Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club, Week 4–”The Displaced Person”

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.

  • http://www.chrisyokel.com/ Chris

    Suddenly in reading your post it clicked. Mr. Guizac is the Christ-figure, the scapegoat.

  • Scott

    This was my first time reading this story, and I agree that the grace offered in it goes rejected. I didn’t originally read any hope into the priest’s continued visits after Mrs. McIntyre had her breakdown. However, I think my own feelings toward her character colored my thoughts there. It is intriguing that the one person she was so frustratared with is the one who continues to care for her after she loses everything. So, maybe his visits and teaching of doctrine is a continued offer of grace.
    One thing that occurred to me during reading this story was how, even though Mr. Guizac is indeed the “displaced person” the story is named after, his character is infrequently at the center of any real action. Instead, the reader is given access to the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of Mr. and Mrs. Shortley and Mrs. McIntyre. I guess what I mean is Mr. Guizac’s presence is strongly felt throughout the narrative, though he is given little “stage time”. What happens in the story seems to be, rather, the reactions he elicits and conventions he upsets among the other characters.
    The scene of Mrs. Shortley’s religious vision was disturbing. She was so convinced of her rightness that, to me anyway, she deluded herself into believing the experience she had was divine. Though it was very powerful to her and seemed beautiful, it appeared to me as one of those times Satan presents himself as an angel of light.
    The peacock was the image I had the hardest time understandding. Was it representing the mystery or presence of God? The peacock was the last of many and Mrs. McIntyre stated her intent that they wouldn’t be replaced. She seemed to have no room for anything other than pragmatic matters. The priest linked the peacock’s spreading his feathers to Christ’s return. Was God’s presence being “threatened with extinction” at the dairy farm? Maybe somebody can help me out here.

  • Loren Warnemuende

    Wow. That definitely puts a whole new light on this. Nice!

  • http://www.jonathan-rogers.com Jonathan Rogers

    Scott, you make a good observation about Guizac having so little time on-stage. You’re right–the story is really about the ways in which people react to the Displaced Person. 

    The peacocks do represent the glory of God revealing itself in mundane circumstances, I believe. But only the priest has eyes to see it. Mrs. McIntyre and Mrs. Shortley shut their eyes to it. Mrs. Shortley dismisses it as “nothing but a peachicken,” and Mrs. McIntyre thinks the priest must be an idiot for making so much of it. If you have Mystery and Manners, the collection of O’Connor’s essays, the first piece in the book is a great article about peafowl. It sheds some light on what peafowl meant to FO.

  • http://twitter.com/Brandywinebooks Philip Wade

    I’ve always thought peacocks were gorgeous, and with Father Flynn making a direct link between it and Christ, I think they are a symbol of God’s general and in someways particular grace in the lives of the main characters. The fact that they pay it so little regard shows their worldliness, their lack of faith. Is it possible O’Connor is touching on America in general with Mrs. McIntyre allowing the peafowl to die off? Just like the giant Mrs. Shortley thinks, religion in America is for those too weak to avoid sin without it. No belief in God, just techniques for keeping out of trouble.

    I read this story as a picture of what the world did and still does with Christ Jesus. Like y’all have said, Jesus displaced the world by bringing life into it, and Mr. Guizak displaced everyone by good work, honesty and energy. The world hated him for it. I counted three times Mr. Shortley was called a dead man, just as we are dead in our sins. The whole estate was like a sin-bound dead man, hating the very God who would give it life.  Do they hate beauty as well, the peacocks and the gravesite cherub, those small bits of divinity around them which they treat disdain?

    I had feared Mrs. Shortley would kill or plot to kill the Guizaks when she had her vision of spinning wheels with eyes. But she doesn’t. If the figure and wheels are God saying he is watching her, where does the word “Prophesy!” come from? Is it possible that she does prophesy the truth and asks, “Who will remain whole?” meaning no one will remain whole in the face of God Almighty’s wrath (without of course the atonement of Christ Jesus)? In effect, she is declaring judgement on herself.

  • Madeleine

    Impressions
    1) While reading- Is this an accurate portrayal of life in the South at that time? It is so foreign to my experience I feel like I am looking through a portal. Amazing the difference of several hundred miles and less than a hundred years. I think if I were a Southerner I would feel insulted and annoyed that FO would perpetuate stereotypical Southern characters. How did her audience respond? How do current Southerners/ people with Southern heritage feel about the people in this story and their historic connection with them?
    2) After finishing- Satisfaction at an ending that seems more like an ending than just an end. As sense of justice being done. As you said, J.R., the elimination of the DP did not end the disruption for all involved. As Mrs. M had made herself numb to the DP and didn’t raise her voice in defense of his humanity, so she experienced numbness, loss of voice, and in some ways the loss of her humanity. I did think it sweet the old priest came to see her, and then had to chuckle to think how much it must have driven her crazy, perhaps a final sardonic twist. Though I think there is room to see this as a continued offer of God’s grace to her; it could also be a further opportunity for the hardening of her heart against salvation. We aren’t given insight to which way it will go.
    3) A time of pondering, my usual practice, what does all this mean for me?
    a) I noted how often Mrs. S talked about being “advanced” and “reformed” and yet had to watch my own thoughts of how we have “advanced” in our race relationships at since that time. I really do think we have made considerable progress in race relationships. Nonetheless I ask myself, in what areas am I fooling myself with claims of advancement when I am just acting in ignorance?
    b) Obviously the others on the farm were threatened by the DP.  I think this was because he did not fit into the culture and because they recognized, whether or not they admitted it, he was their equal if not superior. So I consider, who am I marginalizing because they are not fitting in the way I think they should? And,  Who do I scorn because I feel personally threatened by their superiority in some way?
    c)  Lastly, I considered that Christians can be, should be, like Displaced Persons in this culture. We don’t fit in and others can feel threatened because they can sense we are doing something better. So we should not be surprised if others react to us negatively, even if they initially applauded what we do.
    …And I loved the line about the Judge actually taking it all with him! I am still thinking about how he fits into all this. He made me smile.
    Speaking of learning a new culture, I am pretty new to this whole blogging thing and it’s been years since I’ve had intellectual discussions about literature, so I’m working on fitting in here. I appreciate your patience and comments on when I’m off track or tips on what I can do to make it a better experience for us all.

  • Madeleine

    I too thought she was prophesying to herself since she was the only one around to hear it. The ending suggests the prophesy was meant for all on the farm. After all, none of them are whole in the end. And what a strange picture of her death, grabbing at feet and heads and such in all the wrong places.

  • Madeleine

    Question for you, O Flannery scholar, since I know so little about her. Did FO write these stories with all sorts of symbols and hidden meanings like a rich treasure hunt waiting for persistant 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.)

  • http://twitter.com/Brandywinebooks Philip Wade

    I didn’t notice the language about grabbing in the wrong places. That’s telling.

  • http://twitter.com/Brandywinebooks Philip Wade

    I’m a southerner and though I didn’t grow up in a place like O’Connor’s, her stories have all rung true for me. Our dirt and sometimes our rivers are red up here too in the NW Georgia/SE Tennessee area.

    Three or more times, the character say that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t, but no one ever suggests that if they’re both the devil, they need to think about getting rid of both of them.

  • Loren Warnemuende

    With each O’Connor story we read I’ve noticed that the way I engage with them stays in about the same pattern. I know there’s ten times more to them than I initially see, but I jump into the story only as an emotive experience, and what I seem to take from each at first are the feelings the characters and language illicit. And I find that often they are linked to experiences I have had or people I have known. For example, I’m not from the South, but my grandparents were originally, and there were phrases they used that I see in O’Connor, and some of the prejudices I see in characters, I saw in my grandmother. I was also a missionary kid, and have a soft spot for “displaced persons” of many nationalities, so I felt strongly for the Guizacs in this story and resented the narrow-mindedness of the Shortley’s and Mrs. McIntyre. I also find I approach the stories with a resigned,”Well, who is she going to kill off this time?” To me, the continual negativity and death diminishes the power of the message.

    Anyway, that’s my gut reaction each time. Are there others who feel similarly?

    I do love the skill of the writing. I do see little symbols here and there. In this story, I had a feeling someone would be broken or cut apart in some way because of the continual references not only to broken people (Mrs. Shortley’s memory of the newsreel of prison camp victims), but the description of Mrs. S when she died, and the continual references to the sluice machine, and one description of (was it Mr. Shortley? Can’t remember and I don’t have my book on hand) a character cut into parts by the light and dark. Interesting stuff, but I fall far short of seeing much.

    I am thankful, though, for this chance to be a part of this conversation, and I DO appreciate hearing the insights of those of you who are seeing more of what’s happening behind the scenes!

  • http://www.chrisyokel.com/ Chris

    If I remember correctly, in medieval Catholic symbolism the peacock represents Christ/eternal life/Resurrection.

  • Madeleine

    I”m with you on the reactions against the continued negativity. I was feeling dread reading this story anticipating some kind of horrible death. I think that’s why I gave up after reading three stories several years ago. I continue to comtemplate my purposes for reading anything, the usefulness and goodness of dark imagery etc., and writers responsiblities to their audience. I haven’t come to good conclusions yet, but it has been a worthwhile exercise.

  • http://www.jonathan-rogers.com Jonathan Rogers

    Hey, Madeleine–
    Sorry I haven’t responded to your question about symbolism. I’m going to put together a post addressing this question…tomorrow, I hope.

  • Madeleine

    Great! I look forward to it.

  • Dananddawn

    Dan

    The Peacock in connection with the transfiguration of Christ makes me believe that the Peacock my represent prophets of God.  On the mount of transfiguration you have Moses and Elijah and Jesus.

    All three had performed the role of a prophet.

    Jesus

    In Luke 13:33 Jesus refers to himself as a prophet because he knows he is about to die but he cannot do it outside of Jerusalem. Also, in Matt. 13:57 Jesus speaks about a prophet having no honor in his home town and that is why he did not do many miracles there. Clearly, Jesus is referring to himself as a prophet.

    Moses

    In Deuteronomy 18:15 we are told that Moses said God would raise up a prophet like himself.

    Elijah

    Malachi 4:5-6

    5 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

    On page 198 when the priest is talking to Mrs. McIntyre he states how beautiful the bird is.

    Her response:

    “There used to be twenty or thirty of those things on the place but I’ve let them die off.  I do’t like to hear them scream in the middle of the night.”

    Sounds a bit like a voice crying in the wilderness. Reminds me of the the sound Mrs. McIntyre hears a t the end.

    “She had felt her eyes  amd Mr. Shortley’s eyes and the Negro’s eye come together in one look that froze them in collusion forever, and she had heard the little noise the Pole made as the wheel broke his backbone.”

    Another prophet she won’t have to listen to (in words or in this case deeds).

    Prophets and prophesy seem to be very much a part of this story in my humble opinion.

  • http://littlebootsliturgies.blogspot.com/ Rebecca Reynolds

    I used to feel that way about O’Connor. _Wise Blood_ was an incredibly painful piece for me to read even a few years ago. Half-way through, I slammed it down on the library counter and said, “You can KEEP this awful thing. I don’t want it any more.” Then I grabbed it back before the librarian could take it and read until I was done.

    Lately something inside me has unlocked in regard to O’Connor. I feel like I am finally able to hear some of what she is truly saying. Maybe getting to forty years old and accumulating enough weakness, brokenness, and nuclear failure has something to do with that.

    She just goes so deeply into the darkness. It is not pretty there, but she loves me enough to do it. She is like Gandalf fighting the Balrog. I need someone to stand in that terrifying black and say, “None shall pass!” Because of this, she has become one of the most hope giving authors I have ever read.

  • http://www.jonathan-rogers.com Jonathan Rogers

    Hey, Loren–I’m sorry it’s taking me this long to circle back around to your comments. I do have one question for you: you use the phrase “continued negativity.” How do you define that word “negativity.” I think it would help the dialogue along if you were to get clear on the definitions…”negativity” is one of those words that can mean a lot of different things. If you’ll do that, I promise to give you a thoughtful response.

    By the way, I love your observation about the broken people in the newsreels foreshadowing the breaking of Mr. Guizac at the end. I hadn’t made that connection…which is to say, you’ve got plenty to contribute to the conversation.

  • http://www.jonathan-rogers.com Jonathan Rogers

    Can you develop that idea, Dan? If the peacock represents the prophets, what does that add to our understanding of the story? And if the peacock is a prophet, what is his prophecy?

  • http://www.jonathan-rogers.com Jonathan Rogers

    A quick Google search revealed something I had never seen before, Chris: there was an old legend that the flesh of a peacock never decays, which made it an appropriate symbol of the Resurrection. I’m not sure what insight that provides into “The Displaced Person,” but it’s interesting.

  • Dananddawn

    Johnathan,

    Maybe I am reading more into the story then is there. I hope not.
    I went back to find a few passages that seem to represent the peacock as a prophet.  While he does not speak verbally he does seem to speak through his actions and his looks.

    The quote below speaks of the peacock’s ability to see something in the distance (future) no one else could see.  Much like a prophet.

    “The peacock stopped just behind her, his tail-glittering
    green-gold and bluein the sunlight-lifted just enough so that it would not
    touch the ground. It flowed out on either side like a floating train and his
    head on the long blue reed-like next was drawn back as if [his attention were
    fixed in the distance on something no one else could see. ]

    Another quote indicating the peacock is a vision for them all. They must decide how the react to the vision. The Priest in awe and Mrs. McIntyre usually in irritation.

    The peacock stood still as if he had just come down from
    some sun-drenched height to be [a vision for them all.]
    The screaming in the night can be an irritation or something beautiful declaring the goodness of God.
    “There used to be twenty or thirty of those things on the place but I’ve let them die off. I do’t like to hear them scream in the middle of the night.”
    It is interesting at the end of the story the Priest is hopefully helping her to see beauty and truth as he feeds the peacock bread crumbs. Maybe the peacock (prophet) continues to try and speak through his beatuy along with the priest of the goodness of God and the future beauty he sees in the distance that know one can see yet.
    Thanks for making me dig a little more.
    To future beauty and present beauty that speaks truth still today,
    Dan

  • Amy L

    Yes!  The prophecy she gives is exactly the scene in her car, with her own foot tucked up under her shoulder, and her husband’s face next to her daughter’s foot, and when her husband turns his head, his ear is probably in the palm of her hand.  I think she realizes the connection in the moment before her death, and realizes very suddenly that this means that she and her family are the children of the “wicked nation.”  She had thought Europe contained all the wicked nations, but she has that revelation about her homeland.   

  • Loren Warnemuende

    Thanks, Jonathan. I just got back from a family vacation so I’ve been behind on my discussion question, too.

    Good question about “continued negativity.” Let me see if I can unpack that. What I see in these stories is a tendency to focus on the “warts” of life–the negative characteristics in people, the dirt and the grime of personalities (e.g. Conman Shiftlet, prejudiced Mrs. Shortly), the hopelessness of life situations (little Bevel’s home life). I appreciate what she’s trying to show, that there IS grace despite these things, but it’s wearing to read. I like what Becca has discovered in this (re: her comment above); that O’Connor is fighting the darkness for us. However, I get cynical after a while when an author seems to only show the sad endings. I know that in the tale of life, there is an incredible happy ending in The End, and I love books that are able to give a glimpse of this, skillfully. Skillfully is the trick. There are plenty of “feel good”, contrived stories out there that don’t ring true at all. It’s just there’s so much sadness and loss and dirt in the world that it seems in a way it’s easier to write that than write a well-done happy ending.

    I think of my own life in the past eleven years. My husband and I experienced two miscarriages, then the birth of a severely disabled daughter who died six years later. Tragedy? We have never seen it that way. Yes, it has been sad, but we learned so much of God’s love, glorious sovereignty, and joy in the process that I can’t see it as anything but a beautiful drama. I guess that’s how I approach things, and as a exult I think that’s why I get hung up on O’Connor’s perspective.

    Of course, if she hadn’t written this way, we wouldn’t be able to have this great discussion, so that’s that! :)

  • Loren Warnemuende

    I always appreciate getting your perspective, Becca, and I love the connection to Gandalf and the Balrog. I’ll keep that in mind as I keep reading. I tried to explain my perspective a little better below in response to Jonathan’s question. See if it makes any sense!

  • Loren Warnemuende

    I just listened to the following link that was recently posted on Facebook by a Hutchmooter. It’s a conversation with author Kate DiCamillo (The Tale of Despereaux). The majority of it has nothing to do with this discussion, but about five minutes in she asks about how she always tries to end her stories on a note of hope. They aren’t necessarily happy endings, but they’re hopeful endings. It struck me that this might be a better explanation of what I’m feeling about O’Connor. She has grace, but I’m missing the hope, even more than the happy. Maybe I’m just not seeing it?

    http://www.wuwm.com/programs/lake_effect/lake_effect_segment.php?segmentid=9361

  • http://littlebootsliturgies.blogspot.com/ Becca

    Hi Loren,

    I’m so sorry to hear about your losses. It was moving for me to read about how God has worked in your heart through such deep pain. I am touched by your greater narrative as well as your faith to see it. Beautiful, beautiful you.

    As far as O’Connor, I think this statement you wrote was important: “They aren’t necessarily happy endings, but they’re hopeful endings.” I was glad for this wording, because that is how I feel about almost everything I’ve read of hers.

    Even though the plots might not indicate a clear resolve, her work leaves me hopeful. Perhaps it is because of the underwork she has done. There almost always seem to be clues to order and purpose; and even when those clues are slight, her acknowledgement that the world is grossly amiss aches for a resolution I know is ahead.

    The best way I can describe this is the contrast I feel between O’Connor and secular existentialism. O’Connor seems to have some similar elements to the secular existentialists (acknowledgement of the seeming pointlessness of the world, vivid descriptions of despair and suffering, lack of resolution, etc.) and yet she grabs hold of those same questions and doesn’t flinch.  That she goes there, sees so honestly, and holds to faith strengthens me.

    All this said, I intentionally waited to read this week’s story so I wouldn’t comment on it excessively. O’Connor is so powerful in my life right now, I keep getting all excited and writing too much in the discussion. Perhaps I will feel differently at the end of this piece. :)

  • Loren Warnemuende

    Thanks so much for your input, Becca, and your compassion. I so appreciate that in everything I’ve seen you write. It’s interesting, because something that I often wonder about myself, particularly in my response to difficulties in my life or others, is if I my response tends to be more head than heart. I know that God is in control and has the most beautiful plan, so I avoid dwelling on the grim and gritty. I’m far from the counseling type! My tendency is to look at problems and say, “Well, here’s the solution. You’ll get over it if you let God work.” Not exactly helpful to those in the midst of pain!

    And it’s not how O’Connor writes things. I wonder if that’s part of where my aversion to her approach lies. She says, “Here’s the pain and the sin and the grit. Feel it!” But what I’m staring to see more, thanks to these discussions is that O’Connor also says, “Here’s grace–Will you see it?”

    Thanks for pointing out the contrast between O’Connor and secular existentialism. That’s an excellent point, and one I need to look at again in the writing of others. I think that in the past when I’ve read O’Connor in classes I remember her work next to writers like Camus and Hemingway and the differences between their worldviews was never discussed. Either that, or I was too young to get it; quite possible!

    Keep writing your discoveries, Becca! Don’t hold back too much. I’m sure I’m not the only one who likes to hear what you’ve realized.

  • yankeegospelgirl

     I’m glad I’m not the only one who sees O’Connor this way. Sure, her stories exhibit the nature of fallen man, and they show us that the world is ugly, but… we can easily see that for ourselves! It’s hard to escape those truths in our everyday lives. I think in order for literature to be truly great, it has to offer hard-earned redemption. You need both. There are occasional glimpses of that in O’Connor, but most of the time it’s just telling us what we already knew.

  • yankeegospelgirl

     By the way, if you want an example of a novel that is deeply Christian, but explores pain and suffering at the same time in a way that is sad without ever falling into despair, I can’t recommend Michael O’Brien’s _A Cry of Stone_ highly enough. It’s very Catholic—essentially the entire novel is a study in the meaning of suffering for Christ. But there is always a light and a hope. It’s heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time.

  • http://littlebootsliturgies.blogspot.com/ Becca

    A few days ago, I watched the Director’s Cut of the movie _Amadeus_. Even though it’s not historically sound, I think it’s a brilliant film. By perhaps twenty viewings, it is the movie I’ve watched most in my life.

    One of the concepts that struck me this time as I was watching might possibly relate to this discussion. I can’t remember it verbatim, but the complaint (on team Salieri) was that Mozart’s music didn’t end with enough bang, therefore people didn’t know when to clap.

    I feel like O’Connor’s work is a little like this. ‘More subtle. Less formulaic. ‘Requires a different sort of listening.

  • http://www.jonathan-rogers.com Jonathan Rogers

    I’m mighty glad to have the opportunity to host this great discussion between the two of you, Loren and Becca. I appreciate the honesty that both of you are bringing.

  • yankeegospelgirl

    But “redemptive” or “hopeful” doesn’t have to mean the same thing as “formulaic.” I mean you wouldn’t say that _ A Tale of Two Cities_ is formulaic, right? But it’s very redemptive. Or _Gilead_, to use a modern example.

  • Loren Warnemuende

    I have a feeling that in the end of this summer reading I will still, in many ways, feel as I do now about O’Connor. I will never be one who sits down to read a sad or hard story for pure enjoyment. However, I know I will come out of this wiser, and I’m open to getting surprised by grace like Becca has in this. We shall see! Oh the dangers of branching out of one’s comfort zone :)

  • Loren Warnemuende

    Placing this on my to-be-read list. Thanks!

  • yankeegospelgirl

     You’re welcome. Be prepared that it is EXTREMELY sad, but I think you’ll be drawn in by the beauty of the writing.

  • April Pickle

    I’m catching up on reading the post and comments from last week and am agreeing with our prof. Thanks be to God for the sweet fellowship that is happening here. I can’t describe what a blessing these “offensive stories” and the discussion of them has been to me.

  • Madeleine

    Loren, I’m so glad you got a chance to write this. I was waiting for you because I thought we had similar ideas and wanted to see what you would say. You did a great job expressing my thoughts too. So now I am the one that was on vacation and missed this whole wonderful discussion, much of which I concur with and “liked” now, a week too late. I don’t think I have anything to add at this late time except to thank you all (becca and yankeegospelgirl) for hashing it out and to JR for hosting it.