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Flowering Judas
By Katherine Anne Porter (born between 1890 and 1894 - died in 1980)
A Study Guide
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Setting
Characters
Type of Work
Date of Writing and Publication
Themes
Laura's Motivations
Climax and Its Effect
Major Symbol: Eating Flowers
Narration, Plot, Style
What Is a Judas Tree?
Fascinating Fact About Porter
Questions and Essay Topics
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Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings... 2007
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.......When Laura arrives at her residence in Mexico City, she winces to learn that Braggioni is waiting for her as usual, singing a song and fingering his guitar. She wants only to lie down and rest. Nevertheless, after her Indian servant, Lupe, brings her hot chocolate and rice, Laura asks Braggioni to sing for her. Although he sings and plays badly, Laura listens politely, for she does not wish to incur his wrath. He can be cruel. 
.......Braggioni is proud of himself and his talents, meager as they are. To puncture his pride is to court danger. He is a revolutionary who was once wounded fighting for his cause. His followers think him noble, idealistic. Laura, unfortunately, is indebted to him for her job. When he is in a good mood, he sometimes tells her he is almost willing to overlook the fact that she is a gringa (a derogatory term for an American woman). When he insults her that way, she would like to slap him–but dares not. 
.......Braggioni is fat, a hulking mass that has destroyed Laura’s image of a revolutionary as someone lean and heroic and virtuous. She would like to run away–but does not. Laura, 22, was born a Catholic. Occasionally, she does run away, to a church to pray, risking the condemnation of others; for the church is the enemy of the revolutionaries. Leaning forward, his belly bulging and sagging, Braggioni–wearing a leather ammunition belt and elegant clothes to indulge his taste for refinements–sings robustly about loneliness. He also speaks of being disappointed with life, then says Laura will be disappointed too. A chill runs through Laura, one suggesting that she will die a violent death. But she remains in place, with fat Braggioni. Why? Laura has no answer. 
.......Laura devotes part of her time to teaching English to children at Xochimilco, about 15 miles south of Mexico City. She also attends union meetings and visits political prisoners, taking them cigarettes, food, messages from the outside, and sometimes drugs. When they ask for help, they mention Braggioni: “Why doesn’t he do something?” In addition, she takes information and money to men hiding from the law. Among the recipients of her favors are a Polish agitator and a Rumanian agitator. The latter speaks seductively to her–for she is quite attractive–but she refuses to let him or anyone else touch her. They all are puzzled at why she remains in Mexico. 
.......While horseback riding near Cuernavaca (about 35 miles south of Mexico City), she catches the eye of a young army captain who had served under Zapata (Emiliano Zapata–1879-1919–a leading revolutionary). Later, the captain sends her a letter telling her he loves her. Laura does not respond to it. 
.......One evening in her patio, a 19-year-old serenades her for two hours under bright moonlight while the blossoms of a Judas tree in her garden are a “dull purple.” Lupe tells her he will go away if she throws him a flower. After Laura follows the advice, the youth–an organizer for the Typographers Union–sings one more song and leaves. But he comes back again and again and sometimes follows her around Mexico City. He also writes poems to her that he leaves in her doorway.
.......Meanwhile, Braggioni tries to impress this very lovely young woman and “speculates . . . on the puzzle of her notorious virginity." He tells her, “You think you are so cold, gringita. Wait and see. You will surprise yourself some day. May I be there to advise you!”
.......Braggioni has carefully shaped himself into a revolutionary and now has all the required qualities: “the malice, the cleverness, the wickedness, the sharpness of wit, the hardness of heart, stipulated for loving the world profitably.” His father emigrated to Mexico from Tuscany, in west-central Italy, and married a Maya woman. His family cultivated in him a love of music. He had many women during the time that he was a poet. Now, years later, he is revolutionary and leader of men who whisper secrets in his ear. He encourages them, gives them money, promises them jobs, and tells them they must join unions, take part in demonstrations, and attend meetings. However, he tells Laura, “They are stupid, they are lazy, they are treacherous, they would cut my throat for nothing.” But Braggioni lives the good life, eating and drinking his fill, sleeping in a soft bed with his wife, and singing to Laura. Once, when he was 15, he tried to kill himself when a girl rejected him.
.......“A thousand women have paid for that,” he now says. He adds, “One woman is really as good as another for me, in the dark. I prefer them all.”
.......His wife walks the party line, forming unions of women in cigarette factories, doing picket duty, and speaking at meetings. But she is not happy, for her husband demands too much. He has told her she must learn to cry for him. One day, he leaves and stays away for a month, taking a room at the Hotel Madrid. Laura wishes that she also could be free of Braggioni. She has just returned from the prison. There, the inmate she was visiting, Eugenio, was in a stupor after deliberately taking an overdose of pills she brought him the day before.
.......Unbuckling his ammunition belt and laying it on Laura’s lap, Braggioni tells her to load and oil his pistols for the expected violence at May Day observances in Morelia, northwest of Mexico City. Roman Catholics will be honoring the Blessed Virgin in a festival, and the socialists will be honoring the martyrs to their cause.  While Laura does his bidding, Braggioni asks her–as he has done before–why she devotes herself to revolution. It must be because she loves someone connected with it, he says. But she says she loves no one and asks whether someone loves him. He answers no, resumes playing the guitar, then says, “Pistols are good, I love them, cannon are even better, but in the end I pin my faith to good dynamite.” Laura gives him the belt and says, “Put that on, and go kill somebody in Morelia, and you will be happier.” 
.......She tells him about Eugenio, saying he told her not to call for the prison doctor. Of Eugenio’s decision to die, Braggioni says, “He is a fool and we are well rid of him.”
.......Braggioni leaves and goes home, where his distraught wife weeps at the sight of him. He greets her tenderly. She removes his shoes and washes his feet. “Forgive me,” she says.
.......At her residence, Laura goes to bed. A bell strikes midnight. She dreams of Eugenio. He promises to take her to a new land–death. Outside the house, he takes flowers from the Judas tree and tells her to eat them.  After she consumes them, he calls her a murderer and a cannibal and says, “This is my body and my blood.” Laura shouts, “No!” Then she wakes up, afraid to go back to sleep. 
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Setting

.......The action takes place in Mexico City in the early 1920s at the home of the protagonist, Laura, on a spring evening after the end of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). As part of the outcome of the revolution, a republican form of government has replaced a dictatorship. However, some leftists–disenchanted with the policies of the new government–continue their insurrection in small-scale clashes and uprisings. In "Flowering Judas," Laura and Braggioni are involved in the continuing leftist movement. 

Characters

Laura: Beautiful American woman, age 22, who took up residence in Mexico to help the downtrodden. She teaches English to children and delivers messages, cigarettes, money, and narcotics to jailed or fugitive revolutionaries. However, Laura avoids committing herself to anything or anyone. Her students love her, but she stands aloof from them. Men court her, but she rejects them. She sometimes sneaks into a Catholic church to practice the religion of her youth, but she fails to embrace the church as an essential part of her life. Nothing gains her full attention. 
Braggioni: Cruel, boastful leader of Marxist revolutionaries in and around Mexico City. His father was an immigrant from Tuscany, Italy, who married a Mexican Indian, a Maya. Once, the narrator says, Braggioni’s “skin had been punctured in honorable warfare.” Although he possesses some leadership qualities, he maintains his position of power mainly through spying and intimidation. He eats rich food, wears fine clothes, and indulges in other luxuries. His fat body, with its bulging stomach, symbolizes the extent to which power has corrupted him. To Laura's dismay, he frequently visits her at home, hoping to seduce her.
Young Army Captain: Soldier who served under Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919), a leading revolutionary. The captain woos Laura unsuccessfully. 
Serenading Youth: Nineteen-year-old who sings to Laura outside her window, writes poems to her, and follows her around town. She ignores him. 
Eugenio: Imprisoned revolutionary whom Laura visits and gives narcotics. He commits suicide by overdosing on drugs. He appears in Laura's dream at the end of the story, persuading her to eat the flowers of a Judas tree.
Braggioni's Wife: Woman totally devoted to Braggioni. When he is absent for a long time, she languishes. When he returns, she washes his feet, a practice referred to in the Bible (John, Chapter 13, Verses 1-15; First Epistle of Paul to Timothy, Chapter 5, Verse 10). It is interesting to note that Mrs. Braggioni's fanatical commitment to her husband is the antipodes of Laura's lack of commitment to anything. 
Polish Agitator: Revolutionary aided by Laura. 
Rumanian Agitator: Another revolutionary aided by Laura.
Lupe: Mexican-Indian maid in Laura’s home.
Students of Laura: Children who learn English from Laura. Although they love and admire her, she shows little affection toward them.

Type of Work

......."Flowering Judas" is a short story based in part on the real-life experiences of the author. She lived for a time in early 20th Century Mexico, studying art and working as a teacher and journalist. Persons she encountered during her stay in Mexico served as models for characters in the story. She infused some of herself into her protagonist, Laura.

Writing and Publication Dates

......."Flowering Judas" was written in New York City in December 1929. It was published in 1930 in Hound and Horn, a quarterly publication founded in 1927 by Harvard University students, and in a book collection of Porter's works. 

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Themes

Betrayal

.......The main theme of the short story is betrayal–Laura’s betrayal of her religion, the revolutionary movement, her students, and most of all herself. True, she enters a church on occasion to pray, and she runs errands on behalf of the Marxist insurgents. Moreover, she earns the respect and love of her students. However, in all of her activities, she lacks enthusiasm and commitment; she refuses to give fully of herself. This reluctance to bind herself to an ideal or a cause mirrors her attitude toward the men who woo her. She refuses to involve herself with any of them. In the end, she eats the flowers of the Judas tree (in a dream), confirming her betrayal of her ideals and humanity in general. Braggioni also commits the sin of betrayal. Although he leads revolutionaries dedicated to improving the lot of the common people, he himself–girded by his considerable political power–eats well and dresses well, arrogating unto himself the material benefits of the very people he opposes. In addition, he rules his revolutionary compatriots with the absolute authority of a king. He proves Lord Acton’s thesis: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Other Themes

Other themes in the story–plainly evident during its reading–include the following: 
Isolation and alienation, involving Laura's refusal to participate fully in activities around her
Apathy, involving Laura's inability to become enthusiastic about a cause
Opportunism and corruption, involving Braggioni's exploitation of his cause and its participants
Cowardice, involving Eugenio's decision to end his pain by killing himself
Guilt, involving Laura's reaction to Eugenio's death
Fear of the future, involving Laura's fear of impending doom and her inability to live for a future goal
Fanaticism, involving Mrs. Braggioni's devotion to her husband 

What Motivates Laura?

.......Why does Laura deliberately alienate herself? That question is open to speculation, for the author does not explicitly state reasons for Laura’s behavior. However, this much is certain: Laura has a complex psyche. Genetic, environmental, religious, moral, ethical, and experiential influences all played a role in forming it, as they do in shaping the psyches of all human beings. In analyzing Laura, one cannot ignore the resemblances between the circumstances of Laura's fictional life and the circumstances of the author's life. The following table illustrates the similarities:
 
 

Laura Katherine Anne Porter
Born in the U.S. Born in the U.S. 
Receives a Catholic upbringing Received a Catholic education. (It is uncertain whether she was a Catholic as a child, but Catholic values were instilled in her.) 
Rejects Catholicism but remains attracted to it Rejected Catholicism but remained attracted to it, then decided to fully accept Catholicism. She died a Catholic.
Lives in Mexico in the early 1920s Lived in Mexico in 1920 and 1921 and may have visited Mexico earlier
Works among leftist revolutionaries in Mexico but refuses to commit herself completely to their cause Worked among leftist revolutionaries in Mexico but refused to commit herself to their cause. In an interview, Porter told Archer Winston: "Why should I have rebelled against my early training in Jesuit Catholicism only to take another yoke now?" (qtd. in Hardy, John Edward. Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1973, Page 11.)

.......Porter, who based “Flowering Judas” on her experiences while living in Mexico, drops hints at the possible motivations for Laura’s actions. Porter tells the reader, for example, that Laura prefers elegant, hand-made lace collars to tawdry, machine-made lace collars produced by Mexican laborers. Laura keeps twenty hand-made collars in her clothes chest. Porter also tells the reader that Laura learned to ride horses in Arizona. These two disclosures–as well as the fact that Laura has a maid–suggest that she came from a well-to-do family, one that provided Laura fine clothes and riding lessons (or perhaps even a horse). A privileged upbringing could have instilled in Laura two opposing forces: first, a sense of noblesse oblige, which would help explain her decision to help downtrodden Mexicans; second, a subliminal or conscious antipathy for things coarse, crude, unrefined–namely the people, places, and things she found in Mexico. (She went to Mexico with the idea that revolutionaries were dashing and dedicated; Braggioni, she discovered, was neither.) 
.......In addition, her Roman Catholic upbringing–which in one passage in the story manifests itself by compelling her to pray in a church–could have warred with material desires in her, causing her to reject the advances of men as well as the vanities of the world. Her blue serge outfit, with its white collar, resembles the habit of a nun, an announcement to the world she wishes to live like a nun.
 .......What about Laura's vague fear of impending doom? One may fairly argue that this fear springs from her lack of wholehearted commitment to an ideal or a goal. Without such a commitment, she cannot fulfill any worthwhile dreams or hopes. Thus, if she dies in an accident, a natural disaster, or an incident of violence, she will die a failure. 
.......Of course, it is possible that Laura is simply confused. After all, she is only 22. At that age, many people–including idealists–lack the experience and confidence to make wise choices. Sometimes, rather than make a wrong choice, they make no choice at all; they simply languish. Of such people, Shakespeare wrote, “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”–Lucio, Measure for Measure: Act I, Scene IV, Lines 83-85. 

The Climax and Its Effect

.......In the climax in the last paragraph of the story, Laura eats the flowers of the Judas tree, an act that confirms her as a betrayer of her ideals. When she awakens from the dream, she is afraid to go back to sleep. And no wonder. Her subconscious mind has just tattled on her to her conscious mind, and now she sees herself for what she is, a traitor. The question is, will she alter her life to make amends for her failures? The author does not tell the reader. 

Major Symbol: Eating the Flowers

.......In her dream, Laura eats the flowers of the Judas tree at the urging of Eugenio. This act mocks the central act of the Roman Catholic mass: receiving Holy Eucharist (Holy Communion), the body and blood of Jesus Christ. In consuming the flowers, she symbolically consumes the body and blood of Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus Christ. In doing so, she casts her lot with Judas; she becomes a betrayer. However, it may well be that her subconscious stages the dream ritual to warn her that she will become a Judas in real life unless she mends her ways. The dream so frightens Laura that she shouts "No!" and awakens at the sound of her cry. The short story ends. Whether Laura alters her life as a result of the dream is open to question. 
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Narration, Plot, and Style

.......Porter tells “Flowering Judas” in third-person point of view, enabling her to present the thoughts of Laura and, therefore, lay bare her psychological disposition. The author observes the classical unities–that is, the tale unfolds in a single locale on a single day (except for certain flashbacks); there are no subplots. The plot is unconventional in that it focuses primarily on the stagnancy of Laura’s worldview (and secondarily on Braggioni’s mindset) rather than on a logical progression of events. .......There is no resolution of Laura’s conflicts, and there are no surprises or life-changing moments. What happens to Laura after the story-ending dream is open to speculation. Porter presents her narrative in meticulously wrought prose laden with symbols, such as Braggioni’s pistols (phalluses), Laura’s nun-like serge clothes (virginity and austerity), and the Judas tree (betrayal).  From time to time, the author presents the free-flowing thoughts of Laura, a technique that some literary critics identify with stream of consciousness. However, at such times, Porter’s prose remains easy to understand; it does not come in unpunctuated fits and gasps, as does the difficult stream-of-consciousness prose of James Joyce and William Faulkner. 

What Is a Judas Tree?

.......A Judas tree is a redbud (genus Cercis), a shrub or small tree in the pea family. The flowers of the tree are red, pink, or reddish purple, and its leaves are green. Judas trees grow in the temperate zones of North America, Europe, and Asia. It is believed that Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus Christ, hanged himself from a Mediterranean variety of the tree, Cercis siliquastrum, causing its white flowers to turn red to signify shame. Click here for pictures of Judas trees.

Fascinating Fact About the Author

.......In an interview with Barbara Thompson (Writers at Work, 1963) Katherine Anne Porter said she always wrote the last paragraph of a story first, then backed up and wrote about all of the events leading up to the events described in the last paragraph. It was important for her to know the destination of her literary journey first so that she could set a course (like sailors and airline pilots) leading to the destination. 

Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • Write an outcome or resolution of Laura's story. In it, tell what decisions she makes about her future. Explain those decisions in light of information presented in the story.
  • To what extent is Laura like the author, Katherine Anne Porter? (See the table, above. Also, read a biographical sketch of Porter.)
  • What were the causes of the Mexican Revolution? What was the outcome? 
  • English historian John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton (1834-1902), known today simply as Lord Acton, once wrote in a letter that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolutely power corrupts absolutely." Is Braggioni an apt example of a man who exemplifies Acton's observation?
  • Why is Braggioni's wife so devoted to her husband?
  • Does Braggioni have any redeeming qualities?
  • It was a favorite pastime of literati in the 1930s and 1940s to play a game in which they attempted to divine the symbolism of certain passages of “Flowering Judas,” such as the one in which Laura, at Braggioni’s bidding, oils and loads his pistols–or, as some interpreters of the story would opine, phalluses. Play that game now with your classmates. List all the symbols you notice and jot down their meanings. Compare your answers with those of your classmates. 
  • Do you believe Laura suffered from a mental problem that shaped her outlook on life? Explain your answer.
  • Obviously, Laura is very attractive, for men regularly make passes at her. In addition, she appears to have many other appealing qualities besides beauty. For example, her students love and admire her, and the revolutionaries she visits trust her. Write a profile of Laura, presenting her positive and negative qualities. In your essay, attempt to discover what makes her tick.
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