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SOURCE: Owens, Mitchell. “The Function of Signature in ‘A Good Is Hard to Find.’” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 1 (winter 1996): 101-6.
[In the following essay, Owens contends that the grandmother's attachment of excessive significance to signatures in O'Connor's short story is a sign of her adherence to an archaic value system in the face of sweeping social change.]
Sometimes a man says things he don't mean.
In her fatal encounter with The Misfit, the grandmother in Flannery O'Connor's “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” confronts a particularly lethal manifestation of her changing social order. Throughout her life, this woman has been struggling with the shift from the ante-bellum values of lineage and gentility to those of a cash-oriented culture, and with the implications this shift has for the assumptions that underwrite her vanishing system of beliefs. While she does not accept or even fully comprehend these implications, in her behavior she acknowledges them and attempts some adjustment. The grandmother's handling of signatures, while clearly demonstrating the tension involved in this ongoing negotiation of adaptation and denial, also indicates that her difficulties arc related to her failure to recognize fully the arbitrariness of the sign. The story she tells of Mr. Edgar Atkins Teagarden and his edible initials illustrates this failure. Moreover, The Misfit's subsequent discussion of signature, coupled with his threat of murder, cause the grandmother to repeat this error; she retreats back into the assumptions whose erosion she has been attempting to deny, but these assumptions, which have been dismantled throughout the story, offer her no protection from her killer.
The grandmother's value system is founded upon particular notions of aristocracy and heredity. According to this system, there is a specific, superior class of people, the gentility, in which one can locate certain finer qualities. This class and its attributes cannot be separated from each other by a change in outward appearances, even one as severe as the Confederacy's crippling defeat in the Civil War: these qualities are fixed in the blood and are passed directly from one generation to the next. A certain social order follows from the assumption that blood is the guarantor of worth, an order in which ladies are treated as ladies, gentlemen behave as gentlemen, and those of less fortunate lineage remain in their appropriate, subordinate places.
By attaching such great importance to heredity, this social structure reflects a logocentric foundation. According to the structure, the gentility possess certain admirable qualities, and these qualities have a point of origin: presumably, God's bestowal of them. Through blood, these attributes have been communicated, directly and without any deterioration of the original signal, through the many generations that have followed from this starting point. The accuracy and reliability of this communication are guaranteed by the one-to-one relation that exists between the information being transmitted and the mechanism of that transmission. The blood that carries value is comprised of that value: blood and worth are one.
This connection is echoed and supported by a similar relationship, the one-to-one signifier/signified correlation upon which the logocentric viewpoint rests. just as blood has carried forward the superior qualities of the southern aristocracy, so too has language: the logocentric linkage of signifier and signified sustains an identically direct line back to the Word with which God created the aristocracy. A southern gentlemen is therefore as good as his word, because his word is as good as his blood; his blood is his worth, and that worth is the Word.
The logocentric relationship of word and worth is reflected in the grandmother's approach to her...
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environment. In her efforts to preserve the values of an aristocratic tradition, she devotes as much attention to the maintenance of that tradition's outward signs as she does to its less visible aspects. She is very conscious throughout the story of what people are wearing, because to her it is through such things as clothing that one can externally reflect internal worth, even when this worth is otherwise obscured by surrounding conditions. While her son Bailey chooses an alarmingly loud, parrot-patterned shirt for the family outing, and while herdéclassé daughter-in-law remains in slacks for the duration of the trip, the grandmother wears an elaborately cuffed and collared dress, so that “in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (118). The clothes make the woman: to the grandmother, sign and signified seem one and the same.
No outfit, no matter how carefully chosen, could provide an adequate line of defense against the drastic shift occurring within the grandmother's culture. The terms of the grandmother's value system are being rapidly undercut by a mercantile order in which blood is displaced by money. The worth transmitted by the sign of the dollar differs greatly from the value transmitted by the sign of the breed, and in the grandmother's eyes it is vastly inferior. Within this new mercantile world, women think nothing of wearing slacks in public, children feel free to openly malign their native states, and honest-looking young men can somehow bring themselves to defraud unsuspecting gas station proprietors. There seems to be no place in this system for the polite behavior of gentlemen and ladies; there seems tO be no place for the grandmother.
The link between the ascendancy of the mercantile and the decline of gentility is demonstrated most clearly by June Star, the granddaughter who combines appalling rudeness with an obvious cash fixation. The insults she thoughtlessly delivers to her grandmother and to Red Sammy's wife focus on money, specifically on the power of “a million bucks.” Even this great amount, she accusingly says, could not curtail her grandmother's busybody impulses (118), nor could it persuade June Star to accept a joking invitation to move into “a broken down place” (121) like Red Sammy's.
If the ante-bellum system of values were actually underwritten by all that it presupposes, then blood would retain its primacy, money would remain subordinate to breed, and June Star would not be so rude. The dollar's sign appears much later in the chain of signification than does the sign of blood, which is linked much more dearly and directly to the point of origin in God's Word, and which should therefore infuse money with the value found at this originating point. The clearly evidenced failure of blood to assert its worth over the opposing system of cash value exposes the invalidity of the bloodworth connection, and of the logocentric assumptions through which this connection is made.
Despite the evidence, the grandmother fights on behalf of blood: she dresses like a lady, she rebukes rudeness wherever she sees it, and she looks benignly down upon the quaint “piccaninnies” who sit at the bottom of her social ladder. Much of her battle for blood, however, is fought on money's terms, in monetary territory. Simply to convince her family that Georgia architectural heritage is worthy of some consideration, she dangles before them the false prospect of hidden treasure (and, in a revealing error of information transmission, she gets her states wrong). A more telling and complex example of the grandmother's concession to cash values can be found in the story she tells of Edgar Atkins Teagarden and his many watermelons.
In this story, which she tells to calm her squabbling grandchildren, the grandmother harks back, perhaps falsely, to her days as “a maiden lady.” During this period, a gentleman suitor, Mr. Edgar Atkins Teagarden, brings to her each Saturday a fresh watermelon inscribed with his initials, E.A.T. One weekend, when the grandmother is absent, a “rigger boy” misconstrues the intention behind these letters, takes them as instruction, and consumes that day's offering (120). This misreading is highly significant, and so too is the grandmother's acknowledgment that such a misreading can occur.
Jacques Derrida notes in the concluding section of “Signature Event Context” that, while the absence of the signer is by definition an implication of the written signature, the signature nevertheless
marks and retains [the] having-been-present [of the signer] in a past now, which will remain a future now, and therefore a now in general, in the transcendental form of nowness.
The proper maintenance of this transcendental nowness requires an “attachment” of the signature to the signing “source,” and for this to happen “the absolute singularity of an event of the signature and of a form of a signature must be retained: the pure reproducibility of a pure event” (107).
The purity of this singular event depends upon a direct correspondence of signifier and signified, but the grandmother's tale dismantles this link; this ostensibly simple story of a misread fruit exposes the arbitrariness of the sign. Outside of a context in which the intention behind their inscription is known, the letters E.A.T. are read in a manner drastically different from that which is planned by their signer. The signature does not carry the signer or the signer's intentions within it in some essential way, because there cannot be a pure attachment of sign to source: with the innocent eating of watermelon, the assumptions of logocentrism are exploded.
With the exposure of signature she achieves here, the grandmother unwittingly undermines her own position. This effect is furthered by the story's postscript, an addendum she offers in an effort to tailor her tale to the cash-based values of her audience. June Star is not impressed by Mr. Edgar Atkins Teagarden: to someone fixated on the amount of a million dollars, a monogrammed watermelon makes quite a meager gift. The grandmother responds to this criticism first by reiterating Teagarden's status as a gentleman, and then by observing that Teagarden “had bought Coca-Cola stock when it first came out and that he died only a few years ago, a very wealthy man” (120). If this is meant as a demonstration of money's proper subordination to aristocratic blood, the example falls back on itself, because in this case mercantile power underwrites the hereditary attributes it should instead simply reflect. The gentleman's signature, the custodian of the individual's worth in the perpetual now, is shown as ineffective and arbitrary through its easy displacement by a more obviously arbitrary signature, the corporate trademark of the Coca-Cola Company.
With this story and her other actions, the grandmother performs an intricate, reluctant dance: she both struggles against and concedes to the demands of a changing cultural order. When she meets The Misfit, the performance becomes even more difficult. The Misfit's statements and actions take to a much more blatant extreme that which is hinted at by the grandmother's behavior; faced with this extremity, the grandmother temporarily retreats from what it dearly suggests.
The Misfit explains his deviant, barbarous behavior in terms of the epistemological uncertainty engendered by logocentric collapse. His focus is the story of Jesus Christ and the raising of Lazarus. If, The Misfit observes, this event actually occurred, one should follow Jesus; if, however, it did not happen, “then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him” (132). The difficulty is that one can never know, because the signifiers through which such information must be transmitted are detached even from so conspicuously divine a source as Jesus Christ; the word will not carry the Word. One can be sure only of events one has witnessed: as The Misfit observes, “… if I had been there I would of known and I wouldn't be like I am now” (132).
Faced with this problem, The Misfit offers a solution whose radical terms point clearly to the arbitrariness of the sign; it is the clarity of these terms that accelerates the grandmother's short-lived and unsuccessful retreat. For The Misfit, the injustice of his treatment by society rests in the imbalance between his dimly recollected crimes and the harsh sentences meted out for them: “… I call myself The Misfit … because I can't make what all I done wrong fit with all I gone through in punishment” (131). Those who decide upon these punishments feel justified in allotting them because they possess signed documents attesting to the evil he has done. The Misfit, however, refuses to recognize the power of any signature other than his own:
“… they never shown me [the incriminating] papers. That's why I sign myself now. I said long ago, you get you a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it. Then you'll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you'll have something to prove you ain't been treated right …”
A signature's function is to retain the having-been-present of the signer in the transcendental now. As the tale of the watermelon indicates, however, the efficacy of this retention depends upon the receiver's knowledge of the signing's context; according to The Misfit, the only people who can accurately know the context of signatures are the signers themselves. In the contextually contingent realm of the arbitrary sign, the only intentions one can know are one's own, and the only person with whom one can accurately communicate is one's self. With no originating Word underwriting any particular value, The Misfit's morality of meanness and the southern aristocracy's code of civilized conduct can be seen as equally valid: that is, as equally arbitrary.
It is the grandmother and her family who suffer the implications of this position; the position, in effect, kills them. Attempting to stave off her violent death, the grandmother resorts to the values of gentility, the very terms The Misfit has just denied:
“Jesus!” the old lady cried. “You've got good blood! I know you wouldn't shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady …”
This retreat is unsuccessful because the structure to which the grandmother turns for shelter has been dismantled by that from which she flees: the assumptions that give validity to the value of blood have been pulled out from under her.
Recognizing that her shaken beliefs will not sway The Misfit, the grandmother turns to the mercantile values that have displaced those beliefs: she offers The Misfit money. The Misfit, however, realizes that the dollar sign is just as arbitrary as the sign of blood, and the offer has no effect on him. The grandmother has been divided between two opposing structures, and now both structures have collapsed.
The grandmother ends her life with a desperate effort to re-inscribe that which has been lost in this double collapse. In this attempt she experiences one last manifestation of the arbitrariness of the sign, by undergoing a final confusion of signifiers. The Misfit has by this time had Bailey shot, and has donned Bailey's colorful shirt. The grandmother is reminded by the shirt of something she cannot name (130); the sign fails to communicate the information it should. The sign fails, and then it misfires: in the moment before her death, the grandmother sees The Misfit as “one of [her] babies,” as “one of [her] own children” (132). The concept of familial linkage has become attached to the signifier-shirt by Bailey's wearing of it. When The Misfit wears the shirt, the grandmother sees this notion transmit and connect itself to The Misfit. She fails in this final moment to recognize the arbitrariness of this attachment, and it is from this that The Misfit recoils when he steps back to shoot her.
Derrida, Jacques. “Signature Event Context.” A Derrida Reader. Ed. P. Kamuf. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. 82-111.
O'Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor. New York: Noonday, 1971. 117-33.
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Flannery O'Connor 1925–-1964
(Full name Mary Flannery O'Connor) American short fiction writer, novelist, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism of O'Connor's short fiction works from 1996 to 2002. See also A Good Man Is Hard to Find Criticism, Flannery O'Connor Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 6, 13, 21.
O'Connor is considered one of the foremost short story writers in American literature. She was an anomaly among post-World War II authors–a Roman Catholic from the Bible-belt South whose stated purpose was to reveal the mystery of God’s grace in everyday life. Aware that not all readers shared her faith, O’Connor chose to depict salvation through shocking, often violent action upon characters who are spiritually or physically grotesque. Moreover, her penchant for employing ironic detachment and mordant humor prompted some critics to classify O'Connor as an existentialist or nihilist. She also infused her fiction with the local color and rich comic detail of her Southern milieu, particularly through her skillful presentation of regional dialect. A complex system of symbolism and allegory adds further resonance to O'Connor’s writing.
O'Connor was the only child of devout Roman Catholics from prominent Georgia families. She attended parochial schools in Savannah and public high school in Milledgeville, where the family moved after her father developed disseminated lupus, the degenerative disease that O'Connor later inherited. Soon after her father’s death when she was nearly sixteen, O'Connor entered the nearby Georgia State College for Women, where she majored in social sciences. In her spare time she edited and wrote for school publications to which she also contributed linoleum block and woodcut cartoons. O'Connor then enrolled in the graduate writing program at Iowa State University, where she earned her M.A. in 1947 with six stories, including “The Geranium,” which had appeared the previous year in the periodical Accent. Throughout her career, O'Connor’s stories were readily published, occasionally by popular magazines such as Mademoiselle, but more often by prestigious literary journals including Sewanee Review, Shenandoah, and Kenyon Review.
O'Connor began her first novel, Wise Blood, while living at Yaddo writers’ colony in upstate New York in 1947-48. She continued working on the novel while living in New York City and then in Connecticut, where she boarded with her friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, a young married couple who shared O'Connor’s Catholic faith and literary interests. However, O'Connor’s independent lifestyle ended abruptly at age twenty-five when she suffered her first attack of lupus. From that point onward, O'Connor lived with her mother at Andalusia, a small dairy farm outside Milledgeville. She maintained a steady writing pace, publishing Wise Blood in 1952, followed by the story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find in 1955, and a second novel, The Violent Bear It Way, in 1960. Each volume attracted significant critical attention, and she was awarded three O. Henry prizes for her short stories in addition to several grants and two honorary degrees. As her reputation grew, she traveled when her health permitted to give readings and lectures. She died in 1964.
In her fiction O'Connor frequently criticizes the materialism and spiritual apathy of contemporary society, faulting modern rationalism for its negation of the need for religious faith and redemption. Employing scenes and characters from her native South, she depicts the violent and often bizarre religiosity of Protestant fundamentalists as a manifestation of spiritual life struggling to exist in a nonspiritual world. Another recurrent motif in O'Connor’s thirty-one short stories is that of divine grace descending in an often bizarre or violent manner upon a spiritually deficient main character. She often depicts a rural domestic situation suddenly invaded by a criminal or perverse outsider–a distorted Christ figure who redeems a protagonist afflicted with pride, intellectualism, or materialism. In one of O'Connor’s best-known stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” for example, a smugly self-complacent grandmother is shocked into spiritual awareness by a murderer who kills first her family and then her. Critics have noted that O'Connor’s tales, while expressing intense action, are related in concise, almost epigrammatic prose. They have also praised her use of richly complex imagery and symbols, observing that spiritual meaning is often conveyed through vivid descriptions of nature in her work.
The predominant feature of O'Connor criticism is its abundance. From her first collection, O'Connor garnered serious and widespread critical attention, and since her death the outpouring has been remarkable, including hundreds of essays and numerous full-length studies. While her work has occasioned some hostile reviews, including those which labeled her an atheist or accused her of using the grotesque gratuitously, she is almost universally admired, if not fully understood. In addition to wide-ranging studies of her style, structure, symbolism, tone, themes, and influences, critical discussion often centers on theological aspects of O'Connor’s work. In inquiries into the depth of her religious intent, critics usually find O'Connor to be the orthodox Christian that she adamantly declared herself.
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SOURCE: Bandy, Stephen C. “‘One Of My Babies’: The Misfit and the Grandmother.” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 1 (winter 1996): 107-18.
[In the following essay, Bandy disputes O'Connor's interpretation of her short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” as one not of grace and salvation, but rather deeply pessimistic and contrary to Christian doctrines.]
Criticism of Flannery O'Connor's fiction, under the spell of the writer's occasional comments, has been unusually susceptible to interpretations based on Christian dogma. None of O'Connor's stories has been more energetically theologized than her most popular, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” O'Connor flatly declared the story to be a parable of grace and redemption, and for the true believer there can be no further discussion. As James Mellard remarks, “O'Connor simply tells her readers—either through narrative interventions or be extra-textual exhortations—how they are to interpret her work” (625). And should not the writer know best what her story is about? A loaded question, to which the best answer may be D. H Lawrence's advice: trust the art, but not the artist.
One cannot deny that the concerns of this story are the basic concerns of Christian belief: faith, death, salvation. And yet, if one reads the story without prejudice, there would seem to be little here to inspire hope for redemption of any of its characters. No wishful search for evidence of grace or for epiphanies of salvation, by author or reader, can soften the harsh truth of “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” Its message is profoundly pessimistic and in fact subversive to the doctrines of grace and charity, despite heroic efforts to disguise that fact. This vexing little masterpiece cannot be saved from itself. It has a will of its own and a moral of its own.
There are really only two characters in this story: the Grandmother and the Misfit. The rest are wonderfully drawn—hateful little June Star, or whiny Red Sammy—but they do not figure in the central debate. Although the Misfit is not physically present until the final pages, his influence hangs over the story almost from the beginning, when the Grandmother warns her son Bailey of the dangerous criminal “aloose from the Federal Pen” (The Complete Stories [The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor] 117). Once the family sets off on their vacation trip, the Grandmother seems to forget her feigned concern, for it is only a strategy by which she hopes to force Bailey to take the family in another direction. But the reader has not forgotten. We wonder only when, and where, the inevitable confrontation will take place. At Red Sam's filling station, we suppose. But O'Connor has other plans, which are fulfilled in a chain of events so contrived, so improbable, and so perfectly appropriate to this earful of cartoon characters, that we can only be delighted by the writer's disdain for the niceties of plotting. It is a brilliant stroke: their car rolls over in a field miles from anywhere; and then, as sure as sundown, the Misfit and his crew slowly move toward them. The story rapidly moves to its climax, when the Misfit shoots the Grandmother dead. But what comes just before that killing interests us even more. The Misfit has already directed the execution of the Grandmother's entire family, and it must be obvious to all, including reader and Grandmother, that she is the next to die. But she struggles on. Grasping at any appeal, and hardly aware of what she is saying, the Grandmother declares to the Misfit: “Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!” As she utters these shocking words, “She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest” (132).
Noting that some squeamish readers had found this ending too strong, O'Connor defended the scene in this way: “If I took out this gesture and what she says with it, I would have no story. What was left would not be worth your attention” (Mystery and Manners 112). Certainly the scene is crucial to the story, and most readers, I think, grant its dramatic “rightness” as a conclusion. What is arguable is the meaning to the Grandmother's final words to the Misfit, as well as her “gesture,” which seemed equally important to O'Connor. One's interpretation depends on one's opinion of the Grandmother.
What are we to think of this woman? At the story's beginning, she seems a harmless busybody, utterly self-absorbed but also amusing, in her way. And, in her way, she provides a sort of human Rorschach test of her readers. We readily forgive her so much, including her mindless racism—she points at the “cute little pickaninny” by the roadside, and entertains her grandchildren with a story in which a watermelon is devoured by “a nigger boy.” She is filled with the prejudices of her class and her time. And so, some readers conclude, she is in spite of it all a “good” person. Somewhat more ominously, the Misfit—after he has fired three bullets into her chest—pronounces that she might have been “a good woman … if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” (133). We surmise that in the universe of this story, the quality of what is “good” (which is after all the key word of the story's title) depends greatly on who is using the term. I do not think the Misfit is capable of irony—he truly means what he says about her, even though he finds it necessary to kill her. Indeed, the opposing categories of “good” and “evil” are very much in the air throughout this story. But like most supposed opposites, they have an alarming tendency to merge. It is probably worth noting that the second line of the once-popular song that gave O'Connor her title is “You always get the other kind.”
Much criticism of the story appears to take a sentimental view of the Grandmother largely because she is a grandmother. Flannery O'Connor herself, as we shall see shortly, found little to blame in this woman, choosing to wrap her in the comfortable mantle of elderly Southern womanhood. O'Connor applies this generalization so uncritically that we half suspect she is pulling our leg. In any case, we can be sure that such sentimentality (in the mind of either the writer or her character) is fatal to clear thinking. If the Grandmother is old (although she does not seem to be that old), grey-haired, and “respectable,” it follows that she must be weak, gentle, and benevolent—precisely the Grandmother's opinion of herself, and she is not shy of letting others know it. Intentionally or not, O'Connor has etched the Grandmother's character with wicked irony, which makes it all the more surprising to read the author's response to a frustrated teacher whose (Southern) students persisted in favoring the Grandmother, despite his strenuous efforts to point out her flaws. O'Connor said,
I had to tell him that they resisted … because they all had grandmothers or great-aunts just like her at home, and they knew, from personal experience, that the old lady lacked comprehension, but that she had a good heart.
The Southerner is usually tolerant of those weaknesses that proceed from innocence, and he knows that a taste for self-preservation can be readily combined with the missionary spirit.
(Mystery and Manners 110)
What is most disappointing in this moral summary of the Grandmother, and her ilk, is its disservice to the spiky, vindictive woman of the story. There may be a purpose to O'Connor's betrayal of her own character: her phrase “missionary spirit” gives the game away. O'Connor is determined that the Grandmother shall be the Misfit's savior, even though she may not seem so in the story.
The Grandmother's role as grace-bringer is by now a received idea, largely because the author said it is so. But one must question the propriety of such tinkering with the character, after the fact. It reduces the fire-breathing woman who animates this story to nothing much more than a cranky maiden aunt. On the contrary, the Grandmother is a fierce fighter, never more so than in her final moments, nose-to-nose with the Misfit.
Granted, the Grandmother is not a homicidal monster like the Misfit, and she certainly does not deserve to die for her minor sins. And yet, does she quite earn absolution from any moral weakness beyond that of “a hypocritical old soul” (111)? For every reader who sees the image of his or her own grandmother printed on this character's cold face, as O'Connor suggested we might do, there are surely many others who can only be appalled by a calculating opportunist who is capable of embracing her family's murderer, to save her own skin. Where indeed is the “good heart” which unites this unprincipled woman with all those “grandmothers or great-aunts just like her at home”? The answer to that question can only be an affirmation of the “banality of evil,” to use Hannah Arendt's well-known phrase.
O'Connor did not exactly defend the Grandmother's selfish behavior; but the writer famously described this final gesture as “the action of grace in the Grandmother's soul” (Mystery and Manners 113). Following O'Connor's suggestion, other commentators have elaborated upon the doctrine of grace as it might appear in this episode, sometimes with surprising results: Robert H. Brinkmeyer urges, “No longer just a silly old lady, she reaches out in a Christ-like gesture to touch the Misfit, declaring he is one of her children“ (161).
The doctrine of grace has caused endless trouble in the historic theological debates of the Church. Grace is not to be invoked lightly, particularly in a secular milieu. Even now there is no settled interpretation; through the centuries the Church has entertained a variety of views regarding the mechanics of grace. To bring the complex machinery of this theological abstraction into the alien world of the Grandmother and the Misfit is more than inappropriate. It is inapplicable. What does in fact happen in this part of the story is quite straightforward: the Grandmother, having exhausted all other appeals to the Misfit, resorts to her only remaining (though certainly imperfect) weapon: motherhood. Declaring to the Misfit that he is one of her babies, she sets out to conquer him. Perhaps she hopes that this ultimate flattery will melt his heart, and he will collapse in her comforting motherly embrace. Such are the stratagems of sentimentality. The moral shoddiness of her action is almost beyond description. If we had not already guessed the depths to which the Grandmother might sink, now we know. It is not easy to say who is the more evil, the Misfit or the Grandmother, and indeed that is the point. Her behavior is the manifest of her character.
It has been said that no action is without its redeeming aspect. Could this unspeakable act of selfishness carry within it the seeds of grace, acting, as it were, above the Grandmother? So Flannery O'Connor believed. But what is the precise movement of grace in this scene? It is surely straining the text to propose that the Grandmother has in this moment “seen the light.” Are we to regard her as the unwitting agent of divine grace whose selfish intentions are somehow transfigured into a blessing? Such seems to have been O'Connor's opinion:
… however unlikely this may seem, the old lady's gesture, like the mustard-seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit's heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become.
(Mystery and Manners 113)
We are almost persuaded to forget that none of this happens in the story itself. If this can be so, then we can just as easily attribute any interpretation we like to the scene. But in fact he is in no way changed, There is no “later on” in fiction. We do not, and will not, see “created grace” in the spirit of the Misfit.
But more important, this is not the way grace works. As we read in the New Catholic Encyclopedia:
… the spiritual creature must respond to this divine self-donation freely. Hence, the doctrine of grace supposes a creature already constituted in its own being in such wise that it has the possibility of entering into a free and personal relationship with the Divine Persons or of rejecting that relationship.
If grace was extended to the Misfit, he refused it and that is the end. There can be no crow-filled tree, nor can there be the “lines of spiritual motion” leading to that tree, however attractive the image may be. Prudently, O'Connor added, “But that's another story” (Mystery and Manners 113).
It is indeed another story, in which one can almost make out, emerging from the mind of the Misfit, the shadow of Hazel Motes, central figure of Wise Blood. Yet we must distinguish between the story at hand and a story that had not yet been written. In just this way O'Connor's habit of after-the-fact interpretation is most troubling. Harold Bloom observes that there is “something of a gap between O'Connor as lay theologue and O'Connor as a storyteller.” He continues: “I suspect though that the fiction's implicit theology is very different from what O'Connor thought it to be.” We might agree with his wish that O'Connor had resisted the temptation to explain her fiction so fully. For whatever the stories may have meant to her, they often send a quite different message to the reader. Bloom concludes: “Her pious admirers to the contrary, O'Connor would have bequeathed us even stronger novels and stories, of the eminence of Faulkner's, if she had been able to restrain her spiritual tendentiousness” (8).
The comparison with Faulkner is apt, for O'Connor was as surely a practitioner of “Southern Gothic” as he, especially in her mingling of humor and horror. That she was well aware of this legacy is abundantly clear in such essays as “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” and “The Regional Writer,” in which she ponders the powerful grip of Southern culture upon the imagination of the Southern writer. But O'Connor was not simply a “Southern” writer: she was a Catholic Southern writer, a distinction that she was careful to draw. And yet, once it is drawn, in the essay titled “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” O'Connor seemed equivocal, to say the least, about the uncertain tug-of-war between religious forces and cultural forces: “What the Southern Catholic writer is apt to find, when he descends within his imagination, is not Catholic life but the life of this region in which he is both native and alien” (Mystery and Manners 197).
Ben Satterfield notes amusingly that “O'Connor was, after all, nearly as contradictory as the Bible itself” (42). One must take a hard look at this implied distinction between Southern Protestant and Southern Catholic. After all, both are Christian, and share essentially the same body of religious beliefs and attitudes. Although two branches (or perhaps better, trunk and branch) of the same theology, in the United States they differ mainly in their public manifestation. There is far more difference, in doctrine and in ritual, among the various Protestant sects, than between, say, Catholics and Episcopalians. But in fact most Americans are fundamentally irreligious, whatever creed they claim. If there is a meaningful distinction to be made among American Christians, it must be between active practitioners, and the inactive non-practitioners—who constitute the great majority and who certainly count the Grandmother among their number. This is not to say that there is no doctrinal difference between Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians in the South. But in general belief and practice they are probably more alike than, let us say, Southern Catholics and urban Catholics of the Northeast. Finally, for most Americans, religious doctrine is neither important nor well understood. Religious affiliation nowadays serves largely as a social marker. Indeed, when O'Connor speaks of the nearly irresistible force of “the life of this region,” she seems to concede that Americans are more clearly recognized by regional differences than by religious differences.
In this light, to describe the Grandmother as the vessel of divine grace, almost in spite of herself, is to transform her into a creature who simply has nothing to do with the Grandmother's character, as given. In dismissing O'Connor's claims of this moment of grace, Satterfield rightly observes that “when the author made such statements—and she made plenty of them—she was speaking as a propagandist, not an artist” (44). It is a purely intellectual conceit, which in a real sense betrays her integrity as a character. At the risk of repeating myself, this interpretation can be valid only if it is intrinsic to the story, and not imposed upon the story. (A useful contrast can be made with O'Connor's “Revelation,” in which the final hallucination, or revelation, of Mrs. Turpin surely qualifies as an experience of unmistakable sacramental significance.)
At her moment of extremity, the Grandmother lurches desperately from one strategy to another, not quite admitting to herself that the Misfit will kill her just as casually as he has killed the rest of her family. All of her ruses, so dependable in the past, have failed. We are well acquainted with her manipulative techniques: her fruitless deceptions of her son Bailey (who knows her little games too well to be fooled), or her shameless pandering to the gas station's “Red Sammy,” whom she assures, in the automatic way of habitual flatterer, that he is indeed a “good man”—a casual tossing-off of the phrase that will at the last seal her fate, when she uses it once too often. The Grandmother has perfected the technique of the insincere compliment, and we suppose that she has used it to great effect for most of her life. But not this time. The Misfit, withdrawing ever deeper into the dank recesses of his memories, hardly seems to hear her words, or even to notice her, until she mentions Jesus. And then, misjudging his reaction, she makes the great mistake of reaching out to touch him.
Here as elsewhere, the Grandmother's guiding principle seems to be “by any means necessary.” As was mentioned earlier, in our first view of the Grandmother we witness a chilling demonstration of her selfishness. She is determined to coerce her son to take the family on vacation to Tennessee rather than Florida. To accomplish this end, she does not hesitate to dangle before his eyes the horrifying prospect of his children's death:
“Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. “Here this follow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn't take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn't answer to my conscience if I did.”
Bailey is unmoved. He has heard such idle threats from his mother all his life. But at the story's end, in a possibly too perfect irony, her prediction comes true, as the result of her meddling. The sting in the tail of this irony is that they would never have met the Misfit at all, if Bailey had given in to the Grandmother's demand to go to Tennessee, instead of Florida. To be sure, this is fore-shadowing with a vengeance.
The Grandmother's petty acts of deception are, it seems at first glance, merely that—petty acts. Profoundly dishonest, she stops at nothing to have her way. Against Bailey's orders, she has smuggled her cat (Pitty Sing by name, an allusion to The Mikado that may reflect the Grandmother's less apparent cultural aspirations) aboard the car as they begin their trip. Much later, the cat's leaping onto Bailey's back will cause the accident that leads directly into the final scenes of the story. (Anyone who has traveled long distances with a cat might marvel at the fact that Pitty Sing has managed to remain in her basket undetected all this time.) As the family sets out, the Grandmother puts on her public face: carefully turned out in a lace-trimmed dress, straw sailor hat, and a sachet pinned at the neckline, so that “In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (118).
Her vanity is remarkable. But the Grandmother prefers to see herself as a valiant defender of social decorum in a world of barbarians, She speaks often and at length of the decline of civility, which in her lexicon seems a synonym for obedience—of the lack of trust, lack of respect (especially for her), and of the sad fact that people are “not nice like they used to be.” At the same time, she herself trusts no one and has respect for no one who gets in her way. She is in fact a woman with neither values nor morals, though she would be shocked to be told so.
But what of it? What harm finally comes of her simpleminded preoccupation with herself) The answer to that question, it seems to me, is the key to this story, and it becomes clear only when she is face-to-face with the Misfit. He too is a person who lives only for himself, yet knowing that (as he angrily chastises the uncomprehending Bobby Lee) “It's no real pleasure in life” (133). But the Misfit has at least this advantage over the Grandmother: he knows who he is. And worse for her, he knows who she is.
In her efforts to strike a soft place in the heart of the Misfit, the Grandmother leads their conversation into religious channels. That is, she admonishes him to “pray,” perhaps hoping to distract him from the frightening recital of his violent life: “If you would pray … Jesus would help you” (130). Mentioning the name of Jesus is a mistake, for it ignites a slow-burning fuse in the mind of the Misfit. It seems that he has given Jesus a good deal of thought—far more than the Grandmother ever had done. Indeed, as she continues to mutter the name of Jesus, “the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing” (131). With cold intensity, never raising his voice, the Misfit intones, “Jesus thown everything off balance. It was the same case with Him as with me except He hadn't committed any crime …” (131). Ignoring the Grandmother's wailing, the Misfit pursues his obsession: “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead … and He shouldn't have done it. He thown everything off balance” (132). For the Misfit, as for many others (including Jesus himself on the cross), the problem is one of faith. He cannot believe, because he has no proof. Therefore, the choice is clear:
“If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him,and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.
This is the Misfit's philosophy of life—nasty, short, and brutish. Crude and inarticulate though it be, the Misfit's view of life has an ancient pedigree, linking him to the original Sinner himself Like Milton's Satan, he lives by the creed, “Evil, be thou my good!” The sin of Satan, according to Milton, echoing the words of the Fathers of the Church from St. Augustine onward, was superbia, the monstrous pride that begets all other sins. But the heaven-storming defiance of the Archfiend is diminished, just as the underpinnings of theology have gradually fallen away. The non serviam of Satan becomes merely the sour nihilism of the Misfit. His anger has nothing to do with the yearning for freedom that makes Milton's Satan such a curiously sympathetic character. The Misfit's anger is the product of a conviction that nothing has value, not even freedom. No pleasure but meanness.
The emptiness in the soul of the Misfit is not an absence of religious faith (as the Grandmother naively sees it), but his lack of any kind of faith at all. The Misfit trusts nothing that he has not himself witnessed, touched, weighed and measured. This is his “reality.” Whatever transcends that reality—faith, hope, and charity might sum it up very well—has no meaning for him. He will not trust the miracles of Jesus because, as he agitatedly complains to the Grandmother, “It ain't right I wasn't there because it I had of been there I would of known” (132). The Misfit's inability to believe has destroyed his humanity. His nihilism is complete: “No pleasure but meanness.”
In his study of O'Connor's fiction, The Imagination of Extremity, Frederick Asals speaks of the strong influence of existentialist ideas on American writers after the Second World War (29). As Asals suggests, it is not necessary to prove that O'Connor read the writings of Sartre and Camus, directly or indirectly, to infer their influence upon her thought. Indeed, what bright college student of 30 or 40 years ago did not find himself or herself in the figure of Camus's Sisyphus, pushing that stone endlessly up the mountainside, without purpose or reprieve? Some found their answer in Sartre's formulation of the gratuitous act (“meanness” says it perfectly) as a way of bestowing meaning on the absurdity of life.
The questions that existentialism asks are not necessarily atheist in their origins or in their conclusions. As Asals reminds us, existentialism has always been a conspicuous thread in the fabric of Christian philosophy (29). Asals's discussion of existentialism centers on Wise Blood, in so many ways a tale for which “A Good Man” [“A Good Man Is Hard To Find.”] seems the first draft. And certainly his point can apply equally to O'Connor's earlier story.
The Misfit lives in a world with no rules, a world in which “everything is permitted,” including the ultimate crime of murder. As Camus writes in The Rebel, “He who denies everything and assumes the authority to kill … lay claim to nothing short of total freedom and the unlimited display of human pride” (282). Destruction is finally the only act of affirmation available to the nihilist, his defiance of certain defeat. Like Sisyphus, he has his moment of bleak glory as he watches his stone roll down the mountainside.
The Grandmother has no more read Camus than she has understood the Bible. She is quick to invoke the name of Jesus, but it is perfectly clear that the Grandmother's religion is entirely of the lip-serving variety. “Maybe He didn't raise the dead,” she mutters in response to the Misfit's outburst, for it hardly makes any difference to her, one way or the other. She is concerned only with her survival, in the midst of the blood-bath that has engulfed her family. The fact that Bailey, his wife, and their children now lie dead nearby seems to have as little meaning for her as the divinity of Jesus—a topic, however, of compelling importance to the Misfit.
Unlike the Grandmother, the Misfit has struggled to understand good and evil. His final verdict is relentlessly logical. And yet, surprisingly, their philosophical positions—his by determination, hers by accident—are not so far apart in the end. By his lights, she could have been “a good woman”—if only she had not talked so much. Traveling by two different routes, the Grandmother and the Misfit have arrived at the same destination, both geographically and intellectually. No words could be more shocking, and yet appropriate: “Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!” Indeed he is one of her babies; for her lack of values is his lack as well. Those two faces, so close together, are mirror images. The Misfit is simply a more completely evolved form of the Grandmother. In truth, one of her babies.
To insist at this moment of mutual revelation that the Grandmother is transformed into the agent of God's grace is to do serious violence to the story. It is as tendentious as to decree that the three bullets in her chest symbolize the Trinity. At the end, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” descends further into the depths of existential despair than very many other examples of twentieth-century fiction: Celine perhaps, or among American writers, Henry Miller. There is a fierce internal coherence to the character of the Grandmother, and it has nothing to do with forgiveness, witting or unwitting. Flannery O'Connor built better than she knew—or at any rate, better than she dared acknowledge.
Asals, Frederick. Flannery O'Connor: The Imagination of Extremity. University of Georgia Press, 1982.
Bloom, Harold. Introduction. Modern Critical Views: Flannery O'Connor. New York: Chelsea, 1986, 1-8.
Brinkmeyer, Robert H. The Art and Vision of Flannery O'Connor. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Camus, Albert. The Rebel. New York: Vintage, 1956.
Mellard, James M. “Flannery O'Connor's Others: Freud, Lacan, and the Unconscious.” American Literature 61 (1989): 627-43.
New Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.
O'Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, 1969. 117-33.
———. Mystery and Manners. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, 1969.
Satterfield, Ben. “Wise Blood, Artistic Anemia, and the Hemorrhaging of O'Connor Criticism.” Studies in American Fiction 17 (1989): 33-50.
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A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories 1955
Everything That Rises Must Converge 1965
The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor 1971
Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works (stories, criticism, letters) 1988
Flannery O'Connor: The Growing Craft—A Synoptic Variorum Edition of The Geranium, An Exile in the East, Getting Home, Judgement Day 1993
Wise Blood (novel) 1952
The Violent Bear It Away (novel) 1960
Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (nonfiction) 1969
The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor (letters) 1979
The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews (essays) 1983
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7124
SOURCE: Prunty, Wyatt. “The Figure of Vacancy.” Shenandoah 46, no. 3 (fall 1996): 38-55.
[In the following essay, Prunty investigates the role of vacancy in the stories of Peter Taylor and O'Connor.]
In Flannery O'Connor's “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the grandmother is the first to comment upon the blankness of the sky. Later the Misfit says, “Don't see no sun but don't see no cloud neither.” In Peter Taylor's less familiar but equally masterful “A Wife of Nashville,” Helen Ruth stands silently behind a tea cart and looks into the dark recesses of her living room as she prepares to explain to the men of her family why Jess McGehee had to lie about leaving. The blank sky of the one story and a prolonged silence in the other are only two of many figures for despair, but they provide a good place to begin thinking about the figure of vacancy.
For both O'Connor and Taylor, narrative leads to gaps. These may appear as a nondescript sky or the recesses of a room, or they may take the form of a zero unwittingly added to a date or a lie added to a story. However they come about, they refute normal expectations and lead to what is unique and essential about a story.
Flannery O'Connor introduces the raw realities of life in rural Georgia, then uses wit, caricature and even cartoon-like violence to void normal expectations and achieve situations more complicated than ordinary description uncovers. Not made to face what frequently are O'Connor's violent extremes, Peter Taylor's characters nevertheless place each other in extremis so the complexities of their lives are put in relief. For both writers this is done by pairing characters, pairing their situations and actions so the ordinary closure we expect from a story is broken open and what follows is vacancy. In the hands of O'Connor and Taylor, this has become a figure for despair.
Compared to O'Connor's, Peter Taylor's characters march by in rounded and unexaggerated form. Characterization follows the conventions of literary realism and avoids the religious allegory of O'Connor's fiction. The people who most often populate Taylor's stories are individuals of substantial means and reliable judgement who find themselves operating by codes that no longer hold sway, as they stand politely isolated while their world disintegrates around them. But Taylor's gentle folk do share one important trait with O'Connor's rustics, and that is vacancy. Well-heeled and ruminative as they are, Taylor's characters parallel O'Connor's when they confront their own bleak ends. For Taylor's people, despair results from individual and cultural blind spots. While O'Connor pushes her characters beyond society's terms to absolute ends, Taylor's characters experience neither the violence nor the terror that O'Connor raises, but they, too, are misfits. They stand before equally powerful forms of vacancy, muted as those forms may be by the mores of Chatham, Thornton, Nashville and Memphis.
The Southerners who populate O'Connor's “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” are flat, yet exaggerated individuals facing their own meanness and mortality. Paralleling one of Kierkegaard's definitions for despair, O'Connor's characters are brought to vacancy where they confront the infinite and experience their own finitude. Pressed to a different sort of absolute, Helen Ruth and the other characters in Taylor's “A Wife of Nashville” do not experience the violence that besets the grandmother and her family in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” but Taylor's characters are stranded by elements in their lives that are as empty and inexplicable as the blank sky that characterizes the meeting between the grandmother and the Misfit.
O'Connor and Taylor have numerous stories in which the protagonist and other characters are like the “self” Kierkegaard describes as willing to be that “which [it] is not.” It is a self caught in despair three ways at once: the despair of not knowing who one is, the despair of not willing to be oneself and the despair of willing to be someone other than oneself. Any individual in one of these three conditions is in the other two as well. A person cannot will to be himself or herself without knowing who that self is. And since the will is a given, if the self does not know who it is, it must will to be someone other than itself. And so on, laughably or lamentably, around the three sides.
O'Connor's copy of Walter Lowrie's translation of Kierkegaard's The Sickness Unto Death contains a marginal notation which appears after Kierkegaard's description of the three-sided despair outlined above. The section O'Connor marked discusses the Philistine's lack of imagination and the fact that “reality helps terrors which transcend the parrot-wisdom of trivial experience.” [Italics mine.] Remembering “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” one thinks not only of Bailey's parrot shirt, returned from his dead body, but also of his terror when he stands paralyzed in a runner's starting position. O'Connor's solution to “parrot wisdom” (her genius for radicalizing clichés comes to mind) is to cause the Philistine to despair … and to realize that he or she is in despair.
In O'Connor's view, the grandmother's realization of who she is, which comes with her recognition of her despair, leads to her salvation. When she sees the Misfit's “face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry” and says, “‘Why you're one of my babies,’” she is no longer pretending to the exclusive status of a lady but has accepted the inclusive role of grandmother, a role in which the story's omniscient narrator has placed her all along by repeatedly calling her “the grandmother.” The point of the grandmother's name is that she is mother to the other characters in the story. She does not recognize this until the end. She does not know who she is and is not willing to be herself. It takes shooting her to bring her to what she is, a grandmother reaching out even to the Misfit, saying even he is one of her babies.
For Kierkegaard, there are gradations of despair, but the worst form is not knowing one is in despair. Until the end of the story, the grandmother's smug pretensions to gentility and her manipulative assumptions about goodness reveal that she does not recognize her real condition. She is a finished example of the Philistine Kierkegaard describes and that O'Connor noted with her marginal lining in The Sickness Unto Death. In O'Connor's understanding, “parrot-wisdom” can only lead to vacancy, which is an opening where her real action, the invisible struggle between good and evil, occurs. Vacancy is the place where O'Connor's characters are either sealed as themselves or erased permanently.
O'Connor did not duplicate Kierkegaard's reasoning. What she had to say about despair grew out of her characters. Thanks to his background with John Crowe Ransom, Peter Taylor was versed in the critical principles of texture and structure, but texture came first, and that meant character. Texture was the stuff of a story while structure was its argument. Neither of these writers began with structure; each started with a character's predicament.
O'Connor's and Taylor's characters live around empty places, but where they live they find a lot of company, and they are defined by their relations to others. Each may see himself or herself as a discrete individual, but in fact each is an extensional self, too: a mother, father, brother, son, daughter. Identity derives from others as much as it comes from oneself. A character is on the one hand subjective and autobiographical and on the other hand objective and biographical. Both the grandmother and Helen Ruth move from subjective understandings of themselves to objective ones.
A character occupies an interior world of wish and gratification while populating an exterior world of relationships with others and responsibilities to them. The grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is not just a subjective, vain woman concerned with being considered a lady if found dead on the highway; she is a grand mother, someone with maternal ties to everyone in the story, even to her tormentor, the Misfit. That is why she is never called anything other than “the grandmother.” The grandmother's maternal role provides the external part of her identity, which she denies until the very end of the story when she sees the Misfit's suffering, his “face twisted close to her own,” and calls him one of her “babies.” In his suffering, the Misfit's face, his countenance, literally is “twisted close to” that of the grandmother as O'Connor likens the two; just as in “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” Julian discovers who he is through his mother's death, her face also twisted close, with one eye raking her son and finding “nothing” … at which point Julian discovers the vacancy beside which he has lived all along. When he goes for help, his feet carry him “nowhere.” O'Connor says that he runs toward “lights” that drift “farther away” and that this is Julian's “entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.” It is his entry into knowledge of his despair, figured as the street down which he runs, with its receding lights—a terrifyingly vacant area.
In Peter Taylor's “A Wife of Nashville,” Helen Ruth recognizes her kinship with Jess McGehee as she gradually realizes the long-term vacancy that has characterized both their lives in Nashville. The social and economic differences between the two are vast yet beside the point, since they share the common task of nurturing the male world that displaces them. What Helen Ruth misses at first but later identifies (what at the story's end causes her to say to her husband and sons, “Oh, my dears” and then fall silent) are the unacknowledged limitations accepted and imposed by the men in her family. She sees that they contribute to normative patterns of thought and behavior from which everyone in the story suffers. In Taylor's “Dean of Men,” the narrator describes to his son a moment of hubris that he now realizes was the repetition of a mistake made by both his father and grandfather. The narrator addresses his son in the hope of breaking a cycle that has gone on for three generations. In “A Wife of Nashville,” the predicaments of two women are paired in order to explore vacancy; in “Dean of Men,” the actions of men from three generations are yoked, revealing vacancy.
Just as O'Connor's grandmother insists on a subjective and autobiographical identity until the very end of the story, when she is forced to accept her role as grand mother, Julian and his mother begin subjectively in “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” Julian having decided that one's identity is determined by location, his mother even more certain that one's identity remains the same, regardless of circumstances. In more subtle ways, Taylor's Helen Ruth follows her subjective path over the course of four maids as she gradually comes to terms with the limitations imposed on her by herrole as “A Wife of Nashville.” [Italics mine.] In “Dean of Men,” the narrator sees how the men in his family have been of men, allowing themselves to be flattered and to make the same misreading of others for three generations. In each of these stories, the despair the characters experience derives from their lack of self-knowledge and manifests itself as the three-sided predicament, thereby creating vacancy.
In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” after the grandmother and her family have stopped for lunch, the otherwise passive mother of John Wesley, June Star and the baby, a woman whose face is “as broad and innocent as a cabbage,” puts “a dime in the machine and play[s]” “The Tennessee Waltz,” while her children, husband and mother-in-law wait for their “orders” to be filled. This is the one time the mother shows enough energy to distinguish herself from her loud and willful family. The edge readers recognize in what she does results from the fact that prior to the trip the grandmother had been “seizing” every opportunity to “change Bailey's mind” so the family would vacation in geographically contracted “east Tennessee,” where, ironically, the grandmother asserts the children could become “broad” and where she inflatedly hopes to “visit some of her connections.” In fact, until she reaches to touch the Misfit, the grandmother denies rather than seeks her real “connections.” The mother's decision to play “The Tennessee Waltz” reminds the grandmother that she failed to get her way, and she responds.
The grandmother “ask[s] Bailey if he would like to dance,” turning the song's opening line, “I was dancing with my darling,” into a claim on Bailey's attention. After Bailey “glare[s] at her,” she reasons that he lacks her “naturally sunny disposition,” and O'Connor says, “the grandmother's brown eyes were very bright,” as she “swayed her head from side to side and pretended she was dancing in her chair.” Bailey glares, the grandmother's eyes are “bright,” and the internal fires build. The one title for two very different Tennessee waltzes creates a gap that prefigures the opening among the pines in which the grandmother and the Misfit will pair off.
The image of the grandmother moving her head from “side to side” is important here. The grandmother's determination to hold what she considers to be the high ground, so aptly portrayed by her pretensions to being a lady and by her manipulation of what, for O'Connor, is a complex notion of the “good,” seems to be the first point, or “side” to her despair. But there is another “side.” Along with the little vacancies created by the date of the Misfit's father's death, “nineteen ought nineteen” (that is, 19019, thus “ought” as in nought, cipher or zero) plus the grandmother's array of clichés and the lie she tells about the secret panel in the house, that other “side” is made by “The Tennessee Waltz”: a song about another song which the members of the family, waiting for their “orders” in “The Tower … dance hall … outside Timothy,” never hear.
The narrator in “The Tennessee Waltz” tells us he was “dancing” with his “darling” to “The Tennessee Waltz,” an older tune named but never heard. Added to the song about a missing song, there is the grandmother's confusion about gentility and the good, each of these a kind of vacancy. The figures just listed represent disjunction. There is no such year as “nineteen ought nineteen”; the grandmother's clichés are hollow; the lie she tells creates the opportunity (or vacuum) for the Misfit to enter the action, and “The Tennessee Waltz” played in the story is not the “Tennessee Waltz” named in the song.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is constructed around gaps. The story's title, a cliché that becomes the chilling truth, is taken from an unheard song also, and it, too, operates as a kind of cipher—vacant as a platitude, waiting to be filled by new meaning. The grandmother tells Red Sammy he is a good man, and he accepts that as truth. Clichés abide as truth. (Later, when she will try the same strategy with the Misfit, he will reject it.) The family has stopped outside Timothy, and the grandmother sets about echoing Paul's Second Epistle to Timothy, where he encourages Timothy to “endure hardness, as a good soldier of … Christ.” [Italics mine.] Paul also describes one who is “ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth,” an apt description of the Misfit, who in his literal-mindedness, perhaps a parody of gnostic pride, remains a skeptic because he was not present when Christ raised the dead. The Misfit is not a completely negative agent, however. He is the means by which the grandmother is killed, but to O'Connor's understanding he is the grandmother's salvation, too. The Misfit is an agent by which O'Connor transforms but revives a truth long buried in the grandmother's platitude about a good man.
The Misfit limits knowledge to his own brand of empiricism, a product of scientific materialism and rationalism he seems to have absorbed by osmosis. O'Connor would say he got it from the air he breathed. For her, the Misfit's first problem is the freakish contradiction in his desire to reduce faith to knowledge. The contrast between his brutality and his overly polite manner parallels this. In order to believe, the Misfit requires that he be present to see the dead raised so he can know for himself. He is a doubting Thomas. For him, knowledge has priority over faith. To O'Connor's mind, this is as confused as any cliché. And the vacancy that results from such confusion exists in various ways: the Misfit's coldness and conviction (“It's no real pleasure in life,”) or, less dramatically, the fact that June Star does her tap routine to a song too slow for tap dancing, or the contrast between the name, June Star, which sounds like a stage name, and the false piety of her brother's name, John Wesley. And there are further contradictions.
Echoing the book of Timothy, O'Connor suggests that, by dying, one lives. O'Connor sees a knotted relationship between the Misfit and the grandmother in the sense that, while the Misfit murders the grandmother, he nevertheless is the agent for her salvation. The contradiction here is that the Misfit is a cold-blooded killer who possesses certain admirable qualities. For one thing, he is honest, to the point of his own strange absolutism. For another, he is the most rational character in the story.
The Misfit and the grandmother meet in a clearing that serves as a figure for his confusion over faith and knowledge and for her confusion about what “good” really means. It is a vacant place suitable for the Misfit's different levels of denial: the unacknowledged fact that he killed his father, his reducing faith to knowledge derived from experience and his asserting that there is no “pleasure,” i.e. joy, “in life.” And it also is a place suitable for the grandmother's repeated denial: her series of lies—to herself about gentility, race and poverty, her disposition, the integrity of the past, even her cat's affection for her. And, after she realizes she was wrong about the house with the secret panel, she lies tacitly in remaining silent and allowing the family's accident to occur, which brings on the Misfit. When the Misfit appears, the grandmother is the one who recognizes him and thus insures another level of denial, that he will have to kill the family in order to cover his tracks. The clearing surrounded by menacing pines under the featureless Georgia sky, through which the wind blows like an “insuck of breath,” stands figuratively for a vacuum created by the lies and confused thinking of the two main characters in the story who meet there. Yet from all these negatives there is a positive result.
Vacancy can be thought of in the stories here in terms of vacation, of a vacated office, of self-vacancy, of a whole series of absences. As mentioned before, the grandmother is never referred to by any name other than the one that defines her office, her role in the family, a role she leaves vacated almost until the story's end. While the Misfit's name is capitalized, hers is not. She is supposed to be the selfless grand mother, someone given and giving to others, but her self-centered behavior belies that expectation. She is willful, petty and vain. Certainly she would enjoy having her name spelled in capitals. But her identity is bound up with the other characters in the story and requires that she abandon her pretensions about herself and return to who she really is. The grandmother has developed a set of comfortable assertions by which she holds off the despair that characterizes her. Until she doubts this structure, a kind of pretense built over skepticism, and rejects it, she is locked in the despair of not knowing who she is. But she is not alone in this ignorance.
The story begins with Bailey reading the sports section of the paper. Later, when he is given the opportunity for his own moment of physical courage and athletic prowess, Bailey fails entirely. He leaves the story just as passively as he entered it. He knows the family is in a “terrible predicament,” but his eyes are “as blue and intense as the parrots in his shirt.” That is, he is cognizant in a secondary way, similar to a parrot. He can repeat, but in his “parrot-speech” he cannot originate speech or take action. He can see, but he cannot act; therefore, “he remain[s] perfectly still,” and when he is ushered off, he calls the grandmother “Mama.”
In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” various secondary pairings lay the groundwork for the vacancy that is created when the story's two main characters come together. The two songs entitled “The Tennessee Waltz,” and the gap, literally the “ought,” in the date the Misfit gives for his father's death, “nineteen ought nineteen,” 19019, ready the reader for the meeting between the grandmother and her counterpart, the Misfit. And there are other preparations. One comes early in the story. It is the grandmother's observation about the weather for the family's trip: “She said she thought it was going to be a good day for driving, neither too hot nor too cold,” echoing part of the “Message to Sardis” in “The Revelation of St. John the Divine.” The phrase the grandmother echoes is “thou art neither cold nor hot,” which is her own tepid condition, though the Misfit will take care of that. He will force the grandmother to choose. Put in extremis by his coldness, she will move from “lukewarm” to “hot.”
At the beginning of the story, the reader accepts what the grandmother says, that the weather is “good … for driving” because it is “neither too hot nor too cold.” Later, when he cannot think of anything to say, the Misfit makes a chorus of this by observing, “Ain't a cloud in the sky. … Don't see no sun but don't see no cloud either.” And when he is describing his time in jail the Misfit “again” looks “up … at the cloudless sky.” As Hiram and Bobby Lee take June Star, her mother and the baby into the woods the omniscient narrator observes that, “There was not a cloud in the sky nor any sun.” And, finally, after the grandmother has been shot, we see her “in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her, like a child's and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.” The meteorological vacancy that O'Connor describes repeatedly throughout the story stands figuratively for the lukewarm vacationers in the car and for the indifference of the physical world.
The trip begins with the grandmother checking the mileage on the odometer, which warns readers of the empty hours ahead. Then she reviews how she is dressed, concluding that, if she were found dead on the road, anyone would know she was a lady. Noting that they left “Atlanta at eight forty-five with the mileage on the car at 55890,” she reminds readers just how tedious things can become. Further emphasizing the oppressiveness of the situation, the grandmother writes her observation down, thinking “it would be interesting to say how many miles they had been when they got back,” and she continues in this vein, noting that, “It took them twenty minutes to reach the outskirts of the city.”
The ambivalent weather is O'Connor's most repeated figure, reminding one of the Augustinian battle between the Misfit's coldness (his decision to rely only on himself, “I don't want no hep”) and the grandmother's eventual intense heat, her turn toward help when she says, “Jesus, Jesus.” The Misfit thinks she is cursing, but O'Connor intends this as the grandmother's moment of grace. The grandmother reaches out to her murderer, identifying him as one of her babies because now she is a grand mother, as now, for her, the Misfit really is a good man. The grandmother has finally “seized” what for her has been her most significant “chance.”
The violence and sadism in this story and others by O'Connor deserve further attention, but the point intended is that the grandmother's encounter with the Misfit brings her to the “good” as it really exists. Gone are the grandmother's contentions that the Misfit is “a good man” because he is “not a bit common” and that he has “good blood,” both of these representing the grandmother's inability to distinguish between goodness and social standing, a confusion similar to Julian's social relativism in “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” At the end of her story, O'Connor's grandmother demonstrates love, however briefly, even for her own murderer, as O'Connor pushes what “good” means beyond where her Philistine characters would otherwise leave it.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is one of a number of O'Connor stories in which the controlling figure is invisible. Created by various kinds of pairing, the story's center is an opening out between two likenesses—a gap where something happens. In the protean landscapes of O'Connor's stories, characters are doubled in order to make an opening. They are simultaneously likened and differentiated in a process that reveals their external relationships as much as their internal feelings and aspirations. There are Mr. Head and Nelson, Mr. Fortune and Mary Fortune Pitts, the mothers and sons in “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” Rufus Johnson and Sheppard in “The Lame Shall Enter First” and other matches populating the vacant places where O'Connor's characters meet.
In “A Wife of Nashville,” Helen Ruth's despair is figured by the series of maids who work for her. The servants are paired with Helen Ruth, and in their successive employment they identify her progress in coming to terms with being “of” Nashville. The “of” used in the story's title indicates both belonging and separation … as in “of that family” and “eased of pain.” The preposition represents an opening or vacant spot. Helen Ruth is characterized by her relation to Nashville and paired with her maids, who share her predicament there. To jump ahead momentarily, the sense of belonging—separation that characterizes Helen Ruth's situation in the story can be seen in the scrapbook and the movie magazines which Jess McGehee, the fourth and most compelling maid to work for the family, keeps in her room. These objects are projections of and consolations for what she cannot have, not even among the family members with whom she lives and to whom she is so loyal.
Helen Ruth realizes her kinship with Jess McGehee in a move that recognizes the displacement they both experience. The social and economic differences between the two are pronounced on one level and beside the point on another, where their roles leave them with the task of nurturing members of the male cast that simultaneously places and displaces them. At the story's conclusion, Jess tells a lie, creating one kind of vacancy in order to escape another. That is the only means she has to extricate herself from the family. What Helen Ruth understands about Jess's predicament and that her husband and sons miss is the constriction created by the mores of Nashville.
During a closing scene that reinforces the isolation of Helen Ruth's existence, even in her own home, she stands before her husband and sons and tries to explain why Jess had to use one lie in order to free herself from another. Helen Ruth has known for several days that Jess and her friend Mary plan to take the bus to California, where they hope to get jobs and live near the movie world of Hollywood that so fascinates them. What Helen Ruth has to tell the men in her family is the aggregate of her years of experience as “a” wife “of” Nashville, with all the social strata and the inclusions and exclusions Peter Taylor has already unfolded in the story.
Midway through “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the scene in the Tower Restaurant produces “The Tennessee Waltz,” a song about a song—reportage by one song about another that we do not hear, which reminds us of the gap between the two. During the course of “A Wife of Nashville,” the four maids practice this kind of reportage over and over. Jess, the most satisfactory of the four, sits in the back seat of the family automobile listening to John R. give John R., Jr. a driving lesson. Suddenly she volunteers that John R., Jr. is “letting the clutch out too fast.” She is silent again until the boy stalls the car's engine. At that point, Jess repeats what Law (her brother-in-law) has said about handling a flooded engine, giving John, Jr. better driving instructions than his father has. After that instance, Jess teaches all the boys how to drive, although she herself has never learned. The best she can do is parrot what she has heard.
When an earlier maid, Jane Blakemore, suggests that Helen Ruth take John R.'s Ford Coupe and drive out to Thornton, Helen Ruth parrots the “answer that she [knows] John R. would have given.” She refuses, though she feels very much the opposite. When John R. comes home on the weekends and notices how spotless their apartment is, he tells Helen Ruth she drives herself “Too hard.” But it is Jane Blakemore who does the work. She is the one who is driven, though only around the house, not out to Thornton.
Helen Ruth's second maid, Carrie, gossips about her employer, and Helen Ruth's statement about the disagreement she has had with her husband gets out around Nashville until she hears herself quoted: “Because a woman's husband hunts is no reason for her to hunt, any more than because a man's wife sews is any reason for him to sew.” The isolation Helen Ruth feels upon hearing something so private made public is part of the increasing experience she has with vacancy. Carrie parrots what she has heard. Like an echo, she demonstrates the gap between the very different private and public instances of the same statement.
In the story reportage dramatizes the gap that exists between people. Sarah, Helen Ruth's third maid, watches as Helen Ruth threatens to call a “bluecoat” and drive off Morse, Sarah's drunken and abusive husband. Then “four … months” later, Sarah calls, gets John R., Jr. on the telephone and asks him to tell his mother that she is marrying “a man named Racecar and they [are] leaving for Chicago in the morning.” Previously, Morse “had returned from up North,” and when Helen Ruth drove him away he ostensibly moved north again. Once Jess's departure is explained, the reader thinks back and is not certain that Sarah didn't lie (the way Jess will later) and that in fact Racecar was really Morse returning once more for Sarah. The information about Sarah's departure is followed immediately with the news that “during the Depression,” Rufus Brantley, the man who had helped John R. get into the insurance business, “had shot himself through the head while cleaning a gun at his hunting lodge.” The same sentence goes on to say that “most of John R.'s other hunting friends had suffered the same financial reverses that John R. had.” The strong implication is that Rufus Brantley committed suicide, but the report given was that he had an accident, “cleaning his gun.” It seems clear that there is a gap between what happened and what Nashville society will accept—just as there is a gap created by the lie Jess tells. Neither Sarah nor Jess is able to manage a face-to-face farewell because they are powerless to bridge the gap between themselves and the family members they serve.
Of the other instances suggesting the vacancy that lurks behind appearances, the clearest example, the one the entire story builds toward, is the lie Jess uses. She believes she must use it to extricate herself from Helen Ruth's family which, as the boys have grown older, has pushed her into greater isolation. Jess arranges for a phone call to come during breakfast. Her friend Mary, with whom she is going to move to California, calls, and Jess pretends the call is a message telling her that her “little brother … baby brother” is dead. Jess has no such brother, and Helen Ruth has already learned through a friend about Jess's plans to leave. The same gossip that hurt Helen Ruth when Carrie worked for the family informs her now. This time Helen Ruth knows the truth, but she has not always been so alert. Not until her fourth maid is leaving her does she fully understand what is happening. By this time, Helen Ruth has more than learned what the problem is. That is why in her coda at the end of the story she keeps mentioning “lonesomeness” and “loneliness,” terms that describe the way vacancy feels. Helen Ruth is reporting from a foreign land that exists ironically within her own home.
Displacement and loneliness are present from the story's beginning in the guise of Helen Ruth's double name. Helen Ruth's is a hyphenated existence. The compound's power to simultaneously join and separate opens a gap in which similarities and differences become apparent. The Greek Helen is yoked with the Old Testament Ruth. Both women were forced to live in foreign lands, as we discover that Nashville is foreign to Helen Ruth, and as the world of their white employers is foreign to Helen Ruth's four maids. Helen Ruth's predicament is that her husband has moved her from her home town of Thornton to Nashville, where she is uncomfortable with his hunting set and where he leaves her alone a great deal of the time.
Helen Ruth is likened to the mythical Helen, who was abducted as a child, then again as a woman, then returned. And, on the other side of the hyphen, Helen Ruth is likened to Ruth, who accompanied her mother-in-law, Naomi, out of Ruth's homeland to Bethlehem-Judah. There, through Naomi's help, Ruth is joined with Boaz. The terms Boaz makes for Ruth are a match for Helen Ruth's husband, John R., at his most ingenious as an insurance agent. Helen Ruth's despair is figured by her being simultaneously joined and separated. She is “of” and not “of” Nashville, just as she is paired with her maids and known by her double name. These facts combine to echo the stories of Helen and Ruth, two other displaced women.
The words “lonesomeness” and “loneliness,” repeated so often at the story's conclusion, serve as a refrain in the coda Helen Ruth gives as she lists all over again the key moments that have characterized her life as the wife of a Nashville insurance executive. No one has been less insured or assured than Helen Ruth, and she recognizes this in large part through the even greater vulnerabilities faced by the four black women who have worked for her over the years, each for a longer and more satisfactory period than the one before. The triumph that Helen Ruth achieves at the story's conclusion appears out of the vacuum of her isolation and powerlessness. In contrast, her husband and sons enjoy what they consider to be the benefits of Nashville society and cannot imagine why Jess McGehee would deceive them.
Trying to explain why Jess pretended she had a “little brother” who had died in Brownsville, Tennessee and that she was only going there for the funeral when in fact she was leaving the family for good, Helen Ruth says to her husband and three sons, “My dears, don't you see how it was for Jess? How else can they tell us anything when there is such a gulf?”
The word gulf performs multiple tasks. It appeals to a realization on Helen Ruth's part that is central to the story: her acceptance of isolation. Such a term also evokes racial attitudes that would have been common in the 1930's. Jess's behavior is understood by John R. and his sons through an appeal to reductional attitudes about the alleged inferiority of blacks as thinking itself is depicted as a kind of vacancy.
On another level, the gulf Helen Ruth identifies is not only a matter of race, gender and economics but, most painfully, it reveals the gap on a personal level between Jess and the white people for whom she cares, ironically the same white world of family and movies from which she creates the projections that give her comfort. That is the material she pores over in her room when she is alone. Her imaginings enable her to possess, however briefly, parts of a world that nevertheless holds her off. Her white family provides compensation for her in her scrapbook the same way the Hollywood stars do in the movie magazines she exchanges with Mary. That is a preliminary approach to Jess's side of the gulf. Helen Ruth occupies shoreline along the same opening.
If we think of gulf in several senses at once, the way Helen Ruth thinks of the long list of details that form an aggregate for her as an answer to Jess's way of leaving, and if we recall Helen Ruth's own question as to how to bridge the gap existing between those supposedly closest to her, then we get another sense of the gulf Taylor is describing. Taylor poses Helen Ruth's problem this way:
What could she say to them, she kept asking herself. And each time she asked the question, she received for answer some different memory of seemingly unrelated things out of the past twenty years of her life. These things presented themselves as answers to her question, and each of them seemed satisfactory to her. But how little sense it would make to her husband and her grown sons, she reflected, if she should suddenly begin telling them about the long hours she had spent waiting in that apartment at the Vaux Hall while John R. was on the road for the Standard Candy Company, and in the same breath should tell them about how plainly she used to talk to Jane Blakemore and how Jane pretended that the baby made her nervous and went back to Thornton. Or suppose she should abruptly remind John R. of how ill at ease the wives of his hunting friends used to make her feel and how she had later driven Sarah's worthless husband out of the yard, threatening to call a bluecoat. What if she should suddenly say that because a woman's husband hunts, there is no reason for her to hunt, any more than because a man's wife sews, there is reason for him to sew.
The litany goes on, establishing the story's vision of “lonesomeness” and “loneliness.” Helen Ruth has been isolated by her role as a wife, just as in a more obvious way her servants have been isolated as maids. Her husband and sons are isolated also but cannot see that. The gulf they border is made invisible by the pieties they invoke to make the loss of Jess normative and acceptable. All the while, Helen Ruth knows more than their comforting words can circumscribe, and part of what she knows about her despair is that she accepts it. Here gulf works in a more positive way. Acceptance of its existence is the first step one takes out of despair. A gulf is both an abyss and a protected water.
The gulf that Jess and Helen Ruth border is a kind of fold, where the two live as doubles mirroring each other yet partly out of sight and misunderstood as they at once nurture the members of their family and are forced to live at a distance from those they nurture. Helen Ruth's progress through the story is her growing awareness of the kind of vacancy that her role as a wife entails, one that is required by all those around her. Over the course of the story, she moves from a series of projections applied to her servants, which reveal what she herself in fact lacks, to an acceptance of the way things are, or, more accurately, to an acceptance of the ways things are not.
At the end of the story, Helen Ruth recalls the “‘so much else’ that had been missing from her life and that she had not been able to name.” And she recalls “the foolish mysteries she had so nobly accepted upon her reconciliation with John R.” The term “foolish mysteries” is one attempt by Helen Ruth to give a name to the tear, “gulf,” or gap along which she has had to live her life. They are “foolish” because they do not explain matters. They are “mysteries” because they are thought of as somehow normative, while each individual's life is unique. The norms, the mores of a society, are part of a system of unacknowledged modifications of power. Speaking of his parents' generation during a classroom visit in 1983, Peter Taylor observed that the men exploited the women, and the women exploited the blacks. This holds true in “A Wife of Nashville,” though Helen Ruth must be understood first in terms of her name and in terms of what her story's title indicates: the “of” or hyphenated existence built over a sense of vacancy faced on a daily basis.
Pairing things in ways that reveal the vacancies about which characters live is a common device in Peter Taylor's stories. In “Dean of Men” an action taken by the narrator is seen to equal something done by his father and before that by his grandfather. In “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time,” the brother and sister are paired with each other, and their arrested development matches the children they entertain. In “A Wife of Nashville” Helen Ruth is paired with her four maids, especially with the last one, Jess McGehee. The list goes on.
As a figure for despair, to what does vacancy stand opposed? That is its significance. Instead of giving assurances of her theological convictions. O'Connor does the opposite. Instead of describing an orderly Nashville society, Taylor does the opposite. In this sense, vacancy is a figure for irony by which we imagine what is not in the narrative as it is written but as it is read. By her acceptance, O'Connor's grandmother doubts doubt, while Taylor's Helen Ruth stands before her family, gives her coda, and negates negation. Kierkegaard identifies the unfortunate fact that “no sooner has one discussed something than he is the thing himself.” O'Connor and Taylor understand this. There are things they do not discuss but leave to the figure of vacancy.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8121
SOURCE: Bolton, Betsy. “Placing Violence, Embodying Grace: Flannery O'Connor's ‘Displaced Person.’” Studies in Short Fiction 34, no. 1 (winter 1997): 87-104.
[In the following essay, Bolton examines the relationship between vision and the violence experienced by the characters in “The Displaced Person.”]
Several years ago, Slavoj Zizek, considering the notion that “we live in a post-ideological society,” proposed instead a redefinition of ideology. The most elementary definition, he suggests, is a phrase from Marx's Capital: “Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es” (“they do not know it, but they are doing it”). In place of this definition, he invokes Peter Sloterdijk's Critique of Cynical Reason and the following formulation of cynical ideology: “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it” (Zizek 28-29). News coverage of massacres in Bosnia and other places makes the cynicism of contemporary ideology especially vivid. With images of violence and disaster wired into most American homes, it is difficult to claim that one does not know what is going on—across the world or down the street. In some ways, however the very extent of available information seems to disable action. In the words of Terence des Pres, “[t]hanks to the technological expansion of consciousness, we cannot not know the extent of political torment; and in truth it may be said that what others suffer, we behold” (qtd. in Hartman 29). In a world where all points are equidistant from the TV viewer, all points can seem equally far away. Suffering is everywhere but in the “I” of the beholder.
In this essay, I want to explore the relationship between vision and violence, what is suffered and what beheld, in Flannery O'Connor's short story, “The Displaced Person.” The story is structured around a newsreel image of the Holocaust—the momentarily frozen picture of a room piled high with bodies—and concerns itself both with the attempt to make sense of that vision and with the proliferation of violence that image seems to produce. I will argue that the technology of O'Connor's storytelling offers a (still violent) alternative to the violent technology of images the story explicitly thematizes.
Two quite different essays by Walter Benjamin may help to frame the kinds of technology at work in “The Displaced Person.” “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction” presents him as one modern point of intersection between technology and art. The essay describes film as the art of distraction, altering the “apperceptive apparatus” of modern people, helping them adapt to the changing demands of a newly technical world. “The film is the art form that is in keeping with the increased threat to his life which modern man has to face. … The film corresponds to profound changes in the apperceptive apparatus—changes that are experienced on an individual scale by the man in the street in big-city traffic, on a historical scale by every present-day citizen” (250). Benjamin suggests that people learn to take in and respond to the massive increase in information signals by being exposed to the perceptual techniques of film. Contemplation of paintings gives way in film to a process of tactile appropriation, the kind of process performed by the user of a building: the structure is not contemplated from afar, but appropriated through use, through contact. The contemplation of a painting suggests perception at a distance, while the experience Benjamin wants to capture is a kind of negative distance, a remotely shocking innovation of the self. Time, tide and film wait for no one. “No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed. It cannot be arrested. ‘I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images’” (238). In the process of tactile appropriation, the subject as well as the image may be appropriated. The film constructs the viewer.
Benjamin insists on seeing film as a cure or solution to the increasing shocks that modern flesh is heir to. Yet the imagery of healing is itself somewhat shocking in this text. The critic offers an analogy in which a magician represents the work of a painting; a surgeon, the work of a film:
The magician heals a sick person by the laying on of hands; the surgeon cuts into the patient's body. The magician maintains the natural distance between the patient and himself; though he reduces it very slightly by the laying on of hands, he greatly increases it by virtue of his authority. The surgeon does exactly the reverse; he greatly diminishes the distance between himself and the patient by penetrating into the patient's body, and increases it but little by the caution with which his hand moves among the organs. … [T]he surgeon at the decisive moment abstains from facing the patient man to man; rather, it is through the operation that he penetrates into him.
Technology penetrates so far into the film (and the viewer) that it vanishes from sight, though its disembodied hand remains at work within the apperceptive organs of the viewer.
“The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction” presents human beings themselves as a certain kind of technology, an apperceptual apparatus that is undergoing alteration. “The Storyteller” mourns the loss of experience, the loss of an earlier mode of perception that could still lay claim to counsel and wisdom. In the twentieth century, information replaces experience; the storyteller gives way to the newspaper—or to the modern novel as an experience of isolation. At one point, Benjamin ties the loss of experience quite directly to war and the technologies of war:
With the [First] World War a process began to become apparent which has not halted since then. Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience? … [N]ever has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power. A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.
The rhetoric of this passage fights a kind of rearguard action against the loss of experience, detailing the challenges faced by the “fragile human body” trying to make sense of the contradictions it confronts. That fragile human body remains the kernel of a possible story that could be made out of the war and its aftermath.
In “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin proposes film as a mode of transformation, an art that teaches viewers how to exist in a new age of information. In “The Storyteller,” however, he attributes the very possibility of counsel and wisdom to the story—not the modern short story, but the folk story. Stories that embody experience and carry counsel were, he suggests, traditionally told in a rural setting, in a state not of distraction but of boredom, so the listener would focus on the tale and takes it into his or her life, turning it over repeatedly in the mind. Death holds a position of special authority within the world of the story, an authority presented almost in filmic terms:
Just as a sequence of images is set in motion inside a man as his life comes to an end—unfolding the views of himself under which he has encountered himself without being aware of it—suddenly in his expressions and looks the unforgettable emerges and imparts to everything that concerned him that authority which even the poorest wretch in dying possesses for the living around him.
The cliché of one's life passing before one's eyes suggests that the dying person comes to understand her or his own life more fully through this last minute rerun—and that this deeper understanding is communicated obscurely to those around the deathbed or scene through the mysteries of “authority.”
In relation to Benjamin, one might summarize the technology of film as that which restructures the perceptions (and apperceptive apparatus) of the viewer while the viewer him or herself remains in a state of distraction. The technology of the story requires a slower time scale—the distractions of boredom—and aims at wisdom through a repeated, conscious confrontation with mystery. O'Connor's “The Displaced Person” positions itself midway between these two technologies. The story presents a film image (of horrific death) as the mystery requiring repeated confrontation. But O'Connor's fictive strategies also attempt to reach into the reader as the surgeon cuts open the body of the patient: this storyteller seeks to alter the beliefs of her readers through an appeal to their senses. In a story like “The Displaced Person,” for instance, the threat of displacement and the violence that accompanies it seem to spread uncontrollably, as contagious as the plague. That violence is halted only when it is finally embodied, when author, characters and readers alike manage to “make sense” of displacement by reducing it literally to an experience of the senses.
For O'Connor, fiction demands a technology of sensation, of experience: fiction, she claims, “operates through the senses. … No reader who doesn't actually experience, who isn't made to feel, the story is going to believe anything the fiction writer merely tells him” (Mystery and Manners 91). O'Connor's own fictional technique makes extensive use of violence—and the writer associates that violence both with the experience of reality and, on some level, with its transcendence. O'Connor claims that
violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.
The distracted, casual modern reader is also hard-headed: a violent fictional technique works to return him or her to a reality O'Connor presents in Christian terms.
Within the world of “The Displaced Person,” violence appears most frequently not as action but as aftermath, as frozen tableau. One image in particular structures the rest of the tale, haunting the characters within the story like an afterimage of the sun burned into their eyes:
Mrs. Shortley recalled a newsreel she had seen once of a small room piled high with bodies of dead naked people all in a heap, their arms and legs tangled together, a head thrust in here, a head there, a foot, a knee, a part that should have been covered up sticking out, a hand raised clutching nothing. Before you could realize that it was real and take it into your head, the picture had changed and a hollow-sounding voice was saying, “Time marches on!”
The newsreel first freezes the violence of the second world war into a static picture, then makes that picture disappear before its meaning can be grasped. The pile of “dead naked people all in a heap” is grotesque both in the common sense of the word and in its fantastical rearranging of body parts; its resistance to common modes of comprehension is sublime. The reader is no more able than Mrs. Shortley to make sense of this tableau of violence: our failure of comprehension underwrites the mysterious effects of violence within O'Connor's fiction, the capacity of violence to move and alter its spectators.
Yet Mrs. Shortley struggles to interpret what she has seen:
This was the kind of thing that was happening every day in Europe where they had not advanced as in this country, and watching from her vantage point, Mrs. Shortley had the sudden intuition that the Gobblehooks, like rats with typhoid fleas, could have carried all those murderous ways over the water with them directly to this place. If they had come from where that kind of thing was done to them, who was to say they were not the kind that would also do it to others?
Mrs. Shortley's “sudden intuition” captures a partial truth: the violence she remembers does indeed become contagious within the world of the story, but not in the way she imagines. In her interpretation of the newsreel and its relation to the Guizacs, the grotesque wins out over the sublime. The human tragedy of the stacked bodies is ignored, and the Guizacs are dehumanized: in the early pages of the story, Mrs. Guizac appears as a peanut, Sledgewig is considered the name of an insect, and Mrs. Shortley's version of their family name mingles mechanics and hunger. From here to the image of the “Gobblehooks” as rats carrying typhoid fleas is but a short step. Mrs. Shortley's view of the Guizacs—a view that repeatedly transgresses the boundary between human and animal—also prepares for her subsequent collapsing of the border between subject and object of violence: “If they had come from where that kind of thing was done to them, who was to say they were not the kind that would also do it to others?”
Time marches on, the newsreel reminds us, and carries murderous ways into the present, in part because the effects of violence have not yet been adequately realized on either a conceptual or an artistic level. Robert Fitzgerald wrote of the newsreel passage, “It is cool work, this writing, in which not one but several human abysses are skated over with an ironic flick, and all in Mrs. Shortley's mind” (Fitzgerald 22); John Ruskin would have said rather that both O'Connor and Mrs. Shortley were holding back from a full perception of the terrible. The abyss has not been skated over—it has merely been skirted. O'Connor approaches the reality of those stacked bodies the way Mrs. McIntyre approaches the figure of the Displaced Person: slowly and with considerable caution. The image structures the story as a whole, shading perceptions of religion and language and shaping the descriptions of Mrs. Shortley's stroke, Guizac's death, and Mrs. McIntyre's reaction to his murder.
The proliferation of violence within “The Displaced Person” is motivated in part by the characters' failure of comprehension and communication. These failures are presented through an ongoing focus on visual perception. Mrs. Shortley characterizes the foreigners as “people who were all eyes and no understanding” (204-05), but the real problem is that the Guizacs do not understand the manners of the region; they do not know what to understand and what to close their eyes to. The incomprehension of the blacks is, by contrast, a gesture of courtesy, a demonstration of their fine grasp of country etiquette. Just as the Shortleys know better than to mention Sulk's stealing—and just as both sides ignore the other's bootlegging still—so Sulk and Astor know better than to draw attention to the Shortleys' departure: “they looked straight at the car and its occupants but even as the dim yellow headlights lit up their faces, they politely did not seem to see anything, or anyhow, to attach significance to what was there” (212-13). This lack of comprehension is to be understood as passive courtesy, as an acceptance of the world as others make it.
The lack of understanding that develops between Guizac and the other inhabitants of “the place,” on the other hand, is taken as willful misunderstanding. Guizac tells of Sulk's stealing on the one hand, and tries to marry his cousin to him on the other. The first mistake is a foolish but minor transgression; the second an unthinkable violence to the conventions of “the place.” Worse yet is the fact that he will not back down and admit that he is wrong. When Mrs. McIntyre confronts him, calling him a monster, he responds simply: “‘She no care black,’ he said. ‘She in camp three year’” (223). The violence of Guizac's transgressions evokes an answering, if muffled violence:
“They're all the same,” she muttered, “whether they come from Poland or Tennessee. I've handled Herrins and Ringfields and Shortleys and I can handle a Guizac,” and she narrowed her gaze until it closed entirely around the diminishing figure on the tractor as if she were watching him through a gunsight. All her life she had been fighting the world's overflow and now she had it in the form of a Pole. “You're just like all the rest of them,” she said, “—only smart and thrifty and energetic but so am I. And this is my place,” and she stood there, a small black-hatted, black-smocked figure with an aging cherubic face, and folded her arms as if she were equal to anything. But her heart was beating as if some interior violence had already been done to her.
Mrs. McIntyre, in keeping with her refusal to allow black and white to intermarry, compares the Pole not to the “Negroes” but to white-trash. Her ability to “handle a Guizac” is here linked to her capacity for violence—at first, merely a violence of vision, as her gaze narrows to the form of a gunsight. The omniscient narrator's description (“as if”) conflates aggression and sight, giving outlet to Mrs. McIntyre's strong feelings while maintaining the safety of a figural account. Mrs. McIntyre herself is a less canny rhetorician: the words she uses to describe her conflict with Guizac attempt to make him manageable by equating him with the chain of workers she has managed in the past. Yet those same words do more to highlight the commonalities between Guizac and herself: “You're just like all the rest of them,” she said, “—only smart and thrifty and energetic but so am I.” The similarities of intelligence and thrift and energy once granted, the difference between protagonists is hard to re-establish: in metaphysical terms, the story challenges anyone's right to claim, “this is my place”; while on a more concrete level, what Mrs. McIntyre most resents about Guizac by the end of the story is his refusal to concede her place, his failure to leave of his own accord. As a result of this unexpected identification, Mrs. McIntyre becomes the recipient as well as the purveyor of violence.
The threat of spreading violence pervades the story, but violence is explicitly named only through the hypothetical world of “as if” or in the form of a negation. Mr. Shortley “was not a violent man but he hated to see a woman done in by a foreigner. He felt that that was one thing a man couldn't stand by and see happen” (230). Of course, according to his own interpretation of affairs, that is more or less what Mr. Shortley has already done—lain by and watched his wife done in by a foreigner: “‘I figure that Pole killed her,’ he said. ‘She seen through him from the first. She known he come from the devil. She told me so’” (227). Telling, from Mr. Shortley's perspective, is as good as proving, and the stories he tells are in turn designed to localize violence in the figure of the Pole—perhaps because the violence he himself has experienced through the death of his wife and his own displacement seems so difficult to pin down.
Mrs. McIntyre's experience of violence in relation to the Pole is communicated through the omniscient narrator's choice of figures, but Mr. Shortley proceeds to take the figures of violence into his own hands:
Mr. Shortley said he never had cared for foreigners since he had been in the first world's war and seen what they were like. He said he had seen all kinds then but that none of them were like us. He said he recalled the face of one man who had thrown a handgrenade at him and that the man had had little round eye-glasses exactly like Mr. Guizac's.
“But Mr. Guizac is a Pole, he's not a German,” Mrs. McIntyre said.
“It ain't a great deal of difference in them two kinds,” Mr. Shortley had explained.
Mr. Shortley's words attempt to replace the free-floating contagion of the Pole's transgressions and displacements with a concrete image of violence. His story is an extended analogy designed to connect two points in the visible (Mr. Guizac and a German soldier) through the further displacement of metonymy: both men are reduced to their common denominator—foreigners with little round eye-glasses. His description can be read as an attempt to embody his experience of violence in the person of the D.P., a figure vulnerable to the reciprocal effects of violence.
The violence the D.P. brings with him to “the place” is the violence of displacement. Just as Hazel Motes in Wise Blood insists on the universality and ubiquity of this phenomenon—
“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place.
“Nothing outside you can give you any place,” he said. “You needn't to look at the sky because it's not going to open up and show no place behind it. You needn't to search for any hole in the ground to look through into somewhere else. You can't go neither forwards nor backwards into your daddy's time nor your children's time if you have them. In yourself right now is all the place you've got.”
(Wise Blood 165-66)
—so O'Connor forces the characters in “The Displaced Person” to search in time, in space and finally in their own bodies for a place to be. The women, Mrs. Shortley and Mrs. McIntyre, experience the conflict with the Displaced Person as a struggle for place; Mr. Shortley experiences it as a struggle between stasis and change.
Through the first section of the story, the hired man is a recurrent figure of stasis. While courting his future wife, he “had sat on her porch steps, not saying a word, imitating a paralyzed man propped up to enjoy a cigarette” (200). As Mrs. Shortley tries to involve him in a discussion of the D.P. problem, “Mr. Shortley folded his hands on his bony chest and pretended he was a corpse. … ‘Don't worry me now,’ Mr. Shortley said. ‘I'm a dead man.’ … ‘If everybody was as dead as I am, nobody would have no trouble,’ Mr. Shortley said” (206). The Pole, by contrast, is a figure of motion and change—a man who understands machinery, is impatient with the slowness of the black laborers, and is always working. With the Displaced Person as a catalyst, Mr. Shortley is not allowed to remain dead—the narrative uncovered and recounted by his wife galvanizes him into momentary action:
She had found out what the Displaced Person was up to through the old man, Astor, and she had not told anybody but Mr. Shortley. Mr. Shortley had risen straight up in bed like Lazarus from the tomb.
“Shut your mouth!” he had said.
“Yes,” she had said.
“Naw!” Mr. Shortley had said.
“Yes,” she had said.
Mr. Shortley had fallen back flat.
The narrating of transgression is itself a kind of violence, capable of momentarily raising the dead—though it will take stronger measures to resurrect Mr. Shortley in a more permanent fashion.
Language, along with vision, is the dominant technology, the practical art, at work in “The Displaced Person.” When Mrs. Shortley passes away, “displaced in the world from all that belonged to her” (214), Mr. Shortley is in turn dispossessed of his native realm of death-like paralysis, forced into the world of the living and the makers of narrative: “Since he didn't have Mrs. Shortley to do the talking any more, he had started doing it himself and had found that he had a gift for it. He had the power of making other people see his logic” (232). He carries his battle against the Displaced Person into a war of words, a war foreseen by his wife, though once again in a manner somewhat different from what eventually comes to pass. When it appeared that Mrs. McIntyre was considering bringing another Polish family to the farm, Mrs. Shortley
began to imagine a war of words, to see the Polish words and the English words coming at each other, stalking forward, not sentences, just words, gabble gabble gabble, flung out high and shrill and stalking forward and then grappling with each other. She saw the Polish words, dirty and all-knowing and unreformed, flinging mud on the clean English words until everything was equally dirty. She saw them all piled up in a room, all the dead dirty words, theirs and hers too, piled up like the naked bodies in the newsreel.
Here the word is made flesh in a grotesque perversion of the Incarnation. Language is reduced to its materiality; stripped of their cover of meaning, words are left naked, displaced and dead like the bodies in the newsreel. The conventions that order language and make communication possible disappear—there are no sentences, just words that gabble, gabble, gabble like the Gobblehooks themselves.
Mrs. Shortley considers this negative incarnation the result of the Polish invasion, but the language of the place has long been moribund, frozen into the sayings once used by Mrs. McIntyre's first husband, the Judge. Most of the characters on the farm are adept at manipulating the conventions of this language: Mrs. Shortley, for instance, uses the Judge's sayings simultaneously to win her mistress's approval and to mock her blindness. Mrs. McIntyre remarks that she may have to get rid of some of her other help in order to pay Guizac a higher wage:
Mrs. Shortley nodded to indicate she had known this for some time. “I'm not saying those niggers ain't had it coming,” she said. “But they do the best they know how. You can always tell a nigger what to do and stand by until he does it.”
“That's what the Judge said,” Mrs. McIntyre said and looked at her with approval. … She always spoke of him in a reverent way and quoted his sayings, such as “One fellow's misery is the other fellow's gain,” and “The devil you know is better than the devil you don't.”
“However,” Mrs. Shortley remarked, “the devil you know is better than the devil you don't,” and she had to turn away so that Mrs. McIntyre would not see her smile.
The act of citation cuts in both directions: the respect implied by Mrs. Shortley's first quotation disappears into mockery with her second comment and her hidden smile.
When Astor invokes exactly the same saying in response to Mrs. McIntyre's assertion of power, it becomes clear that the Judge's sayings are themselves weapons and soldiers in a quiet, more local war of words.
“What you colored people don't realize,” she said, “is that I'm the one around here who holds all the strings together. … You're all dependent on me but you each and every one act like the shoe is on the other foot.”
It was not possible to tell from his face if he heard her. Finally he backed out with the wheelbarrow. “Judge say the devil he know is better than the devil he don't,” he said in a clear mutter and trundled off.
She got up and followed him, a deep vertical pit appearing suddenly in the center of her forehead, just under the red bangs. “The Judge has long since ceased to pay the bills around here,” she called in a piercing voice.
He was the only one of her Negroes who had known the Judge and he thought this gave him title.
Status is awarded through languages: Astor, having known the Judge and his sayings, is entitled to talk back to his widow. The Judge himself bears a certain resemblance to O'Connor's stock devil-figure, though in somewhat tarnished form: he wears the trademark Panama hat, yellowed rather than white, and “when he died his estate proved to be bankrupt. He left her a mortgaged house and fifty acres that he had managed to cut the timber off before he died. It was as if, as the final triumph of a successful life, he had been able to take everything with him” (218). O'Connor's devils take their power from the inert and the familiar: the Judge's sayings continue to wield a certain power because, like the figure of the Judge himself, sunk in the cornfield with his family, they may be long dead but they are always at home.
Against this backdrop of language reduced to its material aspects—the devil one knows—arises a language of mystery and revelation—the devil one does not know. Mrs. McIntyre, watching the Displaced Person work, is moved to exclaim, “That man is my salvation!”
Mrs. Shortley looked straight ahead as if her vision penetrated the cane and the hill and pierced through to the other side. “I would suspicion salvation got from the devil,” she said in a slow detached way.
“Now what do you mean by that?” Mrs. McIntyre asked, looking at her sharply.
Mrs. Shortley wagged her head but would not say anything else. The fact was she had nothing else to say for this intuition had only at that instant come to her.
Speech comes without thought, separate from thought—and its meaning remains equivocal. Whatever she may have said to her husband, Mrs. Shortley stops short of telling her boss that Guizac himself is salvation sent from the devil: her comment could, after all, be applied as tellingly to Mrs. McIntyre's marriage with the Judge—a solution that brought only a very limited salvation. The threat and the force of Mrs. Shortley's intuitive language are its indirectness; it offers meaning through insinuation and juxtaposition rather than direct statement.
Language is as contagious as violence within “The Displaced Person.” After her vision of the war of words, Mrs. Shortley begins to read her Bible with a new attention. She pores over the Apocalypse and the Prophets and the words she reads come to life in a vision of her own:
Suddenly while she watched, the sky folded back in two pieces like the curtain to a stage and a gigantic figure stood facing her. It was the color of the sun in the early afternoon, white-gold. It was of no definite shape but there were fiery wheels with fierce dark eyes in them, spinning rapidly all around it. She was not able to tell if the figure was going forward or backward because its magnificence was so great. She shut her eyes in order to look at it and it turned blood-red and the wheels turned white. A voice, very resonant, said the one word, “Prophesy!”
The artificiality of this vision is emphasized by its stage curtain and by its duplication of the conventions of Biblical vision: Mrs. Shortley's experience of transcendence is refracted by the limits of her comprehension. The voice she hears is resonant, however, and the command to prophesy calls forth a rejuvenated language:
She stood there, tottering slightly but still upright, her eyes shut tight and her fists clenched and her straw sun hat low on her forehead. “The children of wicked nations will be butchered,” she said in a loud voice. “Legs where arms should be, foot to face, ear in the palm of hand. Who will remain whole? Who will remain whole? Who?”
The conventional form (and content) of the prophecy gives Mrs. Shortley a way to “realize” the haunting image of the newsreel. While the imagined war of words turned language into image, divorcing the word from its structure and meaning, prophetic language here succeeds in making the newsreel image new and real and meaningful. And while the prophecy is spoken outwardly, these words drive Mrs. Shortley to a deeper internalization of the threat of violence and dismemberment: “Who shall remain whole? Who?”
In the world of “The Displaced Person,” no one remains whole—but it is Mrs. Shortley and Mrs. McIntyre who suffer the disruptions of grace most explicitly. The aftermath of violence, the tableau of stacked bodies, is dramatically realized in two very different ways by the two women. The after-image of dismembered bodies hovers over the story's two attempts at closure—Mrs. Shortley's stroke and Mrs. McIntyre's decline after Guizac's death—and the earlier moment of closure is oddly the more final. Unlike the reader and Mrs. Shortley, Mrs. McIntyre has not been haunted by the image of the newsreel; her exposure to violence-as-tableau begins with her participation in the reenactment of that violence:
She heard the brake on the large tractor slip and, looking up, she saw it move forward, calculating its own path. Later she remembered that she had seen the Negro jump silently out of the way as if a spring in the earth had released him and that she had seen Mr. Shortley turn his head with incredible slowness and stare silently over his shoulder and that she had started to shout to the Displaced Person but that she had not. She had felt her eyes and Mr. Shortley's eyes and the Negro's eyes come together in one look that froze them in collusion forever, and she had heard the little noise the Pole made as the tractor wheel broke his backbone.
Motion and stasis seem to collude with the human actors in this dramatization of sudden death. The tractor calculates its own rapid path, while Mrs. McIntyre's sight fixes and freezes her in collusion “forever.” Celluloid has no more permanent recording power.
That experience of frozen time immediately disrupts the sequentiality of Mrs. McIntyre's perceptions. As with Mrs. Shortley's experience of the newsreel, the image of violence is at once static and too quickly past to be comprehended. Mrs. McIntyre faints (stasis) and then runs (motion), perhaps to the house, but then she loses all grasp of her own narrative: “she could not remember what for or if she had fainted again when she got there.” The priest comes to give the dying man last rites, but even his figure is unfamiliar to her, and she mistakes him at first for the doctor. Even when she succeeds in “placing” him, her mind remains oddly impervious to new impressions.
She looked first at his bloody pants leg and then at his face which was not averted from her but was as withdrawn and expressionless as the rest of the countryside. She only stared at him for she was too shocked by her experience to be quite herself. Her mind was not taking hold of all that was happening. She felt she was in some foreign country where the people bent over the body were natives, and she watched like a stranger while the dead man was carried away in the ambulance.
Mrs. McIntyre has lost her place in the story and her sense of belonging on the farm—as have all who colluded in Guizac's death. The other conspirators (except for Astor, apparently doomed or determined to outlast them all) leave that night, and Mrs. McIntyre is left to an endless physical reenactment of the aftermath of violence. The dismemberment prophesied by the newsreel and by Mrs. Shortley invades Mrs. McIntyre's body: “A numbness developed in one of her legs and her hands and head began to jiggle and eventually she had to stay in bed all the time with only a colored woman to wait on her. Her eyesight grew steadily worse and she lost her voice altogether” (235).
Mrs. Shortley's stroke is the counterpoint to this realization of violence—or, rather, it is the realization to which Mrs. McIntyre's actions are the belated counterpoint. O'Connor offers her readers a choice, not between violence and peace, but between violence with comprehension and meaning and violence without. Mrs. Shortley prophesies, giving voice to vision; Mrs. McIntyre loses her voice and vision altogether.
Mrs. Shortley's stroke seems to start with the realization of her own displacement, with the repetition of the unanswerable question, “Where we goin?”
“Where we going?” Mr. Shortley repeated and when she didn't answer again, he turned and looked at her.
Fierce heat seemed to be swelling slowly and fully into her face as if it were welling up now for a final assault. She was sitting in an erect way in spite of the fact that one leg was twisted under her and one knee was almost into her neck, but there was a peculiar lack of light in her icy blue eyes. All the vision in them might have been turned around, looking inside her. She suddenly grabbed Mr. Shortley's elbow and Sarah Mae's foot at the same time and began to tug and pull on them as if she were trying to fit the two extra limbs onto herself.
Mr. Shortley began to curse and quickly stopped the car and Sarah Mae yelled to quit but Mrs. Shortley apparently intended to rearrange the whole car at once. She thrashed forward and backward, clutching at everything she could get her hands on and hugging it to herself, Mr. Shortley's head, Sara Mae's leg, the cat, a wad of white bedding, her own big moon-like knee; then all at once her fierce expression faded into a look of astonishment and her grip on what she had loosened. One of her eyes drew near to the other and seemed to collapse quietly and she was still.
This description combines elements of Mrs. Shortley's vision with a reenactment of the newsreel. The wheels of the vision are replaced by the wheels of the car; eyes are peculiarly lit and mobile; with the fierce heat welling up into Mrs. Shortley's face, her color changes from white to bloodred. At the same time, the reversal of Mrs. Shortley's vision (looking in rather than looking out) also reverses the sense of opacity that marked Mrs. Shortley's view of the displaced, people she used to say were “all eyes and no understanding.” The dismemberment of the newsreel is here rewritten as accretion: Mrs. Shortley is shown as trying to fit the extra limbs onto a self that still retains some illusion of organic unity. And the senseless confusion of the bodies seen in the newsreel becomes, in queerly domestic terms, an attempt “to rearrange the whole car at once.” The frozen tableau of the newsreel is animated by Mrs. Shortley's stroke, but that animation is given meaning only by the narrator's figures of description.
The reenactment of the newsreel ends only when Mrs. Shortley's “grip on what she had loosened”—and at that moment, O'Connor's grip on the story—tightens:
The two girls, who didn't know what had happened to her, began to say, “Where we goin, Ma? Where we goin?” They thought she was playing a joke and that their father, staring straight ahead at her, was imitating a dead man. They didn't know that she had had a great experience or ever been displaced in the world from all that belonged to her. They were frightened by the gray slick road before them and they kept repeating in higher and higher voices, “Where we goin, Ma? Where we goin?” while their mother, her huge body rolled back still against the seat and her eyes like blue-painted glass, seemed to contemplate for the first time the tremendous frontiers of her true country.
O'Connor here transgresses boundaries that normally limit her third-person narration in order to add meaning to this reenactment of violence. She steps beyond the figure of “as if” in order to assert that Mrs. Shortley has indeed had a great experience and been displaced in the world from all that belonged to her. For just a split-second, O'Connor herself takes on the role of the wife of the countryside. “True country” is an image prevalent in O'Connor's essays, one that is often linked to the notion of the writer and his or her vision—while the narrator's voice retreats to the world of “seems,” the imagery of this sentence serves to conflate writer and character. O'Connor's narrative transgression here creates a powerful effect—one that has to be contained within the further course of the narrative. Mrs. Shortley's death carries authority of mystery for those around her, her husband and daughters; to the reader, on the other hand, her “eyes like bluepainted glass” bear the mark of authorial revelation. The story cannot stop here, but must return to the more distant and measured description of Mrs. McIntyre's ending.
In “The Storyteller,” Benjamin gives one example of a story and its “germinative power.” The story he cites is from Herodotus: the tale of the conquered Psammenitus unmoved by the spectacle of his daughter being treated as a maid, or his son being taken to execution. “But when afterwards he recognized one of his servants, an old impoverished man, in the ranks of the prisoners, he beat his fists against his head and gave all the signs of deepest mourning” (90). Benjamin goes on to list various possible interpretations: Montaigne, for instance, suggests that the king is so full of grief that this last episode bursts the dam of his self-control. Benjamin himself suggests that the king might be unmoved by the fate of his children, since this is but an extension of his own fate—or, alternately, that there's a staginess to the spectacle of the servant that moves the king more than “real life” could do—or, that seeing the servant allows the king to relax, and with that relaxation, his grief breaks forth. “Herodotus offers no explanations. His report is the driest” and therefore the most potent.
O'Connor's story includes within itself both the incomprehensible seed of the tale—the newsreel image—and the various interpretations that seed has produced. What counsel the story has to offer comes from this combination of mystery and manners: the impossibility of grasping the enormity of the holocaust, and the interpretations of that enormity produced by the characters of the story in their daily responses.
The technologies at work in “The Displaced Person” include the technology of film, the “apperceptive apparatus” of the people at “the Place,” and the techniques of storytelling and fiction writing. The image from the newsreel penetrates Mrs. Shortley, eventually restructuring her life—and death. Yet the same image seems to penetrate Mrs. McIntyre (who may never have seen the newsreel) as a state of distraction marked by numbness, jiggling limbs, loss of eyesight and voice. That newsreel image also penetrates O'Connor's (distracted) reader through the structure of its repetition, which unifies the story. In many ways, the story is not about the displaced person at all, but rather concerns itself with the ways in which people respond to spectacles of suffering—both at a distance and at closer range. The technology at issue is not the technology of film, nor even the technology of a distant war, but rather the technology of human perception in its most local forms, with its inherent violence and its dehumanizing approach to the unfamiliar.
The bottom line of the story's structure distinguishes quite sharply between Mrs. McIntyre and Mrs. Shortley, and offers as authority for this differentiation the ends to which they come. Mrs. McIntyre, having helped (by omission) to kill a man, becomes alienated from herself: she “felt she was in some foreign country where the people bent over the body were natives, and she watched like a stranger” (235). Mrs. Shortley, by contrast, finds herself unexpectedly coming home at the moment of her death: “displaced in the world from all that belonged to her,” she nonetheless “contemplate[s] for the first time the tremendous frontiers of her true country” (214). O'Connor prepares for these moments of judgment by distinguishing throughout the story between the two characters' approaches to vision and to speech. As we have seen, Mrs. McIntyre's gaze is narrow, and as violent as a gunsight. At the beginning of the story, Mrs. Shortley's vision oscillates between that kind of narrow focus and a broader view: “Mrs. Shortley's vision narrowed on him and then widened to include the woman and the two children in a group picture.” But her view also widens to include a somewhat ludicrous world of imaginative connections:
The first thing that struck her as very peculiar was that they looked like other people. Every time she had seen them in her imagination, the image she had got was of the three bears, walking single file, with wooden shoes on like Dutchmen and sailor hats and bright coats with a lot of buttons. But the woman had on a dress she might have worn herself.
By the time she sees her vision, midway through the story, the lesson of these “Displaced Persons” has been driven home quite thoroughly: the question “Who will remain whole?” acknowledges Mrs. Shortley's new sense of vulnerability. Mrs. McIntyre, by contrast, sums up her disdain for the Guizacs and religion both in a pithy, Judge-like proverb: “‘As far as I'm concerned’ she said and glared at [the priest] fiercely, ‘Christ was just another D.P.’” (229). Mrs. McIntyre's choice of phrasing shows her siding with the devil she knows: the moribund materiality of the Judge and his sayings. The remark is as prophetic of her death-in-life as Mrs. Shortley's prophecy is of her own ending.
“What others suffer, we behold.” As Geoffrey Hartman remarks, this statement bears the precision of a proverb. In the world of O'Connor's fiction, the moribund density of a proverb makes it dangerous: for these words to give life, they must be unpacked, experienced through the senses. What does it mean to “behold” suffering? Is the possibility of active identification distanced by the comfort of material possessions? Be/hold: we distinguish ourselves from others according to what we possess: we are what we hold onto. “The Displaced Person” shows the futility of attempting to define oneself through one's holdings, through any claim to place. “This is my place!” Mrs. McIntyre asserts, and at the end of the story, she is the only one remaining there—but that place has become to her a foreign land.
“What others suffer, we behold”: perhaps the difficulty lies in a gap between the self and what that self can encompass, a gap between being and holding. John Hershey's Hiroshima describes how, after the bombing, survivors at first stayed clustered in small groups of family members or friends, because they could not comprehend a wider circle of misery. How much misery can a person hold, how much suffering can she or he behold? Mrs. Shortley summarizes the moral dilemma: “Legs where arms should be, foot to face, ear in the palm of hand. Who will remain whole? Who will remain whole? Who?”
“What others suffer, we behold”—but what remains unbeheld, unperceived? O'Connor's “Displaced Person” suggests that the local reception of violence works to obscure connections: the pile of bodies in a room haunts Mrs. Shortley, and Mrs. McIntyre has heard from the priest of the atrocities committed in Europe, but neither figure seems willing to connect those atrocities to the figure of Guizac's niece, who has been in a camp for three years. Likewise, both women focus (in different ways) on the cultural distance separating them from the Guizacs. A focus on the spectacle of suffering obscures the role of the spectator, the violence of contemporary human technologies of perception, and the extent to which “we” penetrate the image on the TV even as it penetrates “us.” “Beholding” formalizes and distances the act of vision. O'Connor's fictional techniques draw the reader's attention to the “apperceptive apparatus” of the characters in her stories—and, by extension, to the reader's own techniques for experiencing (or not experiencing) reality. What others suffer, we may behold quite passively; but “The Displaced Person” suggests that the path to action also lies through (a reform of) vision. As O'Connor wrote to the poet Robert Lowell, “Prophecy is a matter of seeing, not saying, and is certainly the most terrible vocation” (Habit of Being 372).
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, 1968.
Fitzgerald, Robert. “The Countryside and the True Country.” Sewanee Review 10 (1962), 380-95.
Hartman, Geoffrey. “Public Memory and Its Discontents.” Raritan 13: 4 (Spring 1994): 24-40.
O'Connor, Flannery. “The Displaced Person.” The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, 1971. 194-235.
———. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, 1979.
———. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Sel. and ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, 1961.
———. Wise Blood. New York: Farrar, 1962.
Sloterdijk, Peter. Critique of Cynical Reason. Trans. Michael Eldred. Theory and History of Literature, v. 40. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.
Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York: Verso, 1989.
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Bandy, Stephen C. “‘One of My Babies’: The Misfit and the Grandmother.” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 1 (winter 1996): 107-17.
Contends that the message in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is subversive to the doctrines of grace and charity.
Blythe, Hal and Charlie Sweet. “O'Connor's ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find.’” Explicator 55, no. 1 (fall 1996): 49-51.
Discusses the Canterbury Tales as a source for “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
Carroll, Rachel. “Foreign Bodies: History and Trauma in Flannery O'Connor's ‘The Displaced Person.’” Textual Practice 14, no. 1 (2000): 97-114.
Examines the history of trauma in “The Displaced Person.”
Fike, Matthew. “The Timothy Allusion in ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find.’” Renascence 52, no. 4 (summer 2000): 311-21.
Considers the significance of O'Connor's biblical reference in the naming of the town Timothy in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
Gatta, John. “The Scarlet Letter as Pre-Text for Flannery O'Connor's ‘Good Country People.’” In Hawthorne and Women: Engendering and Expanding the Hawthorne Tradition, edited by John L. Idol Jr. and Melinda M. Ponder, pp. 271-77. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.
Investigates the influence of Hawthorne's work on O'Connor.
Johnson, Gregory R. “Pagan Virtue and Christian Charity: Flannery O'Connor on the Moral Contradictions of Western Culture.” In The Moral of the Story: Literature and Public Ethics, edited by Henry T. Edmondson III, pp. 237-53. New York: Lexington Books, 2001.
Explores the contradiction between the Western ideal of equality and the need for class structure in “Revelation.”
Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Action of Mercy.” Kenyon Review 20, no. 1 (winter 1998): 157-60.
Argues that beneath what seems to be a straight-forward story, O'Connor moves towards “an action of mercy.”
Owens, Mitchell. “The Function of Signature in ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find.’” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 1 (winter 1996): 101-06.
Analyzes the importance and function of the signature in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
Schiff, Jonathan. “‘That's a Greenleaf Bull’: Totemism and Exogamy in Flannery O'Connor's ‘Greenleaf.’” English Language Notes 32, no. 3 (March 1995): 69-76.
Investigates Freud's Totem and Taboo as a source for “Greenleaf.”
Sloan, Gary. “O'Connor's ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find.’” Explicator 57, no. 2 (winter 1999): 119-20.
Asserts that the character of the Misfit is actually a skeptic.
Additional coverage of O'Connor's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 2; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 7; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Yearbook, 1941-1968; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 3, 41; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 13, 15, 21, 66, 104; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 152; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vols. 12; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1980; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Modern American Women Writers; Novels for Students, Vol. 3; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 2, 7, 10; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 1, 23; Twayne's United States Authors; and World Literature Criticism.
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SOURCE: Raiger, Michael. “‘Large and Startling Figures’: The Grotesque and the Sublime in the Short Stories of Flannery O'Connor.” In Seeing into the Life of Things: Essays on Literature and Religious Experience, edited by John L. Mahoney, pp. 242-70. New York: Fordham University Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Raiger explores O'Connor's use of modern forms, particularly the grotesque and the sublime, in her short fiction.]
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
—Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God's Grandeur”
The author of “God's Grandeur” raises the central problem that would confront Flannery O'Connor in her fictional work: how to point out to an unapprehending soul the obvious fact that God is everywhere present to creation? However, unlike the great Jesuit poet of Romantic sensibility, hers was a language which did not call forth the beautiful as the image of God's grandeur. Rather, grace for Flannery O'Connor appears in the midst of an absence—a space cleared away by a subtracting imagination and by the compulsion to sin, which nevertheless cannot wholly obliterate God's perduring presence in creation. The example of Hopkins is instructive for understanding Flannery O'Connor, for it points, by way of similitude, to a difference of imaginative preoccupation which is largely determined by historical and cultural circumstances. We recall that Hopkins wrote his “terrible sonnets” in which the absence of God is also drawn in the grief-torn darkness of a soul tormented by searing reflection. But like the Psalms, Hopkins's poetry is divided into two forms of address to God: one in lamentation and suffering in the experience of absence; the other from an abundance of joy in the presence of God. In contrast, O'Connor's work is clearly monotone; the enjoyment of the natural as the sign of God's presence is completely foreign to her fictional writing.
The source of this difference lies with the audience of each, in regard to which O'Connor stated: “St. Augustine wrote that the things of the world pour forth from God in a double way: intellectually into the minds of the angels and physically into the world of things. To the person who believes this—as the Western world did up until a few centuries ago—this physical, sensible world is good because it proceeds from a divine source” (Mystery 157). The metaphysical principle of the analogy of being—that the Creator and created are bound through participation in the act of being, despite the chasm which separates them—serves as the conducting thread to which metaphor connects itself in charging the things of nature with the moving principle of God. With the rise of empiricism and the reign of the literal, this tenuous thread is severed. The poetry of Hopkins stands as a challenge, a strenuous effort to reclaim analogy on the dying embers of the Romantic symbol. Hopkins writes for an age in which the residue of the analogy of being still resonates with some readers just enough so that a poetics of the transcendent is possible.1 For the modern milieu in which Flannery O'Connor writes, this residue has been entirely covered over by the shimmering surface of the literal, and occluded by the arresting figure of scientism.2
Hopkins's “God's Grandeur” is illustrative of a further concern shared by O'Connor—of marking the paradox that although the world has been made barren by human sin, “for all this, nature is never spent.” In a letter written a year before she died, Flannery O'Connor lamented that Catholic critics, in seeking an “ideal intention” in her writing, failed to grasp “its sort of ‘inscape’ as Hopkins would have had it” (Habit 517). The peculiar form of O'Connor's “inscape” is shaped by a double difficulty, owing to the disjunction between her central preoccupation and the predisposition of her readers. O'Connor is concerned with revealing the moment of grace, the location of the “crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet” (Mystery 59). This amounts to representing the operation of grace, issuing from outside of nature, upon a soul deformed by sin, which is a privation, an absence of good. From the perspective of Thomistic epistemology in which knowledge begins in the senses,3 the crossroads at which grace and sin meet must be represented in figures of the sensible—a task of evoking a dual invisibility. It is a difficulty that, as O'Connor herself recognized, was made more difficult by the spirit of modernism, which is dead to both God and sin: “In any age this would be a problem, but in our own, it is a well-nigh insurmountable one” (Mystery 161). To the modern mind, both the “terrible sonnets” and the nature sonnets of Hopkins must be read as a form of psychological projection rather than address—both are unintelligible in their original intention as prayers of supplication and praise. This is the world in which Flannery O'Connor wrote.
The strategy O'Connor employed in confronting this difficulty is one of distortion: “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” Lacking the ability to assume, as the cognitive equipment shared by her readers (both Catholic and non-Catholic), an awareness of beauty as a sign of God's impress upon creation, and the recognition of the deformity of sin as the turning from God's grace, Flannery O'Connor opted for the language of extremity in summoning the forces of the supernatural to bear upon her literary creations.4 This essay is an attempt to trace the contours of her created figures, blasted by sin beyond the recognition of God's image, but nevertheless held in the superabundance of God's gift of being.
The concessions made to her readers do not of course entail an embrace of modernism. It is clear from Flannery O'Connor's prose writing that she was heavily influenced by Thomistic thought (most especially by the twentieth-century philosopher Jacques Maritain), both in her aesthetics and in her metaphysics. Despite the cultural rift that separates her from the aesthetic sensibility of a Hopkins, Flannery O'Connor remains in the tradition of an Aristotelian mimetic theory and an orthodox Christian hermeneutics. Her realism, founded upon a concern for the universal in human existence, is one in which art mirrors nature not as a mere copy, but in its essence. According to such a theory of imitation, the essential is disclosed in human action, thought, and intention, wherein character is revealed according to its nature. In this openness to human reality is found the key to self-knowledge: “It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around” (O'Connor, Mystery 35). And in her adherence to a traditional approach to reading Scripture, and by extension to other texts as well, O'Connor finds herself drinking from that same well of Thomistic thought.
The medieval commentators on Scripture found three kinds of meaning in the literal level of the sacred text: one they called allegorical, in which one fact pointed to another; one they called tropological, or moral, which had to do with what should be done; and one they called anagogical, which had to do with the Divine life and our participation in it. Although this was a method applied to biblical exegesis, it was also an attitude toward all of creation, and a way of reading nature which included most possibilities. …
(O'Connor, Mystery 72-73)5
The reading of Flannery O'Connor's short stories that I want to suggest is grounded upon a mingling of the traditional and the modern in which the mimetic form is employed to expose the deep spiritual fissures in modern life. The originality of Flannery O'Connor lies in her use of modern forms of poetic sensibility—the grotesque and the sublime—for ends that smash the modern idols of the empirical, the material, and the literal.
The short stories of Flannery O'Connor can be read according to the tropology of medieval biblical exegesis; as in Scripture, however, the significance of a given story is not always readily apparent. What impresses the reader immediately is the literal, and it is through attending to the literal that the tropological makes its appearance. The nature of the literal—the matter at hand—in the stories of Flannery O'Connor is the medium through which a further significance is evoked.6 The two dominant aspects under which the literal in O'Connor's short stories have been considered are that of (Southern) manners and the grotesque, with the latter receiving the far greater treatment. According to a tropological analysis, the grotesque as literal description opens upon the figurative—the grotesque in Flannery O'Connor's stories is both a literal rendering and a figural drawing.7
Flannery O'Connor's use of the grotesque has been interpreted in various ways, from reading the grotesque in the medieval tradition of Gothic aesthetics,8 to seeing the grotesque as a form of the Romantic Gothic,9 to a Bakhtinian analysis that considers the grotesque as a device of subversion,10 to a reading that sees O'Connor succumbing to a poetics of despair in an extreme misanthropic vision,11 to an interpretation that allies the grotesque with the devil's camp, with O'Connor herself as the chief archenemy.12 In my own view, Flannery O'Connor's use of the grotesque is original, falling into none of the more traditional uses of the grotesque. It is not a form of medieval aesthetics, or of Bakhtinian subversion, for the world-view in which both operated is not available for O'Connor—both assume among their readers a Christian idea of nature and its attending metaphors in order to carry out their aesthetic functions. Flannery O'Connor's is an art that lacks the sentimentality and sensibility of the Romantic Gothic—her grotesque is one not of feeling but of thought, not of fantasy but of reality. And the claims that O'Connor's realism merely holds the mirror to a surreal world, or, further, testifies to a Manichæan philosophy in which evil is a positive force coequal with the good, must take into account a tropological analysis that expands the horizon of the literal to meet with the figures that trace the outlines of metaphorical signification. It is the (in)stress that is placed upon the figure of the grotesque that marks it as bearing the form of spiritual signification.
The extreme situation is the location in which the grotesque encounters grace in O'Connor's short stories. The reason is stated by O'Connor in Mystery and Manners, by way of introduction to a public reading of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”: “Violence is a force which can be used for good or evil, and among other things taken by it is the kingdom of heaven. But regardless of what can be taken by it, the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him …” (133-34). In O'Connor's short stories, the grotesque is the shape of a soul in pursuit of an idol of its own making; the human will, obsessed with a limited good as an absolute value, is thereby revealed in the grotesque gesture. The grotesque, revelatory of the inner motions of the soul, is the shape of action formed by habit, and set in a cast of mind. As such, the grotesque marks out the space occupied by sin. The encounter with grace is represented through a vision of the sublime which suspends thought and action. The grotesque traces the contours of a soul made crooked by a will bent in all-consuming appetite; the vision of the sublime arrests this movement of the will, indicating the action of grace which is revelatory of both the limits of created nature and the immensity of the ultimate object of human desire. The grotesque as an allegorical figure fleshes out the image of the human soul in a state of sin; the sublime as a symbol of vast emptiness reveals created nature as an alien territory, in need of reclamation and renewal. These two literary figures together reveal the state of a reprobate spirit, a state that Coleridge defines as “God present without the manifestation of his presence” (235). The tropes of allegory and symbol draw a distorted icon through which a soul broken on the wreck of its own desires makes transparent the need of God.
The grotesque is made a remarkably powerful image in O'Connor's work, being the action of the story bearing a literal meaning, while at the same time performing the tropological function of allegory: the characters in her stories live on the literal plane, while functioning on the figurative. In this way, Hopkins's notion of “inscape” as an act of being merges with Aristotelian mimetic theory, disclosing an action with universal and essential significance. Out of the grotesque gesture arises the vision of the sublime, which in O'Connor's short stories functions according to the Burkean idea in which the feelings of awe, terror, and fear are caused by objects immense, powerful, and incomprehensible.13 The remarkable feat of O'Connor's craft lies in juxtaposing these two figures in such a way that the secret of their collaboration is disclosed, while maintaining the fundamental difference which separates the two.14 For the grotesque and the sublime alike find their ultimate significance in the spiritual realm: through a dialectical movement the sublime as the apprehension of the infinite marks the limit of the grotesque, which through a distortion of the natural shape aspires to break free from the limitations of created form.
The grotesque as the figure of a movement of the will issues in a sublime vision in the stories of Flannery O'Connor. There is a logic that determines the course of this movement—it is the logic of mercy. As we shall see, the character deformed by the grotesque is compelled by an internal logic to confront its own significance, and to arrive at the destination marked out by the spiritual course that has been followed. In the course of this movement, the soul is brought to the precipice of an emptiness of its own making, where its own self-fashioning is revealed as a destructive bent that carries a privation, a lack, spilling into the heart of being and clearing a space for the sublime vision. The vision of the sublime that is given marks the point at which nature and grace coalesce, marking a point of emptiness hollowed out by the movement of soul, but also disclosed as the nothingness that it has made itself. The response to this revelation marks the space in which free will operates, either continuing on its way into spiritual death, or away from its course toward spiritual life. Flannery O'Connor's short stories either find their end with a character suspended, like a figure in a cartoon, at the moment in which a free-fall into the abyss is apprehended, or dialectically pass over into the contemplation of a symbol that bridges the gap of the empty space disclosed. In both cases, the emptiness unveiled is marked by a mercy stern and severe, revelatory of the nothingness meaning death that was the fate of the soul distorted by sin.15 In what follows I will illustrate this dynamic movement through a reading of five stories that will serve to represent O'Connor's work as a whole.
The short story “Greenleaf” describes the shattering of a world dominated by a controlling will, which is the central mode of manifestation of the sublime in O'Connor's work. The story issues in the violent death of Mrs. May, a strong, domineering woman who runs her own farm; it plots the course of a will grotesquely distorted by rage—a rage bent on the destruction of its enemy, ironically succeeding only in an act of self-destruction. Mrs. May's fated death is brought about by a trespasser, a neighbor's bull, that is immediately seen as destructive, but also engendered with a strange positive sexual power. The paradoxical significance of the bull, and the various relations with men that complicate the plot of this story, deserves a closer reading than this essay permits, but the figure of the bull as a source of the sublime is throughout the story a controlling image.16 The bull is first apprehended by Mrs. May in a dream, but introduced to the reader by a gorgeously lush description of the bull's intruding presence: “Mrs. May's bedroom window was low and faced on the east and the bull, silvered in the moonlight, stood under it, his head raised as if he listened—like some patient god come down to woo her—for a stir inside the room” (O'Connor, CS [The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor] 311). The understated beauty of the entire opening scene is drawn in fragile hues that are surrounded by an impending dark, the contrast heightening the sense of both. This spare description in stark contrasts stands almost like a dream vision, interrupted, paradoxically, by the dream of Mrs. May which gives shape to an underlying fear while also ushering the reader into the literal world of the care and concerns of Mrs. May's everyday life:
She had been conscious in her sleep of a steady rhythmic chewing as if something were eating one wall of the house. She had been aware that whatever it was had been eating as long as she had had the place and had eaten everything from the beginning of her fence line up to the house and now was eating the house and calmly with the same steady rhythm would continue through the house, eating her and the boys, and then on, eating everything but the Greenleafs, on and on, eating everything until nothing was left but the Greenleafs on a little island all their own in the middle of what had been her place.
The bull, revealed later in the story to belong to these same Greenleafs, is a symbol of the destructive force of Mrs. May's own mind—the two Greenleaf boys' success underscores her deep dissatisfaction with her own two boys, and the comparison between the pairs is a constant source of misery that, like the bull, tears constantly at the edges of her mind. Thus, the moral contours of the story are disclosed in the subliminal fears of Mrs. May, which issue in a fear that is unknown, destructive—another key source of the sublime.
“Greenleaf,” as I have suggested, is a complicated story rich in its exploration of familial ties, issues of gender, and sexual relations. But the broad contours of O'Connor's concern in this story can be discerned in the maniacal pursuit of the bull by Mrs. May, disclosed finally as a demand for controlling superiority issuing in a gory and destructive end. The grotesque is not this final end, but the blind rage that grips Mrs. May as she seeks a man who is willing and able to satisfy her desire of removing the bull from her premises. The erotic is a theme that at all times lies just below the surface of the narrative, a source for Mrs. May of both attraction and fear: “The sun, moving over the black and white grazing cows, was just a little brighter than the rest of the sky. Looking down, she saw a darker shape that might have been its shadow cast at an angle, moving among them. She uttered a sharp cry and turned and marched out of the house” (O'Connor, CS 322). The presence of the bull serves to sublimate these repressed desires and fears in a struggle for the superiority of her sons over the Greenleaf boys, as the literal passes over into the metaphorical, disclosing the contorted shape of Mrs. May's love—for her sons, and for men in general. Though she is twisted by contempt for the failings of men, but with a need for a capable man who can bring her satisfaction, the trespass of the bull violates her own sense of superiority (which she secretly desires), and serves also as a glaring reminder of her sons' lack of manhood.
The final paragraph of this story is remarkable in its understated description that evokes the power of the sublime in its capacity to astonish. The view of Mr. Greenleaf—the father of the Greenleaf boys and her own hired hand—running to shoot the bull is seen through the eyes of Mrs. May, whose final vision appears to be burned on her retina and there viewed by the horrified reader:
She saw him approaching on the outside of some invisible circle, the tree line gaping behind him and nothing under his feet. He shot the bull four times through the eye. She did not hear the shots but she felt the quake in the huge body as it sank, pulling her forward on its head, so that she seemed, when Mr. Greenleaf reached her, to be bending over whispering some last discovery into the animal's ear.
(O'Connor, CS 333-34)
The gesture of a lover whispering in the ear of a beloved consummates and completes the image introduced in the opening paragraph of the story, as the grotesque passes over into the sublime in the emptying-out of a love that is seared through with contempt and hatred.
The moment of grace, perceived at the moment in which Mrs. May (willingly) receives the thrust of the bull's horn into her body, lies on the horizon of vision in which the opacity of the bull's corporal existence is made transparent in the symbol of an empty landscape: “She continued to stare straight ahead but the entire scene in front of her had changed—the tree line was a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky—and she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable” (O'Connor, CS 333). The empty landscape, under the aspect of the sublime, mirrors the paradox of Mrs. May's grotesque passion: that her raging love has been satisfied in that which she had hated, and that the destruction of this hated object marks the emptying-out of her own love. Whether this marks a purification of her love, or its final consummation in self-destruction, is a question that is forever sealed in the ambiguous vision of a landscape emptied of literal significance, pointing to the invisible realm of the eternal. This final vision, the natural result of Mrs. May's own frenzied pursuit, is equally one of revelation that issues from outside—the light of self-knowledge seen on the backdrop of the eternal.
The strange eroticism of “Greenleaf” traces the outline of a desire contorted into the grotesque figure, leading to a vision of landscape which is emptied into the nothingness of space. The movement which leads to this line of vision of the eternal is the inverse of an erotic of the beautiful (which finds its roots in Plato's Phaedrus) that follows a path of love from the sensible to the spiritual, thereby revealing a continuity between the human and the divine through sublimation of the physical. Flannery O'Connor's sublime eroticism issues not in a vision of beauty in consort with the good, but of the grotesque in league with the privation of good. Whereas the desire of the beautiful is the sign of a plenitude of being, the sublime signifies the emptiness of a desire for nothingness. This privation erupts from within nature as a space emptied by the movement of the human soul, making way for the advent of grace, and revealing the deformity of the soul in need of being made whole. The dialectic of the beautiful and the good in an inverted form, this movement of the grotesque through the sublime culminates in a vision that subtracts from the natural and goes beyond it to the supernatural, through a sublimation that is a condescension of mercy rather than an upward movement of virtue. The great paradox of this spiritual terrain is that the destination arrived at is the same; the mystery of grace is that both paths can lead to God, through sanctification, or purgation.17
The path of amorous fantasy leads to God in the short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” This amorous passion, wishing to be recaptured in memory and relived again by the grandmother, is the engine that drives this story to its violent conclusion. All roads, it would seem, lead to the meeting with “The Misfit,” whose face is seen in the newspaper by the grandmother and her son, where they read that he is headed to Florida, the destination of the family's vacation. Warning her son of the irresponsibility of taking the family where they might meet with the escaped killer, the grandmother attempts to coax her son into visiting Tennessee and the place of her youth. It is this desire, ironically, that leads the family to their fateful encounter with the Misfit. The symbols of the landscape in this story are the key to understanding the movement through the sensibility of romance—an amorous self-love—to the final moment of grace which issues in the pouring forth of unselfish love.
On the road to Florida, just “[o]utside of Toombsboro,” the grandmother in regret and wishful longing chatters about
an old plantation that she had visited in this neighborhood once when she was a young lady. She said the house had six white columns across the front and that there was an avenue of oaks leading up to it and two little wooden trellis arbors on either side in front where you sat down with your suitor after a stroll in the garden. She recalled exactly which road to turn off to get to it. She knew that Bailey would not be willing to lose any time looking at an old house, but the more she talked about it, the more she wanted to see it once again and find out if the little twin arbors were still standing.
(O'Connor, CS 123)
The significance of this passage lies in its pastoral delicacy framed around the harsh and hardened relations of the family. This reminiscence is full and clear despite its idyllic outline, whereas the silence of her son Bailey and his wife point out the vacuity of the normal everyday life of this family, whose relationships are drawn with an underlying tension throughout. The lack of love stands as the norm, evoked in a realism of negativity, whereas the ideal as escape is a romantic remembrance waiting to be repossessed.
The images of “an avenue of oaks” and the “two little wooden trellis arbors” line the route of romantic fantasy, symbols of a love unrealized in the grandmother's life. After convincing her son, through a ruse which sends the children into wild demands to see the plantation, to make the turn down a dirt path for a visit, the landscape of trees begins to take on an ominous aspect as the road becomes dangerous: “All at once they would be on a hill, looking down over the blue tops of trees for miles around, then the next minute, they would be in a red depression with the dust-coated trees looking down on them” (O'Connor, CS 124). It is, literally and figuratively, a road to nowhere, a road to death. The grandmother's spastic response when she realizes that the house that she remembered was not in Georgia but in Tennessee sends her cat (hidden in her basket against her son's wishes) into a panic, leaping upon Bailey's shoulders and precipitating a terrible accident. The car turns over once and lands right side up, and the dust clears with no one critically injured. The view from where they stand, however, is fraught with meaning: “Behind the ditch they were sitting in there were more woods, tall and dark and deep” (O'Connor, CS 125). The next sentence unfolds the impending doom in measured cadence: “In a few minutes they saw a car some distance away on top of a hill, coming slowly as if the occupants were watching them” (O'Connor, CS 125). The occupants of the car will shortly become the family's murderers; the woods, the location of their murder. In this brief moment, an error, trivial in itself, is disclosed as a judgment of life and death. As the twin arbors which symbolized a longed-for love become the dark woods of death, the path the grandmother has chosen is revealed in its moral contours, as the distorted image of a love which should have been found, but was lacking, in the family.
The extremity of the family's situation, in which they begin to realize that they are to be murdered by The Misfit and his crew, is in actuality a grace-given one. The sudden nobility of the wife, entirely absent as a human person up to this moment, the tenderness displayed by Bailey toward his mother and his son, and the small but clear signs of concern for each other are in sharp contrast to their everyday relations. But it is in the line of vision of the grandmother that the symbol of this grace is revealed. The conversation which takes place between The Misfit and the grandmother as the family is executed one by one in the woods cannot be paraphrased or reduced to a statement, with its discussion of Christology and redemption, sin and punishment, at intervals interrupted by the sound of pistol shots. But if The Misfit is a figure of the grotesque, then so are the contorted moral absolutions of The Misfit by the grandmother as she pleads vainly for her life. And this is consistent with the way the grandmother has acted up to this point—selfish even in her attentions to others, and interested in her own narrow concerns and gratifications. But it is the one act of love shown toward the Misfit that seals her own death—“She saw the man's face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, ‘Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!’ She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest” (O'Connor, CS 132).
The preparation for this gratuitous act was the grandmother's isolation, seen in a vision that subtracts everything from the landscape of her surroundings but the trees, transformed from the idyllic arbor into a wood emptied of all human significance: “Alone with The Misfit, the grandmother found that she had lost her voice. There was not a cloud in the sky nor any sun. There was nothing around her but woods” (O'Connor, CS 131). The sublime subverts the tree metaphors which line the route to this final end in death, revealing the emptiness of amorous love, and disclosing the nature of genuine love as a gratuitous gift called forth out of the inner resources of the self. The moment of grace in this story, astonishing because it is an act which makes a break from the former self in being completely neglectful of self, is reached by a subtraction that leaves the soul alone in a landscape emptied of human ties, in which death to the self is seen and embraced in an act of merciful charity.18 The scene in which the grandmother lies dead describes a true return to her youth, where pure love in a self-emptying gesture, rather than the illusory love of ideal romance, is attained in all its innocence: “Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child's and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky” (O'Connor, CS 132). The smile on the face of the grandmother marks a victory over the grotesque in which the sublime is passed through to the reception of grace in a gratuitous act of love.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” stands at the transitional phase of my study, marking the point where the sublime passes over into a positive symbol in which grace coheres. The image of the grandmother in the final scene is an icon of Flannery O'Connor's idea of grace through the sublime, an icon which through its sheer force of violence smashes the idols of self-love and sentimental longing. The iconic image here is still of an empty sky in the eyes of dead women—a vision, indicated but not presented to the reader, of grace received but not fully manifested. The icon remains in the ambit of the sublime, suspended in an opaque negativity and emptiness, rather than attaining the transparency of the symbol that is the window through to the spiritual. The masterful short story “The Artificial Nigger” presents this line of movement through the grotesque to the sublime, but passes through it to a positive image given in a symbol of grace.
The story is one of moral discovery and enlightenment which shatters the idol of pride. A trip to the city is planned in which Mr. Head proposes to show his grandson Nelson “everything there is to see in the city so that he would be content to stay at home for the rest of his life” (O'Connor, CS 251). In Mr. Head's attempt to provide Nelson with a moral lesson, he is revealed as a man content in his own knowledge, thinking that “only with years does a man enter into that calm understanding of life that makes him a suitable guide for the young” (O'Connor, CS 249). Mr. Head's attitude is one that is rooted in tremendous pride: “his physical reactions, like his moral ones, were guided by his will and strong character, and these could be seen plainly in his features” (O'Connor, CS 249). Mr. Head's moral superiority is not one of reflection upon his strengths and weaknesses, but upon an assurance of self-reliance, an instinct of action completely unquestioned. The trip to the city for Nelson holds the promise of asserting his own independence, thereby establishing the line of conflict between Mr. Head and Nelson as a battle of wills.
Like Vergil for Dante, Mr. Head is leading Nelson into hell. The question that O'Connor raises with this comparison is whether, like Vergil, Mr. Head is capable of leading his charge into hell and out again. But Mr. Head considers himself without fault, and, as such, his conception of the evil of the city is seen through a narrow vision of sin, judged in accord with his own conception of himself as upright. In Mr. Head's view, the city is one of empty vanity, of sinful temptation, which must be seen and then rejected.19 Mr. Head's strategy of acquainting Nelson with evil reveals his ignorance of the city (a sign of his own rigid and narrow moral knowledge), guarded like a secret to be kept from Nelson: “He thought that if he could keep the dome always in sight, he would be able to get back in the afternoon to catch the train again” (O'Connor, CS 258). Mr. Head's attempt to hide his ignorance from Nelson contrasts with the stately aura that surrounds Mr. Head at his home in the country, where the light of the moon “cast a dignifying light on everything” (O'Connor, CS 249). Mr. Head's figure is only partially disclosed in this surreal setting: “His eyes were alert but quiet, and in the miraculous moonlight they had a look of composure and of ancient wisdom as if they belonged to one of the great guides of men” (O'Connor, CS 249-50). At home alone Mr. Head exudes a quiet confidence; under the stress of city life which places him in proximity with others—under conditions which call for moral action—Mr. Head's narrow moral vision is disclosed. Mr. Head's reliance upon an external landmark, rather than his own (limited) experience, is an emblem for the unreliability of his own moral compass—an empty shell of vain pride rather than genuine moral fortitude.
The symbol of evil for Mr. Head is the city's sewer system, shown to Nelson in an unforgettable scene of both high comedy and high seriousness. Nelson, enamored of the novelty and excitement of the city, announces his pleasure in it by identifying it as his birthplace. Mr. Head, appalled by this claim, sticks Nelson's head down into the dark sewer—“an endless pitchblack tunnel” (O'Connor, CS 250)—and explains its inner workings and its secret designs: “At any minute any man in the city might be sucked into the sewer and never heard from again. He described it so well that Nelson was for some seconds shaken” (O'Connor, CS 259). The sewer, an image of sublimity in its dark and destructive aspect, is a metaphor for the mechanics of sin in Mr. Head's mind, where once a man falls, he is taken into the depths of hell without light, never to return. Nelson's claim to the possibility of avoiding this fate—“‘Yes, but you can stay away from the holes’” (O'Connor, CS 259)—defines both Nelson's and Mr. Head's attitude of self-confidence, in that they both think themselves exempt from the possibility of falling. Thus, the sin of pride is a badge of honor that each wears in a sign of superiority; it is what blinds them both to the true nature of sin's origin, which lies not in the weakness of the will in overcoming temptation but in the false pride that masquerades as strength and self-reliance.
The dome of the train station is the compass on Mr. Head's map of the city, and when it disappears from sight, so do Mr. Head's bearings—it is a loss of moral orientation that will lead Mr. Head himself into the terrain of evil. Although now lost, Mr. Head maintains an appearance of self-assurance, while Nelson, tacitly admitting his disorientation, asks for directions from a voluptuous black woman—a symbol for Nelson of sexual awakening and longing for the maternal, emerging as a confrontation of his own fears in which “He felt as if he were reeling down through a pitchblack tunnel” (O'Connor, CS 262). Tired, hungry, and becoming more aware of his dependence on his grandfather, Nelson collapses on the sidewalk in sleep. At this point, the abominable shape of Mr. Head's pride manifests itself as he hides from Nelson; Mr. Head, under the false pretense of teaching the boy a lesson, assumes complete ascendancy by humiliating the boy, placing Nelson in a position of utter abjection. Waking to find himself abandoned, the boy is thrown into a panic in which he bolts down a crowded street, and runs into a woman who threatens to sue Nelson's guardian for the injury caused her. As Nelson turns to Mr. Head for support and protection—the position in which Mr. Head hoped to force Nelson—Mr. Head denies him. The scene is one of great pathos, ironically leading Mr. Head not into the exultation of victory he had imagined, but into bitter shame. His monstrous pride is herein revealed in its grotesque form, as those who witness the scene recoil from Mr. Head. “The women dropped back, staring at him with horror, as if they were so repulsed by a man who would deny his own image and likeness that they could not bear to lay hands on him. Mr. Head walked on, through a space they silently cleared, and left Nelson behind. Ahead of him he saw nothing but a hollow tunnel that had once been the street” (O'Connor, CS 265).
Revealed in his deformity, Mr. Head feels the shame of sin as an abdication of the responsibility which he bore in pride, but failed to bear in humility out of love for his grandson. Although they wander now out of the squalor of the inner city and into the affluent suburbs, the hell that Mr. Head has made is carried within him. The emptiness that opens around him is the genuine hell of the soul consumed by pride unable to find forgiveness. It is the emptiness of despair: “The old man felt that if he saw a sewer entrance he would drop down into it and let himself be carried away; and he could imagine the boy standing by, watching with only slight interest, while he disappeared” (O'Connor, CS 267). The sewer as a symbol of sin is now seen to be one that is entered by choice, rather than through moral failing: it is the deliberate choosing of the darkness to cover one's shame. Mr. Head's victory has been an ironic one: his own superiority over Nelson affirmed at the moment when he renounces his kinship with his own grandson. His victory of pride has been the loss of the boy as his sole love in the world.20 Superiority and shame are here portrayed as the two faces of pride bent upon total isolation: it is the will to remain aloof and alone at all costs, the former disclosed in false exaltation by degrading others, the latter in the avoidance of all human contact from fear of being judged as guilty.
However, the seeds of transformation come with the realization that if left in the city overnight they will be beaten and robbed, bringing on humility through a genuine concern for the boy's safety, not his own. “The speed of God's justice was only what he expected for himself, but he could not stand to think that his sins would be visited upon Nelson, and that even now, he was leading the boy to his doom” (O'Connor, CS 266). For Nelson's sake, Mr. Head admits his own ignorance by pleading for directions (thus reversing the roles each played when lost in the inner city), his plaintive cry an admission of guilt before humans and God: “‘I'm lost and can't find my way and me and this boy have got to catch this train and I can't find the station. Oh Gawd I'm lost! Oh hep me Gawd I'm lost!’” (O'Connor, CS 267). Mr. Head's admission of ignorance and moral failure is at bottom a loving attempt to reclaim Nelson, whose “mind had frozen around his grandfather's treachery as if he were trying to preserve it intact to present at the final judgment” (O'Connor, CS 267). Having rejected the temptation to cover his shame in the darkness of the sewer, Mr. Head emerges on the path of humility, in the hopeful turning from despair by the clear admission of guilt; it is the sole act of courage and moral integrity performed by Mr. Head in this story.
The providential meeting of Mr. Head and Nelson with the “artificial Negro”—a statue that adorns the lawns of the wealthy all over the South in a grotesque gesture of vicarious bigotry—signals a passageway through the emptiness of despair and into forgiveness. The statue, symbolizing the deformity of pride masked in veiled condescension together with a sense of base abjectness, coalesces for Mr. Head and Nelson as a representation of their own sin: “It was not possible to tell if the artificial Negro were meant to be young or old; he looked too miserable to be either. He was meant to look happy because his mouth was stretched up at the corners but the chipped eye and the angle he was cocked at gave him a wild look of misery instead” (O'Connor, CS 268). The contradiction of the supposed happiness and the actual misery inscribed upon the statue reveals the paradox of grace as it attends upon the suffering of sin. “They stood gazing at the artificial Negro as if they were faced with some great mystery, some monument to another's victory that brought them both together in their common defeat. They could both feel it dissolving their differences like an action of mercy” (O'Connor, CS 269). The way out of the hell of despair is thus revealed in the forgiveness of sins, a truth that Mr. Head in his pride had failed before to grasp. Mr. Head's comment, one which Nelson looks to his grandfather to supply, is one of deep insight into the profoundly destructive effects of his own sin: “‘They ain't got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one.’” The comment is not, as some have argued, the perpetuation of a bigoted attitude in Mr. Head,21 but its renunciation: he realizes in the blighted statue (a substitute slave for a post-abolitionist South) the effect of racism as the effacement of personality, both for the perpetrator and for the sufferer of racist hatred. Mr. Head finally speaks wisely, from the depths of a moral wisdom gained through suffering the effects of his own sin. It is through placing himself under its judgment that Mr. Head comes to see himself represented in the statue as the perpetrator of its misery, thereby admitting his complicity.
As Mr. Head's moral map is adjusted now to conform to the true lay of the moral landscape, his moral compass leads the two back home by the direction of humility rather than pride. Following the parallel ascent of The Divine Comedy suggested at the outset of this story, we see the outline of the moral terrain figured in the grotesque and the sublime, both symbols first of spiritual death then transformed into symbols of mercy. The prideful will of Mr. Head marks the lines of the grotesque, leading to a descent into hell, a dark vortex of sublime power and depth. In the suffering aspect of the statue in which pride effaces humanity, the mirror is held to the deformity of hatred. In the accepting of this representation as true the springs of mercy are on display; in the embrace of humility, divine mercy is released. The sublime as the descent into the harrowing hell of despair is revealed as a purgation in which pride is burned away in the self-knowledge of Mr. Head's own sin. The sublime image of the sewer as the prison of sin is hereby transformed from a perpetual hell into a purgatorial passageway, as humility replaces pride, and mercy liberates the soul, allowing for a vision of suffering as a way out of the darkness of despair. The statue of “the artificial Negro,” seen as a symbol of God's regenerative grace, restores all to a common humanity—all fallen, but all capable of forgiveness.
The general movement through the grotesque to the sublime has been charted in this study as an arc toward a vision of God's grace through the purgative action of mercy. This ascending arc has traced the lines of an iconoclastic iconography that shatters the flattened and opaque texture of human existence, revealing behind it a world of spirit in the space cleared by the human will. In “The Artificial Nigger” we find a positive symbol of the grace that, in the stories previously considered, has been intimated as a condescension coming to meet the soul. In the short story “Revelation” we follow this arc to a vision of the glory of God revealed in the ascent of souls into heaven. As such, “Revelation” concludes my study of Flannery O'Connor's short stories, for it contains in miniature the movement to a given representation of God's grace through the subtraction of all that is of a creaturely nature, thereby revealing in microcosm the entire scope of her literary project. “Revelation” fills the empty space that in other O'Connor stories can be seen as a window to the eternal, not yet given as an object in visual representation.
Like other O'Connor characters, Mrs. Turpin, the main subject of the story, is an allegory in flesh of the sin of pride, the root of all sin. Her thoughts are frequently directed to the classification of human beings into a hierarchical scheme. The complexity of her classification system is problematized in her mind by the impossibility of deciding precisely how the ordering should go, for there is a mingling of blood, race, and money—the three keys to her system—which upsets the easy classification of all humanity into types. The grotesque shape of this ordering is revealed in a leveling nightmare image that looks forward to the final revelation, but as its distorted and debased opposite: “Usually by the time she had fallen asleep all the classes of people were moiling and roiling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed in together in a box car, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven” (O'Connor, CS 492). Mrs. Turpin's classification system is driven by bigotry, self-satisfaction, and a condescension masquerading as false charity, given voice in an unconsciously parodic hymn of supplication issuing in thanksgiving to God: “‘… Make me a good woman and it don't matter what else, how fat or how ugly or how poor!’ Her heart rose. He had not made her a nigger or white-trash or ugly! He had made her herself and given her a little of everything. Jesus, thank you! she said. Thank you thank you thank you!” (O'Connor, CS 497).
These thoughts occupy Mrs. Turpin in the doctor's office as she considers and classifies the various people in the waiting room. As her thoughts are revealed in the conversation which unfolds, one of those seated there, Mary Grace, is alone in recognizing Mrs. Turpin's patronizing beneficence. Both her name and the aspect of her gaze reveal Mary Grace as possessed of a peculiar form of discernment, as her “eyes seemed lit all of a sudden with a peculiar light, an unnatural light” (O'Connor, CS 492), with her knowledge extending beyond the scope of her own experience, “looking at her as if she had known and disliked her all her life—all of Mrs. Turpin's life, it seemed too, not just all the girl's life” (O'Connor, CS 495). As she hurls her Human Development book and leaps at Mrs. Turpin, seizing her by the throat, Mary Grace discloses the grotesqueness of Mrs. Turpin's soul. Mary Grace's hold on her throat is a hold on Mrs. Turpin's entire being; thus ensnared, she seeks a revelation that might release her from the grip of terror:
The girl raised her head. Her gaze locked with Mrs. Turpin's. “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” she whispered. Her voice was low but clear. Her eyes burned for a moment as if she saw with pleasure that her message had struck its target.
(O'Connor, CS 500)
Mrs. Turpin, in recognizing the truth of Mary Grace's startling charge, reveals an integrity that issues in self-examination. But in her moment of recognition, she rebels against making a full confession of guilt. Unable to avoid the truth, but unable to accept its full force, Mrs. Turpin enters into an exercise of self-examination that discloses the form of her soul in the figure of the grotesque. No longer in thanksgiving but in wrath and with a sense of having suffered injustice, Mrs. Turpin rages against the God who has made her what she is: “‘What do you send me a message like that for?’” she said in a low fierce voice, barely above a whisper but with the force of a shout in its concentrated fury. “‘How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?’” (O'Connor, CS 506) In the figure of the hog and human combined, the classical form of the grotesque is employed—a hybrid creature of debased physicality revealing an underlying spiritual corruption.
Mrs. Turpin's rage against God overturns her self-satisfied piety, replacing it with a fury that meets the fury of the revelatory charge made against her. The struggle of Mrs. Turpin's will against full self-realization of the true state of her soul becomes a struggle against the grace of God's mercy—the violent and undeniable dawning of self-knowledge which shatters the idol of self-righteousness. This struggle is drawn in the allegorical signification of the hogs on her farm internalized as a form of self-knowledge, and in the landscape of the sublime, seen through its emptiness to a revelation of God's saving grace. In finally accepting the appellation, Mrs. Turpin realizes, perhaps dimly, the altered state of hierarchy entailed by her revelation: “‘Go on,’ she yelled, ‘call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell. Put that bottom rail on top. There'll still be a top and bottom!’” (O'Connor, CS 507). The fragility of her life is disclosed in a vision of sublime apprehension in which human activity appears always on the verge of destruction: “A tiny truck, Claud's, appeared on the highway, leading rapidly out of sight. Its gears scraped thinly. It looked like a child's toy. At any moment a bigger truck might smash into it and scatter Claud's and the niggers' brains all over the road” (O'Connor, CS 508). This prepares the way for the moment of the grotesque to be purged by God's redemptive action, disclosed in Mrs. Turpin's contemplation of the hogs after she has cleaned them down in a scene in which her rage becomes directed at them: “Then like a monumental statue coming to life, she bent her head slowly and gazed, as if through the very heart of mystery, down into the pig parlor at the hogs. They had settled all in one corner around the old sow who was grunting softly. A red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant with a secret life” (O'Connor, CS 508). In this vision the realization that all are in need of God's cleansing power is revealed as the secret life that unites all in their grotesque uncleanness. Her gaze returns to the landscape, a sublime symbol of vacuity, mingled with profound beauty that is unrecognized by Mrs. Turpin in her self-absorbed reflection: “Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin remained there with her gaze bent to them as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge. At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of highway, into the descending dusk” (O'Connor, CS 508).
The final vision of souls on their way to heaven, seen through the transparency of the empty landscape, subverts the inverted horror of base materiality (Mrs. Turpin's standard for judging divine merit) disclosed in the dream vision of limbs mingled and shipped to be gassed, thereby subverting Mrs. Turpin's own spiritual hierarchy. The looks on the souls as they march to heaven disclose the wonder of God's grace, and the source of sin in pride that is in need of being purged: “Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away” (O'Connor, CS 508). Forced into facing her pride in the form of the grotesque, and purged of the illusory notion of the hierarchy of souls in God's divine order, Mrs. Turpin hears in the closing scene the true sound of praise, not in the false notes of condescension and disguised superiority, but in charity and thanksgiving for a mercy that none deserve: “In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah” (O'Connor, CS 509).
In this essay I have attempted to trace in the figures of the grotesque and the sublime the tropology of grace in a number of short stories of Flannery O'Connor. The originality of O'Connor's use of the grotesque appears in its deployment as a literary figure in proximity to the sublime, and in the context of a hermeneutic that is scripturally determined. The grotesque is the shape of the soul, seen as an action with moral significance. The grotesque in Flannery O'Connor's work is sin reduced to its essential form in pride; the grotesque is the idol of pride, the distortion of the soul in its transgression against its own natural form; it is the creature in its limitations attempting to become a god. The sublime is the death mask of the grotesque, a form emptied into a negation that discloses the ultimate aim of a soul distorted beyond recognition by sin. The sublime as a rupture in the world bursts forth from within the limited as a raging point from the very heart of a controlling will. The very effort of such a will releases a violent energy that shatters the surface of the literal and exposes the horizon of eternity. This is the point at which spirit intrudes upon the narrative, met by the overshadowing power of grace. It is in this point of energy that the idols of human construction are shattered; it is in the aspect of this violent gesture that an apocalyptic iconography is drawn.
Flannery O'Connor's work is allegorical not as an abstraction of moral character personified, but in the scriptural sense, as the literal disclosed symbolically through the grotesque and the anagogical revealed negatively through the sublime. It is allegory stretched to reveal the tension between the will and grace, wherein grace goes to all lengths to confront the will and lead it back to itself in God. It is in this dynamic interplay between the grotesque and the sublime that the lines of spiritual significance are disclosed in Flannery O'Connor's work, releasing an original and powerful form of creative energy that stamps the mark of the allegorical upon the landscape of the literal, and the significance of the eschatological upon the form of the concrete.22 In a talk just a year and half before she died, Flannery O'Connor stated that “the real novelist, one with an instinct for what he is about, knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural human world as it is. The more sacramental his theology, the more encouragement he will get from it to do just that” (Mystery 163). It is in the lines of the figurative made real, and the symbolic issuing from the core of the concrete, that Flannery O'Connor's sacramental vision is revealed.23 For an age which does not recognize the natural as a sign of God's glory or the soul as the image of God, but deifies both in grotesque forms of self-adulation, the sacramental must appear as a perfection, but first through subtraction of imperfection. At bottom, Flannery O'Connor's vision is informed by the Incarnation. In the words of her greatest figure of personified evil, The Misfit: “He [Jesus] thrown everything off balance” (O'Connor, CS 132). In a world in which the grotesque has become the norm, “large and startling figures” must be drawn in order to put things in their proper perspective. For Flannery O'Connor, “it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. … The resurrection of Christ seems the high point in the law of nature …” (O'Connor, Habit 100). Even with the focus on sin and spiritual death, the center of Flannery O'Connor's aesthetic vision lies in this: that although the human will is bent on self-destruction, in the emptying of nature of all spiritual significance, nevertheless redemption is possible, “Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
The idea of the eclipse of analogy by the rhetoric of the literal was first suggested to me in discussions with Blanford Parker on Augustan culture and its philosophical and religious preoccupations. The phrase “the eclipse of analogy,” an especially felicitous phrase that describes the ascendancy of the literal over the metaphorical, is from a study that Parker has recently completed on Augustan poetry. See Blanford Parker, The Triumph of Augustan Poetics: English Poetry from Butler to Johnson.
My argument that Flannery O'Connor's negative method of representing God's grace is wholly determined by the presuppositions of her readership has been vigorously opposed by various critics. See, e.g., Martha Stevens, The Question of Flannery O'Connor, for the argument that O'Connor's religious sensibility is of an entirely otherworldly nature, issuing in a “constant injunction to renunciation of the world” (4), in effect arguing that O'Connor denies the efficacy of Christ's Incarnation. While I disagree with this position, there is evidence that O'Connor did not share with Hopkins a Romantic religious sensibility, as a passage from her letters attests: “In some pious writers there is a lot about the Church being the bride of Christ. This kind of metaphor may have helped that age to get a picture of a certain reality; it fails to help most of us. The metaphor can be dispensed with.” See Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being, 369. On the other hand, O'Connor also sensed the limits of her own approach: “I have got to the point now where I keep thinking more and more about the presentation of love and charity, or better call it grace, as love suggests tenderness, whereas grace can be violent or would have to be to compete with the kind of evil I can make concrete. At the same time, I keep seeing Elias in that cave, waiting to hear the voice of the Lord in the thunder and lightning and wind, and only hearing it finally in the gentle breeze, and I feel I'll have to be able to do that sooner or later, or anyway keep trying. …” See Habit 373. These two passages, written three weeks apart, suggest that although Flannery O'Connor tended to see the operation of grace as violent rather than comforting, it did not completely obscure her aesthetic vision from the possibility of seeing the natural as a positive sign of God's grace. If the shape of her art was bent into the grotesque, it was due to the dictates of a mimetic art concerned with representing the modern age, rather than issuing from the form of her faith or the shape of her mind and heart. And it is a further loss to us that she did not live to attempt such a representation.
For a brief summary of how Thomistic epistemology informs Flannery O'Connor's understanding of the dynamic between the senses and the understanding with special emphasis on the relation between reason and faith, see Sura P. Rath, “Ruby Turpin's Redemption: Thomistic Resolution in Flannery O'Connor's ‘Revelation.’” My essay might be seen, by way of a tropological analysis employing the literary form of analogy as a mode of knowledge, to suggest a resolution to the problems that Rath imputes to Flannery O'Connor's dramatic presentation of the operations of grace. The idea of metaphor as a form of knowledge is explored with great insight in Edward Kessler, Flannery O'Connor and the Language of Apocalypse, where argument is made that O'Connor's violent use of “metaphors constitute verbal strategies for engaging the unknown, for making what Eliot called ‘raids on the inarticulate.’”
Frederick Asals first employed the word “extremity” as a term suggesting that the grotesque in O'Connor's work was employed in a prophetic vision of distortion that maintained an indissoluble tension between the comic and the terrifying. See Frederick Asals, Flannery O'Connor: The Imagination of Extremity. For a discussion that places O'Connor in a tradition of employing the grotesque as an exaggerated attempt to reveal the horror of sin, see Linda Schlafer, “Pilgrims of the Absolute: Léon Bloy and Flannery O'Connor.”
For a discussion of how a biblical interpretation of history, and the Thomistic metaphysical principle of analogy, inform Flannery O'Connor's work, see John F. Desmond, Risen Sons: Flannery O'Connor's Vision of History.
“In fact, O'Connor had little quarrel with allegory. She disliked it only when it reduced characters to abstractions because she believed that good fiction is scrupulously attentive to particular characters in specific settings.” See J. Robert Baker, “Flannery O'Connor's Four-Fold Method of Allegory.”
Perhaps the first proponent of this type of tropological reading can be found in David Eggenschwiler, The Christian Humanism of Flannery O'Connor.
See Gilbert H. Muller, Nightmares and Visions: Flannery O'Connor and the Catholic Grotesque.
See Ronald Schleifer, “Rural Gothic: The Stories of Flannery O'Connor.”
See Marshall Bruce Gentry, Flannery O'Connor's Religion of the Grotesque; Anthony DiRenzo, American Gargoyles: Flannery O'Connor and the Medieval Grotesque.
See André Bleikasten, “The Heresy of Flannery O'Connor”; Irving Malin, “Flannery O'Connor and the Grotesque.”
See John Hawkes, “Flannery O'Connor's Devil”; Claire Katz, “Flannery O'Connor's Rage of Vision.”
Flannery O'Connor's use of the sublime follows Burke's formula of locating the source of the sublime in the terrible, inducing a fear “which effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning. …” See Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful 57. The sublime for O'Connor is a modern form of catharsis which reduces her characters to their essential natures in the confrontation with an overwhelming power. In the spiritual negation which is the milieu of modernity, terrifying emptiness replaces spiritual damnation: “the world loses altogether its spiritual contour, nothing is worth doing, the fear is of a terrifying emptiness, a kind of vertigo, or even a fracturing of our world and body-space.” See Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity 18.
“The reader is always to keep in mind that if the objects of horror in which the terrible grotesque finds its materials, were contemplated in their true light, and with the entire energy of the soul, they would cease to be grotesque, and become altogether sublime; and that therefore it is some shortening of the power, or the will, of contemplation, and some consequent distortion of the terrible image in which the grotesqueness consists.” See John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice 150. My analysis of the grotesque owes a great debt to Ruskin's morally informed aesthetics; readers acquainted with Ruskin will recognize in my arguments a defense of O'Connor's use of the grotesque as falling under the categories of the true and noble grotesque. The element of mercy, so central to Ruskin's understanding of the true and noble grotesque, is a crucial aspect of O'Connor's employment of that tropological figure.
This is the sublime under the aspect of sin. It is a premodern exploitation of the thoroughly modern notion of the sublime, a symbol of barren emptiness, an “object ‘wanting in form or figure’” issuing in the idea of “‘anti-nature,’” as Lyotard puts it in his work on the modernity of Kant's idea of the sublime in the Critique of Judgment. See Jean-François Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime 183.
“A bull is strong too; but his strength is of another kind [from the ox]; often very destructive, seldom (at least amongst us) of any use in our business; the idea of a bull is therefore great, and it has frequently a place in sublime descriptions, and elevating comparisons.” See Burke, Enquiry 65. The source of conflict in this story arises from the scrub bull's presence on her farm, symbolizing what Mrs. May sees as a destructive capacity for engendering life by insemination of her cows, while at the same time being a reminder of her own boys' manly impotence and failure relative to the Greenleafs.
“The dynamics of guilt, with its need to repent and repay for sin, describe the problem of love in negative terms.” See Richard Giannone, Flannery O'Connor and the Mystery of Love 5. Giannone's study is a powerfully persuasive reclamation of Flannery O'Connor's artistic vision from the criticism which sees her work as the product of a misanthropic and venomous hate, restoring it to its proper place in the tradition of a prophetic calling, moved by the extreme unction of charity to show “the overwhelming boldness of divine love invading human life” (6).
“When the Grandmother of the story touches the Misfit, she replicates Paul's laying on of the hands at the very moment she loses her artificiality and realizes that she and the Misfit are spiritual kin. … Those critics who argue for a ‘realistic’ interpretation of the story must ultimately acknowledge and account for O'Connor's biblical allusions.” See Michael Clark “Flannery O'Connor's ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’: The Moment of Grace.”
Richard Giannone, rightly I think, argues that Mr. Head's bigotry is the emblem of his enormous pride. See Richard Giannone, “Flannery O'Connor Tells Her Desert Story.” Giannone's approach is one that employs the writings of the desert fathers to show the evil of the city as the situation of Satan's victory of temptation over the human will, with the urban setting seen as a place of pride, in contrast to the aridity of the desert which engenders humility in self-renunciation and intense self-reflection.
“Pride not only replaces God with the self but also undoes the closest human ties.” See Giannone 56.
“Despite the knowledge of his own unworthiness, Mr. Head persists in acting the wise man (or wise-cracker).” See Strickland 458. See also Kenneth Scouten, “‘The Artificial Nigger’: Mr. Head's Ironic Salvation.”
From the standpoint of the prophetic imagination, Karl Martin sees this duality in O'Connor's work as offering a criticism of the reigning Zeitgeist of the age, while at the same time offering hope to the marginalized in society. See Karl Martin, “Flannery O'Connor's Prophetic Imagination.” For Martin, O'Connor's work, through employing what he calls the language of grief coupled with the language of amazement, is a call “to awaken her numb audience to both the judgment of God and the action of his grace in the world, to offer symbols of both suffering and hope based in the activity of God in history” (46). From this perspective, modern prophecy is set upon revealing the supernatural origin of God's Providence, which has been internalized in the Enlightenment idea of immanent progress, thus eliding God and arrogating to human history all forms of successful endeavor.
The tropological analysis offered in this essay is a rejection of the claims that the force of Flannery O'Connor's art entirely overwhelms the allegorical significance of her characters, and that religious significance does not arise out of concrete situations in her work. See Josephine Hendin, The World of Flannery O'Connor. My essay is also an attempt to show how O'Connor employs traditional hermeneutic strategies as a way of undercutting the flatness of literal readings imposed by modern sensibility, through exposing the idolatry of materiality as an absolute ideology. See Carol Schloss, Flannery O'Connor's Dark Comedies: The Limits of Inference. O'Connor's fiction, notwithstanding Schloss's claims to the contrary, is not a failure because it employs an allegorical framework rejected by her readers. It is precisely the allegorical in her work that exposes the inherent need of redemption by characters which stand as types of the modern. The large numbers of readers powerfully moved by O'Connor's fiction renders Schloss's claims de facto unintelligible.
Asals, Frederick. Flannery O'Connor: The Imagination of Extremity. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1982.
Baker, J. Robert. “Flannery O'Connor's Four-Fold Method of Allegory.” The Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 21 (1992): 84-96.
Bleikasten, André. “The Heresy of Flannery O'Connor.” Critical Essays on Flannery O'Connor. Ed. Melvin J. Friedman and Beverly Lyon Clark. Boston: Hall, 1985. 138-58.
Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Ed. J. T. Boulton. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1958.
Clark, Michael. “Flannery O'Connor's ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’: The Moment of Grace.” English Language Notes 29 (Dec. 1991).
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria, or, Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions. Vol. 2. Ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983.
Desmond, John F. Risen Sons: Flannery O'Connor's Vision of History. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1987.
DiRenzo, Anthony. American Gargoyles: Flannery O'Connor and the Medieval Grotesque. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1993.
Eggenschwiler, David. The Christian Humanism of Flannery O'Connor. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1972.
Gardner, W. H., and N. H. MacKenzie, eds. The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. New York: Oxford UP, 1970.
Gentry, Marshall Bruce. Flannery O'Connor's Religion of the Grotesque. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1986.
Giannone, Richard. Flannery O'Connor and the Mystery of Love. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1989.
———. “Flannery O'Connor Tells Her Desert Story.” Religion and Literature 27.2 (Summer 1995): 47-57.
Hawkes, John. “Flannery O'Connor's Devil.” Critical Essays on Flannery O'Connor. Ed. Melvin J. Friedman and Beverly Lyon Clark. Boston: Hall, 1985. 92-100.
Hendin, Josephin. The World of Flannery O'Connor. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1970.
Katz, Claire. “Flannery O'Connor's Rage of Vision.” American Literature 46 (1974): 54-67.
Kessler, Edward. Flannery O'Connor and the Language of Apocalypse. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1986.
Lyotard, Jean-François. Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime. Trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994.
Malin, Irving. “Flannery O'Connor and the Grotesque.” The Added Dimension: The Art and Mind of Flannery O'Connor. Ed. Melvin J. Friedman and Lewis A. Lawson. 2nd ed. New York: Fordham UP, 1977. 108-26.
Martin, Karl. “Flannery O'Connor's Prophetic Imagination.” Religion and Literature 26 (1994): 33-58.
Muller, Gilbert H. Nightmares and Visions: Flannery O'Connor and the Catholic Grotesque. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1972.
O'Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1971.
———. The Habit of Being. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1978.
———. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1987.
Parker, Blanford. The Triumph of Augustan Poetics: English Poetry from Butler to Johnson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.
Rath, Sura P. “Roby Turpin's Redemption: Thomistic Resolution in Flannery O'Connor's ‘Revelation.’” The Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 19 (1990): 1-8.
Ruskin, John. The Stones of Venice. Vol. 3. Boston: Estes, 1898.
Schlafer, Linda. “Pilgrims of the Absolute: Léon Bloy and Flannery O'Connor.” Realist of Distances: Flannery O'Connor Revisited. Ed. Karl-Heinz Westarp and Jan Nordby Gretlund. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus UP, 1987.
Schleifer, Ronald. “Rural Gothic: The Stories of Flannery O'Connor.” Critical Essays on Flannery O'Connor. Ed. Melvin J. Friedman and Beverly Lyon Clark. Boston: Hall, 1985. 158-68.
Schloss, Carol. Flannery O'Connor's Dark Comedies: The Limits of Inference. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1980.
Scouten, Kenneth. “‘The Artificial Nigger’: Mr. Head's Ironic Salvation.” The Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 9 (1980): 87-97.
Stevens, Martha. The Question of Flannery O'Connor. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1973.
Strickland, Edward. “The Penitential Quest in ‘The Artificial Nigger.’” Studies in Short Fiction 25 (1988): 453-59.
Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989.
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SOURCE: Sloan, Gary. “O'Connor's ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find.’ The Explicator 57, no. 2 (winter 1999): 118-21.
[In the following essay, Sloan challenges popular assessments of O'Connor's The Misfit and instead depicts him as a primitive and dangerous character.]
The Misfit, the bad seed in Flannery O'Connor's short story [“A Good Man is Hard to Find”], is commonly deemed a logician of no mean wit. He has been pictured as a modern Pascal who wagers wrong (Cobb), a rigorously empirical Doubting Thomas (Scouten 63), a mental “thoroughbred with a curious and active nose” (Currie 149), and an instinctive scholar plumbing reality (Jones 837). Other critics describe him as a rationalist who “has to know ‘why’” (Feeley 75), a thinker “recalling age-old debates about theodicy” (Johansen 38), as possessing “credibility and authority” (Orvell 132), “a scholarly awareness of alternatives” (Montgomery 12), and steadfast “lucidity” (Gossett 81). O'Connor herself seems to have envisioned her felonious tube a thinking-man's skeptic. The grandmother's “wits are no match,” she said, “for the Misfit's” (Mystery and Manners 111).
The story offers scant support for such grandiose assessments of The Misfit's intellectual acumen. An enlightened skeptic can marshal arguments against theism undreamt of in The Misfit's countrified musings. His skepticism has been greatly exaggerated. Belief is his dominant gene, doubt recessive, almost nil. He acknowledges the miraculous efficacy of prayer while disavowing any desire for it:
“If you would pray,” the old lady said, “Jesus would help you.” “That's right,” The Misfit said. “Well then, why don't you pray? […]” “I don't want no hep,” he said. “I'm doing all right by myself.”
(Complete Stories [The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor]130)
When the grandmother mindlessly implores “Jesus, Jesus,” The Misfit tacitly affirms his belief in an immaculate Christ. “Yes'm,” he mused, “Jesus thown everything off balance. It was the same with him as with me except He hadn't committed any crime […]” (131).
Throughout, The Misfit remains essentially a lapsed fundamentalist locked into incarnational models of deity. His conception of God is circumscribed by a primitive mindset: Deity is authenticated by magic feats. Like the character Hazel Motes in O'Connor's Wise Blood, his cousin in eschatological literalism, The Misfit thinks the theological crux is whether “what's dead stays that way.” What impresses him about Jesus Christ is that he reportedly could raise the dead.
Rather than exhibiting a lucid mentality, The Misfit sometimes maunders into a quagmire of ambiguity and contradiction. His putative agnostic sentiments are enigmatic because he also declares his belief:
“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead.” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn't have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw everything away and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him.”
The Misfit is a zealous proponent of meanness, and one might suppose—many have—that he has wagered against the existence of a wonder-working Savior. If so, he is hedging his bet. His apologia begins with a querulous assertion of belief (Jesus did what he should not have done), therefore his either/or proposition sounds like a rhetorical contrivance to justify his hardened criminality. Like Hazel Motes, The Misfit wants to believe “Jesus is a liar” but cannot. His words can mean either that he wishes he had proof that Jesus raised the dead, the usual interpretation, or the opposite: He wishes he had evidence that Jesus did not:
“Maybe He didn't raise the dead,” the old lady mumbled […].
“I wasn't there so I can't say He didn't,” The Misfit said. “I wisht I had of been there,” he said, hitting the ground with his fist. “It ain't right I wasn't there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady,” he said in a high voice, “if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn't be like I am now.”
In the infernal reading, The Misfit wants to continue a life of crime without fear of divine retribution. O'Connor characterized The Misfit's shooting of the grandmother, when she reaches out to him and calls him one of her “babies,” as “a recoil, a horror at her humanness” Habit of Being 389). He may also be recoiling from his own humanness. The murder is perhaps a vicarious attempt at self-slaughter: He seeks to destroy his compulsion to believe because, in his moral computations, belief cannot be squared with pleasure.
In “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James says “We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, his donnee: our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it” (1146). What does O'Connor make of The Misfit? Does he, in James's word, “fructify”?
From one vantage point, yes. At the dramatic center of the story is the grandmother, a nominal Christian who, before her encounter with The Misfit, has proceeded on the assumption that the examined life is not worth living. Through his murder of her family and his stark depiction of the moral rigors of the disciples of Christ (“it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him”), The Misfit forces the grandmother to think. After momentary skepticism—“Maybe He didn't raise the dead”—she is primed for her moment of grace, connects with The Misfit, and dies redeemed. Treated as a catalyst for the grandmother's epiphany, The Misfit is a fruitful device.
Better to leave him there, for cast as an informed skeptic, he is woefully barren. He has been theologically clipped by an author who spurned the dictates of logic and evidence for the claims of Mystery. The Misfit's sniveling befuddlement, self-justification, and skewed ethics betray a muddled intellect and, worse, a dangerous one.
Cobb, Joann P. “Pascal's Wager and Two Modern Losers.” Philosophy and Literature 3 (1979): 187-198.
Currie, Sheldon. “A Good Grandmother Is Hard to Find: Story as Exemplum.” The Antigonish Review 81-82 (1990): 147-56.
Feeley, Kathleen. Flannery O'Connor: Voice of the Peacock. New York: Fordham University Press, 1982.
Gossett, Louis Y., ed. Violence in Recent Southern Fiction. Durham: Duke University Press, 1966.
James, Henry. “The Art of Fiction.” The American Tradition of Literature. Ed. George Perkins and Barbara Perkins. 9th ed. Boston: McGraw, 1999. 1139-51.
Johansen, Ruthann Knechel. The Narrative Secret of Flannery O'Connor: The Trickster as Interpreter. Tuscaloosa: Alabama University Press, 1994.
Jones, Madison. “A Good Man's Predicament.” Southern Review 20 (1984): 836-41.
Montgomery, Marion. “Miss Flannery's ‘Good Man.’” The Denver Quarterly 3.3 (1968): 1-19.
O'Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, 1971. All quotations from the story are taken from this edition.
———. The Habit of Being. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, 1979.
———. Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar, 1969.
Orvell, Miles. Invisible Parade: The Fiction of Flannery O'Connor. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1972.
Scouten, Kenneth. “The Mythological Dimensions of Five of Flannery O'Connor's Works.” Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 2 (1973): 59-72.
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SOURCE: Gilbert, Susanna. “‘Blood Don't Lie’: The Diseased Family in Flannery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge.” Literature and Medicine 18, no. 1 (spring 1999): 114-31.
[In the following essay, Gilbert investigates the way in which O'Connor's illness informs her last collection of short fiction, Everything That Rises Must Converge.]
Storytelling seems to be a natural reaction to illness. … Stories are antibodies against illness and pain.
—Anatole Broyard, Intoxicated by My Illness
Asbury lay with a rigid outraged stare while the privacy of his blood was invaded by this idiot. “Slowly Lord but sure,” Block sang in a murmuring voice, “Oh slowly Lord but sure.” When the syringe was full, he withdrew the needle. “Blood don't lie,” he said.
—Flannery O'Connor, “The Enduring Chill”
The wolf, I'm afraid, is inside tearing up the place.
—Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being [The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor]1
At the age of thirty-nine, Flannery O'Connor succumbed to her body's battle with itself. Stricken when she was twenty-five with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, the autoimmune disorder that eventually took her life and that killed her father before her, O'Connor spent the last fourteen years of her life a dependent invalid in her mother's home. In this essay I will argue that O'Connor's struggle with lupus makes its way into her fiction not only literally—through images of blood, disease, death, and twisted parent-child relationships—but figuratively as well. Specifically, I will suggest that many of the stories in O'Connor's final collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, replicate not only the dynamics of her relationship with her parents but, more interestingly, the dynamics of her disease—its omnipresent symptoms; sudden, surprising ferocity; and, most importantly, its grotesque drama of the self against the self.2
Many critics acknowledge the importance of O'Connor's life story to her fiction. The literary critic Josephine Hendin goes so far as to say that “Flannery O'Connor seems to have lived out a fiction and written down her life.”3 Hendin's argument rests on the fact that, as a nice Southern lady and dutiful daughter, O'Connor couldn't express in her everyday life in Milledgeville, Georgia, “in a milieu that is horribly embarrassed by anything unconventional,” her feelings of “otherness” and “difference,” her “impotent rage” at a disease that was slowly killing her, and her distaste for a modern secular society. Because of this restrictive milieu, Hendin contends, O'Connor “found a way out of her unpretty situation by denying it”; meanwhile, as I too will argue, her feelings about that situation bled into her fiction.4
Other scholars note the importance to O'Connor's writing of her Southern roots, her lifelong interest in fiction and cartoons, her fragile health, her Catholic upbringing, and her adamant faith. Most of these critics, however, emphasize the influence of Catholicism on her writing.5 They often rely on O'Connor's famous declaration that
I see from the standpoint of Christian Orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in relation to that. I don't think that this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction.6
While many critics read such statements by the author as “transparent” and undebatable, others like Robert Fitzgerald feel that “nothing could be worse than to treat [her stories] as problems for exegesis or texts to preach on.”7 Hendin even speculates that “[r]eligion could have been an effective way [for O'Connor] to both express and contain fury of a very irreligious kind.”8 In my view, theological interpretations of O'Connor's work can be illuminating, but alone they are reductive and unsatisfying for they tend to assimilate the existential bleakness of her fiction into a mode of tidy allegorizing that fails adequately to account for the bitterness that informs her art. This bitterness can be better understood if we consider the author's daily life and read more attentively her statements, silences, and fiction itself, which all point to the centrality of her strangely self-destructive disease in her imagination. Despite O'Connor's insistence that “‘the disease is of no consequence to my writing since for that [writing] I use my head and not my feet,’” I will argue here that her life-threatening disease surely had a profound impact on both her “head” and her fiction, an impact that might finally help explain the darkness that has puzzled so many critics for so long.9
My argument is based to a great extent on the dominating presence lupus had in O'Connor's life. Although O'Connor did not like to admit that lupus influenced any aspect of her world profoundly, her case intruded far too regularly in her daily life to be discounted lightly. Furthermore, Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, or SLE, can be a lifethreatening disease whose “course is totally unpredictable.”10 From an early age O'Connor knew of lupus's volatility because her father struggled with it for years and was a relatively young man when it killed him. She knew of the condition's danger, too, because when she first became ill in 1950, the doctors were so concerned they told Regina O'Connor that her daughter was “dying.”11 Of course, she survived that first serious episode and, for most of the fourteen years left her, due to dietary and medical restrictions, her lupus was in remission. She never knew, though, when, as she put it, “the wolf inside” would start “tearing up the place” (p. 591). At crisis moments in the disease, especially during the last months of her life, O'Connor expressed fear in her letters as she asked her correspondents for prayers and told them, “I am sick of being sick” (p. 581).
In the context of such unnerving uncertainty, O'Connor gave up earlier attempts at independent living and moved to her mother's farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. There, lupus dictated to a great extent how the author's daily life was organized. She followed a staid domestic routine. Every morning, she had only enough energy to write one to three hours, and by the afternoon she was exhausted: “I am tired every afternoon and there's nothing to be done about it. It's the nature of the disease” (p. 252). Often, she was restricted to a salt-free diet. When she first became ill, as many as four times a day she had to give herself shots of ACTH, the steroids she took most of her adult life. And, unfortunately, large doses of steroids had unpleasant side-effects, some of which were hard to distinguish from the disease's symptoms: hair loss, water retention, and swelling of the face; exhausting, accelerated mental activity that kept her up at night; and, most important, deterioration of her hip bones, which led to a need for crutches.
As Lorine Getz observes, O'Connor “appears lighthearted and almost sportive about her condition” in “her few recorded references,” which is strange considering the seriousness and intrusiveness of her illness.12 In some letters, however, even she expressed discomfort at her reliance on crutches, not so much because she had to use them but because of other people's reactions to them. While she claimed in one letter that “they worry the onlooker more than the user” (p. 164), in two other missives she revealed how the onlooker's worry could worry her. In these two letters, she told anecdotes of kindly, Southern women who “blessed” her and called her “sugar” when they saw her on crutches, at which she admitted she felt patronized—“I'll be real glad when I get too old for them to sugar me” (p. 120)—and hostile—“exactly like the Misfit” (p. 117), the homicidal maniac in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Such admissions of resentment and anger about her condition were rare, though. Most often in her correspondence she claimed she didn't “mind the crutches a bit” (p. 174), she was “used to them” (p. 127) and, indeed, was fascinated by how they “make a big difference in the tempo you live at” (p. 109). At least in this latter remark she acknowledged the impact lupus had on her daily life.
Besides being unpredictable, frightening, exhausting, intrusive, and embarrassing, O'Connor's “energy-depriving ailment” (p. 117) limited her mobility in the world. As her reputation increased, she managed to give readings and talks at a fair number of colleges, but she didn't have the strength to speak too often. On numerous occasions, trips (to visit her good friends, the Fitzgeralds, in Connecticut or to the pilgrimage site, Lourdes, for example) were canceled, abbreviated or postponed by her doctors. And since Milledgeville was not highly stimulating intellectually, in her isolation she relied on visitors and visitors by proxy in the form of letters. She cajoled her friends regularly in writing to visit her. “I am not liable to reach the city again,” she explained to a friend in November of 1956, “—not anyway until I am rich enough to ride everywhere in taxis and have a personal robot to tote the bags. Whereas you on your two feet could come to see me handily” (p. 182). While more will be affirmed and speculated about the ways lupus influenced O'Connor's psyche and situation, it should be clear by now that it shaped much of the artist's daily existence. When asked about the disease's impact on her writing, however, O'Connor insisted that “[m]y lupus has no business in literary considerations” (p. 380).
At the same time, during rare, less guarded moments, the author did acknowledge a connection between her illness and her art. For example, in one letter to “A,” one of her more intimate correspondents, O'Connor spoke of her first serious struggle with lupus in 1951: “[D]uring this time I was more or less living my life and H. Mote's [the protagonist of Wise Blood who blinds himself] too and as my disease affected the joints, I conceived the notion that I would eventually become paralized and was going blind and that in the book I had spelled out my own course, or that in the illness I had spelled out the book” (sic, p. 118). In another letter, she confided that Hulga, the sullen, crippled heroine of “Good Country People,” “[is] a projection of myself” (p. 106).
Usually, though, her admissions of the illness's influence on her fiction were more tenuous. For instance, she was willing to acknowledge the distance her consciousness naturally kept from her unconscious motivations. She commented in other correspondence to “A” that “[w]hat personal problems are worked out in stories must be unconscious” (p. 149); that “I won't ever be able entirely to understand my own work or even my own motivations” (p. 92); and, finally, that “I don't know why the bull and Mrs. May have to die, or why Mr. Fortune or Mary Fortune: I just feel in my bones that that is the way it has to be. If I had the abstraction first I don't suppose I would write the story” (p. 178, emphasis mine).
Despite her usual denial of the effect lupus had on her imagination, then, O'Connor conceded that her violent writing was much more a matter of her unconscious or “bones” than her brain. Ironically, while she commonly insisted on a rigid Cartesian split between mind and body, claiming that the disease “is of no consequence to my writing since for that I use my head and not my feet,” it seems the wellspring of her art was actually the “feeling in her bones,” both her lupus-stricken “bones” and the intuitive, unconscious part of herself. She did not start with “abstraction” for, she wondered, what then would be the use in writing stories?
These statements suggest an important way in which O'Connor's anxieties about and experiences with her ailment functioned for her art: rather than being neatly disposed of by being denied and made light of, such feelings and experiences seem to have fueled much of her fiction. In an essay on literature and illness, Anatole Broyard takes it for granted that anxiety serves an author in just this way, but he goes further in suggesting that sick people in general may use, and feel the healing effects of using, anxiety about their maladies to write: “Storytelling seems to be a natural reaction to illness. … Just as a novelist turns his anxiety into a story in order to be able to control it to a degree, so a sick person can make a story, a narrative, out of his illness as a way of trying to detoxify it.”13
The obsessively reiterative nature of O'Connor's art further suggests that she was trying, through writing fiction, to tell the story of her illness, a story she constructed over and over again to “detoxify” herself or to “work something out.” Other critics have noted the repetitiousness of her fiction, the way in which she continually conjures up in different narratives almost identical settings, family structures, characters, and plots.14 Significantly, these stock narrative elements often bear a striking resemblance to their counterparts in O'Connor's life. Furthermore, they commonly resemble aspects of what must have been the most anxiety-inducing force in her life, lupus. If, as I am speculating here, repressed thoughts and feelings about this disease are the source of much of O'Connor's fiction, then it should be no surprise when they surface or “return” in that fiction that they do so over and over again, compulsively. It is in just this way, through repetition, that the repressed labors are able to be heard and to “detoxify” the patient.15
Examples of almost obsessive narrative repetition, and especially of fictional elements that mirror O'Connor's own life, are abundant in Everything That Rises Must Converge. Most of the stories in this final collection center on diseased families and specifically on twisted parent-child relationships. In the first tales I will discuss, families are dysfunctional mainly because psychological or physical disease paralyzes adult “children.” Often, as in the title story, “Greenleaf,” “The Enduring Chill,” and “The Comforts of Home,” hostile, sulky young men live with and depend upon their mothers well beyond their adolescent years. The widowed mothers in these tales set no clear restraints on their adult children. Inexplicably, their offspring feel victimized and trapped by them nonetheless. These sons resent their positions but seem powerless to change. Julian in “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” for instance, feels his life with his mother is a “martyrdom,” but while promising that “‘Someday I'll start making money’ … he knew he never would.”16
Thomas in “The Comforts of Home”—at thirty-five one of the oldest of these overgrown boys—feels similarly martyred at home. He tries reasoning with his mother, whom he considers “not logical” (p. 127) and overly altruistic about the true character of Star Drake, the juvenile delinquent to whom she's opened her doors, but she remains unmoved. He then issues ultimatums and threatens to leave but, when put to the test, does not act on his word. “Overcome by rage” (p. 116) yet aware of his impotence, he bemoans “in a limp voice” the fact that he can't simply “put his foot down” as his father did before him (p. 127).
Similarly antagonistic mother-son relationships are central to “Greenleaf,” and again aging sons lack the initiative to vacate their childhood homes. The widowed Mrs. May “‘work[s] and slave[s] … struggle[s] and sweat[s] to keep [her] place’” (p. 29) for her two grown sons, neither of whom helps her on the farm or shows her any respect. Despite their passivity and filial contempt, both sons choose to stay with their mother, and Mrs. May allows them to stay. The eldest, Scofield, explains that he won't marry until after his mother is dead, and even then he won't leave her house. Wesley, the younger, is sickly; he never wants to marry since “Wesley [doesn't] like nice girls. He [doesn't] like anything.” His outspoken hatred for everything is described in detail, “[b]ut in spite of all he said, he never made any move to leave” (pp. 34-35).
Finally, in “The Enduring Chill,” Asbury, an aspiring young author, comes home believing he is doing so to die. He finds out instead that the “chill” he has contracted will not do him in as he hoped but will “endure” for the rest of his days. The “enduring chill” of his life will be to spend his adult years a cloistered invalid in his mother's home. His resentment of and rebellion against his mother are evident throughout the story, even in an initial act of drinking unpasteurized milk on her dairy farm, which leads, ironically, to the trapped position he loathes so much in the end. Ultimately, he feels powerless to change his dependence on his mother because of his chronic illness: “He saw that for the rest of his days, frail, racked, but enduring, he would live in the face of a purifying terror” (p. 114).
Among these three stories, “The Enduring Chill” most closely parallels the author's own life. First, O'Connor, like Asbury, lived in New York as an ambitious young writer only to return to her widowed mother's dairy farm at the onset of her illness. Second, she was a literal, physical invalid, not just an emotional one like Julian, Thomas, and Scofield, and not simply one marred, like Wesley, by a transient childhood fever. Finally, and most interestingly, just as Asbury contracts his lifelong sickness from his “mother's milk,” O'Connor probably at least felt as if she inherited her disease from her father's “blood.”
Yet if “The Enduring Chill” specifically replicates many aspects of O'Connor's life, the autobiographical resonances in all three of these narratives are undeniable. O'Connor writes continually about incapacitated adults doomed to live as children under their widowed mothers' roofs. Although O'Connor was not powerless as a writer, thinker, or breadwinner, she had little control over much of her experience: her disease was incurable; and, in many practical ways, she could not help but depend on her mother. Furthermore, as I've already shown, lupus confined her most of the time to Milledgeville and, indeed, to her mother's house. It seems probable, then, that the resentment and entrapment she expresses over and over again in her fiction she felt too at times as lupus limited and dictated her life.
To be sure, while these narratives record some of O'Connor's literal domestic situation, the animosity her fictional adult children feel towards their mothers often has violent consequences that certainly never ensued in the author's life. Either through contempt or passive-aggressive behavior like Julian's or the May boys', or through more active hostility like that of Thomas, the overgrown children in these tales at least injure and more often violently bring to death the powerful mothers they resent. In these attacks, Julian, Thomas, and the May boys live out the fantasies of infantalized adult children: to assault and, indeed, kill the mothers upon whom they indignantly depend and to bring them down from what must seem to their offspring like unnaturally authoritative positions. Conceivably, O'Connor herself found relief from dependence on her own mother (which she must, as a grown woman, at times have found demeaning) by expressing repressed rage in the fantasy of fiction.17
In addition to mirroring much of what she experienced and probably felt spending her days as an invalid in her mother's home, most of the stories in this final collection reflect, often in a cryptic, schematic fashion, a more primal darkness that O'Connor had to confront, a concern with human fallibility and with the perverseness, absurdity, and injustice of fate. O'Connor's vision is arguably tuned to the grotesque because two things she probably expected she could trust at least for a little while, her father and her body, betrayed her early on in what must have seemed like bizarre ways. Her father died, abandoning her but leaving a poison legacy of the illness that killed him, and her body turned on her in a similar fashion. As a result, her message in much of her fiction is that we are always already fallen, that what ought to protect us might very well destroy us, and that, indeed, for that reason we must look to another world for healing. Two works included in her last volume of stories, “A View of the Woods” and “The Lame Shall Enter First,” illustrate this dark philosophy most strikingly through the metaphor of the diseased family.
These stories foreground troubled relationships between father figures and children, relationships that arguably reflect O'Connor's own bond of physical disease, of tainted blood, with her father. For O'Connor, fathers, instead of protecting, often abandon or kill their children, usually dying in the process themselves. In over half of the stories in Everything That Rises Must Converge, fathers are absent or dead at the outset of the narrative. In “A View of the Woods” and “The Lame Shall Enter First,” father figures are alive, but they destroy both their offspring and themselves in the course of the stories. Although O'Connor is not explicit about it, we are led to believe that Mr. Fortune's weak heart gives out at the end of “A View of the Woods” after he's killed his granddaughter. Furthermore, while Grandfather Fortune is the primary caretaker/father figure for Mary, her real father, Mr. Pitts, does exist, and, significantly, his major purpose in the story is to attack his daughter for anything that goes wrong. She is the innocent victim of her father's beatings in the woods, acts whose reality she continually denies much as O'Connor denies her “battering” disease. Finally, in “The Lame Shall Enter First,” Sheppard doesn't physically die but is spiritually broken, “reel[s] back” (p. 190) in horror, when he discovers he's driven his son to suicide.
In both these stories it is the children's “fortune” to be destroyed by “fathers” who can't see them for what they are, who don't nurture and protect them as their parental roles require. Indeed, Grandfather Fortune is so blind when it comes to his granddaughter that he barely recognizes her as a separate human being. Granted, the narrator tells us, she does look like her grandpa—“her face [was] a small replica of the old man's”—still, the narrator goes on to explain, “[n]o one was particularly glad that Mary Fortune looked like her grandfather except the old man himself. He thought it added greatly to her attractiveness” (p. 55). Moreover, “the fact that Mary Fortune was a Pitts too,” was separate and different, “was something he ignored in a gentlemanly fashion. … He liked to think of her as being thoroughly of his clay” (p. 58). As the “huge yellow monster [machine] … gorg[es] itself on clay” (p. 81) in the name of capitalist progress in this story, Mr. Fortune gorges his ego on his own “clay,” never recognizing it as other than himself.
O'Connor elaborates on Mr. Fortune's egomaniacal view of Mary as the supposedly objective narrative voice begins to converge with Fortune's own: “[S]he was like him on the inside too. She had, to a singular degree, his intelligence, his strong will, and his push and drive. Though there was seventy years' difference in their ages, the spiritual distance between them was slight” (p. 55). This narrative perspective is plainly not objective but tainted by Fortune's narcissistic desires. We start to understand this in the course of the tale as it becomes obvious that, far from “slight,” the “spiritual distance” between Mr. Fortune and his granddaughter is, in fact, great. Mary fights her grandfather “with stout brown school shoes and small rocklike fists” (p. 79) to make him understand the intensity of her separate vision, but to no avail; in the end, Mr. Fortune destroys both her and himself because he's unable to appreciate her “view of the woods.”
In “The Lame Shall Enter First,” instead of considering his son, Norton, an extension of himself, Sheppard rejects any connection with the boy, viewing him as all that's negative in his secular, social-scientific philosophy. Again, like Fortune, Sheppard is blind to his child's character and so can't provide the care his son requires. Sheppard convinces himself that Norton is “selfish”—the deadliest sin in this father's worldly “religion”—because he eats chocolate cake for breakfast, would keep a thousand dollars if he won it rather than “‘spend it on children less fortunate than [himself]’” (p. 147), and, according to Sheppard, has no idea “what it means to share” (p. 144). Meanwhile, Norton is really a sensitive little boy in deep pain over the loss of his mother. He must express this suffering for both himself and his father because Sheppard censors their sorrow believing that Norton's especially “was not a normal grief. It was all part of his [Norton's] selfishness. She had been dead for over a year and a child's grief should not last so long” (p. 146). Instead of comforting Norton, Sheppard judges and misunderstands him. Completely oblivious to the emotional meaning of the boy's search for his mother through a telescope, Sheppard condemns as unscientific Norton's sighting of her in the sky. Just as Mary cherishes a view of the woods that her grandfather doesn't understand, Norton sees something in the stars that his father is too blind to see. In both narratives, the child in his/her spiritual and emotional integrity represents an urge towards health, a part of the sick parent figure that that figure lacks, can't recognize, and so destroys.
Obviously, on one level these stories are allegories of spiritual vision in conflict with secular sight. At the same time, the recurrent plot of father figures misinterpreting and hurting children they ought to protect recalls the deadly physical bond O'Connor had with her father. She discusses this connection herself in her letters:
My father wanted to write but had not the time or money or training or any of the opportunities I have had. I am never likely to romanticize him because I carry around most of his faults as well as his tastes. I even have about his same constitution: I have the same disease. … Anyway, whatever I do in the way of writing makes me extra happy in the thought that it is a fulfillment of what he wanted to do himself.
(Habit of Being, 168)
While she identified positively with her father as a writer, O'Connor clearly also saw his legacy as damaging. Considering her ties with her parents, it is significant that offspring don't die in stories like “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” “Greenleaf,” “The Comforts of Home,” and “The Enduring Chill,” stories concerning twisted relationships between children and their mothers. Rather it is in important tales about diseased relationships with father figures that offspring are destroyed. Both in O'Connor's life and in some of her most striking fiction, mothers are resented but fathers misjudge and destroy.
Perhaps even more intriguingly, this diseased family plot in O'Connor's final stories often replicates the dynamics of her fatal illness, lupus. As discussed earlier, lupus for O'Connor was unpredictable, frightening, exhausting, intrusive, confining, and sometimes even embarrassing. The disease has other characteristics too, though, that are reflected in O'Connor's fiction. First, it is a mysterious illness: its etiology is unknown; and, while it is systemic, the location and intensity of its symptoms are unpredictable. “Manifestations referable to any organ system may appear.” For example, “Renal involvement may be benign and asymptomatic or relentlessly progressive and fatal.”18 In O'Connor's case, it was fatal. Second, SLE is deceptive. Because it exhibits such a range of features, lupus is classified—like syphilis, tuberculosis, and malaria—as “a ‘great imitator’” and often misdiagnosed.19 Third, it is a disease of the blood in a number of senses. Severe SLE, like that experienced by O'Connor early and late in the course of her illness, can cause hemolytic anemia, and since there is strong evidence that the afflicted have a genetic predisposition to the disorder, lupus is probably a sickness of blood or genealogy, too.20 In addition, the disease makes itself manifest in the blood in the form of antinuclear antibodies.21 Finally, as an autoimmune disorder, lupus seems by nature perverse, characterized as it is by the self turning against the self. In this illness, the very mechanisms designed to protect life, the antibodies, destroy life as they become unable to distinguish outside enemies from the flesh they are meant to defend.
In sum, in addition to symptoms and side-effects mentioned earlier, Flannery O'Connor had to contend on a daily basis with a disease of mysterious origin that might emerge almost anywhere and anytime in her body, that followed an unpredictable and often highly destructive course, that was deceptive, that targeted her blood, that killed her father before her, and that resulted from her body perversely waging war on itself. It hardly seems coincidental that her fiction often has similar qualities. Violence, for example, is a mainstay of her stories and, thus, at the heart of O'Connor criticism. But where does it come from? And why is it always there? In her essay, “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” O'Connor offers a theological explanation, and many critics have attempted to round out her analysis.22 What is perhaps most striking about brutality in her fiction, however, is not what it represents but the fact that it is an inevitable presence. Like her illness with its unknown etiology, the violence in her tales is, on some level, an inexplicable given, and the reader learns simply to expect it in the narrow world of her fiction.
In addition, this literary violence, like the destructiveness of lupus, arises suddenly and often in shocking ways. The brutal deaths of characters in these stories always come as a surprise. Many of them occur in seemingly benign environments and at the hands of those the victims think they can trust: a woman has a stroke and dies on a city sidewalk after being struck with a handbag and ridiculed by her son; another woman is gored by a bull in her scenic pasture; in her own home, a third woman is shot by her son; an old man beats his favorite granddaughter to death in the woods she loves and then himself collapses; and a little boy hangs himself in the family attic. In the mundane contexts of these tales, this brutality usually catches one off guard. Settings and characters that appear, if strange, still rather innocuous turn out to harbor destruction. One is left with the feeling that anywhere or anytime violence might break through the narrative's deceptive veneer of normalcy. And, of course, such deceptive normalcy coupled with unpredictable violence is again reminiscent of O'Connor's life with lupus. The malady's brutal eruptions always came as a surprise, and the severity of each attack was also hard to predict. Uncertainty and risk constituted the fabric of O'Connor's daily life, a daily life that on the surface was genteel and controlled.
No matter how it looked superficially, then, O'Connor's quotidian life was haunted by blood, and not just by her father's heritage but by the fluid in her veins. When the lupus was active, O'Connor was extremely anemic. Unfortunately, in 1964, the year of her death, she was also anemic because of a benign fibroid tumor, the removal of which reactivated her lupus. She needed transfusions often the last months of her life, and her blood had to be constantly monitored. Similarly, during her terrible bout with the disease in 1951, she required “about 10 transfusions.”23 Obviously, blood was not simply an abstraction for O'Connor but a highly visible physical presence in her life.
As might be expected, her last letters reveal that she was preoccupied with her health, but especially with her blood count. In January of 1964, for instance, all month she reported her blood count to correspondents, concluding on 27 January with the information that, “My blood count has gone up from 8.5 to 11.6 in a month and the doctor thinks that's phenomenal. Around 13 is normal and I'll make it yet” (p. 564). Later, she learned that her anemia was not due solely to her tumor, but to lupus. “Dr. Burrell says I have declared a moratorium on making blood—something that apparently happens in lupus” (p. 578). Six weeks before her death, she revealed to a friend how anemic she really was: “I've had four blood transfusions in the last month. The trouble is mostly kidneys” (p. 587). As her kidneys continued to fail, she continued to need transfusions and to be preoccupied with her debilitatingly low blood count.
O'Connor scholars usually read the prevalent blood imagery in her stories in terms of Catholicism and as specifically alluding to Christ's blood.24 Considering the centrality and visibility of blood in O'Connor's life, however, the ubiquity of it and colors associated with it in her fiction might also be another way lupus became metaphor in her art. Notably, blood is not restricted to characters' veins, to discussions of blood pressure and blood tests, but it seeps into her entire fictional landscape, coloring the sky, roads, and trees. On a literal level, of course, blood pressure and blood pathology are crucial to the plots of a number of stories in O'Connor's final collection. In the title story and “A View of the Woods,” Julian's mother and Grandfather Fortune have dangerously high blood pressure. In “The Enduring Chill,” Asbury's “blood don't lie” in a pathology report as it reveals his undulant fever. Additionally, however, the whole world is often bloody in her tales: the sky “crimson” (p. 114); the sun “a swollen red ball” (p. 47); the landscape split by a “red road” (pp. 69, p. 88) and bordered by trees “bathed in blood” (p. 71). Blood, like lupus, is systemic, everywhere and anywhere in O'Connor's work. Arguably, the horrifying experience of being attacked by a mysterious, volatile enemy that targeted her blood and came from her father's bloodline colored her sense of the world, becoming a leitmotif in her life and so in her art.
Perhaps the most disturbing characteristic of lupus, though, is the fact that the body nonsensically destroys itself and, in O'Connor's case, with a constitution her father bequeathed her. The perversity of both an autoimmune system and a father turning on their charge is figured in much of O'Connor's fiction as the drama of the “converging” self. Because this grotesque aspect of lupus is at the heart of the disease and because grotesquery forms the core of many of her stories, I would like to return briefly to “A View of the Woods” and “The Lame Shall Enter First,” where this drama of the self destroying the self is played out with special force.
The internal battle that results from lupus is represented in “A View of the Woods” by the struggle between Mr. Fortune and his granddaughter, and in “The Lame Shall Enter First” by the conflicting relationship between Sheppard and Norton. By virtue of the fact that the child is flesh of the adult's flesh, in each story the two conflicting characters in a sense represent one conflicted self. The first narrative contains especially strong doppelganger imagery.25 Mary and Mr. Fortune are linked particularly by appearance. Over and over again, Mary's face is described as “a small replica of the old man's.” In addition, in Mr. Fortune's eyes, “she was like him on the inside too” (p. 55). Finally, the split self that they represent is expressed especially vividly at the end of the narrative when Mary explodes in rage at the sale of “the lawn” and physically attacks her grandfather: Fortune “seemed to see his own face coming to bite him from several sides at once”; later in that physical struggle, “[p]ale identical eye looked into pale identical eye,” as “[t]he old man looked up into his own image” (pp. 79, 89). It is easy to conclude from these examples that Fortune and Mary stand for two sides of one conflicted individual, an argument Tony Magistrale, among others, makes when he says the grandfather represents “modern capitalism,” while Mary signifies his neglected “spiritual self.”26 By contrast, far from viewing Norton as an extension of himself, Sheppard repudiates him. Nevertheless, insomuch as Norton is flesh of Sheppard's flesh, he and his father, too, stand for one self. More important, since they are foils for each other thematically, they can be read as one conflicted self. They oppose each other thematically much the way Fortune and Mary do, for Sheppard embraces the secular world, while Norton cherishes the invisible.
The self in the two narratives at issue is diseased, like O'Connor's lupus-stricken body, because the adult side, the part that should protect, damages the child side when it misconstrues the child's needs. While Mr. Fortune misinterprets Mary by seeing her as nothing more than a “replica” of himself, Sheppard misinterprets his offspring by not seeing enough of a connection between them, i.e., he denies that the grief Norton feels is also his own. This parental misunderstanding, while to some extent mirroring O'Connor's troubled biological relationship with her father, also reflects the fatal misjudgement of O'Connor's own antibodies, a misjudgement that is ironic since the antibodies “think” they're doing the right thing, think they're protecting the body when actually they're attacking it. The bleak irony of her fiction, the perversity and fallenness of her characters and their world (often considered simply characteristic of the “southern grotesque”) can, at least partially, be explained by this dark irony of her body.27
Like her body's antibodies, Fortune and Sheppard, too, think they're caring for their offspring, don't understand that they are, in fact, hurting them. To Mr. Fortune, for instance, it was “an ugly mystery” (p. 69) why Mary submitted to Pitts's beatings or what she saw across the road. In his mind, “there was nothing over there to see” (p. 70). Fortune thought “he had trained her so well” (p. 69); he's shocked by her behavior and, in trying to re-train her, destroys her. In “The Lame Shall Enter First,” Sheppard concludes that Norton's “problem” arises from the fact that he “has never had to divide anything in his life” (p. 159). Accordingly, the father asks Rufus Johnson, another child, to move in for awhile so he can teach Norton “what it means to share” (p. 159). Throughout the story, Sheppard tries to lead or “shepherd” both Rufus and Norton down a path of secular morality that neither child wishes to follow. In the end Sheppard does not realize until too late how much of what he is calling Norton's “problem” is really his own, how he “did more for [Rufus] than [he] did for [his] own child” (p. 189), and how Rufus, instead of helping Norton, becomes a kind of satanic force in Norton's life, who, to some extent, inspires the child's suicide.
Finally, these stories that on one level are documentaries of the dynamics of O'Connor's illness are from another perspective fantasies of rebellion or escape. As I've already indicated, O'Connor's disease was at times uncontrollable and always incurable. She couldn't beat the affliction or escape it in life. Thus, in the two stories just discussed, the abused children, with whom she and her once healthy body are metaphorically associated, attempt to live out these alternate fantasies for her. Unfortunately, like O'Connor, they are overpowered by their antagonistic protectors. Physically beaten by her father and psychologically steamrolled by her grandfather, Mary Fortune, “red-faced and wild-looking” (p. 76), passionately retaliates in a last act before her death. She rebels against her grandpa's decision to destroy the “view” by beating him as she has continually been beaten by her father: “She was on him so quickly that he could not have recalled which blow he felt first … she seemed to be everywhere, coming at him from all directions at once. It was as if he were being attacked not by one child but by a pack of small demons” (p. 79). Mary also rebels by asserting her independence, by distancing herself from her grandfather's bloodline and identifying with the Pittses. She fights her fate, i.e., Mr. “Fortune,” and dares “to call [herself] Pitts” (p. 80), but neither effort changes her situation on earth. Momentarily she physically dominates her grandfather, but he still manages to “reverse their positions” (p. 80) and destroy her.
In “The Lame Shall Enter First,” Norton handles the struggle with his father quite differently. Ignored, denigrated, misunderstood, and pressured to follow a secular course that he does not find helpful, the boy chooses to escape life altogether rather than fight an intolerable situation. Searching through a telescope, he spots his dead mother in the night sky. He responds by hanging himself from a beam in the attic, “launch[ing] his flight into space” (p. 190), to join her and so regain the nurturing he needs. Once more, the victimized child doesn't find escape or resolution in life, much as O'Connor never discovered a cure on earth for her disorder.
Even in these literary fantasies, then, rebellion and escape do not help the wounded while they are alive. Ultimately, O'Connor's documentary eclipses her dream; the self, as figured by father-child relationships in these stories, cannot be healed on earth, but, rather, remains fractured at the dark, violent conclusion of each tale. Mary and Norton can't heal those relationships because they are doomed by an uncaring Mr. “Fortune” and a “Sheppard” that leads them astray. Again, on some level O'Connor is recording her life, not a fiction. The author was destined by fortune to die of an autoimmune disease and “led astray” by her father's physical legacy. There was no remedy for her on earth so, like Mary and Norton, she looked to religion or another world for cure.
Considering Flannery O'Connor's profound acquaintance with the serious, chronic condition Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, the illness's imprint on her fiction in the form of the diseased family is hard to discount. O'Connor may have insisted that “my disease is of no consequence to my writing.” Nevertheless, if we ignore the striking signs in her stories that her life with lupus haunted her, then we further obscure tales that are already oblique, and we fail to recognize the powerful effects serious illness can have on the imagination. O'Connor should not be reduced to her disease, to her faith, or to any other one aspect of her life. At the same time, her disease should not be reduced by her readers. Lupus taught her bitter lessons that she came to frame in her fiction. Most fundamentally she learned, as the young invalid Asbury discovers in “The Enduring Chill,” the fact that “blood don't lie” and that hers was coded for destruction.
Anatole Broyard, Intoxicated by My Illness and Other Writings on Life and Death, ed. Alexandra Broyard (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1992), 20; Flannery O'Connor, “The Enduring Chill,” in Everything That Rises Must Converge (New York: Noonday Press, 1965), 94-95; and Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters; ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 591.
For alternative perspectives on O'Connor's illness and its impact on her fiction, see Kathleen Spaltro, “When We Dead Awaken: Flannery O'Connor's Debt to Lupus,” The Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 20 (1991): 33-44; and Sue Walker, “Spelling Out Illness: Lupus as Metaphor in Flannery O'Connor's ‘Greenleaf,’” Chattahoochee Review 12, no. 1 (1991): 54-63.
Josephine Hendin, The World of Flannery O'Connor (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1970), 13.
Ibid., 12, 13.
Sister Kathleen Feeley, for example, sees “deep religious conviction” “underlying the penetrating vision of Flannery O'Connor,” and Feeley's analyses, while often perceptive, are almost always theological (Flannery O'Connor: Voice of the Peacock [New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1972], 5).
Ibid., 5. On the one hand, Sister Feeley bases her critical position, at least in part, on statements like this one made by O'Connor. On the other hand, it is interesting that Feeley is also a devout Catholic. O'Connor's comments about the place of religion in her writing, along with her undeniably profound faith, attracted unusual numbers of Catholics to read and write about her fiction as Christian parable.
Robert Fitzgerald, introduction to Everything That Rises Must Converge (New York: Noonday Press, 1965), viii. Josephine Hendin agrees: “Because I think O'Connor told more than religious tales, I propose to view her fiction not for the dogma it illustrates, but for the themes it suggests. To assume that her work is merely a monologue on redemption is to see it only in part, to ignore much of its meaning, and to lose sight of the believer behind the belief” (p. 17). Furthermore, Hendin argues that critics have been too willing to accept the “author's statements of intention as accurate descriptions of her art” (p. 16).
Feeley, 13. Even Sister Feeley is skeptical when O'Connor insists that “the disease is of no consequence to my writing.” Feeley concludes that, “[i]n spite of her words to the contrary, all who knew her well affirm that her illness both debilitated the flesh and forged the spirit that was Flannery O'Connor's. Her fiction is the product of that spirit” (p. 13).
Robert Berkow, ed., The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, 16th ed. (Rahway, N.J.: Merck Research Laboratories, 1992), 985.
O'Connor, The Habit of Being, 22. Subsequent quotations of O'Connor's letters are from this collection unless otherwise noted and will be cited parenthetically in the text.
Lorine M. Getz, Flannery O'Connor: Her Life, Library and Book Reviews, Studies in Women and Religion, vol. 5 (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1980), 47. Getz quotes Hendin who points out that “‘[i]n all that cheerful patter you miss entirely the sense of suffering that must have been its ultimate source. … It is in fact so inexpressive of anything humanly true that its silence becomes eloquent’” (p. 47).
See, for example, Louise Westling's discussion of O'Connor's recurrent plot of male violence against powerful, independent women in Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor (Athens: Univ. Of Georgia Press, 1985), where Kahane argues that “again and again [O'Connor] creates a fiction in which a character attempts to live autonomously … only to be jarred back to what she calls ‘reality’” (p. 120).
I am not attempting a reading in this essay that considers the wealth of psychoanalytic theory and criticism applicable to my subject. Instead, I am merely making use of familiar psychoanalytic concepts that have made their way into popular usage and that seem to shed light on O'Connor's situation and writing.
O'Connor, Everything That Rises Must Converge, 5. Subsequent quotations from O'Connor's stories are from this collection and will be cited parenthetically in the text.
See Westling for another look at violence against women in O'Connor's fiction.
Daniel L. Larson, Systematic Lupus Erythematosus (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Co., 1961), 3.
O'Connor argues that a Christian writer must use “violent means to get his vision across to [a] hostile [secular] audience” (Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969], 34).
O'Connor, Habit of Being, 578.
See, for instance, Hendin's Christian interpretation of blood imagery in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” pp. 93-94.
For further analysis of the phenomenon of the double in O'Connor's work, see Frederick Asals, “The Double,” in Harold Bloom, ed., Modern Critical Views: Flannery O'Connor (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986).
Tony Magistrale, “An Explication of Flannery O'Connor's Short Story ‘A View of the Woods,’” Notes on Contemporary Literature 17, no. 1 (1987): 6-7.
Patricia Yaeger offers an interesting alternative reading of the “grotesque” and specifically of the grotesque body as representative of the race and gender politics of Southern history in her essay “Flannery O'Connor and the Aesthetics of Torture.” I am grateful to Patricia Yaeger for sharing a draft of this paper with me.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6958
SOURCE: Beringer, Cindy. “‘I Have Not Wallowed’: Flannery O'Connor's Working Mothers.” In Southern Mothers: Fact and Fictions in Southern Women's Writing, edited by Nagueyalti Warren and Sally Wolff, pp. 124-41. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Beringer considers the depiction of working mothers in three of O'Connor's short works.]
The distinctive characters of Flannery O'Connor's stories are drawn masterfully from the red clay of southern agrarian life. The author blends humor, irony, and satire to create characters whose lives are thwarted and misguided. They believe they have progressed along the path of success, yet eventually most come to realize, albeit too late, that their actions have not led to personal fulfillment. The families in her stories exist in a grotesque state of permanent hostility, and any offspring exhibit such a lack of civilizing influence that O'Connor elicits little emotion other than nervous relief when a vengeful God exacts his mercy with what would otherwise be considered terrifying violence.
Most of O'Connor's stories are set on farms managed by single—usually widowed or divorced—women. Andalusia, a large farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, which O'Connor's widowed mother, Regina, inherited and operated, comes readily to mind. Like her mother's farm, O'Connor's fictional farms have large white farmhouses on hills, tenant farmers or sharecroppers, and African American laborers. While successful at agrarian capitalism, the strong-minded female farm managers are noticeable failures when they combine career with motherhood.
O'Connor spent the last thirteen years of her life under the care of her mother at Andalusia. Many critics have noticed that the sometimes vicious, often emotionally lacking offspring of O'Connor's fictional mothers may well be the author's self-parodies. Her unsuccessful mother-child relationships are remarkable for their bitter and bizarre dysfunctionality. In letters and essays about her fiction, O'Connor insists that the bleak social and psychological constructs of her narratives arise from the helplessness of mortals before God. She also relentlessly satirizes southern habits and manners she finds irritating—foolish pride, excessive vanity, deceitful courtesy, and false piety. She delights in skewering the pomposity of hypocrites. “Interlektuals” with educations rivaling her own, especially social scientists, receive the sharpest prods.
Aware of the economic realities of the material world she loved to satirize and of her privileged place within it, O'Connor posited a connection between the South's highly structured and antiquated socioeconomic system and the failure of human relationships. In a 1963 interview, however, she defended the “charity and necessity” of formal southern manners: “The South has survived in the past because its manners, however lopsided or inadequate they may have been, provided enough social discipline to hold us together.” “Social discipline” may be interpreted as a society's means of separating the haves from the have-nots so as to avoid any threat to the status quo. Etiquette creates a certain social tension that, significantly, mirrors the adversarial bond between mother and child as depicted in O'Connor's fiction and mordantly alluded to by Erma Bombeck as “the ties that bind—and gag.”1
The challenge for O'Connor's female farm managers is to succeed in business and as parents within the South's peculiar feudal, paternalistic, hypocritical, and myth-steeped code of conduct. O'Connor bestows little praise on them, although her widowed or divorced working mothers are quite successful at wresting profit from the soil. Devout in their adherence to the American work ethic, they compete successfully in agribusiness, but are incapable of imparting to their children either the importance of that ethic, a sense of reverence for the land on which their fortunes and opportunities depend, or a nurturing atmosphere of love and spiritual guidance. The maladjusted children of the fiction spend their days trying to get even for what they perceive to be improper rearing.
The independent post-Civil War southern farmer relied on a system of cheap labor provided by tenant families and African American day laborers. For the female farmer, operating within this system was especially tricky, since she feared victimization by a system in which she was a vulnerable player. Such a farmer must at least appear to be in constant control of her workers. In O'Connor's stories the female farmer-to-worker relationship is typically one of parent to perpetual child. The female protagonists must compete in a world of men trained in the South's social code of treating women as either children, victims, or southern belles needy of protection—predictably, these characters often respond by playing the role of the helpless child, the martyr, or the manipulator of others. While these techniques are mostly successful in the business sphere, O'Connor's fictional mothers treat their own children as pawns in the socioeconomic struggle. Seemingly forced into roles of both tyrant and infantile manipulator when dealing with their progeny, these women set in motion an unhealthy cycle of mutual dependency, disrespect, and conflict.
In addition, the invisible rules of the social order permit, if not require, that those mothers, successful as free-enterprise farmers, must lavish prosperity upon their youngsters. This practice not only spoils the ungrateful children that O'Connor creates, but usually affords them an education and newly acquired pretense to intellectual superiority—all of which provides a convenient form of psychological distancing and escape from their mothers. The lack of true communication, begun with the mothers' role playing, is perpetuated, and the mothers never receive a real return on their investments.
O'Connor's stories often point to a poverty of the soul as the underlying cause of the failed relationships between mother and child. In “The Enduring Chill,” “Greenleaf,” and “Good Country People,” adult, educated, but dependent offspring live with shrewd, belittling, or even cloyingly doting mothers in permanent states of animosity. In these stories, a direct correlation is drawn between a woman's success in business and her abysmal failure as nurturer.
The sixty-year-old matron of “The Enduring Chill,” Mrs. Fox, has owned and operated a dairy farm since the death of her husband, “a lawyer and businessman and farmer and politician all rolled into one” who, like herself, “certainly had his feet on the ground.”2 She receives guests in the parlor of a two-story white farmhouse sitting on the top of a hill, a home she says many people “would give their eye teeth for” (552). She is proud to have put her daughter, Mary George, and her son, Asbury, “through college and beyond,” but she is wise enough to notice “that the more education they got, the less they could do” (551).
Neither daughter nor son has inherited the personal drive of their mother, and neither child shows the least appreciation for her efforts. Although she has some good, vinegary one-liners, Mary George remains a minor character. At thirty-three she is a country school principal who still lives at home. Her brother is quick to point out that her position is hardly the pinnacle of success in the education world, and her Girl Scout shoes are certainly proof positive that she has elected not to be a part of the “dress for success” crowd. Mary George detests her brother and seems merely to tolerate her mother.
Asbury's relationship with his mother is dysfunctional and even grotesque. At twenty-five, he has come home to die, a feat he could easily have accomplished by starving in his damp, freezing New York City walk-up where he slept in his overcoat bundled in several thicknesses of the New York Times. Though he might have preferred such an end, he sadistically does not want to deny his mother participation in the final event. He has lost his part-time bookstore job, and his savings are gone. When he gets off the train, he is delighted to see his mother's shock at his deteriorating physical condition. He tells her he is going to die and tries “to make each word like a hammer blow on top of her head” (562). Having adopted no real ports of anchor in his childhood, Asbury quickly embraced intellectual nihilism in college and ran with the existentialist crowd while living in New York. A writer, his magnum opus is a two-notebook letter to his mother, to be read following his death; he intends that when she reads it she will understand that he has magnanimously forgiven her for all he thinks she has done to him and will see, for the first time, exactly what she has done to him. He destroys all his other literary attempts, since he realizes that he has no imagination and no talent—for which he blames his mother: “Woman, why did you pinion me?” (554).
While her children thus pursue their warped lives, Mrs. Fox's condescension and arrogance surface. Unable to relax for a moment the meticulous control of her dairy operation, she is convinced that her workers are either incompetent or bent on sabotage. On the way home from fetching Asbury from the train station at six o'clock in the morning, she makes a stop to inspect a full-uddered cow, noting that, by failing to milk the cows, her workers have failed her—again. The two black men employed at the dairy, Morgan and Randall, are the only employees depicted; Mrs. Fox views and treats them, stereotypically, as naïve but not guileless children. She enumerates their many faults for Asbury. In her opinion, her workers will do “as little as they could get by with” (551), but “they know how to look out for themselves” (558). Her understanding of the southern work ethic requires only that her employees follow her orders; to see them as individuals capable of intelligent action would endanger the prevailing economic order.
Mrs. Fox treats her daughter and son with the same insufferable manner otherwise reserved for her workers—as children who have never grown up. She lapses into giddy nursery-rhyme language, announcing arrival at the farmhouse with a cheery “Home again, home again, jiggity jig!” (553). The grown woman and man, however, think such nonsense demeaning, as do the farm workers. The economic security of the offspring, however, unlike that of the workers, does not depend on paying attention or passively enduring these outbursts. Instead, the children consistently respond with essential immaturity and blatant disregard for their mother. The previous year, Asbury had been in the dairy barn gathering background material for an intended play “about Negroes” (551). When he begins smoking in the barn, Randall tells him his mother does not allow it. Nonetheless, the two workers agree to accept the free cigarettes Asbury offers them. This action results in the loss of two cans of milk, returned because they smell of smoke. Asbury's disobedience of his mother has resulted in her economic loss.
Asbury also proposes interracial milk drinking from a communal jelly jar, but Randall tells him, “That the thing she don't 'low” (559). Randall thus gets even with both his employer and with Asbury, the latter for his fawning and insincere protestations of brotherhood. By deliberately telling Asbury of Mrs. Fox's orders not to drink the milk—but neglecting to reveal the true reason—the danger of unpasteurized milk—he spurs Asbury to disobedience. Although Mrs. Fox obviously has not taken the time to teach Asbury about such dangers, any more than she has trained him how to operate the milking machines, she is convinced that hard work in the dairy would cure her son—although she knows “he would be a nuisance” (551). She simply issues orders and expects them to be followed. No commitment exists in any of these relationships. The participants step carefully around each other and interact according to a rigid code of manners. Resentment and a lack of trust builds from the superficiality, and desires for revenge emerge.
Asbury resents the treatment he receives from his mother, and views her behavior as childish. He plots his revenge, which he believes will cause her to face her childishness. By his death he will force his mother to confront reality, to “assist her in the process of growing up” (547). He feels that his letter will coerce her into acknowledging her role in “his tragedy” and “perhaps in time lead her to see herself as she was” (544-5). Infatuated by the idea of the significance of his death, he resists suicide because that would expose Mrs. Fox's failure as a mother to the neighbors; a private comeuppance will be sufficient.
Asbury realizes his mother's ability to make others bow to her will; when she looks at him sternly and asks, “Do you think for one minute … that I intend to sit here and let you die?” he fears for the first time that she might actually be able to prevent his revenge (562). What bothers Asbury most of all is her conviction that she is always right: “Her self-satisfaction itself [is] barely conscious” (554). Mrs. Fox has worked out a system of blame for everyone except herself. She credits her children's lack of a strong work ethic or the barest rudiments of civility to their education. Asbury's problems are confounded, she is convinced, by his “artistic temperament” (551). The priest's chiding for neglecting her son's prayers eludes her, and when it ultimately becomes known that undulant fever has caused her son's illness, she shows no remorse or recognition of responsibility for her behavior or Asbury's condition.
The educations she has provided her children by her hard work obviously fulfills some sense of obligation that Mrs. Fox feels society demands of her, although she certainly is not pleased with the results. Mary George's and Asbury's so-called intellectualism, in her estimation, has not enhanced their ability to communicate or achieve personal satisfaction. She is convinced that writing is not real work and that only physical labor, such as fence mending, will deliver Asbury. Since she was never able to instill in him a sense of responsibility for the farm, the long-suffering young man greets this idea with contempt. Only when his talk of dying scares her, Mrs. Fox indulges her son by encouraging his writing. Initiating conversations on topics she thinks would interest him, she forces him to sit on the porch and tortures his overly refined artistic sentiments by suggesting that their area of the country “need[s] another good book like Gone with the Wind” (560).
By thus manipulating her children through role playing, Mrs. Fox denies Mary George and Asbury their independence. Although her maternal actions have inspired only hatred, for some reason they remain bound to their mother in an unhealthy climate of manipulation and mutual dependency. Asbury is not sure why he blames his mother for his dependency and lack of imagination. “It was not that she had ever forced her way on him. … Her way had simply been the air he breathed and when at last he had found other air, he couldn't survive in it” (554-5). Asbury requests that his mother call a priest for him, knowing this will upset her. She makes the call because she realizes his condition is in fact deteriorating. Mrs. Fox feels obliged by good manners to inform the priest that her son's illness has affected his mind. Asbury leans over the banisters in order to eavesdrop on the call, just as he knows she will listen outside his door when he communicates with the priest.
Randall asserts his opinion that Asbury's nastiness arises from Mrs. Fox's not having “whupped him enough when he was little” (560). His comment rings of the pure genius that rises out of folk wisdom to confound the theoreticians. Even those strongly opposed to corporal punishment do not have to spend much time with Asbury before beginning to hope for a good thrashing, despite his fever and chills. Sympathy for Asbury starts to increase, however, when he begins to see himself more clearly. He realizes his life has been useless and frantically searches his mind for one justifying and meaningful experience before he dies. Unfortunately, following the meeting with Randall and Morgan in his room, he knows that for him there will be no “significant experience” (570). Blaming his mother seems too easy, but he senses that she is largely responsible for failing to provide meaning in the lives of her children. The unattractive Mary George—although her achievements are gargantuan compared to Asbury's—is not the southern belle Mrs. Fox believes a woman of her social stature should have for a daughter. Rather than praise her daughter for her accomplishments, Mrs. Fox instead nags her about improving her appearance. Mrs. Fox recognizes that “Mary George [is] not a happy girl herself” (552), but she stops thinking about it before she asks herself why or what can be done about it. Asbury for his part turned to the self-consoling activity of writing in response to his mother's false positivism—which is simply her emotional shield against her children's cries of pain.
“Good Country People” examines the relationship of the tenant family to the economic and social life of the female farm owner. A man must head this adjunct family, to do the majority of the farm work. Within the renting household, sons are considered a great asset and wives can prove very useful, but daughters, elderly mothers and fathers, and any other hangers-on must also pitch in and help. No matter how large, the family crowds into a small, rudimentary dwelling on the farm. The farm owner cannot fail to become involved, to some degree, in the personal lives of her tenants. Despite little or no education, social advantage, stability, or silver service sets, the tenant family fits—by virtue of skin color—on the class ladder above the African American day laborers and below the farm owner. In O'Connor's stories, the tenant often provides comic relief in addition to new twists on mother-child relationships.
Mrs. Hopewell in “Good Country People” is living embodiment of the title—at least in her own estimation. She becomes another butt of O'Connor's stinging criticism. A divorcée of many years, she runs a farm with the help of her tenants, the Freemans. In addition to her management duties, she must also contend with the antagonism of her daughter Joy. She is proud of her home, which she describes as elegant; her status as a shrewd, but good, country person; and her many favorite sayings, which allow her to live almost entirely by cliché. As her name suggests, she remains cheerful and positive at all times, but she is not proud of her daughter, although one of Mrs. Hopewell's aphorisms is “nothing is perfect.” Joy is thirty-two years old, and her given name is the antithesis of the general attitude of this “large hulking” woman “whose constant outrage [has] obliterated every expression from her face.”3 She changed her name to Hulga when she turned twenty-one, but her mother refuses to acknowledge it. The name change is both a desperate attempt to establish her own identity and a tremendous insult to her mother. Joy-Hulga has a wooden leg to replace the one blown off in a hunting accident when she was ten. She has a heart condition and, to make matters worse, a Ph.D. in philosophy.
Other psychological difficulties as well mar the daily operations of Mrs. Hopewell's farm. Mrs. Hopewell does not seem to share Mrs. Fox's need for constant hands-on management, perhaps because, if we take her at her word, she has “no bad qualities of her own but she [is] able to use other people in such a constructive way that she never felt the lack” (264). Before she hired the Freemans four years earlier, she had employed a new tenant family every year. This time, even though a previous employer had told her that Mr. Freeman is a good worker but Mrs. Freeman is rather unbearable in her nosiness, Mrs. Hopewell hired the family anyway, since they were her only applicants. In deciding what management technique to use with Mrs. Freeman, her reasoning is all but deranged: “Since she was the type who had to be into everything, … she would not only let her be into everything, she would see to it that she was into everything—she would give her the responsibility of everything, she would put her in charge” (264).
What Mrs. Hopewell needs more than anything is companionship, and Mrs. Freeman provides her this commodity. The two women start the day's business at Mrs. Hopewell's breakfast table and spend a great deal of the day together. They walk the fields and pull onions while Mr. Freeman is presumably off operating the heavy equipment. Mrs. Hopewell, however, has the upper hand in the relationship. She is the boss and has the additional status of a property owner. Considering the closeness of the two women, etiquette demands that the relationship be handled delicately; Mrs. Hopewell is careful to establish that the Freemans are not “trash,” as were her previous tenants. Mrs. Hopewell tells everyone that “Mrs. Freeman [is] a lady and that she was never ashamed to take her anywhere or introduce her to anybody they might meet” (264). Mrs. Freeman has faults; she thinks herself never wrong and always the first to think of everything. Fortunately for their friendship, Mrs. Hopewell possesses an extraordinary amount of patience.
When Joy-Hulga returned home after a few years at school, her health problems were paramount. Her heart condition is her excuse to do almost nothing. She constantly reminds everyone that if she were healthy she would be far away, teaching. Those familiar with Flannery O'Connor's battle with lupus cannot help but see the parallel dependency resulting from a debilitating illness with Joy-Hulga, and to some extent Asbury. This reality exacts a painful toll on the sufferer and the relationship with her caregiver. Joy-Hulga certainly might do more with her life if she really wanted—she certainly manages to climb readily up into the hayloft with the Bible salesman. Though she is capable of living alone, she remains at home to prove to her mother on a daily basis that she is the opposite of her mother's hopes for her (hence the meaning of Mrs. Hopewell's name). In her motherly role, Mrs. Hopewell gets up early and lights her daughter's heater. She frets because Joy-Hulga has never danced, partied, or socialized in the way southern young ladies should. She blames Joy-Hulga's general nastiness on her education and her wooden leg. Instead of instilling in her daughter a sense of responsibility by having her walk the fields with her mother, Mrs. Hopewell does not even ask, fearing Joy-Hulga's negative reaction. Puzzled that her daughter does not “like dogs or cats or birds or flowers or nature” (268), Mrs. Hopewell fails to realize that such appreciations are usually acquired in early childhood with the help of a loving mentor.
Mrs. Hopewell abhors the slightest hint of ugliness; therefore Joy-Hulga is a constant thorn in her side. The two spar continually and are steady sources of mutual irritation. Mrs. Hopewell clings to a childish belief in the truth of sugary maxims like “A smile never hurt anyone” or “People who look on the bright side of things would be beautiful even if they are not.” Joy-Hulga thumps around the house on her wooden leg just to annoy her mother with its ugly sound. Mrs. Hopewell tells the Bible salesman that her atheist daughter will not abide her keeping the Bible in the parlor. She lies when she tells him her Bible is in her bedroom, another indication of Mrs. Hopewell's willingness to bend the truth for the sake of manners. Mrs. Hopewell wishes that “the child had not taken the Ph.D.” because “it had certainly not brought her out any” (267). By habitually treating her daughter as a child, the mother fosters the daughter's vengeful rejection of Mrs. Hopewell's endless optimism and belief in the supremacy of the social graces. Joy-Hulga treats her mother as if she were an imbecile. Although Mrs. Hopewell is easily duped by the Bible salesman, believing his good-country-people spiel is “so sincere, so genuine and earnest” (272), she does not buy a Bible. She loses only the price of a dinner.
On the other hand, Joy-Hulga loses much more. She thinks she is going to seduce and control the salesman with her superior intellect. Instead, she loses her wooden leg and her dignity. She is shocked by the whiskey and deck of cards hidden behind the Bibles in his valise. She is flabbergasted to discover that he is a petty con man, not “just good country people” (282). She finally sees not only that the simple Bible salesman has duped her, but also that she has, against her better judgment, put all her assets into the stock of her mother's trite ontology. Both of their portfolios are now worthless on the open market.
O'Connor's sharp criticism of the mother figure is most piercing in her description of Mrs. Hopewell reactions to Hulga's education. Mrs. Hopewell wanted her daughter besieged by suitors, a social butterfly of little mind. But Joy-Hulga's intelligence is too great, her size too large, and her disposition too stubborn. Thus she has sought meaning in nihilistic philosophy, finding, as she tells the Bible salesman, “a kind of salvation” in seeing “through to nothing” (280). “Mrs. Hopewell thought it was nice for girls to go to school to have a good time but Joy had ‘gone through,’” (268) to become intellectually separated from her mother. It is bad enough that the daughter is “bloated, rude, and squint-eyed,” but her chosen field of study further compromises Mrs. Hopewell's social standing: “You could say, ‘My daughter is a nurse,’ or ‘My daughter is a school teacher. … You could not say my daughter is a philosopher.’ That was something that had ended with the Greeks and Romans” (268). Like Mrs. Fox, Mrs. Hopewell refuses to hear her child's cry for help. She blocks Joy-Hulga's requests with suggestions for “proper behavior” (266). When the Bible salesman tells Joy-Hulga that her wooden leg makes her different from anyone else, she surrenders to him completely and loses the leg she has treated as her soul.
Competition is as essential to social systems as to economic ones, linked as the two spheres are by greed and ambition—and even a tenant family can provide a landowner with competition. Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman engage in an ongoing contest to deliver the most clichés and engage in the most virtuous behavior. Joy, too, delights in a sarcastic rivalry with Mrs. Freeman. Competition occurs at its cutthroat best, however, when Mrs. Hopewell throws Joy-Hulga unwittingly into the ring with Mrs. Freeman's two daughters. Glynese is an eighteen-year-old redhead, admired mightily by the opposite sex. Carramae is fifteen, blonde, married, and pregnant. Together these two epitomize the proper combination of vapidity and fecundity to make a perfect southern belle, the kind of daughter Mrs. Hopewell has always hoped for. As Mrs. Freeman stands hovering over the breakfast, lunch, and dinner table, Joy-Hulga listens to Carramae's tales of the vomiting and gastric distress and reports of Glynese's backseat acrobatic antics. The two girls receive praise from her mother that Joy-Hulga has never received. Mrs. Hopewell feels that Joy-Hulga does not “have a grain of sense” (268), which is precisely what she admires most about the Freeman girls. No wonder she finds solace in a book that promises “nothing of Nothing” (269).
In “Greenleaf,” one of O'Connor's most technically competent stories, it is the bond with sons rather than daughters that is destroyed by the mother's spiritual bankruptcy. Mrs. May runs a thriving business and fancies herself a living martyr to hard work in a shiftless world. Spiritual blindness, egregious materialism, and stubborn willfulness in her dealings with the Greenleaf family, her tenants of fifteen years, fuel her frenetic management technique, poison her already revolting relationship with her sons, and eventually lead to her death.
All Mr. May left his wife and sons when he died was a piece of land purchased when prices were low. Mrs. May would have anyone believe that she single-handedly turned the tract into an impressive dairy farm: “When she looked out any window in her house, she saw the reflection of her own character.” When her friends in the city come to visit, she credits her amazing success to the “iron hand” with which she struggles to put down “everything [that] is against you … the weather … the dirt … and the help … all in league against you.”4 Her sons, two particularly unpleasant fictional siblings, object to the necessary move to the farm, after which their mother provides them with a more-than-adequate living, college educations, and doting personal attention. Although they hate every minute spent in country air, some inexplicable—and probably unhealthy—bond prevents them from leaving.
Scofield and Wesley May strive constantly to compromise any social standing that their mother has gained. Mrs. May refers to Scofield, the elder at thirty-six, as a “business type.” She does not object that he sells insurance for a living, but she disapproves of the fact that he sells “the kind that only Negroes buy.” That choice, she believes, prevents nice girls from wanting to marry him. But Scofield can make more money selling this type of insurance than any other kind, and, moreover, he enjoys undercutting his mother's obvious prejudice by announcing loudly in her company that “I'm the best nigger-insurance salesman in this country” (504-5). Mrs. May describes Wesley as an intellectual, though this claim is highly debatable. She blames his problems on rheumatic fever. Wesley's own musings remain for the most part unarticulated, but his intellectualism runs along the same lines as Asbury's and Joy-Hulga's: “He didn't like anything. He drove twenty miles every day to the university where he taught and twenty miles back every night, but he said he hated the twenty-mile drive and he hated the second-rate university and he hated the morons who attended it. He hated the country and he hated the life he lived; he hated living with his mother and his idiot brother and he hated hearing about the damn dairy and the damn help and the damn broken machinery. But in spite of all he said, … he never went even to Atlanta” (509).
As soon as Mrs. May had cleared her land for dairy farming, she hired the Greenleaf family. From Mrs. May's point of view, Mr. Greenleaf has been a completely unsatisfactory worker and has added nothing to the success of the business. Even though she views him as completely “shiftless” and believes that “no one else would have had him five minutes,” she has not fired him (502). She does not think she could find a better family—a cross she must bear, perhaps, or an indication of the size of the salary. She treats Mr. Greenleaf as if he were a child too dull to be insulted. She continually asks him if he understands, repeats instructions, and describes in detail the suffering she, a poor woman, has been forced to endure because of his inadequacy. “Over the years … Mr. and Mrs. Greenleaf had hardly aged at all. They had no worries, no responsibilities. They lived like the lilies of the field, off the fat that she struggled to put into the land” (509).
The arrival of the Greenleaf family, complete with their two sons, also marks the beginning of the competition arising from the inevitable comparison of the two sets of offspring. Mrs. May resents Mr. Greenleaf's obvious pride in his sons. “He acted,” she comments, “as if this [the fact that the boys are twins] were something smart they had thought of themselves” (507). O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf are a few years younger than Mrs. May's boys. They grow up on her farm, helping their father, learning the dairy business, and surviving on the hand-me-down toys and clothes from the more privileged Wesley and Scofield—a generosity for which Mrs. May expects gratitude to the grave. Mrs. May considers the Greenleafs to be trash, and she likens Mrs. Greenleaf's overzealous erotic faith-healing practices, in which the woman writhes obscenely in the dirt, to the wallowing of mules in the yard. In her mind the lowly Greenleafs are equivalent to the scrub bull that impregnates her cows and weakens the stock. Whenever Mrs. May feels threatened by the success of the Greenleaf boys, she consoles herself by thinking them stupid and ill bred: “Well, no matter how far they go, they came from that” (507).
World War II proved to be a stroke of luck for the young adult Greenleaf twins. They both joined the service during World War II, rose to the rank of sergeant, and had the good fortune to be wounded and net pensions. Returning home, they earned degrees in agriculture on the G.I. Bill. They bought land a couple of miles from Mrs. May and built a brick duplex and modern dairy farm with the help of government wartime subsidies. Mrs. May attributes the twins' success solely to the war and the taxpayer (herself). “If the war had made anyone, Mrs. May said, it had made the Greenleaf boys” (507). To make matters worse, both marry French girls while overseas. Mrs. May naturally assumes that because they are French, they are “nice girls” who have fallen for O.T. and E.T. because, “disguised in their uniforms, they could not be told from other people's children” (507). The Greenleaf boys each have three children, and, because their mothers are French, they will go to convent school that will eradicate the vestiges of social inferiority based on their relative lack of education and their speaking “Greenleaf English.” Such dumb luck in economic and social matters represents to Mrs. May a complete disruption of her sense of what is fair and deserved in her conservative and competitive understanding of the world. O.T. and E.T., who grew up without property and without learning correct manners, should have, in her mind, remained hired hands on the dairy farm. They should have been grateful for all she did for them. The Greenleaf twins eventually displace her and her childish, childless sons; thus all her work to maintain her economic status for the sake of Wesley's and Scofield's social status is wiped out.
Since the rearing of Wesley and Scofield is given scant attention, responsibility for the miserable outcome of their lives may belong to either the wretched mother or the wretched sons themselves, but the mother seems the safest bet. She overindulges them as adults (or, rather, as adult children). In order to maintain her elevated social standing, she prevents them from working on the farm or from helping Mr. Greenleaf and his boys get to know the place. Perhaps not surprisingly, neither has any appreciation for the land or for their mother's efforts. She tells them that if she hadn't “kept her foot on [Mr. Greenleaf's] neck all these years, you boys might be milking cows every morning at four o'clock.” Given her lack of humility, it is easy to sympathize with the sons' lapses of gratitude, although Wesley's comment, that “I wouldn't milk a cow to save your soul from hell,” seems a bit extreme (510).
Although she does not eat, Mrs. May hovers maternally over the breakfast table each morning to attend to her sons' needs, including preparing a salt-free diet for Wesley. Though she does not believe any of it, she thinks Christianity a fine religion, and urges the two to go to church to meet nice girls. She makes no attempt to throw them out or force them to grow up, and they make no attempt to leave. She constantly reminds them of her sacrifice for them and berates them for their inadequacies, especially by comparing them to O.T. and E.T. They respond with horrible taunts, calling her “sweetheart” and threatening to marry women like Mrs. Greenleaf. She calls them “boys” and makes excuses for their behavior. “Poor boy,” she says of Wesley, “he could not help making [his voice] deliberately nasty” (509). As a consequence of this emotionally hostile environment, Wesley and Scofield detest each other so completely that they resemble two vicious animals lying at opposite corners of a cage, each waiting for the right moment to go for the jugular. “I am the only adult on this place,” Mrs. May tells her sons in exasperation (510). The three characters thrive on mutual hatred.
All of Mrs. May's efforts—both maternal and social—are in vain. Her death resonates with the symbolism of judgment, for which she erroneously believes her work ethic makes her ready. On her Day of Judgment Mrs. May awakens to the sound of a stray bull chewing outside her window. She is concerned that the bull will weaken her stock—weakened stock, bovine or human, is one of her greatest worries—but again, it is a misplaced concern. The bull has pursued her relentlessly through the story and now resumes the fateful chase. Seeking respite, she reclines, exhausted, to rest on the hood of her car, and cries out the justification of her life: “Before any kind of judgment seat, she would be able to say: I've worked, I have not wallowed” (522). She thus believes she has led a correct life, but actually she has failed to see through the code of conduct and manners to what is important. Her self-satisfied statement is, from O'Connor's point of view, heavy with irony, weighing down her soul, for in truth, she has wallowed—in hubris and condescension, in arrogance and prejudice, in her failure to love and her lack of piety before God. In her unbelief, she does not recognize her culpability; judgment comes at a time and from a direction that she cannot anticipate; she has not seen, nor can she receive the light of God's mercy. Emerging from the trees, the beast—like the wrath of God—rams his horn through her loveless heart. She sinks down, burdened by her sins. “She had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable” (333). What is unbearable at that moment is the shocking recognition that the social and economic code to which she gave her complete faith has failed to provide any meaning or substance to her life.
Mrs. May's death may constitute for her an epiphany of another sort: the ultimate triumph of the patriarchal social and economic system, which the southern manners defended by O'Connor helped keep firmly in place. All of the author's frantic and class-conscious female farm managers must operate in a system that devalues them while highly valuing men and fathers. When Mrs. May berates Mr. Greenleaf because his sons have not come to take their inferior bull from her property, she recognizes the problem: “They didn't come because I'm a woman. … You can get away with anything when you're dealing with a woman. If there were a man running this place. …” Mr. Greenleaf reminds her of two men on the place—her sons. This rejoinder is “quick as a snake striking” (519). Mrs. May has emasculated her sons by not teaching them respect for male authority, thus subverting the natural order of patriarchy; therefore, in their impotence, Wesley and Scofield cannot continue its traditions. Having displaced a man as the head of the patriarchy, Mrs. May must be brought down and forced to face her weakness before men as well as before God.
O'Connor often attributes her characters' lack of virtue and failed relationships to their ignorant refusal to acknowledge the mercy of God. Speaking at an orphanage, she once observed: “Children know by instinct that hell is an absence of love, and they can pick out theirs without missing.” She also bemoaned the unreflective student enthusiasm displayed at the local college for candlelight ceremonies, reasoning that these students had never experienced formal religious ceremonies “where these things have their proper place and are relegated to the background and have meaning.” The absence of love and meaning in the lives of the Fox, Hopewell, and May families explains a great deal about the failures of the mother-child relationship in these three stories. The sense of noblesse oblige is strong in the southern patriarchal social system. In order to maintain control of their “underlings,” those at the top of the social system were careful to keep up a public stance that exhibited the same cold objectivity in dealing with their family members and close friends as with their servants, tenants, and laborers. For many, this lack of emotional connection dominated all relationships.
O'Connor herself stoically endured the illness that left her bound to her mother's care, and she rarely missed an opportunity to acknowledge her debt to Regina. The tensions and strains within this mother and daughter relationship at Andalusia, however, are quite evident in the story told by O'Connor's letters. The relationship as she depicts it was one in which “the only emotion respectable to show is irritation.”5 O'Connor's letters are full of humorous and ironic tales about Regina's troubles and successes running her business enterprise. Many of these tales appear transposed into fiction in these three stories of businesswomen and failed mothers and their children whose pain is evident through the veil of sarcasm. The real lives and the fictional ones are connected, as are the successes and the failures.
Flannery O'Connor, interview by C. Ross Mullins, in Mystery and Manners, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), 233-4; Erma Bombeck, Family: The Ties That Bind—and Gag (New York: McGraw Hill, 1987).
Flannery O'Connor, “The Enduring Chill,” in Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 551, hereinafter cited parenthetically by page number in the text.
Flannery O'Connor, “Good Country People,” ibid., 264-5, hereinafter cited parenthetically by page number in the text.
Flannery O'Connor, “Greenleaf,” Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works (New York: Library of America, 1988), 511, hereinafter cited parenthetically by page number in the text.
Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979), 244, 254, 163-4.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4687
SOURCE: Fike, Matthew. “The Timothy Allusion in ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find.’” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 52, no. 4 (summer 2000) 311-22
[In the following essay, Fike explores the moral and spiritual significance of O'Connor's allusion to Paul's epistles to Timothy in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” as well as demonstrates how the evangelist's related experiences enhance a reading of the story's climax.]
In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the family stops at Red Sammy Butts's place “for barbecued sandwiches.” “The Tower,” as Flannery O'Connor calls his establishment, “was a part stucco and part wood filling station and dance hall set in a clearing outside Timothy” (120). Critics have long dealt with O'Connor's place names, including the fictional town of Timothy. Robert H. Woodward was the first to speculate on the significance of the allusion to 1 Timothy, and later Hallman B. Bryant published his now famous article, “Reading the Map in ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find.’”1 Both analyses focus almost entirely on the moral dimension, with barely a hint of the spiritual, and neither article gives any indication that Paul wrote two epistles to Timothy. Responding to the latter omission, Michael Clark connects Paul's statement in 2 Timothy 1.6 on the laying on of hands with the grandmother's touch at the end of the story. These previous interpretations, however, leave unexplored other meaningful parallels between the epistles and this story. Indeed, as Leon V. Driskell and Joan T. Brittain point out, “An individual story's full significance may depend upon the reader's recognition of an allusion” (11). My purpose, then, is to explore more fully the moral and spiritual significance of O'Connor's allusion to 1 and 2 Timothy and to show that Paul's own related experiences enhance a reading of the climax.
Although O'Connor critics are fond of citing D. H. Lawrence's principle of trusting the tale, not the teller, an exploration of the Timothy allusion in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” will be strongest if it harmonizes with O'Connor's understanding of how her fiction works. Perhaps the allusion has received little critical attention because she makes only one reference to Timothy, the man, in which she merely calls him “St. Paul's fellow-worker” (The Habit of Being 116).2 Even Bryant's reading is not comprehensive because he trusts the teller's famous caveat against regarding a story as “a problem to be solved,” as “something which you evaporate to get Instant Enlightenment” (Mystery and Manners 108). One must remember, however, that her statement responds to misreadings such as one she received from “a Professor of English” who had written to announce that he and his ninety students had concluded that the story's second half is purely imaginary. Her immediate response to the professor anticipates the position Bryant quotes:
The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation…. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.
(The Habit of Being 437)
O'Connor's responses to readings she does not intend and considers wrong are not the most constructive guide to interpreting a carefully chosen allusion. Rather, one should note that her statements in Mystery and Manners support a more comprehensive reading strategy in harmony with her suggestion that “the meaning of a story should go on expanding.” She emphasizes, for example, the great interdependence of details in her art: “Detail has to be controlled by some overall purpose, and every detail has to be put to work for you. Art is selective. What is there is essential and creates movement” (93). The phrase “every detail has to be put to work for you” and the word “movement” leave open the possibility that the connections between the fictional town of Timothy and other details in the story form a more complicated weave than readers have previously noticed. Later O'Connor comments, “It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight” (179-80). This quotation, which aptly describes what happens when a story alludes to a New Testament epistle, implies that an interpretation needs to be both moral and spiritual. O'Connor's two statements affirm the possibility of finding further significance in the Timothy allusion without violating her caveat against overinterpretation.
Yet even the moral sense of interpretation has not been sufficiently explored. Much of Paul's moral exhortation in 1 Timothy centers on the family, and his comment about parricide has a direct parallel in the story. The Law is “not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient,” including “murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers” (1 Timothy 1.9). Woodward's only response to this verse is that The Misfit “commits every act Paul names and becomes the epitome of the Godless man in a Godless society” (4). The Misfit echoes Paul when he recalls to the grandmother that “a head-doctor at the penitentiary said what I had done was kill my daddy but I known that for a lie” (130). At the end of the story, of course, The Misfit guns down the grandmother who has just appealed to him as one of her own children.3 Although the head-doctor in the penitentiary does not understand that The Misfit's present problem is as much spiritual as psychological, the reference to the Oedipus complex accurately identifies family relations as the breeding ground of personality disorder and, in turn, of moral hollowness. Bryant rightly cites 1 Timothy 3.4-5 to show that Bailey is a marginal father to his disobedient children and notes that 1 Timothy 6.3-10 indicts the grandmother. There is something more to say, however, on the subject of widows, Paul's concern in 1 Timothy 5. The grandmother is not godly, prayerful, or trustworthy like the positive widows he mentions. A troublesome character, she is more like the young widows for whom he counsels remarriage. Still, Bailey's family appears to be doing the right thing: “If a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn their religious duty to their own family and make some return to their parents …” (1 Timothy 5.4). Allowing the grandmother to live with them is their duty, but while their behavior meets the letter of Paul's suggestion it is nearly empty of the love that should undergird it, which he stresses in 1 Timothy 1.5.
Family disorder becomes even more relevant if we consider Paul's examples of positive parenting. Bryant cites 1 Timothy 2.9-12, a passage about husbands in general, but does not mention maternal figures. 2 Timothy 1.5 reads, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you.” Lois passed the Christian faith on to Eunice, and she in turn passed it on toTimothy and served as a good example. Timothy thus had no dramatic conversion experience like Paul's; instead, much as O'Connor and the grandmother she creates were nurtured over the years in the Christian tradition, Timothy grew up in the faith and “from infancy” knew the scriptures (2 Timothy 3.15).He achieved exemplary piety in spite of his Greek father—a figure parallel to Bailey—who was possibly a nonbelieving Gentile (“Timothy” 558), and the general pagan influences of Greco-Roman culture, including those in his home town, Lystra (Peterson 10). He had been appropriately named: Timotheus means “honoring God,” or “dear to God” (Peterson 11).
The negative cultural influences to which young Timothy was subject are akin to the fanciful stories that Paul criticizes as “myths and endless genealogies” (1 Timothy 1.4), which in turn have parallels in the story. To begin with, the family is going to Florida, a destination whose importance O'Connor comments on: “I was so polite to [someone who had written proposing an interpretation of “‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’”] I astonished even myself. Explained to him they were going to Florida and how come they couldn't possibly be going anywhere else” (The Habit of Being 548). The editors of her collected letters do not quote her explanation, but a rationale is not hard to construct. Florida was for those who wanted to enjoy natural and commercial pleasures even before Disney World was built in 1971. Moreover, June Star, who knows her popular culture, alludes to “Queen for a Day,” a radio show that started in 1945 and became a TV show in 1956, three years after O'Connor sold “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” to the Partisan Review Reader (The Habit of Being 59).4 June Star's tap dancing at Red Sammy's, as Cheri Louise Ross points out, “parodies the American film icon Shirley Temple” (8). And the grandmother jokes that a plantation is “Gone With the Wind” (120). These allusions to popular culture—not just the grandmother's stories about a former suitor and a plantation, which Bryant mentions—fall under the rubric of “myths and endless genealogies.” Preoccupation with popular culture distracts the family from the more salubrious influence of religious teachings. Indeed, the family members are, at best, only marginally protestant—John Wesley's name, for example, is emptied of meaning and displaced onto a vicious little boy. They are far from being the kind of devout believer Paul mentions in 2 Timothy 1.15, the late Onesiphorus (literally “prophet-bringer” [“Onesiphorus,” Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia 537]), who extended hospitality and kindness to him and whose piety benefitted his own family (“Onesiphorus,” Interpreter's Dictionary).
Being dysfunctional, neither Bailey's family nor The Misfit can achieve the moral standard that Paul sets by means of three analogies:
No soldier on service gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to satisfy the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hardworking farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.
(2 Timothy 2.4-6)
These references to soldier, athlete, and farmer “are all stock examples of moral exertion in Hellenistic moral teaching. Paul here emphasizes their attention to duty” (Johnson 393). Compare The Misfit's statement about his background:
‘I was a gospel singer for a while…. I been most everything. Been in the arm service, both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twict married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive oncet … I even seen a woman flogged,’ he said.
Like Paul's moral exemplars, The Misfit has been a soldier and a farmer, but instead of the athlete's purposeful exertion The Misfit stresses death, destruction, and violence—undertaker, tornado, immolation, flogging. Negative contrast is again the key element of the parallel: The Misfit's free play of professions empties out the moral content Paul assigns to the soldier and the farmer, and the presence of these professions emphasizes the omission of athletics. The Misfit falls short of the athlete's morality, for he plays by no one's rules except his own. In his view, physical contact is for torture, and being a religious singer is no more meritorious or memorable than seeing a woman flogged. But even if The Misfit acted morally by adhering to the Law, he would still be incomplete for the same reason that a merely tropological reading of the story falls short—the absence of grace.
As the Timothy allusion enhances the moral sense of interpretation, it also invites a connection in terms of grace, which transcends law. Gordon Fee states that Law “is good because it truly does reflect God's will. Nevertheless … the Law is not gospel, but remains a species of law” and is thus helpless (45, 50). Paul says, on the one hand, that “when the commandment came, sin revived and I died; the very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me” (Romans 7.10). On the other, he makes this statement about the human response to grace: “So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3.23).5 Law keeps a person in check, but grace liberates one to new life. By the time Paul wrote to Timothy, the distinction no longer needed to be argued but was taken for granted. In 2 Timothy 1.9, Paul mentions “the grace which he [God] gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago, and now has manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” And it is this grace that makes following laws more than meaningless ritual. Paul also says that “the aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1.5). In short, grace precedes and enables moral behavior, a peaceful disposition, and love of others. Along the way, of course, prayer is helpful: Paul urges prayer in 1 Timothy 2.1-7, much as the grandmother is constantly urging The Misfit to pray. “‘If you would pray,’ the old lady said, ‘Jesus would help you’” (130).
O'Connor identifies the moment of grace in the story when she writes: “The Misfit is touched by the Grace that comes through the old lady when she recognizes him as her child, as she has been touched by the Grace that comes through him in his particular suffering. His shooting her is a recoil, a horror at her humanness, but after he has done it and cleaned his glasses, the Grace has worked in him and he pronounces his judgment: she would have been a good woman if he had been there every moment of her life” (The Habit of Being 389). As Clark nicely notes, the grandmother's touch parallels Paul's mention of the laying on of hands and “emphasize[s] the grace that accompanies charismatic physical contact” (68).6 Commenting on 2 Timothy, Martin Dibelius and Hans Conzelmann point out, “Here, as elsewhere, the hand serves as the means of transferring power, be it upon the sick for healing, upon the young, the weak, or the religiously impure for the purpose of blessing (Mk 10.13ff), or upon those who did not have the Spirit for transmitting the Spirit” (70). The grandmother's humanness is evident, but the parallel in Timothy suggests that her touch, like the laying on of hands, provides a conduit through which God's grace flows to The Misfit. He shoots her, then, because he has been touched by the divine love he has spent his whole life trying to deny. Yet we know that grace has worked in him because he goes from saying that meanness is his only pleasure to admitting, “It's no real pleasure in life” (133). Viewed from the vantage point of 2 Timothy, the touch counters Stephen C. Bandy's objection to a theological interpretation: “To insist at this moment of mutual revelation that the Grandmother is transformed into the agent of God's grace is to do serious violence to the story” (116).
The significance of the Timothy allusion abides not only in moral and spiritual parallels but also in the life experience of the epistles' author, which foreshadows the story's climax. Like Hazel Motes in Wise Blood (Chapter 13), The Misfit and, in a different way, the grandmother, whose “head cleared for an instant” (132), have a transformational experience on a roadway, whose prototype is Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus where Christ confronted him. Paul's experience of the risen Christ transforms him from a “persecutor” into a “propagator” of Christianity—admittedly the greatest apostle of the early Christian era (“Paul” 187). O'Connor comments on Paul, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse” (The Habit of Being 354-55). So it is with the grandmother who, a moment before her own death, finally acts according to the religion she has merely believed all her life. Mere belief is not enough: one must implement and embody belief in acts of love, like the touch, which has a dramatic effect on The Misfit. But sometimes a transformation like Paul's or the grandmother's requires a powerful stimulus, and therein lies the truth of The Misfit's statement, “She would of been a good woman … if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” (133).
The Misfit changes as well: much as Saul's zeal for persecution yields to Paul's love of Christ, The Misfit's legal befuddlement makes way for positive growth, as O'Connor suggests: “… however unlikely this may seem, the old lady's gesture, like the mustard-seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit's heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become” (Mystery and Manners 112-13). As he indicates when he capitalizes pronouns referring to Christ, The Misfit has not fully embraced the atheism that Bryant attributes to him. Saying that there is no real pleasure in meanness is not a full affirmation of God's love either, but his life is now moving in the same direction as Paul's: away from an emphasis on Law and toward “the law of Christ” (see Galatians 5.3 and 6.2). The Misfit's final action—cleaning his glasses—echoes Paul's regained eyesight and signifies an improvement in spiritual vision.7 The Misfit's suffering may eventually lead through endurance and character to hope (Romans 5.3-5). If Paul, “the foremost of sinners” can receive God's mercy (1 Timothy 1.15-16), God should not have trouble with The Misfit after all. He is an unlikely prophet, of course, but so was Paul, and so was Timothy, who was too young, prone to illness, and timid to strike most persons as an effective evangelist (Peterson 148-49). Paul even feels he has to tell the Corinthians not to despise the younger man (1 Corinthians 16.10-11).
There is also foreshadowing in the details of Paul's death. Much like the six members of the family who die on a deserted road, tradition has it that Paul was executed on the Ostian way, a road leading out of Rome to the south (Harper Study Bible 1788). As Paul writes 2 Timothy, he is well aware of his coming death: “For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come” (4.6). This statement makes the second epistle to Timothy a testament—or, to use Paul's own athletic metaphor, a “passing of the baton” to Timothy (Fee 283). As Paul anticipates his own death, so the Timothy allusion foreshadows the death of the family, along with details such as Toombsboro (based on a real place), and The Tower.8
One thinks here of the Tower of London as a foreshadowing allusion for two reasons. First, the Tower of London's “byname” is simply “the Tower” (“London”), a connection that Red Sammy's place does not share with the Tower of Babel or any of the other towers lurking in the background. Second, as a state prison between 1480 and 1630 (Curnow 55), the Tower of London was the site of imprisonment, execution, and murder (“London”). In other words, both the Tower of London and Red Sammy's eponymous gas station are a last stop before one reaches the place of execution. Often the sentence, as in Thomas More's case, was capricious—justice at the Tower could be the epitome of injustice. Similarly, The Tower in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” anticipates not only The Misfit's outrage at the perceived injustice of his own imprisonment but also his execution-style murder of Bailey's family. Moreover, the juxtaposition of The Tower and Timothy is significant, for The Tower, in connection with the Tower of London, suggests justice, and the nearby town of Timothy, with its Pauline undertones, calls to mind God's mercy and grace. If poetic justice prevails in the family's execution and mercy triumphs through the transformation grace effects in The Misfit and the grandmother, then by placing The Tower near Timothy, O'Connor foreshadows and encapsulates these concepts by employing the allegory she attributes to “the writer of grotesque fiction.” Such a writer uses “one image that will connect or combine or embody two points; one is a point in the concrete, and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye, but believed in by him firmly, just as real to him, really, as the one that everybody sees” (Mystery and Manners 42). The Tower is to the town of Timothy as justice is to God's mercy and grace. As a result, the fictional town participates in the synergy of grace and place that O'Connor mentions: “I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil” (Mystery and Manners 118).
This exploration of O'Connor's allusion to the Epistles to Timothy supports her sense of the interrelation of details, the power of Christian reference, and the principle that “the meaning of a story should go on expanding.” The letters are as important to “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” as another text, Human Development, is to “Revelation” (The Complete Stories [The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor] 488-509): the Pauline material ties together the story's satirical elements by providing a moral and spiritual benchmark that underscores their negativity, and Paul's authorship enables autobiographical connections. Ultimately, Red Sammy's conclusion about goodness is in the spirit of Paul's remarks: a good person is hard to find if grace is denied, but The Misfit and the grandmother embody Paul's confidence that “if we are faithless, he [Christ] remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (1 Timothy 2.13). Grace enables a person to transform suffering into moral behavior, rise above an adherence to Law, and love others, becoming, like Timothy, the kind of person Paul considered to be a good man.
Bryant, who makes several of the same points as Woodward but was evidently unaware of the earlier piece, is right to hold that “the towns alluded to along the route which the family travels were chosen for two reasons: first, and most obviously, to foreshadow; and second, to augment the theme of the story” (301). Regarding the Timothy allusion, he states that
it seems likely that she put the town of Timothy on the map because she wanted the reader to pick up the allusion and perhaps refresh himself on the contents of the New Testament, but more probably she saw the parallel between her modern-day characters who have left the main road of Christian faith and Paul's warning to the church when he feared it was in danger off into the byways of heresy. (305)
Bryant sees specific parallels as follows: Paul's statement about a bishop's role indicts the way in which Bailey runs his household (this includes child rearing); Paul's comments on vanity, trivial discussions, modest dress, and silence undercut the grandmother, though she learns the lesson in 1 Timothy 2.5 about Christ as mediator between God and human beings; and Paul's statement on hypocritical liars (1 Timothy 4.1-2) calls to mind The Misfit, whose comment, “‘No pleasure but meanness,’” Bryant calls “hedonistic atheism” (305).
The phrase “fellow-worker” echoes 1 Thessalonians 3.2, and Romans 16.21.
Paul considers himself Timothy's spiritual parent (e.g., 1 Timothy 1.18), but as Giannone points out, “Paul, extending the sonship of Jesus to all believers in God, calls this new relationship `adoption as sons' (Galatians 4.5)” (75).
On “Queen for a Day,” “Women would tell stories about their lives generated to evoke sympathy from the audience who would applaud for the woman they deemed most worthy of prizes and the title ‘Queen for a day’” (Whitt 45).
Slaves were responsible for caring for children until the age when they could be educated, notes New Testament Scholar James Brownson. This makes our position without Christ parallel to children in the care of slaves. Plato's Laws, VII.808 seems an appropriate gloss on the children in the story: “When Dawn comes up and brings another day, the children must be sent off to their teachers. Children must not be left without teachers, nor slaves without masters, any more than flocks and herds must be allowed to live without attendants. Of all wild things, the child is the most unmanageable: an unusually powerful spring of reason, whose waters are not yet canalized in the right direction, makes him sharp and sly, the most unruly animal there is” (298).
Clark's source is 2 Timothy 1.6, but there is a similar statement in 1 Timothy 4.14: “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you” (1 Timothy 4.14).
In another Pauline connection, W. S. Marks wonders whether “the glasses The Misfit wears [are] a ‘silent parable’ that says in effect, We see through a glass darkly” (92). One also thinks here of Saul's blinding and Hazel Motes's self-inflicted blindness.
The actual town is called Toomsboro, as a picture of the sign at the city limit indicates (Grimshaw 4), but Woodward's note 3 states that the town was named after Robert Toombs. The government misspelled the town's name, but O'Connor uses the correct local spelling, whose closeness to “tomb” heightens the foreshadowing (5). Bryant relates Red Sammy's place to the Tower of Babel and to towers associated with the Virgin Mary (305-6) but fails to cite previous critics' reference to the Tower of Babel (Driskell and Brittain 11). C. R. Kropf finds Red Sammy's Tower to be “reminiscent of the Tower of Dis …” (180). One might also note the contrast between the seediness and contemporary shallowness of Red Sammy's place and the present-day Tower of London's polished, museum-like elegance and centuries of history. For a combination of photographs and historical narrative, see Kenneth J. Mears, The Tower of London: 900 Years of English History (Oxford: Phaedon, 1988).
The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Ed. David Noel Freedman, et al. 6 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Bandy, Stephen C. “‘One Of My Babies’: The Misfit and the Grandmother.” Studies in Short Fiction 33.1 (1996): 107-17.
Brownson, James. Personal Interview. June 19, 1998.
Bryant, Hallman B. “Reading the Map in ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find.’” Studies in Short Fiction 18.3 (1981): 301-07.
Clark, Michael. “Flannery O'Connor's ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’: The Moment of Grace.” English Language Notes 29.2 (1991): 66-69.
Curnow, P. E. “The Bloody Tower.” The Tower of London: Its Buildings and Institutions. Ed. John Charlton. London: Brown, Knight and Truscott, 1978. 55-61.
Dibelius, Martin, and Hans Conzelmann. The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles. Trans. Philip Buttolph and Adela Yarbo. Ed. Helmut Koester. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972.
Driskell, Leon V., and Joan T. Brittain. Eternal Crossroads: The Art of Flannery O'Connor. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1971.
Fee, Gordon D. 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1984.
Giannone, Richard. Flannery O'Connor and the Mystery of Love. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Grimshaw, James A., Jr. The Flannery O'Connor Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1981.
Harper Study Bible (Revised Standard Version). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1965.
Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986.
Kropf, C. R. “Theme and Setting in ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find.’” Renascence 24.4 (1972): 177-80, 206.
“London, Tower of.” The New Encyclopaedia Britannica: Micropaedia. 15th ed. 1997.
Marks, W. S., III. “Advertisements for Grace: Flannery O'Connor's ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find.’” “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Ed. Frederick Asals. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993. 83-93.
O'Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and “Revelation.” The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971. 117-33, 480-509.
———. The Habit of Being. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.
———. Mystery and Manners. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.
———. Wise Blood. New York: Ferrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1962.
“Onesiphorus.” The Interpreter's Dictionary, of the Bible. Ed. George Arthur Buttrick, et al. Vol 3. New York: Abingdon, 1962. 4 vols. 603.
“Onesiphorus.” The Zondervan Pictorial Encylopedia of the Bible. Ed. Merrill C. Tenney. Vol. 4. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975. 5 vols. 537-38.
“Paul.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 5. 186-201.
Peterson, William J. The Disciplining of Timothy. Wheaton, IL:Victor, 1980.
Plato. The Laws. Trans. Trevor J. Saunders. Baltimore: Penguin, 1970.
Ross, Cheri Louise. “The Iconography of Popular Culture in O'Connor's ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find.’” Notes on Contemporary, Literature 27.1 (1997): 7-9.
“Timothy.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 6. 558-60.
Whitt, Margaret Earley. Understanding Flannery O'Connor. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
Woodward, Robert H. “A Good Route Is Hard To Find: Place Names and Setting in O'Connor's ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find.’” Notes in Contemporary, Literature 3.5 (1973): 2-6.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6573
SOURCE: O'Gorman, Farrell. “The Angelic Artist in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 53, no. 1 (fall 2000): 61-79
[In the following essay, O'Gorman analyzes O'Connor's and fellow southern-Catholic writer Walker Percy's “satirical portraits of the twentieth-century romantic artist—portraits that entirely fuel several of O'Connor's short stories.”]
Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy have been briefly linked in a number of articles exploring their affinities as Catholic authors of the American South. But their relationship deserves further consideration in light of their common immersion in a vibrant postwar Catholic intellectual milieu, one which had its roots in Europe but strongly impacted the United States. O'Connor and Percy alike first came to their mature, intellectually informed faith and literary vision in the “Age of Anxiety” largely by drawing on the work of thinkers such as Jacques Maritain, Gabriel Marcel, and Romano Guardini. Maritain—the French philosopher who rearticulated the thought of Thomas Aquinas for the twentieth century—was perhaps the single most important common influence upon the two in terms of aesthetic theory, and he virtually embodied the influence of the midcentury Catholic Revival upon sympathetic American writers (such as Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford, and Thomas Merton) when he moved to Princeton and befriended Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon in the 1940s. That particular relationship would have far-reaching ramifications for O'Connor and Percy alike as literary artists. As long-established literary figures prior to their conversions, Tate and Gordon had ties not only to the Fugitive-Agrarians who largely shaped the Southern Renascence but also to the great Anglo-American modernists of the 1920s; as fervent Catholic converts after World War II, they interacted with O'Connor and Percy significantly. Gordon served as a close-reading editor for both the younger writers in the 1950s and 1960s, while Tate provided more distant guidance, usually through his published essays; both in their own fashion delivered to their proteges significant encouragement and aesthetic advice that was often couched in the Neo-Thomist terms favored by Maritain. It is in this milieu, I will argue, that we find the roots of O'Connor's and Percy's satirical portraits of the twentieth-century romantic artist—portraits that entirely fuel several of O'Connor's short stories and that are subtly interwoven into virtually all of Percy's novels.
First of all, a number of the mutual influences introduced above significantly impacted the “theories of fiction” developed by O'Connor and Percy alike. Percy drew on Maritain in his earliest essays on language, while O'Connor noted that although the Frenchman was “a philosopher and not an artist … he does have great understanding of the nature of art, which he gets from St. Thomas” (The Habit of Being 216). From works such as Art and Scholasticism—which O'Connor called “the book I cut my aesthetic teeth on” (The Habit of Being 216) and which Jay Tolson and Patrick Samway alike have cited as central to Percy's thought by at least the early 1950s—both learned the value of a sacramental vision that demanded a rigorous, concrete Christian realism. In this seminal work of twentieth-century Catholic aesthetics Maritain defines the maker of what the modern mind calls the fine arts as concerned with intelligible arrangement but also as profoundly grounded in the concrete:
… this brilliance of the form, no matter how purely intelligible it may be in itself, is seized in the sensible and through the sensible, and not separately from it. The intuition of artistic beauty thus stands at the opposite extreme from the abstraction of scientific truth. For with the former it is through the very apprehension of the sense that the light of being penetrates the intelligence.
(25; Maritain's emphasis)
Both O'Connor and Percy would finally agree with all the claims put forth in this brief but dense passage: that art is a form of knowledge; that it approaches the real—“being”—by a means entirely different from that of science; and that that means finally depends upon sense experience of the concrete rather than an abstract knowledge of general truths. Here we can see the theoretical grounding for O'Connor's repeated claims in her essays regarding the writer's responsibility to the world of matter, as well as Percy's claims that the novel is essentially cognitive but approaches the empirical from a direction altogether different than that of modern science.1
O'Connor and Percy found similar ideas in the work of William Lynch, S. J., the editor of the Fordham philosophical and literary quarterly Thought, which O'Connor subscribed to and Percy published in during the fifties and sixties. In articles such as “Theology and the Imagination” (1954) and the book Christ and Apollo (1960)—owned and annotated by O'Connor and Percy alike—Lynch outlined a vision that was clearly important to both authors. His notion of the concrete literary imagination as particularly Christian was essentially continuous with Maritain's, but his emphasis on the role of limitation and form in shaping such a “Hebraic” imagination—which he defined in contrast to a dreamlike “Apollonian” imagination—was largely articulated in his own terms. O'Connor herself would succinctly convey his vision in her brief review of Christ and Apollo:
The opposition here is between Christ, Who stands for reality in all its definiteness, and Apollo, who stands for the indefinite, the romantic, the endless. It is again the opposition between the Hebraic imagination, always concrete, and the agnostic imagination, which is dream-like.2
While the work of Maritain and Lynch provided O'Connor and Percy with some theoretical notion of the Catholic literary imagination, both found more practical support for such a vision in the formalist critical sensibilities of the Tates. Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon were, of course, practicing writers as well as critics, and Gordon's advice to O'Connor and Percy upon reading their early manuscripts was much more immediate and technical than the ideas conveyed by Maritain and Lynch. But though their attention was much more directly focused on the actual practice of literary creation and criticism, Gordon and her husband alike were ultimately, of course, in agreement with the notions advanced in Art and Scholasticism and Christ and Apollo. Tate drew on Maritain throughout his mature career in developing his sophisticated articulation of an implicitly sacramental aesthetic; he and Gordon, as befitted their own modernist and New Critical sensibilities, also attempted to convey to the younger authors both a deep sense of symbolic realism and a reverence for formal technique, in part by disparaging writers who succumbed to what Lynch would have deemed the “Apollonian” imagination.
Indeed, the Catholic intellectual tradition that fostered the imaginations of O'Connor and Percy often most articulately conveyed what it was by pointing to what it was not. In their common intellectual milieu O'Connor and Percy found not only positive support for their own sort of realism but also injunctions against certain forms of the modern literary imagination. Because Tate had for so long been troubled by his own relationship to that imagination, he was one of the most powerful spokesmen on its shortcomings, particularly when it manifested itself in the form of romanticism; O'Connor and especially Percy would follow his lead in linking romanticism with the modern tendency toward “dream-like” abstraction under Maritain's general rubric of “angelism.” The realism that each embraced in this particular milieu, I will argue, accounts for the antiromantic bias both show in their relentless satire of flawed artists in their own fiction—almost inevitably types of the romantic who, ironically, often perceive themselves as politically topical realists.
Tate's essays are a fitting starting point for further understanding what he, Gordon, and ultimately O'Connor and Percy saw as the limitations of the twentieth-century romantic imagination. In “Yeats's Romanticism,” Tate (who finally refuses to call Yeats a romantic) echoes T. S. Eliot in succinctly phrasing the “historic” problem of romanticism as “the division between sensibility and intellect” (Essays of Four Decades 300). While Tate wrote a number of pieces on this theme, “Hart Crane” (1932-37) emerged from his early experience and encapsulates his attitudes toward what he would later call the role of “the man of letters in the modern world.” This essay reflects the essence of Tate's larger thinking about art, culture, and religion in the twentieth century; furthermore, it was not only admired in itself by O'Connor, but also contains the seeds of much of Tate's later thought on the literary imagination.3
Crane had been a close friend of Tate's, and the essay conveys a strong sense of his own involvement in what he saw as Crane's—whom he elsewhere called “our twentieth-century poet as hero—artistic dilemma” (Essays 328). While largely affectionate toward Crane in calling him “one of the great masters of the romantic movement,” Tate's primary purpose in writing the piece is to articulate what he sees as the profound limitations of that movement. Crane's “aesthetic problem” was the “historic problem of romanticism,” first hinted at in Tate's statement that the poet was probably “incapable of the formal discipline of a classical education.” Crane's poetry reveals the limitations of romanticism in that it has not only “defects of the surface, it has a defect of vision” (310-11); it fails to engage with the world as it is. The locked-in sensibility, the insulated egoism, of his poetry conflicts with the ordinary forms of experience, and his portrayal of a reality where objects are not distinguished from one another reveals his “implicit pantheism” (313). While the “impulse in The Bridge is religious, … the soundness of an impulse is no warrant that it will create a sound art form” (317). In all of these statements we see Tate's proclivity for a rigorous and demanding formal aesthetic which communicates the realities of the concrete world.
And, Tate continues, Crane as romantic was completely unaware of the split between his own consciousness and that world. The Bridge is an ill-conceived attack upon what Crane perceived as Eliot's “pessimism”—which in Tate's estimation is founded on real insight into “the decay of individual consciousness and its fixed relations to the world,” but which Crane mistakenly sees as “pure orneryness” in the face of the wonders of the mechanical age. Crane's “vagueness of purpose, in spite of the apparently concrete character of the Brooklyn Bridge, which became the symbol of his epic, he never succeeded in correcting” (314). Such vagueness is characteristic of the undisciplined romantic imagination, which has no sense of limitation and therefore of form:
the fifteen parts of The Bridge taken as one poem suffer from the lack of a coherent structure, whether symbolic or narrative. … The single symbolic image, in which the whole poem centers, is at one moment the actual Brooklyn Bridge; at another, it is any bridge or “connection”; at still another, it is a philosophical pun and becomes the basis of a series of analogies.
Tate's understanding of language comes to the foreground in this analysis, and he finally draws a clear connection—one consistent with his work in such essays as “Literature as Knowledge”—between a properly grounded sensibility, skillfully employed language, and realistic engagement with the world. He finally assesses The Bridge as a cautionary example of the product of a romantic imagination that is very much akin to the dreamlike Apollonian-agnostic imagination Lynch had decried. As such it is fundamentally opposed to the sacramental imagination best represented for Tate by Dante:
In the great epic and philosophical works of the past, notably The Divine Comedy, the intellectual groundwork is not only simple philosophically; we not only know that the subject is personal salvation, just as we know that Crane's is the greatness of America: we are given also the complete articulation of the idea down to the slightest detail, and we are given it objectively apart from anything that the poet is going to say about it. When the poet extends his perception, there is a further extension of the groundwork ready to meet it and discipline it, and to compel the sensibility of the poet to stick to the subject. Crane's difficulty is that of modern poets generally: they play the game with half of the men, the men of sensibility, and because sensibility can make any move, the significance of all moves is obscure.
(316; emphasis mine)
While such a criticism may itself seem obscure and to offer little hope to the post-medieval artist, O'Connor seems to have been in full agreement with Tate. In “Writing Short Stories” she seems to apply his observations on poetry to short fiction: “The fiction writer has to realize that he can't create compassion with compassion, or emotion with emotion, or thought with thought. He has to provide all these things with a body; he has to create a world with weight and extension” (Mystery and Manners 92).
Tate also expands on the shortcomings of romanticism in a manner that has clearer implications in an American context, and he does so in a statement that implicitly recalls his Southern Agrarianism. Crane, he says,
… knew little of the history of his country. It was not merely a defect of education, but a defect, in the spiritual sense, of the modern mind. Crane lacked the sort of indispensable understanding of his country that a New England farmer has who has never been out of his township. The Bridge attempts to include all American life, but it covers the ground with seven-league boots and, like a sightseer, sees nothing. With reference to its leading symbol, it has no subject matter. The poem is the effort of a solipsistic sensibility to locate itself in the external world, to establish points of reference.
Despite his diplomatic attempt to include the Yankees here, Tare knew that at the time he was writing the part of America that would bear strongest evidence of the fruits of a regional realism was not New England, but the South. Maritain would have agreed with his principle here. Art and Scholasticism stated that precisely because “art does not reside in an angelic mind,” it is “basically dependent upon everything which the human community, spiritual tradition and history transmit to the body and mind of man. By its human subject and its human roots, art belongs to a time and a country,” which is precisely “why the most universal and the most human works are those which bear most openly the mark of their country” (74). And O'Connor likely drew from both in formulating her own oft-repeated comments regarding the value to the writer of being rooted in a place. In America, she tells us, “The Regional Writer” has been—like Tate's “New England farmer”—apt to know his country best:
The best American fiction has always been regional. The ascendancy passed roughly from New England to the Midwest to the South; it has passed to and stayed longest wherever there has been a shared past, a sense of alikeness, and the possibility of reading a small history in a universal light.
(Mystery and Manners 58)
In its sense of being a distinct place, O'Connor wrote, “the South still has a degree of advantage,” but one already passing in her own time—in which Northerners moving to Atlanta suburbs are told “You'll like this place. There's not a Southerner for two miles.” Percy would write of a South even further gone in becoming a “non-place,” of course (to borrow his term from “Why I Live Where I Live”), but his ambivalence about his own status as a regional writer had more to do with his perception of his region's actual disappearance than with any rejection of the inherent value of one's local reality. For, to an even greater degree than O'Connor, he explicitly agreed with Tate's diagnosis of the ills attendant upon the modern mind's disengagement from the real. And for Percy this disengagement was not limited to the sphere of literary romanticism; he followed Maritain's lead in exploring the extent to which the broader phenomenon of “angelism” was manifest in the modern mind generally.
The term has a complicated history, but in The Dream of Descartes (1944)—a study in intellectual and cultural history—Maritain laid out most succinctly his analysis of the post-Cartesian split of the human self into “beast-machine” body and “angelic” soul. While on the one hand positing a purely physical and mechanistic conception of the world, Descartes claimed for himself and like-minded thinkers a privileged theoretical—even in some sense a “spiritual”—standpoint from which pure knowledge was attained. Western culture ever since has been characterized by
… a theoretical contempt of the body and the senses; nothing worthwhile but pure thought. This means, in fact, the triumph of artificial thought and of false intellectualism; for human intellection is living and fresh only when it is centered upon the vigilance of sense perception. The natural roots of our knowledge being cut, a general drying-up in philosophy and culture resulted, a drought for which romantic tears were later to provide only an insufficient remedy.
Maritain goes on to develop the connection between Cartesianism and romanticism—both the products of angelic sensibility—at some length. Descartes himself, Maritain implies, was a proto-romantic in the narcissistic withdrawal from society and tradition which his famous philosophical “method” required, as well as in his
optimism of Reason, forerunner of the sentimental optimism of the eighteenth century, and which is even like a very distant, hardly perceptible prelude to the irrational optimism which Jean-Jacques Rousseau was to promote on a far greater plane and with a far greater amplitude.
Ultimately, Cartesian man becomes “the man of Rousseau, naturally good in so far as he is sentiment and instinct” (183). As such, Maritain suggests, he is radically disconnected from reality, and his exuberant optimism easily degenerates to darkest despair; such is the intellectual heritage of the modern Western intellectual, literary or otherwise.
Unwilling to leave the debate to the French, Tate followed Maritain's lead and joined in a tradition of Descartes-bashing in English letters that dates to Gulliver's Travels.4 He did so by attending to the work of not Crane but of an earlier Southern writer who had long fascinated him, one whose own dark romanticism—the flip side of Emerson's exuberance—Tate saw as inexorably bound to Cartesian thought. “The Angelic Imagination: Poe as God” (1951) draws explicitly on Maritain in a lengthy examination of Poe in terms of angelism—exploring, for example, the proclivity of his male heroes for professing “an impossibly high love of the heroine that circumvents the body and moves in upon her spiritual essence” (Essays 404). Tate points to Eureka as the culmination of Poe's project, for in it “he circumvented the natural world and tried to put himself not in the presence of God but in the seat of God.” Such an act is bound to fail because “the human intellect cannot reach God as essence; only God as analogy. Analogy to what? Plainly analogy to the natural world; for there is nothing in the intellect that has not previously reached it through the senses” (420). Herein also lies Tate's critique of Poe's notion of the apparently self-sufficient nature of language, one that is countered—as are the presumptions of the Cartesian “romantic” intellect itself—in the companion essay, “The Symbolic Imagination: The Mirrors of Dante” (1951), which largely expands upon Tate's explication of Dante in the Crane essay. Dante succeeds where Poe fails precisely because he approaches God not directly but sees Him in the “mirror” of the sensible world and conveys that vision through analogical language.5
O'Connor was certainly familiar with the concept of angelism from Lynch's work (in “Theology and the Imagination” he drew on Tate's explication of the term) and probably from Tate and Maritain directly, but Percy would most consistently concern himself with it. Perhaps he did so because Gordon—disheartened by Percy's habit of creating characters who simply “think” without being located in “time and space”—had accused him of it in one of her early letters: “I think you are in danger of falling, as a writer, for what Jacques Maritain calls the sin of the age: angelism.”6 In any case, it is certain that Percy read and annotated The Dream of Descartes and drew from it throughout his career. It is possible to read Binx Bolling's shift from the “vertical” search to the “horizontal” search in The Moviegoer (1960) as an escape from the Cartesian mode, but even much later Percy would indicate his fascination with angelism-bestialism. In Love in the Ruins (1971), Dr. Thomas More at one point prays, “Dear God, I can see it now, why can't I see it other times, that it is you I love in the beauty of the world …, and it is pilgrims we are, wayfarers on a journey, and not pigs, nor angels” (104). Lost in the Cosmos (1983), perhaps Percy's lengthiest meditation on this theme, posited that “the Self since the time of Descartes has been stranded, split off from everything else in the Cosmos, a mind which professes to understand bodies and galaxies but is by the very act of understanding marooned in the Cosmos, with which it has no connection” (47). The angelic self here is a theorizing “ghost” which generally conceives of its own body as a beast-machine whose needs are essentially those of the consumer—an organism, albeit a complex one, in an environment.
Those selves most given to angelism—in Lost in the Cosmos but also in Percy's work generally—include both scientists and artists, and in the twentieth century the latter often have the more difficult time reconciling the transcending angelic mode of artistic creation to the immanent mode of everyday life: much of the latter half of Lost in the Cosmos is devoted to tragicomic descriptions of the failures of writers to “reenter” the world they have successfully written about. “What did Faulkner do after writing the last sentence of Light in August? Get drunk for a week. What did Dostoevsky do after finishing The Idiot? Spend three days and nights at the roulette table” (142). But in rare cases, Percy (drawing on Kierkegaard) claims, a writer can in fact achieve “reentry under the direct sponsorship of God” and thereby maintain a proper balance between the transcendent and the immanent:
In any case, reentry into ordinary life, into concrete place and time, from the strange abstractions of the twentieth century, the reentry undertaken under the direct sponsorship of God, is a difficult if not nigh-impossible task. Yet there have existed, so I have heard, a few writers even in this day and age who have become themselves transparently before God and managed to live intact through difficult lives, e.g., Simone Well, Martin Buber, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Some have even outdone Kierkegaard and seen both creation and art as the Chartres sculptor did, as both dense and mysterious, gratuitous, anagogic, and sacramental, e.g. Flannery O'Connor.
It would be a mistake to read Percy's comments as a critique of the work of Faulkner or Dostoevsky, for whose novels he had the greatest admiration; here he is primarily concerned with not art, but life. But in his admiration of O'Connor's conception of life and art alike we see presented most strongly the vision of the real—and the sense of artistic vocation—Percy himself would strive to attain.
And we can likewise see the roots of the satire O'Connor and Percy both would level upon artists with no sense of the real whatsoever, in life or in art. For both shared not only a positive commitment to realism but also a strong bias against romanticism which manifests itself in the presentation of flawed writers in their fiction. These are typically solipsistic, romantic dreamers who clearly have no connection with their world or their region whatsoever, and—often simultaneously—self-described topical realists whose angelically conceived political theories become mere clichés which isolate them from the real. Such figures populate the pages of O'Connor's and Percy's fictions alike. While O' Connor has a few stories which relentlessly focus on the “flawed artist,” Percy has a minor character in almost every one of his novels who falls into this category.
O'Connor, of course, is well known for her satire of abstracted intellectuals generally, but three stories focus particularly on the self-absorbed artist: “The Crop,” “The Enduring Chill,” and “The Partridge Festival.” “The Crop” formed part of O'Connor's M.A. thesis at Iowa and so was composed at a time when she was first struggling to understand the nature and practice of fiction herself. While this early story is often overlooked, it sets the pattern of the aspiring creative writer who looks inside herself rather than around her for the source of her fiction. Miss Willerton lives in a small Southern town in which she must spend a considerable amount of time doing domestic chores and listening to the banal conversation of the women she lives with. Yet while O'Connor carefully describes this world with an amused eye for the often absurd details which would color her own fiction—“Lucia said a regular breakfast made for other regular habits, and with Garner's tendency to upsets, it was imperative that they establish some system in their eating” (33)—Miss Willerton turns within herself and daydreams about a “subject” for her fiction.
Unfortunately, “There were so many subjects to write stories about that Miss Willerton never could think of one” (33). In the act of crumbing the table she briefly wonders if baking might make a good subject, and decides it might—but only if she wrote of “foreign bakers,” who are very “picturesque” in photos she has seen. She finally decides that a “social problem” would be a better subject:
Sharecroppers! Miss Willerton had never been intimately connected with sharecroppers, but, she reflected, they would make as arty a subject as any, and they would give her an air of social concern which was so valuable to have in the circles she was hoping to travel!
Before she gets out of this town, she thinks, she might be able to “capitalize … on the hookworm” (35). Sitting at her typewriter and thinking in terms of jargon she has learned from a creative writing class, she proceeds not to write but rather to fantasize about her story, which will apparently owe something to the Erskine Caldwell school of poor white fiction: “there would have to be some quite violent, naturalistic scenes, the sadistic sort of thing one read about in connection with that class” (36). Finally, however, she grows frustrated with her “subject,” and turns to one about which she knows even less than she does about sharecropping: “The Irish!” whom she begins to imagine as “full of spirit—red-haired, with broad shoulders and great, drooping mustaches” (41).
While much of the story is clearly farcical and most obviously points to exactly how not to write, there is at least one moment where O'Connor places Miss Willerton squarely in a scene where she has the smallest glimmer of vision about the depths of the world in which she actually lives. Pulled from her typewriter to go to the grocery store, she wanders through it sulking:
Silly that a grocery should depress one—nothing in it but trifling domestic doings—women buying beans—riding children in those grocery go-carts—higgling about an eighth of a pound more or less of squash—what did they get out of it? Miss Willerton wondered. Where was there any chance for self-expression, for creation, for art? All around her it was the same—sidewalks full of people scurrying about with their hands full of little packages and their minds full of little packages—that woman there with the child on the leash, pulling him, jerking him, dragging him away from a window with a jack-o'-lantern in it; she would probably be pulling and jerking him the rest of her life.
Such is, of course, exactly the sort of scene in which O'Connor herself would have seen the mysterious depths of creation and the setting of a drama with eternal significance for the souls of its participants—all while remaining faithful to the concrete details of place and character. Instead, Miss Willerton worries about “self-expression” and returns to her typewriter to daydream about a place and people she has never seen.
O'Connor would further develop such types of the angelic artist later, most famously in “The Enduring Chill.” Asbury Fox is in many respects a more sophisticated Miss Willerton, one whose self-absorption has a clearly religious dimension not developed in “The Crop.” Fancying himself a version of Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, he has escaped from “the slave's atmosphere of home”—his small town of Timberboro—to “liberate my imagination, to take it like a hawk from its cage in New York” (364); but he has failed to produce anything there, and the story is concerned with his reluctant return home in the face of what he thinks is a deathly illness.7 His New York friend Goetz has encouraged him to see both death and life as an “illusion,” but Asbury now must confront the horrible “thought of death here,” on the all-too-real farm he grew up on (358-59). Out of a concern for his art—which apparently is to have a social dimension like that of Miss Willerton—and a desire to upset his mother, he makes a self-centered attempt to strike up a “friendship” with the two black men who work for her: “Last year he had been writing a play about the Negro and he had wanted to be around them for a while to see how they really felt about their condition, but the two who worked for her had lost their initiative over the years” (368). The “for a while” qualification is highly significant: Asbury is not interested in the lives of these two men, but in the “issue” of “the Negro,” and their actual characters prove to be unsatisfactory to his purposes. The story is, of course, ultimately concerned with Asbury's spiritual awakening to the final reality that he will not have to die but rather to live “here.” Whether or not this awakening will invigorate his sterile art, however, O'Connor does not suggest.
“The Partridge Festival” is a late story in the same vein, which pairs two young would-be writers in their gross misconception of the violent events which have marred the small town of Partridge's spring Azalea Festival. A man named Singleton has shot five local dignitaries during the opening ceremonies and been imprisoned in the local jail. While the townspeople label Singleton a “maniac” and concern themselves with the incident's desultory effect on “the festive spirit” and sales, a young man named Calhoun imagines Singleton as a heroic nonconformist who has rejected the town's bourgeois values. Calhoun has been working as a salesman but thinks of himself as a “rebel-artist-mystic” and—when asked by his aunts about his future plans—pompously announces, as if to himself: “I think I shall write” (424). When he begins to prowl about the town, berating the “materialism” of its citizens and envisioning Singleton as a victim of its warped moms, he is unexpectedly joined by Mary Elizabeth, a young scholar intending to write a “non-fiction” study of the killer as “a Christ-figure” (435). “Stunned” by her insight, Calhoun enviously announces that his novel based on Singleton will be superior to her study because “the novelist is not interested in narrow abstractions” but rather “in concrete findings and the mystery of personality” (435-36). While Calhoun's ramblings here superficially resemble O'Connor's own thoughts on fiction, the limitations of his vision of the real are revealed when he and Mary Elizabeth finally confront Singleton himself. The gifts they bring for their presumed savior—“a Modern Library Thus Spake Zarathustra, a paperback Revolt of the Masses, and a thin decorated volume of Housman”—suggest their own allegiance to an inherently illogical (but consistently “angelic”) combination of views: self-generated Nietzschean morality, rigorously theoretical politics, and purely self-indulgent aesthetic sensibility. Singleton, unfortunately, is not interested in such high-minded gifts, not only because he is uneducated but also because he is a maniac after all—a perverse and lecherous old man who breaks away from his guards and chases the two writers out of the jail by threatening to expose himself.
O'Connor herself called “The Partridge Festival” a farce and was not completely happy with the finished story, but it is obviously the culmination of a pattern that runs from the beginning to the end of her career. For if “Parker's Back” would be her exploration of the highest possibilities of art, “The Partridge Festival” is the final installment of a series of stories dealing with the utter impossibility of substantial art issuing forth from an angelic sensibility. It is possible to read this story, as Irving Malin has, as revealing the profound limitations of art itself.8 Calhoun's “pod-shaped” car—which contrasts with the flowering azaleas that recur throughout the story—suggests his isolation from creation, as does the single-mindedness reflected in his idol's name (180). Such images reflect Calhoun's insistence upon looking “at reality from his warped, selfish perspective” and a refusal “to understand that he cannot simply break through jails of self-conception, that he cannot triumph over natural creation” (180-81). To a degree, certainly, O'Connor would agree with Malin's conclusion that art by its very nature “can never completely capture spiritual worlds,” that “it always tries to capture the invisible, underlying pattern of life, but it is doomed to failure” (185). Yet she would doubtlessly contend that Calhoun—like Miss Willerton and Asbury—will not only fail but fail abysmally as an artist precisely because he has no sense whatsoever of a spiritual—or even a natural—world existing independently of his own sensibilities and theories.
While O'Connor provides us with a few taut stories entirely focused on the flawed artist, Percy more subtly scatters throughout his novels portraits of the flawed artist—portraits which are inevitably bound up with the larger themes of the works themselves. …
When a Jacoby [Love in the Ruins, Percy] or a Calhoun succeeds in communicating a twisted vision of the real, both Percy and O'Connor would agree, the flawed artist becomes not a figure of fun but rather one to be feared. For if art is not only dependent upon an adequate vision of the real but also is to be understood ultimately as a vehicle for conveying the truth, it is to be taken very seriously indeed. In O'Connor's and Percy's satire of the flawed romantic artist—that angelic sensibility which has disconnected itself from reality—we see not only a dramatization of their “theories of fiction,” but also an exploration of their most profound thematic concerns as Catholic artists striving to capture adequately the depths of the real and mysterious world in which they live.9
See O'Connor, Mystery and Manners, especially “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” and “Writing Short Stories”; Percy, Signposts in a Strange Land, especially “Naming and Being” and “Diagnosing the Modern Malaise.”
See Habit of Being (132) for O'Connor's admiration of Lynch; her annotated copy of “Theology and the Imagination” is held in the Flannery O'Connor Collection, Ina Dillard Russell Library, Georgia College and State University. Percy published his first essay, “Symbol as Need” (Autumn 1954) as well as “The Message in the Bottle” (Autumn 1959) during Lynch's tenure at Thought; Patrick Samway has also acknowledged Percy's personal admiration for Lynch (175). Percy's copy of Christ and Apollo is held, along with the rest of his personal library, in the Rare Books Collection at Louis Round Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
See Habit of Being (149) for O'Connor's reading of the Crane essay. Percy probably read it also, at least in truncated form, for it appeared in his copy of Tate's The Forlorn Demon: Didactic and Critical Essays.
Swift parodies an entire nation of angelic Cartesians who inhabit the Flying Island of Laputa, “whose minds are so taken up with intense speculations, that they neither can speak, nor attend to the discourses of others, without being roused by some external taction upon the organs of speech and hearing” (128).
Percy would later cite Tate's “The Symbolic Imagination” in his own essay, “Metaphor as Mistake” (Message in the Bottle 66).
Caroline Gordon to Walker Percy, no date [1952?], Walker Percy Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
For Asbury's debt to Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, see David Aiken, “Flannery O'Connor's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Failure,” Arizona Quarterly 32 (1976): 245-59.
See Irving Malin, “Singular Visions: ‘The Partridge Festival’” in Critical Essays on Flannery O'Connor, 180-85.
In The Second Coming Lewis Peckham is the flawed artist. He looks “like a Cherokee scout,” but is in fact a University of Virginia graduate of old Tidewater stock, a Vietnam vet, and a discontented golf pro.
Maybe books had mined him. … He thought he was a good poet but he was not. He thought books could tell him how to live but they couldn't. He was a serious but dazed reader. He read Dante and Shakespeare and Nietzsche and Freud. He read modern poetry and books on psychiatry. He had taken a degree in English, taught English, fought in a war, returned to teach English, couldn't, decided to farm, bought a goat farm, managed a Confederate museum in a cave on his property, wrote poetry, went broke, became a golf pro.
His poetry is “not good. There was one poem called ‘Moon over Khe Sanh,’ which was typed in the shape of a new moon” (and is actually typed out in the text). But Percy—or at least Will Barrett—suggests that there might be hope for Peckham, precisely because “he knew a great deal he hadn't learned from books. The trouble was he didn't set store by it.” If he only gave up on his “bookish” notions about literature and turned to the world around him, he might become a decent writer: “How could he read signs and people so well, yet want to be a third-rate Rupert Brooke with his rendezvous with death at Khe Sanh? Why would he even want to be a first-rate Rupert Brooke?” (137-38).
Lynch, William. Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960.
———. “Theology and the Imagination.” Thought (Spring 1954): 61-86.
Malin, Irving. “Singular Visions: ‘The Partridge Festival.’” Critical Essays on Flannery O'Connor. Eds. Melvin J. Friedman and Beverly Lyon Clark. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985.
Maritain, Jacques. Art and Scholasticism & The Frontiers of Poetry. Trans. Joseph W. Evans. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962.
———. The Dream of Descartes. Trans. Mabelle L. Andison, New York: Philosophical Library, 1944.
O'Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. Ed. Robert Giroux. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.
———. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.
———. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Noonday Press, 1970.
———. The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews. Comp. Leo J. Zuber. Ed. Carter W. Martin. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1983.
Percy, Walker. Lancelot. New York: Avon, 1977.
———. The Last Gentleman. New York: Avon, 1966.
———. Lost in the Cosmos. New York: Washington Square Press, 1983.
———. Love in the Ruins. New York: Avon, 1971.
———. The Message in the Bottle. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.
———. The Moviegoer. New York: Ballantine, 1961.
———. The Second Coming. New York: Ballantine, 1980.
———. Signposts in a Strange Land. Ed. Patrick Samway. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991.
Samway, Patrick H., S.J. Walker Percy: A Life. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997.
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels and Other Writings. Ed. Louis A. Landa. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.
Tate, Allen. Essays of Four Decades. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1968.
Tolson, Jay. Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10962
SOURCE: Schaum, Melita. “‘Erasing Angel’: The Lucifer-Trickster Figure in Flannery O'Connor's Short Fiction.” Southern Literary Journal 33, no. 1 (fall 2000): 1-26.
[In the following essay, Schaum examines the archetype of the trickster in O'Connor's short fiction and argues that she provides, through this archetype, a multi-faceted caricature of Lucifer.]
“A dimension taken away is one thing; a dimension added is another.”
—Flannery O'Connor,“The Fiction Writer and His Country”
“The origins, liveliness, and durability of cultures,” writes cultural historian Lewis Hyde, “require that there be space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that culture is based on” (9). In his excellent study Trickster Makes This World (1998), Hyde joins a long and distinguished line of critics examining the archetypal trickster-figure in world mythologies: a figure of mischievous disruption characterized by rule-breaking, lies, theft, shape-shifting, and wordplay; a citizen of contingencies and thresholds who, while subverting and denigrating existing orders, paradoxically thereby allows for a creative reanimation and restoration of social and metaphysical order. The fraternity of trickster-figures is a familiar one in folklore and myth: Hermes in Greek antiquity, the Chinese Monkey King, the Norse prankster Loki and East Africa's spider-god Anansi (transformed in American Gulla dialect to the folkloric “Aunt Nancy”), the Native American figures of Coyote and Raven, the Yoruba Eshu and the Maori trickster Maui, to mention just a few. From Puck to Prometheus, the pervasiveness of this image in human narrative suggests its centrality as an emblem for redemptive chaos and transformative disorder.
Although Flannery O'Connor's short fiction has long been anchored in the genre of Christian allegory, I believe that viewing her works through the lens of this archetype can expand received readings of her fiction. It may offer new insights as well into O'Connor's unique blend of comedy and corruption that characterizes her rendition of evil in the world. Specifically, her caricatures of Lucifer in four of her more allegorical stories of the 1950s—Tom Shiftlet in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” Manley Pointer in “Good Country People,” The Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and Powell Boyd in “A Circle in the Fire”—share much with the folkloric figure of Trickster, not merely in their individual aspects as agents of chaos, but in the paradoxically redemptive function they perform.
Such folkloric and mythic elements in O'Connor have so far received scant critical attention. Of various genre studies, only one extended work—Ruthann Knechel Johansen's The Narrative Secret of Flannery O'Connor: The Trickster as Interpreter (1994)—takes up at any length the figure of the trickster in O'Connor. However, I believe Johansen's depiction of this archetypal figure manages to be on the one hand too broad, and on the other too benign. In the context of a narratological analysis of O'Connor's prose, Johansen associates tricksters with “interpreters”: Hebraic prophets, mediators, inspired “newsbearers,” and facilitators who are “always on the side of human beings” (31)—and ultimately she sees trickster as an emblem of the narrative act itself, a psychic embodiment of “the ironic imagination.” While hermeneutically interesting, this more benevolent expansion of the archetype downplays much of the disruptive, purposeless, and chaotic nature of both the mythic trickster and O'Connor's use of him.
Far from being a “Christlike” seducer or helpful reconciler of conflicts (31), Trickster classically functions far more dynamically as the principle of disorder, a catalyst for subversion and loss. He is the “border breaker,” the outlaw, the anomaly; deceiver and trick player, shape-shifter and situation-inverter; sacred messenger and “lewd bricoleur”1—one who, according to Joseph Campbell, “doesn't respect the values that you've set up for yourself, and smashes them” (qtd in Hynes and Doty 1). While Johansen does capture the essential ambiguity of this figure and acknowledges his “havoc-wreaking” as a ritual of renewal, in many ways her reading, when applied to O'Connor's fiction, becomes overly inclusive of all ironic or indeterminate figures. Johansen incorporates such characters as Julian in “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” Hulga in “Good Country People,” and the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” under the porous category of “tricksters.” Indeed, Johansen labels even the Holy Spirit a “trickster” because it “mediates between the unknowable God and the Christ, God made flesh” (104).2 Yet not all ambiguous characters are tricksters, and to conflate duped, self-important, or misguided characters—or emblems of divinity like the Holy Spirit—with the profane, demonic “con artist” of the Trickster is to expand the category beyond usefulness.
I suggest instead that O'Connor uses the trickster archetype in a far more focused fashion, to provide a multi-faceted caricature of the Lucifer-figure in her debut collection of “stories about original sin,” A Good Man Is Hard to Find [A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories].3 By drawing on folk elements and the archetypal principles of chaos and liminality, O'Connor manages in this early work to provide a depiction of evil that is at once humorous and penetrating, accessible and didactic, just as the profanity it touches upon also reaches into realms of the sacred. Moreover, it is ultimately a figure that moves beyond myth to tie into theories of the redemptive process put forth by Catholic theologian Teilhard de Chardin, who posited evil as “an annihilation which makes room for God's entry into the world” (Montgomery 36).
I should say at the start that critics caution against a direct confusion of Trickster with the conventional Christian Devil, a distinction that becomes clear when one considers a doctrinal view of Satan. Hyde writes:
The Devil and the trickster are not the same thing, though they have regularly been confused. … The Devil is an agent of evil, but trickster is amoral, not immoral. … One doesn't usually hear said of the Christian Devil what the anthropologist Paul Radin says of the Native American trickster:
Trickster is at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others and who is always duped himself. … He knows neither good nor evil yet he is responsible for both. He possesses no values, moral or social … yet through his actions all values come into being.
Yet I would argue that O'Connor's fictive Lucifer in these stories is precisely such a figure: not the conventional theological Satan, but an ambiguous character that draws as much on the rhythms of folklore and on narrative traditions such as the grotesque (with its template character of prankster-criminal-madman-clown) as it does on Church doctrine. The result is a figure of evil at once compelling and comic, duping and duped himself, as much Br'er Rabbit as Beelzebub.
O'Connor's Trickster poses as a spiritual confidence man—liar, thief, smooth operator, the injector of disorder and bankruptor of souls—yet he is himself as often as not comically evil, snared by his own devices, and unwittingly conscripted into the service of divine good. Moreover, by breaking the rigid and sterile orders of misplaced human pride, righteousness, egoism, or appetitive greed, he becomes the disruptive force that paradoxically makes possible social and spiritual renewal. I propose to examine certain characteristics of the trickster-figure in “The Life You Save,” “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and “Good Country People”—characteristics of aimlessness, language play, appetitiveness, and theft—then focus more extensively on “A Circle in the Fire” as a parable of property that uses the mythic trickster narrative to advance its lesson about sterility, chaos, and transformation. In this way I hope to show how O'Connor claims a view not at all inconsistent with her deeply-faceted theology, yet one that offers a radically individual and resonantly universal sense of the mysteries of evil and redemption in the modern world.
One of the predominant characteristics of Trickster is his restless, wandering nature. Like Br'er Rabbit or Br'er Fox—or like Hermes, god of roadways—we continually meet him “coming down the road” as the tale begins. As a traveler, he is an emblem of indeterminacy, a figure “at the crossroads” or in the liminal space between communities, ever “on the open road.” This device of wandering functions as more than a simple framing device for these narratives. In itself, the idea of wandering introduces the theme of disruption and the overthrow of certainties: literally, to be (or come from) outside the city gates, from “who knows where,” is to be or come from a place outside of law, order, and the known. Joseph Campbell situates Trickster “beyond the system” (qtd in Hynes and Doty 1) and William Hynes labels him “an ‘out’ person … outlawish, outlandish, outrageous, out-of-bounds, and out-of-order” (34). Lewis Hyde places him in historical context: “To travel from place to place in the ancient world was not only unusual, it was often taken to be a sign of mental derangement (if a story began ‘So and so was wandering around aimlessly,’ listeners knew immediately that trouble was at hand)” (11). Unsettled and unsettling, the drifter is he who interjects the unpredictable into structures resistant to change, he who forces newness and the unexpected, sometimes in the form of divine accident, into the smugly self-contained.
Tom Shiftlet, in O'Connor's “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” is just such a classic wanderer, agent of chaos and change. As with so many of O'Connor's Lucifer-Trickster figures, we first meet him coming up the road, an out-of-town (indeed, out-of-this-world) stranger who seems to arrive at the Crater homestead literally from nowhere. True to his shifty, shiftless name and nature, he dodges Mrs. Crater's questions about his origins: “‘You from around here?’ ‘Name Tom T. Shiftlet,’ he murmured, looking at the tires. … ‘Where you come from, Mr. Shiftlet?’ He didn't answer” (Stories [The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor]146-147). Yet we do learn that he is the quintessential drifter, as liminal in name and identity as he is in locale:
A sly look came into his face. “Lady,” he said, “nowadays, people'll do anything anyways. I can tell you my name is Tom T. Shiftlet and I come from Tarwater, Tennessee, but you never have seen me before: how you know I ain't lying? How you know my name ain't Aaron Sparks, lady, and I come from Singleberry, Georgia, or how you know it's not George Speeds and I come from Lucy, Alabama, or how you know I ain't Thompson Bright from Toolafalls, Mississippi?”
“I don't know nothing about you,” the old woman muttered, irked.
As the Father of Lies, O'Connor's Lucifer-Trickster has already rocked the assumed stabilities of truthtelling, identity, and judgement. True to classic trickster form, “he is a vagabond, an intruder to proper society, and an unpredictable liar who throws doubt on the concept of truth itself” (Vecsey 106). Indeed, having unsettled these certainties, his very next question goes to the moral riddle at the heart of O'Connor's stories: “Listen, lady, … what is a man?” (Stories 147).
Mrs. Crater, representative of a smug world that thinks it “knows it all,” is a prime candidate for Trickster's wiles. She is venal, greedy, duplicitous, faithless; most importantly, she believes that she can dupe this “tramp,” but is soon to learn that in a game of wits the devil always wins. Far from being “no one to be afraid of” (Stories 145), Shiftlet proceeds to con her out of her daughter, her automobile, ＄17.50, and her immortal soul, in a hoax with which she is wonderfully complicitous, “done in” by her own greed and folly. Tom Shiftlet, drifter and con man, fans out his deck of identities like a pack of cards:
He had been a gospel singer, a foreman on the railroad, an assistant in an undertaking parlor, and he come over the radio for three months with Uncle Roy and his Red Creek Wranglers. He said he had fought and bled in the Arm Service of his country and visited every foreign land and that everywhere he had seen people that didn't care if they did a thing one way or another.
True to type, at the story's close the trickster-figure is once more in motion, “on the road” towards Mobile and further pranks in parts unknown.
Tom Shiftlet's list of identities is echoed in the wander-litany of The Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” which seems to roam both in space and time, from modern to Biblical days:
“I was a gospel singer for a while,” The Misfit said. “I been most everything. Been in the arm service, both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twict married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive oncet … I even seen a woman flogged,” he said.
At this story's outset we learn he is “aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida” (117), most assuredly an intermediary between the worlds of chaos and law. He is escaped, “loose” and unpredictable, yet in some ways, as we shall see, inevitable. As the figure of chance, he represents accident in its profoundest sense: a gesture or event that not only shatters received complacencies but also reanimates rigid, narrow orders and reopens them to mystery.
O'Connor herself referred to “the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially” in defending her use of violence in this story as revelatory and catalytic. In “A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable,” she explains:
Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them. … In my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.
(Collected Works [Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works] 203)
And, I would add, in the folkloric tradition as well, this view posits Trickster as the principle of necessary disruption when individuals or societies have become too rigid in their beliefs. When order threatens to become sterility—whether social or spiritual—the strange traveler arrives to shatter complacency, the result of which is either downfall or, in the Grandmother's case in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a redemptive transformation.
A third wanderer-catalyst-trickster is Manley Pointer, the itinerant Bible salesman of “Good Country People.”4 He arrives at the door of the Hopewell farm, introducing himself as someone “not even from a place, just from near a place” (Stories 279), and announces that his goal is to become a “missionary,” one who travels the world bearing his message—only in this case, ironically, it is a message of disruption. With Hulga, his self-satisfied and unwitting victim, he wanders into the countryside on their imaginary picnic, leading her progressively further from the known—first towards the barn at the edge of the property, and then up into the hayloft where the comic scene of reverse seduction and trickery will unfold. In traveler's lingo, proud Hulga needs to “lose her bearings.” He lures her by way of her own vanity into crossing boundaries from the world she thinks she knows and claims to be master of, to one both unpredictable and revelatory.
Trickster uses disorientation as a tool, as Manley Pointer does when he removes Hulga's glasses in the hayloft and pockets them, leaving her practically blind, seeing the world in inversions of blue and green shapes, mistaking earth for water. Yet obviously this is only an emblem for the inversions and blindnesses she has willed upon herself by way of her nihilistic philosophy and pride; Hulga—as is the case for all those caught in the falsity of intellectual hubris—has long been duping herself. When Manley Pointer finally reveals his true nature—opening his Bible suitcase to pull out whiskey, condoms, and obscene playing cards—he hoists her on her own petard in a final, memorable inversion—“‘Aren't you,’ she murmured, ‘aren't you just good country people?’” (Stories 290)—and with the theft of her leg, her soul, and her complacency, the demonic picaro once again resumes his wandering: “And you needn't to think you'll catch me because Pointer ain't really my name. I use a different name at every house I call at and don't stay nowhere long” (291).
If Trickster is a figure of displacement and indeterminacy, then boundaries and thresholds are sites where he is to be found. Tricksters are “edge men” according to anthropologist Victor Turner (580); for Hynes “the trickster appears on the edge or just beyond existing borders, classifications, and categories. … Visitor everywhere, especially to those places that are off limits, the trickster seems to dwell in no single place but to be in continual transit through all realms marginal and liminal” (34-35). In O'Connor's fiction he appears perpetually at doorways or gates, or at the edges of owned property. He is also, like Hermes, “particularly active at the twilight margins between daylight and darkness” (Doty 48), a crepuscular figure arriving like Tom Shiftlet at sunset, most present in the indeterminate, “in-between” times.
Trickster thus resides at the junctures between worlds—the known and the unknown, the orderly and the chaotic, temporal and divine. One of his functions is to lure his victims into the “traveler's space” of “uncanny territory” (Hyde 72), a not-at-homeness (Unheimlichkeit) in which they lose their bearings and find themselves between or on the outside of situations and certainties that conventionally orient them. The climactic moment of disillusion and revelation that follows—whether it be the comic comeuppance of Hulga Hopewell or the sudden penetrating vision of love that transforms the Grandmother of “A Good Man is Hard to Find”—completes Trickster's ambivalent, double-edged task. As a figure of aporia and transition, his purpose is both to confound and clarify—or rather, to clarify by first confounding. Like the mercuric prankster Hermes, he creates illusion, but he also unveils it; his is the “magic” (Doty 52) that “both enchants and disenchants the world around him” (Hyde 227).
Just as the trickster-figure is situated at junctures that are in-between states, so too is he located linguistically in the shadowland between truth and falsity, a realm where the true and the false are no longer clearly demarcated. This is the place of “crooked speech,” of lies and riddles, of snares of rhetoric and sophistry, of duplicity, of the serpentine speech of Milton's Satan. According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Trickster is “he who dwells at the margins of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language … repeating and reversing simultaneously as he does in one deft discursive act” (235).5 It is again a transitional site of disorientation: “Under [Trickster's] enchantment, illusion sinks below the threshold of consciousness and appears to be the truth” (Hyde 78); referentiality is upended so that language offers “not one meaning, but the possibility of meaningfulness” (Doueihi 199). But in this liminal space we can also find the ambiguity that clarifies: paradoxically, the inflexibility of the literal must at times be shattered and revivified by riddle, metaphor, or truth of a different order.
One identifying trait of O'Connor's Lucifer-Trickster is precisely this use of bent language, wordplay, and riddle. Tom Shiftlet in “The Life You Save” does not merely evade Mrs. Crater's questions, nor does he completely dissemble in the course of their discussions. Instead, he answers her in riddles, telling the truth but telling it slant. Asked where he hails from, Shiftlet does not respond directly, but instead lights a match and brings the fire dramatically close to his face. It is a visual clue to his infernal origins that Lucynell Jr., emblem of the mute innocent soul, understands perfectly, and that her literal-minded mother cannot or will not comprehend (Stories 147). Similarly, Shiftlet's announced desire to live where he could see a sunset every evening (146) suggests that he comes from someplace not of this world; and when he claims to be someone for whom “some things mean more … than money” (148), the reader attuned to his real identity (and able to decode the “hermetic” messages he sends) understands that his currency is human souls. “Don't ever let any man take her away from you,” Shiftlet cunningly advises Mrs. Crater about Lucynell, and indeed the unwitting Mrs. Crater complies. The bizarre truths of her own misguided statements—“I would give her up for nothing on earth. … I wouldn't give her up for a casket of jewels” (149)—become evident as she sells her immortal soul to the devil for ＄17.50 and the cost of a fan belt.
Mrs. Crater is dismayingly literal, as imaginatively hollow as her name implies. She is not only linguistically but spiritually locked into the surface of things—surface meanings, surface values—an emptiness that not only invites but assures her downfall. Tom Shiftlet's numerous requests to contemplate the deeper metaphysical truths neither impress nor engage her:
“The body, lady, is like a house: it don't go anywhere; but the spirit, lady, is like a automobile: always on the move, always …”
“Listen, Mr. Shiftlet,” she said, “my well never goes dry and my house is always warm in the winter and there's no mortgage on a thing about this place.”
He told the old woman then that all most people were interested in was money, but he asked what a man was made for. He asked her if a man was made for money, or what. He asked her what she thought she was made for but she didn't answer, she only sat rocking and wondered if a one-armed man could put a new roof on her garden house.
“I got,” he said, tapping his knuckles on the floor to emphasize the immensity of what he was going to say, “a moral intelligence!” and his face pierced out of the darkness into a shaft of doorlight and he stared at her as if he were astonished himself at this impossible truth.
The old woman was not impressed with the phrase. “I told you you could hang around and work for food,” she said, “if you don't mind sleeping in that car yonder.”
“Why listen, lady,” he said with a grin of delight, “the monks of old slept in their coffins!”
“They wasn't as advanced as we are,” the old woman said.
Part of the didactic comedy and instructive play of riddling, here and elsewhere in O'Connor, is the sense that the “impossible truth” of divine grace is everywhere evident, if we would only be willing, alert, and flexible enough to see. Lucifer doesn't deceive us—we deceive ourselves. Trickster laughingly affords us every opportunity to unpack the truth. It is our own stiff-necked certainty, intellectual pride, and myopic literalism that blind us.
Riddling also informs Manley Pointer's interaction with the purportedly brilliant doctor of philosophy, Hulga, and becomes a way to subvert and reveal the foolishness of intellectual pride. With meretricious suspensefulness, the trickster sets up his verbal con:
For almost a minute he didn't say anything. Then on what seemed an insuck of breath, he whispered, “You ever ate a chicken that was two days old?”
The girl looked at him stonily. He might have just put this questions up for consideration at the meeting of a philosophical association. “Yes,” she presently replied as if she had considered it from all angles.
“It must have been mighty small!” he said triumphantly and shook all over with little nervous giggles, getting very red in the face, and subsiding finally into his gaze of complete admiration, while the girl's expression remained exactly the same.
Pointer deftly makes a fool of Hulga and a mockery of philosophy and intellectual sophistry, which O'Connor's description suggests is nothing more than word-games.6 All humanity's hubristic attempts to deny the existence of God (to know “nothing of Nothing” [Stories 277]), and instead to glorify rationalism through nihilistic wordplay, appear here as witless and shallow as a bad pun. Moreover, despite her degrees, and despite (or because of) her cynical superiority as a philosopher, Hulga is an inflexible thinker with a head as wooden and unbending as her artificial leg, one who cannot “think on her feet,” who clearly “ain't so smart” after all. When it comes to confabulation and wordplay, Trickster rules.
If Trickster is the master-player with words and truths, he also reveals duplicity and falsehood in others. O'Connor's stories are replete with characters who distort or attempt to refashion the truth on their own terms, on levels both small and large. Virtually everyone in these stories is fluidly dishonest “in the little things,” salting the truth with what appear to be small-scale mendacities. Mrs. Crater lies casually about Lucynell's age, calling the girl “Fifteen, sixteen,” although she is nearly thirty years old (Stories 151). Thirty-two-year-old Hulga also tells Manley she is seventeen (Stories 283), then later in a flurry of sham confession announces “‘I must tell you something. There mustn't be anything dishonest between us.’ She lifted his head and looked him in the eye. ‘I am thirty years old,’ she said. ‘I have a number of degrees’” (288). Mrs. Hopewell lies easily about the Bible by her bedside (“This was not the truth. It was in the attic somewhere” [Stories 278]), just as the Grandmother lies about the cat under her valise and about alluring details of the old plantation that she wants to visit (“‘There was a secret panel in this house,’ she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing that she were …” [Stories 123]), all apparently trivial prevarications that nonetheless will lead to their demise.
The Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” has the comic duty of repeatedly correcting the Grandmother, both in her superficial inveracities and in her corresponding paste-and-tinsel virtues:
“You shouldn't call yourself The Misfit because I know you're a good man at heart, I can just look at you and tell.”
“Nome, I ain't a good man,” The Misfit said after a second as if he had considered her statement carefully.
“Maybe they put you in by mistake,” the old lady said vaguely.
“Nome,” he said. “It wasn't no mistake …”
“If you would pray,” the old lady said, “Jesus would help you.”
“That's right,” The Misfit said.
“Well then, why don't you pray?” she asked trembling with delight suddenly.
“I don't want no hep,” he said. “I'm doing all right by myself.”
“Jesus!” the old lady cried. “You've got good blood! I know you wouldn't shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady. I'll give you all the money I've got!”
“Lady,” The Misfit said, looking beyond her far into the woods, “there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip.”
Falsehoods and “counterfactual” statements, however, are merely one order of untruth. On a deeper level are the countertruths which these characters have created—profound inversions of the deepest truths that distort the universe and render it absurd. Among these are Hulga's colossal reversals of salvation and damnation, purity and impurity, blindness and insight, good and evil. “I'm one of those people who see through to nothing,” she boasts of her moral myopia, “some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there's nothing to see” (Stories 287-288). Her self-inflicted blindness causes her quite literally to confuse the devil with Christ, mangling the Biblical injunction to “lose one's life” in Jesus, with disastrous results: “She felt as if her heart had stopped and left her mind to pump her blood. She decided that for the first time in her life she was face to face with real innocence. … It was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his” (289).
No less fatal is Mrs. Crater's remaking of truth that posits religious faith as atavism and atheism as “advancement,” or the Grandmother's inversions of value, her ignoring of profound truths to focus on silly vanities and appearances. She is accessorized for her journey to perdition in white cotton gloves, organdy collar and cuffs, and a “spray of cloth violets containing a sachet” so that “in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (Stories 118). As if to oblige her, the Misfit is well-mannered and polite to a fault as he systematically murders this family of six, demonstrating just how much superficial niceties are worth, how lethal the idolatry of the trivial can be.
The Grandmother, Mrs. Crater, and Hulga are just a few of the individuals who worship at altars of intellect, ego, worldliness, or material vanities. Idolatry and false images are spoken of in Ezekiel, a book of the Old Testament O'Connor knew well and alludes to throughout her fiction. Here, scripture inveighs against the “false altars” erected by the heretical and rebellious, which are destined to be laid waste. “For they are impudent children and stiffhearted,” the Bible reads, “impudent and hardhearted” (Ezekiel 2:4,7), and their modern counterparts—the disbelieving rationalists or stubborn materialists of O'Connor's stories—share in their doom. Here Lucifer-Trickster performs the task of ruination in his incarnation as the retrograde “erasing angel” who “cancels what humans have so carefully built” (Hyde 287).7
Yet Trickster himself is not always free of the false structures and traps of thinking he dismantles, and as such he can also function as a parody of the limits of intelligence. While the Misfit serves to despoil, for instance, he also represents the doubting mind taken to its paralyzing extreme. A sinister literalist who is unable to believe in Christ because he “wasn't there” to see—one who is even too literal to understand Oedipal metaphors (“It was a head-doctor at the penitentiary said what I had done was kill my daddy but I known that for a lie. My daddy died in nineteen ought nineteen of the epidemic flu and I never had a thing to do with it. He was buried in the Mount Hopewell Baptist churchyard and you can go there and see for yourself” [Stories 130])—the Misfit is not only a destructive but a tormented figure.8 The prison he complains of is as much the trap of his rigid thinking as anything: stuck in the narrowly empirical, in the “what-is” of the material world, his is truly a case of “turn to the right, it was a wall. … Turn to the left, it was a wall. Look up it was a ceiling, look down it was a floor” (Stories 130).
Tom Shiftlet too seems to match the mythic description of the trickster as both “wise and witless,” a blend that makes for the unique comedy of this form of narrative, the trickster's own blindness becoming the subject of laughter. Shiftlet's freewheeling, opportunistic impostures seem to take on a life of their own at times, even to lead him around by the nose.9 Attempting to lure the hitchiking boy near the story's end with sappy tales of motherly love, he falls into the trap of nostalgia and actually forgets his own origins and identity.10 When he calls to God, “Break forth and wash the slime from this earth!” he appears truly surprised when God complies and sends “fantastic raindrops, like tin-can tops crashing over the rear of Mr. Shiftlet's car” (Stories 156). It is both part of the theological message and the deep folk humor of O'Connor to reveal that even the devil “ain't so smart.”
In mythology, Trickster always begins as the thief of immortality, the serpent in the garden, the prankster whose cupidity or stupidity launches humanity into a world of labor, pain, and death. Variant myths of the Fall include that of Prometheus, whose theft of fire and meat from Zeus resulted in the end of antiquity's Golden Age and the retribution that mortals would grow old quickly and suffer pain in death. Hermes, too, because he longed to eat meat, stole and slaughtered several of Apollo's immortal cattle, thus penetrating the boundaries between the immortal and mortal worlds, and himself becoming messenger and transporter of souls to the underworld. The mischievous Monkey King of Chinese lore stole and consumed the Peaches of Immortality that belonged to the Taoist gods, just as the Norse trickster Loki introduced age and death into the world by snatching away the Apples of Immortality and tricking their keeper, the goddess Idunn. In Native American legend, the tale “Raven Becomes Voracious” details the fall from heaven when a divine prince is tricked into feeling hunger by two appetitive slaves and then, because of his voraciousness, is banished to the earthly realm where eating, eliminating, change, and death rule.11 In each case it is destructive appetite which both precipitates and characterizes the Fall, the source and signature of decline. And it is perhaps as the principle of appetite that the trickster-figure remains forever among fallen humanity, a force to be assuaged but never eliminated, an evil that matches Flannery O'Connor's description as “not merely a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured” (Collected Works 862).12
But it is not the original Fall that interests Flannery O'Connor in her fiction, so much as it is the individual falls from grace that doom so many of her flawed and venal characters in an absurd, postlapsarian world. For the Lucifer-trickster figure in O'Connor, the theft of souls is the second theft of immortality, a reenactment of the original temptation and fall that once again strips victims of eternal life, exploiting their own unrestrained appetites, so to speak, to precipitate their Fall.
Images of eating pervade these stories—whether in Hulga's overfull coffee cup, Lucynell Jr.'s polishing off lunch “as soon as they were out of the yard” (Stories 154), or the Grandmother's anecdote about her watermelon-carving suitor, Edgar Atkins Teagarden, or E.A.T. But these images of consumption are merely analogues for the deeper “appetites” that dominate these characters: the voraciousness of ego, of lusts and vanities, the snares through which they “lose themselves” and subsequently lose their souls.13 “Ravenous” Mrs. Crater is herself a gaping orifice, all mouth, made up solely of venality and material greed. The unrestraint of the Grandmother, whose peevish wants and unchecked, foolish outbursts lead her family to damnation, is another form of intemperance and prodigality that proves lethal. Hulga's indulgences span the list of the seven deadly sins—anger, vanity, gluttony, lust, avarice, envy, sloth—the unreflective appetites that erode the soul and kill the spirit. Such victims propel themselves into the infernal trap, the bargain with the Devil: indeed, they virtually snare themselves with their own blind greed. For them, it is truly the case that “the worm just sits there, the fish catches himself” (Hyde 19).14
Trickster-as-predator in this drama of catching and being caught has a cunning understanding of appetite. Whereas his victims indulge and get trapped, Trickster manages to work with desire—on the one hand, knowing precisely the right lure that will work with each victim; on the other hand, momentarily suspending his own appetites in order to snare the “prize” of their immortal souls. Tom Shiftlet is one such predator, with his “jutting steel-trap jaw” (Stories 146) and his demonic smile that “stretched like a weary snake waking up by a fire” (152). He is as voracious as Mrs. Crater—for souls, not sons-in-law—but he “plays” with more calculated restraint in order to get what he wants. Manley Pointer too negotiates impulse more successfully than his prey, despite the concupiscient thrust of appetite his name implies. He does indeed have “the same condition” as Hulga, yet he works his rapaciousness strategically by offering a camouflage of flattery, false humility, and pinchbeck provincialism that baits the hook her vanity cannot resist. The Devil “springs the trap” by working the prey's hungers while managing his own, thus letting his victims literally “catch themselves.”
Yet Trickster is not only the arch-predator; he is more broadly and quintessentially a thief. To return to the concept of theft and loss is to reopen a subtler issue at play in the trickster-myth, that of what is truly owned and what is not. Trickster's thievery is about loss, but it is a unique loss that exposes and examines the very concept of property, ownership, and boundary. In folklore and myth, Trickster's thefts are complex acts—not merely appropriating something (Hermes stealing Apollo's cattle, the babe Krishna stealing sweet butter from his mother's larder), but doing so in a way that dismantles and blurs established distinctions. Hermes is eventually made herdsman of the divine cattle he stole, and the rank of caretaker suddenly elides the categories of belonging or not belonging to. “I didn't steal the butter,” the baby Krishna reasons charmingly, dissemblingly, to his mother Yasoda. “How could I steal it? Doesn't everything in the house belong to us?” (Hyde 71). In his retelling of this tale, Lewis Hyde comments: “Our ideas about property and theft depend on a set of assumptions about how the world is divided up. Trickster's lies and thefts challenge those premises and in so doing reveal their artifice and suggest alternatives” (72).
Translating this formulation into O'Connor's theological paradigm, Lucifer-Trickster's function is to unveil false ownership in a more spiritual sense; specifically, to debunk misguided notions O'Connor's characters hold about what is and is not theirs, in both the physical and metaphysical senses. In some cases, their blindness has them clinging to what is valueless, material, and transient while throwing away the one priceless thing they do own, their immortal souls. In other instances, their hubris leads them to appropriate for themselves what in O'Connor's economy in fact belongs to God. In either case, theft and loss of assets—both literal and symbolic—are necessary disruptions that result in a (sometimes cataclysmic) reassessment of property, ownership, and value.
Mrs. Crater is insulated by a false sense of ownership: her world is made up of “their porch,” “their road” (Stories 145; emphasis added), her well and farm and money, her automobile, her daughter. Her empire appears to extend even to “the old woman's three mountains” (150) and beyond, as she watches proprietarily over “her” sunset, “with her arms folded across her chest as if she were the owner of the sun” (146). Of course, her world is reoriented in the extreme when she not only loses but colludes in the theft of all she thinks she owns. Similarly, the Grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” dwells on material things to afford her identity and status: “Little niggers in the country don't have things like we do” (Stories 119), she states smugly and blandly speculates that she should have married a past suitor “because he was a gentleman and had bought Coca-Cola stock when it first came out” (120). She even lures her family from their appointed direction with a lie about “the family silver” hidden behind a fictitious panel in a plantation from her past. Of course, the superficial objects she so prizes are shown to be both meaningless and invariably lost. “I'll give you all the money I've got!” she screams in desperation when faced with her demise, but The Misfit's wry retort provides a tardy but effective lesson in the worthlessness of material things (132). The Grandmother's miraculous redemption—her last-minute awareness of true value—comes at the cost of her physical life, but even the latter is shown to be a material thing, itself transient and on loan, the body as an “object of property” of little worth, perhaps never really ours to begin with.
What is and is not “ours” is adumbrated in “Good Country People” with Hulga's hubristic belief that she can remake and thereby “own” herself in an originary way. By renaming and so “claiming” herself as property, she executes a heretical parody of divine Creation: “She saw it as the name of her highest creative act. One of her major triumphs was that her mother had not been able to turn her dust into Joy, but the greater one was that she had been able to turn it herself into Hulga” (Stories 275). Yet like the classic con man, the devil shows such existentialist self-creation to be nothing but a game of “tricks and mirrors” (Wadlington 299). Losing everything—her soul, her leg, her “self-possession”—to Trickster's wiles at the story's end shows the foolishness of her misguided sense of what is hers. Again, Trickster's theft is a complex one: not so much to effect his own gain as to undermine and disrupt false orders of value and property. The artificial leg, like the glass eye and other “souvenirs” of his travels, are to him inutile trophies; they literally lose their meaning by being appropriated. But it is the revelation of their meaninglessness that is perhaps the “gift” such mythic theft returns.
I have waited until now to discuss O'Connor's “A Circle in the Fire” in order to demonstrate how as a whole this story unfolds within the pattern of trickster-narratives in a particularly seamless and effective manner. Uniting all the elements I have examined thus far, this parable of property and loss, order and disruption represents one of O'Connor's darker and more perplexing tales of grace. In a story as classic as a folk tale, the author presents the liminal forces of accident, disorder, and chaos arriving to subvert sterile notions of ownership and sanctity—Trickster as grim prophet, as the “erasing angel,” most compellingly at work in his appointed task of disillusion and revelation.
Mrs. Cope, the main character of “A Circle in the Fire,” is one of a sisterhood of tough, single women in O'Connor's fiction who hold and manage farms, who eke out their livings against the slings and arrows of shiftless workers, itinerant farmhands, mortgages, and bills.15 “I have the best kept place in the county,” the aptly-named Mrs. Cope boasts, “and do you know why? Because I work. I've had to work to save this place and work to keep it. … I don't let anything get ahead of me and I'm not always looking for trouble. I take it as it comes” (Stories 178). Of course the ironic foreshadowing of her own words will come back to haunt her: she is indeed “not looking” for the trouble that does (with a vengeance) come.
Mrs. Cope's prized woods emerge as the emblem of her earthly holdings, her pride in her own self-sufficiency and success. She is as solicitous of them as of a treasure, constantly fretting that they might catch fire and be destroyed. Indeed, such a loss seems everywhere imminent: the winds and the hot season threaten her; even the grotesque setting sun appears “swollen and flame-colored and hung in a net of ragged cloud as if it might burn through any second and fall into the woods. … The sun burned so fast that it seemed to be trying to set everything in sight on fire” (184). Naturally, this intrusion of the heavenly in the form of a wheel of fire presages the apocalypse to come. Twice the trees Mrs. Cope values beyond price are referred to as a “fortress line” (190), her material goods seeming to form a wall that keeps heaven at bay. Even Mrs. Cope's daughter, the otherwise shortsighted Sally Virginia, “thought the blank sky looked as if it were pushing against the fortress wall [of trees], trying to break through” (176).16
Sally Virginia, a juvenile copy of her mother, bullies the trees in childish make-believe, ordering them to bow to her imaginary dominion: “‘Line up, Line Up!’ she said and waved one of the pistols at a cluster of long bare-trunked pines, four times her height, as she passed them” (191). The scene presents a marvelous parody of Mrs. Cope's own ordering of “her things,” of everything and everyone about the farm, attempting to bully people, animals, and objects alike into obedience under her control. From a penned bull to a weed-free garden, order is crucial to Mrs. Cope, but O'Connor seems to suggest that we can put to the mother the same question she sneeringly asks Sally Virginia when the child straps on her toy holster and strides off to survey her pretend-empire: “When are you going to grow up?” (190)
The phlegmatic Mrs. Pritchard mirrors Mrs. Cope as well. Like their sunhats which “had once been identical” (175), the two women are made of the same stuff; their materialism has merely, like their hats, taken on different shapes over time. Mrs. Pritchard's obsession is with the body—iron lungs, reproduction, sex, mortality, abcessed teeth, physical calamity, poisons—and she ferrets out stories of the freakish and the diseased with relentless relish. As O'Connor calmly states, “She required the taste of blood from time to time to keep her equilibrium” (189). Yet Mrs. Pritchard's comic overinvolvement with decaying matter is fundamentally no different than Mrs. Cope's worship of transient things. Both women dwell on the earthly at the cost of the spiritual and eternal; both are seduced by a misguided focus on things that cannot last.
Property is the core preoccupation of Mrs. Cope, and her material greed has become an order so rigid it has turned sterile, a self-inflicted blindness and murder of the spirit. Mrs. Cope sanctimoniously announces, “We have a lot to be thankful for. … Every day you should say a prayer of thanksgiving” (177), yet for her, blessings are merely a synonym for material things, and thanks are to be given for riches and gain: “‘Think of all we have, Lord,’ she said and sighed, ‘we have everything,’ and she looked around at her rich pastures and hills heavy with timber and shook her head as if it might all be a burden she was trying to shake off her back” (177). Determinedly nonspiritual (and as such, like other O'Connor characters who are rife for Trickster, stuck on surface meanings and surface values), she seems oblivious to the ironic double-entendre of her own boast: “I do not fold my hands” (186). Indeed she does not, neither in resignation nor in prayerful contemplation of higher goods.
When moral watchfulness sleeps (like many-eyed Argos, charmed asleep by Hermes), Trickster appears and thefts occur. Even Mrs. Cope knows that “weeds and nut grass” will come into the most orderly of gardens, “as if they were an evil sent directly by the devil to destroy the place” (175). However, while Mrs. Cope seems materially vigilant—calling out to the Negro Culver to raise the tractor blade and go through her meadow gate rather than waste expense by going around; hyperwatchful that persons not injure themselves on her property, not out of concern for their well-being, but for fear that they would “sue her for everything she had” (180)—she is nevertheless spiritually “asleep,” as blind as the dozing Argos. The lesson she will have to learn, paradoxically, is of the immateriality of the material, as she is unmasked by the disruptive Powell Boyd (who is able “to look through her” [189; emphasis added], thereby illustrating her spiritual emptiness and physical transience) and by the strange boys who, mysteriously attuned to the evanescence of material things, “came toward them but as if they were going to walk on through the side of the house” (178).
Into the self-contained complacency of Mrs. Cope's farm, Powell Boyd and his two accomplices show up in classic drifter form, “walking up the pink dirt road” (178) seemingly from nowhere. Critics see these three as a grim, inverse parody of the Holy Trinity; at the very least, Powell shares characteristics of typical Lucifer-figures in O'Connor—the “silver-rimmed spectacles” very much like The Misfit's that nonetheless seem smeared in their vision; and the sense of familiarity Mrs. Cope feels upon their meeting, which echoes the dim “where-have-I-seen-you-before?” uneasiness that victims in other stories feel upon coming face-to-face with the devil. Like Janus, god of doorways and thresholds, or Lucifer poised at the juncture between worlds, Powell too seems to be looking two ways, the cast in his eye creating the impression “that his gaze seemed to be coming from two directions at once as if it had them surrounded” (178-179). Most tellingly, when asked his identity, he reveals himself to be not “J.C.” (Jesus Christ) but “the secont one” (Lucifer) (179). Even his father's name, Boyd, seems to stand as a comic, dialectic distortion of Bird, the Holy Ghost.17 It is the broken “destroyer” printed on his sweatshirt that seems most clearly to announce Powell Boyd as the folkloric trickster, agent of chaos and transformation, come from the liminal space of the “open road” to disrupt and demolish.
From the start Powell is evasive in his answers, indeterminate in his intent—a prototypical trickster. He and his henchmen immediately begin their reign of misrule—they are outlaws, rule breakers, “shady” figures who inject disorder into Mrs. Cope's carefully structured universe, subverting arbitrary laws of conduct and in particular sabotaging her sense of control. Their transgressions seem relatively mild at first—smoking, littering, swearing, sporting tattoos, engaging in rudeness and ingratitude: “‘Not no thank you, not no nothing,’ Mrs. Pritchard remarked” (183). Mrs. Cope comments repeatedly on their apparent “hunger,” yet they denigrate and eventually refuse her gifts of food.
Here is not only a displacement or suspension of appetite (as “predators,” they seem able to forfeit immediate appetites in order to have what they really want—not crackers and Coke but the farm itself, the woods, and the eventual prize of Mrs. Cope's composure). But in addition, their refusal of gifts challenges the very core of Mrs. Cope's sense of property, ownership, and power. When one boy rudely announces, “I don't like them kind of crackers” (182) and places the sampled food back on the plate, he is making a gesture which at once violates unspoken rules of hospitality and radically subverts the distinction between “one's and another's.” Insulting and declining or returning a gift directly undermines the power of the giver. Moreover, the taboo of placing handled food back on a communal plate is only nominally a hygienic one; more centrally it represents a symbolic blurring of apportionment, a forced and unsettling erasure of “whose is whose.”
The refusal of gift is not only a challenge to ownership; it can also be seen as a creative liberating of property. Recall that tricksters are thieves, and unlike something given or earned, a thing stolen (like the milk the boys subsequently steal from Mrs. Cope's dairy or the pilfered food in their suitcases) is “free” not only in cost but also because it comes without “strings attached.” It is no longer an object “owned” and “bestowed,” but one freed from the rights of property. It thereby challenges the very concept of ownership. These boys turn Mrs. Cope's conventional securities of what is “hers” topsy-turvy: “We don't want nothing of yours” (185; emphasis added) they say riddlingly, and yet paradoxically they will have it all.
As the boys' vandalism and puckish tricks grow wilder and more severe—destroying her mailbox with rocks, riding her horses bareback, drinking milk out of her dairy cans, releasing her bull, and letting the oil out of three tractors—Mrs. Cope begins indeed to “lose her bearings.” She is entering a realm where her conventional certainties no longer function to order the world. Utterly disoriented, she and Mrs. Pritchard engage in a cat-and-mouse hunt for these elusive pranksters, who dodge and evade her search as if her farm had become a circus funhouse:
[Mrs. Cope] crossed the road toward the calf barn. The three faces immediately disappeared from the opening, and in a second the large boy dashed across the lot, followed an instant later by the other two. Mrs. Pritchard came out and the two women started for the grove of trees the boys had vanished into. Presently the two sunhats disappeared in the woods and the three boys came out at the left side of it and ambled across the field and into another patch of woods. By the time Mrs. Cope and Mrs. Pritchard reached the field it was empty and there was nothing for them to do but come home again.
Even the boys' language serves to unsettle. Their raucous teasing, verbal horseplay, and double-entendres multiply meanings in ways Mrs. Cope cannot follow. They hoot and yell at her innocent queries, “pushing each other's shoulders and doubling up with laughter as if the questions had meanings she didn't know about” (184).
But it is her hubristic sense of ownership that they are most bent on unmasking and overturning. “Her woods,” they mutter derisively when forbidden to camp there (183). And when Mrs. Cope attempts to impose her litany of thankfulness, the boys grow “as silent as thieves hiding,” disconcerting her with their ominous, noncompliant silence. Enjoining them to be “gentlemen,” she states her proprietary position with unexpected results:
“After all,” she said in a suddenly high voice, “this is my place.”
The big boy made some ambiguous noise and they turned and walked off toward the barn, leaving her there with a shocked look as if she had had a searchlight thrown on her in the middle of the night.
Later, when Mr. Pritchard cautions the boys, they reply with a sarcasm that renders Mrs. Cope's possessiveness absurd. Mrs. Pritchard reports:
Hollis said … that you didn't want no boys dropping cigarette butts in your woods and he said “She don't own them woods,” and Hollis said “She does too,” and that there little one he said “Man, Gawd owns them woods and her too,” and that there one with the glasses said, “I reckon she owns the sky over this place too,” and that there littlest one says, “Owns the sky and can't no airplane go over here without she says so.”
Finally, in an act of conspiratorial transfer astonishing in its simplicity, the deed is done, the theft accomplished: “‘Listen,’ the big boy said … ‘it don't belong to nobody.’ ‘It's ours,’ the little boy said” (192).
The subsequent fiery destruction of the woods appears to be a savage, pagan act. The boys “whoop and holler and beat their hands over their mouths” like Indians in a war-dance; their “wild high shrieks of joy” echo a Walpurgisnacht, a mad, apocalyptic overthrow of order (193). But if it is a debacle, it is also divine and revelatory: the “column of smoke rising and widening unchecked” is at last an emblem of God who has “broken through,” and the wild boys themselves become mysterious, enigmatically sacred “prophets … dancing in the fiery furnace, in the circle the angel had cleared for them” (193).
Marion Montgomery, in an article dealing with the problem of evil in O'Connor, summarizes Teilhard de Chardin's position in metaphors which are strikingly relevant to this story. In his theory of the world's evolution towards salvation, put forward in The Divine Milieu, evil performs the function of “a burning up of the world through which and from which spirit is engendered toward a final oneness that ultimately consumes all multiplicity” (Montgomery 36; emphasis added). Montgomery goes on to elaborate, “Teilhard means this final evolutionary stage [in the process toward salvation] to be God's occupation of the void which results from the world's burning …” (37; emphasis added). The “Circle in the Fire” becomes an emblem of teleological completion, the “omega point” of synthesis and redemption, the perfect realization of unity through transformation. This is Teilhard's unity of the collective human soul, as well as the divine union of the world with God. In such a sublime alterity (the individual subsumed into the whole, the world into the divine), loss itself becomes radically redefined: “It is a supreme conception in which nothing is lost because every thing is lost … all things are lost so that one Thing be realized” (39). Perhaps we can insert Powell Boyd's homespun version of this theological mystery: “If this place was not here anymore … you would never have to think of it again” (Stories 192).
As “erasing angels” the boys have stripped Mrs. Cope of everything. Yet her awareness is potentially a transformative one—a moment in which, through suffering and loss, she appears to unite with all humanity, become one with all those she had once considered materially beneath her, African Americans, Europeans, and even her nemesis, the strange boy Powell. Indeed, in this final vision we see that convergence erases all bounds of property and propriety. The look of misery Sally Virginia sees mirrored on her mother's face “might have belonged to anybody” (193). It is an instant of profound reorientation, the impact of which we are not fully given to see in Mrs. Cope, but which we sense in the child, who has become “weighted down with some new unplaced misery that she had never felt before” (193). Ironically, the girl—having happened upon the boys bathing like parodic Dianas—is transformed not into Actaeon's fleet stag but into a lead-footed, loping emissary of doom.
O'Connor warned readers against a “misunderstanding of what the operation of grace can look like in fiction.” In “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” she writes:
There is something in us as story-tellers, and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance of restoration. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but he has forgotten the cost of it. His sense of evil is deluded or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. He has forgotten the cost of truth, even in fiction.
(Collected Works 863)
O'Connor recognized the necessity of disruption, the difficult “price of restoration” in suffering, upheaval and loss (863). “The reader wants his grace warm and binding, not dark and disruptive” (862), yet at times “grace cuts with the sword Christ said he came to bring” (864). In a relentlessly apocalyptic tale like “A Circle in the Fire”—one which draws as much on the trickster-figure as it does on Biblical prophecy and modern theology to advance its radical lesson about property and eternity, about sacrifice and transformation—O'Connor demonstrates how “you can deepen your own orthodoxy by reading if you are not afraid of strange visions” (Collected Works 863).
Flannery O'Connor's South was a culture poised at the juncture of changing identity, a world at a crossroads. “The present state of the South,” she wrote, “is one wherein nothing can be taken for granted, one in which our identity is obscured and in doubt” (Collected Works 846). Not just politically and historically, but ethically as well, a generation was faced with moral issues of good and evil—unprecedented events like the Holocaust and battles for civil rights demanded the spiritual attention of the twentieth-century mind as never before. In the midst of such turmoil, O'Connor believed that the writer's job was to challenge readers in a way that helped vivify the bloodless abstractions into which religion seemed to have fallen—to incarnate the spiritual world. Like Hermes of the Ways, “the writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location” (Collected Works 848).
For O'Connor, such writing amounted to no less than prophecy; in her view, characters of fiction and writers themselves “are prophetic figures.” For the storyteller, “prophecy is a matter of seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and thus of seeing far things close up. The prophet is a realist of distances” (Collected Works 860). Yet it is a different kind of “realism” O'Connor had in mind, one that leads instead “towards mystery and the unexpected,” one “interested in possibility rather than probability,” always “pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery” (815-816). Such writing is of necessity a writing of disjunction and disruption, “violent and comic,” disorienting, unsettling, at times even “wild” (816). To the writer falls the riddling, tricky job of waking up and shaking up those who “are too dead to the world to make any discoveries at all” (860), of disorienting and taking down a notch—with prose at once disturbing and comic, shocking and revelatory—those whose smugness and self-certainty have blinded them to the true state of things. “There are ages when it is possible to woo the reader,” O'Connor wrote; “there are others when something more drastic is necessary” (820).
It is not too hard to hear in O'Connor's words themselves evidence of the trickster impulse—the writer as disruptor and dislocator, working the shadowland between truth and lie. “Art,” wrote Picasso, “is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand” (qtd in Hyde 79). According to Hyde, “trickster narratives themselves do the double task of marking and violating the boundaries of the cultures where they are told. The trickster in the narrative is the narrative itself” (267). And indeed it is easy to see a writer like O'Connor inhabiting that liminal space which seeks to disrupt sterile orders in order to make room for revelation. As with Trickster, the outcome of disruption can be redemption; the shattering of old orders can incarnate new ways of thought, new affirmations. The artist at the juncture of such worlds, exploring boundaries and thresholds, embodies the principle of transformative disorder, one who, like Flannery O'Connor, “enchants and disenchants” in her ongoing search for vision.
See Hynes and Doty, particularly pp. 33-45.
Johansen 94, 63-64, 95, 108.
Flannery O'Connor, Letter to Sally Fitzgerald, 26 December 1954 (Collected Works 927).
Trickster is often associated with the Hermetic Greek emporikos, a term derived from emporos meaning “merchant” or “traveler,” and in West African folklore as the bearer of God's word (Doty 64).
Gates's interesting analysis of the Signifying Monkey of African American folklore as a classic trickster-figure with connections to West African tales of Esu-Elegbara and Legba offers numerous potential connections with O'Connor's use of monkey imagery.
Johansen perceptively identifies both Hulga's sophistries and her mother's vacuous optimism as “illusions held in place by fixed categories and glib labels, structures built in the air” (46).
Hyde's reference is to the sacred thief Krishna, whose “disruptions offer insight into the fullness of the divine” (287).
Carl Jung remarks on “the unpredictable behaviour of the trickster, his senseless orgies of destruction and his self-imposed sufferings” (136) and points to “the medieval description of the devil as simia dei (the ape of God), and in his characterization in folklore as the ‘simpleton’ who is ‘fooled’ or ‘cheated’” (135).
According to William Hynes, “Once initiated, a trick can exhibit an internal motion all its own. Thus, a trick can gather such momentum as to exceed any control exercised by its originator and may even turn back upon the head of the trickster, so the trick-player is also trickster-tricked” (35). Robert Pelton calls him a “crude prankster … a fool caught in his own lies” (6-7).
It is interesting to note that Lucifer is unmasked by a boy who is also “on the road,” a traveler who has left his home and is located in the space “between” established orders.
For a fuller account of the Raven legend, see Leeming 24.
Carl Jung saw the trickster-figure in a developmental and social-psychological light, as an archetype representative of an “earlier rudimentary stage of consciousness,” one “possessing untamed appetites not yet tempered by a social conscience” (Leeming 21).
For a rather different perspective on the theme of eating, see William A. Fahey, “Out of the Eater: Flannery O'Connor's Appetite for Truth.” Renascence 20 (1967): 22-29.
In this, Trickster resembles the confidence man of American literature, another figure who enacts ruses through his victims' inadvertent collusion. See Wadlington, and William E. Lenz, Fast Talk and Flush Times: The Confidence Man as a Literary Convention (Columbia, U of Missouri P, 1985).
For a discussion of O'Connor's image of authoritative women, see Peter A. Smith, “Flannery O'Connor's Empowered Women.” Southern Literary Journal 26.2 (Spring 1994): 35-47.
Compare O'Connor's use of this image in “The Enduring Chill” (Stories 382).
In mythology, tricksters are also often associated with birds and snakes as totemic animals. See T. O. Beidelman, “The Moral Imagination of the Kagaru: Some Thoughts on Tricksters, Translation and Comparative Analysis.” In Hynes and Doty, 174-192.
Doty, William G. “A Lifetime of Trouble-Making: Hermes as Trickster.” Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts, and Criticism. Eds. William J. Hynes and William G. Doty. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1993: 46-65.
Douiehi, Anne. “Inhabiting the Space Between Discourse and Story in Trickster Narratives.” Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts, and Criticism.
Eds. William J. Hynes and William G. Doty. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1993: 193-201.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1998.
Hynes, William J. “Mapping The Characteristics of Mythic Tricksters: A Heuristic Guide.” Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts, and Criticism. Eds. William J. Hynes and William G. Doty. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1993: 33-45.
———, and William G. Doty, eds. Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts, and Criticism. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1993.
Johansen, Ruthann Knechel. The Narrative Secret of Flannery O'Connor: The Trickster as Interpreter. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1994.
Jung, Carl G. “On the Psychology of the Trickster-Figure.” Four Archetypes. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Bollingen Series. 1959. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973.
Leeming, David, and Jake Page, eds. Myths, Legends, and Folktales in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.
Montgomery, Marion. “O'Connor and Teilhard de Chardin: The Problem of Evil.” Renascence 22 (1969): 34-42.
O'Connor, Flannery. Collected Works. New York: Library Classics of the United States, 1988.
———. The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1990.
Pelton, Robert D. The Trickster in West Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight. Berkeley: U of California P, 1980.
Turner, Victor. “Myth and Symbol.” The International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan, 1968.
Vecsey, Christopher. “The Exception Who Proves the Rules: Ananse the Akan Trickster.” Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts, and Criticism. Eds. William J. Hynes and William G. Doty. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1993: 87-105.
Wadlington, Warwick. The Confidence Game in American Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975.
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SOURCE: Shaw, Mary Neff. “Responses to God's Grace: Varying Degrees of Doubt in Flannery O'Connor's Character Types.” CLA Journal 44, no. 4 (June 2001): 471-79.
[In the following essay, Shaw utilizes Michael Polanyi's theological work in order to provide a religious interpretation of O'Connor's short fiction.]
Even though Flannery O'Connor is a Roman Catholic who affirms certain spiritual verities—faith, grace, sin, the devil, and death—“[t]hese pre-occupations are … not bound up with Catholic doctrine, but rather reflect deeply spiritual entities,” according to Sister Kathleen Feely.1 Sister Mariella Gable concurs with Feely as she refers to O'Connor's Christian base: “She wrote for an unbelieving world, not for Catholics.”2 In fact, O'Connor herself stated at the Vanderbilt Library Symposium in 1959 that belief, and not theology, would permeate her writings: “You can forget about the system. These are things that you believe; they may affect your writing unconsciously. I don't think theology should be a scaffolding.”3 Because Michael Polanyi, a physical chemist and philosopher, presents an objective, interdisciplinary study of humanity's response to God in his book Personal Knowledge, and because one of Flannery O'Connor's primary literary themes is humankind's response to God, in this paper I propose to offer Polanyi's perspective to illuminate the veracity of O'Connor's Christian appeal by demonstrating how selected character types in O'Connor's fiction exemplify categories of doubt which Polanyi identifies as humankind's various responses to God's grace.
Polanyi considers humanity's responses to God's grace in light of Christian faith, responsibility, and commitment. According to Polanyi, faith never reaches a point of stasis because the imperfection of human beings is inherent. Therefore, humankind responds to God with varying degrees of doubt: “It is part of the Christian faith that its striving can never reach an endpoint at which, having gained its desired result, its continuation would become unnecessary. … A sense of its own imperfection is essential to his faith.”4 Polanyi explains that one of the manifestations of faith is concern for and service to fellow human beings: “Secular experiences are its [religion's] raw materials” (283). Through Christian service humankind recognizes more acutely its need for God, for “Christian religious service [is] a framework of clues which are apt to induce a passionate search for God” (Polanyi 282). Moreover, since man is “the only morally responsible being in the world,” from a Christian viewpoint, “his service may have a supernatural meaning and significance” (Polanyi 285). As human beings, as we commit our service to God's universal plan, we strengthen our finite and imperfect aspect through faith in the indwelling aspects of God's power: “We undertake the task of attaining the universal in spite of our admitted infirmity, which should render the task hopeless, because we hope to be visited by powers for which we cannot account in terms of our specifiable capabilities” (286). Thus, even though finite beings cannot possess perfect faith, as morally responsible human beings we are capable of a moment-by-moment faith and commitment to God.
Because O'Connor employs traditional Christian beliefs throughout her fiction to portray the “spiritual aspect of man's full being,”5 a brief clarification of some of these spiritual verities and their relationship with Polanyi's ideas may be helpful. In O'Connor's view the Christian faith affirms Christ's death as humankind's opportunity for redemption or grace. As an exemplary incident exhibiting humankind's complete faith, O'Connor refers to the biblical Abraham, whose faith can be seen in his attempt to sacrifice his only son in fulfillment of God's instruction. According to O'Connor, “When we believe today, we should believe like Abraham, … but faith in this age appears as dead as Sara's womb.”6 Thus, O'Connor may agree with Polanyi that humankind does not respond to God with perfect, unceasing faith but with varying degrees of doubt. Nonetheless, although humankind's faith often appears as empty as Sara's womb, sometimes, just as Sara's barren womb bore Isaac, humankind's faith manifests itself in an epiphany.
Often this epiphany in O'Connor's fiction gives form to the “banal insight that enables the individual man to move toward grace by rising only slightly.”7 Perhaps this “slow participation in redemption” is what Polanyi considers as humankind's beginning to “undertake the task of attaining” God's universal plan “in spite of our admitted infirmity” (Polanyi 286). O'Connor refers to this “moment of grace” as the “moment when you know that Grace has been offered and accepted.”8 Although most of the characters in O'Connor's fiction are never worthy, they are subject to a “moment of grace” and thus “eligible” for redemption.9 However, since the requirement of God's saving grace is faith, our imperfect faith, or, as Polanyi suggests, our doubt can prevent our receiving God's ever-waiting grace.10 O'Connor clarifies the relationship between our doubt and our reception of God's grace: “Cutting yourself off from Grace is a very decided matter, requiring a real choice, act of will, and affecting the very ground of the soul” (Habit 389).
O'Connor's “moments of grace,” however, are usually surfeited with evil. As O'Connor remarks, “These moments are prepared for (by me anyway) by the intensity of the evil circumstances” (Habit 367), a turning from God.11 A few of O'Connor's characters are so purely evil that they are the “physical embodiments” of the devil.12 O'Connor acknowledges these intensely evil characters in her works and further clarifies her conception of the devil in a letter to John Hawkes: “My devil has a name, a history, and a definite plan. His name is Lucifer, he's a fallen angel, his sin is pride, and his aim is the destruction of the Divine plan” (Habit 456).
As a Christian novelist, O'Connor expresses her orthodoxy in ways which may be considered incoherent and awkward, for her writing often reflects the absurdity of conventionally accepted religious beliefs, a position which O'Connor assumes in order to call the reader's attention to the ridiculousness and insufficiency of things as they are. O'Connor may, in fact, present the spiritually ignorant, the foolish, the agnostic, and the diabolical—all of whom are sometimes depicted in a grotesque manner—to unsettle the reader who may be accustomed to viewing evil as natural. O'Connor's fictional representations of humankind's perversions may therefore press the reader into a clearer identification and recognition of humankind's sin and need to respond in faith to God's grace.
Since humankind can never answer to God with a perfect, continuous faith, Polanyi suggests that this incomplete faith might be considered as doubt, which in this paper will be examined from two vantage points: “contradictory doubt” and “agnostic doubt” (Polanyi 285). Contradictory doubt results from the misapplication of Christianity, possibly in a cynical manner, as in the case of Mrs. McIntyre in “The Displaced Person.” Agnostic doubt, on the other hand, can be reflected in varying degrees—from religious rejection, due to an exclusive emphasis on rationalism, to nihilism. In this second group, one end of the spectrum reveals the temporary agnostic type for whom no grace is present (Polanyi 272-73; 285-86). For example, the dubious Misfit who appears in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” still seems to seek; however, Manley Pointer in “Good Country People” appears to be satisfied with his apparently purely evil nature.
Humankind's incomplete response to God's grace will first be explored in this study through an examination of Mrs. McIntyre, a contradictory doubt type who “is not presented as a religious figure, but she has a strong sense of what is … right,” although she fails to act upon her belief.13 Indeed, according to one critic, Mrs. McIntyre's religion is a “managerial religion,” which concentrates on the effective oversight of the day-to-day business on her farm; consequently, her main values revolve around her money, material possessions, and her image in the eyes of others.14 The old priest's attempt to spiritually awaken Mrs. McIntyre only prompts her to exclaim, “I'm a logical, practical woman and there are no ovens here and no camps and no Christ our Lord and when he [Mr. Guizac] leaves, he'll make more money.”15 This “self-sufficient pragmatism” is further evidenced when Mrs. McIntyre discovers Mr. Guizac's “monstrous crime,” an attempt to pair Mr. Guizac's cousin, who since World War II has been held in a camp for displaced persons, with Sulk, a young Negro worker, in order to enable his cousin to come to America.16 From this point on Mr. Guizac's expendable quality becomes more and more an obsession to Mrs. McIntyre. Although she feels sorry for this Pole, who is exiled from his native land, she thinks that her Christian responsibility ended when she hired him. Apparently Mr. Guizac's “unchristian” attempt to pair his cousin with a Negro relieves Mrs. McIntyre of any long-range responsibility to Mr. Guizac. Furthermore, she feels justified in firing him but hopes “to get the fields turned over while he had thirty days to work for her,” for certainly she is “not responsible for the world's misery” (Three 298, 288, respectively). Ironically, the reader may recall that this is the same Mr. Guizac whom Mrs. McIntyre earlier referred to as her salvation because his diligence, hard work, and knowledge had increased her property to the point that she would be willing to raise Mr. Guizac's wages slightly beyond the subsistence level. Perhaps the displaced person “allegorically represents an opportunity for Mrs. McIntyre to accept grace.”17 However, when she silently watches while Mr. Guizac is crushed under the wheels of a tractor, she relinquishes her role as a “morally responsible being” and hence passively rejects her opportunity. Following this incident, Mrs. McIntyre's workers leave, she is hospitalized with a nervous affliction, and her farm is sold. Yet the priest continues his regular visits with her, visits which may reflect the ever-present, waiting grace of God.
Unlike Mrs. McIntyre, who exemplifies Polanyi's concept of contradictory doubt, the Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” illustrates Polanyi's temporary agnostic doubter who rejects Christianity because of his belief in nothingness. The Misfit, whose doubt prevents his perceiving that Christ actually rose from the dead, wants spiritual truth diminished to literal truth before he can believe: “I wisht I had of been there. … It ain't right I wasn't there because if I had of been there I would of known … and I wouldn't be like I am now” (Three 142-43). In fact, the Misfit's calm, questioning agnosticism causes him to devote his life to “killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him” (Three 142). And because he cannot believe in anything, the Misfit can kill without remorse. Yet hopelessness descends upon him as meaningless crime after meaningless crime only leads to the endless despair so poignantly expressed by the Misfit: “It's no real pleasure in life” (Three 143). The Misfit is even unable to comprehend the relationship between his crime and his punishment: “I call myself the Misfit because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment” (Three 142). Nonetheless O'Connor observes that the Misfit has the genuine religious concern that is necessary before redemption can take place:
The Misfit knows what the choice is—either throw away everything and follow him or enjoy yourself by doing some meanness to somebody, and in the end there's no real pleasure in life, not even in meanness. I can fancy a character like the Misfit being redeemable.18
Some possibility of grace, then, seems to exist even for temporary agnostic types like the Misfit. Regardless of their agnosticism, however, O'Connor's seekers appear to have more spiritual integrity than self-satisfied people, who believe they have all the answers.
Up to this point, all of O'Connor's characters have been representations of fallen humankind, never worthy but always eligible for God's grace: “Only a few characters are more deeply evil, and they incarnate the force and living presence of a chaotic, destructive, and dark principle of evil in the world; these characters are agents of or physical embodiments of the devil,”19 Polanyi's final agnostics, for whom no grace is possible. Unlike the questioning Misfit, Manley Pointer, the nineteen-year-old Bible salesman appears as a self-satisfied agnostic, a wolf in lamb's clothing, a deceiver who “lacks morals yet operates within a moral context.”20 Hulga, who fails to recognize Pointer's true nature, allows Pointer—whom she initially views as simply a good, trustworthy, religious, country boy—to hold her glasses and even her wooden leg. Only when Pointer refuses to return her leg and offers instead the contents of his hollow Bible—“a pocket flask of whiskey, a pack of [obscene] cards, and a small blue box with printing on it”—is Hulga graphically aware of Pointer's evil deception (Three 260). Even his appearance changes: from that of a country boy whose “breath was clear and sweet like a child's and the kisses were sticky like a child's,” to a sinister appearance with “eyes like two steel spikes” and a curled lip (Three 258, 260). To the stunned Hulga, Pointer smugly and indignantly reveals the totality of his empty belief, a belief apparently as hollow as his Bible: “I been believing in nothing ever since I was born” (Three 261). Turning to leave, Manley unveils his demonic essence even more fully as he gloats over the conquests contained in his valise—not only a glass eye but a wooden leg!
Perhaps much of the power of Flannery O'Connor's art rests in the fact that her fiction questions so deeply such themes as humankind's response to God's grace. Using Polanyi's categories of imperfect faith or doubt, this study classifies several of the primary character types found in O'Connor's fiction to elucidate various characters' responses to God's grace. Both Polanyi and O'Connor recognize that our inherent imperfection prevents our ever achieving a perfect faith. Nonetheless, both writers acknowledge the possibility of our undertaking a continual commitment of faith in God by a moment-by-moment renewal throughout life. In this way our otherwise hopeless task of ever fulfilling God's universal plan may allow us to acknowledge epiphanies, O'Connor's “moments of grace,” as links in which we enjoy “a short-lived, limited, hazardous opportunity for making some progress … towards an unthinkable consummation” (Polanyi 405).
Sister Kathleen Feely, Flannery O'Connor: Voice of the Peacock (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 1972) 6.
Sister Mariella Gable, “Flannery O'Connor: A Tribute,” Esprit 8 (Winter 1964): 26.
“An Interview with Flannery O'Connor and Robert Penn Warren,” Vagabond 4 (February 1960): 14.
Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1962) 280. Subsequent references are incorporated in the text as Polanyi.
David Eggenschwiler, The Christian Humanism of Flannery O'Connor (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1972) 73.
Carter Martin, The True Country (Kingsport, Tenn.: Vanderbilt UP, 1968) 17.
Flannery O'Connor, Flannery O'Connor: The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979) 367. Hereafter cited in the text as Habit.
J. A. Grimshaw, Jr., The Flannery O'Connor Companion (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1981) 90.
Robert Fitzgerald, “The Countryside and the True Country,” Sewanee Review 70 (Summer 1962): 389.
Flannery O'Connor, Three (New York: Harcourt, 1962) 295. Subsequent references are incorporated in the text as Three.
Fitzgerald, “Countryside,” 394.
O'Connor, Habit 350.
Gilbert Muller, Nightmares and Visions (Athens, Ga.: U of Georgia P, 1972) 28.
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SOURCE: McDermott, John V. “O'Connor's ‘The Train.’” Explicator 60, no. 3 (spring 2002): 168-69.
[In the following essay, McDermott analyzes O'Connor's early short story “The Train.”]
It has been said that Flannery O'Connor's “creative and technical powers [are] scarcely foreseeable in ‘The Train’, […] a seldom read story […] not included in either of her celebrated collections” (Harrison 287). The story, according to the criticism, “produces no character change, and there is little if any decisive action or even inclusive comment” (Harrison 290). But a close examination of the story reveals O'Connor's more than subtle artistry in both her “creative and technical powers” (Harrison 287), for it is precisely O'Connor's point that Hazel Wickers, the story's protagonist, is unable, or more accurately unwilling, to change. His mindset never veers off its blinding course. Like a train moving through a dimly lit tunnel with its singular light attempting to penetrate the darkness, Wickers's vision cannot reach beyond a certain point.
As has been noted, “His paranoia seems to be based […] on his being unable to see the true state of things” (Harrison 292). What he sees as truth cannot bear the light of reality. “He wanted the light off; he wanted it all dark. […] He wanted it all dark, he didn't want it diluded” (O'Connor 61). What he doesn't want “diluded” is his own version of the truth. He only feels comfortable in his illusory, veiled world.
Because of his mental haze he is unable to see the contradictory nature of his assertions. At one point he proudly pronounces his mother's sociability. “His mother always started up a conversation with the other people on the train. […] She was a Jackson” (55). Then just a short time later he says his “mother had never talked much on the train; she mostly listened. She was a Jackson” (58).
Because of the darkened aspect of his mind, he is led to invert reality. He is angered by the black porter, who he feels mocks him; he imagines the porter as “a white shape in darkness” (52). This inversion is an early illustration of O'Connor's pointed use of irony that helps clarify characterization and theme. Wickers, in his restrictive thinking, never considers the idea that it is he, not the porter, who is steeped “in darkness” (63).
In his self-projected world, reality is in constant flux. It is always “moving” (59) in rhythm with how he envisions it, not how it truly is. “He could look into the night, moving” (59). In contrast to the quiet, stationary reality that he attempts to shield from himself, his mind falls “[b]ack into the rushing stillness of the train” (62). For him, the porter, O'Connor's symbol for the real, is unmoving: “He […] saw the porter […] standing […] not moving” (62). Such a vision of reality, he cannot tolerate.
It is precisely Wickers's seeming inability to change that illustrates O'Connor's central theme: egotism can prevent one from any taking any fruitful action, much less making any “incisive comment” (Harrison 290). There is “no character change” (Harrison 290) in the story because the petrified, isolated condition of Wickers's mind prohibits any true self-analysis. He is so entangled in the egotistical maze of his darkened vision that he has no avenue of escape. The charge that “The Train” reveals “no character change” (Harrison 290) is accurate, but it only points up, even at this early stage of Flannery O'Connor's career, her genuine artistry.
Harrison, Margaret. “Hazel Motes in Transit: A Comparison of Two Versions of Flannery O'Connor's ‘The Train’ with Chapter 1 of Wise Blood.” Studies In Short Fiction 8 (1971): 287-93.
O'Connor, Flannery. Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980.