The theme of betrayal is central to Katherine Anne Porter’s famous story, “Flowering Judas.” The story, set against the Obregon Revolution in 1920’s Mexico probes the implications of both revolutionary idealism and inter-personal loyalty. By devising a complex symbolic structure for the story, Porter enables her thematic ideas to grow throughout range of possibilities and associations.
By examining some of the key symbols of the story, such as the central symbol of the Flowering Judas tree itself, a perceptive reader begins to understand that Porter’s themes of revolution and interpersonal betrayal are not only connected to one another, but that the more overt conclusions drawn by the reader regarding these themes encompass, not the end-interpretation of the story’s themes as a whole, but merely a departure point for discovery. The deeper themes of the story emerge form the often ironic symbolic associations present throughout the story many of which are not evident to even an alert reader during the first or even second reading of the tale.The story’s central characters, Laura, the ostensibly idealistic American who is a sympathizer and erstwhile supporter of the Revolution in Mexico, and Braggioni, a seemingly loathsome, vain, loud and lecherous revolutionary leader who attempts (crudely) to serenade and seduce the nun-like Laura. At first glance the relationship between these characters seems to be one of blatant contrast between a moral character, Laura, and an immoral character, Braggioni. Since the reader is informed that Braggioni is already married, his attempted seduction of Laura seems to frame him as both un-ethical and weak-willed.
The reader may think upon first reaction that the obvious intention of the author is to stress Laura’s virginal qualities by contrast with Braggioni, and in so doing authentic her as a powerful adn important voice of purity in the Obregon Revolution.The words used by Porter to describe the erotic tension between Braggioni and Laura seems to leave no doubt as to what impression of each character the reader should have:Braggioni catches her glance solidly as if he had been waiting for it, leans forward, balancing his paunch between his spread knees, and sings with tremendous emphasis, weighing his words […] His mouth opens round and yearns sideways, his balloon cheeks grow oily with the labor of song. He bulges marvelously in his expensive garments.It is only after a longer period of reflection upon this passage and others like it, that the reader begins to see that Porter is, in fact, toying with the reader’s expectations and prejudices, and by subtle insinuation — Porter inserts an ironic meaning under the overt meaning of the scene, and this irony is conveyed through the use of symbols.
In the above passage, the guitar and the repeated emphasis and swollen-imagery — pregnant imagery if you lime — coveys a sub-text that Braggioni embodies an almost androgenous symbolic position in contrasts with Laura’s rigid, nun-like A-sexuality. The sub-text shown through symbolic association is that Laura is a repressed person, blind to self-expression and earthy sexuality, devoted to a religious-like abstraction of Revolution, rather than the earth-bound fact of revolution.This association is built upon during the remaining course of the story adn the associations are no less ironic as they built toward the story’s climax. Each successive scene denotes a further complication of the reader’s original first-impression of Laura. By the time she reaches sight of the Flowering Judas Tree, the reader begins to suspect that it is the symbolic associations that have running throughout the story which are more authentic than the surface level indications.
Laura sees “The moonlight spread a wash of gauzy silver over the clear spaces of the garden, and the shadows were cobalt blue. The scarlet blossoms of the Judas tree were dull purple, and the names of the colors repeated themselves automatically in her mind, while she watched not the boy, but his shadow, fallen like a dark garment across the fountain rim, trailing in the water” (Porter, 149); this passage of the story, one of the most critical of the passages in the story, is particularly dense with symbolism and ironic association.At this point, even a careless reader could not fail to be unnerved by what seems to be a sudden reversal in Laura’s moral character, revealed by the strange attraction and romantic vision she has of a tree which is known as a “Flowering Judas.” Laura’s hypnotic infatuation with the romantic vision of the tree, which to any reader symbolically stands as betrayal, reveals why she has been ambivalent both erotically and politically regarding her association with the Mexican Revolution.
She is not interested in revolution, she is merely interested in death. She is fascinated by death adn needs death to bring her out of her otherwise malaise-ridden life. She can’t be excited by music, nor revolution, nor sex, nor even her own intellectual ideas, but the presence of death (and betrayal) inspires within her a grotesquely poetic vision. (Porter).
That her vision culminates in the suicide of one of her co-revolutionaries reaches a climax in Laura’s subsequent dream. Here Porter makes it abundantly clear, by shifting the action of the story to a dream, that it is the symbolic associations of the elements of the story rather than their literal connotations which take precedence when striving to understand the theme of “Flowering Judas.” The central theme of “Flowering Judas” is, indeed, betrayal, and the story’s central and most dynamic symbol is the Flowering Judas Tree itself, which reaches its full articulation in the description of Laura’s dream. When she dreams of herself eating the flowers of the tree and that the flowers are symbolically Eugenio’s body, the dream imparts even to Laura herself that she is not a hero but a “cannibal” who has feasted upon the suffering and death of her fellow human beings. She is not Christ-like or nun-like at all, but even more predatory adn opportunistic and emotionally and sexually disturbed than Braggioni who, at the story’s outset, had appeared to represent the low point of human nature.