Symbolism in the Stories of Flannery O’Connor

by Carolyn Julia Brown

 

Flannery O’Connor often uses flagrant, brightly-hued symbols designed to leave a lasting image in her readers’ minds. This essay will mainly examine three of O’Connor’s stories which employ related images that incorporate her devout Catholicism; but it will also, more subtly, offer applicable techniques to any writer seeking to use symbolism in effective ways.

As a colorful symbol, a writer could not find a much better example than the peacock, which appears in her short story, “The Displaced Person,” originally published in her collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find. O’Connor uses the peacock as a symbol of Christ, and the main characters’ reactions to the peacock serve to contrast the characters’ attitudes and beliefs. The protagonist, Mrs. McIntyre, is a widow who owns the farm where the story is set. Efficient, practical, and always concerned with the costs of running her farm, Mrs. McIntyre complains that the peacock roaming her farm is just “[a]nother mouth to feed” (202). In contrast, a priest, who comes to the farm to bring a Polish World War II refugee to work on it, is delighted by the bird. The priest calls the peacock a “beauti-ful [sic]” bird with a “tail full of suns” (202).

Mrs. Shortley is a jealous, suspicious farm worker who tries to get the Polish refugee, Mr. Guizac, fired. Her mind wrapped up in her scheming, Mrs. Shortley fails to notice the peacock when it appears right in front of her. O’Connor underscores the woman’s blindness to the bird by describing how the peacock “jumped into the tree and his tail hung in front of her, full of fierce planets with eyes that were each ringed in green and set against a sun…. She might have been looking at a map of the universe but she didn’t notice it any more than she did the…sky” (204).

When Mrs. McIntyre, influenced by Mrs. Shortley’s aspersions, tells the priest that she wants to fire Mr. Guizac, the priest advises waiting and changes the subject: “‘Where is that beautiful birrrrd [sic] of yours?’ he asked and…looked out over the lawn.” There he sees the peacock’s “violent blue” neck “glinting in the afternoon sun” (238). The bird, juxtaposed with the priest’s Christian attitude toward the Displaced Person, underscores the connection between the peacock and Christ. Even more explicitly, O’Connor later describes the priest watching the peacock spread its magnificent tail:

“Christ will come like that!” he said in a loud gay voice and…stood there, gaping…. His attention was fixed on the cock who was taking minute steps backward, his head against the spread tail. “The Transfiguration,” he murmured. (239)

The priest experiences this event in a deeply spiritual way, equating it with the Biblical portrayal of the Transfiguration, where Christ’s appearance is transformed into rays of light.

Mrs. McIntyre nevertheless decides to fire Mr. Guizac, and finds him fixing a tractor. As she waits for his attention, another tractor accidentally rolls down a hill toward him, which he can not see coming. She and the others present allow the tractor to roll over him. Later, she remembers that she “had started to shout to the Displaced Person but that she had not” (250). The eyes of the two other farmhands meet hers “in one look that froze them in collusion forever” as the large tractor crushed and killed Mr. Guizac (250). Following this tragedy, the farm begins to fail, the workers leave, and Mrs. McIntyre ends up with a “nervous affliction,” which we can assume results from guilt over her evil doing – or not doing (251). As Mrs. McIntyre lies in her sickbed, only the priest continues to visit, to feed the peacock – nourishing his faith in Christ – and also to nourish Mrs. McIntyre by feeding his spiritual vision to her:

Not many people remembered to come out to the country to see her except the old priest. He came regularly once a week with a bag of breadcrumbs [for the peacock]. [H]e would come in and sit by the side of her bed and explain the doctrines of the Church. (251)

We again find brightly colored images in the next story under consideration: “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” also contained in A Good Man is Hard to Find. Here, O’Connor uses one of her favorite symbols, the sun, which is related to Christian concepts– with regard to light and also its homophone, the Son. O’Connor again uses the symbol to signify a character’s spiritual enlightenment. The protagonist is an unnamed girl of twelve who is very clever and prone to mean-spirited thoughts and remarks, often making fun of those around her, such as her cousins, who are “practically morons” in her view, and a boarder’s gentleman caller, Mr. Cheatem, whom she laughingly calls “Cheat” in front of the boarder (85-86).

At the end of a weekend visit by her fourteen-year-old cousins, the girl goes to church with her mother. During the service, her “ugly thoughts” finally stop and she prays for God to help her “not to be so mean” and not to give her mother “so much sass.” As the priest holds up the communion host, the girl thinks about the hermaphrodite her cousins described seeing at the fair, who accepted his fate: “The freak was saying, ‘…This is the way He wanted me to be’” (100).

The girl looks out of the car window on her way home from the service, and sees the sun, “a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood” (101). Although the girl hasn’t completely changed her ways (she still thinks nasty thoughts about the boy driving the car), the sun reminds her of the communion ritual, representing Christ’s body and blood. Thus, O’Connor employs another one of her subtle but nonetheless prominent tactics: connecting symbols/motifs with a spiritual odyssey, or enlightenment of some sort.

Another symbol that appears in this story is a “road in the sky,” which signifies a path to heaven, or to enlightenment, for a character. As the girl watches the sun set, it leaves “a line in the sky like a red clay road hanging over the trees” (101). The girl’s evolving sense of the sacred is just the beginning of her spiritual journey. As in some of her other stories, O’Connor ends without a definitive conclusion, perhaps implying that the choice is up to each character whether to continue on the “road” shown to him or her – or not.

The road in the sky appears in a more dramatic way in the last story in this essay, “Revelation,” from the collection Everything that Rises Must Converge. Mrs. Turpin is the owner of a small farm, and according to the societal hierarchy she has constructed in her mind, she regards herself as superior to most of the other patients in the waiting room where she has brought her husband, Claud, to see the doctor. She silently dismisses patients such as the “white-trashy mother” wearing “what appeared to be bedroom slippers…[which is] exactly what you would have expected her to have on,” and the scowling college student whose “face was blue with acne” (Everything 194-195). The only one she feels to be her social and moral equal is the “well-dressed” lady with whom she converses while they wait (192). The woman is the mother of the surly college girl whose name, ironically, is Mary Grace.

As Mrs. Turpin and some others carry on a conversation studded with racist opinions and disguised insults, Mary Grace, who apparently has some emotional and/or mental problems, continues to scowl openly at Mrs. Turpin. When Mary Grace’s mother criticizes her daughter in a thinly veiled way, Mrs. Turpin responds by loudly praising Jesus for her good fortune. At that moment, Mary Grace flings her textbook at Mrs. Turpin and lunges across the table to choke her. After the doctor sedates her and before the ambulance arrives, Mary Grace stares at Mrs. Turpin and whispers, “‘Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog’” (207).

Mrs. Turpin is still riled by the girl’s words when she arrives home at her farm, and as she stands alone hosing down the pigs, she rages at God and demands an explanation. As the sun sets, Mrs. Turpin sees “a purple streak in the sky…like an extension of the highway…a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth … Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven” (217). The horde contains “white trash… [and] black [people]…[and] freaks and lunatics.” Following behind are people “like herself and Claud [who] had always had a little of everything … Yet she could see by their shocked…faces that even their virtues were being burned away” (217-218). In this striking vision, the ordering of souls is an inversion of Mrs. Turpin’s earlier notion of society, where she and her “tribe” came near the top. As in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” O’Connor leaves open the question of whether Mrs. Turpin is changed by her vision of this highway to heaven.

The vibrant peacock, the blood-red sun, and the vivid purple road in the sky are attention-grabbing symbols that O’Connor uses to drive home her various, underlying points. The reader will be unlikely to forget the hierarchical thoroughfare, or the unabashed feathers of the peacock’s train, for instance. Any writer who wants to use symbols that deepen a story’s meaning while at the same time serving to harness readers and pull them into a story, and/or to imprint an image into their minds, will find Flannery O’Connor’s works instructive to study.


 

Works Cited

O’Connor, Flannery. A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories. San Diego: Harvest-Harcourt, 1976. Print.

—. Everything That Rises Must Converge: Stories. 1965. New York: Noonday-Farrar, 1993. Print.


 

C BrownCarolyn Julia Brown received her MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University in 2015. She has won First Prize for a poem in the journal, Alumni Reflections; had stories published in the anthologySummer Shorts and in espresso stories online. She is currently finishing a collection of stories linked by the theme of addiction. The mother of four grown children, she and her husband live in the Atlanta area with two cats who provide live entertainment.

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