Salvation through Retaliation in Flannery O'Connor's "The
© May 2008, Stephen Sparrow
In the early 1970s, internationally renowned psychiatrist Ronald
David Laing dumbfounded many of his professional colleagues by
declaring that apart from cases where the human brain had been
affected by physiological illness, physical injury, or some deformity
existing at birth, all mental illness was nothing other than social
phenomena, which, just as in the case of "normal" social
behaviours, has been acquired by the individual from his adjacent
social environment. Laing was no Freudian so it was little wonder that
psychiatrists world wide were dismayed, since the effect of his
pronouncement meant that in most cases their methods to cure the mad
(as Laing called them) were futile, and that furthermore, the money
being poured into trying to identify a gene responsible for
schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders was money wasted and
tantamount to man searching for God through a high powered microscope.
Laing's controversial statement should make us all grateful, since
any purported genetic link to mental illness would in the
future inevitably be used to screen individuals in an experimental
attempt to eliminate what "experts" see as mental illness
and what the rest of us might prosaically refer to as bizarre or
unusual behaviour--which is often the stuff of every interesting
story ever told. The corollary is that any attempt at genetic
manipulation to modify human behaviour is an attack on free will and as
such is doomed to fail. Having said that, there are some mindsets
where free will is a practical impossibility--obsessive states
leading to paranoia are an obvious example, but rarely if ever is one
born into that condition. Obsessive states usually come about
through behaviour that over a period has so gradually changed, that
even those closest to the afflicted person barely notice the effect
until it is much too late to easily reverse the condition.
Having mentioned free will, my definition of it is: the freedom
to change our hearts for better or for worse, such freedom being
rooted in the supernatural virtue of hope. Hope being the universal
craving for mercy, which is engraved on all human hearts and completely incompatible with Darwin's theory of
natural selection (a.k.a. survival of the fittest), which by its own
completely crush any sign of mercy at the moment of hatching. But the
fact is mercy exists: we have all experienced it; either by receiving
it or dispensing it, or at different times both.
Devoutly Catholic, Flannery O'Connor was deeply distrustful of
modern psychiatric practice and in her short story "The Comforts of
Home", her character Sarah Ham admits that she habitually lied
because she was insecure. O'Connor's omniscient narrator then informs
us that Sarah "had passed through the hands of several psychiatrists
who had put the finishing touches to her education." O'Connor also
dismissed as a romantic notion, the "traditional"
association of insanity with the Divine (letter to John Hawkes
"The Partridge Festival" is framed around the annual azalea festival
in the town of the titular name. A local resident named Singleton (a play
on the name Simpleton, with the change signifying alienation) had been
humiliated by pranksters for refusing to buy an Azalea Festival Badge
and ten days later when festival formalities were in full swing,
"had appeared in a side door on the courthouse porch and with a
silent automatic pistol, had shot five of the dignitaries seated there
and by mistake one person in the crowd." Six deaths resulted and
instead of Singleton being arraigned for murder, he was cursorily
examined and summarily admitted to Quincey Mental Hospital. The
attendant publicity was sufficient to make Calhoun drive the 150 miles
to visit his two aunts who lived together in the town: two elderly
women who under normal circumstances drove him nuts. The pretext
Calhoun used for his visit was to see his elderly relatives, but in
reality his agenda was to get the background to the murders and write
about them; especially about Singleton's motive. But before even
arriving in Partridge, Calhoun had already developed his own theory on
the unfortunate man. He considered Singleton a martyr and believed that the
town got its just desserts for being nothing other than a community of
On the morning of his first full day in Partridge, Calhoun walked
the five blocks to the town center where in a series of encounters, he
tests out his opinion on Singleton. A hearse driving past initiates an
exchange in which an elderly male bystander describes five of
Singleton's victims as "fine men. Perished in the line of
duty." But the sixth, (a man named Biller) is no loss. "The
only bullet that went right. Biller was a wastrel. Drunk at the
time...The only thing Singleton ever did good was to rid us of Biller...Now
somebody ought to rid us of Singleton." A little later a seething
Calhoun enters a barbershop and, seated in a swivel chair, now endures
the barber's assessment on what sort of moral and cultural defective
the killer was. More enraged than ever and without waiting for the
barber to properly finish, Calhoun put money down and "made for
the door, letting it slam behind him in judgment on the place."
Through his two aunts, Calhoun met the enterprising young female
student named Mary Elizabeth living next door, and the following day
they walked together into town to observe the beauty pageant; young
women parading in swimwear. They tried to convince each other that
their interest was purely academic. Mary Elizabeth said she found
"this whole place...false and rotten to the core...They
prostitute azaleas." A short time later when Calhoun asked for
her opinion of Singleton she stunned him by saying that she thought of
him is a Christ figure. "I mean as myth," she said
scowling. "I'm not a Christian." The rapport between the two
begins to sour and the omniscient narrator informs the reader that
Calhoun and Mary Elizabeth "look at each other with open and
intense dislike." But still their fascination with Singleton and
their perceived hypocrisy of the Partridge worthies kept them talking
and they hatched a plan to meet with Singleton in custody. The next
day they drove to Quincey where Mary Elizabeth convinced hospital
staff that they were Singleton's kin, and had traveled some distance
to see and support him. After Singleton was escorted into the room,
their encounter was brief and shocking to both Calhoun and
the young woman.
The story begs the question over Singleton's culpability, just as
in real life it still hangs over the mass killers at Columbine and
Virginia Tech. Are such murderers intrinsically evil--in other words
are they sinners or are they insane? Using R. D. Laing's criterion of
insanity we are forced to conclude that Singleton's shocking behaviour
was in part, the result of his being shunned by the "good"
folk of Partridge: in which case the matter comes under the category
of sin. The Gospel of St Matthew 25: 31 - 42 contains the classic text
relating to man's inhumanity to man and the judgment waiting those who
have callously ignored the stranger, the naked, the hungry and those
in prison. Regarding the culpability of Partridge residents, we find
Flannery O'Connor passing judgment on a town that, through indifference
and prejudice, could not be bothered to support the less fortunate
among them. The sin had not started with the killings, it began with
the unwillingness of those who knew Singleton, to "carry their
cross". Instead they attempted to get out from under their cross
and load it onto Singleton by alienating him. The senseless,
humiliating prank increased the weight of Singleton's cross, and,
unbeknown to his tormentors, Singleton was by then in an obsessive
state with only one valve left to relieve the pressure--and that
was retaliation. He handed back his cross by killing some of his
tormentor's elected representatives plus one wastrel.
In another letter to John Hawkes [20/4/61] O'Connor wrote that she
invented Singleton "as another comic instance of the
diabolical," and in "The Catholic Novelist In The Protestant South"
she declared, "evil is not simply a
problem to be solved, it is a mystery to be endured." In
"The Partridge Festival"
O'Connor underscored the embarrassment displayed by the upright
citizens of Partridge, who, faced with rank evil, sidestepped the issue.
In declaring Singleton insane they absolved themselves from blame.
Considering Calhoun and Mary Elizabeth, the reader finds them just
as culpable as the rest of the townsfolk. They acted like vultures
(sales men) gathering to see how they could profit from all this
hypocrisy and mayhem. When Singleton was ushered into the room where
they waited, the killer still retained one means of retaliation and he
used it and showed the visitors that the noble martyr they wanted to
portray was just as vulgar and obsessively self absorbed as they were.
Modern perceptions of insanity point to a society where human
beings have forgotten their need for the grace of God, thereby ushering
in a number of novel but largely ineffective forms of mental health
treatment. Popular psychology is one such example--where groups such
as the Center for Social Therapy encourage the mentally ill to think that it is sufficient merely to
identify and examine their neuroses and guilt complexes through casual
discussion in order to
start walking the path to recovery. From a Catholic perspective it is
axiomatic that this "therapy" is merely confession without grace. Such
strategies to cope with the stress of modern living are a sign of
modern man's misfortune, a misfortune that is quite simply the
re-emergence of the ancient Manichean heresy--meaning that the
material world has distanced itself from the spiritual. The rapidly
growing "me first" mentality of the last sixty years now
relies on science to resolve every crisis. Flannery O'Connor
highlighted the problem in her essay "A Memoir of Mary Ann"
when she said, "in
the absence of this [Christian] faith now, we govern by tenderness. It
is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ,
is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of
tenderness its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor
camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber."
Absence of love is the medium in which sin flourishes, and insanity is not infrequently sin's accompanying dark
angel, whether it be attached to the sinned against or the sinner, and
most of Partridge's citizens played a direct, if unknowing, part in the
drama of Singleton's revenge. Driving away from Quincey, Calhoun saw
himself reflected in the lens of Mary Elizabeth's spectacles. He saw
in his face the gift of life that was pushing him forward "to the
future to raise festival after festival. Like a master salesman [that
he was], it seemed to have been waiting there from all time to claim
Suggested further reading: "Novelist and Believer" pp 154 - 168 and
"A Memoir of Mary Ann" pp 213 -237 in Mystery and Manners:
Selected Prose. Essays and
Lectures of Flannery O'Connor
Letter from Katherine Mansfield to S. S. Koteliansky1 August 1922
Short story writer Katherine Mansfield was at this time suffering from terminal tuberculosis and for health reasons living in the south of France.
I hope you are better. If you need a doctor, Sorapure is a good man--intelligent and quiet. He does not discuss Lloyd George (British Prime Minister) with me, either. This is a great relief. All the other English doctors that I know have just finished reading the Daily Mail by the time they reach me.
It is a pity that [D.H.] Lawrence is driven so far. I am sure that Western Australia will not help. The desire to travel is a great, real temptation. But does it do any good? It seems to me to correspond to the feelings of a sick man who thinks always `if only I can get away from here I shall be better.' However--there is nothing to be done. One must go through with it. No one can stop that sick man, either, from moving on and on. But Lawrence, I am sure, will get well.
Perhaps you will be seeing Brett in a few days? She goes back to England tomorrow. I feel awfully inclined to
Campbell2 about her for a little. But it would take a whole book to say all that one feels. She is a terrible proof of the influence one's childhood has upon one. And there has been nothing stronger in her life to counteract that influence. I do not ever think she will be an adult being. She is weak; she is a vine; she longs to cling. She cannot nourish herself from the earth; she must feed on the sap of another. How can these creatures ever be happy? By happy I mean at peace with themselves. She is seeking someone who will make her forget that early neglect, that bullying and contempt. But the person who would satisfy her would have to dedicate himself to curing all the results of her unhappiness--her distrust, for instance, her suspicions, her fears. He would have to take every single picture and paint it with her, just as a singer, by singing with his pupil can make that weak voice strong and confident. . . But even then, she would not be cured. I believe one can cure nobody, one can change nobody fundamentally. The born slave cannot become a free man. He can only become freer. I have refused to believe that for years, and yet I am certain it is true, it is even a law of life. But it is equally true that hidden in the slave there are makings of the free man. And these makings are very nice in Brett, very sensitive and generous. I love her for them. They make me want to help her as much as I can.
I am content. I prefer to leave our meeting to chance. To know you are there is enough. If I knew I was going to die I should even ask you definitely to come and see me. For I should hate to die without one long, uninterrupted talk with you. But short of it--it does not greatly matter.
1 S. S. Koteliansky--Russian Jewish emigre in England with publishing connections.
2 To `Campbell' was to ramble on amiably in the manner of their old friend Gordon Campbell (later Lord Glenavy) husband of Beatrice Campbell to whom some of Mansfield's letters are addressed.