A Month of Flannery O’Connor: Week 4

Welcome to Week #4 of A Month of Reading Flannery O’Connor. We’re almost at the end, and I already know I have a lot to say when I wrap this adventure up in my last post. Weirdly, the stories seemed rather homogeneous this week. Do you agree? Let’s get into it!

THIS WEEK’S STORIES:

  • 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?

SOME CONTEXT:

Flannery O’Connor died August 3, 1964, meaning these are some of the last stories she wrote. The short story collection Everything that Rises Must Converge was published in 1965, after she passed. These seven stories share a common theme: writers and their work, and mothers and sons. But even deeper, we see misplaced good intentions, after which the subject receives his comeuppance and comes face to face with grace in the religious sense.

EXAMINING THE Fourth SEVEN STORIES:

“A View of the Woods” (published 1957 in Partisan Review and in the 1965 short story collection Everything that Rises Must Converge) — The grandfather who owns property can’t see the forest for the trees, selling off parcels of land to annoy his son-in-law who tends the land. The grandfather’s love for one granddaughter is well-intentioned, but it is misplaced because his love is directed at one child, not her whole family. The girl’s physical anger is almost monstrous in description, as if she were an alligator. One of O’Connor’s most violent stories, in my opinion. He faces his moment of comeuppance after he murders the girl and dies next to a machine tearing up his land.

“The Enduring Chill” (published 1958 in Harper’s Bazaar and in Everything that Rises collection in 1965) — A great story to discuss with others thanks to themes around types of intelligence (academic vs. spiritual vs. common sense), artists and temperament, mental health, love, freedom, and racism. Asbury aims his kindness at the Black farm hands, who do not want to get in trouble with their employer. To gain their faith (or is it twist their arms?) so he, a white man, can write a play about Black lives in America, he drinks unpasteurized milk and must meet grace head on when a Jesuit priest calls him spiritually ignorant. What a great punishment in this story: sickened by the milk he tried to force on others who could be fired for drinking it.

“The Comforts of Home” (published 1960 in Kenyon Review and in Everything that Rises collection in 1965) — Another grown “child” living in his mother’s home, another ungrateful character. This story is odd in that the mother wants to help a self-confessed liar who tries to force herself on the son, and in the end she neglects her son to help a stranger. But is the mother’s love misplaced this time? Her son is an adult and not in need of care. In both “The Enduring Chill” and “The Comforts of Home” we have a man who can’t stand his mother’s love. But in this story, much like “The Displaced Person,” a character decides it’s easier to get rid of those who need assistance than to assist when things feel inconvenient. His moment of grace comes when he is found by police.

“Everything that Rises Must Converge” (published 1961 in New World Writing and in Everything that Rises collection in 1965) — Another educated adult man and his mother, but this character is detached from his mother, barely considering her at all. It’s inconvenient to ride with her to her exercise class — and “inconvenient” people are a theme this week — so to shame her publicly he engages in forced conversation with the Black people riding the bus. Yes, his mother follows racist culture by patronizing a Black boy with a penny, and we know she believes everyone should rise, but “those people” should rise on their own side of a metaphorical fence. By pointing his love at people who don’t want it, the man is brought to grace when his mother suffers a stroke on the street.

“The Partridge Festival” (published in a Catholic journal, The Critic, in 1961) — Funnily, this is one of many stories that mention Margaret Mitchell and Gone With the Wind, a famous novel written by a Georgian writer whom Georgians loved. O’Connor’s biography and letters mention her hatred of being told to write another Mitchell-type novel, and be sure to include war to make it longer. A young man and woman, both snobby academics, admire a convicted murderer after he didn’t conform to festival expectations and buy a badge with the festival logo. Their admiration and praise are misdirected, and they come to their moment of grace when the murderer strips naked and humiliates these young people. I found this story clunky for the way it nearly tells you what to think about conformity, especially the part about the murderer’s stray bullet hitting the town drunk being the only bullet that went true.

“The Lame Shall Enter First” (published in 1962 in Sewanee Review and Everything that Rises collection in 1965) — Sheppard (as if he should care for a flock of sheep) is an academic whose gaze is locked on Johnson, a brilliant teen with a club foot. While Johnson eschews science and focuses on religion, Sheppard attempts to justify Johnson’s rudeness by making excuses relating to Johnson’s disability. Sheppard doesn’t want to feel betrayed when the teen doesn’t appreciate his efforts to be helpful in ways convenient to him. Much like Mrs. Jellby from Bleak House, Sheppard neglects his own son to improve someone else’s. In the end, Sheppard’s moment of grace comes when Johnson admits he’s been bad and lying, and the son hangs himself in the attic to get to his mother in the stars/heaven.

“Why Do the Heathen Rage?” (started in 1963 and published in Esquire) — The shortest story we’ve had. Apparently, this title was meant to eventually be a novel, though O’Connor never finished it. Based on research I’ve done, it sounds like there could have been more work completed than this, but four page is what we get. Flouting gender stereotypes, a young man who seems like he’s waiting for some event and can’t be bothered to do anything until it starts is approached by his mother and told to lead the farm now that his father has had a stroke. In a way, her attention is pointed at her son, and once he thwarts her, a highlighted passage in one of his books causes her to realize that Jesus is asking his followers to pick up a sword and enter a battle. Is this the call for her to lead the farm? Or to lead her lazy son to the path of grace? About two pages were devoted to bringing the father in from the ambulance, so I felt I didn’t have much to work with here.

NEXT WEEK:

May 29th-31st

  • Revelation
  • Parker’s Back
  • Judgement Day

QUESTIONS

  • What was your level of enjoyment of this week’s stories?
  • Why might O’Connor write about men and their mothers instead of women and their mothers, given that she was home bound with her own mother?
  • Did these stories seem too similar in content and theme? Or did you get something out of each?
  • Many book bloggers have completed at least one college degree. How do you feel about O’Connor’s portrayal of academics?

34 comments

  1. I’m sorry I haven’t kept up with this read along, these are really interesting stories about an interesting time. I’m currently reviewing a book written in 1998 but set in the South in the 1950s and some of the themes are so similar that I wonder if my author (Susan Choi) in her MFA programme was studying O’Connor in hers. What strikes me is that O’Connor describes these situations at the beginning of desegregation deadpan and we are left to to decipher how she feels. I read Everything that rises must converge which is about class as well as race, not to mention a mother having an arsehole for a son. There is a hint there too of the condescension which gave us Look who’s coming to dinner, when the son wishes he could bring home an educated Black man, or better, “a beautiful suspiciously Negroid
    woman”.
    O’Connor’s stories seem to be about desegregation at the coalface so to speak. She is definitely saying White people have a long way to go, but I cannot tell if she is saying desegregation was right.

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    • I think anyone who writes about the deep south pre-1960s would have to be influenced by O’Connor. If they hadn’t read her work, I would be suspicious of the quality of their own. A good writer must first be a good reader.

      You’re right about “Everything that Rises Must Converge” being about class, too. There are small indications of the class of each person on the bus and how their class might affect their feelings about race (I think?).

      Isn’t Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner the Sidney Poitier movie in which a middle class white girl brings home her Black fiance, where both their parents try to discourage them, saying their mixed-race children will be ostracized forever?

      Speaking of O’Connor’s own feelings about race, I would guess from her writing that she is an indoctrinated racist who wasn’t actively hateful, but definitely felt Black people were inferior based simply on what she saw and not on relationships with actual individuals. Likely, she read about the civil rights movement gearing up and felt times were changing. These are my guesses based on her characters, her education, and what I’ve read about her in biographies.

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      • Guess who’s coming to dinner was designed to make white people feel good about being inclusive (“we’re not like those parents”) but is really about tokenism, which is why the son’s thoughts about bringing a (respectable) Black person home to dinner reminded me of it.

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  2. One of the podcasts I like mentioned this book today! On What Should I Read Next, they were talking about the Flannery O’Connor book “with the peacock” and I could picture it because of these posts.

    It’s interesting that you comment on O’Connor being at home with her mum but writing about mothers and sons. I wonder if she was wanting to distance herself from any indication that she was writing about her own situation?

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    • That was my first guess, too — that she didn’t want her mother to know that how her male characters felt was how she felt. However, I also haven’t read anything about O’Connor’s feelings about her mother. I know she would write to her mom something like every day when she didn’t live at home. I would have to image the author felt stifled no matter what her mom did simply because O’Connor was a grown woman with little independence and never went out and established her own life/family.

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  3. I actually enjoyed this batch of stories quite a lot, probably more than any of the other weeks. I agree that there were a lot of similarities in character types and themes, but that helped me see like I was finding more of O’Connor behind the stories at last, and relating more to her stance as well (as I mentioned last week).

    I wondered if she wrote about men so often because women who wrote about women were (and are) just not taken as seriously in the literary world. Obvious self-insert characters are also often condemned. It seems like she took her writing career seriously, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she had made conscious choices in order to avoid that kind of small-minded criticism. Then again, I really don’t know much about her as a person, perhaps she was just imagining what it would be like to have a son, or to be a son instead of a daughter! It is an interesting question.

    I’ve noticed that O’Connors academic characters are often unreligious, for better or for worse, and I think that’s something that still rings true in the real world today- not that someone can’t be educated AND religious, but the two often seem to be in contention. In my college experience at least I knew a lot of people who were beginning to question the beliefs they’d been raised with or change their minds entirely around that time, based on what they were learning about history, politics, science, etc.

    Oh, and that short four-page story, Why do the Heathen Rage. I took the mother’s realization that the passage was about Jesus to mean she was wrong about her son- she thought he was concerned with ideas that were “not for this time,” but religion is for EVERY time, or so many people believe. The mother seemed like the type. If the son was preoccupied about some event that hadn’t happened yet- perhaps his death, his day of judgment- his focus was arguably more noble than her earthly concern about the farm, and she had essentially kicked him out for it! I thought she was experiencing some regret. But I like your theory that she may also be reading the passage as a sort of call for her to take up leadership of the farm, which I think would suit her well.

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    • I remember reading somewhere once that people of faith who attend college often leave college as atheists. I wish I remember where I read that, but I don’t — it’s been so long ago. Then again, when I went to Notre Dame people often grew stronger in their faith because the campus culture is designed to integrate faith with reasoning, and that the morals of a religious person should guide their choices in their careers and volunteering. Although I’m not a person of faith, I do appreciate that the business college at Notre Dame calls on their students to lead with integrity and in a way that would Jesus might lead.

      I like you’re idea about what was happening in Day of Judgment better than my own. Your idea also sounds more like on brand for O’Connor.

      I wasn’t sure that O’Connor was using sons instead of daughters due to gender. We had one week when pretty much every story was about a woman running a farm who had a best female friend who also played a strong lead. I wonder if it’s more what Lou said in another comment: perhaps O’Connor felt that she could include her own feelings about living at home but deny it because the character is male.

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      • Seeing people finish college as atheists does match my impression, though I didn’t go to a particularly religious school- it’s interesting to see that compared to a college with a heavier focus on religion! I do like that the Notre Dame business college advocates for integrity. I think there are ways to do that as well without tying morals to religion, though I do think that religion can be a good structure for moral thinking.

        Ah, I like Lou’s thought as well! I definitely had the impression that some of O’Connors feelings about living at home were coming through even the male characters, and I think the possibility of denying that at the same time because of the characters’ gender would’ve suited her. Writing has an interesting way of revealing things the author may not want to acknowledge or can’t understand in themselves, I think.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. The last cluster of my Flannery reading books were caught up in the library closure (they’re still en route. gradually arriving now) so I haven’t yet read the feather-covered biography that you’ve read. But I do have a different understanding of her than you’re gleaned from your reading of it. My main sources were the documentary that I’ve posted about and the 1979 collection of her letters.

    My “guess” about how she viewed racialized people around her is different from your “guess” and because it’s just a guess I’m not comfortable positing, other than to say that she was surrounded by people who were overtly racist and she was aware of having at least some different opinions from their opinions (she states this in some letters) and she was not always comfortable voicing her disagreement with them.

    As for her relationship with her mother, I never felt any sense of resentment or resistance there. She sometimes makes comments that suggest some of the household routines were a bit tedious or tiresome but always seemingly in a good-natured tone. Of course, she’s writing letters, perhaps polishing up the annoyances to gloss over them. But their relationship seemed devoted.

    I’m glad you’ve been enjoying your short story project. I’ll be wrapping up my Mavis Gallant story reading this summer, otherwise I might have joined in. Then again, I’m nearly Flannery-ed out.

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    • I did read that O’Connor liked racist jokes and would save them up to share with others, which is a weird concept in itself, as if she were grocery shopping for such things. I’m glad to know that she got along with her mother. In her biography by Brad Gooch, he asserts that she was a total daddy’s girl, but didn’t mind her mother. Once her father died, there wasn’t a bad relationship with her mother, just not always a warm one.

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  5. I haven’t been keeping up with the read-along as well as I should, but I thought Why Do the Heathen Rage? was an interesting read. Plenty to unpack from so few pages.

    First of all, we have the patriarch of the family is shown to be an angry man who was only affectionate in greeting the yard man, but not his children. Is it safe to assume the other is a housewife? The daughter is a schoolteacher and the son is… a letter writer? He seems to be someone intellectual, but is not conventionally productive.

    Both his mother and sister order Walter around, but his mother insists that it is time for him to step up and be in charge of things. Given the dynamic here, I think it’s safe to assume that Walter has always been ordered around, so what makes the women of the family think he will suddenly shift gears and take charge? His mother tells him the responsibility is now his (Man up!), but he says it is better to be a woman of his mother’s generation than a man of his. He speaks of her as a powerful woman. It makes me wonder why he feels marginalized.

    I have to wonder if the timeframe of this story places the children being brought up after WWII when the American family dynamic was starting to shift. Women the age of Walter’s mother may have had agency in a way that women of previous generations did not as they entered the workforce in the absence of men. Maybe this was passed down to their daughter, as she chose to be a teacher instead of a housewife. If the father had been a soldier, would it have left him a dominating force in the household? Maybe a bit cold from his experience? Neither of these things have to be true, but it seems clear that Walter does not feel like he has much in the way of authority.

    I don’t know the history of the timeframe enough, but I wonder if there was this generational space where the possibilities were steadily growing for women beyond traditional roles, but some men felt caught in the shadows of their fathers and grandfathers who were leaders and heroes in WWII. It certainly isn’t the same story, but thinking of how Vietnam loomed large in the national consciousness of the US for a long time makes me wonder.

    In the passage from the book that Walter had underlined that the mother read near the end of the story, it begins with a statement about love being full of anger, which is an interesting conflict in feelings. It reminds me of stand-up comics joking about how you never -really- have fallen in love until you’ve contemplated first degree murder. The speaker in that passage asks “What business do you have in your father’s house, O effeminate soldier?” This led me to think more about WWII and the gradual changing of gender roles that must have followed. “Where is your winter spent at the front lines?” Does Walter feel useless or aimless because he has never had the opportunity to go off and be the hero? Where is the global event that ushers in his adulthood?

    Even though social dynamics would have been changing, Walter’s mother is asking him to assume the mantle of his father, which the world may have been telling him is simply no longer how things are done – and that he wouldn’t now be qualified to take it up if that is how things had to be done. His mother tells him that she would tell him everything that should be done, and he knows she would.

    I admit I am confused about the ending, as I am simply not familiar enough with the material to appreciate whatever connotations may be there, but is still feels powerful none the less. The son of God bears a double-edged sword, and there is a call to action. Could the statement here be questioning the social shifts evident in this family? Overall, I end up with more questions than answers, but this very short story was certainly dense with things I wanted to explore.

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    • Hey Nick, I’ve been keeping up even less. Try this ‘biblical’ interpretation –
      https://www.dominicanajournal.org/why-do-the-heathen-rage/
      The parents are the heathens of the psalm and Walter is a potential mystic/prophet.

      I have my own opinions about gender roles following WWII – being a generation older than you and having grown up in those years. The 1950s and especially the 1950s of American television were the pinnacle of the idea of the man as breadwinner and stay at home wifey, a reaction I think to the increased freedom and workforce participation women enjoyed during the war (and the failure of many men to win any bread at all during the Depression). Your generation’s reaction to the Vietnam War conflates it with society’s reaction to my generation’s Second Wave Women’s Lib which itself was a natural reaction to the 1950s.

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      • Bill, I actually read that article when I was doing research for this post. I thought it was interesting that the writer sees the parents as heathens, but I get it. I think it’s also tied up in capitalism; the son isn’t doing anything to contribute financially, but he is part of the family support system. Without making money in an economy that is racing toward modern homes and appliances, car and property ownership, he seems worthless. But we see Christ doing works of good and kindness in texts, suggesting he wasn’t working for money or greed, but compassion and community building.

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      • That was an interesting read, thanks for the link. I need to double check to ensure I am spelling Psalm correctly, if that gives you any indication as to my own heathen status.

        Even if it weren’t framed in the shadow of WWII, I am still drawn in by this mismatch between the apparent reality of this family and the expectations of the mother. The way she is dismissive of his reading reminds me of the anti-intellectual mindset you see in your garden variety Fox News viewer. I wish I had studied my history more closely, as the most apt analysis that I feel well prepared to give is that this family doesn’t seem to jive with what Leave it to Beaver assures me is a perfect portrait of the 1950’s. The rest is guesswork.

        Another bit that stuck out to me was the mismatch in racial terminology in conversation vs the mother’s inner monologue.

        Did I read that right that he had a long ride home in an ambulance? That detail alone had me thinking. I feel guilty taking an Uber to the airport let alone dragging an ambulance two hours away.

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    • We know that this was the start of a novel that O’Connor never finished because she died as a result of lupus. I hadn’t even thought about WWII being an event that ushers in the manhood of soldiers the world over. You’re right; at the time women were taking on more “masculine” roles to fill in for absent soldiers, and I hadn’t even considered that. O’Connor alludes to the Holocaust in a couple of her stories, but it’s almost like she can’t face it head on, as if a world war didn’t affect the average Georgian the way it did others, and her characters even imply that the Holocaust wasn’t that bad, especially in that story “The Displaced Person.” Do you think there was an event for our generation that same ushering-of-manhood moment?

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      • I don’t think we can parallel WWII for something like that specifically, but I am sure we have seen similarly universal social experiences. The pandemic is an obvious one, but the great recession might be a more interesting comparison. We had a whole generation unable to leave the nest leading to the opposite – the delay of traditional adulthood for an entire generation.

        Imagine Walter during this time being a college student who graduated just in time for the jobs to vanish. He is intelligent but useless. How many people might have been pressured to take on a family business even if that weren’t their original plan simply because there was no alternative?

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        • I read an article about capitalism yesterday that discussed how doing nothing is only considered useless in capitalist societies. Otherwise, people (in theory) work collectively doing what they are able to contribute to a peaceful, holistic community. The idea of wasted intelligence or useless intelligence is very tied up in the inability to make money to churn the economy.

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  6. I love that you end each post these posts with discussion questions. It really makes me wish I had the mindset to follow along!! But you knew that. I am intrigued by your own perspective on men and their mothers, rather than women and their mothers. Why do you believe O’Connor focused in this direction?

    I am quite intrigued by the mystery of Why Do The Heathen Rage?. Perhaps we have a long-lost O’Connor story somewhere?! That would be magical fun. Your description sounds like this was an incomplete snippet of work. Why do you believe this was published in Esquire? And I learned something new from this — I had no idea Esquire ever published short stories!

    (In totally other news, your stats probably look super weird if you ever look at them… I keep accidentally clicking on the “Following” button because it’s so close to “Post Comment”, so over the last few months, I’ve unfollowed and followed your blog like half a dozen times. My bad. XD I blame WP’s usability!)

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    • I wondered if O’Connor kept using mothers as the leaders of farms after divorce or being widowed because her own mother ran a farm as a widow. I wondered if the sons were modeled on people O’Conner knew or even herself, but she was trying to not be obviously antagonistic about her mother.

      I believe “Why Do the Heathen Rage?” was only four pages because that’s all she wrote….but I some sources implied there was more? I don’t know anything about Esquire or the types of stories they published at the time, but I do know that a lot of magazines used to publish fiction to great reception. The fact that magazines are about 70% ads suggests to me that Americans ARE dumbing down. They used to be interested in following series that were published each week in newspapers. Playboy used to be one of the most prestigious magazines for a young writer to be accepted in. I’ve sent a story to them myself. I remember one of my peers in the MFA program came in second place in the Playboy College Writing contest!

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      • Wow! I will admit, I don’t know much about the history of serial fiction beyond Sherlock Holmes, but this makes sense to me. Though, I don’t know if I agree that Americans are dumbing down. I just think they are seeking entertainment in other formats. Thanks to the internet, we read so SO MUCH more than previous generations. I think this is the reason for the rise of the Podcast. People are exhausted reading all the time. Listening to something stimulating (or watching) is much easier on us after reading all day.

        But I’m also an optimist. 🙂

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        • I think podcasts are making us smarter. The people making the popular ones are intelligent, thoughtful individuals. I read an article recently about how even Jeopardy! categories are dumbing down. They used to be topics like chemistry, Russian ballet, the 11th century. Now they lean more toward sitcoms, pop music, and colors.

          I know people are reading and writing more now than ever, but the content with which they engage isn’t necessarily heightening their intelligence, just their access to information. In composition we teach about the switch from deep reading to shallow reading. Yes, people read more thanks to the internet, but they’re shallow reading, and oftentimes in an “F” pattern.

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          • I am unfamiliar with an “F” pattern of reading. Tell me more.

            I am picking up what you’re putting down. Thomas Jefferson’s library is almost exclusively non-fiction on history, philosophy, language, biology, geology, etc. etc. etc. We don’t hold people to the same knowledge expectation as we did the leaders of the past. Did this change due to the rise of the Internet and suddenly being able to find any piece of information at the drop of a hat? Was it before then?

            I don’t like the idea of the world getting dumber. But was the Russian Ballet the pop music of the 1950s? I’d love to read some research done on this. Why are we changing? Are we getting less intellectual or just allocating our brain energies elsewhere?

            …any idea how I could find this sort of research? My Google searches came up woefully empty.

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            • A big part of the problem is the internet has all the information, and we’re great at finding the information, but we don’t know what to do with it once we have it other than glean a fact or two, typically out of context, and think we learned something. The “F” pattern of internet reading is when someone opens an article online and reads all the lines from left to right, all the way across. Slowly, their eyes stop going all the way to right, jumping down to the next line. Then,they typically do not finish the article. What you get is a weird “F” shape in reading.

              I think the emphasis on education as a means to get a specific job is part of the problem. Without a solid liberal arts background, students aren’t learning how to learn. When the job they get changes or becomes obsolete, the people who learned to do one job are now jobless with no prospects. There’s also the emphasis on test in schools rather than true learning, which you know all about.

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              • Huh. I am definitely guilty of F-shaped reading. But when I do that, it’s because I’m actually no longer interested in the article but I haven’t realized it yet. Usually I figure it out before I get to the end. XD I like that this has a name!

                Exactly! People not knowing what to do with the information they gather is an education problem; we aren’t teaching people to critically think, problem solve, or apply themselves. It’s embarassing. Something I’m constantly teaching to adults. Stop jumping to conclusions and apply yourself, people!
                Ugh. I could soapbox about the collapse of the American education system all day. Standardized tests and teaching to a specific job and expecting to be handed things and… sigh. Amen, Sister.

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