illustrated portrait of American author Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor

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What questions does O'Connor's story "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" raise in terms of faith, community, and belonging?

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The short story "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" by Flannery O'Connor tells of the visit of two 14-year-old girls, Susan and Joanne, to the home of a 12-year-old girl, referred to only as "the child" and her mother. Susan and Joanne attend a convent school. The nuns there have taught them to regard their bodies as temples of the Holy Ghost, as the Bible says, and so when the girls arrive, they identify themselves as Temple One and Temple Two.

The mother wants to arrange something for the girls to do and ultimately settles on a visit with a pair of 16-year-old boys, preachers in training named Wendell and Cory Wilkins. Susan and Joanne have dinner with the boys, and then the boys take them to the local fair. When the girls get back, they tell the child about a hermaphrodite they saw who was presented as a freak. The next afternoon, the mother and child drive the girls back to the convent, and they all attend a prayer service in the chapel with the nuns.

The entire story is told from the perspective of the child. Although she professes to have great intelligence, she is obviously confused about religion, sex, and the community of people that surrounds her. The questions that arise in the story have to do with things that the child observes but doesn't understand. For instance, she has no comprehension of what the Catholic faith that she and her family supposedly embrace is really all about. She questions what it really means to be a temple of the Holy Ghost, what it would be like to be a martyr, and why the circus freak is satisfied with the way God made them. Only at the end in the chapel does the child seem to grasp what religion, prayer, and spirituality really mean.

The child does not seem to question the community in which she has been raised. She seems to take it for granted. Instead, the people in it become for her objects of ridicule. She has an imagined feeling of superiority that makes her deride those around her and the relationships that they form with each other. In this context, the author questions the supposed strong ties of small communities, pointing out the underlying tensions and misunderstandings that are always present but not always observed.

In exposing the above-mentioned tensions and misunderstandings having to do with the community and faith that the characters in the story take for granted, O'Connor calls into question the sense of belonging that these supposed certainties of life should evoke. Nothing is quite as it seems, and the Catholicism and people around them do not prevent the characters, especially the child, from apprehension and confusion.

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