Beyond the Region of Thunder: Flannery O'Connor's Last Days

Fifty summers ago, Flannery O'Connor was thirty-nine years old. She had battled lupus for most of her adult life, managing the disease with massive doses of corticosteroids, which themselves had serious side effects. As she wrote to a friend, "So far as I can tell, the medicine and the disease run neck & neck to kill you." In the spring of 1954, a major surgery reactivated O'Connor's dormant lupus; the tell-tale "lupus rash" broke through the protective steroid barrier, signaling that the disease was back in earnest. O'Connor spent a month in Atlanta's Piedmont Hospital--from May 21 to June 20.

A prodigious letter-writer, O'Connor kept up her correspondence from her hospital bed. Through her many hospital stays, she almost always kept up her letter-writing. But she tended to put off fiction-writing until she could get back to her typewriter. The fact that she wrote much of "Parker's Back" in Piedmont Hospital, in longhand, suggests a sense of urgency that was unusual for this most deliberate writer. 

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The Origins of The Charlatan's Boy

The other day my sister, a teacher, was trying to help a student fill out some form or other. The form asked for Date of Birth. The girl knew her birthday, but the idea of a birth date, a specific day of a specific year, had her baffled. "The day you were born," my sister said, a little exasperated, "what year was that?" The little girl was exasperated herself. She gave my sister a squint and, teeth clenched, said, "A little baby don't know what year it is."

When I sat down to write The Charlatan's Boy, the first sentence I wrote turned out to be the first sentence of the finished product: "I don't remember one thing about the day I was born." Grady, the narrator, is grappling with the same epistemological dilemma that was troubling my sister's student. Anything you think you know about your birth, your origins, is something you got second-hand. Somebody has to tell you where you came from and how you got here. Grady's troubles stem from the fact that the one person he knows who might be able to tell him anything about his origins is a liar and a fraud.

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Discussion Question: The End of the Carnival

What do you make of the fact that the local preachers band together to shut down the carnival at the end of "A Temple of the Holy Ghost"? It seems clear that the freak show (or, in any case, a second-hand account of the freak show) brings our young protagonist closer to a place where she is ready for the Eucharist to do its work on her. That being the case, there is a certain irony in the preachers shutting the thing down. On the other hand, if part of the preachers' job is to raise the moral tone of a community, you can hardly blame them for taking a stand against freak shows in general and the hermaphrodite's unseemly exhibit in particular. I'll just throw this little tidbit out there as a discussion starter: In one of her letters, Flannery O'Connor wrote, "I think most people come to the Church by means the Church does not allow, else there would be no need their getting to her at all." I suspect that quotation has some bearing on this question. (Forgive me for wrenching that quotation entirely out of context; you can find it on p. 93 of Habit of Being if you prefer your quotations in context).

The Misfit's Hat, Mr. Shiftlet's Car, and Symbolism in O'Connor's Fiction

Earlier this week, Madeleine asked the following question:

Did FO write these stories with all sorts of symbols and hidden meanings like a rich treasure hunt waiting for persistent readers, or was she writing good stories with some meat to chew on? I'm just wondering if I should be thinking every detail is important to extra meaning or just a detail important to setting a mood or a backdrop for her story. (And yes, the answer can be both, but some writers lean more one way or the other.)

That's a tricky question, and one that gets at the very heart of what we're doing in the Flannery O'Connor Summer Reading Club. Madeleine is asking, in effect, "How do we get from the concrete details of the story to the meaning of the story?" If there's a more fundamental (or important) question a reader can ask, I don't know what it is.

The last thing I would want to do would be to dissect O'Connor's stories (or anybody's stories) in such a way that they are drained of the pleasure that is to be had in them. If I had to choose between enjoying a story and understanding it, I would choose to enjoy it every time. However, I'm convinced that, when it comes to reading, enjoyment is one of the surest paths toward understanding. So was Flannery O'Connor. She wrote:

In most English classes the short story has become a kind of literary specimen to be dissected. Every time a story of mine appears in a Freshman anthology, I have a vision of it, with its little organs laid open, like a frog in a bottle.

I realize that a certain amount of this what-is-the-significance has to go on, but I think something has gone wrong in the process when, for so many students, the story becomes simply a problem to be solved, something which you evaporate to get Instant Enlightenment.

A story isn't really any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind. Properly, you analyze to enjoy, but it's equally true that to analyze with any discrimination, you have to have enjoyed already, and I think that the best reason to hear a story read is that it should stimulate that primary enjoyment. (Mystery and Manners p. 108)

So then, whatever we do with the concrete details of O'Connor's stories, let us not turn our reading into an exercise in dissection. O'Connor told a story about a run-in with an English teacher: "'Miss O'Connor,' he said, 'why was the Misfit's hat black?' I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats.' He looked pretty disappointed." There is symbolism in O'Connor, but I don't think symbol-hunting is especially helpful as an initial approach to a story. A good fiction writer uses concrete details to create a world that the reader can believe and inhabit. If those concrete details can also serve as symbols, all the better.*

There is a kind of symbol that is more or less arbitrary. We all agree that a wedding ring is a symbol of marriage. But it's a symbol only because we choose to agree it's a symbol; I've heard the preacher say the thing about the ring having no beginning and no end, etc. etc., but if somebody hadn't told me that a gold band was a symbol of holy matrimony, I wouldn't have guessed it in a hundred years. Consider, on the other hand, the car in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." It's a symbol too, but a very different kind of symbol than the wedding ring. It symbolizes freedom, independence, a sense of being unmoored, for better or for worse. And anybody who has ever turned sixteen understands that without needing any explanation. When Mr. Shiftlet's yearns after the Craters' car, there is symbolism at work, but it's not a secret code by any means. Or consider Mr. Shiftlet's missing arm; it's an outward expression of an inward incompleteness and brokenness; it's a symbol. But it's a "natural" symbol--something that any reader is equipped to pick up on if he or she is paying attention.

So when Madeleine asks if O'Connor included "symbols and hidden meanings" in her stories, I would have to say that there are plenty of symbols, but I don't think there are all that many hidden meanings. In the comments on the previous post, there was some discussion about what peacocks represent in traditional symbology. I don't mean to suggest that those discussions are irrelevant or uninteresting, but they are secondary to what O'Connor offers right there in the plain text:

The priest let his eyes wander toward the birds. They had reached the middle of the lawn. The cock stopped suddenly and curving his neck backwards, he raised his tail and spread it with a shimmering timbrous noise. Tiers of small pregnant suns floated in a green-gold haze over his head. The priest stood transfixed, his jaw slack. Mrs. McIntyre wondered where she had ever seen such an idiotic old man. "Christ will come like that," he said in a loud gay voice and wiped his hand over his mouth and stood there, gaping.

The peacock symbolizes glory because anybody who has ever seen a peacock knows that it is glorious.

Or to return to the Misfit's black hat, there is a long tradition in American storytelling whereby black hats represent bad men. Okay, but of all the ways O'Connor shows us that the Misfit is a bad man, surely that is one of the least interesting and least compelling. An English teacher stands in front of Flannery O'Connor herself, and that's what he wants to talk about? A serial killer wearing the kind of hat that old boys in Georgia wore in the 1950s--I'm more interested in that detail as a piece of world-building than as a symbol of evil. And, as Madeleine has observed already, it can be both.

I want to conclude with one more observation that is not directly related to Madeleine's question but is relevant to the larger project of the Flannery O'Connor Summer Reading Club. I have written at some length about the fact that there is typically a moment of revelation (which is also a moment of violence) in an O'Connor story, and that in that moment, a main character has an opportunity to receive grace. I still think that's one helpful way into a story. But I don't want to give the impression that I have given you the formula for reading and understanding all of O'Connor's work. These stories are complex--and none of her short stories are more complex than "The Displaced Person." The "moment of revelation" is just one tool on the reader's tool belt. Keep pulling out your other tools.

 

*An allegory works the other way around, by the way; any concrete detail is there to symbolize some abstraction, and if it helps to create an inhabitable world, that's ok too. I have to say, however, that I don't really know of any allegories that depict an inhabitable world. That's why I'm not very interested in allegory--not even Pilgrim's Progress. (I realize I'm not supposed to say that out loud.)

Flannery O'Connor on Freelance Protestantism

I hope you have had a chance to read through the discussion on "The River" over the last couple of days. It has been extremely insightful and lively--and also courteous, I might add. One thing that has become evident is that a reader's interpretation of the story's end hinges on how that reader understands the baptism--big Bevel baptizing little Bevel. If that is a true baptism, then Harry/Bevel's being pulled down by the river at the end is a rescue from the clutches of Mr. Paradise. If it is a false baptism, then the boy's drowning is a terrible sadness, and Mr. Paradise is a benefactor who tried and failed to save him. Those aren't the only two possible readings, but they do represent two poles of interpretation. Given the fact that O'Connor was both Catholic and highly educated, it would seem that she would have little sympathy for the countrified Protestants in her stories. In fact, her stance toward them was complex. I offer up these quotations from O'Connor's letters as a catalyst for further discussion...

On Wise Blood's Haze Motes:

Haze is saved by virtue of having wise blood; it's too wise for him ultimately to deny Christ. Wise blood has to be these people's means of grace--they have no sacraments.The religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion, something which I as a Catholic find painful and touching and grimly comic. It's full of unconscious pride that lands them in all sorts of ridiculous religious predicaments. They have nothing to correct their practical heresies and so they work them out dramatically. If this were merely comic to me, it would be no good, but I accept the same fundamental doctrines of sin and redemption and judgment that they do. (Habit of Being, p. 350)

 

To a Protestant correspondent:

The Catholic finds it easier to understand the atheist than the Protestant, but easier to love the Protestant than the atheist. The fact is though now that the fundamentalist Protestants, as far as doctrine goes, are closer to their traditional enemy, the Church of Rome, than they are to the advanced elements in Protestantism. ... It's the Catholic Church who calls you "separated brethren," she who feels the awful loss. (Habit of Being, p. 341)

 

To a friend who said she couldn't quite believe Christianity because it wasn't emotionally satisfying:

I can never agree with you that the Incarnation, or any truth, has to satisfy emotionally to be right. ... There are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive.... The thought of everybody lolling about in an emotionally satisfying faith is repugnant to me. I believe that we are ultimately directed Godward but that this journey is often impeded by emotion. (Habit of Being, pp. 99-100)

In Which Rebecca Reynolds Ties Up Some Loose Ends

Today concludes our discussion of "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." A comment yesterday from Rebecca Reynolds touches on the one character we haven't really discussed yet: Lucynell the Younger. It was too insightful to leave in the comment thread. Enjoy...and if you are moved to read more from Rebecca, check out her excellent blog, Little Boots Liturgies.

I saw three dimensions to this story. Pragmatic (the old woman), philosophical (Mr. Shiftlet), and the "is-ness" of true spirituality (Lucynell). Lucynell shows several signs of otherworldliness. She is piercingly colorful against the dirty grey of the rest of the story. She has eyes the blue of a peacock’s neck and hair of pink gold. She is ageless. Her hands are useless. When Mr. Shiftlet toys with flame, she scolds him. (Powerful image I won't explore here.) Lucynell is also a fool, making those awkward errors a person makes when he/she does not make transactions in the consciousness of the common. She has not the ability to hear the world, and no voice to speak into it. She is in the world but not of it. She has no use for philosophy or pragmatism. As is fitting, she is the fool of the story. (When receptors beyond philosophy or pragmatics have atrophied, anyone who doesn't communicate on those terms is considered a fool.) The single word she mimics (“bird”) is an often-used symbol for the realm of the spirit, yet she is not even wordly enough to connect verbalization to a physical bird or philosophical symbol. She simply is.

The older I get, the more I realize I have missed “IS-ness.” We busy ourselves with ruminations, and regurgitations, and plans to do things. Yet there is something altogether different to the simple act of being. Spiritually, in particular.

Lucynell raises the same questions of multi-dimensionality that persons of innocence often stir inside me. Perhaps I am projecting because I am an idealist, but I can never shake the feeling that folks with such gifts point to an untapped realm that I am too busy, too educated, and too responsible to hear.

In light of all this, I adore Jonathan’s comments about Mr. Shiftlet’s attempts to be his own savior. The old woman does likewise. Each person is his or her own "Jesus." The only person in this story unwilling to save herself (including the boy, which is why I see him an accidental prophet, not an angel) is Lucynell.

The life you save may be your own? What irony. As if saving ourselves were the goal. What if Lucynell, sleeping fool on the diner counter, is the story victor instead of the victim?

Right on.

On Monday,we start "The River," in which a little boy gets run over by some hogs--and that's the least of his problems.

 

"A Angel of Gawd"-- "The Life You Save," Day 2

We had some great discussion yesterday about the last act of "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." I had planned to write today about that portion of the story; yesterday's comments provide an excellent way to start. You can go back and read the back-and-forth, which was very insightful. Meanwhile, I'll start with Chris's first comment in the thread:

One thing you didn't mention, and I am still a bit mystified over, is the presence of the boy/hitchhiker and how Mr. Shiftlet, seemingly out of nowhere, opens up to him about his mother, and then receives that stinging insult. The boy seems more symbol than real. He's in and out, almost like a deus ex machina. I also found this line interesting: "A cloud, the exact color of the boy's hat and shaped like a turnip, had descended over the sky..." Again, more symbol than real?

I'm not sure I would use the word "symbol" to describe the boy, though he's certainly not a full-fledged character. Chris makes an important point when he notes that the looming thunderhead (clearly a symbol of divine judgment) is the color of the boy's hat. That detail draws a clear connection between the boy and the judgment of God and suggests, it seems to me, that the boy somehow speaks for God in the way that, say, the textbook-flinging girl in "Revelation" speaks for God when she passes judgment on Ruby Turpin. The boy appears and disappears the way that angels so often do in stories. Chris has suggested that the boy's sudden appearance and lack of context might mean he's a symbol--a perfectly reasonable assessment. I'm suggesting that it could also mean he's an angel, bringing a message from God. If you're bothered by the idea of an angel referring to two mothers as a "fleabag" and a "stinking polecat," well, so am I.

But consider this possibility: Mr. Shiftlet's deepest problem is that he thinks he is his own Jesus. Look at this description of the man as he stands before the sunset: "He swung both his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross." A crooked cross? That kind of imagery isn't accidental. Later, when he has gotten the car running, "He had an expression of serious modesty on his face as if he had just raised the dead." Only God, of course, can do that. Mr. Shiftlet's gnomic pronouncements, empty though they may be, are modeled after the speech ways of a cult leader or messianic figure.

Mr. Shiftlet is determined to be his own Savior. His self-seriousness is comical, but it also represents serious soul-danger. He embodies a specifically twentieth-century American brand of self-sufficiency, with its commitment to self-improvement and self-confidence and hustle and, ultimately, the mobility represented by his longing for a car.

If indeed Mr. Shiftlet believes himself to be his own savior, then the boy hitchhiker's insult takes on a whole new significance, especially in light of the fact that O'Connor was a devout Catholic. By saying that Mr. Shiftlet is the son of a stinking polecat, the boy is saying that he is decidedly not the Son of Mary. Mr. Shiftlet cannot save himself or anyone else. Like the rest of us, he is born under the curse of Original Sin.

When the boy jumps out of the car, Mr. Shiftlet is left to ponder these things alone. The experience confirms his belief that the world is rotten (the story's original title was "The World Is Almost Rotten"). A question worth discussing is whether or not Mr. Shiftlet includes himself in that assessment. These sentences leave some room for interpretation:

Mr. Shiftlet felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him. He raised his arm and let it fall again to his breast. "Oh Lord!" he prayed. "Break forth and was the slime from this earth."

Bryana Johnson commented yesterday that this episode gives Mr. Shiftlet "an opportunity to show us that he is fully aware of his own rottenness...But although he is acknowledging that he is sickened by the state of the world, and by the evil he is a part of, he doesn't ever appear to have any intention of doing things any differently than he always has." The gesture of breast-beating would suggest that perhaps Mr. Shiftlet does understand his own rottenness and feels some guilt about it.

Bryana's reading is reasonable, but I read it slightly differently. I'm not convinced that Mr. Shiftlet ever understands that he is as rotten as the rest of the world. The idea that the world's rottenness threatens to engulf him suggests that he still sees that rottenness as being outside him (in my reading of the sentence, anyway). He steps on the gas to leave the world's rottenness behind him, but in the process he outruns the storm that washes things clean. I'm reminded of Hazel Motes's belief that the best way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.

What do you think? Could the runaway boy in overalls be "a angel of Gawd," or is this a case of over-reading?

We still haven't gotten around to the boy in the diner and his declaration that Lucynell the younger is "a angel of Gawd." What do you make of that scene?

Flannery O'Connor Summer Reading Club, Week 2: "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"

The Flannery O'Connor Summer Reading Club continues this week with "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." The central action of "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"" is a battle of wits between Mr. Shiftlet and Lucynell Crater--Shiftlet angling to get the old woman's car, the old woman manipulating Shiftlet to marry his daughter. It is tempting to call their mental chess match, with its measures and countermeasures, a duel of competing world views. Mr. Shiftlet presents himself as a philosopher, constantly steering the conversation toward life's imponderables. The old woman is a pragmatist, earth-bound and world-weary, the kind of person who believes she sees through everything.

But even if these two characters compete with one another, I'm not sure their world views do. Both Mr. Shiftlet's philosophizing and Lucynell Crater's no-nonsense materialism are both ways of avoiding any claims that God might have on their lives. Mr. Shiftlet's restlessness is not that of a man in search of truth, but the restlessness of a man running from truth. His favorite topic, the theme of his song, is unknowability.

"There's one of these doctors in Atlanta that's taken a knife and cut the human heart...and studied it like it was a day-old chicken, and lady...he don't know no more about it than you or me."

"People don't care how they lie. Maybe the best I can tell you is, I'm a man; but listen lady...what is a man?"

"What do they know about my blood? If they was to take my heart and cut it out..they wouldn't know a thing about me. It didn't satisfy me at all."

The old woman's pragmatism cuts through all that. She asks no philosophical questions, answerable or unanswerable. When she asks anything at all, she is asking for information she can use.

"Where you come from, Mr. Shiftlet?"

"What you carry in that tin box, Mr. Shiftlet?"

"Are you married or are you single?"

When Mr. Shiftlet marvels at the sunset, Mrs. Crater, empty of both curiosity and wonder, shuts him down with a remark that is true enough but misses the point altogether: "Does it every evening." She dismisses all of Mr. Shiftlet's big talk with a curt answer or a practical question or a clamping of the jaw. Her world is simple; its meaning is summed up in a deep well, a warm house, and no mortgage. And a son-in-law. Her pragmatism reaches its logical conclusion in her remarks to Mr. Shiftlet about her mute daughter: "One that can't talk can't sass you back our use foul language." True enough. But missing the point altogether.

Lucynell Crater's earth-boundness is answered by Mr. Shiftlet's rootlessness. He is on the run from grace; he longs for a car so that he can run faster and farther. Throughout O'Connor's oeuvre there are characters who try to run away from God. Some get caught anyway, and some don't. The fact that Mr. Shiftlet is still running at the end of the story--that is to say, he hasn't been caught--doesn't speak well for his spiritual condition. He calls on the God in the thunderhead to "break forth and wash the slime from this earth." But rather than letting himself be washed clean, he steps on the gas and races ahead of the storm. O'Connor, as I mentioned last week, saw more hope for soul of the serial killer the Misfit than for the soul of the comparatively harmless Mr. Shiftlet. The Misfit is standing still at the end of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." The last we see of Mr. Shiftlet, he's still running.