Welcome to the first week (May 1st – 7th) of A Month of Flannery O’Connor! To follow along, check out the full schedule for reading Flannery O’Connor’s collection The Complete Stories.
This week’s stories:
- The Geranium
- The Barber
- The Crop
- The Turkey
- The Train
- The Peeler
According to the introduction, written by Robert Giroux of the publishers Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, the first book Flannery O’Connor wrote was a collection of stories to fulfill her thesis requirements to earn an MFA at the University of Iowa (later the Iowa Writers Workshop) in 1947. I learned from the section of O’Connor’s biography by Brad Gooch that I read that she felt strange, a Georgian women in Iowa, and Giroux reiterates in the introduction to The Complete Stories that her teacher, Paul Engle, couldn’t even understand Flannery’s accent at first. She wrote all the time, attended Catholic mass every day, and was a vigilant manuscript reviser. In fact, the novella-length Wise Blood took her five years to complete. Giroux notes that The Complete Stories are not all of equal merit, but a collection meant to preserve O’Connor’s work, which was published in various magazines during her lifetime.
After her MFA was completed, O’Connor spent time at a writer’s colony and then in New York City. However, she was then diagnosed with lupus and spent most of her time on a farm in Georgia that her mother ran. Her father had died nine years before of the same disease. Born in 1925, there were some treatments for Flannery that did exist when her father passed. Her bones began to soften, and she relied on crutches. Despite medical care, Flannery O’Connor died in 1964.
Given her context — the American South before the Civil Rights Act was signed — the use of racial slurs in O’Connor’s writing makes sense but is nonetheless shocking to contemporary readers. Robert C. Evans notes the following:
O’Connor herself claimed that she wrote most effectively about the people she knew best, conceding that she knew little about African Americans in any intimate ways. Yet her works repeatedly explore racial issues, often in ways suggesting sympathy for blacks, support for gradual integration, and, especially, contempt for deep-seated racism.
O’Connor herself, however, has sometimes been accused of racist views. The N-word appears repeatedly in her fiction, making some of her works increasingly difficult to teach or read. Usually the word reflects the real speech of her era; avoiding it might have opened her to charges of whitewashing the uglier aspects of contemporary culture.
When I proposed a month of O’Connor, I hadn’t realized just how often she would use racial slurs and tense situations between black and white Americans. Then again, I see value in exploring these stories, especially what they say about race, gender, and location.
Examining the first seven stories:
The stand-out themes are loss of manhood, city/liberal vs. country/conservative, and looking for signs and symbols. One thing to note is that most stories in this collection were written while O’Connor was in her MFA program. Later, several stories she’d had published were combined into Wise Blood. A confusing point may be that O’Conner kept changing the characters’ last names, e.g. Hazel Wickers in “The Train” is the same Hazel Weaver in “The Heart of the Park” who ended up Hazel Motes in Wise Blood.
“The Geranium” (1946 published in Accent, and submitted as part of her 1947 MFA thesis) — in this story, the metaphor of a geranium representing the main character’s life before he was taken in by his daughter is a little too clever and spelled out. And yet, his encounter with his daughter’s neighbor, a black man in a nice suit whom the father first believes is hired help, demonstrates a white man’s loss of control. His life has been hijacked by his daughter (younger, female) and he is called “old-timer” by someone he believes inferior (a black man, younger). Even trying to navigate the unfamiliar big city makes him appear enfeebled: “People boiled out of trains and up steps and over into streets.”
“The Barber” (included in her 1947 MFA thesis, published in New Signatures 1948: A Selection of College Writing, and 1970 in The Atlantic) — a story whose ending I read twice pits academics against the working class. The narrator is voting for a liberal candidate while the barbershop customers who gather are conservative. Much like the geranium serving as a symbol, the barber’s shaving knife on the protagonist’s neck represents the danger of sticking out in a homogenized place. Is this why the philosophy professor, a colleague of the protagonist, never argues with anyone? O’Connor does not suggest the protagonist is correct or incorrect. Surprisingly, the barber’s cleaning person, a young black man, listens to racist talk all day, though the barber knows his employee hears everything, suggesting the black man is never underestimated for his intelligence.
“Wildcat” (1947 MFA thesis, 1970 published in The North American Review) — rather than a background character, this story’s protagonist is an elderly black man. Much like the main character in “The Geranium,” he feels weakened in his manhood as he ages. The young boys craft a simple plan to catch a wildcat killing cows in the area, but the wildcat becomes a symbol (like the geranium and shaving blade) to the protagonist: Death incarnate. How will the protagonist handle Death’s arrival, like a man or a coward? Again, O’Connor’s story provides commentary on power through gender. Even when the man reflects on the wildcat that killed someone in his youth, the protagonist remembers he was left in the house with women, reminding readers that black males are stripped of their right to be men in America regardless of age.
“The Crop” (1947 MFA thesis, 1971 published in Mademoiselle) — terribly pleasing to anyone interested in writing craft. A woman is so involved in a story she’s writing that she inserts herself, taking readers into metafictional territory via character murder. The nudge from a housemate to get the writer to go to the grocery store (indicating writing isn’t “work” but wasted time), pulls the woman out of her story. After running into people who look like her characters, except flawed in some aspects of their appearances, she can no longer connect personally with her story. Are these flawed humans a sign that her story should be thrown out?
“The Turkey” (1947 MFA thesis, 1948 published in Mademoiselle) — immediately felt bloated as a boy chases around a made-up bandit and then a real-life turkey. We finally arrive at a place where the boy curses God aloud, including several swear words, in a test of faith. But when the boy sees the turkey dead in the weeds, he thinks of how proud his family will be. Is the turkey an offering from God? A sign? Superstitious, the boy creates if/then statements to prove God loves him. For a writer as devout as O’Connor, her stories of doubt in God confuse me most, especially when the turkey, a symbol of goodness and grace, is stolen from the boy, who is then left to figure out religion without looking for signs.
“The Train” (1947 MFA thesis, 1948 published in Sewanee Review) and “The Peeler” (1949 published in Partisan Review) — both of these stories are excerpts from Wise Blood (1952 published), though “The Peeler” works better as a stand-alone. O’Connor gives little context for who Haze Motes (Wickers in this version, published before the completion of Wise Blood) is in “The Train,” and so his obsession with making a black porter admit he’s a runaway from Haze’s hometown comes off as bullying and confusing. The porter is supposedly related to a man named Cash, whom readers don’t know. “The Train” as a chapter is just as confusing within the novella until you know more about Haze’s rejection of religion, believing there is freedom in atheistic living. Haze’s travel plan is also unclear, though the O’Connor’s ability to latch on to a symbol — in this case Haze’s upper bunk tube as metaphor for his mother’s closed coffin — pleases me.
“The Peeler” is a clearer read because we’re introduced to everyone: Enoch Emery, the blind preacher, the daughter, the potato peeler salesman. With a small cast, O’Connor captures a busy street with various hustlers selling products and ideas. Enoch emery, a sniffy teen who wipes his nose on his sleeve, is such a vivid person. He needs a friend, a mother, a prostitute. The highlight of “The Peeler” is getting a strong feel for O’Connor’s southern dialect in writing. Enoch is “eighteen year old” and “went to thisyer Rodemill Boys’ Bible Academy.” Not only does her word choice reflect the speech patterns, but the way people repeat themselves. For as little as Haze speaks in his efforts to reject religion while literally stalking a religious figure, Enoch will tell the same few facts repeatedly in that lazy southern drawl.
We have two more excerpts from Wise Blood coming up, along with O’Connor’s most famous story, taught in English classrooms the United States over: “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” There are some new-to-me stories, but “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” is another famous piece. I’m planning to journal my thoughts after each day’s story, like I’ve been doing, looking for symbols and themes to connect the stories.
- What themes stood out to you within a single story, or across the stories?
- How did you react to O’Connor’s use of racial slurs and racist characters?
- Were there any stories with which you struggled or weren’t sure what to make of?
- Did you have a favorite story or quote?
- If you haven’t read Wise Blood, what was your experience reading “The Train” and “The Peeler” like?