Recycling from a couple of years ago…
It’s Ash Wednesday. Yesterday my friend Father Thomas, an Anglican priest, burned the palm fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday to make the ashes to rub on people’s foreheads today. “Remember that you are dust,” he will say to them, “and to dust you shall return.”
I didn’t grow up observing Ash Wednesday or Lent, but I have to say, at this age it helps to be reminded that I am dust and returning to dust. It’s not just a help, but a comfort. This world is forever demanding that we take it as seriously as it takes itself, and it tempts us to take ourselves too seriously too. Ash Wednesday says, “No, no, no, dear sinner. You’re just dust, living in a world that’s just dust, and you and the world both are returning to dust. And you are dear to God nevertheless.”
I love the prayer in the Anglican Ash Wednesday liturgy:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wickedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
I used to associate Ash Wednesday–when I considered it at all–with self-flagellation. But, as the apostle Paul said, it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance–the confidence that God hates nothing he has made and forgives the sins of all who are penitent.
For all my ambivalence about T.S. Eliot, there are passages in his poem “Ash Wednesday” that I just love. The lines I love the most in that poem, the lines that most perfectly capture the spirit of the day, are these:
Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
but speak the word only.
“I’m not worthy.” True enough. But not the truest thing. The Lord speaks truer things into being every day.
So happy Ash Wednesday, you old sinner. You are dust, and to dust you shall return. And God loves you anyway.
Rosa Parks, after the boycott
I’m terribly sorry about my absence right in the middle of the Summer Reading Club. I hope to circle back around to the stories we missed–”Greenleaf,” “A View of the Woods,” and “The Enduring Chill.” Meanwhile, I figured it was best just to pick up with the story that was scheduled for this week.
Flannery O’Connor referred to “Everything that Rises Must Converge” as “my reflection on the race situation.” Indeed, though race figures into most of her stories one way or another, “Everything That Rises” is the only story that so consciously and directly addresses the changing dynamics of race in the South as a “situation.” The story mostly takes place on a city bus, that crucible of racial politics in the American South of the 1950s and ’60s.
Julian and his mother form a dyad that we have seen already in “Good Country People” and that also appears in “The Enduring Chill”–the the overbearing mother and the over-educated, progressive, and naive adult child. Then there is the mother’s black doppelgänger. She personifies the convergence that will inevitably result from the rising fortunes of African Americans. The white characters—the liberal no less than the reactionary—find that they are ill-prepared for such a convergence.
One of the most remarkable things about this story, I think, is the fact that in the end it turns out not to be a reflection on “the race situation” after all. O’Connor could have hardly chosen a setting that was more politically/racially charged. She wrote the story in the spring of 1961. Just five years earlier, Rosa Parks’s act of civil disobedience launched the Montgomery bus boycott. That spring–1961–saw the Freedom Riders traveling the South in buses. And yet, on Flannery O’Connor’s bus, the most important dynamics at play are family dynamics, not racial dynamics. The more I reflect on this story, the more I realize how little it has to say about “the race situation” in the segregated South. O’Connor never adjudicates between Julian’s views and those of his mother. Both of them are wrong about the black woman and her son, and for the same reasons: neither sees black their black neighbors as fully human. Julian rejects his mother’s supremacist views, but for his purposes, the black mother and son are useful symbols, not actual people. The white mother’s patronizing of the little boy is matched by Julian’s patronizing of the black mother.
Julian’s great revelation at the end of the story has little or nothing to do with race. The black woman and son are gone, and he is left alone with his dying mother. When he enters into “the world of guilt and sorrow,” his guilt is over his sins against his mother, not over his or his society’s sins against the black woman on the bus or black people generally. Perhaps O’Connor’s “reflection on the race situation” is that even as the races rise and converge, we are still accountable to one another as individuals, not as races. As deep as the “race problem” goes, it is still not our deepest problem; it is one of the most obvious symptoms of our deeper problem of sin.
I’m at the beach this week, so I’ll keep this short and rely on you, dear reader, to do the heavy lifting–which you often do anyway.
The irony in “Good Country People” is thick and layered. The joke is on Joy-Hulga, and it is an especially mean joke–or, in any case, it appears to be. But the episode in the hayloft, ironically, is also an offer of grace. Hulga has poured her whole self into that wooden leg (I’ll let you work out all the symbolism contained therein). It’s what she has instead of a soul (“She took care of it as someone else would his soul, in private and almost with her own eyes turned away.”) For this devilish figure, the Bible salesman, to take her wooden leg is the cruelest thing he could do. It is as if he is stealing her soul. Except that being stripped of that ugly idol of self is exactly what Joy-Hulga needs from a spiritual standpoint.
I don’t know that there is any evidence in the story that Joy-Hulga receives grace. But the shock of self-realization, as painful as it is, is at least a step in that direction. A few weeks ago we discussed O’Connor’s idea that the devil is always achieving ends that are not his own. Do you see that dynamic at work in this story?
Happy Wednesday, FOC summer reading clubbers, and forgive my tardiness in posting this week. I haven’t relished the thought of having the “n-word” prominently displayed on my blog for all search engines to find. But it probably is time we addressed the question of race in O’Connor’s fiction.
By way of entry into the question of race, I will tell you a story about the editorial process for my forthcoming O’Connor biography, The Terrible Speed of Mercy (which, I recently learned, has a new publication date of August 22, six weeks from today). The book had gone through a few rounds of edits when somebody at Thomas Nelson said, “Wait just a minute…we don’t use the ‘n-word’ in books published by Thomas Nelson.” A perfectly legitimate concern.
Indeed, the n-word appears thirteen times in my manuscript, and twice before you even make it out of the introduction. One solution would have been to “bleep out” the word, substituting “n—–” for the offending word. But eight of those thirteen instances appear in the title “The Artificial Nigger.” Which is a problem insofar as you can’t very well bleep out part of a story title. Somebody raised the possibility of keeping the title intact, bleeping out the other five instances of the n-word, and writing a Publisher’s Note explaining that, as far as that particular word goes, things were different in O’Connor’s time. I didn’t much like that solution, largely on the grounds that the word–especially among O’Connor’s readership–was as offensive then as it is now.
Lest you think this is a story of a publisher being overly cautious and politically correct, let me say that Thomas Nelson was correct to think long and hard before putting out a book that includes thirteen instances of a word as inflammatory as that. In the end the publishing team decided to leave the manuscript as it was in and include the following note at the beginning:
A Note About Diction
A highly offensive racial slur occurs some thirteen times throughout this book, in each case quoted from Flannery O’Connor’s fiction or correspondence. The publishing team discussed at some length how best to handle this word in light of the sensibilities of twenty-first century readers. In the end, we decided to let the word stand in its full offensiveness, on the grounds that the repugnance the reader feels at the word is a key reason O’Connor used it in the first place. It may be true that there was more open racism in the 1950s and 1960s than in the twenty-first century, but that hardly explains why O’Connor used the “n-word” in the thirteen instances quoted in this book. A reader of literary fiction in the 1950s would be no less offended by the word than a reader of literary fiction in 2012. To expurgate O’Connor’s language would be to suggest that we understand its offensiveness better than she does, or perhaps to suggest that the readers of this book are more easily offended than O’Connor’s original audience. We have no reason to believe that either is true. So we leave O’Connor’s language intact, and we leave you with this warning: you may find some of the language in this book offensive; that is as it should be.
This article by Rachel D. Held gives a sense of how much courage it has taken on the publisher’s part to let such offensive language stand.
So then, race in “The Artificial Nigger.” It is common in O’Connor’s fiction to see white characters express racist attitudes. I can’t think of a single instance of O’Connor endorsing those attitudes in any of her stories or novels. From a race perspective, the troubling thing about “The Artificial Nigger” isn’t that a couple of hillbillies turn out to be racist. More troublesome is the fact that this is one of the few O’Connor stories in which a character clearly sees the error in his ways and appears to receive the offer of grace. And yet Mr. Head’s racism doesn’t get fixed.
Consider this remarkable moment at the end of the story, when Mr. Head realizes what an awful thing he has done in denying his grandson:
He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time. . . . He saw that no sin was too monstrous to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.
This moment of self-awareness immediately follows a moment of reconciliation between Nelson and Mr. Head. And that moment of reconciliation is signaled by their sharing of a joke–an unmistakably racist joke!
What I’m suggesting is that if you or I were were writing a story about a racist coming face-to-face with his own sin, you or I would probably show him becoming less of a racist. Not Flannery O’Connor.
What do you make of that?
Bonus reading recommendation: The best discussion of O’Connor and race and sin and redemption can be found in Ralph C. Wood’s book, Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, Chapter 3.
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).
For those who view Flannery O’Connor’s fiction as a freak show, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” would appear to be Exhibit A. Its most memorable scene describes a hermaphrodite in an actual carnival freak show. But O’Connor doesn’t offer up the hermaphrodite simply as an object of curiosity for gawkers and voyeurs. She doesn’t, in other words, offer up this freak in the spirit of the freak show. The hermaphrodite, to my way of thinking, is surprisingly human, a figure of pathos and even a strange dignity, calling the audience to a civility and charity that one wouldn’t necessarily expect from freak show attendees:
“This is the way [God] wanted me to be, and I ain’t disputing His way. I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it. I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen. I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it. I don’t dispute hit.”
I realize that my impression of the hermaphrodite’s dignity is subjective and that another reader might interpret his/her speech entirely differently. A better clue to the meaning of the hermaphrodite comes from the Tantum ergo, the Latin hymn sung by the Catholic schoolgirls on the porch and sung again during the benediction at the convent. The hymn was written by Thomas Aquinas, whom O’Connor read every night before bed. Here is a translation of the first stanza:
Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail,
Lo! o’er ancient forms departing
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith for all defects supplying
Where the feeble senses fail.
The hermaphrodite, like the rest of the freaks in O’Connor’s fiction, stands for all of us, broken and needing the grace that supplies our defects. The people who go to the freak show expecting to see a sub-human creature are instead challenged to be more humane, more charitable.
O’Connor once helped some nurse-nuns in an Atlanta with a book called A Memoir of Mary Ann. Mary Ann was a little girl in their hospital whose face was terribly deformed by cancer, but who shone nevertheless with a loveliness that made an indelible impression on everyone who met her. O’Connor wrote the introduction to the book, and in it she provides perhaps the best explanation of what the grotesquerie in her fiction means. I expect to write more about “An Introduction to A Memoir to Mary Ann“ in a later post, but for now here is a quotation from the piece that is relevant to the hermaphrodite in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”:
This action by which charity grows invisibly among us, entwining the living and the dead, is called by the Church the Communion of Saints. It is a communion created upon human imperfection, created from what we make of our grotesque state.
That call to charity is one important role that the hermaphrodite plays in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”; the twelve-year-old at the center of the story is deeply uncharitable from our first sight of her. She is also beset by an unearned and premature sense of her own superiority. It is the story of the hermaphrodite that brings her face-to-face with the truth that she is living in the midst of mysteries that she cannot fathom. The story of the hermaphrodite is to her “the answer to a riddle that was more puzzling than the riddle itself.” That, perhaps, is the hermaphrodite’s most important role in the story. When the girl finally understands how little she understands about the world she lives in, she is a step closer to receiving the grace that can make up for her shortcomings.
To return to the Tantum ergo, the hermaphrodite’s story is where “the feeble senses fail” for our protagonist. The Eucharist bridges the gap that her human wits cannot cross. Where the girl’s judgmental self-satisfaction had always held sway, “newer rites of grace prevail.” That great blood-soaked elevated Host of the sun makes a red dirt road across the heavens, inviting her to something new.
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.)
In the summer of 1953, Flannery O’Connor’s mother Regina hired a new farm laborer named Matysiak. He and his family moved into one of the houses at Andalusia, the O’Connor’s dairy farm. Originally from Poland, the Matysiaks were among the millions of Europeans who were left homeless at the end of World War II. Thousands of these “Displaced Persons” ended up in the United States, and a few of them made their way to Middle Georgia.
The Matysiaks seemed to work out well enough at Andalusia; there were no catastrophes comparable to those of “The Displaced Person,” the story that O’Connor wrote in the fall of 1953, just after the Matysiaks moved in. Nevertheless, there were cultural barriers to overcome. In one of her letters, O’Connor depicted a scene in which Regina and her dairyman’s wife (identified as Mrs. P. in The Habit of Being) were making curtains out of chicken feed sacks for the Displaced Persons’ house:
Regina was complaining that the green sacks wouldn’t look so good in the same room where the pink ones were and Mrs. P. (who has no teeth on one side of her mouth) says in a very superior voice, “Do you think they’ll know what colors even is?
While “The Displaced Person” is by no means autobiographical, Flannery O’Connor draws from her immediate surroundings in ways that we haven’t yet seen in the stories we have read together. The dairy farm where the story is set is clearly a version of Andalusia, right down to the peacocks. More important than the physical setting are the social dynamics of the place. The efficient, energetic, no-nonsense Mrs. McIntyre is a version of Regina O’Connor, who ran her dairy farm as a mostly benevolent dictator, complaining constantly about the help and the peacocks. We will see various iterations of this character throughout the stories we read this summer (she makes her first appearance in “A Circle in the Fire,” a story that we skipped). The Shortleys are an amalgam of the white families who came and went (and sometimes came back) every few years at Andalusia. And Astor and Sulk, the two black dairy workers, are lifted straight from the letters in which O’Connor describes the black families who were a fixture at Andalusia.
The white landowner, the itinerant white help, and the black help, who have no choice but to stay, form a triangle that is dysfunctional, inefficient, unjust, but surprisingly stable. Everybody knows his or her place, everybody complains about his or her place, but everybody depends on everybody else. By introducing the Displaced Person into the dynamic, Mrs. McIntyre disrupts the equilibrium and sets the story in motion.
Mr. Guizac, the Displaced Person, displaces every other person in the story. In his fundamental decency, nothing has prepared him to navigate the social complexities of the world he now finds himself in. Consider Mrs. Shortley’s assessment of Mr. Guizac’s interaction with Sulk and Astor:
When Gobblehook first come here, you recollect how he shook their hands, like he didn’t know the difference, like he might have been as black as them, but when it come to finding out Sulk was taking turkeys, he gone on and told her. I known he was taking turkeys. I could have told her myself.
Mr. Guizac shook Sulk’s hand for the same reason he ratted him out: he viewed his black co-workers as human beings, worthy of a handshake and also accountable for their actions. The other whites in the story don’t do Sulk the dignity of expecting honesty from him–a state of affairs that confuses Guizac:
Mrs. McIntyre told [Sulk] to go put the turkey back and then she was a long time explaining to the Pole that all Negroes will steal. She finally had to call Rudolph and tell him in English and have him tell his father in Polish, and Mr. Guizac had gone off with a startled disappointed face.
It is the Shortleys who are the most conscious of the threat presented by the Displaced Person. If indeed there are “ten million billion” people ready to come and do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, there will be no place for the Shortleys. No wonder Mrs. Shortley begins to view Mr. Guizac as evil incarnate. In his smile she sees Europe stretched out, “mysterious and evil, the devil’s experiment station.” The black workers, for their part, don’t feel especially threatened. As Astor tells Sulk, “your place too low for anybody to dispute with you for it.”
Mrs. McIntyre, on the other hand, is at first delighted with the idea of the equilibrium being upset. She understands how much the sorriness of her workers, white and black, is costing her. Within the class structure as it has existed in her world, Mrs. McIntyre has had few options. She is too tight with money to pay her workers well, so she has paid instead in other ways–the instability of white workers coming and going, or the occasional stolen turkey. Mr. Guizac represents a whole new way of doing things. He is smart, energetic, and thrifty, and he works for cheap. To Mrs. McIntyre’s way of thinking, the Displaced Person’s displacing of the Shortleys and their ilk is the best thing that could happen. She is a pragmatist, not an idealist.
But as it turns out, Mrs. McIntyre’s pragmatism is no match for her racism. When she finds out that Mr. Guizac plans to marry his cousin off to Sulk, all bets are off. Her tacit racism flares into an especially ugly speech. “Mr. Guizac! You would bring this poor innocent child over here and try to marry her to an half-witted thieving black stinking nigger! What kind of a monster are you!” And suddenly she does see him as a monster, just as Mrs. Shortley had. She sees his very face as a patched-together, monstrous thing. She goes on to explain to Mr. Guizac that even if a black man can marry a white woman in Europe, it can’t be done in the American South. That was a legal fact, by the way. Miscegenation laws forbade interracial marriage in many states (including Georgia) until they were struck down by the Supreme court in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case.
Now, for the first time, the pragmatic Mrs. McIntyre begins to speak of her situation in moral and religious terms.
“I cannot understand how a man who calls himself a Christian,” she said, “could bring a poor innocent girl over here and marry her to something like that. I cannot understand it. I cannot!”
Mr. Guizac, still not comprehending the mores of the society he has been dropped into, takes a much more humane view of his cousin’s situation. “‘She no care he black,’ he said. ‘She in camp three year.’”
In Part III of the story, Mrs. McIntyre’s struggle is more overtly religious than economic or social. I love the cross-threaded conversation she has with the priest after finding out about Mr. Guizac’s scheme. She is trying to explain her actions in practical terms, but the priest insists on seeing it in moral and theological terms. Ultimately he is so entranced by the peacock, that symbol of transcendence, that he scarcely hears what Mrs. McIntyre is saying to him.
“He has nowhere to go,” he said. Then he said, “Dear lady, I know you well enough to know you wouldn’t turn him out for a trifle!” And without waiting for an answer he raised his hand and gave her his blessing in a rumbling voice.
She smiled angrily and said, “I didn’t create this situation, of course.”
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. Tears of small pregnant suns floated in a green golden 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 stood there, gaping.
Mrs. McIntyre’s face assumed a set puritanical expression and she reddened. Christ in the conversation embarrassed her the way sex had her mother. “It is not my responsibility that Mr. Guizac has nowhere to go,” she said. “I do not find myself responsible for all the extra people in the world.”
The old man did not seem to hear her. His attention was fixed on the cock, who was taking minute steps backward, his head against the spread tail. “The transfiguration,” he murmured.
She had no idea what he was talking about. “Mr. Guizac didn’t have to come here in the first place,” she said, giving him a hard look.
The cock lowered his tail and began to pick grass.
“He didn’t have to come in the first place,” she repeated, emphasizing each word.
The old man smiled absently. “He came to redeem us,” he said and blandly reached for her hand and shook it and said he must go.
For the remainder of the story, Mrs. McIntyre struggles mightily with her conscience. It is to her credit that she struggles rather than ignoring the priest altogether, as much as she would like to. “She felt she had been tricked by the old priest. He had said that there was no legal obligation for her to keep the Displaced Person if he was not satisfactory, but then he had brought up the moral one.” In her next conversation with the priest, Mrs. McIntyre finally identifies what exactly is at stake in her opposition to the D.P. Mr. Guizac. “As far as I’m concerned,” she said and glared at him fiercely, “Christ was just another D.P.”
Jesus, like Mr. Guizac, disturbs the equilibrium of a world that has learned to live with its own brokenness. As the Misfit said, “He thrown everything off balance.”
Mrs. McIntyre would appear to have two options: she can receive the Displaced Person and accept a new equilibrium, or she can reject him and go back to the old dysfunction. In the end, she chooses to reject the Displace Person, conspiring with Mr. Shortley and Sulk to murder the man who had upset the old balance. “[Mrs. McIntyre] had felt her eyes and Mr. Shortley’s eyes and the Negro’s eyes come together in one look that froze them in collusion forever, and she had heard the little noise the Pole made as the tractor wheel broke his backbone.” With the D.P. out of the way, the old triad of landowner, white dairyman, and black laborer, it appears, should be able to pick up where it left off.
However, the death of the Displaced Person does not make it possible for everyone to resume his or her place in the old order. Everyone is displaced, including the landowner herself. Mr. Guizac “thrown everything off balance.”
As I have remarked before, grace is extended in all of O’Connor’s stories. I read this story as one of the ones in which that proffered grace is rejected. However, I could be convinced otherwise. It could be that being displaced from the farm is exactly what Mrs. McIntyre needed. The picture of the old priest faithfully coming by and teaching her the doctrines of the church is hopeful. What do you think?
“The Displaced Person” is a long and complex story, and I scarcely touched on some of the most important parts–Mrs. Shortley’s stroke, at the end of Part I, for instance, or her prophetic utterances, or the satanic imagery around Mr. Shortley in Part III, or O’Connor’s portrayal of the black characters, or the peacocks. I’m hoping to touch on some of these questions later in the week, but feel free to address any of them in the comments below.
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)
Little Harry/Bevel, the main character of “The River,” has spent his whole life in a world where he doesn’t he doesn’t matter. He lives, in fact, in a world where nothing matters. Everything is a joke in his parents’ world. His father jokingly calls him “old man,” and he is compared to “an old sheep waiting to be let out,” but his parents are perpetually adolescent, refusing to take any responsibility for him.
From the boy’s first encounter with Mrs. Connin, he starts his exodus out of his parents’ world and into another. He gives himself a new name, affiliating himself with the preacher Bevel Summers (and it is worth noting that the narrator never calls the boy anything but Bevel thereafter). He doesn’t know what ails him, but something in him resonates when he hears that Mrs. Connin is taking him to hear a faith healer preach.
“Will he heal me?” Bevel asked.
“What you got?”
“I’m hungry,” he decided finally.
He’s talking about a physical hunger, but this is a story about a spiritual hunger that little Bevel doesn’t have any language for. His visit to another world stirs up in him longings he didn’t know he had and reveals to him things he had never had any way of knowing.
He had found out already this morning that he had been made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ. Before he had thought it had been a doctor named Sladewall, a fat man with a yellow mustache who gave him shots and thought his name was Herbert, but this must have been a joke. They joked a lot where he lived. If he had thought about it before, he would have thought Jesus Christ was a word like “oh” or “damn” or “God,” or maybe somebody who had cheated them out of something sometime.
O’Connor was a gifted ironist. And yet in this story she strikes a blow against a view of the world that is finally ironic. She admires the earnestness of those good country people, Mrs. Connin and Bevel Summers. Little Bevel’s family represent a theme that we will see in many of the stories that we will read throughout the rest of the summer. They represent an urbanity and sophistication that is never adequate to support the weight of truth. Simple country folk–even ignorant country folk–always come closer to the mark than the sophisticated. That’s not to say that the ignorant and unsophisticated are always right in O’Connor’s fiction. They are wrong often enough. I merely suggest that their track record is quite a bit better than that of the educated and citified.
One of the many ironies of O’Connor’s career is that her reading audience shared much more in common with little Bevel’s parents than with Mrs. Connin and her ilk. But if any reader mistakes his own disdain for the earnest but ignorant Mrs. Connin and Bevel Summers for any disdain on O’Connor’s part, he will soon find himself in the ditch like Bailey Boy’s car. On more than one occasion O’Connor made it clear that, Catholic though she was, she came down on the side of the backwoods pew-jumper. (I will offer up the specifics in a later post.)
But I digress.
When Little Bevel stands before the preacher whose name he has taken, he is offered a chance finally to be a part of something real and un-ironic:
“If I Baptize you,” the preacher said, “you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ. You’ll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life. Do you want that?”
“Yes,” the child said, and thought, I won’t go back to the apartment then, I’ll go under the river.
“You won’t be the same again,” the preacher said. “You’ll count.” Then he turned his face to the people and began to preach and Bevel looked over his shoulder at the pieces of the white sun scattered in the river. Suddenly the preacher said, “All right, I’m going to Baptize you now,” and without more warning, he tightened his hold and swung him upside down and plunged his head into the water. He held him under while he said the words of Baptism and then he jerked him up again and looked sternly at the gasping child. Bevel’s eyes were dark and dilated. “You count now,” the preacher said. “You didn’t even count before.”
It’s a scary scene, with the boy being held under water and coming up gasping. But I don’t think O’Connor meant any of this ironically. The boy does count now in a way that he didn’t count–indeed, still doesn’t count–at the apartment. The Ashfields take offense at the fact that Mrs. Connin let the boy be baptized and had the preacher pray for Mrs. Ashfield, but they don’t offer any alternative meaning for him to grasp onto. The next morning, the boy is as abandoned as ever when he wakes up at home. It is no surprise that he returns to the river in search of the kingdom of Christ–the kingdom where he counts.
“The River” is a highly discussible story because it is more ambiguous than many of O’Connor’s stories. Here are a few of the questions that remain for me:
- What do you make of the boy’s determination “not to fool with preachers any more but to Baptize himself”?
- Why is Mrs. Connin twice described as looking like a skeleton?
- What do we do with those hogs? It’s clear enough that the shoats in the pen are connected to the hogs that received the evil spirits that Jesus cast out of the man…but what are we to make of it? And is there any significance to the fact that Mrs. Connin got the story wrong? Jesus didn’t cast pigs out of the man; he cast spirits out and into the pigs. I just take it as evidence that Mrs. Connin is ignorant and confused; but does that in any way diminish her authority as a guide for the little boy?
- I didn’t even touch on Mr. Paradise, who is obviously an extremely important figure. What’s he doing in the story? Why is is name Paradise?
- Some of you may completely disagree with my reading and see some irony or something sinister in Bevel Summers. If so, let’s hear from you.
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