The Ravishment of Mrs. May
"’You’ll find out one of these days, you’ll find out what Reality is when it’s too late!’" (O’Connor 528), Mrs. May wants to shout to her sons. According to Mrs. May, a widowed dairy farmer in "Greenleaf," reality is supposed to be based on how hard a person works to earn salvation. Reality has no place for God. Mrs. May is a supercilious woman who believes that "before any judgment seat, she would be able to say: I’ve worked, I have not wallowed" (O’Connor 539). She does not see any need for grace in her life since she can earn her way into Heaven. This presumptuous assurance of her own self-righteousness brings her into conflict with the Greenleafs– a family she despises because of their laziness–and the bull that trespasses on her property. Through the bull, she finds that God may resort to violent measures to awaken people to the reality of their own iniquities, their unjustified pride, and their need for God’s grace. Flannery O’Connor uses the bull as a symbol of Christ. The bull brings chaos to Mrs. May’s life, violates her worldly code of conduct that she believes makes her a good woman, and finally forces her to realize her need for grace as he gores her to death.
The bull threatens Mrs. May’s ability to feel in control of her life. It belongs to the Greenleafs–a family that Mrs. May looks down on as a lower-class group of people. The bull represents everything Mrs. May hates about the Greenleafs. "[He] combines his social, sexual, and religious identities in a way that allows him to represent everything that Mrs. May rejects [. . .]" (Rout 413). Just like the Greenleafs, the bull has "no worries, no responsibilities" (O’Connor 527). It lives like "the lilies of the field, off the fat that [Mrs. May] struggled to put on the land" (O’Connor 527). Mrs. May makes several attempts to have the bull removed but never succeeds. It continues to use her property as it pleases. Mrs. May’s biggest fear is that her farm will be taken over by the bull and the Greenleafs, bringing all that she has worked for to a degenerative level. Ironically, the farm has been deteriorating despite her best efforts to keep it up to her standards; it is a "broken down farm" (O’Connor 527); "’the weather is against [her] and the dirt is against [her] and the help is against [her]’" (O’Connor 529). Gossett states that like other characters in O’Connor’s short stories, Mrs. May "is finally struck down by [her] conceit, which proves to have been working in the cause it has resisted" (490). The more Mrs. May tries to control the bull’s reign over her farm, the more the bull proves Mrs. May is powerless over her life.
The bull also conflicts with Mrs. May’s sense of sexual and religious decency. She believes that "the word, Jesus, should be kept inside the church building like other words inside the bedroom" (O’Connor 525). It is not surprising, then, that the bedroom is the very place where Mrs. May hears the bull munching outside of her window, which triggers a dream of a bullet that "suddenly [. . .] burst[s] through the tree line and race[s] down the hill towards her" (O’Connor 536). This deadly bullet foreshadows the bull in his final act of "connecting" with Mrs. May that results in her death. According to Rout, the bull’s "eating of the hedge outside her window is a destruction of the barrier between them [. . .]" (Rout 413). Since the bull is a representation of Christ, Mrs. May’s dream shows that she fears God’s breaking through the religious and sexual barriers that she creates to keep God out of her life.
Throughout the story, sexual references are made about the bull’s challenging Mrs. May’s prudery. It is "a patient god come down to woo her" (O’Connor 520), "an uncouth country suitor" (O’Connor 521), and "a wild tormented lover" (O’Connor 540). While the bull roams the farm, Mrs. May fears it will "ruin the [milking cows’] breeding schedule" (O’Connor 522); however, Shields notes that Mrs. May is not only concerned about losing money if an impregnated cow disrupts the milk production, but "[s]he does not want her cows to be tainted by sexual union with the bull" (426). The bull eats through the walls of Mrs. May’s house in her dreams. Ultimately, the bull forces himself upon Mrs. May when he "buries his head in her lap" (O’Connor 540); "[h]ence, [. . .] [it is a] divine rape that brings a recalcitrant daughter to her knees" (Westling 118).
These sexual descriptions of the "Greenleaf" bull allude to mythological stories of the Divine taking the form of an animal and coming down to seduce a woman–particularly in the stories of Europa and the bull and the lovers in the Song of Songs. The following passage from the Song of Songs describes Christ as a deer, and illustrates Christ as the "bridegroom" (Matt. 9.15), desiring a personal love relationship with His "bride" (Rev. 21.2), which is the Church:
Listen! My lover! Look!
In "Greenleaf," the bull also stands at Mrs. May’s bedroom window with "his head raised as if he listened [. . .] for a stir inside the room" (O’Connor 520). Just as the lover in the Song of Songs leaps and bounds towards his love, the "Greenleaf" bull "bound[s]" (O’Connor 539) towards Mrs. May "as if he were overjoyed to find her again" (O’Connor 540) moments before goring her.
According to Ovid’s version of the story of Europa and the bull in Metamorphoses, the Roman god, Jove (also known as Zeus in Greek mythology), becomes a bull and "move[s] among the cows" (81)–just as the "Greenleaf" bull. Jove falls in love with Europa and tries to seduce her. Ultimately, against Europa’s will, Jove runs away with her on his back and "ravish[es]" Europa (Ovid 85); the "Greenleaf" bull ultimately ravishes Mrs. May when he pierces his horns through her heart. Both bulls, as well as Christ during the crucifixion, wear head coverings: the "Greenleaf" bull wears a "hedge-wreath [. . .] caught in the tips of his horns" (O’Connor 520); Jove "[. . .] lets [Europa] garland his dainty horns with new-plucked flowers" (Ovid 82); Jesus wears a crown of thorns. The bull "is Jesus stabbing Mrs. May in the heart [and] the pagan lover possessing the maiden [. . .]" (Rout 413); he is an unwelcome male intruder that imposes on Mrs. May’s feelings of moral superiority and forces her to "connect" with him through violent means.
As an agent of God’s reality upon Mrs. May’s life, the bull is the catalyst that forces Mrs. May to realize her need for grace. The bull is a Christ-like figure, donning a "prickly crown" (O’Connor 521). He is on her property three days before she realizes his presence; Christ was in the tomb three days before His resurrection. She also rejects the bull’s attempts to win her over peacefully, much like Jesus was rejected when he was crucified. Since she "’wouldn’t have had him as a gift’" (O’Connor 530), the bull’s final attempt to make her recognize her need for grace is through a violent goring. Just as Jesus was "sacrificed" in order to restore communion with His Church, the bull loses his life as he joins with Mrs. May (Shields 424). It is at this moment, while dying, that she is literally, and figuratively, brought to her knees, and her "sight [. . .] restored" (O’Connor 540). For the first–and last–time, she sees things as they are. She sees that she will never be good enough to obtain righteousness through her own means; she finally sees herself as God sees her.
In "Greenleaf," the scrub bull forces Mrs. May into an awareness of her need for grace. Though she grapples for control over her life, the bull presents a force over which she has no control. Likewise, the bull challenges her smugness and invades the spaces in her life that she tries to keep to herself. Finally, the bull brings Mrs. May to the full realization of her inferiority to the divine presence of God, as she dies a violent death; "[s]he dies not when she is ‘good and ready,’ but when God chooses" (Rout 413). She finds out what reality is when it is too late.
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"Ravishment of Mrs. May" is an essay written by Cheri Pace in Dr. Barbara Murray’s ENGL 1102 class in spring 2003. At the time of this writing Ms. Pace was a freshman majoring in Political Science. To her credit, Ms. Pace is a member of the College Republicans, Mothers of Preschoolers, and secretary of Women’s Ministries at Brainerd Presbyterian Church, E.P.C.