Catholic Distance University

Flannery O’Connor, Women, and the Home

Barbara Wheeler

We cannot underestimate the roles of home, family, and community in shaping Flannery O’Connor as a writer. In her essay entitled “The Regional Writer,”Flannery O’Connor states: “Unless the novelist has gone utterly out of his mind, his aim is still communication and communication suggests talking inside a community.” She goes on to say, “I wouldn’t want to suggest that the Georgia writer has the unanimous collective ear of his community, but only that his true audience, the audience he checks himself by, is at home.” Home forms a major motif in Flannery O’Connor’s stories, particularly in “The Lame Shall Enter First” and “The Enduring Chill.” In these stories, home opposes the dualism of the modern world that separates the physical from the spiritual, and home contradicts the rationalism that denies the spiritual world altogether. Home is the place where the physical and the spiritual are evidently present together. Moreover, O’Connor uses this motif to discuss the role of women in challenging both rationalism and dualism. Home is the medium through which the protagonists learn to fear the Lord.

In both of these stories, “The Lame Shall Enter First” and“The Enduring Chill,” the dualism and intellectual pride of the modern world is exposed as empty and fruitless, and in both of these stories this is accomplished through the idea, used differently in each story, of home.

“The Lame Shall Enter First” centers around a man named Sheppard who neglects his own son while trying to give another boy a place to live. Opening up his home to the boy, a precocious child named Rufus Johnson, seems like an act of “compassion,” but ultimately is a selfish act because he neglects his own son, Norton, and also because, as Rufus Johnson states, “Nobody can save me but Jesus.” Sheppard wants to save the boy in a very material sense—by giving him shelter, food, and a new prosthetic foot—while denying that Rufus Johnson has a soul that also needs saving. He believes that giving Rufus shelter will save Rufus, but the paradox is that he is the one who needs saving, and all of the ingredients for that salvation are right there in his home all along. The narrator goes into great detail about the physical rooms of the house, which might have led Sheppard to a realization that his materialism on which he based his life was false. There is the attic, which houses the brand new telescope that Sheppard is always encouraging the boys to look through—yet the narrator never shows Sheppard looking through it. This is particularly interesting because right before Norton dies, he begs his father,“Come and look!” and Sheppard answers his pleading coldly, stating, “You don’t see anything in the telescope but star clusters.” But how does he know that, since he so adamantly refuses the boy’s invitation to experience the spiritual world? The Psalmist states, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord”—it is precisely the act of looking out at the immensity of the universe that might fill Sheppard with the holy fear which might begin him on a path toward redemption—and he rejects his child’s invitation to do so.

Furthermore, there is another room in the house that Sheppard neglects—the room of his deceased wife. The bedroom is full of her material objects. For Norton they are more than material objects. Norton becomes enraged when Rufus goes into the room and commandeers her corset and clothes, putting the items on in a kind of burlesque gesture. Sheppard, on the other hand, is unaffected. Norton tries to explain to Johnson that he should not play with her things. When asked why, Norton states,“She’s dead,” as if that is enough explanation for anyone—and indeed, for most people it would be, since material objects take on more than material meaning when the person who owned them was loved and is no longer present. Yet Sheppard lives in this haunted home and is completely disconnected from it, choosing instead to live in a world of glittering generalities such as “compassion,” “satisfaction,” and“trust”–although he refuses to learn their true meanings. The particular material reality of his home might have opened up his eyes, if he had been willing. But for people like Sheppard, this transformation does not come about easily. His rationalism and disregard for the material makes him unable to see the spiritual world manifest in his own home.

The lack of mother figures in this story also helps to contribute to the force of Sheppard’s rationalism. Traditionally, the mother shapes home life. To appropriate C. S. Lewis’s line about friendship to another context, mothers are masters of things which have “no survival value, but make survival valuable.” The death of Mrs. Sheppard has left a vacancy larger than her empty bedroom. Flannery O’Connor is not merely positing that women keep up the practical aspects of home life; she hints at something supernatural that women accomplish in their roles as mothers and wives in the home. She suggests that it is women who can balance the modern tendency toward materialism. If men like Sheppard place their trust in logic, women can remind them that there is more to reality than what can be revealed by human logic. Indeed, in the popular Catholic prayer, the “Ave Maris Stella,” Mary—whom Flannery O’Connor certainly would have had in mind as the paragon of motherhood—is referred to as the “portal of the sky.” How interesting it is, then, that Norton believes he can see his mother in the sky—as if she, too, is some kind of portal to something that exists beyond what Sheppard tells Norton about the world. When Sheppard comes to an epiphany at the end of the story and runs to Norton realizing that he has transgressed by neglecting him, Sheppard resolves that “he would be mother and father” to Norton. The mother then, for Flannery O’Connor, is an important figure in bringing the material and spiritual together.

Just as in “The Lame Shall Enter First”, home plays a role in “The Enduring Chill” as the particular place where one can learn to see the world through the lens of the Incarnation—a world in which the natural is a bridge to the supernatural. The protagonist, Asbury Fox, is, like Sheppard, a scientific rationalist who ultimately refuses to believe in anything he cannot see, touch,or taste. Unlike Sheppard, he has a strong artistic temperament. When Asbury comes home from New York City convinced he is on his deathbed, Asbury’s mother tells him, upon seeing the tiny dark apartment where he lived in New York, “You wouldn’t live like this at home.” To this Asbury responds, “It wouldn’t be possible.” His home in New York is merely functional, a place where he can think—because for him, the world of the mind is the only thing that truly matters. He is dualistic in this respect; he wants to be an intellectual and scorns at people who do not value depth of thought, but also does not believe in God and accepts only the physical as real, not recognizing that the very act of the imagination is, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, a function of the soul. His mother, for all her faults, recognizes intuitively his problem and states that what he needs is to do physical labor. His mother believes that “if you would get out in the sunshine, or if you would work for a month in the dairy, you’d be a different person”—and she is correct. Asbury needs to understand that the material world is not something to be scorned but a good created, and even embraced, by God.

Home can change Asbury, just as it can change Sheppard, because home is a school for humility. There is no place in which a person is known to others as in the home. Characters such as Asbury’s sister and the dairy workers can see straight through Asbury’s melodrama. His mother, too, knows that what Asbury needs is to see a doctor and to do some basic physical exercise. In short, he is known, and he cannot hide his true character no matter how much he rails—especially when faced with the fact that he will not die and that it is the humble country doctor, rather than the New York doctors, who has discovered the true nature of his illness. Finally, at home, Asbury is faced with the priest who asks him the basic questions of the catechism, and he cannot answer any of them. He may be able to feign intelligence in New York, but here he is called “a very ignorant boy.”

Home is where one cannot pretend to be anything more than he is, and facing the reality of one’s self is the very definition of humility. Thus home is an instrument of salvation because it brings Asbury to self-knowledge and to the recognition of himself as a creature.

Humility is important to the lesson that Sheppard must learn as well, although home itself plays less of a direct role in teaching him that lesson. Rather, it is Sheppard’s opening of his home to another boy that brings him to realize his own sin and his creaturehood. Unlike Asbury, Sheppard reaches out to others in his pride rather than attempting to remain solitary as Asbury does. Even though he comes to the same realization as Asbury, Sheppard’s story has a far more tragic ending, as Norton’s life cannot be recovered. This suggests that Sheppard’s sin is greater than Asbury’s. Asbury goes home to die in a self-serving, conceited way, having no belief in the interior life. Sheppard goes out, ostensibly to help others, and his pride and self-love lead him to neglect his child. The stakes were higher from the start in Sheppard’s story—unlike Asbury, he has a son, and also unlike Asbury, he joins in the business of saving others. Self-love in such a situation will immediately have more dire consequences than the self-love of a single intellectual who has never published anything. Moreover, Asbury learns his lesson when he goes back to live at home; he goes looking for redemption—although he does not know that is what he is looking for—and he does accept the Holy Ghost once He comes. Sheppard continues to live at home and does not learn the lesson; one cannot persist in sin, having the means to overcome it, and believe that there will be no consequences for such persistence. Home could have been the means through which Sheppard learned humility, yet he loses this chance because he persists in his sin.

In a world in which home is increasingly a transient word and people rarely stay in the same place for long, it may be difficult—and perhaps all the more imperative—to fathom the sacramental meaning of home. Rather than a material place of residence, one’s home can be a sign of the home that is to come. When a home is what it ought to be, it is a source of love and joy, the resting place of memories and the one place in the world where familiarity does not breed contempt. Sheppard believes he is bringing Rufus into his home because the boy needs shelter; but a true home, far from being merely shelter, can be one’s salvation, as it is for Asbury.

Given this sacramental meaning of home, is it any wonder that when O’Connor speaks of home, she simultaneously speaks of women? Just as women in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction are the gatekeepers for their homes, leading their children to the spiritual through the material, it is a woman who in O’Connor’s faith and ours is called “portal of the sky” and leads all men and women to their true home in Christ

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Comments

  1. What a wonderful piece. I love Flannery O’Connor but have never considered these themes in her stories. Sharing this one!

  2. I really enjoyed this article. As a Catholic stay at home mother who loves Flannery O’Connor, this brought me joy. Thank you.

  3. I’ve had a number of O’Connor’s books on wishlist for more than a year now, but I still haven’t bought any. I read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in college, and more than a decade ago, I read Wise Blood. I think my next Amazon order will need to include a work by O’Connor.

    I found this question very interesting: “Given this sacramental meaning of home, is it any wonder that when O’Connor speaks of home, she simultaneously speaks of women?” O’Connor, however, does not appear to be alone in equating women with home. According to Sofia Cavalletti, in The Religious Potential of the Child, young children’s drawings of houses are symbolic of “Mother.”

    • Cheryl,
      Might I suggest your next book be The Habit of Being. I am currently reading this book and it has changed me forever. The book is a collection of Flannery’s letters and she deciphers her novels throughout. This post about the women/home/community shines a light on how reverently Flannery speaks about her mother throughout and how much she treasures being at home. I cannot recommend The Habit of Being enough.

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