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.)