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A Cluster of Freaks or Diamonds?
© 4 September 2001, Stephen Sparrow

Whether innocent, ignorant or arrogant; wise, foolish or ridiculous; Flannery O’Connor’s fictional characters sparkle like diamonds in their ability to provide the reader with insight into himself.

For those of us who inhabit the pharasaical splendour of normality (whatever that noun means), none can claim to be indifferent to the unusual or the bizarre, whether it is to a dog on water skis, the birth of Siamese twins or toward people who believe the earth is flat.   While not suggesting that novelist and short story writer Flannery O’Connor had a pharasaical turn of mind, it must be admitted that she had more than a passing interest in the bizarre.   As a child she kept chickens, and she admitted in her essay "The King of The Birds", to having a passion for the unusual. Chickens with frizzled plumage or which had each eye a different colour or had an overlong neck or a crooked comb or anything out of the ordinary.   She said she was always on the lookout for a bird with three legs or three wings “but nothing in that line ever turned up.”   At the age of five however, she did have a chicken that could walk backwards and its ‘fame’ spread all the way to New York City from where Pathe News dispatched a photographer to Savannah to capture it on film.  Later, as an adult, O’Connor was an avid newspaper reader and for her own pleasure and edification, often clipped bizarre product advertisements or items about offbeat beauty pageants and competitions.    So, having an eye for what constitutes a departure from normality, is it really all that surprising that she should have used ‘the weird’ to colour her stories, leaving us to contemplate deformity and grotesquery, albeit with this difference, that in all of her stories, the real deformity highlighted is theological and often this message doesn’t hit home to the reader until later: much later.   But, whatever the spark that set it going we should be grateful, as Flannery O’Connor has provided us with a wonderful selection of oddball characters.    Whether innocent, ignorant or arrogant: wise, foolish or ridiculous: they sparkle like diamonds in their ability to provide the reader with insight into himself, especially when we try to reject the transcendent moral authority offered by Christianity.   We’re now going to look at a few of these ‘freaks’.   We’re going to rub them a little to see what it is that really makes them sparkle.   But first, we need help from some of Flannery O’Connor’s own definitions and beliefs.

She once lectured under the title of "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction," in which she said:

"Whenever I am asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognise one.   To be able to recognise a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the conception of the whole man is still, in the main, theological."

And from another lecture "The Fiction Writer and His Country" comes this:

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience...to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large startling figures.

Now these statements seem to imply that O’Connor had an agenda, but, the truth is that she rejected any idea of an agenda. She was a Catholic from birth and what she saw she saw with Catholic vision and she told her stories using that same vision, i.e. of people deprived of something she regarded as normal.    That might sound awfully like smugness as well but she was still ahead of the eight ball on that, when, in one of her many letters, she told a friend that the “great Catholic sin is smugness.” But we must allow Miss O’Connor to escape the earlier charge of having an agenda, so let’s return to the first source in which she also said, “When we talk about the writer’s country we are liable to forget that no matter what particular country it is, it is inside as well as outside him…. To know oneself is to know one’s region.   It is also to know the world, and it is paradoxically, a form of exile from that world.”

Returning to her statement that violent means are often necessary to get the writer’s vision across to his hostile audience, O’Connor ruefully conceded many times (what most of us also know) that there are large numbers of people in the English-speaking world who are plainly irreligious. The categories they fit into vary from those who hate religion to those who hold at most a bemused tolerance or indifference toward it; and there seems to be some overlap, with many people swinging from one extreme to the other, depending on their current mood.  

Mrs. May from O’Connor’s story "Greenleaf" “was [in her own opinion] a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not of course, believe any of it was true.”   Mrs. May is like those who give Christianity the same seal of approval, which they give to the Armed Forces. They’re glad each exists but have no intention of being a part of either.   Mrs. Shortley in "The Displaced Person" admitted “she had never given much thought to the devil for she felt that religion was essentially for those people who didn’t have the brains to avoid evil without it.”

Both Mrs. May and Mrs. Shortley, on account of their attitude, deserve to be called irreligious and I think it would be fair to say that in Western Nations, the irreligious, no matter where in the spectrum they sit, would fit inside O’Connor’s definition of freak, which basically covers those who refuse to acknowledge that we all stand on the same rug, viz. hope based on Christian redemption.   Without hope, the rug gets jerked away.  

By contrast, Mrs. Greenleaf was a believer.   She was a large slovenly woman who performed "prayer healing" by going into the woods and moaning and rolling on the ground with lots of newspaper clippings of sordid crimes and catastrophes buried in a hole beneath her.   She recognised her place in the world as one member of the human race, precious in the ‘sight’ of God.   But, in the absence of any formal religious education, what she practiced was unique to her. Without easy access to a liturgical tradition Mrs. Greenleaf was left to devise her own rituals.   Mrs. May, coming across her one day in the act of prayer healing certainly considered her a freak.  

However, before taking leave of Mrs. Shortley, Mrs. May or Mrs. Greenleaf, it must be emphasized that Christianity is not a passive thing. It is not just about belief alone: it is about action.   For the Christian, action means service:   seeing and serving Christ in each person we meet, no matter how much they may annoy or infuriate us and Mrs. Greenleaf, for all her odd behaviour, was a Christian and the other two ladies were not.  

In that most famous of O’Connor short stories, "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" the Misfit is a freak.   He’s aware that he should be a better person but cannot bring himself to believe in his redemption by Christ because he wasn’t there to witness it. He wished he had been there.   He said it would have made the difference.  In other words he was looking for proof.   The Grandmother is also a freak.   She’s a smug and complacent woman who’s never been tested, that is until her encounter with the Misfit.   She’s never done anything bad but neither has she been particularly good either.   She’s a self-centred snob trying to sweet talk the Misfit out of killing her by appealing to his better nature.   She babbles on to him about Jesus and God and prayer and goodness when suddenly her head clears and she realises that both she and the Misfit are connected.   They are both children of God.   “Why, you’re one of my babies.   You’re one of my own children,” she said and reached out and touched him on the shoulder and the Misfit retaliated by jumping up and shooting her.   She had told him the one thing he didn’t want to hear and paid for it with her life.

 

Immediately afterward when one of his sidekicks talked about the fun they had just had, the Misfit, realising the pointlessness of their actions, told him to shut up and said, “it’s no real pleasure in life.”  For the Misfit it was the first stage on the journey of repentance.  The realisation that there is a supernatural reason for people to be good and that evil (sin) for its own sake brings nobody any lasting pleasure or peace.   In other words, the world is not totally at the mercy of force (physical laws); justice is a reality. It exists in the heart of each human being and at some stage of our lives, each of us has to confront the dichotomy between Force and Justice.   If there is no God then this world is ruled by force alone.   So (Q) where did Justice come from?   (A) Justice has its roots in God.   A just God is a loving God.

Of course, how the human race deals with justice comes down to how we use the freedom we’ve been entrusted with.   Without free will there could be no such thing as justice and of course without justice, free will would be an absurdity.   In her introduction to the second edition of Wise Blood O’Connor wrote, “Free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man.”   Those who maintain that Justice came about as a result of a slow evolutionary progression are in reality saying that justice is a child of force; that justice grew out of force, something genetic maybe?   Perhaps we can ‘clone’ justice?   What a ridiculous idea. Anyway getting serious again, it must be remembered that evolution/natural selection always works to the advantage of the best adapted organism- i.e. the strongest and fittest.1 Justice reverses this bias by proclaiming the sacredness of all human life from the very weakest and most defenceless to the strongest.   Given the way in which evolution is perceived as operating, justice could never have evolved.   The very first intimation of justice would have seen it eliminated.   In any competition, the strong win out and the weak go to the wall.   But justice is divine and its visible strength lies in its role of defending the defenceless and that role rests with the free will of individual human beings.

Mr. Head from "The Artificial Nigger", is another freak.   The story begins before sunup on the day Mr. Head takes his grandson Nelson on a trip back to the city where the boy was born. He intended to grandstand in front of Nelson, giving him his view of the city but the one thing uppermost in his mind was to avoid any possibility of appearing foolish and suffering embarrassment.   The trip starts ominously.   On the train Nelson fails to identify three tan coloured people moving down the aisle as Negroes.   Having been raised in isolation, Nelson had never seen a Negro until then.  Mr. Head rejoices at this chance to expose the boy’s ignorance and in triumph leans across the aisle to another passenger saying smugly, “That’s his first nigger.” But Mr. Head is not immune to ridicule either and when it’s discovered that he’s left their lunch behind on the train, Nelson scornfully tells him that he would have been able to look after it better.  

Mr. Head retaliates the only way he knows how.  He threatens Nelson, telling him he’ll leave him there while he goes on alone.   A short time later Mr. Head growls at the boy for having no sense when he stops to ask directions from a large Negro woman standing barefoot on her door step and after that, when Nelson gets into an embarrassing scrape, Mr. Head refuses to help and in fact disowns him.   The boy is plainly shocked by this betrayal and afterward only sullenly follows behind his mentor.   When it comes time to make their way back to the train station, Mr. Head realises he’s got them lost and panics. He pleads for help from a complete stranger and gets it.   By the end of the day Mr. Head has been well and truly humbled and by Nelson of all people, in his role as the pupil for the day.  

But the outing was redeemed when on their way back to the station they came across a Negro yard ornament, an ‘artificial nigger.’   They were both stunned by the very idea that the Negro they habitually mocked and ridiculed (but never knew) should be in such short supply in this part of the city, that sentiment demanded people treasure them as yard ornaments.   It was a defining moment; like contemplating a crucifix and it brought Mr. Head and Nelson back together again.   The Negro situation summed up in one shabby plaster statue and bringing home to Mr. Head the state of misery common to all defeated people, he included.   Looking at the statue, Mr. Head saw the world in a totally new light and by the time he arrived home he was becoming aware of how his pride had blinded him from seeing just how much he depended on God’s mercy.  

Probably his entrenched attitude of mockery and ridicule toward Negroes had softened only slightly and he will still go about shunning their company, after all things like that never change in the space of just one day, but at least it’s a step in the right direction: Mr. Head’s humiliation has led to his acceptance of suffering and a slight knowledge of how it may be used for spiritual growth.   O’Connor was only too well aware of what life for the Christian meant. She suffered herself and not just on account of her painful life shortening disease either.   Writing to Louise Abbot she said,   “What people don’t realise is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.   It is much harder to believe than not to believe.”  It has been said throughout history ad nauseum that anyone trying to escape the weight of the Cross always ends up under a heavier one.   This unwillingness to accept suffering results in even minor discomforts being raged against.   At the beginning of the day trip to Atlanta, Mr. Head was one such person.   At the end of it he’d changed.

So what first and foremost distinguishes the Christian?   Is it belief? In the lecture she delivered at Sweetbriar College in 1963 O’Connor said, “where there is no belief in the soul there is very little drama.   The Christian novelist is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognising sin as sin.   According to his heritage he sees it not as sickness or an accident of environment but as a responsible choice of offence against God which involves his eternal future.” (From Mystery and Manners.)

The next question must be, who knows unbelief better, the believer or the unbeliever? If the unbeliever cannot comprehend belief, is he any different from the Drunk who cannot imagine what it’s like to be sober?   The unbeliever and the Drunk have something in common; both are muddled and unsure of their ground, and neither realises it.   O’Connor gives a tantalising glimpse of this relationship early on in her novel The Violent Bear It Away.   Young Tarwater has got himself drunk on his dead great-uncle’s stump liquor and is trying to sleep it off only to be woken by the Negro Buford who tries to reason with him. Tarwater tells Buford to go and leave him to his “bidnis”, and the Negro’s parting shot is, “nobody going to bother you.   That going to be your trouble.” And a few pages later a now sober Tarwater reflects on the ridicule his great-uncle had once heaped on the rationalist schoolteacher Rayber.   Tarwater had said about Rayber, “he knows a heap.   I don’t reckon it’s anything he don’t know.” To which the old man had retorted, “he don’t know it’s anything he can’t know. That’s his trouble.” Toward the end of the story, Rayber gets his ‘wake up call’. Tarwater deliberately drowns the small mentally handicapped son Rayber’s been bringing up on his own. We’re then left to speculate on how he’ll cope with the gap in his life.   How will Rayber come to terms with the dichotomy of love and death?   I suspect one of his first actions would be to make a large bonfire of all his rationalist magazines and “scientific” papers, but that’s only guesswork on my part.   O’Connor wrapped up her novel by concentrating on what happened to Tarwater.   After all he had the leading role in the story.  He was the prophet.

O’Connor also used physical deformity as a vehicle in her stories.   Teenage delinquent Rufus Johnson from "The Lame Shall Enter First" has a clubfoot.   He refuses help for it at the same time as refusing to give up his delinquency, which he knows is wrong.   As a child he’s been deprived of love.   He sees the world as having given him a kick and he intends to kick back.

Hulga from "Good Country People" is a young woman with a philosophy degree as well as an artificial leg. The wooden leg is a prop in more ways than one standing in as well, for her “faith” in nothing.   When the bible salesman stole it during the seduction scene, not only did she lose her leg but with it went all her certainties about the lack of meaning to life.

Mr. Shiftlet in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" has a missing forearm2.   He also lacks integrity having cultivated deviousness in its place and which he uses to counter the deviousness of Mrs. Crater.   Until Shiftlet arrived on the scene, Mrs. Crater’s deviousness had lain fallow but now she saw a chance to marry off her mentally defective daughter who, in this story, is nothing more than a pawn used by both Shiftlet and Crater to get their own way.

In "A Temple of The Holy Ghost", the hermaphrodite has accepted what God has given and is trying to make the best of it as well as earning a living by being displayed as a carnival freak.

Hazel Motes from the novel Wise Blood is arguably Flannery O’Connor’s best known freak. Raised inside a fundamentalist, fear crazed, bible bashing, “Christian” family, is it any wonder he emerged into the adult world spiritually warped and psychologically crippled?   After spending time in the army in World War II and getting an injury, which entitled him to a government pension, Haze returns home to a Tennessee he didn’t recognise, a society now broken and uncaring. Ever since his youth he had been thinking that Jesus must be the problem and that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.   Now, as an adult he was confirmed with that belief.   In fact he was obsessed with it and decided to do something about it.   Reacting against the guide that resides in each of us Hazel set out to get even with the world.   He formed his own church, The Church Without Christ and started street corner preaching using his car as his pulpit. What follows is his typical spiel:

“Listen you people.” Haze called…“I’m going to preach there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgement because there wasn’t the first two.   Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar…. Where you came from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.”

What chilling words.   To adopt a “creed” like that is to declare that this world is totally devoid of any meaning.   It is to say that our lives are random absurdities in which the virtue of hope has as much relevance as a cat lying squashed on a busy road.

Anyway, having ‘founded’ his new church, Hazel set out to damage Christianity in every way he could by abusing and hurting everyone he met.   Like every small town kid with ambition he headed for the big city (Atlanta) to make a splash with his new church. He was a modern day St Paul on his way to Damascus until he met a policeman who smashed his car to bits, thereby destroying his most prized possession.   As happened to St Paul (who was knocked from his horse) the encounter for Hazel was a turning point resulting in a change of heart, but like Mrs. Greenleaf he was ignorant on how to sensibly express his recovered faith.   St Paul had his Jewish traditions to fall back on but Hazel in atonement had only anger, and he turned it on himself making him totally vulnerable to a world which mocks and preys on the weak.  He twisted the mercy and love of God out of almost all recognition and mutilated himself.   Hazel was a fanatic as well as a freak. When he started up his new church he was fanatically anti Christian. It was his new religion.   After coming unstuck on the road to Atlanta he repented but he was still a fanatic and not knowing how to say sorry with love, he did it with hate; hate of himself.

In a letter O’Connor wrote to Sister Mariella Gable she said:

About the fanatics.   People make a judgement of fanaticism by what they are themselves.   To a lot of Protestants I know, monks and nuns are fanatics, none greater. And to a lot of the monks and nuns I know, my Protestant prophets are fanatics. For my part, I think the only difference between them is that if you are a Catholic and have this intensity of belief you join the convent and are heard from no more, whereas if you are a Protestant and have it, there is no convent for you to join and you go about in the world getting into all sorts of trouble and drawing the wrath of people who don’t believe anything much at all, down on your head.

Flannery O’Connor did write one non-fiction piece on physical deformity. It was about a small girl deformed by a cancerous growth on her face.   Flannery had been approached by Sister Evangelist (The Sister Superior of a home for cancer sufferers in Atlanta) regarding a young girl in the home who had recently died.   The child had come in to the care of the nuns at age three and was not expected to live longer than a year but confounded doctors by living a further nine.   She was apparently in many ways a remarkable child and the nuns wanted O’Connor to write the girl’s story.   Flannery declined but agreed to help by finding a possible publisher for it once it was written and also by writing an introduction for it.   The story was put together and published under the title of "A Memoir of Mary Ann."

By any standards O’Connor’s introduction is a remarkable piece of writing.   Should that surprise us?   The thing about Mary Ann was that although badly disfigured, it in no way inhibited her enjoyment of life and she was also regarded as being very holy, an attribute which O’Connor pointed out could hardly have been avoided brought up as she was by nuns but Sister Evangelist quickly dismissed that assessment by saying that they had also had their share of demons to care for.

Later, during a visit to O’Connor at home when the nuns brought down the draft manuscript for evaluation, one of them questioned her as to why so many of her characters were grotesque, why did O’Connor write about the grotesque?   While trying to come back with an answer one of the other guests said to the nuns, “it’s (the grotesque) your vocation too.” Flannery said that the remark opened up for her a new perspective on the grotesque. “Most of us have learned to be dispassionate about evil. To look it in the face and find, as often as not, our own grinning reflections with which we do not argue, but good is another matter.   Few have stared at that long enough to accept the fact that its face to is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction.”(Mystery and Manners) That same theme had been touched on some years earlier in one of O’Connor’s letters to Betty Hester (Nov. 22 1958), “we are not judged by what we are basically.   We are judged by how hard we use what we have been given.   Success means nothing to the Lord, nor gracefulness…”

In her Introduction to "A Memoir of Mary Ann", O’Connor also reflected on the eulogy preached by Bishop Hyland at Mary Ann’s funeral in which he had posed the question that, “the world would ask why Mary Ann should die.”  O’Connor turned the Bishop’s question around by writing about:  

That world, much further removed yet everywhere, which would not ask why Mary Ann should die, but why she had been born in the first place…. One of the tendencies of our age is to use the suffering of children to discredit the goodness of God, and once you have discredited his goodness, you are done with him….In this popular pity, we mark our gain in sensibility and our loss in vision.   If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say of faith.   In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness its logical outcome is terror.  It ends in forced labour camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.

Reflecting on that paragraph it’s easy to see why the irreligious can be viewed as freaks.   Just think of Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot, and while we’re at it, let’s not forget those of us who only dream of fame.   Every time the means becomes an end in itself3 a new “religion” is born and a new “god” is made and the only barrier to any of us heading down that dark path is the barrier we impose on ourselves, which springs out of the divine power of Christ’s Redemption operating in the life of anyone who freely accepts it.

But to return to this whole question of grotesquery and evil and character freaks: I think Flannery O’Connor summed it up succinctly in two short sentences. The first from "The Catholic Novelist in The Protestant South " says, “evil is not simply a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured,” and in the second from "Catholic Novelists and Their Readers " she said, “God can make any indifferent thing, as well as evil itself, an instrument for good; but I submit that to do this is the business of God and not of any human being.”

Flannery O’Connor has often been accused of writing indulgently about brutality, savagery and despair, and certainly these elements are frequently canvassed in her stories, but to suggest that she wrote like that to indulge herself is both unfounded and unfair and such accusations invariably come from optimistic critics who make a habit of shying away from reality.   The ‘lady’ herself said, “the prophet is a realist of distances,” and she is certainly a prophet and realism is certainly the engine of her stories and for those readers prepared to lay aside their rose tinted spectacles and look reality square in the face, the hope in those same stories shines out like a beacon.

 

In the above essay, reference has made in a number of places to suffering. By suffering I mean pain, loss or grief etc afflicting an individual and which cannot be avoided. This is to distinguish it from ‘suffering’ which is sought after and which then becomes not so much pain or loss but enjoyment for its own sake3 and is usually defined as masochism. Masochism per se, for the Christian is a sin. Flannery O’Connor would doubtless have said that Masochism was the result of sentimentalising suffering.

1. Evolution: Almost endless argument rages for and against Darwin’s theory. There is no doubt that certain plants and animals are closely related with obviously common ancestry. Simple observation will bear it out without the necessity to have a science degree. But where animals and human beings are completely different hinges on the question of Justice and Free Will. In tropical parts of the world exist species of ants commonly called army and/or soldier ants. Their colonies are protected by special categories of ants that perform guard duties and these will fiercely resist and attempt to repel all intruders, be they ants of other colonies or other species or any animal that attempts to harm the colony. These ants with guard responsibilities will fight to the death without giving up and their behaviour has been intensively investigated to discover the background to what appears to be altruism, i.e. giving their lives to defend the colony, and of course it has been shown to have definite survival value. However to suggest altruism as the reason is stretching things too far in just the same way that it is stretching credulity to suggest that a soldier only fights because of intensive conditioning and training and that in reality he has no other option. The soldier ant can never desert his post but the human soldier is free to do exactly that. Ask any front line veteran. For further discussion of the topic, see the article Evolution: Part of God's Grandeur.

2. I once knew an old goldminer who lost his hand and wrist in World War II. He performed carpentry work by tying a hammer to his forearm stump. (See paragraph on "The Life You Save May Be Your Own.")

3. The aspect of good is found chiefly in the end: and therefore the end stands in the relation of object to the act of the will, which is at the root of every sin. (St Thomas Aquinas: cf. Summa Theologica, 2.1.72.1, "reply to objection 1") Put simply this states, “All evil exists in the mistaking or misusing of the means for the end.” (Hilaire Belloc: “The Cruise of The Nona.")

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