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Single Author Study: Flannery O’Connor
September 23, 2014
Great Expectations: Self, Sin, Sex, and Salvation
“What leads the writer to salvation may lead the reader into sin, and the Catholic writer who looks at this possibility looks the Medusa in the face and is turned to stone.” ~Flannery O’Connor, Mystery And Manners (149)
The 20th century swept Western society with drastic changes in nearly every aspect of life. As World War I kicked off a new era, gone were the days of Victorianism and high society; cultural expectations and class lines were blurred, and people everywhere were forced to adjust to a new age of modernism. While this shift in lifestyle was virtually worldwide, however, fewer places encountered a brasher shove into reality than did the Deep South. It was into this turmoil that Mary Flannery O’Connor was born.
In his biography, Flannery, Brad Gooch describes the day O’Connor came into the world in terms of the weather forecast: unsettled (14). This single word set the tone for the rest of O’Connor’s life. O’Connor’s most influential source of imbalance was almost certainly her family, which was drastically old-fashioned and devoutly Irish Catholic. In a letter to a friend affectionately referred to as “A,” O’Connor wrote of her relatives: “I think my elders have absorbed the physical goods of this age without absorbing its meaning. I don’t think mine have ever been in a world they couldn’t cope with because none of them that I know of have left the 19th century” (Fitzgerald 141). An only child, O’Connor was deeply affected by her mother’s inability to accept that she would never be the quintessential southern belle. Though Regina clearly loved Flannery, she felt the need to mold her, to which Flannery responded with stubborn unwillingness to relent. In her early years, this constant prodding was offset by the unconditional acceptance of her father, Ed, who appreciated O’Connor’s quirkiness. However, when Ed died of Lupus during Flannery’s 15th year, it left a scar that would stick with her until she, too, succumbed to the disease. Soon after suffering the loss of her father, Flannery began to latch more heavily onto her religion, turning to God to replace the source of guidance she had lost. In a journal entry written two years after Ed O’Connor’s passing, Flannery reflected upon God’s will:
“The reality of death has come upon us and a consciousness of the power of God has broken our complacency like a bullet in the side... A sense of the dramatic, of the tragic, of the infinite, has descended upon us, filling us with grief, but even above grief, wonder. Our plans were so beautifully laid out, ready to be carried to action, but with magnificent certainty God laid them aside and said, ‘You have forgotten – mine?’” (Gooch 72)
With this mindset, Flannery carried on, maturing into an antisocial but brilliant woman with a knack for sarcasm and a profound understanding of religion. As the years passed, Flannery became steadily more reliant upon her faith as an anchor, giving God credit for her work and turning to Him in hours of uncertainty; her writing, however, has a tendency to reflect desires of another nature. Though subtle, much of her work contains undertones of sexual tension and themes of rebellion against gender roles. O’Connor was never involved in a sexual relationship and discounted any intentional feminist agenda in another letter to “A,” stating that she never thought of qualities as specifically masculine or feminine (Fitzgerald 176). Despite her inexperience, she possessed a certain talent for emphasizing sexual tension and for creating masculine female characters. How are we, then, to interpret her constant self-contradiction? How can we understand O’Connor as a strictly conservative, religious woman while her writing alludes to so many unexpressed, more secular feelings? Ultimately, O’Connor’s sexuality was heavily repressed by her Catholic upbringing, and she used her writing as a mechanism to express the emotions she was too conflicted to act upon in her daily life.
In an article published in The Oxford American, James Quatro explores O’Connor’s mind at its most vulnerable, through access to O’Connor’s prayer journals. In them, she speaks of her struggles with pride and expresses guilt for feeling a deeper love for writing than for God at times, alluding to one possible explanation as to why she was able to express her innermost feelings through her craft but not her life. Juxtaposed with her guilt of pride stands her self-loathing toward lustful tendencies, of which she writes: “Man’s desire for God is bedded in his unconsciousness and seeks to satisfy itself in physical possession of another human. Sensual fulfillment is a poor substitute for what the unconscious is after.” She cries out to God to take away her “boils and blisters and warts of sick romanticism.” To some extent, O’Connor writes of God in an almost erotic sense, as if she was satiating those aforementioned desires by nurturing a deeper love for Him. In one of her final entries, she writes:
“…My soul wants more and more to want You. Its demands are absurd. It’s a moth who would be king…a foolish thing who wants God, who made the earth, to be its Lover. Immediately.” (qtd. in Quatro 6) These feelings, wherever they may be rooted, carry over from her personal writings into her published work.
Of all of O’Connors work, perhaps the most obvious references to gender rebellion and sexuality occur in O’Connor’s short stories, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” “A Circle in the Fire,” and “Good Country People.” These stories, like so much of O’Connor’s work, share a common element of driving the reader toward an appreciation for humility through unconventional means. In each story, the protagonist becomes self-aware through tragic circumstances. Three times, we see a female (of varying age and innocence) come face to face with what it means to be a woman during O’Connor’s time – weakness and a relinquishment of control. More often than not, their gender proves to be a curse, a catalyst for their downfalls. While the plots differ drastically, they intersect at a common exudation of sexual tension, repression, and gender rebellion.
“A Temple of the Holy Ghost” gives us a snapshot of what happens when two teenage girls, JoAnne and Susan, come to visit their younger cousin, our protagonist. Curiously, the girl is only ever referred to by feminine pronouns or as “the child.” We quickly learn that, although JoAnne, Susan, and the girl are all relatively naïve, the girl is clearly the most cunning and unique of the three. She is clever, mischievous, and has a somewhat profound understanding of the world around her for someone young enough to be right at the cusp of puberty. Throughout the story, she daydreams of adventures generally associated with masculinity – fighting in a war, becoming a martyr, and being beheaded by Roman soldiers. While JoAnne and Susan act in every way like stereotypically giddy young ladies, the girl feels a bit misunderstood and outcast. O’Connor created such a stark contrast between the cousins to emphasize the peculiarity of the little girl.
It’s important to note that the fantasies had by the little girl mirror games that O’Connor played with her father as a child. Ed encouraged Flannery’s wild imagination; he never stifled her according to what was appropriate for her gender, and this is reflected in the girl. In many ways, it appears that this child is a reflection of how O’Connor saw her younger self – uncomfortable in her role as a female in southern society and unable to act the way she was expected to act. JoAnne and Susan are representations of all the things O’Connor was unwilling to become.
The story concludes as JoAnne and Susan return from the carnival, bragging about their grownup adventures, tempting the girl with the knowledge that the final “freak” they saw was too adult to discuss. She persuades them to tell her by offering to tell them about a time she saw a rabbit giving birth. The older girls gush that there was a hermaphrodite in one of the tents exposing him/herself to the audience, proclaiming, “God made me this way… I don’t dispute hit.” Confused, the child pretends she understands what it means to be both a man and a woman, and then says that she saw the mother rabbit spit her babies out of her mouth, further proving her naivety. The next morning, the girl and her mother return JoAnne and Susan to the convent. While there, the girl feels guilty and prays that God will help her to be less difficult, but even as she does so, the hermaphrodite’s words echo in her mind. A nun swoops in to hug her, leaving the imprint of a cross on her cheek. As the girl and her mother drive home, she looks out the window and sees the sun, “a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood.”
Excluding the girl, every character in this story perpetuates the idea of patriarchy. JoAnne and Susan are most interested in boys and romance; the girl’s mother’s only concern is being sure the two are sent off on their date with suitable gentlemen. Only the girl shows any real sign of intellect or creative thinking. Though she is not old enough to understand the motivations behind her actions, she instinctively rebels against what society expects her to become as she broaches sexual maturity. She clings to childhood and the androgyny it offers. She feels guilty for being a somewhat difficult child, but she doesn’t understand why God made her that way if that’s not how He intended her to act. The cross pressed into her cheek is symbolic of the idea that The Church also perpetuates patriarchy, and that no matter how hard the girl (i.e., Flannery) tries to outrun societal expectations, they will always haunt her. O’Connor closes the story with an image of the sun, a metaphor for the Eye of God that looms ominously over the scene, causing the girl to feel unsettled and unsure of herself. This is a representation of the internal burden O’Connor carried throughout her entire life.
Similarly, “A Circle in the Fire,” sets its focus on yet another young protagonist, Sally Virginia. Sally and her widowed mother, Mrs. Cope, live on a farm where, as their surname suggests, they struggle to maintain their livelihood. Above all else, Mrs. Cope fears that her property will catch fire. This is symbolic of the story’s immense potential for – and at times, expectations of – sexual violation; the fire is a representation of pent up carnal energy, just as land or property, which can be seen as an extension of oneself, is a metaphor for the women’s bodies. One day, Powell, a young boy who used to live on the farm, shows up to visit with a few of his ragtag friends. Mrs. Cope feeds the boys despite her uneasiness, realizing too late that they intend to stay. Frantically, she insists that they depart, as there are no men there to protect her and her daughter. Powell decides that they will sleep in the woods, and that she can’t stop them because, in his mind, nobody really owns the woods. Mrs. Cope provides dinner, noticing the sunset, “swollen and flame colored…as if it might burn through any second and fall into the woods.” In this case, the sun is a metaphor for an erection, while the woods represent unknown territory in the literal and figurative sense. Shortly after, she insists that the boys have to be gone by the time she gets back from town.
As the evening progresses, Sally sneaks off into the woods, aiming to teach the boys a lesson. Like the girl in “Temple,” she is awkward, sexually innocent, and imaginative – another embodiment of young O’Connor. She wears overalls and a man’s hat over her dress and arms herself with two pistols. In a scene fraught with sexual tension and intense gender awareness, Sally stumbles upon the boys bathing: “She sat up, prickle-skinned… She heard the sound of splashing and she stood up, uncertain which way to run…
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