Short Story on the Symbolic Meaning of the Bull in Flannery O’Conner’s Greenleaf

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Short Story on the Symbolic Meaning of the Bull in Flannery O’Conner’s Greenleaf


            The short story titled “Greenleaf” by Flannery O’Connor details the life of an old woman living on farm with her two grownup sons. The old woman or Mrs. May is the protagonist in the story and is depicted as being bitter and incapable of seeing the good or the grace on other people she considers to be inferior socially. Mrs. May is depicted as a self-righteous old woman, who harbors racist attitudes towards her farmhand Mr. Greenleaf and his family; her behavior and attitudes were influenced by fact that they were African Americans (Westling 148). It is imperative to note that the author is careful to make it clear to the reader that Mrs. May’s biases are not racial, but they emanate from her personality and belief. Mrs. May is portrayed as an individual who believes that by behaving in a particular manner she becomes blameless and righteous before God. Interestingly, Mrs. May is illustrated as an individual who believed falsely that their social status conferred onto them righteous attributes. However, the author is quick to right this assumption by depicting Mrs. May as naïve in her understanding of the world, which makes her morals skewed resulting in a false sense of security that she possessed all the good needed to be considered righteous (O’connor 331). Mrs. May’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors are attributed to denying her the opportunity to establish a meaningful relationship with her faith and God. The short story “Greenleaf” illustrates how a bitter old woman’s morality costs her a meaningful relationship with her faith and God because she believed that righteousness could be bought.

Symbolic Meaning of the Bull

            Mrs. May’s Christian beliefs might have been under investigation in this short story because it reveals a clear distinction between her perception and understanding of righteousness compared to those held by Mr. Greenleaf (Westling 148). Mrs. May believes that her actions determine the nature and purpose of her relationship with her faith in God. However, the author might have sought to demonstrate that righteousness is achieved by submitting to the will of one’s faith and God. The religious dimensions of the plot are indicative of the author’s use of heavy symbolism and metaphors to depict the extent of Mrs. May’s arrogance and pride. The author is careful to ensure that the reader understands that righteousness is not bought, but earned by allowing God’s will to be manifested through actions and attitudes.

            Mrs. May portrays a belief system based on the assumption that the world operates through cause and effect. This belief might have influenced her behavior, which does not earn or offer her desired expectations or blessings (O’connor 335). Mrs. May worked hard all her life to behave in a respectable manner because she believed that her manners would make her righteous and accrue her associated benefits. Nonetheless, unlike Mrs. May’s respectable behavior Mr. Greenleaf is portrayed from her perspective as being a lazy and illiterate farmhand undeserving of his apparent blessings. Mrs. May’s two sons are a burden compared to Mr. Greenleaf’s sons, who are successful and the pride of their parents. The author uses a stray bull in the plot to drive his veiled themes of righteousness and religion.

            The author uses a stray to epitomize the differences between Mrs. May and Mr. Greenleaf’s belief systems that determine their approaches towards life. The Greenleaf family perceives that bull as a force of nature that cannot and does not require to be controlled by an individual. The author creates the perception that the bull is a natural phenomenon that should be accommodated alongside other God’s creations. On the other hand, Mrs. May seeks to control the bull by having it locked up or shot dead because she feared that it would damage her well-orchestrated breeding cycle in her cows (Westling 164). Arguably, the bull represents the will of God that cannot be controlled and it used in this context to illustrate how an attempt to control or manipulate it suits one’s desired results in tragedy. Mrs. May is portrayed as being obsessed with the bull and how to control it or eliminate it from her life. Mrs. May’s behavior is a clear depiction of her belief that she can control every aspect of her life despite apparent evidence that some phenomena cannot be manipulated. Mrs. May is portrayed as an independent, hardworking, and respectable woman by her standards, but her disposition does not protect her from the realities of life.

            The bull is first introduced to the reader as an imposing and innocent, large, and hulking figure of an animal feeding on a hedge beneath the window seal of a farmhouse. Mrs. May, the chief protagonist in the plot, is revealed to be a stereotypical white famer harboring racist attitudes towards those she deems inferior by race, social status, and economic background (Westling 158). Mrs. May looks down on Mr. Greenleaf because she believes she was the only person who found him and his family acceptable enough to be farmhands on her ranch. On the first night the bull had dislodged a patch of foliage that got stuck to its horns. The wreath of vegetation stuck to the bull’s horns got illuminated by the moonlight it resembled a crown of thorns that is likened to the one worn by Jesus Christ in the Bible (O’connor 337). The author mentions to the reader that Mrs. May was a religious woman, who had a huge respect for religion, but she did not believe in its teachings and practices or rituals. Mrs. May’s disdain for religious practices is demonstrated when she encounters Mrs. Greenleaf’s wife in the woods laying prostate on ground praying out loudly to God to health the world of its many evils. Mrs. May does not appreciate what Mrs. Greenleaf is doing and she admonishes her wasting time in prayer instead of concentrating on washing her children\s clothes, which she had observed were always dirty.

            Mrs. Greenleaf’s only conversation with Mrs. May is her utterance begging God to stab her in the heart. Her utterance is used figuratively by the author to foreshadow what was going to happen in the story, but in hindsight because this is realized after the story terminates. Mrs. Greenleaf prays that the God saves humanity from suffering and the significance of her prayers are manifested soon after their chance encounter with the bull (Westling 142). Mrs. May does not succeed in forcing Mr. Greenleaf’s sons to take their bull or their father to lock it up or shoot it dead. Her concerns might have been genuine, with respect to the bull damaging the breeding cycles of her cows. However, her moral outlook and bias attitudes do not allow her to perceive the significance of the bull’s presence and purpose. Apart from the author’s use of the bull symbolically, the sun is also used to demonstrate Mrs. May’s lack of faith, whereby it is used for contrast. Mrs. May’s faith in religion is contrasted to that of Mrs. Greenleaf in that even in her dreams she was unable to face the light or look directly in its direction. Mrs. May found consolation in the fact that the sun would set in the usual fashion and any doubts she had would be dispelled by the fact of nature (O’connor 328). The plot of the story ends when Mrs. Greenleaf’s foreshadowing is manifested when Mrs. May is gorged to death by the bull she sought to control and/or kill. Interestingly, Mrs. May brings the wrath of the bull onto herself because she had been warned that the bull did not like cars and especially noisy ones. Mrs. May went on to honk her car’s horn severally prompting the bull to attack and kill her.


            The author uses Mrs. May effectively to demonstrate how self-representation can have a profound impact on an individual’s life. Religion and religious faith are key themes in the short story, whereby they form the basis on this paper’s analysis and interpretation of events. The author illustrates effectively that there are aspects such as spirituality that are out of an individual’s control. The bull is used to represent spirituality and righteousness; aspects that the protagonist seeks to control instead of submitting to the will of God and letting their manifestation be willed through her actions.

Works Cited

O’connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971, pp. 320-342.

Westling, Louise. Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor. University of Georgia Press, 2008, pp. 123-187.

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