Katherine Anne Porter’s “Flowering Judas” is the claustrophobic account of Laura, a 22-year-old American teacher of deep “political faith,” who finds her idealism tested by a series of painful realities in the largely poor Xochimilco borough of Mexico City. Laura has come to Mexico to aid the revolutionary cause by working with local unions, educating the underserved native population, and embodying a sense of “what life should be.” But when Laura is introduced, these convictions have already been shattered, leaving her feeling both betrayed and foolish. In this story, the author addresses the question of whether idealism can survive harsh political realities, concluding bleakly that one will inevitably betray their internal idealism when faced with the external and imperfect world. Porter strongly implies that giving up one’s ideals can be just as bad as naively holding on to them.
Laura’s clash with reality is embodied by the grotesque and hypocritical figure of her would-be suitor Braggioni, a one-time radical who has become addicted to money, power, and sexual conquest. Braggioni “has become a symbol of [Laura’s] many dissolutions, for a revolutionist should be lean, animated by heroic faith, a vessel of abstract virtues.” Braggioni, however, is anything but. Instead, he is presented as a lecherous and bloated oaf who spends the bulk of the story serenading Laura off-key and bragging of his wealth. Just as Braggioni’s attentions strain the hapless Laura, so too does he take up most of the story’s length. His large frame and wanton manners are significant for their impact on Laura, and he is described as sporting a silver ammunition belt and tells Laura that he is “rich, not in money […] but in power. Thus, Braggioni confronts Laura with the gulf between her expectations and crude reality. Laura has come to Mexico out of principle and an association with the Leftist struggle, hoping to find comrades and a sense of purpose; instead she finds intractable poverty and exploitation by the likes of Braggioni, who images himself “a leader of men,” but is described as being clad in “elegant refinements” and is vain as well as boorish.
Braggioni confronts Laura with the possibility that she will surrender her ideals and become likewise disillusioned and bitter. As the story progresses, Braggioni emerges as more than an insufferable caricature. Like Laura, he seems to have once been possessed of genuine ideals, and he tells her “I am disappointed in everything as it comes […] You, poor thing, you will be disappointed too.” Reality has caught up with Braggioni, leaving him corrupted by the very forces he once took up arms against. His “specialized insolence” threatens Laura not only because of his sexualization of her but because he represents the natural culmination of her ongoing process of disillusionment with her ideals. Laura “wears the uniform of an idea and has renounced vanities,” which, on the surface, couldn’t be further from Braggioni’s ostentatious style of dress and pride. But taxed by her students and frustrated by the futility of her political sympathies, she is coming to see her ideals as “full of romantic error” and the cynicism of her colleagues as “a developed sense of reality.” That reality is one of compromised ideals. Laura struggles to hold on to her principles, but suspects herself of naiveté.
The clash between idealistic thought and the gradual creep of painful reality is further explored via the tertiary character of Mrs. Braggioni. She retains a romantic view of her husband and continues to tolerate his obnoxious behavior out of misplaced loyalty. Laura spurns Braggioni partly out of fear that she too will wind up “bogged in a nightmare” like Mrs. Braggioni, who refuses to come to terms with her difficult reality.
Laura is “not at home in the world,” and her dreams reflect the better world she imagines. The world can change a person for the worst, like Braggioni, and sap out the will to oppose injustice. Despite this bleak reality, the story also suggests that ideals are still worth hanging onto. At the story’s conclusion, Laura dreams of Eugenio, a revolutionary who dies in prison, quite possibly from pills that Laura provided him with. As both a suicide and an act of martyrdom to the cause, he is a figure of almost unattainable purity for Laura, and the foil of the prideful Braggioni. As a figure encountered mainly in dreams, he represents Laura’s insistence on hanging on to ideals, if only in her imagination, the one place where she is free from the cynicism of her day-to-day life. Laura also dreams of the blossoms of the Judas tree, which symbolizes not just her guilt over Eugenio’s death, but the betrayal of her ideals just as Christ was betrayed by Juda Iscariot, who hung himself from one of these trees, giving it its name. Laura’s dreams regarding the martyred Eugenio and the Judas tree present a stark contrast between the purity Laura aspires to and the cruel reality she encounters. However, Porter does not depict belief in ideals as entirely useless: if one can imagine a better life, and a better world, they can still retain their virtues and avoid being seduced by materialism like Braggioni. Laura is not entirely broken but remains primarily a dreamer, and capable of goodness and sympathy, smuggling letters in and out of prisons and houses where the rebels hide in secret, and teaching children of “opportunistic savagery,” more interested in their exotic teacher than their lessons.
Ultimately, Laura’s idealism extends beyond mere politics and into a dream-place where her “higher principles” are intact and she consumes the flower of the Judas tree, an act that hints at her guilt for allowing her ideals to run aground in reality. Yet overcoming naiveté is not the same as surrender, and so there is hope for Laura, who has learned by the story’s end that forgetting one’s ideals, like Braggioni, can be just as costly as high as holding onto them.
Idealism vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Idealism vs. Reality Quotes in Flowering Judas
Laura, who haunts the markets listening to the ballad singers, and stops every day to hear the blind boy playing his reed-flute in Sixteenth of September Street, listens to Braggioni with pitiless courtesy, because she dares not smile at his miserable performance. Nobody dares to smile at him. Braggioni is cruel to everyone, with a kind of specialized insolence, but he is so vain of his talents, and so sensitive to slights, it would require a cruelty and vanity greater than his own to lay a finger on the vast cureless wound of his self-esteem. It would require courage, too, for it is dangerous to offend him, and nobody has this courage. Braggioni loves himself with such tenderness and amplitude and eternal charity that his followers—for he is a leader of men, a skilled revolutionist, and his skin has been punctured in honorable warfare—warm themselves in the reflected glow, and say to each other: “He has a real nobility, a love of humanity raised above mere personal affections.”
The gluttonous bulk-of Braggioni has become a symbol of her many disillusions, for a revolutionist should be lean, animated by heroic faith, a vessel of abstract virtues. This is nonsense, she knows it now and is ashamed of it. Revolution must have leaders, and leadership is a career for energetic men. She is, her comrades tell her, full of romantic error, for what she defines as cynicism in them is merely "a developed sense of reality.
She has encased herself in a set of principles derived from her early training, leaving no detail or gesture of personal taste untouched, and for this reason she will not wear lace made on machines. This is her private heresy, for in her special group the machine is sacred, and will be the salvation of the workers. She loves fine lace, and there is a tiny edge of fluted cobweb on this collar, which is one of twenty precisely alike, folded in blue tissue paper in the upper drawer of her clothes chest.
“I am disappointed in everything as it comes. Everything." He shakes his head. "You, poor thing, you will be disappointed too. You are born for it. We are more alike than you realize in some things. Wait and see. Some day you will remember what I have told you, you will know that Braggioni was your friend.”
“Let them sweat a little. The next time they may be careful. It is very restful to have them out of the way for a while.”
She is not at home in the world. Every day she teaches children who remain strangers to her, though she loves their tender round hands and their charming opportunist savagery. She knocks at unfamiliar doors not knowing whether a friend or a stranger shall answer, and even if a known face emerges from the sour gloom of that unknown interior, still it is the face of a stranger. No matter what this stranger says to her, nor what her message to him, the very cells of her flesh reject knowledge and kinship in one monotonous word. No. No. No. She draws her strength from this one holy talismanic word which does not suffer her to be led into evil.
“They are stupid, they are lazy, they are treacherous, they would cut my throat for nothing.”
There will be two independent processions, starting from either end of town and they will march until they meet, and the rest depends…” He asks her to oil and load his pistols. Standing up, he unbuckles his ammunition belt, and spreads it laden across her knees. Laura sits with the shells slipping through the cleaning cloth dipped in oil, and he says again he cannot understand why she works so hard for the revolutionary idea unless she loves some man who is in it.
“Today, I found Eugenio going into a stupor. He refused to allow me to call the prison doctor. He had taken all the tablets I brought him yesterday. He said he took them because he was bored.”