Lessons in Cynicism and Faith: Flannery O’Connor’s Short Fiction

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor

So, about Miss Flannery O’Connor. Born in 1925 in Georgia, she suffered with lupus for a long time and finally succumbed to it at age 39. She wrote novels as well as short stories and essays. Thanks to the USM library, I’ve been reading The Complete Stories for the last week or so. It’s a big book. Interesting. And depressing.

I wasn’t quite sure how to approach this blog post, how to talk about these stories. They are well-written, but they are also at times brutal. Take “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” for example. It starts out as a harmless enough description of a family trip, complete with mother and baby in the passenger seat and a bickering grandmother and arguing kids in the back seat. And a hidden cat. When it escapes and digs its claws into the father, who is driving, the cat finally causes them to have an accident. The car goes off the (dirt)road in the middle of nowhere. Nobody is seriously hurt. This could have been the story — lots of interesting social commentary, realistic descriptions and language, — but the story does not end here.

Another car appears, stops, several men get out. When they climb down to the family, the grandmother is the one who recognizes one of the men as a dangerous criminal who has committed several gruesome murders. She tries to placate him, to reason with him, to explain away his guilt, while he has first the father and the boy, and then the mother, baby and daughter, executed in the woods. Finally, he shoots her in the chest, three times. End of story. Not what I expected, though I’m not sure what I did expect.

(graffiti stencil of Flannery O'Connor)

(graffiti stencil of Flannery O’Connor)

So I’ve decided to talk in a little detail about one of the last stories in the book, “Revelation.” It’s not as violent, but still contains many of the predominant themes I’ve noticed in O’Connor’s short fiction, such as (personal) faith, social class, and race. The setting: a doctor’s waiting room. Mr and Mrs Turpin, who own a small plantation-slash-farm, arrive to a full waiting room. We get to eavesdrop on Mrs Turpin’s thoughts as she looks at and categorizes every person in the room, from the snot-nosed, half zonked-out little boy in the dirty romper to the pleasant and fashionable lady with whom she finally strikes up a conversation.

Sometimes Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people. On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she would have been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them — not above, just away from — were the white-trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged. Above she and Claud were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land (491).

Mrs Turpin’s world view defines people by class, and defines class by land ownership and house ownership. She knows, clearly, that these criteria do not put all the “desirable” people in the “desirable” categories because it’s not as simple as that, and so she makes some allowance for behavior and good breeding.

She is also — in her own way — quite religious, and believes that what class you’re in is decided by God. She makes up a hypothetical situation, in her mind, where Jesus makes her choose to be “either a nigger or white-trash” (491). In the scenario, she would have chosen to be black, and “he would have made her a neat clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black.” While in the waiting-room, however, she notices the pleasant fashionable woman’s daughter whose face is covered in acne, she adds another group to the least desirable classes: the ugly. And she has another mental conversation with herself about what she would do if Jesus added “ugly” to the types of person she could be. In the end, she feels good about herself; she is sure that no riches or beauty could tempt her if she couldn’t also be a good person at the same time.

Her heart rose. He had not made her a nigger or white-trash or ugly! He had made her herself and given her a little of everything. Jesus, thank you! she said. Thank you thank you thank you! (497)

It is this particular, self-centered, almost Pharisaic gratitude, in a way, that brings the “revelation” the title of the story promises, because she gets a little carried away in the waiting room:

“If it’s one thing I am,” Mrs. Turpin said with feeling, “it’s grateful. When I think of who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’ It could have been different!” […] a terrible pang of joy ran through her. “Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!” she cried aloud. The book struck her directly over her left eye. […the girl’s] raw face came crashing across the table toward her, howling. The girl’s fingers sank like clamps into the soft flesh of her neck (499).

The girl attacks her, tries to strangle her, but is restrained and sedated before she can do any real damage. Then, the girl gets hauled off to a mental institution (presumably). But before she gets taken away, when addressed by Mrs Turpin, she utters her first words to the woman she just attacked: “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”

warthog-flames

The Wart Hog from Hell (or something)

Now, seeing that she just angrily attacked Mrs Turpin, calling her names does not seem a surprising course of action. Mrs Turpin, however, takes these words very seriously, because “There was no doubt in her mind that the girl did know her, knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition.” In plain English: The girl’s action and words are not just the aberrant behavior of a teenager, but a message from spiritual realms. And Mrs Turpin decides they are a message from God.

She doesn’t mention her shock or her confusion to her husband, but she does mention to the cotton picking women what the girl said. Then, when the black women express outrage and reassure her she is a good, kind, lovely woman (and not a wart hog from hell), she gets angry at herself for even telling them. In the end, this is between her and God. When her husband leaves to drive the workers back to their homes, she takes the matter up with God himself.

“Go on,” she yelled, “call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a ward hog from hell. Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and a bottom!” […] A final surge of fury shook her and she roared, “Who do you think you are?” The color of everything, field and crimson sky, burned for a moment with a transparent intensity. (507)

The revelation first frightens, then confuses and angers her. Finally, she has a vision. In the last light of the setting sun she sees “whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs” (508) moving upwards to heaven.

“And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. […] They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for their good order and common sense and respectable behavior. […] she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

altered from Clyde Broadway's "Trinity"

(altered from Clyde Broadway’s “Trinity”)

The idea that the class system as she understands it may not be upheld in heaven shocks her. I think that she illustrates a dilemma many believers face sooner or later. We are so used to having a number of social strata, we are so used to not being equal, that the idea of someone getting the same (pay, salvation, love, kindness, forgiveness, tax cuts, you name it) we do despite not working as hard for it (as far as we can tell) seems unjust to us. Kind of like the parable of the two workers in the vineyard (the link will take you to Wikipedia, where both the Christian and the Islamic version of the parable are reproduced). We either act as if God is our employer (and it would be unfair to give other workers the same pay for fewer hours of work, fewer sick people visited, fewer coins given to beggars, or fewer scriptures memorized) or someone we love, such as a parent (trust is one of the key elements in a healthy relationship.) Mrs Turpin has clearly been acting, at least until her epiphany, as if God was her employer.

The story ends when her vision fades. The sounds of the crickets sound, to her, like the souls shouting hallelujah. They are not looking down on her, or each other. They’re too joyful to notice anything much. (I love the image of the frogs!) While O’Connor does not tell us what happens next, that’s not important to the story. The girl’s physical attack, as well as her insults, serve to force the good woman out of her complacency. Whether or not the event “really” was a message from God is, in my view, also secondary. I think what is important in this story is the challenge to Mrs Turpin’s faith and her reaction to it.

While I have to say that I found some of the stories rather draining to read (I’m not a big fan of depressing or violent stories), from what I have read I believe that Flannery O’Connor was an acute observer of the internal life of people. Some of the less depressing stories are “The Barber,” “Enoch and the Gorilla” and “The Artificial Nigger.” I also really enjoyed “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” (that one IS depressing. In a way.)

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About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

3 comments

  1. That grandma–isn’t she supposed to be having an epiphany? Sees the helpless baby in the misfit’s heartless face. Reaches out to touch him. He doesn’t want to be touched; the last thing he wants is to be reminded of his humanity. (Lord Voldemort doesn’t want to experience remorse and heal himself in Harry Potter either) . . . the misfit shoots her because she’s forced him to feel (love, loneliness, regret?) for a nanosecond when he was numb.
    O’Connor went nuts when people wondered if the Misfit was Jesus. She wanted a Catholic notion of grace in there waking up the grandma, if not her nemesis, the misfit.

    • You are of course right! 🙂 There is a lot going on in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in terms of faith. I thought their exchange about whether or not Jesus raised the dead was very interesting. She seems to doubt (“Maybe He didn’t raise the dead”) and nearly faints. Then the Misfit says “I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t […] I wish I had of been there […] if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” And then his voice “seems about to crack.” What pushes him over the edge, I think, is when she responds to him as she would do a child. She actually touches him before he can pull back, and he reacts “as if a snake had bitten him.” Some more nice biblical imagery there. I think they are both having a ‘revelation’ moment there.
      Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Pingback: Hush Hush, by Steven Barthelme | Outside of a Cat

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