Welcome to Week #3 of A Month of Reading Flannery O’Connor. I can see how this writer is developing from a novice in the creative writing program to a woman with a rigorous writing schedule living on her mother’s farm in Georgia. The shift: the people are more vivid, her intentions are more nuanced, and her characters’ motivations are more thought-provoking.
THIS WEEK’S STORIES:
- A Circle in the Fire
- The Displaced Person
- A Temple of the Holy Ghost
- The Artificial Nigger
- Good Country People
- You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead
Most of these stories were published in the short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955), same as last week. We do get into some of the stories from O’Connor’s second collection, Everything that Rises Must Converge (1965). The second short story collection came out after her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away (1960), was published. Long before I started Grab the Lapels I read O’Connor’s second novel and was intrigued by the characters; I got to meet them again in one of this week’s stories.
Another bit of context that potentially makes a big difference: beginning in 1950, the author was diagnosed with lupus, and though she occasionally traveled to give lectures, she was largely home-bound in Milledgeville, Georgia, on a farm called Andalusia with her mother and hired help, people about which her mother frequently talked/complained.
In addition, O’Connor’s good friends Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, with whom she lived in New York for two years, kept having children. In letters addressed to the Fitzgerald couple, O’Connor frequently marveled at how many offspring one pair could produce and referred to the youth not coldly, but not as fondly as you might expect (in her letters, I don’t recall seeing the children named, nor praised individually. It was more like, “Wow, you had another one?”).
EXAMINING THE third SEVEN STORIES:
“A Circle in the Fire” ( published 1954 in Kenyon Review and 1955 in A Good Man collection) is one of those stories that raise my blood pressure. I have a strong sense of right and wrong, even if I’m being inflexible. When children do not see adults as authority, it stirs a deep fear in me, and I want the offenders corrected immediately. Mrs. Cope, a woman who cannot, well, cope, believes there is always something to be thankful for. I’m guessing God sent those three heathen boys to test her faith. “A Circle in the Fire” struck me as a great study during a pandemic: people compare the ways in which they suffer due to COVID-19, but someone will always outdo them. Bored? At least your not hungry. Hungry? At least you have your house. Homeless? At least you don’t have COVID-19. Have COVID-19 and recovered? At least you aren’t dead. Mrs. Pritchard seems to understand that comparing suffering is worthless because denying a person’s ills denies them their humanity. Thus, when Mrs. Cope is tortured by the terrible trio, Mrs. Pritchard doesn’t care; the farm isn’t hers, so it’s not personal to her, but her rotting teeth are.
“The Displaced Person” (published 1954 in Sewanee Review and 1955 in A Good Man collection) also emphasizes being grateful. O’Connor acknowledges the Holocaust in this story (and the previous), but Mrs. McIntre doesn’t seem to grasp what the camps in Europe are. Mrs. Shortley has seen the same famous images of mass graves of emaciated bodies that we have today. There’s a trend this week of examining women who own farms and struggle to keep the help. Both dialogue and characterization are improved in this story from previous weeks. There’s also a shift to narrators using the word “Negro” while characters still use the more offensive racial slur, suggesting O’Connor was changing her mind a bit about race, though her characters are ignorant. Yet, Mrs. McIntyre acknowledges both black and white farm hands can be greedy. In a test of faith, the displaced person in this story may be Jesus in disguise to test Christians, or the sent from the devil. I appreciate the way this story is still relevant when thinking about how we “other” and then distrust people unlike ourselves because it is more convenient.
“A Temple of the Holy Ghost” (published 1954 in Harper’s Bazaar and 1955 in A Good Man collection) is when I realized we’ve shifted to examining children, typically around twelve, as outsiders. This story makes a joke of two airheads laughing that their Catholic school teachers reminded them that their bodies are temples for God, so treat them as such. Yet when the circus “freak” who is both male and female says they are born how God made them, it is religious leaders who protest the circus. A brief story of hypocrisy made me wonder how liberal-minded O’Connor was about differences in bodies.
“The Artificial Nigger” (1955 in Kenyon Review and 1955 in A Good Man collection) is such a poorly named story, in my opinion, because it draws attention to itself for the crass name, yet the story doesn’t earn that name. It isn’t until we see the minstrel statue, popular in the southern states at the time, that the title makes sense. Instead, we follow a grandfather with admirable attributes listed in the beginning of the story, including caring for a grandson after his daughter died. But he can’t see his own sins, including denying he knows his grandson when confronted by police. The story shifts, with the grandfather being described as childlike and the boy as ancient. Throughout the trip to the city, I felt I was reading Dante’s Inferno, and the deeper into the city, especially the black neighborhoods, the closer to Hell the old man felt. Why does the boy acknowledge at the end that he’s only been to the city once, when before he claimed it was twice (he was told he was born there but he wasn’t)? I wondered if being born in the city (Hell) is symbolic of being born in sin. And what is the significance of that statue?
“Good Country People” (published 1955 in Harper’s Bazaar and 1955 in A Good Man collection) is another famous Flannery O’Connor story because people just hadn’t read about someone stealing a wooden leg before. Here, the “child” of the story is a 32-year-old woman with a PhD in philosophy who doesn’t leave her house because she’s told she has a weak heart. I connected this to O’Connor staying with her own mother, perhaps feeling like a child, because she had lupus and her bones began to soften, causing her to walk with crutches. The story focuses on “nothing” — scientists want to know nothing about nothing. Joy/Hulga believes in nothing (faith-wise). The Bible salesman suggests he’s smarter than she because he was born believing in nothing, meaning he was years ahead of her discovery. The Freeman daughters are a foil for Joy/Hulga, because they date and have relationships whereas our main character wears stained clothes, changes her name to make it ugly, and has never been kissed. When the salesman says her leg is special, Hulga is seen for the first time, making her trust. Does she want to be unique, known for her differences and not the similarities to other girls, causing her to deny any beauty? And what does it mean that he collections artificial body parts from women?
“You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead” (published in 1955 in New World Writing and then as a chapter in the novel The Violent Bear it Away) is the first chapter of O’Connor’s second novel, meaning it has better context than some of the excerpts from Wise Blood. The opening sentence captures the type of writing I associate with O’Connor:
Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.
Here, we get decency, faith, some dark humor, and that head-shaking last bit if imagery. What a wild first chapter: an old man living a mile from any foot path off of any road kidnaps a boy after he feels betrayed when he stays with his liberal schoolteacher nephew for three months and discovers the nephew was studying him and wrote about it. Rayber, the nephew, is possibly the same liberal teacher from “The Barber.” Again, we get a debate about religion vs. secularism. Do we owe the Christian dead their wishes? Without a cross, the old man believes he won’t be found on Judgement Day. But a ten-feet deep hole is a physical challenge, and the modern trend of cremation would be easier. The child splits into two people, the person he knew with the old man and a “stranger,” a side of himself he’s not met before, pointing out what is now obvious to him: he’s likely been used. During his ride to town with a salesman, he’s told people only matter when they’re alive, and thank God when they’re dead because it’s one less person to keep track of. This is a novel I may need to re-read.
“Greenleaf” (published 1956 in Kenyon Review and 1965 her collection Everything that Rises Must Converge) is about more no-account hired farm hands! There are a few surprises: Mrs. May is Christian but “of course” she doesn’t believe any of it. How do we interpret this knowing what we do about O’Connor’s profound Catholic faith? Is she pointing out those who profess their faith but do not act on it? Secondly, I was surprised that no other character feels that Mrs. May is wronged by a bull destroying her property and interfering in costly ways with her farm. Breeding schedules are important because time, special preparation, and even a vet may be needed during birthing season. The bull will mess this up. Even the “children” (again, people in their 30s) are against Mrs. May. Have her sons decided not to inherit the farm she’s clearly maintaining to leave to them, but haven’t told her? They continue to live there anyway. Wesley menacingly says, “I wouldn’t milk a cow to save your soul from hell.” Yikes! I see a woman who feels her sons should be grateful, but they don’t agree. Then again, where does this animosity come from? Do the other characters “see” Mrs. May’s false beliefs and abandon her for it? On the surface, I wanted justice for this woman who was being menaced, but I’m sure O’Connor’s telling me something else when that bull gores the old lady.
- A View of the Woods
- The Enduring Chill
- The Comforts of Home
- Everything That Rises Must Converge
- The Partridge Festival
- The Lame Shall Enter First
- Why Do the Heathen Rage?
My main question is if anyone else noticed the presence of a child, either literal or adult but referred to as “child,” that seems wiser than the adults? If O’Connor was somewhat dismissive of her friends’ children, why might she give her fictional children more wisdom and agency?
Also, do you feel O’Connor’s stories are too violent? When asked about her tendency to kill off her creations, O’Connor said that violence “is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.”