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Good Country People Between Old South and New South in Flannery O'Connor's Short Fiction

Ruth Fialho
p. 173-186


Tout lecteur, devant une fiction située dans le Sud des Etats-Unis, s’attend à se voir proposer une vision pastorale de l’Amérique. Mais c’est ignorer la croissance des villes du Sud depuis la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Les « braves gens de la campagne » que le lecteur rencontre dans les trois nouvelles de Flannery O’Connor choisies ici (“A Circle in the Fire”, “Greenleaf”, “A View of the Woods”) se trouvent ainsi pris entre deux perspectives : la continuité assurée par leurs liens à la terre et une inébranlable foi dans l’assentiment de Dieu ou la rupture qu’implique la modernité. Mais l’auteur choisit de mettre à bas ces discours et offre au lecteur une rencontre avec un nouveau mythe dont le sens et le but se dévoileront entre tensions sociales, jeux textuels et renouveau religieux.

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

Flannery O'Connor

Texte intégral

1As a post-war Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor needs to be read with the history of the South in mind: a traumatic history of denial, ­destruction and loss. The ante-bellum South, as represented in plantation fiction, seemed to be an agrarian idyll of easy living, with no toil nor labor, despite “the historical reality of a patriarchal culture which relied on the extensive use of slave labor” (Castillo 487). Southerners saw their region as a Garden of Eden of which they were the guardians. From this fantasy derived the popular images that are associated with the Old South, with its Southern Belles, hospitable landowners, Southern gentility, leisureliness, religion and immutable social classes. While in the North, an urban world was emerging where industriousness led to social, financial and cultural improvement, in the South, the stress lay on agrarianism, stability, religious fervor and family values. The Civil War ended the Pastoral dream, and engendered an identity crisis that would bolster the Southern Renaissance literature. After the Second World War, the South went through a period of industrial and economic growth that would lead to the expansion of such urban areas as Atlanta, several times mentioned in O’Connor’s fiction as a city of perdition. It is in this ambivalent environment that Flannery O’Connor was born and raised. The rise of industrialization was viewed as a threat to the Southern sense of order, something that would eventually ruin its agrarian culture and chase them from their Garden of Eden.

2The clashes between old and new world order gave birth to a new set of myths that in turn clashed with reality. This tension has been best ­represented in short fiction, with its ability to “dramatize a moment of revelation which brings a character to full consciousness for the first time in his life” (Shaw 8). Only in a short story can the characters’ fight gain that particular urgency as they manage (or more typically do not manage) to defend their position from an all-invading modernity and a painful reality check.

3O’Connor made ample use of stereotyped characters who saw the South as a Land of Abundance and Fertility needing to be protected from devouring outsiders. The short stories I have chosen to focus on, namely “A Circle in the Fire,” “Greenleaf” and “A View of the Woods,” share a worried vision of the pastoral world threatened by the modern world. This was a recurring theme in plantation fiction, ante- and post-bellum (Grammer 62). Yet, O’Connor uses this usual pattern of fear and resistance as a canvas to weave a different tale. They were all written within a two-year-span (1954-1956) which might explain why one story seems to take up an underlying allegory where the preceding one left it.

4In “A Circle in the Fire,” Mrs. Cope is visited by three boys from the new developments in Atlanta. After she has told them not to do anything that might endanger their lives, but more importantly her property (her greatest fear is to see her woods catch fire under the summer sun), they eventually decide to set fire to her woods themselves. The last sentence of the short story introduces us to a hermeneutic reading of the text, as we are made to hear, in the distance, the boys’ “high shrieks of joy as if the prophets were dancing in the fiery furnace, in the circle the angel had cleared for them” (193). These clashing images of salvation and destruction recur throughout all three short stories.

5In “Greenleaf,” Mrs. May is annoyed by a bull that keeps coming to her cow pastures. She asks her tenant, Mr. Greenleaf, to get rid of it. But it turns out the bull belongs to the latter’s sons, who own a state-of-the-art, half-automated dairy farm a few miles from her own. When it appears that they will not do anything to solve the problem, she runs out of patience with the Greenleafs (not that she ever had much of it, as the narrator obligingly informs the reader). Her decision to take things into her own hands will lead to her being killed by the bull. Again, the scene of destruction (of a human life this time) is given a symbolic dimension through a description combining contradictory feelings: “she had the look of a person whose sight has been restored but who finds the light unbearable” (333).

6In “A View of the Woods,” the roles of landowner (here Mr. Fortune) and invader (his son-in-law Mr. Pitts) are somewhat reversed. Mr. Fortune, 79 years of age, has decided he would sell his land plot after plot to make way for Progress, this time in the shape of a gas-station. He later dies of a stroke after Mary Fortune Pitts, his nine-year-old granddaughter and the only Pitts for whom he has any consideration, violently assaults him for selling the woods in front of her parents’ house. She also dies during the fight, and their bodies lay in the clay, alongside the machine that is tearing at the earth, as a last, darkly ironic comment from the narrator.

7From these summaries some sense of continuity already emerges as well as a few (apparent) contradictions. This should come as no surprise, as short fiction favors contrast as an operating principle (Shaw 154). Land as a preserved Garden of Eden threatened by evil city strangers, is central to “A Circle in the Fire,” although the boys seem to have some religion. “Greenleaf” seems to stress how the social improvement of the lower classes will bring disorder and death, but they’re ultimately caused by a symbol of uncontrollable animality and fertility comically crowned with a wreath of thorns. Religious and pagan symbols are sometimes combined in a grotesque fashion in O’Connor’s fiction. In “A View of the Woods,” order and stability are ideals that had to be relinquished to allow for the coming of a new Age, albeit destruction being here brought about by the due owner of the place. This will bring him to his own end in a fatal confrontation with his grand-daughter that started, of all things, with biblical quotations. If nature, social changes and industrialization also appear, the importance they are given in each text shows a drift from one to the other, ending in destruction for all, while the contradictions we have mentioned seem to question the respective roles of the protagonists and destabilize traditional views of their environment and values.

The End of the Pastoral

8In “A Circle in the Fire,” we have descriptions of Mrs. Cope’s land that explicitly identify it as a preserved place where the characters “have everything,” “rich pastures and hills heavy with timber” (177), for which “‘every day you should say a prayer of thanksgiving’,” Mrs. Cope reminds Mrs. Pritchard, her tenant. The boys will add to that mythical quality of Mrs. Cope’s land when the narrator describes Powell, a boy who used to live on her farm, “examining the house and the white water tower behind it and the chicken houses and the pastures that rolled away on either side until they met the first line of woods” (179). The metaphorical description of Mrs. Cope’s land, her repeatedly declared gratefulness to God, the long paratactic sentence, both a mimetic transcription of Powell’s panoramic vision and a figuration of Mrs. Cope’s accumulation of wealth, all combine to offer the reader an Edenic view of the place.

9Around this Land of Plenty, as the end of the quote shows, the trees are walls that turn the Garden into a fortress: “Sometimes the last line of trees was a solid grey-blue wall” (175), and behind it, “the blank sky looked as if it were pushing against a fortress wall, trying to break through” (178). Almost closing the story, much as the woods enclose the landscape, the metaphor is again used when Mrs. Cope’s daughter takes a walk in the woods: “The fortress line of trees was a hard granite blue” (190). The reader is presented with a strong sense of a limited space which gives the narrative its efficiency and unity (Grojnowski 84). The child and Mrs. Cope clearly see themselves as the Guardians of the Sanctuary that the South thought itself to be, with Mrs. Cope as the Matriarch defending her place and her child’s virginity. However, the last metaphor of the fortress appears before the boys set the woods on fire, revealing that this particular sign has been misinterpreted by the main characters. The woods’ function is not only to serve their personal interests by protecting them from the outside world. The place over which Mrs. Cope claims complete control, will eventually be lost. The end of the enclosed world might lead to the dis-closure of the text’s true intention.

10Although the fire that destroys Mrs. Cope’s world is a recurring ­occurrence in Southern fiction, the subtext that the metaphors seem to weave (as well as the gender of the landowner) shows the author’s ­intention to depart from traditional tales. The other stories each add a new vision of the land that dramatically set O’Connor’s fiction apart from Southern folklore. In “Greenleaf,” the text opens on a scene of intrusion and the first representation we have of the main character’s environment is not a metaphorical fortress but a simple hedge, a vegetal delimitation that the bull that will kill Mrs. May is literally eating away: “in the dark he began to tear at the hedge” (311). In addition, the landscape is composed of open fields which later in the story we see Mrs. May go to inspect, walking “through a wooded path that separated two pastures” (216). In this sentence, the woods appear only as qualifier. They have lost their function as signifier in the text and their status as fortress in the narration. It seems as if the ­metaphorical dimension of the text has transferred to the intruder, whose “prickly crown” (312) makes us think of Christ despite it being “menacing” (as in “A Circle in the Fire,” religious figures are associated with disaster rather than ­salvation), and that acts “like some patient god come to woo her” (311), “chewing calmly like an uncouth country suitor” (312). The interweaving of religious images and a typology of courtship to describe a scrub bull seems to show that, if Mrs. Cope fears the outside world, Mrs. May misreads its inner workings to such an extent that much more pressing intrusions will be required for the truth to be revealed.

11Contrary to Mrs. Cope’s, Mrs. May’s land is represented in a flat, factual manner that lacks the Pastoral dimension of the former. It is composed of pastures and fields, where the rye grows and the cows graze, and no metaphor, or hyperbole, or any other stylistic figure is used to ­represent it, but for the one and telling exception of a dream that Mrs. May has. She sees herself walking over “beautiful rolling hills” (329), but the dream soon turns into a nightmare of dispossession from which she wakes up almost screaming. This drift away from a pastoral vision of the countryside, along with its connection to the idea of pending disaster, goes one step further in “A View of the Woods.”

12The first paragraph shows us Mary Fortune and the old man who have come to visit a construction site next to a “red corrugated lake” where “they watched, sometimes for hours, while the machine systematically ate a square red hole in what had been a cow pasture,” “the big disembodied gullet gorg[ing] itself on the clay, then, with the sound of a deep ­sustained nausea and a slow mechanical revulsion, turn and spit it up” (335). The hypallages and alliterations blur the limit between the living and the ­inanimate, bringing the transformation of the landscape from fortress to open space to a Gothic scene of horror where all boundaries have collapsed. The Eden-like nature of the land that was constructed in the first of these three short stories here becomes a vision from Hell, the machine having dug what is repeatedly labelled “the pit.” These dis-figuring metaphors ­underscore the senseless destruction that is taking place, embodying the abstract violence that modernity is submitting the South to (Pothier 37).

  • 1 Their very name connects the preservation of the land with something more sinister.

13To add insult to injury, the piece of land that is still preserved in front of the Pittses’ house1 goes by the name of the “lawn,” trivializing, dwindling the plantation out of recognition. We have come a long way from Mrs. Cope’s “rich pastures and hills heavy with timber.” It is thus possible to consider the three stories as a whole, telling one tale of destruction, and to follow that thread from one to the other. If each of them seems to represent a new stage in the Fall from Eden into the Christian Pit, a closer look at the invading outsiders may give us further insight into how the author uses former fictional universes to make manifest her own vision.

The Assailants

14In “A Circle in the Fire,” the three boys from Atlanta are dropped off by a pick-up truck on the dirt road that leads to Mrs. Cope’s property. The “faded destroyer printed” on one of the boys’ shirts, his gaze that “seemed to be coming from two directions at once as if it had them surrounded” (179) are two elements that identify the boys as invaders. Their approach of the farm is shown almost in stop-motion, from the moment they walk up the dirt road to their setting down their suitcase in front of Mrs. Cope. They come towards Mrs. Cope and Mrs. Pritchard “as if they were going to walk through the side of the house” (178), and “one of Powell’s eyes seemed to be making a circle of the place” (179). Again the figures in the text reveal the possibility of an “added dimension,” invoked by the repetition of “as ifs” or other similes. Having managed to penetrate the fortress, the boys are now ready to take possession of it.

15After figuratively circling the house, they will loot the place, ­threaten to build a parking lot (a sacrilegious act if ever there was one) and pelt stones at Mrs. Cope’s mailbox until they “‘done already about knocked it off its stand’” (this is Mrs. Pritchard breaking the news to Mrs. Cope, the latter “coming to almost military attention” (188)). The Garden has come under siege, and the Matriarch is bracing herself for her fight against the enemy. However, she has already, albeit symbolically, been dispossessed of her land through the destruction of the mailbox, on which her name must now be barely legible (Bleikasten 55). After repeating her ownership over the land (“‘in my woods’” (183), “‘this is my place’” (186)), the answer she (indirectly) gets from the boys is: “‘Gawd owns them woods and her too’” (186), “‘It don’t belong to nobody’.” “‘It’s ours’” (192). Two Southern ­stereotypes come into play here. Mrs. Cope displays a strong sense of ownership that reminds us of plantation fiction, a genre that, as previously mentioned, also builds a sense of pending disaster. However, it is not as common to find the “­assailants” showing such religious faith. When Mrs. Cope sees the land as an extension of herself, for the boys, it is a place to be enjoyed, where they can give free rein to their youthful, almost feral energy. What seems to be progressively put into place here is an opposition between social order and vital force, both parties claiming to have God on their sides.

16The passage where Mrs. Cope and Mrs. Pritchard chase after the boys, described from the child’s vantage point at an upstairs window, as if in a bird (or God)’s eye view, comically debunks the image that Mrs. Cope has been trying so hard to build. She is so mercilessly ridiculed that the boys’ status in the story starts to shift:

(...) in a few minutes [Sally Virginia] saw the stiff green hat catching the glint of the sun as her mother crossed the road toward the calf barn. The three faces immediately disappeared from the opening, and in a second the large boy dashed across the lot, followed an instant later by the other two. Mrs. Pritchard came out and the two women started for the grove of trees the boys had vanished into. Presently the two sunhats disappeared in the woods and the three boys came out at the left side of it and ambled across the fields and into another patch of woods. By the time Mrs. Cope and Mrs. Pritchard reached the field, it was empty and there was nothing for them to do but come home again. (187-88)

17So much for Mrs. Cope as aristocratic army general. The woods now protect the boys and the open fields work as a stage where Mrs. Cope’s failure is played out. The Garden of Eden has become the setting for a tragic-comic war the issue of which leaves no doubt. The grotesque in this scene unsettles the reader’s sense of imminent tragedy, although it doesn’t quite lift it. Too many details have pointed to the destructive nature of the boys for the reader to forget about it in the short span of the story. Their ­personalities and psychological motives are secondary, and this alone highlights the allegorical dimension of O’Connor’s short fiction (Shaw 118). The destroyer on Powell’s T-shirt was a first indication of their role in the story. Their arrival by truck, their coming from the new development in Atlanta “‘four stories high and there’s ten of them, one behind the other’” (182), and the fact that Powell’s mother works in a factory, all confirm them as agents of the destruction that both urban life and the lower classes are bringing to the rural, socially stable (static?) Southern world of Mrs. Cope and Mrs. Pritchard.

18However, the destruction they cause is figured through biblical references, as previously mentioned, to “the prophets […] dancing in the fiery furnace, in the circle the angel had cleared for them” (193). This final sentence calls for a complete reassessment of the boys’ function. The circle in the fire echoes the circle formed by the woods around Mrs. Cope’s property, and seems to define a space that the “assailants” have opened and where something new might emerge. The destruction of the plantation that the boys’ arrival announced may turn into an act of re-creation. The look on Mrs. Cope’s face as she sees the smoke rising up from “her” woods is to be read as a sign on the surface that will guide us to the deeper meaning of the text: “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” (193). The people that Mrs. Cope is now compared to all share a history of loss and tragedy and the simple fact of comparing her to them reveals the inadequacy of Southerners’ fierce ­individualism and insistence on their separateness.

19Although the story seems to pay tribute to a Southern literary model (the Fall from the innocence of the ante-bellum South and the loss of an Edenic environment), the connection here made between Powell and Mrs. Cope, between landowner and intruder shows that Mrs. Cope’s world had to be destroyed for her to realize what her true place in the world is. The devilish boys from the city were in fact on a mission for God and the ­intrusion of elements from the modern world eventually forced Mrs. Cope to open her eyes to the realities of life. What will happen to Mrs. Cope and her child is now anyone’s guess, but the burning down of the protective walls of the woods has actually set them free. The open-ended story rejects closure and offers a new perspective for Mrs. Cope, well beyond the limits of the text and the epiphany that prevails in many a short story (Shaw 49), drawing attention to its mythical and biblical intertext.

20Such references will gradually become less ubiquitous, and in “Greenleaf,” the danger seems more explicitly to stem from the social changes that are unstoppably reshaping the South. Mrs. May considers the Greenleafs a menace for her social standing. She persistently describes the family as “trash,” “the yard around [Mrs. Greenleaf’s] house looked like a dump and her five girls were always filthy” (315). As for the sons, everything they have achieved is by way of sheer luck or mischief – ­including their being wounded during the war and getting government grants in ­compensation (“disguised in their uniforms” […]; “They had married nice girls who naturally couldn’t tell that […] the Greenleafs were who they were”; “They had both managed to get wounded”; “They took advantage of all the benefits and went to the school of agriculture at the university […]” (318). This deprecatory description of the Greenleafs’ social improvement underscores their dealings with the outside world, and their (for Mrs. May) treacherous use of unfairly granted advantages. Where Mrs. Cope revealed her rejection of life’s hardships by rebuking Mrs. Pritchard every time she indulged in a gruesome story of disease or violent death, Mrs. May just plain discounts them as fraud. Her visit to the Greenleafs’ property confronts her with the reality of what they have actually achieved, and with the real nature of the threat they represent.

21Her first sight of their house is an almost point-to-point negation of the mythical Southern landscape: “The house, a new red-brick, low-to-the-ground building that looked like a warehouse with windows, was on top of a treeless hill” (323). Its similarity with an industrial building rather than the Southern mansion of old, and the absence of trees around it all point to the elaboration of a new paradigm, from which references to the old colonial past and American pastoral have been erased. Southern individualism is another extinct feature as the narrative voice remarks: “It was the kind of house everybody built now” (323). However, “A Circle in the Fire” has taught us to be wary of Southern individualism.

22The fact that the Greenleafs’ sons’ house and later farm are described in such minute detail silently tells a story of defeat that spells the end of the Old Southern Eden imagery. As Poe advised in his review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, the writer’s “pre-established design” justifies every word, detail or incident. “The spotless white concrete room [...] filled with sunlight,” “the metal stanchions [that] gleamed ferociously” (325), not to mention the absence of cows in the milking room show the apparent eradication of anything human or even living in the farm. The hypallage figuratively underlines the momentous change in the order of things that is taking place. That this farm threatens Mrs. May’s world is made even more explicit with the final sentence of the paragraph: “The sun was directly on top of her head, like a silver bullet ready to drop into her brain” (325). The “silver bullet” here could be the realization that the Greenleaf sons are not what she thought them to be, and that the threat they represent is much more critical than she thought. And yet, the omnipresence of the sun, which symbolizes God in Christianity as well as in a number of other mythologies, adds a religious dimension to this industrial site, as if this place was a means for God to open Mrs. May’s eyes and force her to see the world as it is, not as she fantasizes it, with everybody, her own sons including, living off the fat of her land.

23Where “A Circle in the Fire” told a tale of foreign invasion through the three boys that come to raid, loot and destroy Mrs. Cope’s world, “Greenleaf” reveals how the Old South is being changed from the inside, with only a few quaint fragments left here and there to remind one of the old myths: a Negro worker Mrs. May meets at the Greenleafs’ farm and who incidentally contradicts her opinion of the Greenleaf sons; the stray bull that will contradict every one of her rules just before its horn pins her to her car. The fact that the worker is wearing the brothers’ old military clothes draws a connection between them. Both have been confronted to Evil, contrary to Mrs. May. The Negro worker is a reminder of the Segregation that prevailed in the South. The brothers have fought in Europe against the Nazis. Mrs. May is only fighting a stray bull. The threat it nevertheless represents for Mrs. May is constructed alongside the figuration of the animal as her divine “suitor,” a Christ-like figure trying to break into her world, and have her accept the social, material and spiritual truths, and associated distress, that she rejects.

24We may draw a parallel between the boys in “A Circle in the Fire” and the bull insofar as the text refuses to figure them as a solely negative destroying force, but also as an unrestrained living force. The virility of the bull sharply contrasts with Mrs. May’s world. In addition, the narrator’s irony invalidates her opinion of the Greenleaf sons, by outlining them as good parents, good Christians and efficient business men who respect each other and their workers, favoring the use of machinery to the exploitation of human force. Again, the invading outsiders, although they spell the end of the main characters’ world, also represent the possibility of a new start in a fertile environment. The Greenleafs’ rise in society is distinctly part of this on-going mutation.

25References to social classes and social tension combined with religious symbolism in O’Connor’s stories participate in the ­representation of a world clinging to its fantasized past. The landowners here refuse to acknowledge reality and accept change and otherness, until loss or death makes it impossible for them to go on living the dream of the Plantation myth, with all its hypocrisies. Mrs. May’s recurring nightmares of ­dispossession and Mrs. Cope’s fear of fire underscore their morally and socially unsustainable position.

26To these recurring themes, “A View of the Woods” brings a new perspective with its inversion of the figures of protecting guardian and devouring outsider. The Christian symbolism that we have come across in the previous stories, though less explicitly insistent here, may be a key to understanding O’Connor’s fiction. In “A View of the Woods,” the landowner chooses Industry whereas the Pittses, Mr. Fortune’s tenants and in-law family, whom Mr. Fortune persistently describes as a good-for-nothing, backward family, try to preserve the agrarian world around them. Mr. Fortune is convinced that his granddaughter shares his enthusiasm for Progress, that she is more Fortune than Pitts. He ignores or misreads her reactions when she sees the machine drawing nearer the stobs that mark out the land still belonging to Mr. Fortune. When Mary Fortune violently turns against him after he sells the lot in front of her father’s farm, the so-called lawn, only he is surprised.

27Although she seems to side first with her grand-father then her father, Mary Fortune manages to emerge as an independent character from both males of her family. There is a clear difference between the way she sees the lawn and the way, not only Mr. Fortune but her father as well, see it. She sees the lawn as a place to play and a place from which she can see the woods. For her father, the lawn is cow pasture, land to be exploited, and for her grandfather it is an obstacle to the March of Progress. Neither sees the land as something sacred to be preserved. These visions of nature in turn question our vision of the landowners in the other two short stories.

28What are Mrs. Cope and Mrs. May actually trying to preserve? Does their vision of the world embrace the Pastoral ideals that underlie the Old Southern mythology? Are they truly the Guardians of an Eden-like nature?

The Guardians

29We have noticed that despite Mrs. Cope’s idealistic vision of her land, the way she describes it defines it primarily as the source of her wealth (“rich pastures and hills heavy with timber”). Her protection of nature is very selective as we see her pulling out the weeds and nut grass from around her house, “as if they were an evil sent directly by the devil to destroy the place” (175). Here, the narrative voice indicates that her face when dealing with the boys and with the nut grass is the same.

30Mrs. May is no different in her approach to nature. Like Mrs. Cope, she sees the fields only as pastures or in terms of future crops, and one cause of dissatisfaction she has with Mr. Greenleaf is when he sows the wrong kind of seeds in one of her fields (clover that enriches the soil instead of rye that you can use to make bread with). Both landowners have a ­materialistic, utilitarian view of life. Just like the boys who were banished from Mrs. Cope’s land for not abiding by her rules, the bull is sentenced to death for threatening her breeding schedule. Her getting killed by it seems to be “a fortunate fall which destroys [her] complacent materialism” (Westling 158). Outsiders put the little, limited world of O’Connor’s landladies in danger by disrupting the order they have managed to build. They threaten the sense of empowerment the landladies get from owning the land, thereby uncovering their worst failure: self-knowledge. Mrs. May’s “last discovery” (334) might be a revelation of her true place in the world, not as Southern landowner but as mediocre human being.

31Mr. Fortune also dies a violent and unexpected death. He, too, ­considers nature as an obstacle to the improvement of his wealth and social status: “There was talk of an eventual town. He thought this should be called Fortune, Georgia” (338). His dream of self-aggrandizement makes him fall prey to Mr. Tilman, whose name and trade “a combination country store, filling station, scrap-metal dump, used-car lot and dance hall” (345) are logically complemented by his physical description: “He sat […] his ­significant head weaving snake-fashion above them. He had a triangular-shaped face […]. His eyes were green and very narrow and his tongue was always exposed in his partly opened mouth” (352). Mr. Tilman could not be more clearly identified with the Devil as tempter, the Snake in the Garden, with Mr. Fortune cutting a grotesque figure as the new Eve. In a few lines, both the Bible and the old Southern fears of modernity are invoked, showing O’Connor paying due tribute to short fiction’s “demands [for] highly charged detail” (Orvell 127). Mr. Fortune’s decision will ruin the only family he has, destroying his close-knit relationship with Mary Fortune. Family values are definitely discarded when grandfather and granddaughter spit biblical quotes at each other, the latter even calling the former “the Whore of Babylon.”

32Who then would be the true guardian of the Old South in “A View of the Woods” if not Mary Fortune? She risks falling into the pit when she sees the machines shaking the stobs, she opposes her grandfather’s decision to sell the plot of land in front of her house, and even assaults him after he has carried out the sale. Protecting the land at her life’s expense is worthy of a Confederate general, yet the narrative voice allows for no such simile. The main reason for opposing her grandfather’s decision is not the land per se. Her first reaction is to protest against the loss of the place “where we play” (342), but what seems to affect her most is that she will lose her “view of the woods” (she repeats it three times, another reference to the biblical text that signals betrayal and pardon). Only when Mr. Fortune fails to understand her does she mention a more pragmatic reason: “My daddy grazes his calves on this lot” (342). Surprised by the violence of her reaction, he looks at the woods to try and make some sense of Mary Fortune’s attitude:

The third time he got up to look at the woods, it was almost six o’clock and the gaunt trunks appeared to be raised in a pool of red light that gushed from the almost hidden sun setting behind them. The old man stared for some time as if for prolonged instant he was caught up out of the rattle of everything that led to the future and were held in the midst of an uncomfortable mystery that he had not apprehended before. He saw it, in his hallucination, as if someone were wounded behind the woods and the trees were bathed in blood. (348)

33In this passage it becomes apparent that the view of the woods is in fact a vision. Christ’s bleeding heart remains invisible to Mr. Fortune although the metaphorical dimension of the passage is clear to any reader. The elements that support a religious interpretation are the different reasons Mary Fortune gives for not letting her grandfather sell the lawn: from a place of innocence where children play, to a sacred place where Christ can be contemplated and finally to a cow pasture (or calf pasture, the difference is noteworthy, given the religious overtones of the passage). Mary Fortune is seen here gradually losing her innocence as she refers to her family’s material interests as a last effort to talk her grand-father out of selling the lawn. Just as she asserts her difference with the old man does she come to resemble him most “‘and I’m PURE Pitts’” (355).

34The fight to the death between grandfather and granddaughter is fraught with mirroring effects: “Pale identical eye looked into pale identical eye”; “The old man looked up at his own image”; “looking down into the face that was his own”; and after the little girl has died, “he continued to stare at his conquered image” (355). Their fight over the land has become a fight between egos, their names symbolizing two opposite stances: asserting one’s power over the land for the purposes of self-aggrandizement and to defy death on the one hand, and an awareness that only Christ can save human beings from the Pit. The last sentence identifies the old man with the yellow machine he had watched with Mary Fortune at the beginning of the story, the text hence going full circle (Tissut 165). Their mutual killing can be read as their common failure to accept that the world has a different agenda from their own. Not accepting loss and death as part of human life can only lead to betraying all of one’s values. This is what Southerners had done in O’Connor’s eyes, hiding their vacuity behind old myths and superficial religiosity.

35In all three stories, the text weaves threads between the earth and the characters, thus underscoring their interest in power, control and earthly matters, despite Mrs. Cope’s insistence on how grateful everyone should be to God, Mrs. May’s insistence on how everyone should be grateful to her, Mr. Fortune’s speeches about Progress and Mary Fortune’s overriding obsession with her view of the woods. It seems that they all have lost sight of the true meaning of their lives.

The Sanctuary

36The only space on which none of these characters seem to have any control is the woods. It is in the woods that the boys are free to enjoy country life, and where they escape Mrs. Cope and Mrs. Pritchard when they try to chase them, in a way that is reminiscent of slapstick comedy chases (the bull does the same in “Greenleaf”). It is in the woods that Mrs. Cope’s daughter tries to mimic her mother’s authoritarian attitude, and orders the trees to “line up,” revealing both her and her mother’s failed attempts at being/remaining the masters of their destiny and surroundings. It is in the woods again that Mrs. May discovers Mrs. Greenleaf exercising her healing prayers, something she finds repulsive and a sign of the family’s backwardness: “Every day [Mrs. Greenleaf] cut all the morbid stories out of the newspaper […]. She took these to the woods and dug a hole and buried them and then she fell on the ground over them and mumbled and groaned for an hour or so […]” (315-16). The sentence contains a few more “ands” that reflect Mrs. May’s incomprehension of the ritual that Mrs. Greenleaf is performing, turning her prayer into a chain of actions with no logic or sense. What the reader understands is the regenerating power of the woods. If Mr. Pitts takes his daughter to the woods to whip her, it is as an attempt to purify himself from the humiliation his father-in-law inflicts upon him.

37This religious value attributed to the woods also explains the fact the boys both love the woods as much as Mrs. Cope, but still set them on fire. The arson becomes a purifying fire (Bleikasten 55). It also explains why Mary Fortune turns against her grandfather when he tells her she will lose her view of them. When at the beginning and at the end of “A View of the Woods” the narrative voice tells us they seemed to be walking “across the water” (and it is interesting to note that Mr. Fortune’s vision of the bleeding sun takes place almost exactly half-way through the story), it completes the Christic dimension the woods have been progressively endowed with. The landowners are happy just exploiting, merely crossing, or downright destroying the Sanctuary, which ultimately comes down to rejecting what is literally staring them in the face, as the typology of sight and blindness underscores.

38Whether we interpret them as a religious motif in O’Connor fiction or as a traditional symbol of the wilderness, the woods are that liminal space between Old and New South where neither of their Laws rule, and from which truth emerges. Mrs. Cope’s refusal to let the boys sleep there reveals her fake hospitality. The bull that comes out of the woods to kill Mrs. May reveals the unbearable truth of her egotism and inadequacy. If Mr. Fortune and Mary Fortune kill each other because of the woods, the fact that they die on a mound of clay reveals their shared materialism as well as a deep criticism of the Southern Myth. The most explicit criticism of what the Southern myth represents for O’Connor is her characters’ hypocritical religiosity that can only faintly hide their fear of loss and death. Theirs is a misguided fight to preserve a life that was never what they believed it was. For O’Connor, death and/or disaster are acts of grace that reveal the characters’ mortal nature. Here the clay can be read both as a sign of their attachment to earthly matters and as a reference to the creation of Adam by God. However, for the atheistic reader, it is the moment when Southern reality is unveiled: exclusion of the other, denial of one’s self, of one’s egotist motives, of one’s shortcomings.


39In Flannery O’Connor’s short fiction, if the Old South fears any change that might question its social order, the modern South has lost its soul in a rat race that leads nowhere: “and beyond that [line of black pine woods] nothing but the sky, entirely blank except for one or two ­threadbare clouds” (347). O’Connor’s “good country people,” once faced with their own hypocrisy, self-interest and mortality, can only find peace in that pre-plantation space from which O’Connor looks on the Old Southern lies and offers an alternative myth that can be theirs to live but not own. Although these two visions might seem irreconcilable, the Greenleaf sons (and Mary Fortune Pitts up to a point) might give the reader an indication of a possible resolution. They have faced the modern South and its promises, have endured pain and loss, and yet have accepted their world as it is, in all its spiritual, social and material dimensions.


Bleikasten, André. Flannery O’Connor: In Extremis. Paris: Belin, 2004. Print.

Castillo, Susan. “Flannery O’Connor.” A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American South. Ed. Richard Gray and Owen Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 487-501. Print.

Grammer, John, M. “Plantation Fiction.” A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American South. Ed. Richard Gray and Owen Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 58-75. Print.

Grojnowski, Daniel. Lire la Nouvelle. Paris: Armand Colin, 2005. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. 1971. London: Faber and Faber, 2009. Print.

Orvell, Miles. Flannery O’Connor: An Introduction. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1991. Print.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales.” Web. 23.10.2013.

Pothier, Jacques. Les Nouvelles de Flannery O’Connor. Nantes: Editions du Temps, 2004. Print.

Shaw, Valerie. The Short Story: A Critical Introduction. London: Longman Group, 1986. Print.

Tissut, Anne-Laure. “Flannery O’Connor et la Séduction du Lecteur.” Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories. Ed. Marie-Claude Perrin-Chenour. Nantes: Editions du Temps, 2004. 163-79. Print.

Westling, Louise. Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens. Athens, Georgia: U of Georgia P, 1985. Print.


1 Their very name connects the preservation of the land with something more sinister.

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Ruth Fialho, « Good Country People Between Old South and New South in Flannery O'Connor's Short Fiction », Journal of the Short Story in English, 67 | 2016, 173-186.

Référence électronique

Ruth Fialho, « Good Country People Between Old South and New South in Flannery O'Connor's Short Fiction », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 67 | Autumn 2016, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 17 octobre 2019. URL :


Ruth Fialho

Ruth Fialho has written a PhD dissertation entitled On the Edge of Chaos: Breakaways, Detours and Passages in Jerome Charyn’s Fiction, which she defended in 2003 at Bordeaux III University. An English "Agrégation" holder, she is currently teaching at Gustave Eiffel high school (pre- and post-baccalaureate). She also regularly participates in conferences about contemporary American authors, mainly writing from the margins of mainstream literature. She has published several articles about Jerome Charyn, Cormac McCarthy, Chester Himes and Flannery O’Connor.

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