Under Mammon's Thumb
© 5 October 2003 Stephen Sparrow
Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A View Of The Woods” demonstrates how one man’s greed sparks a destructive cycle of mockery, abuse and vengeance.
There's more than a little truth to the saying, "the business of America is business," although by changing only one word it could apply equally to any modern capitalist nation in the world. However, the saying was first tailored to fit America and from the mid 16th Century when colonists began arriving from Europe, word of the New World’s immense untapped resources spread rapidly and the trickle of settlers soon became a torrent. As a result, within the span of a mere three and a half centuries, America underwent an astonishing metamorphosis from sparsely populated wilderness into easily the most powerful nation the world has ever seen; a ranking it has held for at least the last one hundred years and looks like holding for some considerable time to come.
Today, the American people are descendents of immigrants from every corner of the globe and even now the population is still in the process of shaking down and settling into that pattern of raw exuberance known as American culture. America; a nation whose’ collective citizenship Flannery O’Connor once described as backslapping, gum chewing and hiya-kid; but still a nation O’Connor was undoubtedly proud to be part of. Being proud to be American however did not blind her to the fact that she as well as her fellow citizens, all shared in the worldwide kinship of original sin complete with its attendant moral failings; and it was to her Catholic faith that O’Connor attributed the faculty to clearly see these failings. The words she used were, “of course you are only enabled to see what is black by having light to see it by”, but that viewpoint was the engine that drove all of O’Connor’s startling and often unsettling fiction.
In "A View of the Woods" , the story’s main protagonist is seventy nine year old Mark Fortune: a man who "knows the price of every thing and the value of
nothing".1 Everything to do with business and money combine in Mr Fortune to provide fertile soil for the growth of his pet vice avarice, and as most of us know, avarice affects not just the one who succumbs to it, but also all those closest to that person.
Mr Fortune; a widower lives with his daughter, her husband and their seven children. The family name of his son in law is Pitts. The land the family lives on is owned by Fortune but farmed by Pitts. Fortune controls everything to do with the property and thinks his son in law is an idiot. He won’t allow the family to pay rent but neither will he allow Pitts to undertake any capital development on the place. Instead Fortune is an opportunist who sits on his assets waiting for the right time to sell. He’s also a sadist who gains pleasure from these actions if in the process he can annoy his son in law. He remembers with satisfaction selling the only block Pitts had succeeded in ridding of bitter weed; and telling anyone who would listen that only a fool (like Pitts) would allow a cow pasture to stand in the way of progress. Let’s face it; Fortune was a greedy nasty old control freak. However, the old man did have one “weakness” and that was his relationship with the youngest child of the household, nine year old Mary Fortune Pitts.
When ten years earlier the Pitts family learned another child was on the way; they did what many prospective parents do and thought about names. Assuming the new baby was a boy they settled on Mark Fortune Pitts. But when Fortune heard their plans he was outraged; he detested the very name Pitts and the idea of linking that name with Fortune was repellent.
As it turned out, the new baby was a girl who at birth bore a strong resemblance to Fortune, the only Pitts child ever to do so. Doing an about face, Fortune now suggested the baby be christened Mary Fortune in remembrance of his own mother. And so from then on Fortune took a special interest in the child. He made a pet of her, favouring her above the others and as she grew, he convinced himself she was a kindred spirit: someone who at a tender age showed financial guile, and he strengthened the relationship by slyly instructing her and trying to drive a wedge between the girl and the rest of the family. Now under Fortune’s tutelage Mary was beginning to adopt his outlook; or so he thought; and this was especially pleasing as he contemplated the time following his death when the family would learn he’d left all his assets in trust to Mary. We can be certain he grinned sadistically as he imagined them still being compelled to jump a rope, one end of which would be held firmly by himself in his grave and the other end by his young protégée.
The favouritism bestowed on Mary by Fortune had severe repercussions. She still continued to play with her siblings on the ‘lawn’ in front of the house but in a mysterious way she became alienated from her father who had chosen to see in her his hated father in law incarnate. Fortune and Mary looked alike, walked alike and talked alike and whenever Pitts looked at his youngest child, he saw Fortune: and at the slightest whim he would take Mary to some secluded spot and whip her. She was his “whipping girl” and he had merely to nod in her direction and Mary would dutifully follow to receive her ‘punishment’. Fortune knew of this because he had once secretly followed the two of them and watched as Pitts used the belt from his pants to whip the girl around the legs. Later, when Fortune confronted Mary about her meek compliance, she denied any whipping had taken place and stated emphatically that if anyone ever did beat her she would kill him.
The problems festering inside the family come to a head over Fortune’s plan to sell the ‘lawn’: the small weed covered patch of land between the house and the road. Fortune intends to sell it to a local entrepreneur named Tilman, who recognising its potential, wants it for a gas station and convenience store site. Earlier, the regional power company had dammed a nearby river and the resultant lake bordered a half-mile of Fortunes property, placing it in hot demand for lakeside sections. The clay road that ran past the house continued on to the new lake and there was talk of it being paved in the near future. You could say that Mr Fortune in late life had fallen on his feet and was now presented with the chance to achieve a long held secret desire to be viewed as a big shot. He had already sold a few lakeside sections and the latest sale was being developed as a fishing club. Fortune and Mary would often spend hours sitting and watching the club site being excavated and
leveled and it was while they were doing this one day that Fortune strongly hinted that he had another scheme in the offing and that provided she was good, gave him no sass, he might give her a bonus and he commenced to tell the girl of his plan to sell the ‘lawn’. Her immediate response was displeasure. She told Fortune it was where her daddy grazed his calves; it was where she and her siblings played and if that were not enough, the new buildings would block the family’s view of the woods on the other side of the road.
At the family dinner table that evening Fortune announced his plans to the rest of the family. There was uproar from all except Mary who remained quiet. From the others came phrases like. “That’s where we play.” “We won’t be able to see the road.” All idiocies to Fortune’s way of thinking but the face of Pitts was dark with fury and he looked at Mary and accused her of being behind it all and then nodded at her to follow him for what was by now a ritual—another whipping.
The remainder of the story deals with the machinations of Fortune in clinching the deal with Tilman in the face of intense opposition from young Mary Pitts: opposition that completely mystifies Fortune. Near the end when the deal is done, Fortune and Mary have a falling out, but as a last resort Fortune tries to sort out the question of what he regards as Mary’s misplaced loyalty toward her father by trying himself to whip her into line. The result is a furious fight in which Mary initially manages to overpower her grandfather and confront him with the fact that somebody who at heart is pure Pitts has just beaten him. This abrupt awareness of his failure to influence the child hits so hard that in a sudden surge of rage, Fortune now overpowers Mary and kills her. Immediately afterward, the old man dies from a heart attack brought on by the stress of the whole episode.
Okay, so how does avarice fit in here? Well, aren’t we human beings obsessed with abundance? If only we had a little more of this or that, life would be so much better wouldn’t it? But things never stop there do they? We always want more. And so on it goes; more money, more youth, more good looks, more sex (often aberrational), more fame, more drugs, you name it; we always want more of what we perceive as good, invariably something to feed our ego. The one thing we rarely pursue with vigour is an abundance of God’s grace because that always involves surrender, humility, and the realisation of the utter futility of seeking fulfilment in ourselves: and as a consequence this grace is frequently mistaken as a weakness because we almost never see examples of it on the front page of any major daily. Western media and education seem determined to imprint on us the belief that having things is a virtue but to be content with who we are is a vice.
So how does avarice lead to abuse? What is it that makes people abuse the vulnerable? And even more puzzling; what makes people willingly submit to such abuse? Well it should be obvious that those who exercise power or control over others do so through the institution of rituals. Formal rituals in the case of a state or corporation, or informal as in the case of a family. Yes, but what about the abuse of these rituals? What about their degeneration into violence? Okay, all human behaviour is in a constant state of flux; either improving or worsening and when human social situations worsen; those perceiving themselves trapped by them, often just put up with it: well, for a while at least. O’Connor once defined
sin by using as an example the individual who willingly exchanges a greater good for a lesser one 2 and in this story, that pattern of worsening motives surrounds Fortune in all of his actions, which like the widening ripples on disturbed water spread to affect everyone under his control producing in this case, an ugly knock on effect between Pitts and his nine year old daughter.
The Pitts family live believing they depend on Fortune for their well being. They see themselves as trapped under his thumb, and they hate it. The thumb Fortune puts himself under belongs to Mammon (Biblical term for Money) but he cannot recognise the problem. He’s been in denial too long and considers himself fully justified in behaving the way he does. Deep down Fortune suffers from insecurity: the demon that preys on the ego by deforming it, massaging it and persuading it to assume that the only thing worth achieving is to be considered a big shot. Not personally knowing any genuine big shots, Fortune’s idea of being one is to bask in the adulation of Mary and this aspiration blocks him from seeing the consequences of his actions. But hey! Some of you may be saying, “in that case he can’t have been responsible for his actions.” Well, you’d be wrong on all counts. At some earlier stage Fortune willed himself to take that first step toward greed. He took that step with full knowledge of what it meant and from the scriptural quotes he occasionally utters, the reader knows that he knows better.
Mary Fortune is afflicted with a sort of fatalistic acquiescence; a childlike obedience in knowing that she must suffer at the hands of her brutish father. Pitts has strong feelings of inadequacy and vents his anger and frustration on the most vulnerable family member who not only looks like his hated father in law but also appears to be best buddies with him. The rest of the family is so cowered by Fortune that there is in place a collective acceptance of the situation in all its complexities. In some respects it calls to mind the denial adopted by many European Jews while Adolph Hitler went about his diabolical Holocaust; or the manner in which battered women make excuses for their abusive husbands and continue to stay with them. Throughout the story denial seems to be a sort of familial ‘disease’ and at one stage the omniscient narrator informs us that Mary had
"a habit of his [Fortune’s] of not hearing what she didn’t want to hear." While Mary willingly consented to being whipped by her father, she continually and emphatically denied any violence was taking place thereby fitting the classic Stockholm Syndrome 3 type. But, when later her grandfather tried the same thing she reacted by resisting what to her was a true violation.
The role of the “Woods” in the story is a Christ figure 4 and that role is first illustrated the day after Fortune tells the family of the planned land sale. In the afternoon he retreats upstairs to his room. Several times he gets off his bed and looks out the window to see what it is about the woods that makes them so special. He notices nothing significant until near six o’clock when on the third occasion he sees that
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 a prolonged instant he were caught up out of the rattle of everything that led to the future and were held there 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.
That one passage is replete with imagery of Christ’s passion and death.
The shop cum gas station Fortune wants to see built becomes an imaginative as well as a physical barrier blocking the view of the woods, which as noted above, is symbolic of the reality of God’s presence and love. Christ as the trees, pure, which in various ways are appealing to Fortune to be noticed; beckoning him; trying to draw him away from his destructive greed. We see a smidgen of this greed symbolised in the scene where Fortune and Mary are watching the bulldozers
leveling the fishing club site when Mary shouts to the old man, “If you don’t watch him
he’ll cut off some of your dirt,” a small amount of dirt standing in for his love of money.
As is often the case with O’Connor’s fiction, significant events are either foreshadowed or symbolically drawn.
- After uplifting the deed of sale from the courthouse, Fortune returned to his car to find Mary with a facial _expression that was foreboding and withdrawn.
- The sky had darkened also and there was a hot sluggish tide in the air, the kind felt when a tornado is
possible. A portent of some terrible thing about to take place.
- The roadside hoardings advertising Tilmans can be likened to signs warning of the danger of embracing Mammon.
- When Fortune clinches the land deal we’re given an image of Tilman’s head weaving like a snake. A symbol strongly suggestive of the serpent that caused Adam and Eve’s downfall in the Garden of Eden.
In Christian terms the world is a sacramental place, infused at every turn with God’s creative love, and as such, the world is set up for human beings to use in the service of God. But Fortune profaned the temple of the world and paid for that crime with his soul. Of all O’Connor’s major characters, Fortune is the only one she unequivocally condemned to
In the story’s last paragraph Mary Pitts lies dead and Fortune’s life is ebbing away in a heart attack; he imagines the trees abandoning him; a symbol of his damnation; God abandoning him to a monster; the monster being the hell of his own greed; the monster that above all else Mr Fortune desired, sought and finally attained.
On both sides of him he saw that the gaunt trees had thickened into mysterious dark files that were marching across the water and away into the distance. He looked around desperately for someone to help him but the place was deserted except for one huge yellow monster, which sat to the side as stationary as he was, gorging itself on clay.
The starting point of all evil is to mistake or confuse the means for the end and Fortune’s avarice ultimately prevents him from being able to distinguish between the two. Obsession with money places him firmly under Mammon’s 5 thumb leaving no room in his life for God, and his eternal destiny is summed up with this stern warning from The New Testament. “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world at the expense of losing his immortal soul?” (Mark 8:36-37)
1. Oscar Wilde 1854-1900: celebrated Irish born author, playwright and wit. Wilde coined the aphorism, someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing to define a cynic. Wilde wrote the popular play “The Importance of Being Ernest” and the short story/fable “The Selfish Giant.”
2. O’Connor’s definition of sin. “Always you renounce a lesser good for a greater; the opposite is what sin is.” Letter to A. Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988. Page 978.
3. Stockholm Syndrome: Psychological phenomenon in which victims of violence and oppression bond with their aggressors. The condition has been recognised for a very long time but only recently (the 1970s) received its current popular appellation on the basis of events surrounding a five-day bank staff hostage drama in Stockholm Sweden during which the hostages were continually threatened and terrorised. After their rescue by police the hostages sprang to the defence of their captors. In their media interviews, it was clear that they supported them and actually feared the people who came to their rescue. The hostages had begun to feel the captors were in reality protecting them from the police. One of the women hostages later became engaged to one of her captors and another established a legal defence fund to help with all the criminal’s legal defence fees. Obviously, some form of emotional bonding had occurred between the hostages and their captors during the period of the siege.
4.Letter to A. 28 Dec. 1956. The Habit of Being. Page 189. Pitts is a pathetic figure by virtue of the act that he beats his child to ease his feelings about Mr Fortune. He is a Christian and a sinner, pathetic by virtue of his sin. Pitts and Mary Fortune realise the value of the woods, and the woods if anything are the Christ symbol. They walk across the water, they are bathed in a red light, and they in the end escape the old man’s vision and march off over the hills. The name of the story
is “A View Of The Woods” and the woods alone are pure enough to be a Christ symbol if anything is. Part of the tension of the story is created by Mary Fortune and the old man being images of each other but opposite in the end. One is saved and the other is damned and there is no way out of it, it must be pointed out and underlined. Their fates are different. One has to die first because one kills the other. ----- The old man dies by her side; he only thinks he runs to the edge of the lake, that is his vision. ---He runs in imagination.
5. Man cannot serve two masters. It’s either God or Mammon. (New Testament. Matt. 6-24)