laura, his corruption of her, and his continued betrayal of his wife. His moment has arrived. He tries different tactics, even asking her what is wrong with her that she does not love anyone. He tells her that even the legless beggar woman has a lover. But Laura “peers down the pistol barrel and says nothing.” After this, “a long, slow faintness rises and subsides in her; Braggioni curves his swollen fingers around the throat of the guitar and softly smothers the music out of it, and when she hears him again he seems to have forgotten her.” At this point, Laura tells him that she visited Eugenio in prison. Eugenio had taken the pills that she had given him and committed suicide because he could not wait for Braggioni to set him free and he was bored. With the mention of Eugenio and the pistol being present, death is “in the room” and things suddenly change for Braggioni.

Here Porter portrays Braggioni as a prodigal figure. He literally returns home, not to his father, but to his wife. He has been separated from her for a month, but in spirit and deed has been separated from her love for much longer. His wife, in response, “brings a bowl of water, and kneeling, unlaces his shoes, and when from her knees she raises her sad eyes under her blackened lids, he is sorry for everything, and bursts into tears. ‘Ah, yes, I am hungry, I am tired, let us eat something together,’ he says, between sobs.” This scene calls to mind the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with perfume, as well as Jesus washing his own disciples’ feet. His wife’s act of love causes Braggioni to cry, “‘Forgive me!’ and this time he is refreshed by the “solemn, endless rain of her tears.” He has recognized his sinfulness and his hunger. He is finally restored to himself and brought back to life by love. The man who said he was rich in power finally acknowledges his poverty and need.

On this same night, Laura experiences a spiritual hunger and thirst, and yet she is not fed by love, but by fear, much like Judas. As she prepares for sleep—which could signify death—Laura takes off her blue serge dress and puts on a white linen nightgown. She dreams of Eugenio, who calls her a murderer and tells her he is taking her to death. Eugenio “strip[s] the warm bleeding flowers” off the Judas tree and offers them to Laura to “take and eat.” She eats greedily for they “satisfy both hunger and thirst.” Porter seems to allude to Eve eating the forbidden fruit at the same time as she refers to Christ offering the Last Supper and inviting his apostles to “take and eat.” In fact, Laura hears, “This is my body and my blood,” and responds, “No!” She once again denies or betrays Christ. She wakes up, trembling and afraid to sleep again. She stays; she remains in the world and is afraid of death. Whereas Braggioni faces sin and death, Laura rejects the offering for communion. She remains cut off and alone. Legend suggests that it was the European redbud tree, as the “flowering Judas” tree is also known, from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself after betraying Jesus. Laura’s final denial, then, is parallel to Judas’ betrayal of Christ and leads to death.

Porter herself said, of this story’s ending, “In the vision of death at the end of ‘Flowering Judas’ I knew the real ending—that she was not going to be able to face her life, what she’d done. And I knew that the vengeful spirit was going to come in a dream to tow her away into death, but I didn’t know until I’d written it that she was going to wake up saying, ‘No!’ and be afraid to go to sleep again.” Like Judas, Laura is unable to face what has she has done. There is a final denial, a “no” that leads to eternal death. And yet, on the other hand, Braggioni can be read as a Peter figure. After denial and betrayal, he begs forgiveness and is met by love.

Porter’s rendering of these characters and their unique struggles with sin presents a mirror to the reader. The mirror shows reality, and the reader’s own betrayals of love. In writing about the world she traveled—the world beyond Indian Creek, Texas—Porter identified the universal call to love, the need for love, the human hunger and thirst that can only be satisfied by Love, and the many ways that love can be betrayed. Her own art became the vehicle for her acceptance of the call to love and return to the faith. Despite having been written when she was a lapsed Catholic, “Flowering Judas” not only casts a clarifying vision for readers but also provides a window into Porter’s imagination as it is being formed and influenced by her Catholicism. Whereas Laura’s final denial is definitive, “Flowering Judas” marks the first steps towards Katherine Anne Porter’s faith, worked out in her fiction.


Mary Grace Mangano

Mary Grace Mangano is a writer and educator. Her poetry and essays have appeared in America Magazine, Fare Forward, Dappled Things, and other publications.  

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