On and off these last months I have been fussing in my mind with Miss O’Connor’s stories, unable to reach that certainty of judgment which, we all know, is the established trade mark of the modern critic. The skill and ambition of these stories are not lost upon me, yet I hesitate fully to join in the kind of praise they have won from respected critics.
At first I feared my distance from Miss O’Connor’s religious beliefs might be corrupting my judgment, but while one cannot, in the nature of things, offer guarantees, the trouble does not seem to reside in the famous “problem of belief.” Miss O’Connor was a serious Catholic, and what she called “the Catholic sacramental view of life” is certainly a controlling force in her stories. But it is not the only nor always the dominant one, since she could bring into play resources of worldliness such as one might find in the work of a good many sophisticated modern writers. Miss O’Connor’s religious convictions certainly operate throughout most of her stories, but at so deep a level, as so much more than mere subject matter of fixed point of view, that the skeptical reader is spared the problem of an explicit confrontation with “the Catholic sacramental view of life.” Except for an occasional phrase, which serves partly as a rhetorical signal that more than ordinary verisimilitude is at stake, there are no unavoidable pressures to consider these stories in a strictly religious context. They stand securely on their own, as renderings and criticisms of human experience.
And as such, they merit a considerable respect. The writing is firm, economical, complex: we are engaged with an intelligence, not merely a talent. Miss O’Connor has a precise ear for rural colloquialism and lower-class mangling of speech; she can be slyly amusing in regard to the genteel segments of the Southern middle class, partly because she knows them with an assurance beyond sentiment or hatred. She has brought under control that addiction to Gothic hi-jinks which to my taste, marred her early work (though it won her the applause of critics for whom any mode of representation they take to be anti-realistic is a token of daring and virtue). Touches of Gothic survive in these late stories, but no longer in a programmatic or obsessional way, and no longer on the assumption that to proclaim the wonders of the strange is to escape the determined limits of familiar life. What these touches of Gothic now do is to provide a shock in the otherwise even flow of narrative, thereby raising its pitch and tensing its movement.
What then is wrong? For most of Miss O’Connor’s readers, nothing at all. For this reviewer, a tricky problem in method and tone, about which there is no need to pretend certainty.
Miss O’Connor’s title story has been much admired, and with reason. An aging Confederate lady, fat, rather stupid and crazed with fantasies of status, keeps battling with her emancipated son Julian, an idle would-be writer. Julian expends ingenuities of nastiness in assaulting his mother, but most of his attacks fall harmlessly upon the walls of her genteel incomprehension. Unavoidably their personal conflict becomes entangled with “the Negro problem”: polite racism against a blocked and untested fury for Justice.
Mother and son encounter a “cute” Negro child, upon whom the woman decides to bestow a coin. But there is another mother, an infuriated black giantess who hates such gestures of condescension. The Negro woman strikes the white one, and Julian, as his mother lies sprawling on the sidewalk, gloats: “You got exactly what you deserved.” But then, while mother and son start for home, she bewildered and he delighted, the mother collapses, this time from a stroke, and Julian must shed the convenient mask of “emancipation” to recognize his fright, his dependence, and his loss. “The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and horror.”
The story is unquestionably effective. We grasp the ways in which the son’s intellectual superiority rests upon his emotional dependence, and the mother’s social stupidity coexists with a maternal selflessness. Their quarrels are symptoms of a soured family romance, but the romance cuts far deeper than the quarrels. As true motives are revealed and protective beliefs dissolved, ironies and complexities fall into place: which is precisely what, in a good sophisticated modern story, they are supposed to do.
Yet that is all this story is: good sophisticated modern, but lacking in that resonance Miss O’Connor clearly hoped it might have. Why? One clue is a recurrent insecurity of tone, jarring sentences in which Miss O’Connor slips from the poise of irony to the smallness of sarcasm, thereby betraying an unresolved hostility to whatever it is she takes Julian to represent. (See especially a paragraph, too long to quote, at the top of page 10.) Repeated several times in these stories, this pattern of feeling seems quite in excess of what the theme might require or the characters plausibly evoke. One can only suppose that it is a hostility rooted in Miss O’Connor’s own experience and the kind of literary education she received (intellectuality admired but intellectuals distrusted). Repeatedly she associates the values she respects with an especially obnoxious kind of youthful callowness, while reserving some final wisdom of experience for the foolish and obtuse, the unbearable parents.
In thus shaping her materials Miss O’Connor clearly intends us to savor a cluster of ironies; her sensibility as a writer of fiction was formed in a milien where irony took on an almost tolemic value. But there can be, as in much contemporary writing there is, a deep failure of ironic perception in a writer’s unequivocal commitment to irony. Mustered with the regularity of battalions on parade, complex ironies have a way of crystallizing into simple and even smug conclusions. Everything becomes subject to ironic discount except the principle of irony itself.
Let me try to be more concrete. Reading the title story, one quickly begins to see the end toward which it moves and indeed must move. The climax is then realized effectively enough—except for the serious flaw that it is a climax which has already been anticipated a number of pages earlier, where it seems already present, visible and complete, in the preparatory action. One doesn’t, to be sure, know that the Negro woman will strike the white woman; but more important, one does know that some kind of ironic reversal will occur in the relationship between mother and son. There is pleasure to be had in watching Miss O’Connor work it all out, but no surprise, for there has been no significant turning upon the premises from which the action has emerged. The story is entirely harmonious with the writer’s intent, characterized by what might be called the clarity of limitation. Miss O’Connor is in control of the narrative line from beginning to end, and by the standards of many critics, that is the consummation of her art.
But is it? When I think of stories by contemporary writers which live in my mind—Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” Norman Mailer’s “The Man Who Studied Yoga,” Bernard Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel”—I find myself moved by something more than control. In such stories there comes a moment when the unexpected happens, a perception, an insight, a confrontation which may not be in accord with the writer’s original intention and may not be strictly required by the logic of the action, but which nevertheless caps the entire story. This moment of revelation gains part of its power from a sharp and sudden brush against the writer’s evident plan of meaning; it calls into question all “structural analysis”; the writer seems to be shaken by the demands of his own imagination, so that the material of the story “acts back” upon him.
This final release beyond craft and control, and sometimes, to be honest, beyond clarity, is what I find missing in most of Miss O’Connor’s stories. And the reason, I would surmise, is that only toward the end of her career had she fully discovered the possibilities of craft, possibilities she exercised with a scrupulous enjoyment but limited effect. She reached that mastery of means which allows a writer to seek a more elusive and perilous kind of mastery, and in two of these stories, “Revelation” and “Parker’s Back,” she began to break past the fences of her skill and her ideas.
Like “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” “Revelation” starts as a clash between generations, old against new South. The setting is a doctor’s office, where gradations of social rank are brilliantly located through inflections of speech. Mr. and Mrs. Turpin, an elderly and hopelessly respectable farm couple, encounter a Southern lady, also waiting for the doctor; the lady has with her an acne-pocked and ill-tempered daughter who goes to “Wellesley College,” the one “in Massachusetts.” Mrs. Turpin trades fatuous pleasantries with the lady about the recent cussedness of the Negroes (though the lady adds, “I couldn’t do without my good colored friends”). Meanwhile a poor-white slattern tries to break into the conversation and transform genteel racism into open hatred, but she is coolly pushed aside. Mrs. Turpin, straining her imagination, decides to place the slattern even lower than Negroes on her private scale of virtue. The talk continues, the comedy heightens, but to the “emancipated” daughter from Wellesley College it becomes intolerable. Enraged by every word she hears, the girl bites Mrs. Turpin and then curses her with the magnificent words, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.” The girl is dragged off to a hospital; Mrs. Turpin staggers home.
Now, thus far the story has followed a pattern close to that of “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” But in “Revelation” Miss O’Connor is not content with easy triumphs: she follows Mrs. Turpin home to the farm, to the bed on which she uneasily rests and the pigpen she angrily hoses down. For Mrs. Turpin has been shaken by the girl’s curse, as if indeed it were a kind of “revelation.” In an astonishing passage, Mrs. Turpin cries out to God: “What do you send me a message like that for?…How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?” Her rank is broken, her righteousness undone, and a terrible prospect unfolds itself of a heavenly injustice beyond propriety or comprehension:
A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself…, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right…They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.
This is not the kind of last-minute acquisition of understanding with which literature has so often tried to get around life. It is a vision of irremediable disorder, of God’s ingratitude: the white trash, the niggers, the leaping lunatics will all march to heaven ahead of Mrs. Turpin. Something remarkable has happened here, beyond the cautions of planning and schemes of irony: “How am I a hog and me both?”
It is intolerable that a woman who could write such a story should have died at the age of thirty-nine.
September 30, 1965