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Suffering and the sacred in Flannery O'Connor's short stories.

No reader of Flannery O'Connor can miss the importance of suffering in her short stories. Almost all her central figures undergo physical, psychic, and spiritual pain from a variety of sources--disabilities, displacement, discrimination, disorientation, disease, death. What puzzles readers is that some of her characters suffer rigidly and bitterly, undergoing no growth or integration, as in the case of the Bible salesman in "Good Country People" or the Misfit in "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Other characters also suffer but eventually are transformed by their suffering, such as Mrs. Turpin in "Revelation" and Mrs. McIntyre in "The Displaced Person." Many others undergo a partial change toward greater integration or spiritual growth. What accounts for the difference between unprofitable suffering and transformative suffering in her stories? O'Connor herself was well aware that, as she says in a 1963 letter, suffering does not by itself "teach you much about the redemption" (HB 536), and that its value is only possible, not automatically experienced (MM 165). What I will try to show in this article is that to understand suffering as a transformative experience in the stories of O'Connor requires insight into her framework of Christian faith and an ability to discern symbolic, ironic, and allusive dimensions of her fiction.

Flannery O'Connor in her essays and letters makes it clear that she is writing stories from a framework of Catholic theological assumptions, but that she is also creating stories that must be read symbolically in order to interpret how the manners in these stories reveal the mystery in accord with her assumptions (MM 98-99, 111, 124, 132; HB 387, 389). In her worldview, human beings are created by God with innate goodness and freedom, not natural depravity, but with limitations and inclinations to evil. In response to this human condition, God has taken on human nature in Christ, uniting the divine and the human, in order to redeem the human race by this act of grace in cooperation with human freedom. As she says in an essay on the fiction writer, "For me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that" (MM 32). Such redemptive grace works through nature, both human and physical, but transcends it. In short, human life "has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for" (MM 146).

Within this theological overview, O'Connor agrees with Romano Guardini, the German theologian who greatly influenced her, that, in Guardini's words, "what Christ suffered, God suffered" by taking on human nature with its bodily and social existence and conflicts (The Lord 325). The central act of Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection brings about human transformation, for, as O'Connor says, "our return [to innocence] is through the Redemption which was brought about by Christ's death and our participation in it" (MM 165-66). Or, in Guardini's words, "the brief life of God on earth is no episode ending with Jesus' death; the band that connects him with humanity continues through the Resurrection and Ascension into all time" (325). Thus, suffering can become for O'Connor and all people with faith "a shared experience with Christ" (HB 527). However, suffering as such, to be transformative, must be connected with self-emptying love, humility, and solidarity with others, for those are the reasons that God took on the human condition, including its suffering. As St. Paul says in the hymn in Philippians 2, a passage cited by Guardini, Jesus, "though he was by nature God, did not consider being equal to God a thing to be clung to, but emptied himself, taking the nature of a slave and being made like unto men" (326-27).

Because of human blindness and rigidity, "suffering is the deepest of mysteries," according to Teilhard de Chardin, whom O'Connor read with some agreement late in life (qtd. in Kilcourse 273).Teilhard also states that suffering is at first experienced as "an Adversary," but with the light of grace it can be something we come to accept as a way that "uproots our egoism and centers us more completely on God," because ultimately suffering "is a supremely active principle for the humanization and divinization of the universe" as revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ (qtd. in Kilcourse 273). For the individual, suffering, aging, and dying become "forces of diminishment," but they need not defeat one who is united with Christ's transformation of suffering and death into a way to eternal life (Teilhard 87). As Teilhard says, "God ... has already transfigured our sufferings by making them serve our conscious fulfillment" and by making them deepen our union with God (87-88). One of the ways in which suffering brings about humanization is through human solidarity and compassion, especially with suffering people, which can be shown through active efforts to alleviate others' pain. Teilhard saw "Providence across the ages as brooding over the world in ceaseless effort to spare that world its bitter wounds and to bind up its hurts," especially through people who take on or relieve human suffering (84). (1)

AT the age of twenty six, O'Connor learned that what she thought were symptoms of arthritis were actually signs of incipient lupus, a disease that led to her early death thirteen years later in 1964. This disease, which also had taken her father in 1931 when Flannery was sixteen, manifested itself in progressive disintegration of her immune system that led to her loss of her ability to walk and control her muscles. At first, when she believed she was afflicted with what she called "AWRTHRITUS," O'Connor wrote ironically to Betty Boyd Love in 1952, "These days you caint even have you a good psychosomatic ailment" (HB 22). When she eventually was diagnosed with lupus, she rarely complained of its slow undermining of her physical movements. She managed to create a routine in her home in Milledgeville with her mother that allowed her several hours a day of writing, which she continued to follow until her final days. In this life of writing, O'Connor found the routine to be a form of purification, both of her style and of her self. As she said in an essay, "Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. ... It is a plunge into reality and it's very shocking to the system. If the novelist is not sustained by a hope of money, then he must be sustained by a hope of salvation, or he simply won't survive the ordeal" (MM 77-78). (2) This hope of salvation by the writer's "self-abandonment" was explicitly linked in O'Connor's mind, according to John Desmond, with the sufferings of Christ. As she says in the same essay, "... the practice of any virtue demands a certain asceticism and a very definite leaving behind of the niggardly part of the ego. No art is sunk in the self, but rather in art the self becomes self-forgetful ..." (MM 82-83).

Her most explicit comment on the self-purifying power of her illness came in a June 28, 1956 letter to Betty Hester: "I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it's always a place where there's no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don't have it miss one of God's mercies" (HB 163). When she later read Teilhard de Chardin's The Divine Milieu in 1963, she found its teaching on suffering helpful; as she wrote to Janet McKane, "Pere Teilhard talks about 'passive diminishments' in The Divine Milieu. He means those afflictions that you can't get rid of and have to bear. Those that you can get rid of he believes you must bend every effort to get rid of. I think he was a very great man" (HB 509). Even when she went to Lourdes as a patient, she prayed primarily for others, or in her words in the same letter, "I prayed there for the novel I was working on, not for my bones, which I care about less, but I guess my prayers were answered about the novel, inasmuch as I finished it" (HB 509). Her most hopeful theological reflections on her body came in an earlier letter to Betty Hester in 1955:

... I think that when I know what the laws of the flesh and the physical really are, then I will know what God is. We know them as we see them, not as God sees them. For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body.... The resurrection of Christ seems the high point in the law of nature" (HB 100).

When O'Connor was asked in 1961 to write an introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann, a short book about a twelve-year-old girl who died of cancer at a hospice in Atlanta, she was led to reflect on her own growing awareness of the power of sickness in her own life. She wrote, "the creative action of the Christian's life is to prepare his death in Christ. It is a continuous action in which this world's goods are utilized to the fullest, both positive gifts and what Pere Teilhard de Chardin calls 'passive diminishments'" (CW 828). Even in the passive diminishments of her last week of life in 1964, O'Connor was preparing for death by the "creative action" of using her gifts to finish her short story "Parker's Back."

How did O'Connor insinuate, so to speak, these theological assumptions into the world of her fiction? First, she was quite aware that fiction most often deals with human struggles, or, in her words, fiction "is closest to man in his sin and his suffering and his hope" (MM 192). She never apologizes for the violence and consequent suffering in her stories, for they "best reveal what we are essentially" (MM 113-14), just as distorted or exaggerated characters and conflicts reveal the human condition to a world that is blinded by naturalism or secularism. As O'Connor sums up her subject matter, "My subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil," a territory of human sin and suffering (MM 118). More specifically in relation to her theological assumptions, the sufferings of the grotesques in her short stories--both the prideful and the humbled--bring them a share in the redemptive patterns of Christ, who underwent suffering and death as a way to resurrection and transformation for all people. As a French critic has stated, O'Connor's stories "place universal agony once more at the center of the human condition," for God in Christ "is an open wound" (Maurice Levy qtd. in Paulson 159).

O'Connor embodied the theme of suffering in her main characters in myriad ways throughout her short stories. Some of them suffer from the results of their sins, which bring about their own pain and alienation; some suffer as they undergo a stage of human growth or as they meet societal injustice; and some suffer in conscious solidarity with others or in their work to alleviate human pain. The type of suffering, as we shall see, is varied; whether suffering is destructive or redemptive is a matter of grace and freedom. Some of her characters move from suffering to despair; some never reflect on the meaning of their misery; some begin to be transformed in part but retain certain prejudices or blindnesses; others move radically to hope and new life. Thus O'Connor affirms only the "value that suffering can have," but this value the secular world does not realize. Discussing suffering in O'Connor's first and last stories one critic has it that:

Within personal loss and recovery O'Connor finds a new order of creation. The pattern beneath all patterns for her turns out to be a death and a resurrection. In the mature unfolding of O'Connor's imagination, the duty to suffer amounts to the devoir to redemption. (Giannone, "Consecration" 10)

IN the first volume of her short stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, O Connor clearly, if ironically, portrays characters who experience suffering in surprising ways. The most ironic are those who remain trapped in their suffering and are never transformed by it, principally because they are fixed in their secular or self-centered minds. Such is Manley Pointer, the Bible salesman in "Good Country People." At first during their tryst, Hulga resists his efforts to make her say "I love you" by showing a sort of hopeless compassion: "You poor baby ... We are all damned, but some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there's nothing to see. It's a kind of salvation" (CW 280). As she looks out from the barn loft, she sees dark woods beneath a hollow sky, a symbol that suggests the presence of Mystery even in her skeptical world. When the salesman insists that she show him her love is true by taking off her wooden leg, Hulga mistakenly trusts in love for the first time: "It was like surrendering to him completely. It was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his" (CW 281). At this point, she undergoes a partial transformation by sharing her suffering out of love and compassion, as echoed in the Gospel allusion to Christ's call to find one's life by losing it (Mark 8:35, John 12:25). However, without her leg, she feels totally dependent on the salesman, a feeling that he uses to accuse her of having some sort of faith: "You just awhile ago said you didn't believe in nothing. I thought you was some girl!" (CW 282). Finally, he reveals that his exploitation of her is part of his diabolical routine: "I use a different name at every house I call at and I don't stay nowhere long.... I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!" (CW 283). In this powerful scene, Hulga's compassion leads her to total rejection by the salesman, who, in his demonic despair, never faces his own suffering and instead makes a mockery of hers. Hulga herself ends up watching him run off, "his blue figure struggling successfully over the green speckled lake" (283). As Ralph Wood has suggested, here she envisions Pointer as a sort of pseudo-savior who appears to walk on water, but whose rejection saves her only from a "false faith" (209). She has been seeking a philosophical freedom, what Preston Browning calls a freedom "to shed the weight of consciousness and pain which life in the world entails," and seeking "to circumvent, without the suffering which redemption always entails ... the fallen nature of man" (48-49). The woods of Mystery have disappeared and she is left only partially transformed by her suffering.

Three other early stories also portray people trapped in their suffering, either because they exploit others or are victims of exploitation. The most vicious exploiter is Mr. Shiftlet in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," who tricks the Lucynell Craters, both mother and daughter, by a false marriage and by stealing their automobile. Although he mouths pious praise of his mother and says he is seeking a view of the sunset, he ends up isolating himself and feeling "that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him" (CW 183). In a more comic mode, General Sash in "A Late Encounter with the Enemy" seeks to regain his falsely achieved past as a general in a Civil War film premiere by presiding as a famous guest at his granddaughter's graduation. But in his bitterness of dementia at 104, he dies onstage under the illusion that he is being chased by the hollow words of the speakers and cheated by the disappointments of the past. In "A Circle in the Fire," the young girl is introduced to the power of evil and helpless suffering when she tries to confront three teenage boys who terrorize her mother and then set fire to destroy the property they cannot have. As the girl looks at the face of her mother at the end of the story, "It was the face of the new misery she felt, but on her mother it looked old and it looked as if it might have belonged to anybody, a Negro or a European or to Powell himself ... She stood taut listening, and could just catch in the distance a few wild high shrieks of joy as if the prophets were dancing in the fiery furnace, in the circle the angel had cleared for them" (CW 251). The mixture of meaningless suffering and the hint of a prophetic path to meaning in suffering is caught in the ironic use of the Book of Daniel in the final quotation.

In "The Temple of the Holy Ghost," a young Catholic girl confronts the problem of evil in the form of the suffering body of a circus freak. At first she considers herself superior to two visiting fourteen-year-old cousins, whom she calls "practically morons" in part because they think that the teaching about the temple of their bodies is extremely silly (CW 197). The girl herself shows her pharisaical pride by thanking God that she was not a member of an evangelical sect, like that from which two young men came who were courting the cousins. When she tells her cousins that "I'm not as old as you all, but I'm about a million times smarter," they tell her about meeting a hermaphrodite at the fair. When he is viewed as a freak, he tells the onlookers that "God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain't disputing His way" (CW 206). When the girl half dreams about the hermaphrodite, she hears him chanting "You are God's temple" and "I am a temple of the Holy Ghost" (CW 207). The next day, when she rides with her cousins on their return to the convent school, she follows her mother into the chapel where she kneels and finally realizes she is in the presence of God and of Christ in the Eucharist. Suddenly, she thinks of Christ and the hermaphrodite in the same vision, and comes to realize that he and Christ were both suffering from being exhibited to the public eye as "freaks" of nature. After the Benediction, she is embraced by the big nun who "nearly smothered her in the black habit, mashing the side of her face into the crucifix hitched onto her belt" (209), an event that comically brings her close to another adolescent form of suffering. On her way home, the girl has a sort of epiphany when she sees the sinking sun as another identification with the elevated Host in the chapel. Both were "drenched in blood," a final symbol to her of the redemptive suffering of Christ, for her, for the hermaphrodite, and for all bodily human beings (CW 209).

In two other Good Man stories, the main characters encounter each other in a painful conflict, and one is transformed while the other is fixated by the suffering. In "A Good Man is Hard to Find," the Misfit admits that he is not a "good man" (CW 148) but does not want any help, for, as he says, "I'm doing all right by myself" (150). He admits a sort of secular belief in Christ as someone who "thown everything off balance" by his life and death (151), but without faith in his resurrection, the Misfit finds "no pleasure but meanness" (152). At the very end of his encounter with the grandmother, he is given a chance to move out of his pain by the old lady, who gives up her own meanness in an unexpected act of compassion, when she sees "the man's twisted face close to her own as if he were going to cry" and she murmurs, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" This act of gratuitous care causes the Misfit nothing but pain, "as if a snake had bitten him" (152). The result is that the grandmother becomes "a good woman" in the last moment of her life as she suffers death from the Misfit's gun.

Similarly, in "The Displaced Person," Mr. and Mrs. Shortley encounter Mr. Guizac, the displaced person from Poland, whom they see only as a threat to their jobs and as a foreign enemy, like those the husband had fought in World War II. The displaced person's suffering in the war and now in exile elicits no compassion from the Shortleys, who remain fixed in their bitterness and see him only as a threat to bring suffering on them. As a result, Mrs. Shortley brings upon herself a stroke and Mr. Shortley destroys the threat by setting up an accident that kills the displaced person. Ironically, this deadly cruelty eliminates the threat but also leads him to lose his job. This hardness of heart in the face of suffering is contrasted in the story with the compassion of the priest and with the final beginning of change in the owner, Mrs. McIntyre: she becomes unable to continue running the farm and ends up disabled by a nervous disease to such an extent that all she can do is receive visits from the priest, who feeds the peacocks (symbols of Christ and transfiguration) and explains Catholic teaching to her. According to O'Connor's personal interpretation of the story, "the displaced person did accomplish a kind of redemption in that ... he set Mrs. McIntyre on the road to a new kind of suffering, not Purgatory as St. Catherine would conceive it ... but Purgatory at least as a beginning of suffering" (HB 118).

The most controversial transformation through suffering in this earlier volume occurs in "The Artificial Nigger," a story whose theme, according to O'Connor herself, "was the redemptive quality of Negro suffering for us all" (HB 78). However, some critics find that this theme is too deeply hidden in the final scene of revelation, in which the rural proud Mr. Head and his grandson, after suffering exile through getting lost in the big city, come up against a dilapidated plaster figure of a Negro on a rich family's lawn. As the two wanderers, who have lost trust in each other during their travel to Atlanta, peer at the figure, they unconsciously stand "almost exactly the same way and their hands trembling identically in their pockets" (CW 230). In becoming like each other, Mr. Head and the boy become also aware of the "great mystery" embodied in the demeaning plaster Negro. The vision "dissolves their differences like an action of mercy." Although the grandfather tries to laugh off the experience, he later admits to himself that mercy "grew out of agony, which is not denied to any man and is given in strange ways to children." He realizes for the first time that mercy "is all a man could carry into death to give his Maker and he suddenly burned with shame that he had so little of it to take with him" (CW 230). Whether or not this insight is too explicitly theological for such an uneducated character to phrase in those words, it is clear that Mr. Head and his grandson have been partially transformed by sharing the suffering of each other and of the people embodied in the plaster Negro. The grandfather realizes his sinfulness, but also "that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own ... since God loved in proportion as He forgave" (CW 231). The boy's final words also echo what O'Connor may have thought about this explicitly theological ending to what she once called her best story: "I'm glad I went once, but I'll never go back again" (231). As in other stories by O'Connor that deal with prejudiced Southern whites, Mr. Head and his grandson reach a partial change of heart through an imaginative solidarity, through they never fully transcend their racial biases as they return to their fives in segregated Georgia. (3)

IN her second volume of stories, Everything that Rises Must Converge, O'Connor continues to create characters who suffer but whose suffering leads some to despair, others to unreflective blindness, some to partial change, and others to radical transformation. However, she also devises more complex stories that show how people who cause suffering in others eventually may begin to realize their pride and undergo a painful conversion to repentance and love. Sometimes this change comes too late to help those they have despised, or to instill in them a Christ-like love.

In the title story of her second volume, the main character, Julian, spends most of the story causing suffering for his naive and prejudiced but good intentioned mother, who thinks she knows who she is in her Southern pride and condescension. Her son remains aloof in his educated liberal "mental bubble, from [which] he could see out and judge, but in it he was safe from any kind of penetration from without" (CW 491). Only after he experiences the suffering of his mother, who has a stroke at the end of her conflict with a proud African-American woman, does Julian emerge from his bubble of self-satisfaction. When he sees her with her distorted face and unfixed eyes, he cries out in his own pain and his first act of compassion, "Mother ... Darling, sweetheart, wait!" and runs for help toward "a cluster of lights he saw in the distance ahead of him." These lights, symbols perhaps of grace and enlightenment, fade as he encounters suffering and death for the first time: "The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow" (CW 500). As with Mrs. McIntyre, the suffering and death of another person becomes the occasion for the first movement of Julian into the light and possible redemption.

Another character whose pride and lack of faith mislead him into causing suffering is Sheppard in "The Lame Shall Enter First." In this story, the main character in his atheism believes he is able to save the disabled Rufus by getting him a special shoe, but is unable by his strict discipline to save his own son, Norton, from self-centeredness and grief over the death of his mother. As the delinquent Rufus reveals to Sheppard his ineffective attempts to play the savior, the father finally realizes, in his words spoken at the end of the story, "I did more for him [Rufus] than I did for my own child" (CW 631). Here he sees that the sufferings he caused his child and tried to alleviate in Rufus were the results of his attempt "to feed his vision of himself" as a savior who "had stuffed his own emptiness with good works like a glutton." Like Julian's feeling toward his mother, Sheppard has a last-minute feeling of "agonizing love for the child" that "rushed over him like a transfusion of life." As he runs upstairs to see Norton, he imagines the boy to be "his salvation; all light." He promises wildly that "he would never let him suffer again. He would be mother and father ... he loved him ... he would never fail him again" (CW 632). This enlightenment and beginning of compassion, unfortunately, come too late to save his son from the suicide that the boy believed in his naivete "had launched his flight into space" to be with his mother. However, the epiphany shows that Sheppard is moving from being a false, pharisaical "Good Shepherd" who causes suffering to his son to being a true father who seeks to prevent suffering in others. Sheppard's transformation is tragic because it comes too late, but he certainly undergoes a sort of conversion to a less self-centered and more Christ-centered life.

This second volume's most explicit story of redemption and repentance of a Pharisee through suffering is "Revelation." In this story, Mrs. Turpin begins as a proud middle-class farm owner who looks down on most other people and ranks all in a hierarchy, on the top of which are rich white landowners and on the bottom are poor black workers and white trash. In the middle of a self-satisfied conversation in a doctor's office, she is suddenly assaulted by a college student, symbolically named Mary Grace, who calls her a "wart hog from hell" (CW 653). This seemingly gratuitous and painful attack greatly upsets Mrs. Turpin, leads her to become more sympathetic with her black farm workers, and eventually draws her into a conversation with God that becomes a moment of revelation. The suffering she endured in the public humiliation remains with her and leads to her enlightenment and purification. For she is torn apart by the possibility that she is, in her own words, "a hog and me both ... saved and from hell too" (CW 652). As Susan Srigley has argued, the conversation with God and moment of revelation are a purgatorial experience that produces both an enlightenment about "the measure of her soul" and a movement into "the true ordering of love" (143). In seeing in her pigpen vision the reversal of her private hierarchy into the new hierarchy of the last being first and the first being last, Mrs. Turpin not only realizes where she stands in God's view of the world, but also takes her first step away from her proud self-love toward a humble love of others. In the movements of Ruby Turpin from pride through pain and resistance to humility, Srigley finds "the pattern of ascent and descent and the purifying movement toward God, reflecting the kenotic patterning of Christ who empties himself in the service of others" (159).

Another example of the redemptive role of suffering in O'Connor's later stories is the transformation of the title character in "Parker's Back." For most of the story, Parker embodies the pride and unbelief of characters whose suffering leads them not to enlightenment or salvation, but simply to more rigidity and pain. The pain of tattooing, of shame and abuse by his fundamentalist wife, and of rejection by his friends--all of this leads only to a sort of despair and hardening in Parker for most of the story. However, when he tries to win over his wife by having a large tattoo of a Byzantine Christ carved into his back, he unwittingly identifies himself with the suffering Christ. Previously he had been knocked off his tractor by a cross-like tree and then kept awake after the tattooing by a neon cross shining into his room. This semi-conscious identification with Christ's suffering has its effects on Parker, for "the eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed." As he returns to his wife, no longer to dominate her but to "please her," he feels "as if he were a stranger to himself, driving into a new country" (CW 672). At the same time, by taking on the face of Christ as his other self, he brings about greater suffering from his friends' ridicule and from his wife's accusation of idolatry in getting a tattoo of Christ ("God don't look like that!"). At the end of the story, just as he experiences his worst humiliation and suffering, Parker accepts the beating from his wife, which "nearly knocked him senseless and large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ" (674). Then he staggers out of the house to lean against a tree and cry like a baby. Whatever he may consciously realize, Parker has begun his movement through suffering to insight and compassion by taking on the sufferings of Christ (literally) and by accepting himself as Obadiah Elihue, a "servant of the Lord" (which his names mean in Hebrew), a prophet who has been rejected but who does not reject others. As in the speech by Elihu in Chapter 33 of the Book of Job, Parker "is chastened on his bed by pain/ and unceasing suffering within his frame," but finally finds in the figure pictured on his back "a mediator,/ To show him what is right for him/ and bring [him] back to justice/ ... [for God] has found him a ransom" (qtd. in Driskell and Brittain 121-22).

In a final short story, "Judgement Day," O'Connor returns to a 1946 story, "The Geranium," about racial conflict and suffering, a topic that caused the most disagreement in the critical responses to "The Artificial Nigger" in her first volume of short stories. In this last story, which she was still tinkering with while dying, she creates a prophet who rejects others, especially those who are suffering more than he is. Throughout his life, Tanner has rejected most people, or considered himself superior to them, especially the suffering black people in his Southern hometown. Yet his black parolee, Coleman, whom he dominates by threatening with a knife, becomes not only his handyman but also his only friend and in his later years almost his double. As for the rising black entrepreneurs in the South, such as Doctor Foley who takes over Tanner's property, Tanner was tempted to kill them but "he had been weakened for that kind of violence by the fear of hell" (CW 681). When Tanner is forced to move to New York City and live with his daughter, he continues his rejecting ways, considering even successful African-Americans to be beneath him. When he speaks condescendingly to the black actor who moves into an adjacent apartment, Tanner suffers rejection himself when the actor slams him "against the wall and tosses him back into his daughter's rooms.

After suffering a stroke from this encounter, Tanner tries to hold onto his ambiguous Christian faith in the final scene, where he makes plans to return to the South to die. He had threatened suffering for his daughter if she did not send him home ("Bury me here [in New York City] and burn in hell!" [CW 678]), but she refuses. As he secretly plans his escape to catch a freight train to Georgia, he tells his daughter that "the Judgement is coming ... The Sheep'll be separated from the goats" (CW 686), unaware that this passage from Matthew 25 promises eternal happiness only to those who have treated well "the least of the brethren." When his daughter leaves him alone for a short time, Tanner apologizes to her for getting sick and for getting in the fight with the black neighbor, but then admits to himself that he has told her a lie. Struggling to leave the apartment, Tanner prays confidently Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," but he eventually falls down the stairwell and lands upside down in the urban "valley of darkness." In hanging there, he dreams that he has been taken home by train to the South on Judgement Day, where he thinks he is meeting his old servant and belated friend, Coleman. In this dream he has reached the promised home that is echoed in the final lines of the twenty-third Psalm, "I will dwell in the house of the Lord all my days." He also mimics the final resurrection by leaping from his coffin to signal his reunion with Coleman. In reality, the black actor who lives next to his daughter's apartment, whom he had earlier insulted, finds Tanner there and pushes him through the spokes of the banister so that he ends up hanging like a man in the stocks near death. The actor prophetically tells him, "Maybe this here judgment day for you" (CW 694). Although some critics have tried to find in this final scene a redemptive turnaround, the ending remains as ambiguous as any in O'Connor's short stories. (4) The suffering of Tanner resembles that of the crucified Christ in its manner but not in his mind, for he gives no indication that he realizes the folly of most of his life. All we hear near the end as he sees the black actor is Tanner calling for help, "Help me up, Preacher. I'm on my way home!" (CW 694). This proves to be literally true, as his daughter relents and ships his body to be buried in Georgia. His final earthly journey proves to be as ironic as his eschatological "trip home." As he dreamed before he left the apartment for his unfortunate fall, "the next day or the morning after, dead or alive, he would be home. Dead or alive. It was being there that mattered; the dead or alive did not" (CW 677).

Perhaps the ambiguity of this ending, as well as that of several other O'Connor short stories, can be mitigated by recalling what she said about Mrs. Turpin in "Revelation"--that her final vision was "purgatorial." As O'Connor wrote in a 1955 letter to Betty Hester, "I am a strong believer in Purgatory. I already have a berth there reserved for myself. Have you ever read St. Catherine of Genoa's Treatese [sic] ... on Purgatory?" (HB 113). As Srigley has elaborated in her explication of "Revelation," O'Connor read that medieval treatise in which St. Catherine teaches that Purgatory (in its process of purification both in one's lifetime and in the movement through dying) "purifies humans of their mistaken notions about themselves in relation to God" and of their self-righteousness, in addition to bringing about a realization of the love of God (136ff). In a letter to Betty Hester, O'Connor likens Mrs. McIntyre's suffering to Purgatory (HB 118). As we have noted, Mrs. Turpin in "Revelation" goes through a similar suffering in her "purgatorial vision" of the reversed hierarchy in which she and other self-righteous people experience their middle-class "virtues ... being burned away" (CW 654).

In all these cases of purgatorial suffering, the characters in the short story have not reached a complete realization of themselves and their relation to others and to God. They have only begun coming to a painful consciousness of their blindness or biases. However, because they have begun a process of turning toward the light, they are in a situation similar to what O'Connor believed about persons in Purgatory. They have taken the first step in a process of transformation that can lead through suffering to salvation and love. Her understanding of Purgatory, as influenced by her reading of Teilhard de Chardin, was compatible with more recent Catholic

theological description of it as the process of purification, of self-perfection, by which we become more and more oriented to God's self-giving love. It is indeed a process of suffering inflicted upon us, not so much extrinsically as a punishment for sin, but as an intrinsic pain that anyone who chooses to follow the self-sacrificing agapic love demonstrated by Christ must bear. Such love requires the purging of our residual egoism, a dying to self, so that God's love may rule our heart and mind and will. (Morrissey 29)

This ambiguous mixture of death and life, of blindness and vision, and of suffering and salvation appears, as we have seen, throughout the short stories of O'Connor. To some in the stories, the suffering of the evil hardens them in their meanness, whereas in some others the suffering leads to their transformation and turning toward the sacred. In other stories, the suffering protagonist undergoes a partial or incipient conversion to self-emptying love for God or other human beings. In the more complex stories in the later volume, the characters are caught up in the social system of the segregated South, where they are often inured to violence, and only at the end of the story do they begin to realize some of their blindness or to take responsibility for alleviating the sufferings of others. These later stories, in containing a "purgatorial vision," are all a reminder of the theme that a recent critic has found recurrent in O'Connor's fiction: "The redemption of the characters in O'Connor's fiction is often mediated through the violent, who unwittingly 'warn the children of God of the terrible speed of mercy'" (Candler 22-23). (5)

Works Cited

Baumgaertner, Jill P. Flannery O'Connor: A Proper Scaring. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1988.

Browning, Jr., Preston M. Flannery O'Connor. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1974.

Candler, Jr, Peter M. "The Analogical Imagination of Flannery O'Connor." Christianity and Literature. 60.1 (Autumn 2010): 11-33.

Desmond, John. "Flannery O'Connor, Simone Weil, Writing, and the Crucifixion." Logos 13.1 (Winter 2010): 35-52.

Driskell, Leon V. and Joan T. Brittain. The Eternal Crossroads: The Art of Flannery O'Connor. Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1971.

Giannone, Richard. "Consecration of the End." In Since Flannery O'Connor: Essays on Contemporary American Short Story. Ed. by Loren Logsdon and Charles W. Mayer. Western Illinois Press, 1897. 9-20.

--. Flannery O'Connor: Hermit Novelist. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2000. Guardini, Romano. The Lord. Chicago: Regnery, 1954.

Kilcourse, George A. Flannery O'Connor's Religious Imagination. N. Y.: Paulist Press, 2001.

Martin, Carter W. The True Country: Themes in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 1968.

Morrissey, Michael P. "Afterlife." In New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, ed. Michael Downey. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993.

O'Connor, Flannery. Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works [CW]. New York: Library of America, 1988.

--. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor [HB]. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. NY: Vintage, 1979.

--. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose [MM]. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. NY: Farrar, 1969.

Paulson, Suzanne Morrow. Flannery O'Connor: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Soelle, Dorothee. Suffering. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975

Srigley, Susan. Flannery O'Connor's Sacramental Art. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 2004.

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Divine Milieu. London: Fontana Books, 1957.

Wood, Ralph C. Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004.


(1) This last aspect of suffering has been elaborated on by Soelle in Suffering.

2) This passage is also cited by Desmond (36-37). He calls additional attention to O'Connor's citation of Francois Mauriac's advice to writers: "Purify the source."

(3) See Paulson 65ff. for subtle insights into O'Connor's stories about racism.

(4) Kilcourse 292-95; Giannone, Hermit 258-70; Martin 23-27; Wood 140-42 ft. all argue for his redemption; Baumgartner 157-67 and Paulson 56-75 and others emphasize Tanner's blindness to the end.

(5) For Candler's quote here, see O'Connor, The Violent Bear It Away. (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Cudahy, 1955, 1960) 242.
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Author:Leigh, Davis J.
Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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