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Feminine Wiles.

It's easy to dismiss American fiction from the 1950s and early 1960s as chronicles from a period of quiescence, or as safe literature that was gathering its strength for the explosion of narrative invention that was to come. Such a position is easy, but, I think, wrong. Mid-century fiction was remarkably innovative, from the deep subversions of John Cheever to the chilling fables of Bernard Malamud to the cultivated rebelliousness of Jack Kerouac. But even in a literary period filled with odd ducks and anomalous characters, Flannery O'Connor created a voice so specific that still, forty years after her death, the sound of her prose is instantly recognizable.

In a period when American intellectuals cultivated a cool aesthetic and hot politics, she wrote about boiling fingers of light and managed scarcely to mention politics except in the most oblique ways--quite an evasion for someone living in Georgia in the early 1960s. When many celebrated writers, notably Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, cultivated an inclusive, urbane prose style that rejoiced in abundance, O'Connor's signature manner was short and abrupt, deliberately countrified and characterized by a jut-jawed impatience with nearly everything, especially anything valued highly by the literary culture of her time. Regarding the virtue of compassion, for instance, crankily defined by her in "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction" as "a word that sounds good in anybody's mouth and which no book jacket can do without," she went on to say, "Usually I think what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human" (MM 43).

She had little tolerance for weakness, and not notably more for humans. It's both illuminating and highly entertaining to read O'Connor's collected, witty letters and see her frustration with the audience she spent her short life trying to strong-arm into acquiescence with her passionately held views. As her famous ars poetica from "The Fiction Writer & His Country" states, "... you have to make your vision apparent by shock--to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures." (MM 34) So much for subtlety, or the seductions of charm. O'Connor won readers by the pitiless strength of her intellect and her unsparing view.

Given the combative nature of her art, it seems wrong-headed to the point of insult to think about O'Connor in terms of feminine wiles or girlishness. Her prose was testy in the extreme, intent on skewering every character she introduced onto the page as well as any reader incautious enough to allow herself, in an unguarded moment, to start sympathizing with one of those characters. CAVEAT LECTOR ought to be written on the frontispiece of her Library of America Collected Works.

And so it is equally peculiar, if not dangerous, to think about O'Connor's female characters as representations of feminine identity in the American South at mid-century. As a rule, the women in her fiction are identical to the men--blunt spoken, plain featured, misdirected and hobbled by a self-concept that outstrips their true worth. The case can he made that O'Connor's fiction enacts a feminist perspective simply because her female characters are the equals of her male ones in their self-delusion and moral atrophy. "Good Country People"'s Hulga, with her one leg, could easily match Julian from "Everything That Rises Must Converge," sneer for sneer. Mrs. Turpin for Mr. Head. The Misfit for Mrs. Greenleaf. Any fan of O'Connor's can while away a pleasant half-hour matching up her fools and holy idiots--except for one.

The single female character set apart in O'Connor's work because she is a woman, and therefore other, and therefore desirable, appears in O'Connor's late story, "Parker's Back." The tale is part of the clutch of stories written when the lupus that killed O'Connor was afflicting her most painfully, and when her stories began to investigate territory that was new for the author. "Everything That Rises Must Converge" ponders some of the effects of the burgeoning civil rights movement seen through O'Connor's acid-etched lens, through which no character emerges as a moral victor. "Judgement Day" is set in New York, with Georgia established as the locus of desire, like Paradise. And "Parker's Back"? That story is about marriage.

O'Connor's work is full of married characters, but in most cases the fact of marriage is irrelevant to the working-out of their fate. A Mr. Turpin exists in "Revelation," but his presence is scarcely noted by his wife, except as one more accessory to her well-decorated life. Bailey in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" comes equipped with a Mrs. Bailey, mostly memorable for the green head-kerchief she wears "that had two points on the top like a rabbit's ears" (CS 117). Marriages tend to exist in O'Connor's fiction as narrative convenience, not points of study, which may explain why more of O'Connor's characters are widowed than married. 'The point is worth making because a reader might not notice much difference between living spouses and those passed on.

So it is startling to see that "Parker's Back" begins with a discussion of wedlock.
 Parker's wife was sitting on the front porch floor, snapping
 beans. ... The skin on her face was thin and drawn as tight as the
 skin on an onion and her eyes were gray and sharp like the points of
 two icepicks. Parker understood why he had married her--he
 have got her any other way--but he couldn't understand why he
 with her now. She was pregnant and pregnant women were not his
 favorite kind. Nevertheless, he stayed as if she had him conjured. He
 was puzzled and ashamed of himself (CS 510). 

O'Connor displays several of her signature tropes here--the hapless character, O.E. Parker, in the grip of a desire he neither wishes for nor understands; the merciless object of desire who is indifferent to the yearning directed toward her; the tone that is mouth-puckeringly laconic. The uninviting description of Sarah Ruth's eyes introduces a motif that will come to dominate the story, as O.E. struggles to make his wife acknowledge him. If he knew a little better the world his creator has put him in, he might not strive so. Eyes, signifying the divine vision, are prominent in O'Connor's work, as is the act of seeing, which usually has unpleasant consequences. To be seen in O'Connor's literary universe is to be exposed, laid bare. When her characters' scales fall from their eyes, they see themselves as God sees them, and are forced to acknowledge a lifetime of minginess, cheating and the general poverty of the human condition. In other words, instead of being recipients of compassion for which O'Connor had so little esteem, characters in her stories are held accountable for "human weakness because human weakness is human" (MM 181).

Weakness is a quality that O.E. Parker has in spades. As a youth, long before he met Sarah Ruth, he was lazy and flabby, excited to action only when he saw a tattooed man at a fair "flexing his muscles so that the arabesque of men and beasts and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own" (513). Moved by the beauty of the patterns, O.E. set out to imitate the man, and started covering himself with tattoos. To his delight, the tattoos made him more and more attractive to the girls who had never liked him before, even though he himself is never pleased, the overall look being "not of one intricate arabesque of colors but of something haphazard and botched" (514)--exactly what a mere human can expect when he sets out to imitate his Creator.

Botched or not, the tattoos are of little moment to Sarah Ruth, whose eyes are fixed unswervingly on her heavenly reward and who tells O.E. that the eagle on his bicep looks like a chicken. The one quality O.E. cherishes about himself is a matter of indifference to her, and such indifference upsets his shaky self-worth. He sets out to gain her admiration the only way he knows how--with another tattoo, this one on his back, the single space on his body still available for decoration and one that is nicely filled with symbolic significance: From now on, Parker had better watch his back. This significance doesn't occur to O.E., however. In fact, the more he contemplates the scheme, the harder it draws him. He decides to get a tattoo of God on his back. He decides that this act will please his wife. He is wrong.

The Christian metaphor O'Connor draws here is precise. Parker's pride in his own works is futile and vain--"Vanity of vanities," Sarah Ruth keeps saying, whacking Parker with a broom--and he must learn the error of his ways and thinking before he can hope to enter the kingdom of heaven. And in this story O'Connor lets us see what that kingdom is, in concrete terms: Sarah Ruth.

As a heavenly reward, she is dismaying. Again and again O'Connor's narrative insists upon Sarah Ruth's plainness and meanness. Even Parker cannot understand why he so desires her, but his desire holds true and is purified throughout the story, until O.E.'s single, humble ambition is to please his wife. But Sarah Ruth's eves, like the eyes Parker himself has tattooed on his back, are unappeasable--in fact, in the end, hers are more demanding than God's. Although early on, when O.E. is sleeping at the Haven of Light Christian Mission and thinks of Sarah Ruth, "[h]er eyes appeared soft and dilatory compared with the eyes in the book" (524), the fondness of distance is affecting his memory. The eyes of the tattooed icon are merely "all-demanding," while Sarah Ruth's eyes harden steadily, right up to the story's last moment, when she unflinchingly watches her husband, shut out of the house and leaning against a tree, "crying like a baby" (530).

O'Connor is scarcely the first writer to depict marriage as a union of unequal partners, and she is not unique in her portrayal of a wife as remote and infinitely demanding. The striking quality about "Parker's Back" is the fact that it is genuinely a love story--O'Connor's only one--and that for all the irony that drenches the story, O.E.'s helpless affection for his wife is observed with tenderness.

Tenderness is a quality that O'Connor probably would have prized nearly as much as compassion, and she is cagey about expressing it. O.E. experiences love not as a pleasure, but as a plunge into deeper and deeper gloom: "Not knowing for certain why he continued to stay with a woman who was both ugly and pregnant and no cook made him generally nervous and irritable, and he developed a little tic in the side of his face" (519). The description is not exactly couched in the language of Romantic excess, but surely the symptoms are familiar. In O'Connor's other work, such profound disquiet is the sign that the Lord is on the horizon and trouble is coming, but in this case O.E. is driven to the city, where he sleeps at the Heaven of Light, wishing he were "not in a bed by himself. He longed miserably for Sarah Ruth. Her sharp tongue and icepick eyes were the only comfort he could bring to mind" (525). Irony is present here, but the language is also respectful of O.E.'s misery, and O'Connor stops short of the tartness that she normally deploys in the face of human emotion.

Not only that, but she allows Parker's emotions to deepen and resonate as O.E. conflates his wife with the almighty, Alter taking five minutes to drink a pint of whiskey, he engages in an examination of his soul, and ponders Sarah Ruth.
 The thought of her brought him slowly to his feet. She would know
 what he had to do. She would clear up the rest of it, and she would
 at least be pleased. It seemed to him that, all along, that was what
 he wanted, to please her (527). 

By this point O.E. understands only one thing, but he understands it with a clarity that has heretofore evaded him: He expects his wife to save him. And she, who will not put up with idolatry in any fashion, is grimly prepared to enact salvation, though not in the way that he hopes. This is irony of O'Connor's patented fashion, but it is injected with a warmth and human pathos by the last line in the passage: "It seemed to him that, all along, that was what he wanted, to please her." 'The sentence's tone grows transparent, and O'Connor's shaping hand draws back, allowing us to see Parker's emotion without comment. Uncharacteristically, she allows readers to be moved by Parker's human love. Even though what he feels is a love that is somehow, in Parker's fuddled understanding, mixed up with a turn toward God, it is presented as human love first and ultimately.

O'Connor, who died in 1965 at the age of 39, never married and kept whatever romantic affections she might have under the heaviest of wraps. Many readers and critics have speculated about her sexual orientation, focusing on a tantalizing admission in one of her letters that she did know the pains of romantic desire. Certainly her most passionate and enthusiastic correspondences were carried on with women. (Since most of her adult life was constrained by her illness, she conducted the bulk of her social life by means of letters.) Whether or not such speculation is true, whether she longed for intimacy for herself, it is undeniable that O'Connor could write about marriage only as an onlooker, and this story holds something uniquely like yearning. That perspective was sufficient for her to create a characterization in O.E. Parker unlike any other in her oeuvre. She portrays this man in love with a gentleness that seems remarkably like compassion, whether O'Connor would countenance that description or not. If anything, the characterization of Parker has the sense of having been written despite O'Connor--as if she had meant to be harder on him, but could not do it. Her depiction of human love is presented on a human scale, and results in a story whose fierceness is enhanced by its ability to contain a view of life less apocalyptic, still comic and finally moving.

Works Cited

O'Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981.

--.The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975.
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Title Annotation:60th Anniversary - Flannery O'Connor Issue
Author:McGraw, Erin
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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