A Catholic Reader

Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

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Hidden in Plain Sight: Biblical (il)literacy and the modern reader

The Gospel readings that the Church’s lectionary provides at this green time of the year are full of parables, which may be one reason that I’ve had parables on the brain late. Mark Shea’s recent feature article in Crisis Magazine, “The Parable of the Dishonest Steward,” is a good exploration of why Christ so often taught in parables and, also, why he had to explain them, even though on the face of it they are quite simple. As Shea points out, what’s obvious to a Christian may not be obvious to others, who have not “eyes to see nor ears to hear”; these only faith can provide. This brings me to another reason I’ve been thinking about the uses of parables as teaching tools.

A short story informed by faith

U. S. postage stamp commemorating Katherine Anne Porter

Short-story writer Porter was a convert to the Catholic faith.

In the literature class I’m currently teaching  (an introductory course that teaches the basics of literary interpretation), we’ve been studying short stories and how they work, reading selections that provide good illustrations of the various techniques we’re discussing (plot, setting, point of view, character, etc.). Most recently, we’ve been examining Katherine Anne Porter’s frequently-anthologized story, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” a real literary gem.

I don’t know much about Porter, other than the fact that she was a native Texan (at one time writing for a Fort Worth journal) and a convert to Catholicism (although during a long period of her life she was apparently disaffected from religion in general), nor have I read a lot of her work, but “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” makes me want to read more.

The Jilting of Granny Weatherall

The story is simple on the face of it, yet has hidden depths. It is told in a third person, limited omniscient voice, which means that the voice telling the story does not belong to any of the characters in the story, and it allows us to know things that an ordinary objective observer could not know — in this case, the reader hears the rambling thoughts of elderly, dying Granny Weatherall during the last hours of her life. This is an interesting and tricky choice. Since as events come to us filtered through the old woman’s groggy, feeble, and wandering consciousness, the reader has a bit of a job to figure out what, objectively, is happening in Granny’s sick room. This is what I mean by its being tricky: Granny’s idea of what is happening to, and around, her is not always accurate, but an incautious reader is liable to overlook this fact. Porter’s authorial intention goes beyond the objective level of physical reality and the subjective level of Granny’s mental meanderings, to the moral level of Granny’s spiritual state, something which even Granny herself seems determined to ignore, and which many readers will miss altogether.

Kruseman's The Wise and Foolish Virgins

The parable of the wise & foolish virgins refers to the Day of Judgment.

This is really one of the things that interests me about the story. In fact, this moral level of significance, in which the author is explores and comments on Granny’s spiritual condition, is the real focus of the story, but many readers will fail to realize this. This is because Porter hints at her real purpose by use of Biblical motifs taken from Christ’s parables about death and judgment. At first, these allusions seem simply details of Granny’s wandering memories — lights and lanterns, for example —  but the cumulative effect is to make a savvy reader gradually aware that the omniscient narrator is trying to make a point, which the reader should get, even if Granny does not. The insistence of these parabolic images grows in intensity until their presence finally bursts into plain view in the final paragraph or two of the story. In the end, they are hard to overlook, at least for anyone equipped to recognize them at all. But to miss them is to miss the meaning of the story, whose central theme is Granny’s spiritual unreadiness to meet her death.

The Biblical illiteracy of modern readers

It’s a great pity that many modern readers these days are utterly incapable of recognizing these Scriptural allusions at all. When the story was published in 1930, Porter had a reasonable expectation that many, if not most, of her readers would be familiar with the stories of the Bible, particularly the parables of Christ in the Gospels.

For centuries, literary authors had been able to make allusion to the Bible to illuminate their own works of fiction. (I wrote my doctoral dissertation on one such writer, twelfth-century Chrétien de Troyes, who first popularized stories about the knights of King Arthur.) But, alas, the great stories of the Bible are no longer part of the warp and woof of Western culture, and otherwise literate Americans who read this story today may easily miss the point Porter is trying to make. In other words, Katherine Anne Porter’s short story, like Biblical parables, can be understood only by those who have “eyes to see, ears to hear.”

It’s distressing to realize that even those who teach students to read literature are unable to see what Porter is getting at in this story. For instance, a casual cruise of the internet on the subject of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” will discover not only the predictably awful essays and summaries written by and for students, but also offerings by “professionals” which entirely deliberately ignore or unwittingly miss the ample allusions that point to the real heart of the matter in “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” (I even found this academic essay by a certain Barbara Laman of the University of Miami, which misses the point rather spectacularly, thanks to the peculiar kind of mental astigmatism created by a “feminist” perspective).

Without knowledge of the Bible, we remain culturally illiterate

Here’s why the sad effects of Biblical illiteracy in the general culture should concern anyone with an ounce of cultural sensibility: many of our great works of literature are now largely incomprehensible even to “sophisticated” and highly-educated readers, simply because these works rely on allusions to a thesaurus of meaning that has now been banished to the cultural outhouse. The Bible has been banned in the public sphere, and its cultural influence is ignored or denied.

In the case of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” failure to recognize Biblical allusions or their significance will force an otherwise-astute reader to arrive at exactly the wrong idea of what this story is about. How many other, even greater, cultural treasures are, in effect, being distorted and defaced by this cultural blind spot? Loss of familiarity with the great stories of the Bible produces a great loss not only for those who are at least nominally Christian, but for our culture as a whole. This is an argument that has been made with greater force and eloquence by others than I have done here, but it is one that was borne in upon me with renewed force this week as my students and I have been analyzing this widely-read work by one of America’s great short story writers.

©2010 Lisa A. Nicholas, updated 2017