Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Circle in the Fire” was first published in The Kenyon Review in 1954, eight years after the writer burst onto the literary scene as an innovative short story author. The story was republished in 1955 in three separate volumes, including her short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find; Prize Stories 1955: The O’Henry Awards; and The Best American Short Stories of 1955. It was also included in a posthumous short story collection, The Complete Stories, in 1971.
“A Circle in the Fire” is not necessarily considered O’Connor’s finest short work. However, the story exposes key themes from her oeuvre: grotesque characters, a strong sense of irony, a dark sense of humor and the role of religious faith in motivating characters. These themes are evident in stories such as “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” as well as in her novels, where protagonists battle to apply their sense of religious faith in difficult situations or while confronting lunatic or ridiculous characters.
Like most of O’Connor’s work, “A Circle in the Fire” appears to be set in the rural South during the first half of the twentieth century. Because three visitors appear from Atlanta, some believe the story is set in Georgia.
The story opens with two women, Mrs. Cope and Mrs. Pritchard, working in Mrs. Cope’s yard and talking about local news. Mrs. Cope’s daughter, Sally Virginia, eavesdrops from a second-floor window. Mrs. Pritchard describes to Mrs. Cope a strange case of birth and death, a certain type of story Mrs. Cope has grown accustomed to hearing from Mrs. Pritchard whom she thinks is overly interested in morbid affairs. Mrs. Cope, the reader learns, prefers to think of happier topics and ignore the sorts of events that interest Mrs. Pritchard.
While the women talk, Mrs. Cope works energetically on her garden, pulling up stray weeds and nut grass to preserve order – an indication of her personality. As the women work, Mrs. Cope notices one of her African-American workers (her “Negroes”), Culver, driving around a gate rather than stopping to open it. She has Mrs. Pritchard summon him so she can admonish him. Culver listens but without making eye contact – an indication he doesn’t respect her authority. She tells him to open and go through the gate, which he does.
While the women work and talk of current events, Mrs. Pritchard tells her the world isn’t always orderly, that trouble can descend at any time. Mrs. Cope says she works to keep disaster away and doesn’t go looking for trouble. Just as the two are debating this point, a truck stops at the farm’s gate and drops off three young boys – Powell Boyd, W.T. Harper, and Garfield Smith. All have suitcases. Sally Virginia notices the boys coming before the women do.
Powell Boyd tells Mrs. Cope his father used to work on the farm and that he lived there when he was younger. He introduces her to his friends and tells Mrs. Cope he lives in a housing development outside Atlanta and have come to see her farm, where Powell’s now-deceased father once worked and where life, as Powell remembers, was wonderful. His mother has apparently remarried.
Mrs. Cope tries to show the boys hospitality, telling them it is “sweet” of them to pay her a visit. W.T. however gives Mrs. Cope an idea of what they have in mind on the farm: He tells her Powell has promised them riding horses. Mrs. Cope tells the boys the horses are wild and can’t be ridden. W.T. also tells Mrs. Cope that Powell wants to be at the farm after he dies. Mrs. Cope, unsure how to respond, offers the boys Coca-Cola and food.
She and Mrs. Pritchard talk privately about the boys: Mrs. Cope believes they’ll leave after a snack and look around, but Mrs. Cope points out that they have bags and must intend to stay. “I’m sure they’ll go when I feed them,” Mrs. Cope says, making an incorrect assumption.
One of the boys, Garfield, is discarding a cigarette when they return – and Mrs. Cope swiftly admonishes him, telling him he can’t smoke here. She calls him “Ashfield” rather than Garfield, and he corrects her, an exchange which seems to amuse the boys but may foreshadow what will become of her fields.
W.T. tells Mrs. Cope that Powell wishes he could have one of her horses in Atlanta and that the boys plan to spend the night in her barn. He also says that Powell’s uncle will pick them up in the morning. However, Mrs. Cope says they can’t do that – especially in light of the fact that one of them smokes and could...
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