The Complete Stories of Flannery O' Connor

by Flannery O’Connor
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The Geranium Summary

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2265

“The Geranium” was first published in the literary quarterly magazine Accent in 1946. It was also the first of six stories Flannery O’Connor submitted to fulfill the requirements of her master’s degree in fine arts at the State University of Iowa in June 1947. (O’Connor entitled her thesis project The Geranium: A Collection of Short Stories.) Ten years later, O’Connor began to rewrite “The Geranium” and retitled it “Judgment Day,” which was published posthumously in her second short story collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge. In her early short stories, O’Connor experimented with her writing style and themes, honing the skills that eventually defined her as a major American author. During her graduate studies, O’Connor was greatly influenced by the poetry of T. S. Eliot, whose pessimistic and prophetic poem The Waste Land helped fashion the “shattered epic of modern life” that characterizes much of O’Connor’s fiction (Gooch 137).

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O’Connor attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop while working on her master’s degree. This workshop was directed by American writer, editor, and literary critic Paul Engle, who was a professor at the State University of Iowa at the time. Engle recognized O’Connor’s talent and became her mentor as well as her teacher. Many early stories O’Connor wrote for Engle’s workshop, including “The Geranium,” were read aloud and brutally critiqued by her fellow workshop attendees. The original ending of this short story, for example, was much more violent. The protagonist in the story, an old man named Dudley, spends his lonely days staring at a geranium in his neighbor’s window. Fellow workshop member Norma Hodges recalled that Old Dudley “pitched himself out of the window” in the version O’Connor first read aloud at the workshop. Hodges explained, “I think his daughter asked, ‘Where are you going?’ and Old Dudley said, ‘After that damned geranium!’” (quoted in Gooch 126). A young writer, O’Connor bowed to the opinions of her fellow writers, who claimed that this ending was “too much.” Years later, when “The Geranium” became “Judgment Day,” the mature O’Connor wrote the old man's death, as in her original, violent ending.

O’Connor began reworking and revising “The Geranium” in 1955. By the time the story was reborn as “Judgment Day,” the geranium had disappeared from the title and the story. Old Dudley became Old Man Tanner. There was still an unnamed daughter who cared for an aging father out of a sense of duty. New York City was still a callous place where even a hardy geranium had trouble surviving. In “The Geranium,” race relations and alienation were the prominent themes, but in “Judgment Day” those themes were secondary to ones that became more important to O’Connor as she matured as a writer: grace, redemption and judgment. In “Judgment Day,” Old Man Tanner escaped the trap his life had become through death. In “The Geranium,” Old Dudley was not able to escape his “Wasteland.” He became trapped in a place “where niggers could call you ‘old-timer’,” a place where everything was topsy-turvy, like a toppled geranium “at the bottom of the alley with its roots up in the air.”

Summary

Old Dudley has left his life in the South to move in with his daughter who lives in New York City. It was a big mistake. He must have been sick when he agreed to move, he decides. He feels sad, lonely, and trapped. He had been happy in the South, living in the upstairs room of a boarding house after his wife died. He was the “man in the house” who “protected the old ladies.” He survived on his pension and a few odd jobs. He enjoyed fishing and possum hunting with Rabie, a black man who lived in the basement of the boarding house with his wife, Lutisha. Old Dudley’s daughter had gone South to “pester him” about moving in with her. It was her duty to care for her father in his old age, she believed. Old Dudley had always wanted to see New York City, so in a weak moment he agreed to move. New York City is “swishing and jamming one minute and dirty and dead the next.” The streets are like “dog runs” and all the buildings look the same. Instead of fishing with Rabie on the thick, red river back home, Dudley now spends his days staring out the window at his neighbor’s geranium, forcing back tears of loneliness.

It is a sorry-looking geranium, not like the ones they have back home. The geranium is a symbol of Old Dudley himself. Back home, geraniums, like Dudley, were brightly colored, better looking, “sho nuf” geraniums, not dried up, sickly looking, pale pink flowers with faded paper bows. Dudley complains bitterly that the people across the alley have no business even having a geranium, just as he has no business being in New York City. Old Dudley’s throat knots up every day as he contemplates the flower. He stares at it for hours as he thinks about home. Tears well up in his eyes, which he desperately tries to hide from his daughter because she looks at him with pity, not love, when she sees him crying. “Do you want to go for a walk?” she often asks him. The last time he went for a walk with her, she dragged him through multiple subways and city streets where “everything was boiling” until he felt sick and almost tumbled off the overhead “El.” Things are no better in the “too tight” apartment where there is “no place to be where there wasn’t somebody else.” At home he had an upstairs and a downstairs, a basement, the river, and downtown. In New York City, he only has the geranium, and today they are late in putting it out.

The geranium is not the only thing different “up North.” At home, Old Dudley had a fulfilling life. Rabie’s wife, Lutisha, knew how to grow geraniums. She could have “taken that geranium and stuck it in the ground and had something worth looking at in a few weeks.” Dudley and Rabie had spent hours joking with each other, going fishing together and enjoying Lutisha’s excellent meals. They boated lazily on the river. Rabie enjoyed the beauty of the river while Dudley enjoyed catching the fish and showing off his catch to the old ladies in the boarding house. Old Dudley now wishes that he could show New York City to Rabie. He is certain it would not seem so big to him if he could only explain it to the simple Rabie. Dudley would reassure Rabie, “It ain’t so big. Don’t let it get you down, Rabie. It’s just like any other city and cities ain’t all that complicated.” Old Dudley does not believe this himself, however.

He misses his friendship with Rabie. Their friendship transcended race when Old Dudley lived in the South. Now that he is “up North,” he is horrified when a “Yankee Nigger” moves in next door to him. At first he believes the black man is a servant, looking at apartments for his employers. Old Dudley is not bothered by living next door to a black man as long as the man is a servant. “Must be gonna clean for them. You reckon they gonna keep him every day?” he asks his daughter. Old Dudley is delighted to think that perhaps this servant can take Rabie’s place. Maybe they could hunt. Maybe they could fish. “Maybe this nigger would know the country around here—or how to get to it.”

Old Dudley’s daughter tells him that the black man is probably looking at the apartment for himself. She tells her father to mind his own business; she is obviously not bothered by living next door to “a nigger in a Sunday suit.” Old Dudley is shocked at her attitude. He yells at his daughter, “You ain’t been raised to live tight with niggers.” Old Dudley had heard that “Yankees let niggers in their front doors and let them set on their sofas” but he is appalled that his own daughter, who should know better, seems so cavalier about having one as a neighbor. The ghosts of Southern racism have followed Dudley to New York City and he is not used to the structure of Northern society. Old Dudley grumbles that “up North” blacks don’t know their place. In the South, as long as blacks know their place, it is safe to befriend them. Like Rabie, for example. Back home, Rabie called Old Dudley “boss,” but up North the “nigger with shiny shoes” calls him “old timer” and treats him as if he is out of place.

Dudley is out of place physically and spiritually. By placing Dudley in New York City where people “tend to their own business” and live in harmony, O’Connor exposes the evil of racists such as Old Dudley who label blacks “water niggers,” “Yankee niggers,” and “light-footed niggers.” In New York City, Old Dudley complains, they “think they’re just as good as you.” He even believes his new next-door neighbor is insulting him. One day, Dudley’s daughter sends him on an errand to borrow a pattern from a tenant who lives a few flights down in the building. Dudley has trouble climbing back up the stairs to his daughter’s apartment. On the way up, he recalls how at home he always had “Rabie to do his running for him” because “Rabie was a light-footed nigger.” He fantasizes about a time when he and Rabie were hunting together. He was shooting the birds, and Rabie was collecting them. He acts out his dream, pretending to shoot his gun, when suddenly his new neighbor comes upon him and interrupts his reverie by lightheartedly asking, “What are you hunting, old-timer?” Dudley believes his neighbor is patronizing him, remarking that his voice sounds “like a nigger’s laugh and a white man’s sneer.” Dudley is so taken aback that he slips and falls. His friendly neighbor offers him a helping hand, warning, “You better be careful. You could easily hurt yourself on these steps.” As his neighbor carefully helps Dudley up the stairs, he makes polite conversation. “So, you hunt?” He tells Dudley that he went deer hunting once, using “a Dodson .38 to get those deer. What do you use?” he asks Dudley. “I use a gun,” Dudley mumbles. Clearly the black man’s knowledge of guns surpasses Dudley’s and the black man himself surpasses Dudley as a human being. He is kind and friendly as he aids a helpless old man up the stairs. In contrast, Dudley is angry and hateful, trapped in a place where “a damn nigger” patted him on the back and called him “old-timer.” Dudley does not realize, however, that his real trap is his prejudice.

Dudley returns to his apartment crying. Across the alley, a man is staring at him from the window where the geranium is supposed to be. Hardly able to get the words out of his tight throat, Dudley cries out, “Where is the geranium? It ought to be there. Not you.” The man tells Dudley that the geranium fell off the window ledge. When Dudley looks six floors down, he sees a cracked flower pot with something pink sticking out of a green paper bow. The geranium is gone from its home on the window ledge just like Dudley is gone from his home in the South. Like the sickly-looking flower, Dudley is left with his “roots in the air,” those prejudiced Southern roots that have been transplanted but are not working because they came too close to the ledge. Dudley wants to go down and pick up the geranium but when he reminds himself that there might be “niggers pattin’ him on the back” on every stair, he returns to his room and his window and looks down at the geranium. The neighbor chides him for not picking it up and warns him to mind his own business in the future. He does not like people looking at what he does: “What I do in my apartment is my business, see?”

Flannery O’Connor was deeply disturbed by the social hierarchy in the South, and almost all of her stories treat traditional Southern views with irony, sarcasm, and satire. In “The Geranium,” a Southern man moves North and finds himself completely out of his element. By the time this story was rewritten as “Judgement Day,” however, O’Connor had perfected her social themes and infused her strong spiritual beliefs into her fiction. A favorite religious teaching that often appeared in her fiction, including this short story, was that all men are equally guilty before God and will have to explain their lives on earth at the final judgment. In “The Geranium,” Old Dudley had not arrived at this realization, and the story ends with him staring out the window in a kind of limbo, longing for the geranium but not bold enough to rescue it.

References

Fitzgerald, Sally. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979. Print.

Fitzgerald, Sally. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969. Print.

Gooch, Brad. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. Print.

The Barber Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1698

“The Barber” is one of the six stories included in Flannery O’Connor’s 1947 master’s thesis titled The Geranium: A Collection of Short Stories. It was first published in 1947 in New Signatures, an anthology of student writing (O’Connor 551). It later appeared in her second short story collection, The Complete Stories, published in 1971. According to O’Connor’s biographer, Brad Gooch, O’Connor was inspired to write this topical short story by events that occurred while she was in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the State University of Iowa. Black students at the university were unable to get haircuts at Jim Crow barbers in Iowa City or on campus, and many drove 21 miles to Cedar Rapids for their haircuts. The president of the university refused to take a position on this issue so a married couple finally opened University Barber Shop to accommodate the black students (Gooch 132).

O’Connor’s story takes place in a barber shop in Dilton, a fictional college town in the rural South. The story explores racial tensions between a liberal college professor named Rayber and a racist barber and his patrons (O’Connor would later expand Rayber into a character for her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away). “The Barber” illustrates how ignorance fuels racism. It also demonstrates the futility of trying to fight ingrained Southern racism with mere intellectualism. Rayber’s anger over the racist comments and beliefs he encounters in the barbershop is mostly cerebral. His arguments against the barbershop bigots seem quite erudite when Rayber rehearses them in his head, but they are ineffective when he tries them out on real people. No one appreciates Rayber’s rhetoric except Rayber himself. His discourse is on an intellectual level far beyond that of his opponents, so the ignorant men retaliate the only way they know how—treating Rayber and his arguments as a joke. The result is a frustrating stalemate for Rayber. He punches the barber in the face. When intellectualism fails him, he resorts to violence, lowering himself to the level of ignorance where bigots dwell. If two men cannot settle their differences in a civilized way, there is not much hope for society.

Summary

Dilton is a town in the deep South, and Rayber is a liberal college professor who lives there. Many of the people who live in Dilton are racist, even some of Rayber’s educated colleagues. Rayber has been frustrated by these pervasive racist attitudes. As the result of an incident that occurred a few weeks prior to the Democratic White Primary, he changed barbers. Until 1944 when White Primaries were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, many Southern states were virtually one-party states dominated by the Democratic Party. Black people were not allowed to vote in the primaries, so they were essentially excluded from the decision-making process altogether because the candidate who won the primary also won the general election. In this short story, Darmon and Hawkson are running for governor. Darmon is the liberal candidate and Hawkson is a racist “demagog.” Three weeks prior to the White Primary, Rayber’s barber had asked him, “Who you gonna vote for?” When Rayber replied, “Darmon,” the barber asked him, “You a nigger lover?” After that, it was all downhill for Rayber and his barber. During his weekly shaves, Rayber and his barber had been engaging in political discussions. Rayber and his barber were so opposed to each other philosophically that they failed to realize they were talking but not communicating. The barber is emboldened by his fellow racist cronies who frequent the barbershop. The frustrated Rayber decides that as a college professor, he should be able to “argue down” these bigots: “As much rot as it was, the whole asinine conversation stuck with him.” Rayber decides that he must defend his views.

Rayber’s barber supports the racist Hawkson for governor. Hawkson’s campaign is built around getting rid of “Mother Hubbards” and “Little Boy Blues”—words used to describe liberals, “nigger lovers,” and Darmon. Hawkson favors keeping the segregated status quo in the South. Darmon’s campaign focuses on improving schools, increasing teacher salaries, and creating policies that are fair to “different kinds of people.” The barber is ignorant, prejudiced, opinionated, and assertive. Rayber is intelligent, liberal, opinionated, and impotent. As a result, the barber expresses his opinions openly and fearlessly: there are only two sides now, white and black; they need to get a man that “can put niggers in their places”; the schools are best left segregated; no black man is going to come into his barbershop and say, “Gimme a haircut.” In contrast, Rayber rehearses a lot of what he wants to say in his head but “nothing appropriate would come."

Like many of O’Connor’s characters, Rayber’s education has caused him to develop an elevated opinion of himself, yet he is weak and ineffective when it comes to defending his ideas. Nevertheless, he naïvely decides he can fight racism with his intellect. Rayber promises to come back next time and explain to the barber and his patrons why they should vote for Darmon, then he returns home to write down his ideas. The barber and his patrons agree to listen to Rayber’s arguments but warn him not to give them any vague reasons to support Darmon such as “good govament.” Rayber sarcastically replies, “I won’t say anything you can’t understand,” but this comment goes right over their heads. The barber believes that Rayber is the one guilty of not understanding. When Rayber refers to Hawkson as a demagogue, he immediately makes a sarcastic mental note that he should have used the phrase “lying politician” so the ignorant barber would understand him. Sensing Rayber’s disdain, the barber insults him by verbally responding, “Big words don’t do nobody no good. They don’t take the place of thinkin’.” Ironically, this comment goes right over Rayber’s head. The two parties are not communicating.

Rayber seeks advice from his colleague Jacobs about how to defend himself against the barber. Jacobs is similar to Rayber intellectually but not philosophically. Jacobs often expresses racist ideas. Nevertheless, Rayber respects Jacobs’s demeanor and ability to defend his arguments. Jacobs has a way about him, Rayber realizes, that makes people believe “he knows more than he actually does.” Rayber lets Jacobs read the speech he has written for the barber, confident that he will prove his point. Jacobs under-reacts to what Rayber has written and advises Rayber not to argue with the barber. Frustrated, Rayber tries to explain that he must defend himself against “this kind of ignorance.” You don’t know how it is, he complains, “You’ve never experienced it.” Jacobs protests, “Oh yes I have.” He informs Rayber that he has learned that the best way to deal with such ignorance is never to argue. Rayber explains that his plan is not a “mission of conversion” but an attempt to defend himself. When faced with strong opposition, Rayber’s entire belief system has slowly disintegrated from strongly held, well-thought-out political beliefs to a desperate attempt to defend himself against a group of bigots with fairy-tale intellects. The way these bigots argue against concepts they cannot understand is to label their opponents “Mother Hubbards” and “Little Boy Blues”—both allusions to nursery rhymes that ironically point out their own childish behavior. Rayber then decides to practice his speech on his wife who, like Jacobs, listens politely and then replies “That’s nice,” clearly disinterested. Whenever Rayber mentions the election, his wife replies, “Just because you teach doesn’t mean you know everything.” Rayber suspects she secretly supports Hawkson.

Rayber begins to realize that he is fighting a losing battle, yet he feels compelled to proceed with his doomed plan. It is not about changing minds, he reminds himself, it is about defending himself. Rayber learns, however, that he cannot defend himself with mere intellect. Intellect alone is not strong enough to combat bigotry. The barbershop men greet his speech with mockery. When Rayber finishes speaking, the barber yells out, “How many yawl gonna vote for Boy Blue!” The other patrons snicker. They have not really bothered to listen to Rayber. As the Negro janitor, George, sweeps the floor silently, the barber jokingly asks him who he will vote for. With characteristic O’Connor irony, George replies, “I don’t know is they gonna let me vote. Do, I gonna vote for Mr. Hawkson.” This is the final blow for the frustrated, intellectual Rayber. He jerks the ignorant barber by the shoulder and punches him in the mouth. As Rayber runs out of the barbershop, the bloodied barber looks up at him with a superior, I-told-you-so attitude and remarks, “It’s what I been saying all along.” After this, Rayber changes barbers because it is, indeed, “trying on liberals in Dilton.”

On one level, this short story portrays the battle of wits that takes place over a period of weeks between a liberal college professor and a racist barber. On another level, it is an illustration of the ignorance that spawns racism and the futility of trying to combat what O’Connor called the “entrenched Southern code of manners” with mere intellectualism. O’Connor scholar Margaret Earley Whitt points out that there is no clear-cut victory for either intelligence or ignorance in this short story because “the South’s racial relationships are too complex” (Whitt 209). In spite of Rayber’s carefully intellectualized and well-written speech, the barbershop men do not really listen to him. They have already made up their minds. Rayber resignedly concludes that “he wished to hell Darmon spit tobacco juice.” The barbershop men could relate to a man who spit tobacco juice. Rayber would have been able to defend the ideas of a tobacco-spitting man. It would have created a more level playing field for ignorance and intellect.

References

Gooch, Brad. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. Print.

Whitt, Margaret Earley. Understanding Flannery O’Connor. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. Print.

Wildcat Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1499

“The Wildcat” is one of the six stories included in Flannery O’Connor’s 1947 master’s thesis titled The Geranium: A Collection of Short Stories. It was written sometime prior to 1947. O’Connor submitted the story to The Southwest Review in the summer of 1946 but it was rejected (Whitt 209). The story was first published posthumously in 1970 in The North American Review with the permission of O’Connor’s literary executor and longtime friend, Robert Fitzgerald (O’Connor 551). The story was later included in The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, published in 1971. Most scholars and critics agree that none of the six stories in O’Connor’s master’s thesis are comparable to her later stories. These early works do not contain the violence, grotesque characters, and religious themes of her more mature fiction. Nevertheless, these six stories were skillfully written, imaginative, and unique enough to bring her writing to the attention of Paul Engle, head of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and O’Connor’s earliest mentor, who encouraged the talented young writer to submit her stories for publication. “The Wildcat” provides valuable insights into the topics, characters, and themes with which O’Connor experimented as a young writer and perfected as a mature writer. O’Connor scholar Margaret Earley Whitt points out that this story is the first one in which O’Connor deals with a physical disability (the protagonist, Old Gabriel, is blind) (Whitt 210). It is the first story in which Black people are cast as characters; it is also unique because it is the only story of O’Connor’s in which all of the characters are Black. O’Connor attempts to present the southern “Negro” characters in this short story in what she believed was a realistic way, experimenting with Negro dialect as well. “The Wildcat” is also the first story in which O’Connor ventures into the mystical, naming her protagonist Gabriel after the Biblical archangel and messenger of God who will blow his horn to wake the dead on Judgment Day.

Summary

Old Gabriel may be blind, but he can sense that a wildcat is loose in the woods. He can smell it. It reminds him of the time when he was a boy and a wildcat came around “huntin’ blood.” Amused, Gabriel’s grandsons assure him that this wildcat is only hunting cows, not humans. A man named Jupe Williams saw the cat while on his way to the sawmill. Gabriel asks his grandsons what Jupe Williams did about it, and they reply that Jupe started running. “He thought it was after him,” they tell Gabriel. “It was,” Old Gabriel murmurs. His grandsons insist, “It after cows,” but Gabriel is not convinced: “It gonna git itssef some folks’ blood. You watch.” Like his namesake archangel, Gabriel is bringing a message of warning because the wildcat is out there and it is after more than cows. Part I of the story ends as Gabriel assures his grandsons that although there hasn’t been a wildcat around since he was a boy, there “ain’t no mistakin’ a wildcat.”

Part II of the story is a flashback to Gabriel’s boyhood. As a blind child, he is often left with the women and old men. On this day, the men have gone off to track a wildcat, leaving Gabriel with his mother and two other women, Reba and Minnie. Also left behind in a nearby shack are Nancy and Old Man Hezuh. The women call Gabriel into the house and warn him to close the door and windows. “Us don’t want no wildcat jumpin’ in here,” they caution him. Gabriel is angry that the men have left him behind. He could have gone with them. He could have helped them with his keen sense of smell. Reba can also smell the wildcat. She has heightened sensitivities and tells the others that the men are wasting their time hunting the wildcat because “It here. It right around here.” The child Gabriel is not afraid of the wildcat. He innocently fantasizes that he will kill the cat if it attacks. He tells his mother he will “beat, beat, beat its head, beat, beat, beat....” His mother laughs nervously as she comments that someone other than just Nancy ought to be with Old Man Hezuh. Reba warns her to stay put. “Anybody go out gonna git sprung on befo’ they gits there. It around here, I say.” Reba prophetically begins to moan a mournful elegy when all of a sudden the women and Gabriel hear banging at the door. Nancy tumbles in and informs them that the wildcat has killed Old Man Hezuh. “Got him, sprung in through the winder, got him in the throat.”

Part III flashes forward to Gabriel as an old man again. His grandsons have left and he fearfully climbs into his bed, still smelling the wildcat. He senses air coming into the shack and concludes that the door must be open. Jumping out of bed, Gabriel shuts and bolts the door, suspecting that his efforts are futile. “Ef the cat aimed on comin’ in, it could git there.” There is a hole under the door that the family dog regularly crawls under and Gabriel realizes that a wildcat could easily gnaw through it and enter the shack. He wishes that the men had taken him with them. Instead, he has been left all alone and he is convinced that the wildcat is going to attack him this very night. He grabs a large stick, telling himself that he is not going to just sit and wait for death like Old Man Hezuh, but the reality of the situation is that Gabriel is an old man who cannot even wring a chicken’s neck. “Won’t nothin’ for old people to do but wait,” he tells himself with despair. He decides to count to 1,000 to ward off his fear. “Won’t no nigger for five miles could count that fur,” he brags.

Gabriel has counted to four hundred and five when he hears scratching by the chimney. He thinks it might be a domestic cat or perhaps a bat. He calls out to the wildcat to come and get him. He reminds himself that if he dies, the Lord will be waiting for him, but he quickly decides that the Lord would not want him to have wildcat scratches all over his body. He wants to die in his bed, not “on no floor with a wildcat stuck in his face.” He tries to climb onto a high shelf, but the shelf breaks. He hears a low wail. The wildcat has killed a cow. Gabriel is safe for the time being, but he is convinced that the wildcat will come back for him tomorrow night. The men should not have left him alone. Gabriel falls asleep. When he wakes up, his grandsons are cooking breakfast. “How many wildcats you killed, Granpaw?” they joke with him. “I knows what I knows, boy,” he answers. The boys try to reassure Gabriel that they will catch the wildcat. They are going to set a trap for him every night until they catch him. Gabriel is not convinced, however. As the story ends, Gabriel is waiting for his imminent death, listening hopelessly to animal cries wailing and mingling “with the beats pounding in his throat.”

A sense of suspense and foreboding permeates this short story from beginning to end. Fear taunts Gabriel like a stalking wildcat because he is old, blind, and alone. He says the Lord is waiting for him, but this does not give him peace. He is afraid to die. As a child, he brags about killing the wildcat with his bare hands because he is young and does not fear death, but as an old man his bravado is false when he boasts to the men, “I ain’t afraid er no wildcat er no woods neither.” As an old man, Gabriel knows that death is just a matter of time. “He wondered was he Hezuh?” No, “he was Gabrul,” but now he is old and there is “nothin’ to do but wait.”

Based on O’Connor’s later works and on her religious beliefs, it is tempting to speculate upon what the wildcat represents in this short story. It could be fear, it could be death, it could be damnation. Critic Andre Bleikasten stated that the beauty of O’Connor’s fiction, even her earlier stories, is that “they strenuously resist our desire to assimilate them, to make sense of them, to bring them to closure, completion, and resolution. And they are the better for it, they leave breathing space to their readers.”

References

Bleikasten, Andre. "Beginnings and endings in Flannery O'Connor." The Mississippi Quarterly 59.1-2 (2005): 177+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 15 Oct. 2010.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. Print.

Whitt, Margaret Earley. Understanding Flannery O’Connor. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. Print.

The Turkey Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2114

“The Turkey” is one of the six stories included in Flannery O’Connor’s 1947 master’s thesis, entitled The Geranium: A Collection of Short Stories. It was written sometime before June of 1947. Originally entitled “The Capture,” it was first published in November 1948 by Mademoiselle. In 1955 when O’Connor was selecting stories to be included in her first short story collection, entitled A Good Man Is Hard to Find, she rewrote “The Turkey” and retitled it “An Afternoon in the Woods.” O’Connor ultimately decided not to include it in the collection, however, because she had completed another short story entitled “Good Country People” that she liked better (Whitt 220). The original version of “The Turkey” was later reprinted in Best Stories from Mademoiselle in 1961 (O’Connor 551). Ten years later, it was also included in The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor.

O’Connor was a bird lover from early childhood. When she moved back home to Milledgeville, Georgia, after being diagnosed with the autoimmune disease lupus, she began raising peacocks. As a preschooler she drew cartoons of turkeys, and when she was five years old she trained a chicken to walk backwards. Her “celebrity chicken” brought her some degree of fame when a “Yankee photographer” from New York City came to the O’Connor home in Savannah, Georgia, to film the chicken for the Pathé News. In her letters, O’Connor wrote that the event “marked me for life” (Gooch 3). Birds appear in many of her stories as symbols and motifs, in this short story, she uses a turkey as a central symbol for faith.

“The Turkey” is the first short story in which O’Connor deals with the religious faith that would dominate most of her later works (Gooch 132). The story is an allegory of how mankind often incorrectly characterizes God as a quid-pro-quo being who entices people into following him. Full of unexpected plot twists, this short story also contains many Biblical allusions that illustrate a young boy’s struggle with his faith.

Summary

Eleven-year-old Ruller is playing cowboys in the woods all by himself. O’Connor uses imagery to reveal that he finds a turkey—“a touch of bronze” with “the eye, set in red folds that covered the head and hung down along the neck.” Ruller wishes he had a gun so he could shoot the turkey and bring it home to impress his family. Then they would realize that he is “unusual” like his older brother, Hane. Ruller had overheard his parents in bed one night worriedly discussing how Hane had “gone bad” playing pool, smoking cigarettes, and staying out all night. Ruller’s mother had stated that Hane had always been “unusual,” and the immature Ruller mistakenly believes this is a good thing. If he could take home this turkey, his parents would realize that he, too, is unusual.

Ruller soon notices that the turkey has been wounded and cannot fly away, so he decides to track it down and tire it out. He chases the turkey into a ditch, onto the road, and under a hedge, where the turkey collapses, exhausted. Ruller grabs the bird by the tail but cannot hold on. The turkey wobbles away, zigzagging across a field, heading back to the woods. Ruller knows that if the turkey makes it back to the woods, he will never catch it, so he runs after the turkey, keeping his eyes “sharp on it.” Ruller is not keeping his eyes sharp on his own path, however, and he runs into a tree and falls down breathless while the turkey escapes. All Ruller has to show for his efforts are scratched, bloody arms and torn shirt sleeves that will surely get him in trouble at home, especially because he has no turkey to show off and use to deflect his mother’s anger. Somebody has played a dirty trick on him.

Ruller blames God for the dirty trick. Frustrated and angry, he conjures up some daring words for an eleven-year-old boy: “Oh hell!” When God does not punish him for thinking these bad words, he cautiously speaks the words out loud, pronouncing “hell” like Hane would have. Ruller remembers that once Hane even said “God!” and their mother had punished him for taking “the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain.” Ruller tries it—“God!” he says. Nothing happens. He says it again. Then he goes further. He slowly builds upon his blasphemous words until he ends up with “God dammit to hell, good Lord from Jerusalem.” His mother would “smack his head in” if she could hear him, but God seems silent because Ruller has not been struck dead by lightening. Rendered giddy by what he thinks is the freedom to swear and sin without consequences, Ruller collapses on the ground, “red and weak with laughter.” The giddy feeling does not last long and Ruller eventually concludes he might as well forget about catching the turkey and go home.

Ruller heads home, worried that perhaps he is “going bad” like his brother, Hane. He remembers his grandmother warning Hane that the only way to “conquer the devil was to fight him.” Hane had shouted at his grandmother to leave him alone, and she replied that even if he did not love her, she still loved him. He was her boy, and so was Ruller. “Oh no I ain’t,” Ruller thinks to himself. Ruller is not her boy and he is not God’s boy either because God has taken his turkey away. O’Connor uses the grandmother’s words to illustrate God’s sentiments, that he loves mankind unconditionally even if mankind does not love him back. Ruller imagines how he might scandalize his grandmother (and by extension, God) by cussing at her and shocking her with outrageous comments such as “Let’s have some booze, kid” and “Let’s get stinky.” Ruller then recalls his minister’s words, that young men today were “walking in the tracks of Satan” and that if they were not careful, they would wind up in hell, where there was nothing but “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Ruller is angry and confused by God. How could God “go around sticking things in your face and making you chase them all afternoon for nothing?” he complains. Although he does not realize it, Ruller is struggling with his faith. He might as well become a jewel thief, he concludes. Besides, “men didn’t weep.”

All of a sudden, the turkey reappears. It has been shot and is lying on the ground just waiting for Ruller to pick it up and take it home. Ruller changes his mind about God. Maybe God wants him to have the turkey after all, to keep him from going bad. Maybe that is why the turkey is there, as a sign of God’s approval. Maybe God is in the bush right now, “waiting for him to make up his mind” about God and about faith. God must think he is a “very unusual child.” Finding the turkey again must be a sign from God. Ruller thanks God for stopping him from going bad “before it was too late” and decides he must do something for God in return. He decides that if he sees any beggars, he will give them his last dime. He can always get another dime from his grandmother, who he imagines will say to him, “How about a goddam dime, kid?” This blasphemous thought does not fit in with his newly acquired piousness, however, and he quickly and guiltily resolves not to think this way anymore. Furthermore, if God wants him to do a good work, God will have to “turn something up” himself.

Ruller decides to return home by a different route than usual. He walks through town, where he pridefully struts down the streets with the turkey slung over his shoulder. He encounters one of his mother’s friends who, when she sees the turkey, is amazed at what a good shot Ruller must be. Ruller informs her that he did not shoot the turkey but “captured” it. “I chased it dead,” he tells her. Other townspeople marvel at the turkey—two men whistle at it. Another of his mother’s friends and some country boys who are sitting idly on the curb stand up and try to get a better look at the turkey, and a hunter suspiciously walks around Ruller, realizing that this turkey must be the one that he had shot earlier. Everyone is amazed that this young boy has caught such a large turkey. As Ruller swells with pride, he glances back and notices that the country boys are following him. He hopes that they will ask him to show them the turkey.

Ruller continues to walk home with the country boys ominously trailing behind. He is warm all over. “God must be wonderful,” he tells himself. Then he remembers that he probably should do something for God. He prays for God to send him a beggar so that he can donate his last dime. Almost immediately, he notices the town bag lady, Hetty Gilman, walking right toward him. Nervously, Ruller thrusts his dime into her hand and dashes off, “happy and embarrassed” at the same time. Giving his last dime to the beggar is an allusion to the Biblical parable described in Mark 12:41–44 and Luke 21:1–4 in which a widow donates her last coin to the poor even though she is poor, herself. In the parable, Jesus commends the woman’s actions because she gives everything she has even though it is very little. Ruller feels both happy and embarrassed by his donation because although he has done something admirable, which makes him happy, he also has taken pride in the act, which embarrasses him. Pride is a human sin O’Connor is fond of exposing, especially in her later fiction where pride often turns good things into bad.

High on this new and unusual feeling, Ruller makes an impulsive gesture to the country boys who are still following him. “You all wanta see this turkey?” he asks them magnanimously. The country boys want to do more than see the turkey. They snatch the turkey from Ruller’s hands as he stands there dumbfounded. When he regains his senses, the country boys are so far off he cannot even see them anymore. As he “creeps” slowly toward home, he realizes it is getting dark. He begins to run, imagining that there is “Something Awful” tearing behind him “with its arms rigid and its fingers ready to clutch.”

Critics disagree over whether the “Something Awful” reaching for Ruller is God or the devil. A lifelong Bible student, O’Connor was familiar with the Biblical devil who “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Ruller has been warned by his grandmother and his pastor to watch out for the devil. His brother, Hane, is already “walking in the tracks of Satan,” and Ruller has experienced the temporary thrill of sin in “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” so perhaps the devil is reaching for him to ensure that he “turns bad” like his brother. On the other hand, Ruller’s pursuit of the turkey symbolizes his struggle with God and with his faith. Throughout this story and in her letters, O’Connor often acknowledges that sometimes this struggle is terrifying. She writes:

What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. (Habit 354)

Critic Robert Drake points out that in O’Connor’s stories, God often “terrifies before He can bless,” so perhaps God is reaching for Ruller to bless him. The capitalization of the words “Something Awful” indicates that O’Connor is referring to God, who can be awful and awesome and, to a young boy, confusing.

References

Drake, Robert. "'The Bleeding Stinking Mad Shadow of Jesus' in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor." Comparative Literature Studies 3.2 (1966): 183-196. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Sharon R. Gunton. Vol. 21. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Sept. 2010. http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?&id=GALE%7CH1100000603&v=2.1&u=cast18629&it=r&p=LitRC&sw=w

Fitzgerald, Sally. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979. Print.

Gooch, Brad. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. Print.

Whitt, Margaret Earley. Understanding Flannery O’Connor. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. Print.

The Train Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1806

“The Train” is the last of the six stories included in Flannery O’Connor’s 1947 master’s thesis at Iowa State University. Written sometime before June 1947, the story was first published individually in the literary quarterly Sewanee Review in April 1948 (O’Connor 552). O’Connor later revised and expanded this short story into the first chapter of her debut novel, Wise Blood, which would take her an additional five years to complete. O’Connor’s biographer Brad Gooch explains that O’Connor’s inspiration for this short story was a train ride home to Georgia for the holidays:

There was a Tennessee boy on it [the train] in uniform who was much taken up worrying the porter about how the berths were made up; the porter was so regal he just barely tolerated the boy. (quoted in Gooch 134)

O’Connor reworked “The Train” many times while she was a graduate student in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, continually transforming the main character, Hazel Wickers, until she finally settled on a “comic antihero” for his personality (Gooch 135).

Hazel (“Haze”) Wickers is a nineteen-year-old man on furlough from the military. As the story opens, Haze is on a train heading for Taulkinham (an imaginary town) to visit his sister. He wishes he could go home to Eastrod, Tennessee, but his hometown no longer exists. Haze is fearful and alone, uncertain of himself and awkward. He is obsessed by thoughts of Eastrod. Every person and every experience he has on the train reminds him of something “back home.” He is also haunted by memories of his dead mother. This short story is extremely cerebral compared to the others in O’Connor’s thesis. The entire plot focuses on the disconnection between what Haze is thinking and what is actually happening around him. Five years later when O’Connor transforms Hazel Wickers into Hazel Motes, the protagonist in Wise Blood, he is, as O’Connor scholar Dorothy Whitt points out, the first of O’Connor’s characters “to be consumed by the vertical relationship of man to God” (Whitt 219). In this short story, however, Hazel Wickers is a lonely and confused young man, alienated from his home and his family, on a train to nowhere.

Summary

Everything on the train to Taulkinham reminds Hazel Wickers of his home in Eastrod, Tennessee, beginning with the porter. Haze is certain that the porter must be related to Old Cash, a Black man from back home. He might be Cash’s cousin or maybe his son. Everyone in Eastrod knows that Cash had a son who ran away from home a long time ago. The porter informs Haze that he is from Chicago and has not even heard of Eastrod, Tennessee. Haze does not want to believe this, however, just like he does not want to believe that Eastrod no longer exists. Haze makes several attempts to engage the porter in conversation, but the porter’s responses are strictly business: “Do you want your berth made up?”

The talkative Mrs. Wallace Ben Hosen boards the train in Evansville. In a short time, Haze knows all about her—she is going to Florida to see her daughter, it is her first vacation in five years, her husband will be getting his own supper while she is gone. At first, Haze is happy to have someone present and talking but soon Mrs. Hosen attempts to engage him in conversation. Haze is so consumed by his own thoughts—“I’m from Eastrod, Tennessee; my mother was a Jackson; I’m nineteen; my name is Hazel Wickers”—that his responses to Mrs. Hosen’s questions do not make sense. She asks him if he is going home and he responds, “I get off at Taulkinham.” She naturally assumes that Taulkinham is his home, so he corrects her, “Taulkinham ain’t where I’m from.” Surprised, she asks, “Well, where do you live?” to which he responds:

I don’t rightly know, I was there but...this is just the third time I been at Taulkinham.

Mrs. Hosen’s frustration causes Haze to feel trapped and confused, so he quickly excuses himself, explaining that he must check on his berth.

The porter has not prepared Haze’s berth, so Haze returns to his seat and to Mrs. Hosen’s one-way conversation. She has not seen her sister in five years; her sister moved from Grand Rapids to Waterloo; she probably will not even recognize her sister’s children; her sister’s husband used to have a good job in Grand Rapids, but when they moved to Waterloo “he took to liquor.” Haze responds:

I wouldn’t be getting off at Taulkinham if it was there; it went apart like, you know, it....

He is talking about his defunct hometown but Mrs. Hosen assumes he is talking about Grand Rapids. She tells him he must be confused, Grand Rapids is still where it always has been. Haze continues to be absorbed in his own thoughts and does not respond. Finally, Mrs. Hosen asks him if he wants to go to dinner.

While they wait in line to enter the dining car, Haze continues to reminisce about Eastrod, his mother, and how much the porter resembles Old Cash. Mrs. Hosen and another woman are seated, but there is only room for two. Much to his chagrin, Haze is left behind. When he is finally seated, he is confused and uncomfortable, never having eaten in a dining car before. He orders the first thing on the menu. When he is served, he eats without realizing what he is eating. He imagines the other diners are staring at him, watching him eat, and he grows even more uncomfortable and nervous. He finishes his food and flees from the dining car, weak and jittery.

As he returns to his section, he realizes that all the berths have finally been made up. As he distractedly walks to his berth, he bumps into “something heavily pink” that gasps and calls him “clumsy!” It is Mrs. Hosen with her hair all done up in pink curlers. Haze moves one way to let her pass, but she simultaneously moves in the same direction. When this happens several times, the dumbfounded Mrs. Hosen blurts out, “What is the matter with you?” This is the essence of the story. Haze does not know what the matter is with him.

He rushes past Mrs. Hosen, runs into the porter, and knocks the man down. Face to face with the porter, who is now lying on top of him, all Haze can think of is that the porter must be Old Cash’s son, that he surely knows about Eastrod but he must not want to talk about it because it no longer exists. Haze looks at the porter and whispers, “Cash.” The porter pushes Haze away and proceeds to put the ladder up so Haze can enter his upper berth. As Haze climbs into his berth, he tells the porter, “Cash is dead. He got the cholera from a pig.” As Haze tumbles into his berth, the porter responds, “I’m from Chicago. My father was a railroad man.”

Trembling from his recent encounters with both Mrs. Hosen and the porter, Haze lies on his stomach in the dark, coffin-like berth. Time becomes surreal. Haze feels as if it has been a year since he has bumped into the porter. He continues to reminisce about his past life, how he was supposed to go to Taulkinham on his last furlough but instead had gone to Eastrod even though he knew it was a ghost town. The past becomes the present. Haze is back at his old house, which is still standing but vacant. He sleeps on the floor in the kitchen. Haze recalls that his mother had always slept in the kitchen right next to her walnut shifferrobe. It was the only big piece of furniture his mother had ever bought herself and now it is the only thing that remains in the house. In a symbolic attempt to hold onto his roots, Haze ties the legs of the shifferrobe to the floorboards and puts a note in each of the drawers warning anyone who might try to steal it:

This shifferrobe belongs to Hazel Wickers. Do not steal it or you will be hunted down and killed.

Haze feels good after writing these notes. He reassures himself that if his mother’s ghost comes wandering back at night, she will rest easy knowing her shifferrobe “was guarded some.” In his dark berth, Haze envisions his mother’s face as she rests in her coffin, just before the lid is shut. She looks as if at any moment she might “fly out like a spirit” but the lid is closing anyway. Haze then imagines that the lid is closing down on him, coming closer and closer, cutting off the light. He suddenly is jolted back into the present and to the reality of his own plight—stuffed into a windowless berth on a fast-moving train in the middle of the night while the darkness slowly closes in on him. He springs up from the coffin-like berth and catches his body in a crack between the upper and lower berths. He hangs there trapped, wet, cold, and dizzy as the train speeds on towards nowhere. At the end of the dark corridor, Haze glimpses the porter watching him but making no attempt to come to his aid.

During her graduate studies, O’Connor was greatly influenced by the poetry of T. S. Eliot, whose pessimistic and prophetic poem “The Wasteland” helped fashion the “shattered epic of modern life” that characterizes much of O’Connor’s fiction (Gooch 137). “The Train” stands alone as a psychological profile of a young man who is alienated from the world around him and has nowhere to go. His home no longer exists and he is a displaced person with no roots, wandering in the wasteland of modern life. When Hazel Wickers becomes Hazel Motes five years later in O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood, his world “is a spiritually empty, morally blind, cold, and hostile place” where faith and religion are reduced to something “sold on city streets” (Lilburn). Hopelessness as a condition of life is evident in this short story as well as in Wise Blood. In the novel, hopelessness is a destination. In “The Train,” the journey toward despair is just beginning.

References

Gooch, Brad. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. Print.

Lilburn, Jeffrey M. “Overview of Wise Blood.” Novels for Students. Gale 1998. Literature Resource Center. Web. 8 Dec. 2010.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. Print.

Whitt, Margaret Earley. Understanding Flannery O’Connor. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. Print.

The Peeler Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2835

“The Peeler” is one of four short stories Flannery O’Connor revised to include as chapters in her debut novel, Wise Blood (“The Train,” “Heart of the Park,” and “Enoch and the Gorilla” were the other three). “The Peeler” became the third chapter in Wise Blood, but it was published as a short story in the literary quarterly Partisan Review in 1949 (O’Connor 552). By that time, Hazel Wickers, the main character in “The Train,” had become Hazel Motes (Haze) in “The Peeler” and ultimately in Wise Blood. In the short story, Haze meets the two men who will also become major characters in Wise Blood: Enoch Emory, an alienated young man who tries to befriend Haze, and a blind preacher named Asa Shrike, who becomes Asa Hawks in the novel. Both Enoch and Asa fight for Haze’s soul. Throughout “The Peeler,” Enoch is a dark angel perched on one of Haze’s shoulders, urging him to “have us some fun” while Asa is a white angel perched on the other shoulder urging Haze to “repent!”

Hazel Motes is one of Flannery O’Connor’s early grotesques (a character who generates both empathy and disgust), a psychologically warped young man with a distorted image of reality. Like many of O’Connor’s characters, Haze is on parallel journeys, one carnal and one spiritual. The conflict of the story centers on Haze choosing between the two. This short story contains many of the elements that would distinguish O’Connor’s later work: religious imagery, Biblical allusions, and man’s inner struggle with his sin and spiritual natures. Some have called this strange story a parable because embedded in scenes of seemingly ordinary (albeit bizarre) slices of life, there is a moral lesson to be learned and, as is always the case with Flannery O’Connor’s writing, a spiritual lesson. Hazel Motes is a sinner with “a secret need” for redemption who denies this need and tries to run away from God. God does not give up on Haze, however. As the blind preacher reminds him, all mankind has knowledge of God and “them that have knowledge can’t swap it for ignorance.” Once one is “marked” by God, the preacher tells Haze, “there ain’t nothing you can do about it.”

Summary

Hazel Motes has just arrived in the fictional city of Taulkingham (O’Connor’s symbolic Atlanta) after a long train ride (first described in the story “The Train,” which became the first chapter in Wise Blood). While walking downtown, Haze encounters a street vendor selling potato peelers. A crowd has gathered to watch and a young man named Enoch Emery is part of this crowd. Standing nearby is a blind preacher “selling” Jesus by passing out religious tracts with his young daughter. Something is out of balance. These two entities should not appear together: only in a world where religion can be hawked on a street corner would a potato peeler salesman be competing with a preacher. Throughout the short story, O’Connor juxtaposes carnal and spiritual imagery. The card table on which the salesman has displayed his potato peelers is referred to as “an altar” while the hats that both Haze and the blind man are wearing are called “preacher’s hats.” The peeler salesman complains that the blind preacher is stealing all of his customers by passing out Jesus tracts to those who have gathered to watch his potato peeling demonstration. Even the potato is a symbol of the unregenerate soul which, when passed through the peeler, emerges on the other side stripped of its brown skin of sin, leaving a new creation, a pristine white potato.

Enoch Emery seems mesmerized by the peeler, but he does not have enough money to buy one. He fumbles in his pockets, but he can only come up with one dollar and sixteen cents. The blind preacher’s daughter tries to buy a peeler as well, but all she has is two fifty-cent pieces. The preacher and his daughter continue to pass out religious tracts. This further angers the salesman, who calls them “damn Jesus fanatics.” The girl gives Haze a tract. Without looking at it, Haze tears it into tiny pieces that he sprinkles on the ground like salt, an allusion to the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus urges his followers to be like salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13). With penetrating, judgmental eyes, the preacher’s child looks at Haze and says accusingly, “I seen you.” Confused and guilty, Haze throws two dollars at the salesman and snatches one of the potato peelers in a futile act of penance for destroying the religious tract, another juxtaposition of carnal and spiritual imagery. Enoch immediately attaches himself to Haze; he says, “My, I reckon you got a heap of money.”

The parable-like story continues as Haze is pursued physically by Enoch and spiritually by the blind preacher. Haze attempts to flee from them both, but Enoch is persistent. He follows Haze relentlessly, simultaneously unfolding his sordid story. Enoch is eighteen years old. He has lived a dysfunctional life, raised by an itinerant father and never knowing his mother. His father sold him to a religious woman who had taken a shine to Enoch because, at age twelve, he “could sing some hymns good I learnt off a nigger.” The woman tried to “sanctify” Enoch by sending him to the Rodemill Boys’ Bible Academy. He escaped from the Academy and the woman several times, but each time she brought him back and tried to redeem him. Finally, he came up with an idea to rid himself of her forever. He tells Haze he prayed:

Jesus, show me the way to get out of here without killing thisyer woman and getting sent to the penitentiary.

The revelation he received was not a godly one because, as Enoch tells Haze:

I got up one morning at just daylight and I went in her room without my pants on and pulled the sheet off her and giver a heart attackt.

Haze desperately tries to get rid of Enoch, constantly telling him, “Goodbye,” but Enoch is unrelenting. Haze suddenly catches sight of the blind preacher and his daughter and begins to follow them down the street. With his eyes fixed on the preacher, Haze does not see the crossing light turn red. He charges out into the street, only to be accosted by a policeman who asks him, “Maybe you thought the red ones was for white folks and the green ones for colored?” The policeman explains to Haze:

You tell all your friends about these lights. Red is to stop, green is to go—men and women, white folks and niggers, all go on the same light.

Similar Biblical allusions often appear in O’Connor’s stories to underscore her belief that all men are equal in God’s view and that God expects his followers to spread this good news. Never far from Haze, Enoch intercedes and tells the policeman that he will look out for Haze, ironically informing Haze as they walk on, “I reckon I saved you that time.” Haze is not “saved,” however, and he continues his inward struggle between sin and salvation. He is strangely compelled to follow the blind preacher, all the while insisting that he is not following him.

The blind preacher senses that Haze is following him. “I knew somebody was following me,” he tells Enoch and Haze. This is an allusion to the gospel accounts in which Jesus also sensed that a sick woman was following him, hoping to be healed. The preacher knows that Haze needs healing. “I can hear the urge for Jesus in his voice,” he explains to his daughter. Enoch protests:

I don’t hear nothing in his voice...and I know a whole heap about Jesus...if it was anything about Jesus in his voice I could certainly hear it.

This statement alludes to Jesus’ words, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Enoch and the preacher are symbolically fighting over Haze’s soul. While the preacher insists that Haze is marked and cannot escape from Jesus, Enoch continues to bombard Haze with bizarre comments:

My daddy looks just like Jesus...his hair hangs to his shoulders. Only difference is he’s got a scar acrost his chin.

This is another allusion to the scars on Jesus’ hands and feet. Enoch emphatically informs the blind preacher that it is Haze who is following him. “It ain’t me, it’s him,” he says. “He’s been running after yawl ever since back yonder by them potato peelers.” Haze says he is only following the preacher’s daughter so he can give her the potato peeler he purchased. The girl wants nothing to do with Haze or Enoch, however. She senses that they are mocking her and her father for their faith. “Listen at his cursing,” she whispers to her father. “He never followed you.”

The preacher and his daughter are waiting in front of a large public building for people to exit a program. They plan to pass out religious tracts. Enoch remarks that the building “ain’t no church” and it “ain’t no picture show,” another juxtaposition of carnal and spiritual matters. The preacher asks Enoch and Haze to help him pass out the tracts, but his daughter protests. “He don’t have no business touching them,” she tells her father, referring to Haze. The preacher rebukes her saying, “Go, like I told you!” Things are closing in on Haze. He must make a decision. The preacher blindly reaches for Haze, urging him to take the tracts. Haze quickly moves out of his way. “Go to the head of the stairs and renounce your sins” the preacher orders, but Haze retorts, “I’m as clean as you are.” Sensing Haze’s sins, the blind preacher accuses him of fornication. Haze replies that this is just a meaningless word to him. The preacher sees deep into Haze’s soul, recognizing Haze’s need for redemption. The more he preaches to Haze, however, the more Haze resists. He tries to convince the people exiting the building that the preacher and his daughter are “fools down there giving out tracts.” As Haze continues to talk against the preacher, however, his speech inadvertently becomes peppered with the name “Jesus”—“My Jesus,” he repeats over and over, and then, “Jesus Christ crucified”—ironically, religious beliefs he claims to reject. The spiritual battle intensifies. “You’re marked,” the preacher screams at him. “I ain’t marked,” Haze screams back, “I’m free.” The blind preacher tries in vain to convince Haze that he is one of the chosen, that he “needs Jesus.” “I don’t need no Jesus,” Haze tells him. “I got Leora Watts.”

Leora Watts is a prostitute, a symbol of sin. Haze spent the prior night with Leora, so the preacher was correct when he accused Haze of fornication. Haze finally flees from the building and the crowd and the preacher, followed doggedly by Enoch. Enoch tries to convince Haze to visit a house of prostitution, but Haze angrily replies that he already has a woman, Leora Watts. “Get away from me,” Haze screams. Enoch does not believe Haze. He tells Haze that as soon as he saw him, he knew he “didn’t have nobody or nothing. I seen you and I knew it,” he says. In front of Leora’s house, Enoch pulls a potato peeler out of his pocket in a last ditch attempt to get Haze’s attention. He informs Haze that the preacher’s daughter gave it to him and that

there ain’t nothing you can do about it. She invited me to come to see them and not you and it was you follerin them.

By giving Enoch the peeler, the preacher’s daughter has communicated that he, too, needs spiritual healing, but this infuriates Haze who pridefully believes he is superior to Enoch. In anger, Haze hurls the sack of religious tracts at Enoch and enters Leora’s house.

Leora recognizes Haze from the night before. When Haze sits down on the bed, Leora notices his hat—“That Jesus-seeing hat!” she exclaims. In yet another juxtaposition of carnal and spiritual, Leora puts the hat on her own head as Haze turns out the light, undresses, and jumps into bed.

At this point, the story flashes back to Haze’s childhood. He is ten years old. A carnival is in town and Haze and his sister, Ruby, visit the carnival with their father. Carnivals are familiar symbols of debauchery in O’Connor’s fiction, sideshows where the freaks of society often expose the freakishness of the human heart. Intrigued by what type of sin must be going on in an “adults-only” tent, Haze convinces the barker to let him inside for half price. Once inside, Haze sees that the attraction is a naked woman writhing around in a coffin, a symbolic mixture of sex and death. Haze hears his father’s voice, “Had one of themther built in ever casket, be a heap ready to go sooner.” Haze flees from the tent and sits in his father’s truck, waiting. When he gets home, his mother is standing in the yard. Instantly she recognizes that Haze has witnessed something vile. “What you seen?” she demands. When Haze refuses to answer, she hits him across the legs with a large stick. “Jesus died to redeem you,” she tells him. Resisting redemption even as a young child, Haze replies, “I never ast Him.” Yet the next day, he engages in a childhood act of penance by filling his shoes with stones and walking on them through the woods. “That ought to satisfy Him,” he thinks, but nothing happens. God is not satisfied apparently, so Haze puts the stone-filled shoes back on.

The story ends with Haze in Leora’s bed, having flashbacks to his childhood where his conflicts with religion obviously began.

O’Connor’s point in this short story is that man’s moral corruption causes him to have a warped sense of spirituality. Materialism is part of man’s moral corruption. In “The Peeler,” the peeler salesman represents materialism. In another juxtaposition of the carnal and the spiritual, the peeler salesman is selling a product that symbolizes Jesus, who “peels” the darkness of sin away from souls and renders them white. Whiteness symbolizes purity. The potato is white, the blind preacher’s cane is white, the Jesus tracts are white, and the gunny sack in which the preacher’s child carries the tracts is white. Haze too, could be white, but he chooses darkness. He is the true blind man in “The Peeler.” He has a beam in his eye; his name, Motes, is a Biblical allusion to Matthew 7:3:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

O’Connor scholar Stuart Burns believes that in “The Peeler” religion is something fanatical, a “destructive force” whose narrow application causes Hazel Motes’s psychological aberrations (Robillard). Haze is simultaneously drawn to and repelled by Jesus, who supernaturally keeps inserting himself into Haze’s life, interfering with his sinning. As Haze enters Taulkingham, he smells something compelling “that was always being drawn away,” and as he journeys through the city, he often does not know if he is walking backwards or forwards. O’Connor believed that without faith mankind could not possibly know whether he was coming or going.

Many critics believe that the parable-like tone and religious imagery of “The Peeler” make it difficult to understand. What O’Connor calls “Christian realism” in her fiction many interpret as confusing allegory. As O’Connor explains in her letters, however:

One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation; that is, nobody in your audience. My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for. (Habit 92)

Furthermore, as O’Connor scholar Margaret Earley Whitt reminds readers:

In every story, O’Connor points out that if the Christian faith is in place for the reader, the work will be understandable. (Whitt 10)

References

Burns, Stuart L. “The Evolution of Wise Blood.” The Critical Response to Flannery O’Connor. Ed. Douglas Robillard, Jr. Westport, Connecticut, Praeger Publishers, 2004. 125-141. Print.

Fitzgerald, Sally. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. Print.

Robillard, Douglas. The Critical Response to Flannery O’Connor. Westport, Connecticut. Praeger Publishers, 2004. Print.

Whitt, Margaret Earley. Understanding Flannery O’Connor. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. Print.

The Heart of the Park Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2966

“The Heart of the Park” is one of four short stories Flannery O’Connor revised to include as chapters in her debut novel, Wise Blood. (“The Train,” “The Peeler,” and “Enoch and the Gorilla” were the other three.) “The Heart of the Park” was published as a short story by the literary quarterly Partisan Review in February 1949 (O’Connor 552). It later became chapter five in Wise Blood.

Like the other short stories that would become part of Wise Blood, “The Heart of the Park” is allegorical, conveying its theme by means of symbolism and religious imagery. O’Connor juxtaposes carnal and spiritual images as in the other three stories, and the central themes are sin and redemption. There are characteristic Biblical allusions and what scholar Andre Bleikasten calls O’Connor’s practice of contrasting “her mundane, profane beginnings and her otherworldly endings.” The violent ending right before the moment of grace that would appear in many of O’Connor’s future stories appears for the first time in “The Heart of the Park.”

The protagonist in this short story is Enoch Emery, the strange young man who was first introduced in “The Peeler” and who would become one of the main characters in Wise Blood. The character of Haze also appears in this short story, but as Hazel Weaver (he was Hazel Wickers in “The Train” and Hazel Motes in “The Peeler” and in Wise Blood). The blind preacher and his daughter who were introduced in “The Peeler” are alluded to in this short story because Haze is trying to get in touch with them and believes Enoch knows where they live. In this short story, O’Connor develops Enoch into one of her grotesques (a character who generates both empathy and disgust). It is also from this story that O’Connor obtained the title for her novel: Enoch’s blood tells him things; he has “wise blood like his daddy.”

Summary

Enoch Emery works as a guard at the Taulkinham City Forest Park. The park contains an unholy trinity: a swimming pool, a zoo, and a museum. In the swimming pool, Enoch observes people as if they were animals in a zoo. In the zoo, Enoch watches the animals as if they were people, and in the museum Enoch is obsessed by a shrunken mummy in a glass case who is neither animal nor human. Although a typewritten card provides information about the shrunken man, Enoch’s wise blood senses something deeply mysterious about the mummy, a “terrible knowledge” that he cannot articulate, which is “like a big nerve growing inside him.” This mystery is the knowledge of God, which O’Connor believed God implanted in the heart of man at creation. In O’Connor’s Catholic faith, the resurrection of the dead is often referred to as a mystery:

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:51–52)

Enoch’s wise blood is telling him to share this knowledge, but not with just anyone. It must be someone who is not from the sinful city. It must be someone special.

Scholar Joseph Zornado explains that for O’Connor,

there existed a relationship between the sacramental and mundane, the religious and secular, however strained the relationship.

This strained relationship is illustrated by Enoch’s obsessive routine. Every day after work, Enoch is strangely compelled to enter the heart of the park and complete a three-step ritual that is evocative of a Catholic mass, the ceremony in which Catholics commemorate Christ’s death on the cross. The spiritual imagery of the mass and the sacraments that are part of the mass, however, are manifested carnally and perversely, illustrating man’s antagonistic spiritual and carnal natures. On his daily pilgrimage through the heart of the park to “the mystery,” Enoch symbolically participates in the sacraments of Baptism, Penance, and Communion—but he is unable to achieve redemption through his own efforts. He needs a catalyst. When the story opens, Enoch’s “blood all morning had been saying the person would come,” so Enoch begins his daily ritual with anticipation.

The first step in Enoch’s daily ritual involves water and is symbolic of Baptism. Enoch’s carnal approach to it, however, illustrates how far he is from redemption at this point in the story. Enoch does not participate in the Baptism because he is “afraid of water,” preferring instead to watch from a distance, leering at the women in the pool. Enoch hides in the abelia bushes, “his face always very red in the bushes” so anyone who parted the abelias to reveal his hiding place would “think they were seeing a devil.” O’Connor describes the swimmers with animal imagery. A woman in a “stained white bathing suit” is climbing out of the pool, “chinning herself up on the side” as if she were a monkey. She has “sharp teeth protruding from her mouth” as she climbs out of the pool “squatting there, panting.” Shaking the water from her body, she “pads over” to a sunny spot to warm herself. Her hair is “a polluted lemon yellow.” Both the stained bathing suit and her polluted hair symbolize sin, which Baptismal water is meant to symbolically wash away.

The second step in Enoch’s “very formal and necessary” ritual is to visit the Frosty Bottle hot dog stand. This step involves food and is symbolic of the Holy Communion, rendered unholy by Enoch’s carnality. As Enoch slurps his chocolate malted milkshake, he makes “suggestive remarks to the waitress.” Then for Penance, he visits the animals, whom O’Connor describes as if they were humans. The zoo animals sit in cages “heated in the winter and air-conditioned in the summer.” Six men have been hired to “wait on the animals and feed them T-bone steaks.” The animals have a “personal haughty hatred” for Enoch and wait for him “evil-eyed” every day. Like the bathing woman’s hair, their eyes are yellow as they sit “facing each other like two matrons having tea.” In a mockery of Penance, Enoch makes obscene comments to every animal in the zoo. Additionally, the sacraments of Penance and Communion are not in the proper order in Enoch’s ritual. Catholics cannot celebrate Christ’s death through Communion without first acknowledging their sins through Confession and then repenting for them through Penance. Enoch’s ritual is out of order because he is out of order. This is why he desperately needs to share the mystery with “a special person” whom he is certain he will recognize when the time comes. Then he will be able to complete the third and final stage of his journey.

As Enoch watches the swimmers, a dilapidated car passes by. The man inside parks the car and walks down to the pool, staring at the woman in the white bathing suit as she dives into the water. “Well, I’ll be dog,” Enoch exclaims. It is a man he recognizes, Mr. Hazel Weaver. (Enoch knows Haze but in this short story, the circumstances of their prior acquaintance are not elaborated.) Haze watches the woman while Enoch stares at Haze. When the bathing woman pulls her straps down, both Enoch and Haze are startled, but they react differently. Enoch is mesmerized by this exhibit of sexuality but Haze flees. Looking “both ways at once” Enoch cannot decide whether to keep ogling the woman’s body or run after Haze, who has started his car and is driving away.

Enoch runs to the car shouting at Haze, who sees him and turns off the motor. Haze tells Enoch that another guard told him he could find Enoch hiding in the bushes and watching the swimmers. Enoch is embarrassed by the exposure of his sin and explains to Haze, “I allus have admired swimming.” Haze asks Enoch for the address of a preacher and his daughter (who were introduced in the short story “The Peeler”). Haze reminds Enoch:

Asa and Sabbath Moats. She gave you the peeler. Did she tell you where they lived?

Enoch’s “wise blood” senses that Haze must have done something evil to be seeking the preacher. Perhaps he has stolen his car. Haze’s pursuit of the preacher began in “The Peeler.” In this short story, he is seeking redemption because he “ain’t clean.” Enoch tells Haze that he will give him the preacher’s address, but first

I got to show you something. I got to show it to you, here, this afternoon. I got to.

Haze replies, “I don’t want to see anything of yours,” but he knows that Enoch will not give him the address unless he accompanies Enoch on his ritual. Reluctantly, Haze agrees to follow Enoch.

The journey begins anew. From the swimming pool, the two men walk to the Frosty Bottle, where Enoch harasses the waitress again. Enoch orders his customary chocolate malted milkshake, watching Haze carefully. Angered by Enoch’s lecherous daily visits, the waitress strides over to Haze and chastises him for keeping company with someone as repulsive as Enoch. She repeatedly tells Haze, “You’re a nice boy. I can see you got a clean nose.” She calls Haze “clean” several times. As Enoch finishes his milkshake, Haze lingers near the waitress, longing to confess something to her. Enoch hurries him along:

We don’t have no time to be sassing around with her. I got to show you this right away.

But Haze stares at the waitress, telling her twice, “I ain’t clean.” When the waitress hears this, she becomes enraged, calls both boys “filthy,” and chases them from the restaurant. Ironically, she is “unclean” herself. Not only does she direct several obscenities at Enoch but, like the woman with the stained white bathing suit, she is wearing “a once-white uniform clotted with brown stains.”

Enoch and Haze drive away from the hotdog stand. Enoch insists again that he must show Haze something important. Convinced now that Haze is the special person who can help him complete his journey, he tells Haze, “I had a sign it was you when I seen you drive up at the pool.” Urging Haze to accompany him on the final phase of his journey he promises, “When you see it, something’s going to happen.” Haze does not care about Enoch’s signs. He replies that nothing is going to happen and that he needs to get going just as soon as Enoch gives him the preacher’s address. Enoch insists that Haze must go with him into the heart of the park, then he can have the address. First, however, they must walk by the animals. This time, Enoch only makes one obscene comment to the animals because he is in a hurry, drawn inexorably towards the “mystery.” Haze lingers by the bird cages, staring at one bird which is actually watching him, judging him, a symbol of God. O’Connor describes the bird in stages to enforce its symbolism, beginning with its most important feature:

There was an eye. The eye was in the middle of something that looked like a piece of mop and the piece of mop was sitting on an old rag.

The eye is “looking directly at Hazel Weaver.” It is an owl. Haze confesses a third and final time to the owl, “I ain’t clean.” Enoch imagines that Haze must have murdered someone, so he urges Haze to hurry, “Oh Jesus. Come on!”

As Enoch and Haze approach the museum on step three of the journey, Enoch’s blood stops beating. He knows something is going to happen. The strange word “MVSEVM” (written in Latin) makes him shiver. The closer they get to the museum with its curious mummy, the more excited Enoch becomes. There is an unusual odor. The museum is dark. They must pass the sleeping guard, a “dried up spider,” like Cerberus guarding the entrance to the underworld. Enoch’s blood begins to beat again. They enter the shadowy room that houses the mummy. There are “three coffin-like” glass cases in the middle of the floor. The mummy is in the third one. He is naked and “a dried yellow color” like the bathing woman’s hair and the animals’ eyes. The typewritten card explains that the mummification process rendered the man three feet tall. “He was once as tall as us,” Enoch explains to Haze. “Some A-rabs did it to him in six months.” Mesmerized by the man in the case, Haze’s face is reflected in the glass while Enoch stands praying, “Oh Jesus, Jesus...let him hurry up and do whatever he’s going to do.”

Enoch hears a strange noise that he believes comes from the mummy. Suddenly the woman from the pool enters the museum with her two boys, intruding upon the solemnity of the moment. Haze jerks his neck back and flees from the room. Enoch runs after Haze. When Enoch catches up to the fleeing Haze, Haze grabs Enoch, shakes him, and demands that Enoch give him the preacher’s address. Enoch cannot remember the address. Haze realizes that Enoch does not know the address, so he violently pushes Enoch away. Enoch falls backwards against a tree and rolls over “stretched out on the ground, with an exalted look on his face.” He thinks he is floating. He has succeeded in showing the “mystery” to Haze. Haze storms off. From a distance, Enoch sees Haze’s “wild face turn,” then he picks up a rock and hurls it straight at Enoch. The catalyst has accomplished his task. While Haze drives away, Enoch slowly dies, his eyes “red-streaked” and his blood pouring out “like a little spring” on the ground around him. As he dies, he hears his “blood beating, his secret blood, in the center of the city.”

Scholars and critics disagree about the meaning of this short story, and some have criticized O’Connor for writing a story whose theme and purpose are so unclear. O’Connor scholar Stuart L. Burns believes that if it is judged as a self-contained short story, “The Heart of the Park” suffers because

the exact nature of Enoch Emery’s revelation is undefined and the question of the validity of his initiation never clearly resolved. (Burns 131)

Even Christian critics whose “faith is in place” and (according to O’Connor) should be able to “understand the work” (Whitt 10) cannot agree on which character, if any, is a Christ figure—Enoch, Haze, or the mummy. One interpretation is that Enoch is a Christ figure whose blood must be shed to reveal the “mystery” of resurrection and eternal life, and that the revelation occurs just before Enoch’s death as his cleansing blood flows toward the evil city. This view is supported by the fact that Enoch is the one whose “wise blood” compels him to participate in the purification ritual that ends in his death while Haze only participates in the ritual as a means to an end. Critics who disagree with this interpretation, however, question how a sinful, grotesque character like Enoch can symbolize the sinless Christ’s atoning death on the cross for sinful man (represented by Haze, who confesses three times that he “ain’t clean”).

Some critics believe that Enoch represents evil. They support their view by pointing out Enoch’s description as a “red devil” peering at women in the pool and his obsession with women and sex. Other critics believe Haze is the Christ figure, citing Enoch’s repeated use of the name “Jesus” while urging Haze to hurry up as they complete the final step of their purification journey. Still others argue that the mummy is a Christ figure who transforms both Enoch and Haze as they witness the mystery in the museum. Burns even suggests that the mummy represents “Christianity’s shrunken vitality in, or relevance to, the modern world” and that Haze is a “reincarnated modern Christ, an apostle of violence” who stones Enoch at the end of the story (Burns 130).

O’Connor further confounds the issue by reversing the roles of Enoch and Haze in Wise Blood. In the novel, Hazel Weaver is the one pursuing the truth while his disciple, Enoch Emery, becomes so alienated from human society that he morphs into a man in a gorilla costume (first described in the short story “Enoch and the Gorilla”). In her letters, O’Connor described her continual efforts to revise her fiction, so it is not surprising that Haze and Enoch underwent several metamorphoses before appearing in Wise Blood. Writing about Enoch, O’Connor said, “He is a moron and chiefly a comic character” (Mystery and Manners 116). In a footnote to Wise Blood, O’Connor called Hazel Motes “a Christian malgré lui” (a Christian in spite of himself). In “The Heart of the Park,” however, it is still unclear which character is the Christian and which one is the gorilla.

References

Bleikasten, Andre. "Beginnings and Endings in Flannery O'Connor." The Mississippi Quarterly 59.1-2 (2005): 177+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Sept. 2010.

Burns, Stuart L. “The Evolution of Wise Blood.” The Critical Response to Flannery O’Connor. Ed. Douglas Robillard, Jr. Westport, Connecticut, Praeger Publishers, 2004. 125-141. Print.

Fitzgerald, Sally. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. Print.

Zornado, Joseph. "A Becoming Habit: Flannery O'Connor's Fiction of Unknowing."Religion and Literature 29.2 (Summer 1997): 27-59. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 61. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Sept. 2010.

A Stroke of Good Fortune Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1688

“A Stroke of Good Fortune” was included in Flannery O’Connor’s first collection of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, but it was first published in 1949. The date is significant because this story alludes to radically changing post-World War II social and moral values such as women’s rights and birth control. Such values were an anathema to a devout Catholic like Flannery O’Connor, who often equated progressiveness with sinfulness in her fiction.

The story’s protagonist, Ruby Hill, is a familiar O’Connor character type—an angst-ridden, spiritually bereft woman guilty of two of what O’Connor believed to be the worst of the deadly sins: pride and envy. Determined to be a progressive woman, unlike her mother who was “done in” by eight children, Ruby is proud of the fact that at age thirty-four, she has escaped motherhood. She dreams of moving to the suburbs. Although a fortune teller predicts that she will experience “a long illness,” Ruby clings to the second part of the prediction—that the illness will bring her “a stroke of good fortune.” That stroke of good fortune, however, is not moving to the suburbs. Ruby is pregnant.

Ruby is so caught up by the idea of “the American Dream” and her failure to have achieved it that she cannot recognize the joy that surrounds her. The warped sense of reality with which she views everything causes her to assume that the people that share her humble surroundings are as miserable as she is. Three prophet-like characters are sent to tell her otherwise on her journey up the “steeple” steps to her fourth-floor apartment, but she is blind to their message. In her selfish quest to avoid sacrificing her life for others (as in motherhood), she fails to realize that self-sacrifice can lead to fulfillment.

Summary

Ruby has just come home from the grocery store which is more than eight blocks away from her apartment. She is tired, discouraged, and grumpy. She hardly has enough energy to set her grocery sack down on the table in the foyer. In the first few lines of the story, Ruby reveals herself to be prideful. Her lazy, unmotivated baby brother Rufus, who has “about as much get as a floor mop,” has come back from the war to live with Ruby and her husband, Bill, a salesman. Ignoring the fact that Rufus has been willing to sacrifice his life for his country, Ruby focuses on his negative qualities. She concludes that he has not turned out any better than the rest of her family. She is the “only one in her family who had been different, who had had any get.” Ruby has offered to cook something special for Rufus, and all he can come up with is “collard greens.” How pedestrian. “Collard greens!” she says, “spitting the word from her mouth this time as if it were a poisonous seed.” She and Bill have not eaten the odious greens for five years. It is a food that she pridefully considers socially beneath her.

At this moment, however, it is Ruby herself who is “beneath” something—the stairs. She is at the bottom, looking up. The stairs are a religious symbol for the effort required to achieve spiritual growth (Ruby sees them as “steeple steps”). O’Connor personifies the stairs, and they become Ruby’s protagonist. They appear to her as if they are rearing up and getting “steeper for her benefit.” It is more than just her physical condition that is preventing Ruby from “going up anything,” however. Her pride and envy are impeding her spiritual growth, and this is why she is having so much trouble conquering the stairs. She hates the apartment building. She wants to move to the suburbs, “where you had your drugstores and grocery and a picture show right in your own neighborhood.” She does not want to become like her mother, who “got deader” with each one of her eight children. She does not want to be like her brother Rufus, who she says is “good for absolutely nothing.” She does not want to be like her two sisters, “both married four years with four children apiece.” Ruby is thirty-four, and she has successfully avoided motherhood. This is why she is “extremely young looking for her age.” Ruby’s discontent gives her a warped view of life, however, because she only assumes that these other people are unhappy.

The only unhappy person she encounters on her ascent up the stairs is herself. She is sick, she admits, but Madam Zoleeda, a prophet-like character, has predicted “a stroke of good fortune” from the sickness. Beginning with Madam Zoleeda, Ruby fails to understand the messages that several prophet-like characters give her about the exact nature of the “good fortune.” After climbing only a few stairs, Ruby stops to rest and sits down on a toy gun carelessly left on the step by six-year-old Harley Gilfeet. “His stupid mother” will no doubt fail to reprimand him, Ruby angrily tells herself. Harley’s mother thinks her son is so smart. Ruby remembers that the child’s mother calls him “Little Mister Good Fortune” because Harley is the only thing she has left after her husband’s death. This is Ruby’s second message about good fortune, but she is only thinking about how she would have spanked the child had he been hers. She catches her breath and continues up the stairs. Maybe she has a heart condition, she muses, as if this is preferable to being pregnant: “That is what she wanted it to be—heart trouble.” It could indeed be her heart. After all, Ruby admits to herself, she has gained a little weight, but her husband Bill likes her that way, she reminds herself. In fact, lately, he has seemed mysteriously happy that she has put on a few pounds. She continues to climb the stairs while she sorts things out in her mind.

On the second floor, she encounters the strange Mr. Jerger, an elderly former history teacher who looks like a goat. A goat is a Christian symbol of oppression, and Mr. Jerger’s constant questions are oppressive to Ruby. This time, he asks her if she knows that it is Ponce de Leon’s birthday, a Spaniard who explored Florida searching for the legendary fountain of youth. He coyly tells Ruby, “You should know something about Florida. Your husband is from Florida.” By referring to her husband and to the fountain of youth, Mr. Jerger’s prophetic message to Ruby is that the legendary fountain of youth does exist spiritually and that he personally has drunk its water “in his heart.” Like the Biblical account of the woman at the well (John: Chapter 4) who is told by Jesus that he can give her living water, Mr. Jerger has symbolically tasted this same living water and his thirst for happiness has been quenched. Mr. Jerger is the second prophet-like character that tries to make Ruby see that her quest to remain childless and thus eternally youthful is a vain pursuit and will only lead to unhappiness. Again, Ruby fails to understand, and the stairs are getting “darker and steeper” as she goes up.

Ruby is out of breath and her stomach hurts. Maybe it is cancer. She stumbles into her friend Laverne Watts’s apartment hoping that Laverne, who works for a chiropodist, might be able to help her. Laverne is single and man-crazy. Although Laverne notices that Ruby is sick, she is more interested in Rufus. The thirty-year-old Laverne thinks Rufus is cute, and Ruby is shocked that Laverne is interested in her twenty-year-old brother. Laverne shocks Ruby even further by informing Ruby that she is obviously pregnant. Ruby’s ankles are swollen and her belly is protruding: she must be four or five months along, Laverne tells her, and she may be having twins. Horrified, Ruby replies that her husband Bill takes care of that, “Bill Hill’s been taking care of that for five years! That ain’t going to happen to me!” Still in denial, Ruby rejects Laverne’s prophetic diagnosis and replies that she is certain her heart will be better tomorrow and that she and Bill will be moving soon.

Outside of Laverne’s apartment, Ruby tries to convince herself that she is probably just fat, as if this, like cancer and heart disease, would be preferable to being pregnant. And yet, that mysteriously happy look on her husband’s face continues to haunt her. Does he know? Surely not. Might he have fooled her? No, he would never have slipped up in this way. The higher she climbs, however, the darker and steeper the stairs become. They sway, and she becomes nauseous. From the top, the stairs look just as “dark green and mole-colored” as they did when she was at the bottom, looking up. She sits down to rest, reviewing her situation:

It couldn’t be any baby...Bill Hill couldn’t have slipped up...Madam Zoleeda says it will end in a stroke of good fortune...Oh, it is probably just gas.

At that moment, however, the six-year-old Hartley Gilfeet bursts onto the scene with two toy guns, a further reminder to Ruby of why she does not want children. As the “old goat teacher” Mr. Jerger grabs Hartley, Ruby hears three echoes that seem to be coming from the stairs, the voices of her “prophets”—good fortune, baby, “Good fortune, baby!” To Ruby, however, a baby is not good fortune. A baby means defeat. A baby is a stroke of bad fortune.

The story ends ambiguously. Ruby feels a little roll. The baby is moving in her womb, but it is “as if it were out nowhere in nothing, out nowhere, resting and waiting, with plenty of time.” Perhaps there is plenty of time. Ruby may yet rise to the occasion instead of letting her pregnancy defeat her. In typical O’Connor fashion, this story begins with the mundane and ends with the sublime. This time, however, the conflict is left unresolved.

Enoch and the Gorilla Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1952

“Enoch and the Gorilla” is one of four short stories Flannery O’Connor revised to include as chapters in her debut novel, Wise Blood. (“The Train,” “The Peeler,” and “The Heart of the Park” are the other three.) “Enoch and the Gorilla” was published as a short story in the literary anthology magazine New World Writing in April 1952 (O’Connor 552). It later became Chapter 12 in Wise Blood, the final chapter involving Enoch Emery, one of the two main characters.

Of the four short stories that would eventually become part of Wise Blood, this story is one of two in which Enoch Emery is the protagonist (“The Heart of the Park” is the other one). In the other stories, Haze is the main character. Haze does not appear in “Enoch in the Gorilla.” It took Flannery O’Connor more than five years to finish Wise Blood. During that time, she revised these four short stories many times, completely changing the roles that Enoch and Haze would play by the time they appeared in the novel. In this short story (written several years after the other three), Enoch has evolved into the characteristic Flannery O’Connor grotesque (a character who generates both empathy and disgust) he would be in Wise Blood.

Summary

The first and only hand that has been extended to Enoch Emery since he arrived in the city is warm and soft and belongs to Gonga the gorilla. Gonga is actually a man in a gorilla suit who has been paid to shake hands with people as part of a traveling show. Enoch is a lonely, eighteen-year-old boy who was forced to come to the city by a brutal father whose cruel idea of a joke was to give his four-year-old son a tin box with a picture of peanut brittle on its lid and the caption “a nutty surprise.” The surprise was a piece of coiled steel that flew out of the box when Enoch opened it, breaking his two front teeth and forever ruining his appearance. Enoch lives in a lonely room rented from a landlady who sometimes lends him an old umbrella that she no longer uses. He works at the city zoo and eats at the Paris Diner, “a tunnel about six feet wide” that is two blocks from his room. When the story opens, Enoch is walking down the street in the rain wearing his dark glasses and struggling with the borrowed umbrella, which keeps coming down on him “with a shriek” and “stabbing him in the back of the neck.”

The dilapidated umbrella is not shielding Enoch from the pouring rain or from life, so he ducks under a movie house marquee for shelter. Several children are standing in line. They laugh at Enoch’s struggles with the umbrella and make fun of his “funny-looking teeth.” Enoch glares at them, accustomed to ridicule. He then lowers his dark glasses to read a sign posted on the wall of the theater: “GONGA! Giant Jungle Monarch and a Great Star! HERE IN PERSON!” The dark glasses not only block people from looking into Enoch’s soul but also distort his view of reality. When Enoch removes them, he literally and symbolically sees more clearly. In the past, he had not always been so perceptive. He was not always “sensitive to his times of danger” (as with the “nutty surprise”). What he sees now is an opportunity. This time, he tells himself, Fate is not going to “draw back her leg to kick him.” Perhaps “the hand of Providence” has provided him with an opportunity to get even, to stop being a victim, “to insult a successful ape.”

Enoch learns that the children are waiting to see this successful ape, Gonga. Anyone who is brave enough to shake Gonga’s hand will get a free pass to the movies. Enoch plans to insult Gonga with a well-chosen obscene remark. Enoch dreams of becoming someone important even though his life has been marred by dysfunction and abuse. He has only a vague idea of what he wants to become, but he knows he wants “to better his condition.” Finally, it is his turn. Gonga extends his hand, but Enoch cannot think of a single obscene remark. He is not yet able reconcile his conflicting emotions as he begins to transform himself from sufferer to contender. He shakes Gonga’s hand and stammers out a summary of his life:

My name is Enoch Emery, I attended the Rodemill Boys’ Bible Academy. I work at the city zoo. I seen two of your pictures. I’m only eighteen years old but I already work for the city. My daddy made me come....

Gonga’s eyes turn into “an ugly pair of human ones” as he tells Enoch, “You go to hell.” Embarrassed and humiliated once again, Enoch flees to the solace of his room.

Enoch “fidgets and fools” in his room all afternoon, pulling the fabric completely off the landlady’s umbrella and transforming it into a weapon, “a black stick with a sharp steel point” that could have been used as “an instrument for some specialized kind of torture....” Enoch is also transforming himself. That evening, he sets off “to get some honor” but is still nervous and uncertain, so he decides to sustain himself with food. He reminds himself that he never sets out for anything “without eating first.” He heads to the Paris Diner with the umbrella-turned-weapon in his hand. The waitress treats Enoch with her customary contempt, ignoring his order. Enoch has changed, however. He aggressively tells her:

Listen here. I got to go. I’m in a hurry. Lemme just have a piece of theter cake yonder.

Encouraged and surprised by his new boldness, Enoch asks a fellow diner if he can borrow a part of his newspaper. The man hands Enoch the funnies, Enoch’s favorite part. Enoch eats a piece of cake and reads the funnies, feeling himself “surging with kindness and courage and strength.” If anyone could see Enoch now, they would see “a certain transformation in his countenance...a look of awakening.” The waitress notices. “What’s the matter with you?” she asks. “Did you swallow a seed?” Enoch replies, “I know what I want.”

What Enoch wants is to become important, to have people in line waiting to shake his hand. In his misguided mind, however, Enoch believes he can achieve this by becoming a successful ape himself. He has read in the paper that Gonga is appearing at The Victory Theater, so he leaves the diner and heads to Gonga’s next gig. “You may not see me again,” he tells the waitress, “—the way I am.” O’Connor uses jungle-like imagery to describe Enoch’s journey to the theater. The evening is pleasant and damp; there are puddles on the sidewalk; the store windows are steamy and bright. Enoch disappears down the streets like an ape moving stealthily through the forest, hiding in a stair cavity where he can observe Gonga’s truck. When the back door of the truck opens, Enoch darts across the street and slips noiselessly inside. Gonga’s show ends and the gorilla and his troupe leave the city. When the truck stops at a railroad crossing, a figure slips out, almost falling, and limps “hurriedly off toward the woods.”

The figure is Enoch. Thumping around in the back of the truck, he has incurred a “gash that runs from the corner of his lip to his collarbone” and a “lump under his eye” that gives him a “dulled insensitive look,” the look of an ape. He is “burning with the intensest kind of happiness” as he buries his clothes. He denies any symbolism associated with burying his former self. He simply will not need them anymore, he tells himself. He has Gonga’s gorilla suit. As Enoch dons the gorilla costume, he slowly transforms himself from man to ape. O’Connor now uses the pronoun “it” rather than “he” to refer to Enoch. First one white leg disappears into the dark hairy fur, then another.

For an instant, it had two heads, one light and one dark, but after a second, it pulled itself with certain hidden fastenings and what appeared to be minor adjustments of its hide.

The beast stands very still for quite some time, savoring its transformation from man to gorilla in what O’Connor calls “reverse evolution” (quoted in Burns 126).

The gorilla begins to growl and beat its chest. At first, the growls are “thin and uncertain” but they soon grow into “low, poisonous” sounds, evil sounds that symbolize the evil of Enoch’s choice to become an ape and thereby defying the One who created him in His own image. After practicing shaking hands several times, the gorilla sets out on its quest for honor, seeking people to stand in line to shake its hand, the umbrella-turned-weapon under its arm. “No gorilla anywhere, Africa or California or New York, was happier than he.”

This happiness is short-lived. The first people Enoch encounters on his quest for honor are a man and a woman sitting on a rock by the side of the road, looking toward the city. When they see a gorilla standing behind them, they flee in terror. Surprised and then dejected, Enoch’s extended arm falls to his side and he sits down on the rock, staring into the night as the story ends.

When O’Connor incorporated this story into Wise Blood, she did not change the ending. At this point in the novel (Chapter 12), Enoch’s character disappears. Stuart L. Burns describes this short story as a “dramatization of total alienation” culminating in Enoch’s transformation as he

regresses first to childhood, standing in line to shake the gorilla’s hand, then to a sub-human state, burying his clothes and donning the gorilla suit himself. (135)

O’Connor believed in the dual nature of man, carnal and spiritual (Mystery and Manners 97). In this short story, Enoch-as-man and Enoch-as-gorilla illustrate the internal conflict caused by these antagonistic natures. When Enoch first encounters the gorilla, for example, he is so confused that he cannot come up with an obscene remark to hurl at the gorilla because “his brain, both parts, was completely empty.” When Gonga tells Enoch to “go to hell”, Enoch wants to flee but he cannot decide “which direction he wanted to go in.” As Enoch dons the gorilla suit, one leg is white while the other is hairy; at one point the beast appears to have two heads, one light and one dark. Enoch has free will to choose which of his two natures he will serve, but he makes the wrong choice. It is an affront to God. As a result, Enoch is not redeemed, as are many of O’Connor’s other characters.

O’Connor wrote, “As for Enoch, he is a moron and chiefly a comic character” (Mystery and Manners 116). With her characteristic irony, O’Connor seems to be taking a humorous stab at the idea that man is descended from ape. Enoch finds no fulfillment in de-evolving to his so-called origins. He ultimately remains unchanged, a spiritually lost and alienated modern man, “staring over the valley at the uneven skyline of the city.”

References

Burns, Stuart L. “The Evolution of Wise Blood.” The Critical Response to Flannery O’Connor.Ed. Douglas Robillard, Jr. Westport, Connecticut, Praeger Publishers, 2004. 125-141. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. Wise Blood. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1952. Print.

A Late Encounter With the Enemy Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2013

In August 1951, Flannery O’Connor read a story in her hometown paper, The Milledgeville Union-Recorder, about a “dashing” 106-year-old Confederate general named William J. Bush. Photographed in full-dress uniform, the General was attending a graduation ceremony for his 62-year-old wife at Georgia State College for Women (Gooch 202). O’Connor was an enthusiastic reader of local news and gossip, ever on the lookout for inspiration for her fiction. Quirky stories such as this one appealed to her sardonic sense of humor. She often clipped them out and enclosed them with letters to her friends. This particular news article inspired her short story “A Late Encounter With the Enemy."

The Civil War often appears in O’Connor’s short stories to illustrate what she believed was the South’s preoccupation with a part of its history that Southerners should learn from but not continue to be haunted by. O’Connor wrote in her letters that she was “so sick of the Civil War” (The Habit of Being 246). Gone with the Wind (the novel and subsequent film on the Civil War) was a standing joke in her life and letters, and in “A Late Encounter With the Enemy” she pokes fun at this Southern obsession by alluding to the film’s 1939 Atlanta premiere. In this short story, the fictional 104-year-old General Tennessee Flintrock Sash is a Civil War relic who is regularly put on display each time there is some sort of ceremony or event, especially one associated with the Civil War. The graduate is his granddaughter, Sally Poker Sash, a 62-year-old woman who is finally getting her college degree. Sally and the General are familiar O’Connor character types, lacking in compassion for others and focused on themselves. Each of them is using the other for selfish motives. Sally is using her grandfather’s celebrity status to identify herself with an aristocratic, genteel past that no longer exists. The General is using Sally’s graduation ceremony as another opportunity for him to be up on stage, the only thing that gives his life meaning. They are both prideful. O’Connor finds human pride intolerable, and most of her fiction is dedicated to exposing it as a great enemy of humankind.

In typical O’Connor fashion, this short story presents readers with opposing forces. Both the General and Sally are attempting to glorify and live in the present because their pasts are based on lies. They are both old for their respective positions in life, yet they delude themselves into believing they are young. The General brags about his prowess with young, pretty girls and Sally is a senior citizen finally obtaining a college degree. They are both denying reality, living out their desires but haunted by their fears. Sally is dreadfully afraid that the General will die before her graduation and the General’s fear of his past has been shrouded by his senility. They both cling to memories of histories that never happened and indulge in unrealistic fantasies about their futures. They are both their own worst enemies.

“A Late Encounter With the Enemy” is the eighth story in O’Connor’s first short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find, published in 1955. It is often compared to “A Rose for Emily” by O’Connor’s much-admired fellow Southern writer William Faulkner. In Faulkner’s story, a uniformed group of former Confederate soldiers attend the funeral of an elderly spinster found dead in her bed. In “A Late Encounter With the Enemy,” the elderly General’s “funeral” occurs under cover of a graduation ceremony. He is attended by a young Boy Scout who does not even realize the old man is dead. The characters in both stories are haunted by history and by their pasts, yet O’Connor’s characters are comical. Both stories reflect the ghosts of the Old South that O’Connor called “fierce and instructive.” Such ghosts, she wrote, “cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature” (Mystery and Manners 44).

Summary

Sally Poker Sash is finally graduating from college at age 62. She began teaching school when degrees were not necessary, and it has taken her 20 years of summer school to obtain her teaching credential. Her degree has not improved her teaching, however; she stubbornly continues to teach just as she always has out of revenge for being forced to get her degree when “she should have been resting.” Sally is a bitter woman intent on proving herself to “them,” even though “them” is “nobody in particular.” The ceremony is more important to her than the degree. She intends to flaunt her “kin,” the famous Civil War General Tennessee Flintrock Sash, so all of those “upstarts” will see that she stands for something, that she has something “behind her”: “old traditions! Dignity! Honor! Courage!” In reality, Sally has nothing behind her because both she and her grandfather are frauds. Sally’s belief that her grandfather actually has any dignity, honor, and courage that she can appropriate for herself is misplaced.

General Sash is not a real general. Sally admits that he was only a Major, but even this may not be true. The General does not remember his history, personal or otherwise. He does not remember if he had a wife or children in spite of the fact that he currently has a granddaughter. The graduation ceremony is more important to him than his granddaughter because it is another occasion for him to show off his bogus status as a Civil War icon. The only reason he agrees to attend the ceremony is because Sally has promised “to see to it that he sits on the stage.” His life is one long counterfeit ceremony, and everything he believes to be true is ironically just the opposite. His name is really George Poker Sash (“Tennessee Flintrock” is the invention of a Hollywood producer who was looking for a more colorful character to advertise the premiere of his Civil War film several years ago). The General wants to stand tall on the stage at the graduation ceremony, but he cannot stand at all because he is in a wheelchair. When he could “stand tall” he was only five feet four inches. He refuses to wear his false teeth because he believes his profile is “more striking” without them. He can barely hear or see. Both his uniform and sword had been given to him long ago as props by the same Hollywood producer that named him “Tennessee Flintrock”; they are more false examples of a false reality. He cannot remember any Civil War battles because, to him, the Civil War was merely the subject of the film whose premier he had attended, ironically to add some authenticity to the film’s debut.

Both Sally and the General illustrate characteristic O’Connor human beings whose flaws and dysfunctional relationships are the subject of dark comedy. The General responds to questions with lecherous innuendos. He was at the movie premier “surrounded by beautiful guls.” If he had been in a hotel room alone with the “beautiful guls” he would have “known what to do.” For her part, Sally had purchased an expensive evening gown for the Atlanta premier. The Hollywood producer had presented her with an exquisite corsage “made with gladiola petals taken off and painted gold and put back together to look like a rose”—even the corsage was a sham. The entire effect was ruined, however, because Sally had forgotten to change out of her ugly brown Girl Scout shoes. Humiliated, Sally yanked the General off the stage, still yelling about the “beautiful guls.” The General slept through the movie while Sally fumed. Now Sally is praying every night that the General will not die before her graduation. She needs him for her moment of glory. Sally enlists the aid of her 10-year-old nephew, John Wesley, a Boy Scout, to ensure that General Sash gets on the stage for her graduation. She must march in with the graduates, so she needs some help. It is a blazing hot Georgia day as the blacked-robed graduates march two long blocks to the auditorium. Sally spies John Wesley shirking his duties at a Coca Cola machine, a symbol of the New South. (Coca Cola’s headquarters are in Atlanta.) Sally is trying to associate herself with the Old South. She breaks from the line, snatches away the boy’s Coke, and orders him, “Now get him in there!”

The General begins to sense a hole “beginning to widen in the top of his head.” At this point, the story begins to take on a characteristic O’Connor otherworldliness. The General’s history is starting to open up for him, in the form of a hole in his head, because he is nearing his death. The ending of the story takes place in the General’s head. He imagines the black procession of graduates is coming up to meet him, trying to enter the hole. Everything looks black to him. He sees a single black figure, the graduation speaker, whose speech is about history. He has no use for history. What matters to him is the present, the parades, the floats, the “pretty guls,” and the admiring glances aimed at him with his uniform and sword. “If we forget our past,” he hears the speaker say, “we won’t remember our future and it will be as well for we won’t have one.” The speaker is referring to history, but his words ironically apply to the General who has forgotten his past and, therefore, does not have a future. The hole in his head widens as he is forced to face a past that he does not remember—“Chickamauga, Shiloh, Johnston, Lee.” Using war imagery, O’Connor creates a metaphoric scene in which the General imagines he is running away from his history in the form of a symbolic battle: the words are coming at him like musket fire; he is running into a regular volley of them; he feels his body riddled in a hundred places; he recognizes Chickamauga, Shiloh, Marthasville. In typical O’Connor fashion, the General’s eleventh-hour epiphany occurs when the black procession of words, people, and memories confronts him and he recognizes it, for it has “been dogging all his days.”

What he finally recognizes is his past. As he approaches death, his past catches up with him. He starts to remember that he has a past, a wife, a life, and he becomes its victim. His “entire past opened up on him out of nowhere.” His past is getting even with him for his fraud and disrespect of history. His past is the black procession, the black hole, the black figures, the black memories, and perhaps his final enemy because there is no evidence that the General is transformed before he dies. In fact, he is so desperate to “see over it and find out what comes after the past” that he squeezes his phony sword until the blade touches bone. Without being transformed by grace in his final moments like other O’Connor characters, the General’s death may be his last “encounter with the enemy.”

Scholars and critics have differing opinions, however. Some believe that death is the enemy but others argue that the enemy could be his past, his pride, his sin, or himself. Perhaps it is all of these things. O’Connor disdained over-analysis of her fiction. “Explanations are repugnant to me,” she wrote to her friend Betty Hester. “The fewer claims made for a book, the better chance it has to stand on its own feet” (Habit 442). O’Connor’s ambiguous endings often underscore her belief that at the moment of death, God is the only rightful judge.

References

Fitzgerald, Sally. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979. Print.

Fitzgerald, Sally. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Eds. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969. Print.

Gooch, Brad. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. Little, Brown and Company. New York 2009. Print.

A Temple of the Holy Ghost Summary

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1881

Flannery O'Connor's religious beliefs are evident in most of her short stories. Nowhere are they as explicit as in "A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” published in 1955 as part of her first short story collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Although this story deals with characteristic O’Connor religious themes, it differs from her other stories because her usual biting satire is softened with an atypical sympathy for the characters, making the omniscient narrator's point of view “more complex and humane” than is sometimes associated with O’Connor. The ornery twelve-year-old child at the center of "A Temple of the Holy Ghost” has a spiritual awakening that replaces her stubborn pride with repentance and leads her to ultimate redemption in a gentler way than most of O’Connor’s characters experience (Joy/Hulga in "Good Country People" or Mrs. Turpin in "Revelation," for example).

O’Connor employs one of her trademark fictional strategies in "A Temple of the Holy Ghost." She begins with the mundane but ends with an out-of-this world epiphany, rich with Biblical and religious allusions. Like most of her stories, this one also reflects events and people in the author’s life. O’Connor once described herself as a “very ancient 12-year-old.” The protagonist in this short story is much like the young Mary Flannery herself, a girl with distinct anti-nun sentiments in spite of her love of the Catholic religion. O’Connor actually did have two young cousins who visited her regularly as a child, and the Catholic school in the short story (Mount St. Scholastica) is modeled after St. Vincent’s, a Sisters of Mercy school in Savannah which O’Connor attended, complete with a real-life Sister Perpetua. Like the hermaphrodite in the story, O’Connor had her own “crippling condition”—the autoimmune disease lupus, which would eventually kill her at age thirty-nine. This story also draws upon O’Connor’s experiences growing up Catholic in “The Bible Belt” with its comical portrayal of the Church of God boys singing Protestant hymns to two Catholic school girls. O’Connor’s distinctive wry humor enriches both the characters and the plot, but in spite of the underlying humor, the theme is quite serious.

Summary

Joanne and Susan are two fourteen-year-old, boy-crazy girls. They attend Mount St. Scholastica, an all-girls Catholic school run by the Sisters of Mercy. They have come to spend the weekend with their cousin, a homely and sullen twelve-year-old girl with braces whose prideful attitude masks her insecurities. As soon as the cousins arrive, they shed the brown uniforms that identify them as Catholic school girls. They quickly don red skirts, loud blouses, lipstick, and high heels. They parade around the house, look in the mirror, giggle about boys, and completely ignore their younger cousin, referred to only as “the child” in the story. The two girls are not concerned with spirituality; they are even contemptuous of it. They jokingly refer to each other as Temple 1 and Temple 2, mocking Sister Perpetua’s advice that in order to protect themselves from boys’ groping hands, they must warn them, “Stop sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost!”

The child does not find this funny. She tells herself that she is a Temple of the Holy Ghost, and it makes her feel “as if somebody had given her a present.” The child’s rebellious and prideful attitude prevents her from understanding what it really means to be a Temple of the Holy Ghost, however. To Flannery O’Connor, salvation is a present that a merciful God gives to sinners even though they do not deserve it. Sinners saved by grace are reminded in the Bible (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) that God (in the form of the Holy Ghost) lives in their redeemed bodies, turning them symbolically into Temples which must be treated with respect. Joanne and Susan find this concept comical. When the child’s mother reminds them, “After all, that’s what you are—Temples of the Holy Ghost,” the girls can hardly conceal their giggles. The mother collapses on her bed exhausted, wondering how she will entertain the two teenagers for the weekend.

The child has been watching her cousins’ antics and declares that they are "practically morons." She may not be as old as they are, but she is “about a million times smarter,” she thinks. She is a precocious but sarcastic child with a bizarre sense of humor. At the supper table, she convulses with laughter after suggesting that Mr. Cheatam should entertain the girls. Mr. Cheatam is a repulsive, rich old farmer who comes to call on the local school teacher Miss Kirby, a boarder in the child’s home. When the mother rejects this idea, warning her to stop her foolishness, the child succumbs to further fits of laughter and suggests Alonzo Myers as a substitute for Mr. Cheatam. Eighteen-year-old Alonzo weighs 250 pounds and drives the town taxi. He chews on cigars, sweats, and smells. His passengers must open all of the taxi’s windows to avoid asphyxiation. Finally, the child suggests Wendell and Cory Wilkins, the grandsons of a local farm woman. They will do just fine she explains, “They wear pants. They’re sixteen and they got a car,” even though they are “going to be Church of God preachers because you don’t have to know nothing to be one.” The mother agrees that the girls would indeed be safe with Wendell and Cory.

The boys arrive with their guitar and harmonica and serenade the girls with gospel songs—“I’ve Found a Friend in Jesus” and “The Old Rugged Cross.” The girls listen politely to the Protestant hymns, then demand, “Let us sing one!” and promptly launch into a Catholic hymn, “Tantum Ergo.” The boys are startled, then angered, realizing they are being mocked. Not recognizing the Latin, Wendell comments, “That must be Jew singing.” The mother emerges with supper just in time to prevent the boys from reacting to the additional insult of being called a “big dumb Church of God ox!” The pouting child refuses to join her cousins and their guests for dinner. She brings her plate into the kitchen, where she takes out her frustrations by insulting the family cook, who asks her, “Howcome you be so ugly sometime?”

Pride has made the child “ugly.” Her cousins should not have excluded her from their activities. When only one of them visits, that one plays with her. Further, she does not approve of her shallow cousins’ disparaging remarks about faith, religion, and The Temple of the Holy Ghost, even though she is far from fervent in her own faith. When her cousins leave to visit the county fair, the child returns to her room. She realizes she has not yet said her prayers, so she jumps out of bed and begins praying in her “usually perfunctory” manner. As she prays, she fantasizes about what might be in those tents at the fair that are closed to school children such as herself. Last year when she attended the fair, certain tents had pictures that reminded her of martyrs waiting to have their tongues cut out by Roman soldiers. Those tents must be about medicine, she concludes, and decides to become a doctor, then an engineer, and then a saint because “that was the occupation that included everything you could know.” Her meandering mind eventually leads her to contemplate her sins. Surely her many sins will prevent her from becoming a saint. She is a “born liar and slothful”; she sasses her mother and is “deliberately ugly to almost everybody.” Her worst sin, she decides, is that of pride, yet she does not realize that even her prayers are prideful and judgmental as she concludes with, “Lord, Lord, thank You that I’m not in the Church of God....”

Her cousins return and awaken her with talk of what is really in the closed tents—“the you-know-what.” Curious, the child demands to be let in on the secret. At first Joanne and Susan refuse, but when the child promises to tell them about a rabbit she saw having babies, they relent. There is a freak in the tent. The girls have forgotten the word for it—but it is “a man and a woman both. It pulled up its dress and showed us.” Returning to her own bed to “think it out,” the child begins to imagine the hermaphrodite. She envisions the hermaphrodite in a church service, begging people to understand that “God made me thisawa and I don’t dispute hit,” to which all the people reply, “Amen! Amen!” The hermaphrodite, in spite of its crippling condition, is also a Temple of the Holy Ghost. The hermaphrodite tells the gawking crowd that “God done this to me and I praise Him,” reflecting the Biblical teachings of Saint Paul to be content in all things and of Job to praise God for both the good and bad in life.

O’Connor uses the hermaphrodite to illustrate her belief that no matter who people are or what they look like, the love of God dwells in them and their bodies are, indeed, Temples of the Holy Ghost. A characteristic O’Connor grotesque, the hermaphrodite symbolizes both man and woman. No matter how freakish the hermaphrodite may appear to others, the hermaphrodite is worthy of being treated with love and respect, just like any other created being. The child is just beginning to awaken to this truth. She accompanies her mother as they return Joanne and Susan to Mount St. Scholastica, but when a nun tries to embrace the child, she wards off the hug by extending her hand for a handshake. The child is annoyed when the nun invites her and her mother to attend chapel services. “You put your foot in their door and they got you praying,” she complains to herself. As she hears the “Tantum Ergo” and smells the incense, however, she undergoes an intense religious experience. Her “ugly thoughts” stop and she realizes she is “in the presence of God.” She asks God to help her stop sinning—sassing her mother, being mean, talking disrespectfully. Unlike her former “perfunctory” prayers, these prayers are sincere and from her heart. When the priest raises the Host (a symbol of the body of Christ), the child’s mind grows “quiet and then empty.” She is ready for redemption.

Redemption requires repentance. The child repents and is redeemed. She leaves the chapel service transformed by unconditional love. This time, she allows the nun to hug her. During the hug, she is further touched by God when her face is pressed against the crucifix on the nun’s belt. On the way back home, she learns from the driver Alonzo that the town preachers have convinced the police to shut down the fair, no doubt because of the hermaphrodite. As they are driving, the child notes that the setting sun is “a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood.” When the sun totally disappears from sight, she sees only a line in the sky “like a red clay road hanging over the trees,” a road that symbolically leads from heaven to earth. The child has truly become A Temple of the Holy Ghost.

You Can't Be Any Poorer Than Dead Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2185

“You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead” was published as a short story in the literary anthology magazine New World Writing in October 1955 (O’Connor 552). Flannery O’Connor later revised and rewrote the short story for her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, considered by most critics to be a classic example of Southern gothic fiction. The title of the story comes from Matthew 11:12:

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.

In many of O’Connor’s stories, when God’s grace encounters the evil and violence of sin, sometimes a stronger opposing violence is necessary before sin can be burned away and the sinner redeemed. The violence that begins in this story and continues in the novel is instigated by the devil himself, and only God’s grace can bear it away.

Both of Flannery O’Connor’s novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, feature alienated young men who journey toward redemption in a hostile, secular world. This short story, which would become the opening chapter of The Violent Bear It Away, introduces the novel’s fourteen-year-old protagonist, Francis Mason Tarwater. Young Tarwater has been named after his great uncle, Mason Tarwater (Old Tarwater), a self-proclaimed prophet of God who “rescued” the boy from his schoolteacher uncle, Rayber, and has raised him in an isolated, backwoods cabin. Old Tarwater has given the boy what he believes is a good education, consisting mostly of religion. All he asks in return is that the boy bury him properly when he dies. Young Tarwater is the son of Rayber’s deceased sister. In Rayber’s mind, his uncle has isolated and brainwashed the boy and keeps him around solely to dig the old man’s grave when he dies.

The Violent Bear It Away is a novel about the struggle between good and evil and man’s free will to choose between the two. When Old Tarwater dies, his rigid control of his grand-nephew suddenly disappears, leaving the boy to make his own spiritual choices. When O’Connor rewrote this story for her novel, she made it clearer that Old Tarwater expected his grand nephew to take his place as a prophet of God when he died. In the novel and in the short story, Tarwater rebels against this destiny by getting drunk, refusing to bury his uncle, setting fire to their cabin, and running away to the city. He tells a traveling salesman who picks him up, “I was asleep. I’m just now waking up,” but Tarwater’s confusion is not resolved until the novel finishes his tale: the more he tries to run away from his destiny, the more he keeps getting drawn back to where it all began. In the short story, the boy’s redemptive journey is just beginning.

Summary

Young Tarwater has promised to bury his great uncle when the old man dies. This morning, the old man has a heart attack while sitting at the breakfast table. Young Tarwater is fourteen years old, and his great uncle is eighty-four. Old Tarwater kidnapped the boy as a toddler and raised him in a backwoods cabin, isolated from the rest of the world. The boy has been fed Scripture verses until he can spout them as well as his great uncle, a self-proclaimed prophet. Now that the old man is dead, Young Tarwater realizes “there wouldn’t be a soul to hinder me...no voice will be lifted” to tell him what to do, beginning with the burial. Old Tarwater left instructions for his burial. He even built his own coffin. He realized, however, that the boy might not be old enough or strong enough to lift him into the coffin when the time came; as a backup plan, he told the boy to dig a ten-foot grave and make sure to “set up a cross over me to show I’m there.” When the story opens, Tarwater is sitting at the breakfast table across from his dead great uncle. The old man’s “eyes, dead silver,” are focused directly on the boy, reminding him of his promise.

Tarwater recalls his past. When his mother died, her brother Rayber brought Tarwater and his great uncle to live with him in the city. According to the old man, Rayber does not believe in the Resurrection or the Last Day or anything that is not scientific or rational. Old Tarwater soon realized that Rayber was interested in more than charity toward his family. He was studying the old man for an article he was writing in a schoolteacher’s magazine. This enraged the old man, and one day he kidnapped Tarwater and took the boy to his cabin in the woods. Rayber brought a welfare woman with him to the cabin to retrieve the boy, but the old man shot Rayber in the leg. Rayber and the welfare woman fled in fear, but later Rayber married the woman even though she was twice his age. They now have a mentally handicapped son. The land on which Tarwater and his great uncle are living was left to the old man by his own father. When the old man dies, the land is supposed to pass down to Rayber. Old Tarwater has tried and failed to overturn his father’s will and have the land pass directly to the boy. Rayber, he fears, will not bury him properly when he dies. The old man repeatedly tells Tarwater, “He’d have me cremated in an oven and scatter my ashes.” Tarwater has grown up in the shadow of his great uncle’s obsessions, but with the old man’s death, Tarwater realizes, “Now I can do anything I want to.”

Released from his great uncle’s oppressive control, Tarwater slowly recognizes that he is free to make his own choices, to reject his great uncle’s teachings, to sin if he feels like it. The pleasures of sin begin to entice Tarwater as he listens to the voice of a new friend, the devil himself, referred to as “The Stranger.” Good and evil fight over Tarwater’s soul. In his head, he hears both the old man’s words and his new friend’s “disagreeable voice” giving him advice. “I raised you to be a Christian!” Tarwater hears his great uncle say. The Stranger counters with, “He favored a lot of foolishness.” The old man pleads:

All I’m asking in return is when I die to get me in the ground where the dead belong.

The Stranger replies:

The dead are a heap more trouble than the living. You can’t be any poorer than dead.

The devil’s lies are compelling, just as they were in the Garden of Eden when he told Adam and Eve that they would not die from eating the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:4). There are worse things than physical death, however.

O’Connor’s Catholic faith taught her that dying without redemption was much worse than physical death. The Stranger wants to convince Tarwater otherwise. In an evil diatribe that mocks Biblical teachings, the Stranger tries to convince Tarwater that bodies that die don’t “feel the pinch—of fire or anything else!” There is no need to set up a cross that will rot in a few years over his great uncle’s grave. Furthermore, God cannot redeem rotted bodies or the bodies of sailors who die at sea and are eaten by fish, or people who burn up in house fires, or soldiers who are blown up in wars. Tarwater argues that he is redeemed, body and soul. Denying the mysterious power of God to transform the dead at Judgment Day, the Stranger retorts, “Every day is Judgment Day” and ends his nihilistic rant by telling Tarwater:

You’re left by yourself in this empty place. Forever by yourself in the empty place with just as much light as that dwarf sun wants to let in. You don’t mean a thing to a soul as far as I can see.

This, however, is the devil’s perverted view of things. It is the antithesis of Christianity, which teaches that every soul is precious to God. When O’Connor presents the devil’s-eye view, she often minimizes her descriptions of nature to illustrate how wrong these views are. The sun is certainly no “dwarf” star.

The Stranger tempts Tarwater to sin, enticing him to smoke and drink. He convinces the boy that his great uncle was a crazy old man with even crazier ideas. Tarwater gets drunk and passes out. The liquor is an instrument of the devil, “a burning arm” sliding down Tarwater’s throat “as if the devil were already reaching inside him to finger his soul.” This is exactly what is happening. When Tarwater wakes up, he sees his Negro neighbor Buford hovering over him, chastising him for not having kept his promise to bury the old man properly. Unknown to Tarwater, however, Buford has buried the old man himself. The Stranger whispers:

You weren’t anything to him but something that would grow big enough to bury him when the time came.

Continuing his relentless blasphemy, the Stranger tells Tarwater that his great uncle did not teach him the truth. Maybe two plus two does not equal four. Adam might not be real. Jesus did not ease Tarwater’s situation any when he redeemed the boy. Mocking the Scriptures by twisting several Biblical allusions, the Stranger tries to convince Tarwater that his great uncle was a stumbling block, a stone before the boy’s door that was blocking his blessing. “The Lord has rolled it away. Praise Him!” The Stranger points out that the Lord has not rolled the stone far enough, however, and tells Tarwater, “You got to finish up yourself....” He encourages Tarwater to forsake his great uncle’s teachings and go out into the world to seek alternative “truths” for himself.

Tarwater begins this quest by symbolically trying to burn away his past. He sets several small fires around his great uncle’s cabin until the woods are ablaze. As Tarwater flees he sees

two bulging silver eyes that grew in immense astonishment in the center of the fire behind him,

the same “dead silver” eyes of his great uncle, watching him trying to escape his destiny. Tarwater heads for the highway, hitchhiking into the city. A traveling salesman gives him a ride. Ironically, the salesman sells flues (a device which conveys exhaust gases from a fireplace or furnace to the outdoors). On their journey toward the city, the salesman gives Tarwater advice that echoes Christian views, the opposite of what the boy has just learned from The Stranger. To be a good salesman, he tells Tarwater, you must have love. “Love was the only policy that worked ninety-five percent of the time.” The salesman explains that he writes everything about his clients in a book, an allusion to the Book of Life in which God records the names of every person who was created. “I say thank God when they’re dead,” the salesman tells Tarwater, “that’s one less to remember.” Tarwater agrees, “You don’t owe the dead anything,” but The Stranger gets the last word in, telling Tarwater that “nobody owing nobody nothing” is the right way to live. This triple negative, however, underscores the Devil’s twisted viewpoint because in Christianity, somebody always owes somebody something. Man is his brother’s keeper.

Tarwater suddenly imagines that the salesman is going in the wrong direction. O’Connor often uses this to illustrate the predicament of modern man. Tarwater mistakes the lights of the city for the fires he has set and erroneously believes that the salesman has turned around. The salesman assures Tarwater that the glow is from the city lights. “I know where I’m going. What’s the matter with you?” he asks the boy. Tarwater does not know what the matter is, and as he drives toward the city, he has yet another entity telling him what to do as the salesman admonishes him:

You should have been listening to me. I been telling you things you ought to know.

In a letter to Winifred McCarthy in 1961, O’Connor wrote:

In my stories a reader will find that the devil accomplishes a good deal of groundwork that seems to be necessary before grace is effective. (Mystery and Manners 117)

In “You Can’t Be any Poorer Than Dead,” the devil has accomplished a great deal of groundwork in Tarwater’s mind, but to see the final outcome of his struggle, the effects of grace, one must read the rest of Tarwater’s story in O’Connor’s novel, The Violent Bear It Away.

References

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. Wise Blood. New York. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1962. Print.

A View of the Woods Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3076

“A View of the Woods” was first published in the fall 1957 edition of Partisan Review, a literary quarterly magazine. It is the third story in Everything That Rises Must Converge, O’Connor’s second short story collection published in 1965. This story is one of many that deals with a dysfunctional family—a precocious child and a surrogate parent, in this case a grandfather. Along with three other stories in this second collection, “A View of the Woods” features a property motif that is also common in O’Connor’s fiction, especially the later stories that were written from her native Georgia. After O’Connor was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease lupus at age 25, she was forced to return home to her family’s dairy farm called Andalusia in Milledgeville, Georgia, managed by her mother, Regina. Like the Pitts family in this short story, O’Connor was saddened when her mother sold some of the timberland on Andalusia to raise money for the operation of the dairy farm (Gooch 280). In this short story, a family’s livelihood is threatened by a prideful, controlling old miser who threatens to sell the land that he owns but on which his daughter and family live and farm.

O’Connor called this story “a little morality play” that “is not very cheerful” (The Habit of Being 186). She worried that it would not sell because it was “a little grim” for most people's tastes. In spite of her fears, the story won the O. Henry Award for fiction and has been reprinted several times and included in many prominent collections of American short stories. Critics agree that its moral is a common one in O’Connor’s fiction—pride goes before a fall—but its characters are complex, the imagery is powerful, and the ending is shocking.

Summary

Nine-year-old Mary Fortune Pitts is her grandfather’s pride and joy. Unlike most doting grandparents, Mr. Fortune only takes pride in the girl because she looks exactly like him; because she looks like him, he believes she is “the smartest and prettiest child” he has ever seen. He is the only one in the family that is glad she looks like him. The girl is like him on the inside as well. No other family member has Mr. Fortune’s strong will, push, and drive, so Mary Fortune Pitts is the only member of the family for whom Mr. Fortune has any respect. Mr. Fortune has turned his granddaughter into an idol of his own vanity. His son-in-law Pitts, on the other hand, is the object of Mr. Fortune’s ongoing wrath. Mr. Fortune calls Pitts an idiot who “couldn’t keep his hands on a nickel.” He cannot remember whether Pitts’s wife is his third or fourth daughter, and he pays no attention to his six other grandchildren, also idiots. He has begrudgingly allowed Pitts and his family to live on his land and farm it, but he constantly reminds them that he owns it and that they are beholden to him for their livelihood. He is cruel and mean-spirited and refuses to let Pitts pay any rent, make any improvements to the land, or build any additional structures on it for fear that this might imply that Pitts has control.

The Pitts family has lived on the land for ten years, and they feel as if they own it. They have a successful farming operation and have offered to buy the land from Mr. Fortune but he spitefully refuses, preferring instead to sell off lots here and there to total strangers, which infuriates Pitts. When the story opens, Mr. Fortune and his granddaughter are sitting on top of his car, watching a large yellow bulldozer “eating a square red hole” into what used to be a cow pasture, preparing the land to build a fishing club. Mr. Fortune insists that he is selling his land in the name of progress, but his real motives are control and amassing a fortune, just like his name implies. Deep down, Mr. Pitts is insecure. At 79 years of age, he knows that as long as he owns the land the Pitts family lives on, they will feel obligated to care for him. His daughter insists that she is staying on the land to care for her father even though she knows she will “get no reward for it.” She does it because it is her duty, she claims, but Mr. Fortune believes that she and her family are just hanging on, “waiting impatiently for the day when they could put him in a hole eight feet deep and cover him up with dirt.” Mr. Fortune has secretly left everything in trust to Mary Fortune and named his lawyer, not Pitts, as executor of the will. He takes pleasure in the fact that after his death Mary Fortune will be able to “make the rest of them jump.” There is no doubt in his mind that she will do this because, after all, she is a Fortune.

Mr. Fortune has underestimated his granddaughter, however. She has divided loyalties, just like her divided name. Mary Fortune may have her grandfather’s looks and name, but she is secretly loyal to her father. Mr. Fortune assumes that because she looks like him she naturally thinks like him as well. He ignores the fact “that Mary Fortune was a Pitts too.” The assumptions of many of O’Connor’s characters are often incorrect, especially when viewed through the eyes of pride, a human foible O’Connor continually exposes in her fiction. Mr. Fortune proudly brags to his granddaughter that her father is interfering with progress by opposing his land sales. Mr. Fortune wants to see gas stations, motels, and drive-in theatres on his land. The electric power company has built a dam on the river, creating a lake that touches the Fortune farmland. Everyone wants to buy lakefront property and Mr. Fortune dreams of a future subdivision on his land that rightfully should be named Fortune, Georgia. “The Pittses are the kind that would let a cow pasture interfere with the future,” he tells his granddaughter. Her frustrated father can only watch helplessly as his father-in-law sells off more farmland.

Unfortunately, Pitts takes out his anger and frustration on his little daughter. He brutally beats her, usually for something her grandfather does or says. Pitts waits until everyone is seated at the dinner table, then in front of his entire family, including Mr. Fortune, he looks at Mary Fortune and orders, “Come with me.” He then drives off in his truck with the girl, out of earshot, and beats her with his belt. The girl does not scream, however, even though her father beats her around the ankles and legs for long periods of time. Her grandfather does not understand why she tolerates the beatings. “Why didn’t you hit him back? Where’s your spirit? Do you think I’d a let him beat me?” The girl denies the beatings. “Nobody beat me,” she continually tells her grandfather. “Nobody’s ever beat me in my life and if anybody did, I’d kill him.” Mr. Fortune is incredulous, having witnessed the beatings himself, yet the girl is steadfast in her denial. This is Pitts’s revenge on Mr. Fortune. When Mr. Fortune threatens to put the Pitts family off his land the next time he beats Mary Fortune, Pitts replies, “Put me off and you put her off too. She’s mine to whip and I’ll whip her every day of the year if it suits me.” Not to be undone by his idiot son-in-law, Mr. Fortune formulates a plan.

Mr. Fortune decides to sell the lot right in front of the Pitts's house for a gas station. He tells Mary Fortune that he will give her a “bonus” after the sale. He has already given her quite a bit of money, which he promises to put in the bank as soon as he closes the gas station transaction. At this point, Mary Fortune finally begins to reveal her true loyalties. “That’s where we play,” she protests to her grandfather. Annoyed by her lack of enthusiasm, Mr. Fortune tells her that there are plenty of other places to play. “We won’t be able to see the woods across the road,” the girl resists. “My daddy grazes his calves on that lot.” Mr. Fortune explodes, shocked that his namesake would resist progress because of play areas or calves. “Do you think I give a damn hoot where that fool grazes his calves?” he screams. Mary Fortune’s retort is a Bible verse, “He who calls his brother a fool is subject to hell fire,” she tells him. He answers with his own verse, “Jedge not lest ye be jedged!” Mr. Fortune and Mary Fortune reveal their similar and evil natures in this exchange, the grandfather calling the girl “Jezebel” and the girl calling him the “Whore of Babylon”—two Biblical allusions to God’s judgment. As Mary Fortune and Mr. Fortune storm away from each other, the grandfather’s pride in his granddaughter (and by extension, in himself) returns, except for that nagging business about the beatings. If only he could teach her to stand up to Pitts the way she stands up to him, she would be the perfect child. He will teach her some spirit by example, he decides, and that afternoon at the dinner table, he announces his intention to sell the lot in front of the family’s house.

Mr. Pitts blames this latest affront on Mary Fortune and takes her out to beat her. The rest of the family sits in cowardly silence, believing that Mary Fortune has indeed encouraged Mr. Fortune to sell the land. “No child never put me up to nothing!” Mr. Fortune protests, yet he is just as cowardly and blames his heart condition for not rescuing Mary Fortune from this latest beating. The next day, however, Mary Fortune is back in her grandfather’s bedroom as usual, denying the beating and urging her grandfather to get out of bed and go with her to watch the big yellow bulldozers. Mr. Fortune takes her into town, however, where he plans to discuss the details of his land sale with Mr. Tilman, the owner of a chain of gas stations whose business is announced by a series of road signs along the route. When Mary Fortune realizes her grandfather’s true reason for coming to town, she returns home alone and angry. Mr. Fortune is incredulous over her reaction. He does not understand why she is so upset about this particular piece of land. Mary Fortune continues to insist it is because the gas station will block her view of the woods. “We won’t be able to see ’um,” she complains, “and that’s the lawn and my daddy grazes his calves on it.”

Mr. Fortune spends the rest of the afternoon looking out his bedroom window at the woods. They take on a characteristic O’Connor otherworldliness as Mr. Fortune hallucinates and imagines he sees them surrounded by a “pool of red light” that looks like blood bathing the trees. Mr. Fortune becomes caught up “in the midst of an uncomfortable mystery that he had not apprehended before,” but his vision is interrupted by Pitts’s pickup truck stopping outside his window. The appearance of Pitts jolts Mr. Fortune back into reality and he rejects the mystery of the woods for its commercial value, vowing once and for all to sell the land. No one speaks to him at dinner, not even Mary Fortune. The next morning, for the first time since she could crawl, Mary Fortune is not at his bedside. He finds her and convinces her to go into town with him to the boat store, but in town the girl is sullen and rejects all of her grandfather’s attempts to placate her, suspecting that he is really in town to finalize the sale. “It’s the lawn,” she stubbornly insists. “My daddy grazes his calves there. We won’t be able to see the woods anymore.” Furious, Mr. Fortune reminds the girl that her daddy beats her, which she persists in denying. If anybody did beat her, she tells him again, “I’d kill him.” Mr. Fortune challenges the girl, “Are you a Fortune or are you a Pitts? Make up your mind.” Belligerently, the girl replies, “I’m Mary – Fortune – Pitts.” Her grandfather, just as stubbornly, replies, “Well, I am PURE Fortune!”—an indictment against the girl for choosing Pitts over Fortune and an ironic but inadvertent condemnation of his materialism.

When Mr. Fortune angrily pulls into Tilman’s gas station to turn over the deed to his property and sign the bill of sale, Mary Fortune follows him and begins hurling bottles at him in a rage. While Tilman hides behind the counter, Mr. Fortune finally is able to overpower the girl and throws her into the car. They speed away toward home. Mr. Fortune has never seen any child behave in such a way, especially not this child whom he has coddled her entire life, a child against whom he has never lifted a hand, unlike her brutish father. Suddenly Mr. Fortune realizes that this has been his mistake. With his twisted logic, he tells himself that Mary Fortune respects Pitts for beating her, even for no reason. He would be doing the girl a disservice not to beat her now when he has such a justifiable reason for doing so. He convinces himself that a proper whipping is necessary to prevent the girl from turning into a hellion; this is ironic because the girl has just illustrated that she is one. When he finishes with her, he tells himself, she will never throw another bottle again.

These words are prophetic because Mr. Fortune kills his granddaughter in a frenzied, diabolical struggle. When Mr. Fortune orders the girl to get out of the car for her whipping, Mary Fortune reminds him of her false belief that nobody has ever whipped her and if anyone did, she would kill him. She takes off her glasses and orders her grandfather to do the same, but before he can slap her with his belt, she attacks Mr. Fortune in an uncontrolled fury, kicking him and pummeling him “as if he were being attacked not by one child but by a pack of small demons.” Mr. Fortune is a Jacob figure, wrestling with God (Genesis 32). Like Jacob, he struggles and wins, but unlike Jacob, his symbolic struggle with God does not change him from a worldly man into a spiritual one. His pride is too strong and he has rejected the woods (the symbol of God). He and his granddaughter struggle violently. As he gazes into the girl’s ferocious eyes and sees his own likeness, he comes face to face with his inner demon. Mary Fortune then begins biting him savagely all over his face. He begs her to stop, but she triumphantly declares, “You been whipped by me and I’m PURE Pitts.”

This statement so inflames Mr. Fortune that he is able to summon a final burst of strength. He grabs the girl’s throat and knocks her head against a rock, immediately killing “the face that was his own but had dared to call itself Pitts.” As he unremorsefully tells the dead girl, “There’s not an ounce of Pitts in me,” his hardened heart is no longer able to support life. His heart physically enlarges while he imagines himself being pulled toward the lake and through the very woods whose view he has been trying to obstruct with his gas station. In a final hallucination, Mr. Fortune remembers he cannot swim and realizes he has not brought his boat. At the moment of death, there is nowhere for him to go and one to help him because he refuses to repent. He and his granddaughter die side by side, images of the other but ultimately unlike in the end. “Their fates are different,” O’Connor points out. Mary Fortune is saved, but her grandfather is damned because in the end he rejected the Woods (Habit 189). Ironically, a symbol of progress, the bulldozer, is the only witness to his demise, a “huge yellow monster” which sits to the side, as stationary as Mr. Fortune, “gorging itself on clay.”

A few of O’Connor’s friends wrote to her about this short story, struggling with its meaning. Knowing that O’Connor often included symbols of Christ, salvation, and grace in her fiction, they speculated as to who the Christ figure was in this short story. Her friend Betty Hester (referred to anonymously as A in O’Connor’s letters to protect Hester’s privacy) argued that Pitts was the Christ figure because a Christ figure had to be human. O’Connor responded, “I had that role cut out for the Woods.” She explained that Pitts was a pathetic sinner for beating his daughter just to get even with Mr. Fortune. Christ, she pointed out, could not be pathetic by virtue of his sins for he was sinless. Although both Mr. Fortune and Mary Fortune realize the value of the woods, they have differing viewpoints as to what makes them valuable. Mr. Fortune’s view of the woods is as a piece of property, but Mary Fortune appreciates their mystery. “If anything in this story is a Christ symbol, it is the woods,” O’Connor explained. In the end, the woods turn into mysterious dark files “marching across the water and away into the distance.” Mr. Fortune is left behind with the symbol of materialism, the bulldozer. He has stored up his treasure on earth; “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34). Although she would continue to acknowledge others’ opinions, O’Connor defended her own view of the story. “The name of the story is a view of the woods and the woods alone are pure enough to be a Christ symbol if anything is” (Habit 189).

References

Fitzgerald, Sally. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979. Print.

Gooch, Brad. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. Little, Brown and Company. New York 2009. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. Print.

The Comforts of Home Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2451

“The Comforts of Home” by Flannery O’Connor was first published in the fall 1960 edition of The Kenyon Review, a literary magazine founded by literary critic, teacher, and long-time O’Connor admirer John Crowe Ransom. It is the fifth story in O’Connor’s second short story collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, published in 1965. This story is one of four in that collection that deal with mother–son issues. Three of the stories end with the mother’s death; in this one, the son is the killer.

Particular character types and human relationships populate O’Connor’s fiction, and many of her stories focus on parents and children. Critic Helen S. Garson points out that in O’Connor’s fiction, there are rarely two parents, there are often surrogate parents (grandfathers, grandmothers, uncles, granduncles, etc.) and almost always there is only one child. Thomas, the protagonist in “The Comforts of Home,” is a familiar O’Connor character type: a single, adult male who lives at home with his widowed mother. Thomas is prideful about his intellect, condescending toward those he deems inferior, and totally dependent upon his mother for support. Like many O’Connor grown-up children, Thomas is the most hostile and condescending toward the person on whom he depends—his mother. The frustration he experiences as a result of his weak character and dependence on his mother transforms his annoyance into violence when his mother brings a rival for his affection into their home. Thomas’s self-sacrificing mother has provided him with all the comforts of home, but in spite of this, in O’Connor’s own words, “this fellow falls flat on his face in the last paragraph” (The Habit of Being 250).

Summary

Thomas is a 35-year-old local events historian who lives at home with his widowed mother. His life is made bearable by the fruits of his mother’s labors, not his own. Although his mother provides Thomas with a “well-regulated house” and “excellent meals,” she frustrates him with her “out of hand” virtue that often results, in Thomas’s view, in misplaced charity. Thomas’s father had kept his wife’s charitable impulses under control when he was alive, but now his mother stubbornly but passively ignores Thomas’s weak protestations. Thomas believes that his mother’s good intentions are founded on a “mindless intensity” that winds up making a fool of her and her virtue. He has contempt for his mother’s “favorite nice thing to do”—take a box of candy to people. When new people move into town, families have babies, friends’ children win scholarships, and old people break hips, Thomas’s mother is always there with a box of candy. Now she wants to take a box of candy to the county jail.

Thomas’s mother has read in the newspaper about a young girl who has recently been arrested for passing bad checks. Star Drake’s picture has aroused her compassion, and she wants to take the poor girl a box of candy. The girl is only 19 years old, and the mother pities her. “She looks like a wholesome girl,” she tells Thomas. Annoyed by his mother’s latest misplaced attempt at charity, Thomas points out that wholesome girls do not pass bad checks. Where his mother sees a soul in need of charity, Thomas sees “the face of a shrewd ragamuffin.” In spite of his impotent protests, Thomas’s mother visits the girl in jail and returns home convinced that but for the grace of God her beloved son could be in the same situation. The mother is completely duped by Star Drake’s tale of woe and plunges ahead with an impulsive and idealistic series of attempts to help the girl which, in Thomas’s view, are utter foolishness.

Thomas’s mother consults a lawyer who tells her that Star’s story is “for the most part untrue.” The girl, he explains, is a psychopath—“not insane enough for the asylum, not criminal enough for the jail, not stable enough for society.” Instead of scaring her like Thomas hopes, however, this information makes the mother even more determined to help the poor girl. “It could be you!” she repeatedly tells Thomas. “But it’s not me,” he continually replies. The mother’s lawyer arranges for Star Drake to be released from jail into the mother’s custody. The mother then visits every business in town until she finally finds the girl a job in a pet shop and a room in a local boarding house. She invites Star home for dinner. Thomas immediately dislikes her. She is competition for his mother’s affection.

Star’s real name is Sarah Ham. Thomas’s mother brags about her son during dinner, and all Sarah can say is, “Fabulous!” His mother tells Star, Thomas writes history, Thomas is president of the local Historical Society. Thomas is writing about the first settlers in this county. Star flirts with Thomas, commenting that he looks like “this cop I saw in the movie I went to last night.” Nervous and uncomfortable, Thomas concludes he “could not stand the sight of her” and he imagines that the girl realizes this. Her eyes are mocking. He tries to adopt a Godly attitude toward the girl but fails because his self-centered attitude gets in the way. Although Thomas would never admit that Star is a rival for his mother’s attention, O’Connor’s third person omniscient narration allows the reader to see through Thomas’s words to his heart and mind. Thomas’s mother tells him to drive Star home. Thomas plans to warn Star to stop being a parasite on his mother, but when he is alone with her in the car, the normally articulate Thomas finds that “terror seized his tongue.” Star continues to flirt with him, refusing to get out of the car. Thomas finally pulls her out of the car and speeds away, planning to report the girl to the sheriff the next day.

Star has disturbed Thomas “in the depths of his being.” He becomes haunted by the vision and words of his deceased father, a man whom Thomas “had not been able to endure” in life, but at times like these, a man whose absence Thomas mourns. His father would never have let his mother get away with such nonsense. Thomas’s father was a severe man “untouched by useless compassion.” Thomas angrily tells his mother that “He [his father] would have put his foot down,” to which Thomas’s mother “stiffly” replies, “You are not like him!” Thomas does not want to emulate his father’s cruelty or his mother’s naïveté. He is an ineffectual combination of both parents, incapable of both unconditional love and firm but gentle control. As a result of his weakness of character and inability to take charge of the situation, things spiral out of control. Star is fired from her job, gets drunk, and is evicted from her boarding house. Thomas’s mother decides the poor girl “needs a home.” Thomas replies, “She does not need mine.”

Thomas’s mother ignores her son’s warnings and brings Star into her home. Thomas gives his mother a childish ultimatum: either she goes or he goes. His mother ignores him again, telling him it is only temporary, and yet Star lives in Thomas’s home for eight days with no sign of leaving. The situation has become unbearable for Thomas; Star makes things worse by calling him “Tomsee.” He retreats to his room, even taking his meals there to avoid looking at Star’s face across the table. His father’s voice becomes more insistent, seemingly telling Thomas that his wife “never ran me away from my own table.” One night, Star knocks on Thomas’s door, naked. She has admitted she cannot help herself. She is a nymphomaniac due to her dysfunctional upbringing, she claims. Thomas is not buying it, however. Star intensifies her attempts to prey upon the mother’s sympathy. She complains that “Tomsee hates me.” The mother replies, “We are not the kind of people who hate.” Failing to turn mother against son, Star threatens to kill herself to show them both that even God probably doesn’t want her. “Try it and see,” Thomas mutters. A few nights later, Star slashes her wrists, not enough to kill herself but enough to scare Thomas’s mother, who hides all the knives in the house before bringing Star home from the hospital. The mother asks Thomas where his father’s gun is hidden. Thomas tells his mother that he has the gun in his drawer, but when he looks for it, he finds it is gone. Star has committed the final assault on Thomas—she has invaded his sanctuary, his room.

Thomas finally decides to visit the sheriff at the insistence of his father’s taunting voice in his head. The sheriff is “another edition of Thomas’s father” and was once his father’s friend. Since Thomas does not seem to be “enough of a man” to “put his foot down,” according to the father’s voice, he will have to enlist a real man to help him. Without saying “I told you so,” Sheriff Farebrother tells Thomas in an all-knowing way that he had Star in jail once but that Thomas’s mother “bit off more than she could chew.” The sheriff reminds Thomas that his father “never let anything grow under his feet. Particularly nothing a woman planted.” The sheriff promises to come to the house to investigate the whereabouts of the stolen gun. Thomas returns home and finds the gun is back in his drawer. “She had put it back!” his father’s Devil voice screams. Thomas is paralyzed. The voice orders him, “Quick while there’s time! Go plant it in her pocketbook.” Thomas obeys his father’s command but Star walks into the room and surprises him.

Thomas is paralyzed again. Star accuses him of planting the pistol in her bag. Thomas’s mother walks in. She defends her son. “Thomas wouldn’t put a gun in your bag.” Thomas hears his father’s voice again, prompting him. “You found it in her bag, you dimwit!” Trancelike, Thomas dutifully repeats his father’s words. “Found it my eye!” Star shrieks, and lunges for the gun. As if his arms are guided by his father, Thomas snatches the gun while Star is throwing herself toward him to attack him. Thomas’s mother intervenes to protect the girl but Thomas hears his father’s voice one final time. “Fire!” the old man yells. Thomas fires the gun, killing his mother by mistake instead of Star. At that moment, the sheriff walks in and decides that the “killer and the slut” were in cahoots and planned to kill the mother all along so that they could “collapse into each other’s arms.” In typical O’Connor fashion, the story ends ambiguously, leaving the reader wondering if the sheriff is correct and all along Thomas had been protesting too much about his true feelings for Star.

Critic Helen S. Garson believes that the relationship between Thomas and his mother is the most complex of O’Connor’s mother–son relationships. Thomas is unwilling to share his mother with anyone and is jealous of the attention she pays to Star; his panic and rage increase when his mother ignores his ultimatum to choose between him and Star; and finally he becomes haunted by the “taunting presence of his dead, violent and exploitive father.” Garson contends that on some level, Thomas wants to kill his mother to destroy his dependence on her. There are many analyses of this short story that focus on the psychological aspects of matricide and oedipal complexes. Some critics contend that in spite of O’Connor’s insistence to the contrary, this short story is very postmodern and existential because its morality is ambiguous and neutral. They point to Thomas’s conflicting feelings toward Star, at times trying to understand her as God would, at times labeling her a slut. As Dorothy Walters points out, however, there is no neutral zone between Christ and the Devil in O’Connor’s fiction. She explains that “moral neutrality may be a common feature of modern literature, but it is highly untypical of Flannery O’Connor’s work.” Walters says that those who believe O’Connor is inadvertently leaning toward a postmodern view of moral relativity in this short story are incorrect. More than likely, O’Connor’s depiction of the characters in this short story and their misguided actions stem from the fact that no religious commitment controls any of their actions. All of the characters in this short story, Walters says, are afflicted with the “blindness of those who don’t know they cannot see”.

O’Connor herself explains this short story. In a letter to her friend and fellow author John Hawkes, she states that the sheriff’s vision is not literal but the Devil’s view, the view “as the world will see it, not as it is.” Nobody is redeemed in the short story because no one is motivated by Godly, religious purposes. The mother’s position is the right position but the “one who is right is usually the victim.” The mother is the one who “brings Thomas face to face with his own evil—which is that of putting his own comfort before charity (however foolish).” In killing his mother, Thomas destroys the one person his comfort depends on. Star is the “innocent character, always unpredictable and for whom the intelligent characters are in some measure responsible for looking after”—a character type that greatly interested O’Connor, the innocent person “who sets the havoc in motion” (Habit 34). This story clearly illustrates a theme repeated throughout O’Connor’s works: humans often find themselves surrounded by forces and invisible currents entirely out of their control.

References

Fitzgerald, Sally. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979. Print.

Garson, Helen S. “Cold Comfort: Parents and Children in the Work of Flannery O’Connor.”Realist of Distances: Flannery O’Connor Revisited. Ed. Karl-Heinz Westarps and Jan Nordby Gretlund. Aarhus University Press, 1987. 113-122. Rpt. In Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 132. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 11 Oct. 2010.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. Print.

Walters, Dorothy. “Variations on a Theme.” Flannery O’Connor. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1973. 136-146. Rpt. In Short Story Criticism. Ed. Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 82. Detroit: Gale, 2005. Literature Resource Center. Web. 11 Oct. 2010.

The Partridge Festival Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1781

“The Partridge Festival” was published in a Catholic journal called The Critic in March 1961. It was one of Flannery O’Connor’s least favorite short stories. She wrote to her friend Maryat Lee on September 6, 1959, that she was currently working on a story “that seems very lightweight indeed” and not much of a challenge (The Habit of Being 348). On May 20, 1964, she wrote to her publisher, Robert Giroux, that she did not want to include “The Partridge Festival” in her latest collection of short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge. “I have decided that it is a very sorry story and I don’t want it in” (The Habit of Being 579). The story was not included in any collection until 1971, when The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor was published posthumously.

O’Connor was an enthusiastic reader of local news and gossip, ever on the lookout for inspiration for her fiction. She often clipped articles from newspapers and magazines and enclosed them in letters to her friends. “The Partridge Festival” was inspired by a double homicide and suicide that took place in 1953 in her hometown, Milledgeville, Georgia. Marion Stembridge, a local grocer and moneylender, refused to grow a beard to celebrate the town’s sesquicentennial. A mock trial was held and Stembridge was jokingly put in stocks. Afterward, he went on a shooting rampage, killing the town’s two most prominent attorneys before turning the gun on himself (Gooch 234). The two elderly aunts in the story, Bessie and Mattie, were patterned after O’Connor’s aunts Mary and Katie (Gooch 55) and the real-life Quincey State Hospital was located two miles outside of Milledgeville (The Habit of Being 443).

Pseudo-intellectualism is a common motif in O’Connor’s fiction. In this short story, two young, self-styled intellectuals travel to the state mental hospital to visit Singleton, a murderer whom they idealistically view as a scapegoat for the town’s narrow-mindedness and bigotry. In reality, Singleton is a sex-crazed lunatic who has murdered six people during the annual Azalea Festival. The two would-be writers, Mary Elizabeth and Calhoun, are shocked into realizing the foolishness of their naïveté when confronted by the demonic Singleton, who rewards their misguided faith in his so-called victimhood by exposing himself.

Summary

Calhoun travels to Partridge to visit his two elderly aunts during the annual Partridge Azalea Festival. He is not interested in the Festival, however, because he considers it to be one of the worst examples of exploitation and commercialism. Calhoun’s real reason for the visit is to do research for a story he is planning to write. He has read in the paper about a man named Singleton who refused to support the town’s annual celebration by buying an Azalea Festival Badge. All in good fun, a mock trial was held and Singleton was put in the stocks as punishment. Ten days later, he shot five of the town fathers, who were seated together on the courthouse porch, as well as one innocent bystander. Calhoun is a pseudo-intellectual who has unrealistically idealized Singleton, believing him to be a brave nonconformist “who is willing to suffer for the right to be himself.” Calhoun plans to interview people about Singleton with the hopes of “writing something that would vindicate the madman.”

Calhoun has never written anything. Although he claims to eschew materialism, he ironically is a very successful part-time air-conditioner, boat, and refrigerator salesman. He feels guilty for being a successful salesman and not a writer, so for part of the year he lives in an “unheated walk-up with two other boys who also did nothing.” O’Connor’s fiction is filled with characters like Calhoun, young people who fancy themselves superior to everyone else, especially their elders. Calhoun is contemptuous, cynical, sarcastic, and self-righteous. He tells his parents he “despises their values” yet hypocritically accepts an allowance from them to finance his living expenses. His two aunts indulge his writing fantasy, telling him he might write the next Gone With the Wind, but they are mostly proud of what he has accomplished as a successful salesman. They constantly point out to him how much he resembles their father, a progressive, “forward-looking merchant” who started the Partridge Festival and most likely would have been either one of the prominent men shot “or the one to subdue the maniac.” Worst of all, Calhoun actually enjoys selling and fancies that Singleton’s so-called purity stands out in stark contrast to what Calhoun views as his own “doubleness, his shadow” that is “cast before him more darkly than usual.” Calhoun’s true self, he believes, is a “rebel-artist-mystic.” Writing about Singleton “would mitigate his own guilt” for not being who he believes he was meant to be.

Calhoun walks through town on a quest to interview people for his story. His aunts realize that Singleton is insane, but their arrogant nephew does not respect their opinions. Calhoun’s snide comments go right over their heads. Calhoun wishes he could start,

in Socratic fashion, a street discussion about where the real guilt for the six deaths lay,

but as he walks through town with his superior attitude, he finds none worthy of his intellectualism. He enters a drugstore, but the clerk is wearing an Azalea Festival Badge. Calhoun realizes that he most likely will not obtain anything useful from the clerk. As expected, the clerk does not fall for Calhoun’s baited comment that “Singleton was only the instrument. Partridge itself is guilty.” Next Calhoun encounters a man watching the funeral procession of the innocent bystander, who turns out to be the town drunk. Calhoun sarcastically comments to the man, “I suppose the other five were heroes?” Taking the question at face value, the man replies, “Fine men. Perished in the line of duty.” Appalled, Calhoun walks to the courthouse where he sees a little girl drinking Coca-Cola. She tells Calhoun that a bad man shot six people nearby. Calhoun fails to convince the little girl that Singleton “was not a bad man,” that “people were mean to him.” Since no adults will listen to him, Calhoun directs a lengthy pro-Singleton rant at the girl, who emphatically responds, “He was a bad bad bad man.” Calhoun then goes into a barbershop. Again, Calhoun is frustrated that the barber fails to comprehend

the other tragedy—the man who was persecuted by these idiots until he shot six of them.

Ignoring Calhoun’s depiction of Singleton as a scapegoat “laden with the sins of the community,” the barber proceeds to tell Calhoun that Singleton is a cheapskate and a cowardly madman that lives like a hog. Thoroughly disgusted and frustrated, Calhoun decides a mere story will not be sufficient to vindicate Singleton. Calhoun must write a novel “to do justice to all the man had suffered.”

Calhoun returns to his aunts’ home. They introduce him to a kindred spirit, another would-be writer named Mary Elizabeth. After dinner, Calhoun is shocked to learn that Mary Elizabeth finds Partridge to be “false and rotten to the core.” She tells Calhoun, “It makes me vomit.” She has been coerced by Calhoun’s aunts to take him to the Miss Partridge Azalea contest. She informs Calhoun that she has only agreed to take him because she must take notes for a nonfiction article she intends to write about Singleton. Astonished, Calhoun asks, “What is your opinion of Singleton?” Mary Elizabeth responds, “A Christ-figure” but in a purely intellectual sense, “as myth,” she explains, because “I am not a Christian.” Calhoun and Mary Elizabeth engage in an intellectual discussion, both arguing the merits of their differing literary approaches to capturing the essence of Singleton’s story, novel versus nonfiction. They agree that to do justice to their respective writings, they must visit Singleton at the state hospital. They must see what he looks like because “life does not abide in abstractions.” Neither of them really wants to visit the man but each is too proud to admit this to the other.

Calhoun is convinced that Mary Elizabeth will not show up the next day to accompany him to Quincey State Hospital. He decides that perhaps it would be best if he, too, visits at a later date, to give Singleton time to respond to treatment. To Calhoun’s surprise, Mary Elizabeth shows up five minutes early the next day for their pilgrimage. Calhoun and Mary Elizabeth discuss their plans during the drive to the mental hospital. They intend to tell Singleton that they understand his suffering. “Christ only had to take it three hours,” Mary Elizabeth tells Calhoun, but poor Singleton will be in that place for the rest of his life. When they arrive at Quincey, they convince the workers that they are related to Singleton. “We’re his kin. We have every right to see him,” they inform the orderlies. What they see, however, is not a noble Christ figure but a totally depraved and demonic lunatic who jumps on a table, dances around, lifts his hospital gown, and exposes himself while lecherously screaming at Mary Elizabeth, “Look girl!”

Flannery O’Connor often uses demonic imagery to capture her readers’ attention right before her characters are presented with a moment of grace. In a letter to fellow writer John Hawkes, she explains that “the devil teaches most of the lessons that lead to self-knowledge” (Habit of Being 439). Mary Elizabeth and Calhoun suddenly and violently receive this self-knowledge in an epiphany, or moment of grace. They learn that their illusions about human nature are immature and incorrect. They flee from the room and drive away from the hospital in a state of total shock, unable to articulate what has just happened, but somehow understanding their shared experience. As O’Connor further explains to Hawkes, Singleton is

a lecherous old nut and stands for his own reality against the young people’s absurd notions of him.... He’s one of those devils who go about piercing pretensions. (Habit of Being 443)

At the moment of grace, the two young people are confronted with several truths: Singleton is indeed insane, Mary Elizabeth’s abstract concepts have become frighteningly concrete, and Calhoun sees his true self reflected in Mary Elizabeth’s spectacles: “Round, innocent, undistinguished as an iron link”—a master salesman after all, being “pushed straight forward to the future to raise festival after festival” just like his great grandfather.

References

Fitzgerald, Sally. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979. Print.

Gooch, Brad. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. Little, Brown and Company. New York 2009. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. Print.

Why Do the Heathen Rage Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1146

“Why Do the Heathen Rage?” is an excerpt from what might have become Flannery O’Connor’s third novel. According to O’Connor scholar Dorothy Whitt, the O’Connor archives at Georgia College have 378 pages of O’Connor’s unfinished third novel, but they only make up six chapters (Whitt 227). This short story was first published in Esquire Magazine in 1963 (O’Connor 554). O’Connor died on August 3, 1964 before she could finish her third novel. On November 5, 1962, O’Connor wrote to her publisher Robert Giroux that she was working on a story with this title—“It’s been inevitable I get around to that title sooner or later” (The Habit of Being 498). The title originally comes from Psalms 2:1: “Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?” O’Connor’s attention was drawn to this particular verse through the Atlanta newspapers, which featured a column with the same title written by an eccentric Bible scholar named Robert Scott (Whitt 227).

The characters in this short story are familiar O’Connor caricatures—a strong-willed mother, an intellectual but weak son whose mother does not understand him, an impotent father (who has just had a stroke in this short story) and an overbearing schoolteacher sister. O’Connor also develops a familiar theme in this short story, that of modern man adrift in a secular world, unfulfilled by intellectualism, denying the existence of any supreme being, really having no beliefs because he accepts all beliefs.

Summary

Tilman has just had a stroke. The only part of him that reveals anything of his former personality is his left eye, which burns with rage. His wife is hoping that this tragic turn of events will shock her do-nothing son Walter into doing something—taking responsibility for managing the family farm. When the ambulance brings Tilman home, his enraged left eye seems to look at Walter without recognizing him. Nor does Tilman seem to recognize his wife or his bossy daughter, Mary Maud, who is barking orders at the ambulance driver as well as at her brother. The only person Tilman acknowledges with any affection is his Negro yard man, Roosevelt, who now will serve as his nurse. Walter quietly observes his family—his father’s face, Roosevelt’s tears, Mary Maud’s confusion, his mother’s reaction. His mother notices his stares and glares at him, “The responsibility is yours now.”

Walter has not taken responsibility for anything in his life. He is twenty-eight years old and, as far as his mother can tell, “nothing occupies him but trivia.” He lives at home and does not work. He spends his time sending letters to people he does not know and writing to newspapers using pseudonyms. Walter is a pseudo-intellectual modern man who reads books that have nothing to do with anything that matters. Walter is “a different kind of man from any she had ever known.” There is no innocence about him, no rectitude, and “no conviction either of sin or election.” He is a man who courts “good and evil impartially” and sees so many sides to every question that he cannot act. He is immobilized by indecision, unable to move, unable to work, unable “to make niggers work.” He is nothing like the other men in her family, her father and grandfather, who were moral men.

“You’ll have to take over and manage this place,” his mother tells Walter again. “Somebody has to make the Negroes work.” This is the last thing Walter wants to do. “I can’t make Negroes work,” he mutters. He tells his mother that she is perfectly capable of running the place herself, that “a woman of your generation is better than a man of mine.” Walter’s mother is shocked. She tells him she would be ashamed to admit such a thing if she were Walter. Walter laughs. The only virtue of his generation, he claims, is that “it ain’t ashamed to tell the truth about itself.” Walter’s mother fears that with a son like Walter with such dangerous open-mindedness, there is no telling what he might do because “any evil could enter that vacuum.”

Walter’s mother does not understand his mind. Sometimes she reads portions of the books he leaves lying open around the house. She rarely understands what he has underlined. One passage she does understand, however, is especially disturbing to her. It is something written by St. Jerome to a monk named Heliodorus. “Love should be full of anger,” he writes. Walter’s mother can agree with this. Her love is full of anger, she admits. The letter continues:

Our General marches fully armed, coming amid the clouds to conquer the whole world. Out of the mouth of our King emerges a double-edged sword that cuts down everything in the way.

After pondering the meaning of these mysterious words, Walter’s mother realizes that this General is Jesus.

This story ends abruptly when Walter’s mother recognizes Jesus. O’Connor was planning to write more about Walter in the third novel, after she recovered from her latest health crisis brought on by lupus, an inherited autoimmune disease. On July 9, 1963, just a few weeks before she died, O’Connor wrote to Janet McKane:

My mornings are devoted to Walter. Poor Walter. We get on slowly if at all. (Habit of Being 529)

This short story is not developed enough to ascertain its future direction, to know whether Walter, his mother, or other family members are the heathens. Perhaps Tilman is the heathen and his story began prior to his introduction here as a man with an eye “burning with rage.” Perhaps all of the characters are heathens.

Where O’Connor intended this story to appear in her never-finished third novel is also uncertain. Other short stories she included in her first two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, appeared at various points and two stories, “The Train” and “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead,” became first chapters. The only certainty is that the story would have reflected what O’Connor believed was important to write about in her fiction. She explained:

My stories, for the most part, are about people who are poor, who are afflicted in both mind and body, who have little—or at best a distorted—sense of spiritual purpose, and whose actions do not apparently give the reader a great assurance of the joy of life. (Mystery and Manners 32)

References

Fitzgerald, Sally. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969. Print.

Whitt, Margaret Earley. Understanding Flannery O’Connor. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. Print.

Revelation Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1522

Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation” was published in 1965 as part of her second collection of short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge. Like most of her short stories, “Revelation” was inspired by events in the author’s life. Flannery O’Connor was diagnosed with the inherited autoimmune disease lupus when she was twenty-five years old. Like her father, she would eventually die of the disease. “Revelation” was written during a time when she was spending many hours in doctors’ waiting rooms similar to the one in this story. Flannery’s disease forced her to give up her independent lifestyle and return home to Georgia to live with her mother, who became her caregiver. By this time, Flannery’s mother, now widowed, had become an astute businesswoman in charge of managing the family farm, Andalusia, outside of Milledgeville, Georgia. Many of Flannery’s female characters are based on her mother, Regina O’Connor—strong, often domineering Southern women obsessed with the world of “things” such as land, livestock, crops, and property. Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation” is such a woman. In addition, she is typical of other O’Connor characters that are pious on the outside but prejudiced on the inside. Despite Mrs. Turpin’s exalted opinion of herself, in God’s eyes she is just as much in need of grace as the people she belittles. This is her “revelation” from God and thus the title of the story.

Flannery O’Connor was a devoted Bible student, reading and studying it all her life. “Revelation” contains many Biblical and theological allusions that reflect O’Connor’s religious beliefs—namely, that everyone is a sinner in need of grace and that grace is unmerited favor. Mrs. Turpin’s vision of the bridge to heaven, reminiscent of Saint Peter’s dream in which a sheet from heaven contains both clean and unclean animals (Acts: Chapter 10), is a final “revelation” that all kinds of people are welcome into heaven if they repent.

Summary

Mrs. Turpin and her husband, Claud, enter the very small doctor’s waiting room. Claud has been kicked by a cow and has an injured leg. There is only one vacant chair. Annoyed that the doctor’s waiting room is “hardly bigger than a garage,” Mrs. Turpin orders Claud to take the chair while she remains standing until someone leaves. Used to obeying his wife, Claud dutifully takes the seat. Mrs. Turpin is large, loud, bossy, and opinionated. She quickly categorizes the people in the waiting room as white trash, common, ugly, and rude. There is a little boy who should be told to move over on the sofa and make room for a lady; there is a fat, ugly teenager with acne; there is a woman reading a magazine who is not “white trash, just common”; and there is a white-trash woman whose dress is made out of the same material as the chicken feed sacks Mrs. Turpin has in her barn. She thanks Jesus that he has made her who she is, an honest, God-fearing, hard-working, forty-seven-year-old woman with good skin and no wrinkles. A hymn is playing in the background: “When I Looked Up and He Looked Down.” Mrs. Turpin mentally sings the last line, “And wona these days I know I’ll we-eara crown.”

Mrs. Turpin may have crowned herself metaphorically, but God has a different message for her, which he reveals through the ugly girl with the acne, ironically named Mary Grace. As Mrs. Turpin waits to see the doctor with her husband, she mentally demeans each person in the waiting room, continually thanking Jesus for creating her to be herself. She strikes up conversations with several of the people, but while her words are outwardly friendly, her mind is full of haughty and judgmental assessments. One woman tells her she can get a clock like the one in the doctor’s office by saving green stamps. Mrs. Turpin replies that she already has a nice clock at home. The white-trash woman asks her whether she has a cotton-picking machine or hogs on her farm. “Two thangs I ain’t going to do," the woman says, "[L]ove no niggers or scoot down no hog with no hose.” Hogs are good for nothing but “a-gruntin and a-rootin and a-groanin,” she continues. Mrs. Turpin replies that she raises a little of everything on her farm and that her hogs “are not dirty and they don’t stink.” The white-trash woman continues to make several racist comments about blacks, concluding that they should all be sent back to Africa. Mrs. Turpin disagrees with her, not because she is any champion of African Americans, but because in her mind, white trash is “worst than niggers any day.”

As the racist conversation continues, the silent Mary Grace grows angrier. Mrs. Turpin drones on about how nice she is to “her niggers”—bringing them water when they are thirsty and talking to them in a friendly way. “It’s all kinds of them just like it’s all kinds of us,” she concludes. Mary Grace can no longer concentrate on her reading. She looks up from her book and makes a face at Mrs. Turpin to show her disgust. Mrs. Turpin feels as if the girl has known and disliked her all her life. The conversation then turns toward Mary Grace herself. Her mother grows uncomfortable because Mary Grace continues to make faces at Mrs. Turpin and to ignore Mrs. Turpin’s questions. Her mother then intimates that Mary Grace is an ungrateful girl who “can never say a kind word to anyone, who never smiles, who just criticizes and complains all day long.” Claud chimes in, “Is she too old to paddle?” Mary Grace’s face turns purple, and Mrs. Turpin loudly proclaims:

“If it’s one thing I am, it’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself an what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides...thank you Jesus!”

Mary Grace can tolerate it no longer. She throws her book and her body at Mrs. Turpin, grabbing her around the neck, choking her, and commanding: “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”

Mary Grace is God’s messenger. After being seized, Mrs. Turpin looks into Mary Grace's “fierce brilliant eyes” and there is no doubt that the girl does know her, perhaps “in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition.” Recognizing this preknowledge, Mrs. Turpin asks Mary Grace what she has to say to her. God symbolically speaks through the girl and tells Mrs. Turpin that unless she changes her heart, he really does see her as a wart hog from hell. She is not superior to “niggers, white trash and ugly.” She is a sinner in need of God’s grace.

Mrs. Turpin returns home, troubled by Mary Grace’s words. At first, she does not understand the revelation. “I am not a wart hog from hell,” she whines to Claud. When her black farm hands ask about the bruise on her eye, she tells them that something ugly happened. They protest that she is the sweetest white lady they have ever known; how could anyone hurt her? Their “Negro flattery” makes her even angrier. “You could never say anything intelligent to a nigger,” she snarls to herself as she walks to the barn to feed the hogs.

As Mrs. Turpin contemplates her hogs, she tells herself that they are more intelligent than dogs, trying subconsciously to shake off the insult of having been compared to one. She recalls the white-trash woman’s description of the hogs, “a-gruntin and a-rootin and a-groanin,” and immediately asks Claud for a hose to clean them down. She is beginning to realize at this point in the story that her own soul needs cleansing, just like the hogs to which she has been compared. In an epiphany, she realizes that Mary Grace’s message was from God. “What do you send me a message like that for?” she asks him. She tries to convince God of her righteousness, but her words reveal her heart: “It’s no trash around here, black or white, that I haven’t given to,” she whines. God does not want her works, however. Grace is mercy extended to people who do not deserve it. As she looks toward the sky, she sees a vision, a bridge to heaven upon which are walking “whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes.” At the end of the procession, she sees people like herself and Claud who although they are the only ones singing “on key” are nevertheless at the end of the line, saved by the same grace that saved the “inferior” others. Like Mrs. Turpin, their perceived virtues “were being burned away,” purifying them and getting them ready to meet the maker that loves them all equally, "For there is no respect of persons with God" (Romans 2:11). Mrs. Turpin has learned this Biblical lesson in a painful way.

Judgment Day Summary

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2509

“Judgment Day” was Flannery O’Connor’s last short story. Her long-time friend and publisher, Robert Giroux, explained in his introduction to The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor that this story was a revised and expanded version of her first short story, “The Geranium.” O’Connor had been working on its revision off and on since 1955 (O’Connor xvi). O’Connor originally wrote “The Geranium” to fulfill the requirements for her master’s thesis in fine arts from the State University of Iowa in 1947. The reworked “Judgment Day” was published posthumously in 1965 in O’Connor’s second collection of short stories entitled Everything That Rises Must Converge. In a letter to Giroux in May 1964, O’Connor explained that she was hoping to finish “Judgment Day” in time for Giroux to include it in her second short story collection in place of “The Partridge Festival,” which she decided was “a very sorry story and I don’t want it in” (The Habit of Being 579).

“Judgment Day” is the only short story by O’Connor that does not take place in the South, although it is haunted by what she called “the ghosts of the South.” The story includes much of what distinguishes O’Connor’s fiction, but it is one of a few stories in which she mixes sympathy with her characteristic satire. The characters are complex and symbolic; the writing is ironic and humorous; the motifs are mysterious; the conflicts deal with race relations; and the themes converge on faith, redemption, and judgment. It is a story that is often considered difficult to understand. Scholar Margaret Earley Whitt noted that Flannery O’Connor explained her themes by pointing out that “if the Christian faith is in place for the reader, the work will be understandable” (Whitt 10). O’Connor also knew, however, that the majority of her audience would not be reading her fiction with the eyes of faith. Most of her readers would be of the same mind as Mr. Tanner’s daughter and the “Negro” actor in this short story: “There ain’t no Jesus and there ain’t no God”—it’s just “a lot of hardshell Baptist hooey.” This is why O’Connor’s characters are often distortions (or grotesques) and her plots violent. O’Connor used this approach to force readers to understand that no matter how grotesque people may be, they are still loved by a merciful creator who offers them redemption even up to the moment of death. O’Connor’s plots illustrate that faith is costly and violent because Christ’s death on the cross was costly and violent (Whitt 11). Readers come across Mr. Tanner jumping out of his coffin shouting “Judgement Day! Judgement Day!” and read about his dead body being callously “thrust between spokes of the banister” with his feet dangling over the stairwell “like those of a man in the stocks”; O’Connor hoped her readers would be jolted into contemplating the meaning of such images.

Flannery O’Connor battled the autoimmune disease lupus since age 25. Her father died from the same disease. When O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus, she returned home to Georgia so her mother, Regina, could care for her. O’Connor had been living with her friends the Robert Fitzgeralds in Connecticut, and they shipped her belongings to Georgia in a few trunks. As with many of her life’s events, O’Connor translated this experience into her fiction. In this short story, old man Tanner’s daughter ships his remains from New York City to his home in Georgia. O’Connor lived in New York City for a short while in 1949; like Mr. Tanner, she found it to be “no kind of place,” a city whose air was fit only “for cats and garbage.” O’Connor finalized most of “Judgment Day” from her hospital bed when her lupus flared up just before her death in 1964 (Gooch 217). It was originally titled “Going Home” because Mr. Tanner has been forced, like O’Connor, to live with and be cared for by a family member but he is secretly plotting to “go home” even if in a coffin (Gooch 361). While finishing this story, O’Connor knew that she, too, was on her way to her eternal home, and like Mr. Tanner, she was “trusting the Almighty” to get her there.

Summary

Mr. Tanner is living in a walk-up apartment in New York City with his daughter and his “stupid” son-in-law who has a “muscular face and a yankee voice to go with it.” Tanner has been forced out of his squatter’s shack in Georgia in which he had been living for thirty years. He built the shack himself on land belonging to a “half-Negro” doctor, Dr. Foley. The old order of things is changing in the South, however, and Dr. Foley’s character is a symbol of that change. Dr. Foley shows up to inform Mr. Tanner that he must change along with the times. Mr. Tanner has also constructed a moonshine still on Dr. Foley’s land. Dr. Foley tells him that if he wants to stay on the land, he must work the still for him. “The day coming,” the doctor says, “when the white folks IS going to be working for the colored and you mights well git ahead of the crowd.” Rather than stay and become “a nigger’s white nigger,” Mr. Tanner chooses to move to New York City with his daughter, telling the doctor, “That day ain’t coming for me.”

As soon as Tanner arrives in New York City, he realizes he has made a mistake. New York City is “no place for a sane man,” Mr. Tanner tells himself. He may have lived in a shack in Georgia but at least it had air around it. His daughter lives in a “pigeon-hutch of a building” filled with “all stripes of foreigner, all of them twisted in the tongue.” Mr. Tanner also has left his life-long friend, Coleman, a black man who is “a negative image of himself” and to whom he has been connected for 30 years in a common “clownishness and captivity.” When Tanner was young, he looked like a monkey. In his old age, he looks like a bear. With Coleman, it is just the opposite. Although Tanner has the mind of a bigot, his warm friendship with Coleman transcends race. Tanner fondly states that Coleman “ain’t a bad nigger.” By making Tanner and Coleman best friends, O’Connor illustrates her belief that even ingrained racial prejudice can be overcome at the heart level, one on one. Although Tanner and Coleman have been friends for decades, Tanner’s prejudice toward other “coloreds” he meets does not change: you had to manage them with knives; you had to make a monkey out of one of them before they made a monkey out of you; if they made a monkey out of you, you had to kill them; and Tanner is “not going to hell for killing a nigger.” With Coleman, however, things are different. Tanner is closer to Coleman than he his to his own flesh and blood, and it is to Coleman that Tanner addresses a note he pins to his jacket: “If found dead ship express collect to Coleman Parrum, Corinth, Georgia.”

Tanner’s daughter is horrified when she finds Coleman asleep on the floor of her father’s shack in Georgia. She is “not the kind that likes to settle in with niggers” Tanner notices, and her politically correct approach to getting along with them now that she lives in the North is to keep away from them. She orders Tanner to do the same when he tries to befriend their new neighbor, a “Negro” that Tanner assumes is “a South Alabama nigger if ever I saw one.” Tanner’s daughter warns him not to get too friendly. “They ain’t the same around here. If you have to live next to them, just you mind your business and they’ll mind theirs.” With characteristic O’Connor irony, the North illustrates prejudice as the South illustrates tolerance. Tanner is a bigot in the North but a brother in the South. Coleman lovingly writes to him from the South, “This is Coleman – X – howyou boss” but in the North, Tanner is “done in by a nigger actor” and he wants to go home.

Tanner realizes he will have to get home on his own. He overhears his daughter talking with her husband. They are planning to bury him in New York City when he dies. “He ain’t going to last long,” she assures her husband, and she is not going to make a trip back to Georgia again. This is a betrayal. Tanner’s daughter has promised him she will bury him in Georgia. He has held her accountable for keeping this promise and now he realizes that her promise is no good. He curses her: “Bury me here and burn in hell!” Tanner devises a plan. As soon as his pension check comes, he will cash it and buy a ticket home. He will take a cab to the freight yard, hop on the train, and head South. He will get home to Georgia dead or alive. “It was being there that mattered; the dead or alive did not.” This thought comforts Tanner and he imagines how much fun it would be to play a trick on Coleman by shipping his body back in a coffin and then jumping out shouting “Judgement Day! Judgement Day!” and scaring his friend into thinking that he had been brought back from the dead and it is, indeed, Judgment Day. Tanner’s “hardshell Baptist hooey” beliefs have taught him that a final Judgment Day is coming when Jesus, like a shepherd, will separate the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31). “Them that kept their promises from them that didn’t. Them that honored their father and their mother from them that cursed them,” he warns his daughter. He will be among the sheep, he is convinced, judged and redeemed. His daughter will be among the goats, judged and condemned.

Tanner does not believe that his black neighbor can possibly be an actor. He is convinced that he would welcome the chance to meet “someone who understood him.” Maybe he even knows somewhere around the city where they can find a pond to go fishing. Tanner wrongly believes that his lifelong friendship with Coleman has taught him all about black people. If a “Negro tends to be sullen,” he reminds himself, calling him “Preacher” usually clears things up. Tanner tries several times to befriend the neighbor, who finally informs Tanner angrily that he is not from South Alabama; he is from New York City. He is not a preacher; he is an actor—and he is not going to “take no crap off no wool-hat red-neck son-of-a-bitch peckerwood old bastard like you.” He then slams Tanner against the wall and throws him through the door of his daughter’s apartment. Tanner falls “reeling into the living room” and has a stroke. In a few days, he improves enough to make it clear to his daughter that he expects her to keep her promise to ship his body back to Georgia when he dies. They argue and she finally agrees to ship him back, but he does not believe her. They keep the peace by lying to each other. “You got a nice place here,” Tanner tells his daughter, practically gagging on the words. She in turn lies: “It’s great to have you here. I wouldn’t have you any other place. My own daddy.”

As soon as his daughter leaves for the grocery store, Tanner painfully makes his way to the door. The stroke has greatly impeded his movement. He loses his balance and falls halfway down the stairs in the hallway. Losing consciousness, Tanner imagines himself in his coffin in Georgia, jumping out and yelling to Coleman, “Judgement Day! Judgement Day!” When he recovers, he realizes that the man leaning over him is not Coleman but the Negro actor and his girlfriend. Denying there is any such thing as Judgment Day, the Negro actor angrily tells Tanner, “Maybe this here judgement day for you!” This turns out to be prophetic. Tanner weakly begs the actor, “Hep me up, Preacher, I’m on my way home!” Tanner is indeed on his way home, but it is as a dead man. His daughter finds him later, cruelly stuffed so tightly into the spokes of the banister that he has to be cut out with a saw. His daughter buries him in New York City, but her guilt over breaking her promise tortures her until she digs him up and ships his body to Georgia like she had promised. After that, she rests well at night and her good looks return.

Mr. Tanner prefers death to living in New York City, a symbol of sin and secularism to his author/creator. His desire to go home physically to Georgia symbolizes his desire to go home spiritually. The bigoted Tanner is humbled before his death. He pridefully refused to lower himself by working the moonshine still in Georgia for Dr. Foley, but he suffers such cruelties in the big city that in his heart he longs for his spiritual home. When he decides to go home just before he dies, he asks his neighbor to help him up. The man does so both physically and spiritually by cruelly hastening Tanner’s death, stuffing him into the banister spokes and pulling his hat over his head. Judgment Day finally arrived for Mr. Tanner, but first he had to pass by what one of O’Connor’s favorite Catholic Saints, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, called “The dragon [that] sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass.... We go to the Father of Souls,” O’Connor wrote, “but it is necessary to pass by the dragon” (Mystery and Manners 35). In this short story, the “Negro” actor plays the part of the dragon for Mr. Tanner.

O’Connor’s longtime friend and editor of her nonfiction writings, Sally Fitzgerald, believed that O’Connor knew her own days were numbered when she wrote “Judgment Day,” and she considered this to be one of O’Connor’s most unforgettable stories. O’Connor’s “final treatment of a lonely, homesick old man” in many ways mirrored O’Connor’s own hope to return to her eternal home (Habit 559).

References

Fitzgerald, Sally. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979. Print.

Fitzgerald, Sally. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969. Print.

Gooch, Brad. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. Print.

Whitt, Margaret Earley. Understanding Flannery O’Connor. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. Print.

The Artificial Nigger Summary

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3229

Many scholars believe that “The Artificial Nigger” is Flannery O’Connor’s best short story. In her letters, O’Connor claimed that it was her personal favorite, describing it as “the best thing I will ever write” (The Habit of Being 209). The story deals with two themes that were important to O’Connor throughout her fiction: it exposes racism, and the pride and ignorance that spawn racism; it also explores the mystery of grace and mercy, and their importance to human beings. O’Connor explained that what she tried to suggest with this short story “was the redemptive quality of the Negro’s suffering for us all” (Habit 78). Not all scholars and critics agree that O’Connor achieved that particular goal, possibly because she was limited by her time, place, and white Catholic perspective. Most do agree, however, that “The Artificial Nigger” tempers her distinctive satiric style with a rare sympathy for her characters.

In typical O’Connor fashion, “The Artificial Nigger” sets up several opposing forces. There is a bigoted, mean-spirited grandfather who fancies himself a wise and appropriate guide for the young, and there is his equally stubborn and competitive grandson, intent on outdoing his grandfather whenever he can. There is the narrow-minded rural white community where the grandfather and grandson live, and there is the sprawling city of Atlanta, “full of niggers,” where they journey to learn their respective lessons. There is a modern secular world of trains and machines, and there is the mysterious spiritual world of sin and salvation. Other characteristic O’Connor touches include a mythic journey of discovery (O’Connor compares Mr. Head and Nelson to Virgil and Dante), dialogue rich in irony, and characters on the verge of spiritual epiphanies.

John Crowe Ransom, the story’s first publisher, urged O’Connor to change the title before he published it in his Kenyon Review. “I hate to insult the black folks’ sensibilities,” he wrote to her (and while reading the story aloud to students in his writers’ workshop, Ransom changed the word “nigger” to “Negro”). O’Connor responded, “the story as a whole is much more damaging to white folk’s sensibilities than to black” (quoted in Gooch 253). O’Connor explained that the story’s title originated from instructions given to her mother, Regina, while on a cow-buying trip. She could not miss the house, Regina was told, because “it’s the one with the artificial nigger on the front lawn.” Such statuaries and black jockey hitching posts were common all over the South. O’Connor’s Uncle Louis called them “nigger statuary,” and O’Connor saw them as symbols of racism: “There is nothing that screams out the tragedy of the South like what my uncle calls ‘nigger statuary’” (Habit 101). O’Connor decided she had to write a story around that title because it was both a “wonderful phrase” and a “terrible symbol of what the South has done to itself” (Habit 140). In “The Artificial Nigger,” O’Connor illustrates with humor, pathos, and irony both the tragedy of the South and the prejudices that perpetuated that tragedy.

Summary

Mr. Head is raising his grandson, Nelson, age ten. Mr. Head and Nelson have a dysfunctional but codependent relationship. Both Mr. Head’s wife and Nelson’s mother are dead. The orphaned Nelson relies on Mr. Head to support him, and Mr. Head unconsciously depends on Nelson to give his life purpose. Nelson is a younger version of his obstinate grandfather, and both of them constantly try to outdo each other. O’Connor uses imagery to illustrate the helplessness of humankind by describing Nelson and Mr. Head as ageless and therefore universal. They look enough alike to be brothers “not too far apart in age.” Mr. Head has a “youthful expression,” but Nelson’s look is “ancient.” Mr. Head is mean-spirited, stubborn, and bigoted, while Nelson is impudent. Mr. Head pridefully believes that his age has made him wise and automatically qualifies him to be “a suitable guide for the young.” Ironically, he has decided that Nelson needs to be taught not to be prideful and “impudent” and plans to take him to Atlanta on a “moral mission” to accomplish this purpose. By showing him the evils of the city, Mr. Head hopes that Nelson will learn he has “no cause for pride merely because he had been born in a city.” Mr. Head is the cause of this particular example of pride, however, because he has lied to Nelson about being born in Atlanta. Mr. Head wants to show Nelson that the city is “not a great place.” Mr. Head thinks he is right because hehas been to the city three times. Not to be outdone by his grandfather, Nelson brags that this will actually be his second trip to Atlanta, since he was born there. Although the boy and his grandfather will have parallel journeys, their lessons will be different.

Mr. Head insists that Nelson will not like Atlanta because “it’ll be full of niggers.” Nelson has never seen a black person. Mr. Head tells Nelson, “There hasn’t been a nigger in this county since we run that one out twelve years ago and that was before you were born.” Nelson insists that he will “know a nigger if I see one.”

As they wait for the train, they continue their one-upmanship arguments. Mr. Head has packed a lunch of biscuits and sardines. After they board the train and are seated, Mr. Head tells his fellow passengers that this is Nelson’s first trip to the city, that Nelson is ignorant, and that Mr. headis going to “show him all it is to show.”

A brown-skinned man followed by two young women walks by them in the aisle. Mr. Head begins his first lesson, asking Nelson, “What was that?” Nelson replies to a series of rapid-fire questions: it was a man, it was a fat man, it was an old man. Nelson still has not come up with the right answer. “That was a nigger,” Mr. Head instructs him. Nelson accuses his grandfather of lying:

“You said they were black. You never said they were tan. How do you expect me to know anything when you don’t tell me right?”

This statement is full of irony because Mr. Head’s lessons, by word and by example, have indeed notbeen morally right, but full of Mr. Head’s own pride and prejudices. Nelson sees past the man’s race to his humanity. It is Mr. Head who is ignorant.

There are other blacks on the train besides the “coffee-colored” black man. “Three very black Negroes in white suits” are waiters on the train. Because theyare in charge of the eating area, they curtly tell Mr. Head that if he and Nelson do not want to be seated, they must “stand aside.” Mr. Head and Nelson want to look at the kitchen, but in another ironic twist, they are told by the black waiters, “Passengers are not allowed in the kitchen!” Mr. Head makes a witty but racist remark that the kitchen is probably full of cockroaches anyway.

Nelson is proud of his grandfather’s wit. It is something that connects them on more than just a physical level. He realizes that if he were ever separated from his grandfather, he would be lost. This fear is reinforced as Nelson rises to exit the train and his grandfather holds him back, telling him that this is not their stop. Being lost is an important motif in this story, both spiritually and physically. Nelson fears getting physically lost in the city, but Mr. Head reassures him that he has never been lost in his life. Mr. Head does not realize that he is spiritually lost, however. Nelson would be physically lost if separated from his racist grandfather, yet as long as they are connected, they are both spiritually lost.

Mr. Head tries to keep the train station’s dome in sight, but he and Nelson are sucked into the city’s abyss. Each storefront holds more wonder than the next for Nelson until he jubilantly cries out, “I was born here! This is where I come from!” Horrified by Nelson's positive reaction to the city, Mr. Head decides to show Nelson where he reallycomes from. He drags Nelson to a sewer entrance and orders the boy to “stick you head in there.” Nelson grasps this lesson, connecting “the sewer passages with the entrance to hell” where, Mr. Head warns, a man can “easily slide into it and be sucked along down endless pitchblack tunnels.” Nelson replies, “Yes, but you can stay away from holes.” Mr. Head is trying to teach one lesson, but Nelson is learning another. Mr. Head is so focused on his grandson’s pride that he fails to recognize his own. O’Connor is fond of pointing out in her fiction that “pride goes before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18) and if Mr. Head does not repent of his “haughty spirit,” he will be heading for his own “fall” into hell’s hole. Distracted by his failure to make progress with Nelson’s lesson, Mr. Head forgets to keep his eye on the train station’s dome. As this lifeline to his white world disappears, Mr. Head realizes that he and Nelson have been walking in circles.

Mr. Head and Nelson are lost in the “colored” section of Atlanta. Now it is they who are the minorities. O’Connor contrasts their white-trash behavior with the noble behavior of the black characters. Mr. Head and Nelson grow fearful as they continue “to see Negroes everywhere,” and Mr. Head hatefully reminds Nelson, “this is where you were born—right here with all these niggers.” They are hungry and thirsty, but they soon realize that Mr. Head has left the lunch of biscuits and sardines (an allusion to the Biblical loaves and fishes) behind on the train by mistake. The lunch is a symbolic holy communion that cannot enter the Hades of Atlanta. Nelson blames Mr. Head for losing the way and their lunch; he challenges Mr. Head to ask “one of these niggers” for directions. Mr. Head tells Nelson that heshould ask, since he is the one that was born in the city. Nelson is afraid of the black men and does not want to be ridiculed by the black children, so he finally asks the least threatening person, a large black woman, for directions. This woman is the only person (man, woman, black or white) who offers Nelson any degree of nurturing, and Nelson is surprised by his reaction to her: “He wanted to look down and down into her eyes while she held him tighter and tighter. He had never had such a feeling before.”

O’Connor explains that she meant for the woman “to suggest the mystery of existence” to Nelson. He has not only “never seen a nigger but he didn’t know any women.” In her attempt to equate “the redemptive quality of the Negro’s suffering for us all,” O’Connor wanted the black woman to be “a black mountain of maternity” to give Nelson “the required shock to start those black forms moving up from his unconscious” (Habit 78), showing him that all men are brothers.

That, however, is not Mr. Head’s lesson. Mr. Head is trying to teach Nelson that he is white. After the woman tells them that in order to find their way, they must catch a streetcar to return to the train station, Mr. Head pulls Nelson away from the woman, stubbornly refusing to jump on several passing streetcars because he does not know how to board one properly. Not wanting to admit this to Nelson, he tells the boy that they will follow the parallel streetcar tracks which will guide them on their parallel journeys back to the train station. Soon they begin to see white people again. Confidant that he is returning to his white world, Mr. Head chastises Nelson for “standing there grinning like a chimpanzee while a nigger woman gives you direction.” Nelson is afraid and tired, and he protests that he never said he would like the city, he never said he wanted to come. He only said he was born there. He wants to go home. Suddenly, they realize that they have been following the tracks in the wrong direction. All the people are white because they are in the suburbs. Exhausted, Nelson asks to rest for a while and he falls asleep. Mr. Head decides to teach Nelson another ill-fated lesson. He hides from Nelson, waiting for the boy to wake up and realize what it would feel like to really be lost.

When Nelson wakes up, he does not see his grandfather, panics, and runs away. Mr. Head runs after Nelson, but loses him. Mr. Head finally finds Nelson, sprawled in the middle of the street, surrounded by a crowd of women. Nelson has knocked over one of the women. She is screaming and yelling for the police, threatening to sue. Nelson sees Mr. Head and runs to him, clinging to his hips, but Mr. Head tells the crowd, “This is not my boy. I never seen him before.” The women are horrified that Mr. Head would deny his own flesh and blood, especially when their physical appearances make it so obvious that they are related. As the women stand there in shock, Nelson and Mr. Head walk away physically together, but emotionally far apart.

Mr. Head can feel Nelson’s contempt “piercing into his back like pitchfork prongs.” The pitchfork is an allusion to the devil, who shows up figuratively in O’Connor’s fiction usually accompanied by sin. Mr. Head has betrayed his grandson, and Nelson is making him “feel the depth of his denial.” He realizes that his insistence on putting Nelson in his place has been “leading the boy to his doom.” Each time he has tried to teach Nelson a lesson on this journey, it has backfired. He acknowledges his sin and that he deserves punishment, but agonizes over the fact that “his sins would be visited upon Nelson” (an allusion to the Old Testament where the Israelites are told that “the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons unto the third and fourth generation”). Mr. Head finds a water spigot and takes a drink. He tells Nelson to do the same, but the boy refuses to drink from the same spigot as his grandfather. This is an allusion to a worse sin—the separate water fountains for blacks and whites found throughout the Jim Crow South. Finally Mr. Head sees a white man and cries out in desperation, “Oh Gawd I’m lost!” Mr. Head realizes that he is lost spiritually as well as physically. The white man’s message is the same as the black woman’s: catch a streetcar to the train station and then home.

Home has lost its meaning for Nelson after his grandfather’s denial. Like Saint Peter after he denied Christ three times, Mr. Head is overcome by guilt. He now knows,

“what time would be like without seasons and what heat would be without light and what man would be like without salvation.”

In characteristic O’Connor style, God has brought Mr. Head to his lowest point in order to make him realize his need for redemption. It is at this moment that Nelson and Mr. Head see “the artificial nigger” of the story’s title. O’Connor uses the same type of age imagery as earlier in the story to unite Nelson and Mr. Head to the statue in their common helplessness. It is a small plaster figure about Nelson’s size, “too miserable” to be either young or old. Trembling before it, both Nelson and Mr. Head appear ageless as well, Mr. Head looking like “an ancient child” and Nelson looking like “a miniature old man.” The statue is leaning forward “at an unsteady angle” because it is falling away from the wall to which it is attached. Mr. Head and Nelson lean forward to look at it “at almost the same angle” because they, too, are separated from their foundation. O’Connor calls the statue “a monument to another’s victory that brought them together in their common defeat.” Mr. Head calls it “an artificial nigger”:

“They ain’t got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one.”

The statue reunites Mr. Head and Nelson at that moment, but literary scholars disagree about the statue’s significance and whether or not it successfully connects Mr. Head and Nelson to the “Negro's suffering for us all.” Some believe the statue represents Jesus, bringing the two together, showing them their sins and then forgiving them. Others argue that the statue is merely a secular agent of change for Nelson and Mr. Head. Some argue that the statue embodies black rage and white guilt, while still others argue that the statue represents the equality of human helplessness. Some scholars believe that while the statue may mend the rift between Nelson and Mr. Head, it does nothing to change either of their attitudes toward racism. Since Mr. Head’s racist comment about the “artificial nigger” is what reunites Nelson and Mr. Head, some believe that there is no repentance or redemption, yet the strong religious language at the end of the story seems to refute this explanation. Religious scholars contend that this religious language is overdone and insincere and indicates a self-righteous attitude on the part of Mr. Head that conflicts with Christian teachings about redemption and salvation. For example, Mr. Head is said to have “judged himself with the thoroughness of God” and to have “never thought himself a great sinner before”—two statements that reveal the sinful pride that O’Connor condemns in her writing. Others point out, however, that by recognizing “his true depravity” and realizing that no sin is “too monstrous” for God to forgive, Mr. Head is a changed man and “ready at that instant to enter Paradise.”

O’Connor sheds light on her intentions in her letters. She writes that it is not always necessary to have a “stable” character in order to illustrate religious conversion. “Mr. Head is changed by his experience even though he remains Mr. Head” (Habit 275). O’Connor admits that she had to rewrite this story many times, “having trouble with the end” (Habit 78). She explains that while she was attempting to follow her friend Barbara Tate’s advice to give “more altitude” to the flat endings of her stories, including this one: “I am not sure it is successful but I mean to keep trying with other things.” O’Connor would write many more short stories but this one remained her favorite, perhaps because, as she admits, “there is a good deal more in it than I understand myself” (Habit 140).

References

Fitzgerald, Sally. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979. Print.

Fitzgerald, Sally. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969. Print.

Gooch, Brad. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. Little, Brown and Company. New York 2009. Print.

Perreault, Jeanne. “The body, the critics, and ‘The Artificial Nigger’.” The Mississippi Quarterly 56.3 (2003): 389+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 24 Sept. 2010.

The Crop Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1684

“The Crop” is one of the six stories included in Flannery O’Connor’s 1947 master’s thesis titled The Geranium: A Collection of Short Stories. It was written sometime prior to 1946. O’Connor submitted this story, along with one entitled “The Geranium,” to the literary magazine Accent in her first attempt to become a published author. Just before her twenty-first birthday, she was notified that “The Geranium” was accepted for publication (Gooch 127). “The Crop” was first published posthumously by Mademoiselle in 1971 with the permission of O’Connor’s literary executor and long-time friend, Robert Fitzgerald. It later appeared in her second short story collection, The Complete Stories, published in 1971 (O’Connor 551).

In a note accompanying its publication, Robert Fitzgerald wrote that although “The Crop” was obviously far from O’Connor’s best work, it nevertheless promised “the exacting art, the stringent spirit, and the sheer kick of her mature work” (quoted in O’Connor 551). “The Crop” is the story of Miss Willerton, a spinster who aspires to be a writer but is no more successful at producing stories than she is at producing children or crops. She is inept at the simplest household chores, so her sisters put her in charge of crumbing the table. Crumbing is a mindless task that does not require any domestic skills. Miss Willerton conjures up story ideas as she sweeps the crumbs into the crumb-catcher. She has convinced herself that writing is a more worthwhile endeavor than cooking or cleaning, but she spends more time thinking of stories than actually producing them.

The writing process that O’Connor describes in this short story bears many similarities to her own. Like Miss Willerton, O’Connor spent long periods of time alone in her room writing. She, too, worked for hours on just a few sentences, only to discard them over and over. She, too, was extremely critical of her own work. From her letters, Flannery O’Connor also seems to have lacked domestic skills, often surviving on canned tuna and vanilla wafers when she lived alone. Unlike Miss Willerton, however, self-criticism did not paralyze O’Connor and prevent her from producing any stories. O’Connor wrote thirty-one short stories and two novels. Miss Willerton’s creative spark remains trapped inside a mind that cannot free itself from the restraints of what she considers proper, ladylike behavior. When this short story ends, Miss Willerton has written only a few lines, has discarded yet another subject and is starting all over—again.

Summary

Miss Willerton (Willie) is a fourty-four-year-old spinster who lives with her unmarried siblings: two sisters, Lucia and Bertha, and a brother, Garner. They each have household assignments. Miss Willerton’s job is to “crumb the tables.” Crumbing is a suitable job for Miss Willerton because it gives her time to think about story ideas. There are so many things to write about that it is hard for her to choose just one. She must choose a proper topic, one with an “air of social concern” that would propel her into “the circles she was hoping to travel.” Miss Willerton spends more time thinking of what to write about than actually writing; so far, she has produced no stories. On this day, she is trying to think of a subject that is “colorful” and “timely,” something “with tension.” Sharecroppers would be perfect, she decides. Although she has no experience with sharecroppers, she thinks that “they would make as arty a subject as any,” so she begins to write her all-important first sentence: “Lot Motun called his dog.”

Miss Willerton then plans her characters. Lot is a man with spirit, she decides, so he must have red hair. His wife is a shrew who does not cook his grits properly. They argue and Lot’s wife grabs a kitchen knife, ready to plunge it into his chest. At this point, Miss Willerton inserts herself into the story and strikes Lot’s wife “a terrific blow on the head from behind,” instantly killing her. O’Connor’s short story now becomes a story within a story, with Miss Willerton as Lot’s new wife, Willie, working diligently beside him on their tenant farm, hoping to one day buy a place of their own, perhaps even a cow or two. It has been a good year and the crop is ready. They must harvest their crop before the rain comes in another week, but Willie is going to have a baby and a concerned Lot asks her, “Do you feel like gatherin’? I can’t hire any help.” Willie and Lot work until nightfall, but Willie goes into labor when they return to their cabin. She wakes up and learns from Lot that it has been raining for two days and they have a new baby daughter. When she sadly reminds Lot that the crop is destroyed and that he had wanted a son, he tenderly replies, “I got what I wanted—two Willies instead of one—that’s better than a cow, even.” When the devoted Willie asks Lot how she can help him more, she hears the stern words, “How about going to the grocery, Willie?” Miss Willerton realizes that her sister, Lucia, is talking to her in real life, and the spell of the story is broken.

Lucia sends Miss Willerton to the grocery store, where she is clearly out of her element. Knowing that Miss Willerton is inept at grocery shopping, Lucia reminds her sister to be sure to buy ripe tomatoes. In the grocery store, Miss Willerton does not know the difference between regular eggs and pullet eggs but she consoles herself with the delusion that she possesses more important skills, creativity for example. “Where was the chance for self-expression,” she asks herself, “in higgling about an eighth of a pound more or less of squash” or “buying beans and riding children in those grocery go-carts?” As Miss Willerton walks home, she condescendingly observes the people around her with their hands and minds “full of little packages.” Clearly, these petty people are inferior to her, and yet the grocery store depresses her. She senses that she is not even as capable as these “trifling, domestic” women and hurriedly returns home to her typewriter and her room where she can escape again into her stories. She is surprised to notice that she has not written much more than: “Lot Motun called his dog.” She concludes that her story “sounds awful” and that she must start over with something new. She leaves her alter-ego Willie trapped in the untold story in her mind, never to come alive on the written page. Miss Willerton tells herself that sharecroppers will not do after all. She needs “something more colorful—more arty.” The Irish are “full of spirit,” she decides. She will write a story about the Irish.

Miss Willerton is only “full of spirit” in her imagination. Her real life is barren on many levels, so she invents stories in her mind where she can take on a different persona. She is unmarried and childless and lives with three other unmarried, childless adults. The only thing she seems good at is crumbing tables. In her story, however, she has both a husband and a child. The child appears out of nowhere, with no mention of romance or sex. Physicality and sex make Miss Willerton nervous, and she is uncomfortable around men. Her male teachers, she recalls, often left her tongue-tied and unable to pronounce things. In her stories, she seems capable of only describing her characters’ heads, not their bodies. When she tries to write about “great, tall, blond” French bakers, she cannot move beyond their “mushroom-looking hats” and the Irish she finally chooses as the subject of her next story are only described above the shoulders: “red-haired with broad shoulders and great, drooping mustaches.” She doesn’t like the sound of the school she attended—Willowpool Female Seminary—because the words are too “biological.” She prefers to tell people she is a graduate of Willowpool, leaving out the “Female Seminary” part. She purchases risqué books directly from the publisher to avoid asking for them in the library and then hides them in her bureau drawer so her sisters will not see them. She likes to “plan passionate scenes” for her stories, but when it comes to actually writing about them she always begins “to feel peculiar,” worried about what her family would say if they read the stories—“What have you been keeping from us, Willie?”

O’Connor’s Miss Willerton is delusional but also comic and sympathetic, perhaps because there is much of O’Connor herself in this character. As an illustration, O’Connor’s biographer Brad Gooch recounts an incident that happened while O’Connor was a graduate student in Paul Engle’s Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Engle noticed that O’Connor was “awkward in writing about sex or romance.” He tried to make a few suggestions to her about it one day in the corridor after a Workshop session. O’Connor became so embarrassed that Engle suggested they discuss it in his car, where he explained that sexual seduction “didn’t take place quite the way she had written it.” Engle concluded that O’Connor had “a lovely lack of knowledge” in that area (Gooch 126). Because of this, however, O’Connor scholar Ruth Fennick believes that O’Connor’s early stories, particularly “The Crop,” offer younger readers (such as high school students) “sufficient interest, as well as thematic and technical artistry” to justify study without exposing less mature readers to the violent plots and complicated theology of most of O’Connor’s later works (Fennick 45).

References

Fennick, Ruth. “First Harvest: Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The Crop’”. The English Journal. Vol. 74, No. 2 (Feb., 1985), pp.45-50. National Council of Teachers of English. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.

Gooch, Brad. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. Print.

Whitt, Margaret Earley. Understanding Flannery O’Connor. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. Print.

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