Perhaps the most imaginatively written death scene in American literature was penned by Katherine Anne Porter. In a story called “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” from Porter’s first collection, The Flowering Judas, she chronicles the final hours of an aging matriarch as she experiences the disorienting effects of a fraying consciousness while she travels through the stages of dying. She is particularly fixated on an event from her young womanhood when she was left at the altar by a suitor who failed to show up for their wedding. Her memory of it takes the form of an apologia for her subsequent life, a not always convincing argument with herself that the jilting did not permanently derail her ambitions for marital and personal happiness.
Porter’s evolution as a writer began in a small town in Texas where she lived in a rambling house filled with books. Hers was a family of readers, and she became a reader herself early in life, a precocity that was not only expected, it was a kind of birthright. She recalls taking on a multi-volume commentary on philosophy by Voltaire and memorizing all of Shakespeare’s sonnets while still in her early teens. Her well-read family sometimes looked over her shoulder as she read, discouraging her from the works of Thackeray in favor of Dickens and Smollett. Eventually she worked her way to Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, female writers whose gifts for language and off-center intuitions would influence her own mature way of writing.
Porter didn’t come to her art from the academy or from the writing workshop. She seemed to absorb her literary sensibility from her surroundings, from inside a passion she was born with that defined her approach to life in general. It was an assimilation of the kind an autodidact achieves, not relying on the tutelage of a master attempting to perpetuate a school of acolytes but from an unerring set of intellectual and literary instincts that served her brilliantly as she sharpened her craft. Porter’s only formal education came from a year in a parochial school in Texas, though as an adult and a celebrated writer she taught in a number of American universities during her career. She shunned “schools” of writing and often sequestered herself outside society for years at a time as she poured her energies into her work, especially into her only novel, Ship of Fools. She married first at age fifteen and endured a number of bad marriages and affairs. From her rural Texas beginnings, she grew into a sophisticated and worldly woman, at home in later years in her elegant Georgetown row house that she had filled with tastefully chosen trophies from her travels, entertaining the elites of world culture as one of them.
Porter’s accumulating gifts as a short story writer were never more apparent than in her story about Granny Weatherall. It cohered around themes that appeared frequently in her work, especially the perils of delusion and the need for self-knowledge. At the center of that story she placed the kind of matriarchal figure she’d known well from her childhood in Texas, the sort who’d set examples of accomplishment for her, leading her to books, to discriminating good taste, and a passion to know the world and its ways. Porter’s mother had died when she was two, and her grandmother took over her care, molding her in the Southern values Porter admitted she still held to even after becoming a world famous writer.
In Porter’s story, Granny Weatherall is on her deathbed, only hours from her final breath, bantering with her doctor and her daughter as if she has all the time in the world. She possesses in abundance the orneriness and impatience of a woman who’s survived a long life of adversity and who, in her own mind, has been more victorious than defeated. But for all her triumphs—what she believes was a happy later marriage to a good husband, a marriage that also produced good children—she can’t expel the memory of the time she was jilted, left alone at the church on the day of her nuptials, a newly-baked wedding cake improbably still in her hands, an aromatic reproach. It’s clear that Granny needs to lance this unbearable wound from her psyche, that to retain a sense of pride as she dies she must believe the delusion she’s created to convince herself that the humiliation of having been jilted—an event well-known to everyone in her life—did not create the pain and sense of failure that in fact cast a shadow over the rest of her life. Porter tells this part of the story in a stream of consciousness in which Granny’s thoughts alternate and blend with the voice of the omniscient narrator. In beautifully modulated passages, the voices mix in an almost musical manner, the way the string section in a symphony enters and exits the main theme so subtly its transitions seem to be one with the whole. The reader hears the change in voices from their first murmurs to their final confused and plaintive pleas, slowly beginning to apprehend what Porter is so masterfully creating. The ultimate harmony the narrative achieves is one of Porter’s most impressive performances. By the story’s end, Granny Weatherall’s voice emerges as an aria, a final poetic valedictory:
“Her heart sank down and down, there was no bottom to death, she couldn’t
come to the end of it. The blue light from (the) lampshade drew into a tiny point
in the center of her brain, it flickered and winked like an eye, quietly it fluttered
and dwindled. Granny laid curled down within herself, amazed and watchful,
staring at the point of life that was herself, her body was now only a deeper
mass of shadow in an endless darkness and this darkness would curl around
the light and swallow it up. God, give a sign.”