Rating 4 stars
A Circle in the Fire and Other Stories is a Folio Society collection of short stories by the Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor. I bought it from The Book Shop in Wigtown on our accidental first visit to Scotland’s national book town.
I bought it for the illustrations, thinking that I had read all of O’Connor’s short stories. I have The Women’s Press reissues of the two collections A Good Man is Hard to Find, a collection that was first published in O’Connor’s lifetime, and Everything That Rises Must Converge, originally published the year after her death. I also have her novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away. I first read them twenty years ago. I was captivated by her writing.
I decided that I wanted to read something familiar for a change from the non-fiction I’ve been reading recently, and remembered that I had this. I thought a beautifully bound book printed on quality paper with striking illustrations would feel like luxury. It certainly added to the reading experience.
I was surprised by the opening story, “The Peeler”, because I hadn’t read it before. It introduces the four main characters from Wise Blood, and a version of it was incorporated into that novel, but the short story is pleasingly different. O’Connor had mastery over the art of short story writing, and that shows in this early incarnation of Hazel Motes, and his rivalry with the blind preacher Asa Hawks, introduced here as Asa Shrike. The short story format means O’Connor’s writing is more muscular, tighter, bringing the characters into focus more quickly. Wise Blood is my favourite of her works and a favourite among all the novels I’ve read so far. Reading this version of Hazel Motes gave a different perspective on the more familiar version from the novel. He felt more alive, younger, less practiced in his cynicism, more honest in his anger. His relationship with the ridiculous and dangerous Enoch Emory is established straight away in the short story, and is only expanded on and refined in the novel. Emory, it seems, was a perfect character from the off. His monstrous teenage malevolence is as blackly comical here as in the novel.
“The Peeler” is followed by “The Heart of the Park”, which became the chapter that is my favourite chapter in Wise Blood. In the short story version, though, Hazel’s surname is Weaver, not Motes. It’s Asa Hawks who has the homophonous name Moats in this story. I found it fascinating to see how O’Connor had played around with both these stories in refining them to form part of the novel. My favourite moment, when Enoch Emory phonetically and reverentially pronounces the inscribed MVSEVM (Muhvzeevuhm) on the museum building, is as revealing of who Emory is in this short story version as it is in the novel.
Even though I’ve read the other stories in this collection before, O’Connor’s eye for detail makes them a delight to read again. I was interested in how different aspects of the stories appealed to me this time around, because I am older and have a different perspective on the world. I was struck by how I now prefer the maturity of O’Connor’s later stories, where before I enjoyed the sharpness of her first forays into fiction.
Many of the stories share a theme – the fear of violation of the home, the place where we are supposed to feel safe, whether that’s the physical property we live in, our sense of knowing who we are and what we stand for, or our security in the comfort of those we love. O’Connor paints home as violable, because we care about it. In her view of the world, security and comfort can be taken away by those who don’t care about such things. It’s the fear at the heart of all kinds of prejudice towards others – that what we have that makes us comfortable could be taken away or destroyed. O’Connor captures a society that is changing, in how it treats people, how it houses and educates them, but also in what is held up by society as important. In “A Circle in the Fire”, three teenage boys, run away from the new post-war projects in the city, menace a family, the leader dressed in a t-shirt printed with a naval destroyer broken by his concave chest. They are a symbol of the new way of things. In “Good Country People” there is an angry humour in Joy’s choice to change her name to Hulga to reflect the impact of losing her leg in childhood. It sits in contrast to her mother’s politely condescending attitude to the wife of her tenant farmer, shearing off Joy’s attitude to the world from the politesse of her parents’ generation.
Across the stories, O’Connor documents a way of life that many people, living what might be called a liberal metropolitan life, thought was long gone, only to learn four years ago that it was continuing beyond our social bubbles. O’Connor’s stories are set in an American South where people of colour are segregated by law, treated as sub-human and only briefly glimpsed by the prejudiced white folks whose lives they are there to serve. On the rare occasion when people of colour are brought into focus by O’Connor, as in the offensively titled “The Artificial N—–“, it makes for uncomfortable, stomach churning reading. This story in particular is blatant in its depiction of racism, and it’s hard to tell whether O’Connor’s intention was simple depiction of contemporary beliefs or lifting a veil on the worst of humanity embodied in white attitudes to black people. O’Connor’s politics were progressive and she supported Martin Luther King Jr in his work to secure black civil rights, so it’s not a reflection of her own beliefs. I remember the first time I read this story and feeling the same conflict I felt this time. It feels necessary to retain depictions of racism in contemporary writing, as a reminder of its ugliness and systemic nature, but it also feels glib to say, “That’s just how it was back then,” and gloss over it. The story involves a man and his grandson taking a train trip to Atlanta. The boy has never seen a black American, since, his grandfather states, “we run that one out twelve years ago and that was before you were born.” On the train, an African American who is clearly doing well for himself, judging by his fine clothing and the fact he can afford to dine in the dining car, passes the white protagonists, who have brought a packed lunch. The boy sees a person, about whom the most remarkable thing is his size. He doesn’t comment on the man’s skin colour, compelling the grandfather to tell him that the man is black, using the dehumanising pejorative favoured by racists. They follow the man to the dining car, where more black people are serving food and allocating tables with an authority that the grandfather doesn’t like. Later in the story, the pair become lost in a black neighbourhood and become a spectacle themselves, as a rarely seen minority in that community. The grandfather forces the boy to ask directions from a woman whose physical differences and relaxed composure seem to mesmerise him. There’s a hint here of the exotic other that is absent in O’Connor’s depictions of the male black characters. It plays into the racist depiction of black people’s supposed hypersexual nature and feels questionable even in the generous supposition that O’Connor wants to show racism as grotesque.
As I read this story, a Minnesota police officer murdered a black man, George Floyd, during an arrest. The brutal way the white officer restrained Floyd was sickeningly casual. Statistics show that black men in the US are more frequently arrested and more likely to die in custody than white men. The attitudes depicted in O’Connor’s 65 year old story still prevail today. Read Between the World and Me, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Negroland: A Memoir if you need evidence.
The whites in O’Connor’s tales love to hark back to better times, that they see as normal times, when the world operated on understandable terms. What they say about the longed for ‘better’ past is an echo of what some people say today – it was better back then, people knew their place and respected the order of things. Twenty years ago, when I first read these stories, if I thought anything about this attitude, I thought it was quaint. I thought we had changed, in the intervening fifty years, for the better. Reading the stories today, with a seventy year gap between then and now, I think about how glacial real change is, as we live it, and how quick we are to revert to the ways that bring us comfort. Funny how the time in which you read something can have more impact on the reading experience than the time in which something was written. I wonder, from my 2020 vantage point, what people reading fresh in the late 1940s and early 1950s thought of the behaviour and attitudes of O’Connor’s characters. The writer of the introduction to this collection gives some background to the stories’ initial reception. O’Connor’s readership was small, critics thought her work “grim, brutal, and decidedly unfeminine.” As with any contemporary writer, O’Connor wrote under the expectation that her work would chronicle what was felt to be culturally relevant, in a way that enabled the reader to understand their identity in ways that confirmed their identity rather than challenged it. We all thirst for feeling recognised in literature, even when we read fantasy, science fiction or historical fiction. Across the ages, from the contemporary to now, O’Connor writes about how grotesque and ridiculous people are, distorting the everyday because she thought it was “the only way to make people see”.
Within the white world O’Connor depicts, that ugliness is born of frustration and of cruelty. Feelings of superiority lead some characters to dismiss the feelings of those they look down on, others to patronise them as though they need charity. When violence is involved, the polite folks plead with their tormentors, appealing to the better nature that poverty and inequality has crushed out of them. Those who don’t get their own way quickly resort to threat and force.
A fair few of the characters are adults forced to return home and be treated as children by their aging parents. Joy, in “Good Country People”, has a PhD but her weak heart and missing leg mean she cannot live independently. Asbury in “The Enduring Chill” has returned home from the city to die. O’Connor herself endured ill health, eventually returning home to the farm her mother ran after her father’s death. Perhaps her depictions of the returned adult child in poor health were a way of working out her own feelings.
This book didn’t end up delivering the easy, familiar read I expected it to. I found different challenges, a world viewed from yet another angle, and a renewed respect for O’Connor’s writing.