The OF Blog: Flannery O'Connor, "A Circle in the Fire"

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Flannery O'Connor, "A Circle in the Fire"

Out of the stories covered so far from her 1955 collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find, “A Circle in the Fire” (1954) might be one of the hardest of Flannery O’Connor’s stories to decipher on a thematic/religious level.  It’s not so much that the narrative is difficult (it is not), but rather that on the surface the “circle in the fire” metaphor appears to run counter to several of the themes that O’Connor addresses in her other stories.  Yet there is something about this story that tugs at the reader, as though reminding her that there is something being overlooked.  However, this “overlooked” element perhaps is as much an underdeveloped theme as it is a failure on the reader’s part to identify precisely just what that might be.

“A Circle in the Fire” opens, as do most of O’Connor’s works, in rural Georgia sometime in the early-to-mid twentieth century.  Two women, Mrs. Pritchard and Mrs. Cope, described through their contrasts and their former similarities, are discussing local calamities, such as the suffering of a woman who gave birth while hooked up to an iron lung, while gardening.  O’Connor’s vivid description of the land they are gardening, such as Mrs. Cope’s “work[ing] at the weeds and nut grass as if they were an evil sent directly by the devil to destroy the place” (p. 232), foreshadows the events that follow.  It is an arid summer and Mrs. Cope’s fields and woods are tinderbox-dry.  She and Mrs. Pritchard worry about fire, and yet that “fire” has a more sinister metaphorical connotation.  There is a tinge of judgment in how Mrs. Cope views the world, from the depravities of youth to the black servants of her neighbor:  “Her Negroes were as destructive and impersonal as the nut grass.” (p. 233).  In short, O’Connor devotes the first quarter or so of this eighteen-page story to contrasting Mrs. Cope’s harsh, judgmental view of the world with the sere landscape.

The story then turns to three youths, somewhere around 11-13 years of age, who appear on Mrs. Cope’s property.  One, Powell, is the second son of a former tenant, now recently deceased in Florida, and he has persuaded the others to come to Mrs. Cope’s plantation-sized farm ostensibly in order to remember older, more carefree days of walking the fields and riding the horses.  Mrs. Cope quickly becomes suspicious of the boys and their laconic, almost surly responses to her perfunctory hospitality:
“In the woods!” she said.  “Oh no!  The woods are very dry now, I can’t have people smoking in my woods.  You’ll have to camp out in the field, in this field here next to the house, where there aren’t any trees.”
“Where she can keep her eye on you,” the child said under her breath.
“Her woods,” the large boy muttered and got out of the hammock.
“We’ll sleep in the field,” Powell said but not particularly as if he were talking to her. 
“This afternoon I’m going to show them about this place.”  The other two were already walking away and he got up and bounded after them and the two women sat with the black suitcase between them.
“Not no thank you, not no nothing,” Mrs. Pritchard remarked.
“They only played with what we gave them to eat,” Mrs. Cope said in a hurt voice.
Mrs. Pritchard suggested that they might not like soft drinks.
“They certainly looked hungry,” Mrs. Cope said. (p. 240)
This quoted passage contains the germ of the conflicts that constitute the remaining half of the story.  Mrs. Cope sets out to do what she feels she is obligated to do, but her actions are always tinged by the suspicion that the boys are up to no good and that they themselves might be as bad-hearted as a hardened criminal.  Her suspicions are fueled by reports from Mrs. Pritchard of the boys riding Mrs. Cope’s horses, smoking cigarettes, and perhaps purloining food.  In her eyes, the boys become less and less those on the cusp of adolescence and more and more like little devils sent to torment her.  O’Connor’s decision to tell this story strictly through Mrs. Cope’s limited perspective allows her to illustrate through dialogue Mrs. Cope’s inability to understand the boys with whom she has entered into a struggle for control.  Yet this narrative choices robs the story of some of its potential vitality, as the three boys by story’s end have been reduced to little more than symbols of Mrs. Cope’s misguided worldview; they are not fleshed out and their actions at the story’s end feel sketchy and incomplete.

On a thematic level, there seems to be an attempt to create a warped, twisted parallel to the Biblical story of the fiery furnace, with the three boys representing the defiant Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in their refusal to conform to the ways of Babylon.  The boys refuse most of the food that is offered to them, not out of fear of defilement but for other, possibly more nefarious reasons.  They go against the commandments that Mrs. Cope gives them regarding what parts of her land that they can visit and where they can sleep before they are to be picked up by Powell’s uncle. And then there is the “circle in the fire” that closes the story, their escape from a conflagration that they started themselves, seemingly in spite of Mrs. Cope’s fears of a brush fire.  Yet these parallels feel weak and underdeveloped.  Part of this no doubt is due to the lack of attention devoted to the boys themselves, yet part of it likely is due to O’Connor’s story feeling “stretched” and too insubstantial for the purposes she had in mind.  The result is a story that feels incomplete, sketchy, as though it were lacking the depth of O’Connor’s other stories.  It may not be as weak as “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” but “A Circle in the Fire” is one of the weaker stories in A Good Man is Hard to Find.

Originally posted at Gogol's Overcoat in March 2013.

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