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 set the building on fire. Powell says they could stay in the woods instead, and she also says she can’t allow that in “my woods” – again, because of smoking. Garfield mocks her, saying “her woods” as Powell leads the boys off for a tour, leaving the food uneaten.
The boys return to the house at sunset and are, this time, hungry. Mrs. Cope offers them guinea hen to eat but they refuse. Instead they eat sandwiches. It is apparent they have been riding horses, but they deny this is how they have spent the afternoon. W.T., perhaps trying to scare Mrs. Cope, tells her that Powell lit a box containing his brother on fire and Mrs. Cope says she’s sure that’s not true – Powell wouldn’t do such a thing. She also asks the boys if they thank God every day “for all He’s done for you” to which they give no response. Sally Virginia makes noises up in her room to get the boys’ attention. Garfield notes that the farm has “another woman.” Mrs. Cope tells Sally Virginia the boys will be gone the next day.
However, the next day Powell says his uncle isn’t coming after all. The boys, it becomes clear, have their own food. She tells them “this is my place” and that she expects them to act like gentleman. The boys wander off, and Mrs. Cope discusses the situation with Mrs. Pritchard, who notifies her of how her husband, Hollis, tried to reason with them so they wouldn’t ride her horses the day before. Not only did they ride horses, but they drank milk from cans in the barn and debated with Hollis about how much land Mrs. Cope really owned.
Mrs. Cope becomes worried and says she “cannot have this” on her land, but Mrs. Pritchard tells her there is nothing that she can do. Mrs. Cope says she is going to find the boys and tell them they will have to leave somehow, perhaps hitching a ride with the milk truck. Sally Virginia, meanwhile, says she can take care of the boys and makes a mock-strangling gesture.
The boys tell Mrs. Cope they will leave on the milk truck, but they don’t. Instead, they hide when it appears and run about on the farm. They let the bull out of its pen, drain the tractors of oil and sit by the road across from Mrs. Cope’s mailbox, throwing rocks at it. Mrs. Cope grows increasingly worried but Mrs. Pritchard reminds her there’s nothing she can do. Nonetheless, Mrs. Cope gathers Mrs. Pritchard and Sally Virginia to confront the boys, whom she drives to see. She tells Powell he ought to be ashamed and the boys ought to appreciate her kindness to them. Then she says if they don’t leave before she comes back from town she will call the sheriff.
Mrs. Pritchard warns her after that it would have been better to keep them in view than to drive them from sight, where they can plot things she can’t keep track of. “It ain’t any telling what they’ll do,” she says to Mrs. Cope. Mrs. Cope, however, is convinced they’ll leave once and for all.
The boys disappear for the rest of the day and into the next morning. Sally Virginia, meanwhile, dresses up in a tomboy’s outfit: overalls with two pistols in a holster. Her mother protests her outfit but she stomps off to find the boys with a plan to get rid of them. She finds them bathing in a cow’s trough and decides to eavesdrop on them rather than confront them. The boys are debating whether they wished they lived on the farm or not. W.T. says he wishes he did live there, but Garfield says he’s glad he doesn’t. Powell says that if the farm no longer existed they wouldn’t have to think about it. Powell suggests they set fire to the woods, which they do, and Sally Virginia runs, shocked, back to the house.
When Mrs. Cope learns of the fire, she becomes frightened and yells at her workers to put it out.
However, seeing that it is likely futile, Culver tells her “it’ll be there when we git there.” The boys, meanwhile, celebrate their success and are compared to “prophets.” Sally Virginia notices a change in her mother’s face – it becomes less specific, more like the face of any other person, and more human as a result.