Flannery O’Connor and the Modernist’s Place in The Borderlands

It seems a part of the modernist condition to make a point of occupying the borderlands (perhaps not by choice, but because there is no other acceptable place available), whether they be spiritual, physical, emotional, or purely intellectual. The modernist (and subsequently the post-modernist) seek to avoid labels, and in O’Connor’s case, she deftly dodges classification as “Southern Writer” and “Catholic Writer” while using aspects of those classifications to further her arguments on the role of the writer in society.

In “Some Aspects of the Grotespue in Southern Fiction,” O’Connor allies herself with Southern Writers because she finds the label convenient for her argument, while taking great lengths to point out that no writer in today’s world can hope to speak for any other, as there is no group of writers in existence anymore with a sort of allegience to one another.

To O’Connor, prophesy is available only to those who inhabit the borderlands, to those who, like the peacock, make their nests at dusk, between light and dark (far-reaching implications of this metaphor aside), and like those who listen to the peacock each morning, and ally themselves with these birds, who begin to lose the ability to tell whether they are dreaming or wide awake. This, to O’Connor, is the home of the serious writer, this world in between worlds, littered with fragments of reality and spirituality, held together with the cohesive glue of foresight.

“The Barber” begins with a character’s assertion of his place within the borderlands, as the barber offers up a polarity, only to have Rayber’s thoughts undermine this opposition to claim a position neither on the side of the white or the black (the light and the dark, if you will), as Rayber’s loyalties are to himself, and not to either side in the civil rights battle being waged at the time. It seems that this borderland is a place that the writer must live in order to maintain his gift of prophesy, as the writer must remain not impartial, but able to see the global effects of the actions going on around him. Rayber states that Hawk’s “remarks don’t alter from speech to speech,” implying a sort of stasis from those who live completely on one side or the other.

This isn’t to say, however, that Rayber is completely innocent of his barber’s transgressions, or that he is totally sympathetic to the plight of the blacks; but he does make an effort. Defending the blacks seems to call into question the defending white man’s sexuality, as though there were a logical connection between the two (which, despite decades in which people were told differently, there isn’t). To assert the rights of the colonized places one on a plane wherein he is treated with the same inhuman methods – his sexuality is called into question, his intelligence challenged, and he is, in short, othered.

O’Connor makes a rather disturbing parallel within “The Barber” between chickens and blacks, as she decorates the scenery with an “automatic chicken killer – so timid person can kill their own fowl” and the barber discusses his recent “quail hunt” and the “covey this dog of mine flushed the other day … [they] spread once and we got four and they spread again and we got two. That aint bad” (23). The barber seems to be speaking in carefully veiled terms, and O’Connor once more gives the audience just a moment’s insight into the two worlds superimposed within her text.

O’Connor states that the writer is “looking for one image that will connect or combine or embody two points; one is a point in the concrete, and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye, but believed in by [the writer] firmly,” and the point within “The Barber” where the black man is illustrated as animalistic, unintelligent, and an object to be exterminated (at least in the eyes of the barber and his cohorts) captures that image.

Taking this moment within the story into consideration reshapes the entire tale, and offers Rayber as a sort of “Notes from the Underground” lout lost within his own existential desire to prove himself correct, without possessing the ability to fully comprehend the implications of what is being said around him. He accuses the barbers of not being able to reason or think, and he states that they should read more and act less (and indeed perhaps they should), and the irony in this action is that he’s so caught up in his pursuit of intellectual superiority that Rayber himself fails to realize that his statements are putting people at risk.

Rayber is confused when his colleague Jacobs refuses to argue, least of all with the barbers, and George’s statements of blanket agreement with the barbers are construed as his lack of knowledge over what is best for him; however, it is through compliance and silent resistance that change shall be created in a world so volatile and hostile to the plight of the oppressed. Jacobs understands this, and spends his time lecturing at black colleges, George understands this, and he maintains gainful employment (not without personal cost, granted, but he does maintain a job in the rather aggressive south). Rayber chooses instead to challenge the system in place head on, and his facade of intellectualism breaks down and he becomes violent in his despair. It is this reduction to the barber’s level and his despair that are, in effect, the kiss of death for this O’Connor character. While Rayber lives at least physically until the story’s end, one could argue that an O’Connor story never stops when the words do, but rather that O’Connor is inviting the audience to share in the writer’s prophecy, the “matter of seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and thus of seeing far things close up” (44).

“The Turkey” rings of “Schroedinger’s Cat” with a Dantean twist. O’Connor, schooled as she was in Judeo-Christian lore, sets the story such that the turkey, nearing death, runs into the woods, suggesting a passage of sorts from the physical world into the spirit world, as one must find his way through the dark woods in order to move on to heaven (as stated by Dante, and then later Joyce, who commented that the way through the woods was dark, and one would be so easy for one to get lost without the proper guidance). Ruller, when at the edge of the woods, begins to despair at his loss of the turkey that he never really had in the first place, and begins to curse God for the “terrible trick” played on him. He turns away the graces of the forgiving female mother figures, rebels against them, violent in his opposition. From a Catholic standpoint, this really doesn’t seem like the wisest thing to do.

When he finds that the turkey has been “given” to him, Ruller assumes that he’s not “going bad” as he had previously thought, and believes that the turkey is there to prevent him from wandering off the path of righteousness. What he fails to realize is that his tendency to abandon faith altogether (despair) when things don’t go his way is a rather fundamental characteristic of his personality, and the delight that he gets in cursing God and striking against the forgiving and nurturing mother figures implies an inherent problem in his nature. He decides to pay God back for the good turn, less, it seems, because he is truly grateful, but more because he wishes to even the score and show how deserving he is of good favors come his way.

His good acts are done with an ulterior motive in mind, with an intent for personal gain, whether immediate or in the future. He is little concerned with religion and matters of spirituality, judges people on the basis of his own presumed superiority (as he assumes the country boys will be in awe of him and Hetty Gilman will be in need of his charity).

The common theme within these two seemingly (at first glace at least) unrelated stories is O’Connor’s commentary on the dangers of intellectualism, especially in regard to presumed superiority over others. It is interesting that these would be O’Connor’s thesis stories, as she seems to be offering a strong commentary on the flawed nature of a certain breed of intellectual, one so consumed with what is “right” and “fair” that he fails to fully understand the far-reaching repercussions of his actions.

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