Journal of Southern Religion


The Architecture of Redemption: Spatiality in the Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor

Clark M. Brittain/Greenville Technical College

The many attempts at theological analysis of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories testify to her deep involvement with and commitment to her Catholic faith. Anyone surveying this criticism discovers disagreement and diversity in approaches among O’Connor’s interpreters. One approach to her stories, dating from the 1980’s but still illuminating, explores O’Connor’s use of space.1 This critical approach descended from a long-respected tradition extending to ancient Greece where rhetorical theorists, especially Vetruvius, advised the use of architectural images as useful for their craft (Dickinson 2). In Literary Architecture, Ellen Eve Frank says that throughout western literary tradition, architecture is analogous to literature, a parallel seen especially in the nineteenth century in such writers as Walter Pater, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Marcel Proust, and William James. In fact, this tradition extends beyond the bounds of even western literature. Architectural critic Anthony Antoniades says that "epic space" appears in literary traditions as old as that of the Mahabharata. Antoniades argues that space—as it is constructed within these ancient literary works—distills a particular culture’s assumptions about the value of architecture, while simultaneously criticizing this architectural space (xi). Thus, literature can sometimes disclose what a culture values and deplores about architecture. But beyond disclosing a culture’s values, the spatiality of both architecture and literary landscapes reveals much about what writers value in their work while at times indicating some forces subversive to their central ideas as well. As Roger Scruton has observed, "Like all imaginative experience, the experience of architecture aspires to the status of a symbol" (137). The symbolic quality of architecture and its interaction with other symbolic forms in O’Connor’s short stories can help the reader assess O’Connor’s understanding of the relationship between nature and grace. In other words, an examination of spatiality in some of her fiction suggests a Jansenist/Augustinian view of grace that seems to conflict with the view of O’Connor the theorist, who seems to be rooted in the tradition of Catholic humanism such as one finds in the theology of Romano Guardini or Etienne Gilson.2

"Rhetorically in O’Connor’s stories, nature appears to be a place of both grace and evil—and the evil appears to be greater than that produced simply by human activity. "

O’Connor’s images of spatiality in her fiction include descriptions of architectural elements, landscapes, and the locations of buildings within these landscapes. In viewing O’Connor’s arrangements of landscapes, many have observed how nature starkly contrasts with human nature that is marred and disordered by sin. Beyond this common rhetorical device, O’Connor’s architectural and spatial references may or may not support her Catholic view of sin and grace. Throughout her writings, O’Connor—as a Catholic—affirms her faith in the fundamental goodness of creation, and, as a necessary corollary, her distaste for any Gnostic or Manichean view of the universe. Yet, O’Connor does not always fully convince her readers that this anti-Gnostic world of goodness is the world one finds in her fiction. Some worlds in her stories seem beyond God’s providence, especially those with a Gothic atmosphere that—at least in some instances—seem almost without the possibility of blessedness. O’Connor’s interpreters often appeal to her non-fiction writings as support for a particular reading of her fiction. Some of her short stories, however, disclose an understanding of nature and grace that cannot always be reconciled easily with the statements one finds in some of her literary criticism, embedded in her letters and essays. Frederick Asals has suggested that Wise Blood is in fact a "Manichean Book" (58). Asals cites as some of his main evidence for this assertion the repulsive view of the human body expressed in the novel (58). But this attitude toward the body may also imply a negative view towards other constructs or spaces. Yi-Fu Tuan says that "when we use the terms ‘man’ and ‘world,’ we do not merely think of man as an object in the world . . . but also as man inhabiting a world, commanding and creating it. In fact, the single term ‘world’ contains and conjoins man and his environment . . ." (34). The Manichean theme seems to continue in other of her works as well.3 O’Connor expresses a certain uneasiness with certain spatial forms.

Several critics have noted the significance of space in O’Connor’s fiction. For example, Ruthann Johansen says that O’Connor clearly constructs "a strong sense of place despite the absence of a geopolitical region or a specific time in which the narrative events occur" and that O’Connor’s use of space blends seamlessly with her development of character and narrative (17). Christiane Beck has observed that only by understanding O’Connor’s use of space can readers fully "grasp the underlying logic of O’Connor’s imaginary world" (136). She also perceptively suggests that nature is often hostile to people and that mortals are aliens in this world. Further, Beck implies that these hostile environments are suitable for the truth-telling that O’Connor—as a Catholic writer—seeks to communicate (144-145). O’Connor’s use of space to support Catholic views is no doubt obvious in many of her stories. In others, however, space is problematic in that it does not seem to support a Catholic understanding of the relationship between creation and redemption.

In these stories one certainly finds perfectly ordered rows of trees juxtaposed to the disorder of human behavior or a sunset perhaps symbolizing a sacramental host.4 The trees and the sunsets, nevertheless, sometimes seem too far away and powerless to have any direct impact on the characters in O’Connor’s fiction. These outward and visible signs do not always seem to be directly involved in a decisive moment of grace. And while some of these worlds may not be Manichean, they are sometimes strangely reminiscent of a hyper-Calvinism in which one stands alone before God, unable to know God’s inscrutable will, feeling as removed from any sacramental sense of creation as Robinson Crusoe is when he declares that nature is good only to the extent that it is useful. The reader sometimes discovers in O’Connor’s short stories what Tuan has called "landscapes of fear." By this term Tuan means both a subjective experience and "tangible environment" (6). Certainly in O’Connor the psychological and the physical reinforce each other.

Rhetorically in O’Connor’s stories, nature appears to be a place of both grace and evil—and the evil appears to be greater than that produced simply by human activity. "A Good Man is Hard to Find" provides an example. The landscape plays an important role in the violence that escaped convicts inflict upon a helpless family. The sinister atmosphere one senses in this story begins to be apparent after the family leaves Red Sammy’s Barbeque. At this point the landscape is nothing less than treacherous, having "sudden washes and sharp curves on dangerous embankments" (124). The sudden changes of sight, as one first looks over the tops of trees and then into a "red depression with dust-coated trees looking down on them" (124), convey an atmosphere of chaos and instability. As Bailey loses control of the car and it rolls into a gulch, one gets the feeling that sinister forces have laid a trap for the doomed family. The ravine exposes the family’s vulnerability to the escaped convicts. Unlike the beauties of nature that the grandmother has earlier pointed out to her grandchildren or the orderly rows of trees silently witnessing to God’s rule of the universe that O’Connor describes in other works such as Wise Blood, the adjoining woods in this story are where every member of the family is murdered. The setting here is no place—no vehicle of grace. The sun in this scene does not so much warm the characters as it glares upon them; it is very distant from Bailey and his family and offers them no comfort. The forest here takes on something of the frightful "dark forest" described in Canto 1 of the Inferno by Dante, whom O’Connor much admired. The forest aids the actions of the Misfit and his thugs.5

Here is a truly Gothic atmosphere. From the time the grandmother leads her family down the wrong turn, looking for a house that is, in fact, in Tennessee, not Georgia, events seem not providential, but evil—a setting for the typical Gothic situation from which one cannot escape. The grace that takes hold of the grandmother, enabling her to declare that the Misfit is one of her babies, is truly costly: all other members of the family have been murdered. While a Christian understanding of redemption certainly resonates in this story, this redemption seems nominalist; the grace that transforms the grandmother overwhelms her—but it does not come through her participation in a community or from a kind of creation that could embody grace.

Similar characteristics also appear in "A Circle in the Fire." Mrs. Cope’s preoccupation with the possibility of a fire starting in the woods indicates her understanding that the land belongs to her. Her understanding of land as property leaves no room for awe of nature as God’s creation. And, no doubt, the outcome of the story is a fitting case of divine justice. But Mrs. Cope’s sinful pride and her just comeuppance notwithstanding, nature’s place in this story seems less than a sign of God’s ordered, sacramental presence. The sun appears as something malignant, a warning of impending doom in some apocalyptic manner: "the white water tower was glazed pink and the grass was an unnatural green as if it were turning to glass" (184-185). As in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," the woods reinforce the sense of evil, here the evil of a thirteen-year-old who "is equal in meanness to a man twict his age" (186). Now this is not to say that Mrs. Cope herself is anything other than prideful and arrogant, and, no doubt, her pride about ownership of the land signifies her own fallen nature. In spite of pride, however, the land’s ability to betray her trust suggests that this land is not at all her paradise but a place where she fears strangers and a fire in the woods. Indeed fear is her actual relationship to the land. To be sure, from a Christian viewpoint, the young thug speaks the truth when he says that nobody can own the land. But the lesson Mrs. Cope learns from nature seems to reinforce her alienation, not reorient her to perceive nature in some way that could be recognized by Teilhard de Chardin, whose sacramental view of nature O’Connor praises in her letters. However, one finds precious little of Chardin’s spirit in Mrs. Cope’s moment of judgment. Both nature and the boys are strangers to her.

"O’Connor’s tone towards life in large cities sometimes obscures any sense of human communities as the locus of grace ."

As the narrative unfolds, one hears echoes of Tennyson’s In Memoriam, whose speaker wonders whether humankind and nature are at strife. Certainly, the prevailing Roman Catholic interpretation of Thomas Aquinas in O’Connor’s day was that while grace completes nature, the two remain separate. (Some have argued this understanding of Thomas may not reflect what he truly thought on the subject [See: Montag 38-63]). But in O’Connor’s story, one could also read nature’s hostility to Mrs. Cope as a having the rhetorical function of de-centering the role of human life on this planet. Mrs. Cope’s rebellion, pride, and sense of alienation from God are reinforced by nature’s refusal to yield to her will. O’Connor may not so much present images of a God-abandoned nature as images of nature reflecting Mrs. Cope’s own situation. Nature’s cruelty and indifference may result from her own co-modification of nature. In other words, what appears to be a malignant presence in the story may be Mrs. Cope’s perception of the woods as private property.

In addition, O’Connor’s tone towards life in large cities sometimes obscures any sense of human communities as the locus of grace . When considering O’Connor’s use of urban images, one could argue that cities are human artifacts, not strictly speaking in the realm of creation. But one could argue that our capacity to build cities does in some way relate to a Catholic understanding of the doctrine of the imago dei, as cities express human nature as communitarian nature and the universal sense of human beings to participate in an ordered society, whether the city be secular or not. Sometimes in O’Connor’s fiction, human failings become intensified within the urban setting. It is within the city, for example, that Hazel Motes declares his "church without Jesus Christ" in Wise Blood.

Yet O’Connor’s critique of her contemporary urban world may be in keeping with some Christian thinkers’ belief that the free market threatens the human good. While one would not typically think of O’Connor as a critic of modern capitalism, as a Christian critic of modern culture, she indirectly raises questions about the value of the free market system. Her description of modern cities certainly resonates with descriptions found in the writings of the Marxist philosopher and social critic Henri Lefebvre. Lefebvre articulates a difference between lived space and conceived space. Conceived space, spaces produced by architects and urban planners (143), does not necessarily consider what is most fitting for human life or nature. Indeed its very purpose may be to control and exploit people. Its relationship to both nature and humanity is an hegemony (145).

O’Connor’s first published work, "The Geranium," presents a strange case of this spatial conflict in the former and current living space of the story’s protagonist, Old Dudley. Dudley experiences the entire environment as one similar to Lefebvre’s conceived space. Dudley has come to live with his daughter in New York, where he finds himself in a mode of alienation that is, to a large degree, defined by the spatial design of the city. Dudley’s experience of New York is that it is "swishing and jamming one minute and dirty and dead the next" (6). But whatever the activities going on in the city, they have no connection to any particular place or community as Dudley understands it. The urban image that O’Connor renders is primarily one of space rather than place. Dudley’s experience of urban life clearly supports this assertion. The apartment does not connect with any particular place; it is simply a volume of space that could be located anywhere. The window in this New York apartment does not look out on nature; it faces another building. As he sits each day by his window, Dudley gazes at a pot of geraniums placed on another windowsill in an apartment virtually like the one he occupies. O’Connor tells us that the geranium reminds him of one he recalls from his rural home, but the similarities between the two dwelling places end there. The building Dudley encounters could be anywhere because the apartment-dwellers live "in a row of buildings all alike" (6). In fact, these buildings, in a sense, exist nowhere, because this entire urban complex is without any sense of specific place.

The interiors of these buildings mirror an architecture characterized by space: the doors into each individual apartment appear to be inch-markers in hallways that seem to go on like tape measures. Stairways lead to other hallways on other floors or lead out into streets that seem to go nowhere. Below the streets and buildings are subways; above, one finds the "El." But all of this architecture seems to go on into infinity. Indeed this city could reflect any number of urban settings, because cities seem so much alike. Lefebrve has observed that since the Renaissance, the city has become a space where it is infinitely possible for architects to add on to the whole: buildings all in a row can extend into infinity. Public space is finally overwhelming to the individual.

Dudley’s view of New York reminds one of not only the twentieth-century experience of the city, but of the urban experience of Europe in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. For example, one thinks of places like the Venetian Ghetto Nuovo of 1516, where the architecture kept the Jews closely sequestered (Sennett 234). To keep the Jews separated from the rest of the city, designers erected buildings vertically, making multi-storied monstrosities that looked like many current public housing projects. The designers’ stress upon the vertical and total disregard for their building sites suggest the designers’ frightening efficiency in planning cities spatially rather than in terms of a specific place. Lefebrve argues that this dichotomy between conceived and lived space has had the effect of betraying the human body (38-41). Such is the case in "The Geranium," where the architecture of the city seems to have no way of relating an individual body to the larger body of urban communities.

Dudley seems to experience the result of of modern architecture’s manifesto. The spirit of this architectural agenda is well expressed by Meis van der Rohe when he says, "Architecture is the will of the age conceived in spatial terms" (qtd. in Hughes 181). In this "culture of mass production and fabrication," van der Rohe says, "the individual is losing significance; his destiny is no longer what interests us" (qtd. in Hughes 181). For example, the apartment of Dudley’s daughter has an arrangement of rooms in which one always ends up where one began, so that there appears to be no real center. One cannot tell the beginning from the end. The shape of the building looks like that of an organism continually cloning the same discrete units. In this seemingly infinite space Dudley has no sense of where he belongs. When one contrasts Dudley’s experience of the apartment in the city with his experience of the boarding house back home, the contrast between space and place is quite clear. Dudley’s ideal universe is made up of architecture that is located in a particular place. Dudley remembers that the window in his own private room looked out onto the bank of the river—a river that he knew intimately for more than twenty miles. The boarding house back home contains an order in which all the various parts work in a harmonious whole. All the members of the boarding house have lived in a particular order. Back home he has been the man of the house; the women have depended on him. Of course, the boarding house is less than perfect because it exemplifies the correct social order as Dudley sees it—a racist order. Accordingly, the cooks, being black, lived in the basement.

While O’Connor would no doubt attribute to sin such social engineering as planning the kinds of urban apartments, others locate the origin of this kind of social engineering in the culture of Christendom itself. For example, historian and social critic Richard Sennett says, "The distinction between space and place is a basic one in urban form" (188). Sennett sees this phenomenon of the primacy of space over place as being rooted in Medieval Christendom rather than in the twentieth century, unlike, say, art historian Robert Hughes. But for Hughes there is a major difference between at least some of the buildings in past eras of western culture and those of the modern era. As Hughes says, "Like the Baroque and the High Renaissance, the modern era has lived and died; it produced its masterpieces, some of which survive, but its doctrines no longer have the power to inspire . . ." (211). O’Connor made no secret of her distaste for modernity, and through the voice of Dudley, she seems to concur with Dudley’s impression of the city.

"This kind of analogy may show O’Connor’s connections with the writings of Henry James, who sometimes used architectural analogues to express psychological states. "

Of course, Dudley is alienated from more than the architectural setting. He is a racist, and the modular city seems to be a suitable background for expressing this attitude. When Dudley falls down the steps, a black man helps him up. Thus, ironically, Dudley experiences compassion from the very person he despises. When the building is a physical danger to him, in this dehumanized space Old Dudley receives compassion. However, Dudley—true to his racism—shows no interest in getting to know the black man who has just helped him; he simply wants to know what has happened to the geranium that has disappeared, since "The geranium belonged there, not the man" (13). To Dudley, the potted plant that disappeared represents his sense of place, one where he is at top of a hierarchy that descends to the black couple who cooked in the basement. When Dudley discovers that the pot of geraniums has fallen into the dog run, O’Connor may be suggesting an apocalyptic inversion of all that Dudley holds dear. Dudley’s moment of judgment brings to focus Dudley’s shortcomings, yet one comes away wondering whether the city offers any possibility of redemption. To be sure, in this horrible place, where all his values are inverted, Dudley experiences his moment of grace (and judgment), but still his perception suggests New York’s architecture is somehow terribly perfidious.

Dudley’s reflections about his former way of life also illustrate an insight found in Gaston Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Space. Bachelard says, "The house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proof or illusions of stability" (17). He says that one’s house is his or her "corner of the world" (4), the "first universe," or "real cosmos" that a person experiences, and that "all inhabited universes bear the essence of the notion of home" (5). Thus, as flawed as Dudley’s nostalgia may be for his life in the boarding house, O’Connor may be saying that this corner of the world (the boarding house back home) brings us closer to an architecture of community than that which Dudley has discovered in the city. The stability he finds in the city is no doubt fraught with illusions—as the shattered flower pot suggests—but the boarding house may still say something about the human yearning for the city of God.

Similar discomfort with architecture appears in "A Stroke of Good Fortune," where Ruby Hill’s current residence clearly does not bear the essence of her notion of a home. She finds the twenty-eight steps that she has to climb to her upper-story apartment unbearable, as indeed she finds the entire town inconvenient. The architectural obstacles Ruby encounters reveal her relationship not only to her surroundings but also to her own body. As she climbs the stairway leading to her apartment, she is forced to face the truth about much she has heretofore denied. As she climbs the steps with great difficulty, she reflects on the weight that she’s gained, denying what is obvious to everybody else: she’s pregnant. The stairway is filled with other hazards as well, such as the strange Mr. Jerger, who is forever quizzing her on historical facts she cares nothing about; Hartley Gilfeet’s nearly deadly toy pistol, which presents yet another potential peril; and Ruby’s "especial friend," Laverne Watts, who tells her what she doesn’t want to hear. The stairway is clearly no friend of Ruby’s body. Prior to her ascent, she considers the stairs fierce beasts as "[t]hey reared up" against her. While on the steps she feels at one point as if she’s on a see-saw; she also feels the floor moving under her. The building itself reflects the discomfort she feels in her body. Her experience of the staircase is her perception of her own body: both are an encumbrance to her, the stairs because they are difficult to climb and her pregnancy because it will hinder her from moving into a duplex in the development.

Similarly, Asbery’s mother in "The Enduring Chill" clearly understands her home as a microcosm. She compares the farm to the place where Asbury has lived in New York City, determining that the farm is clearly the superior place to live. But for Asbury, Timberboro, Georgia, is simply the place where he has gone to die. The city is, of course, the place where Asbury has gone to find freedom. Some of Sennett’s observations about modern urban life illuminate the kind of experience Asbery has in New York. He points out that the city can afford a certain kind of freedom, especially if what one seeks is a place to pursue his or her interests unencumbered by family or community ties. The city has no understanding of time as narrative; the city as a corporation, Sennett writes, "could blot out the past with the stroke of a pen" (205). Time has become quantified in precise hours and minutes that are sold; time becomes a commodity. In other words the city is where the laborer sells his or her time to the employer. But economic time has no story. And the "story" is the reason would-be writer Asbury goes to the city. However, the separation Asbury experiences in the city does not nurture creative writing. The architecture of Asbury’s apartment as well as that of his room in Georgia separates him and intensifies his alienation not only from home and family but from his sense of vocation as an artist. His inability to make sense out of the placement and selection of the various pieces of furniture in his present room (in Georgia ) indicates his inability to make order out of anything.

In Mystery and Manners O’Connor herself says that in her own work, "many details operate in depth as well as on the surface" (99). Such details include several items mentioned in Asbury’s description of the room. The water stains that form a shape like that of a bird holding an icicle might symbolize the Holy Ghost; the baroque-like headboard of the bed where Asbury lies might be understood as a sort of reredos; and the bed, a sort of altar where, at the end of the story, the bird’s descent could be interpreted as an epiclesis transfiguring the sickly protagonist. (In the liturgy the epiclesis is the point where the Holy Spirit descends upon the bread and wine.)

Further, the room’s incoherence parallels Asbury’s own state of mind through which he has failed his God—art—because he has been unable to write. This kind of analogy may show O’Connor’s connections with the writings of Henry James, who sometimes used architectural analogues to express psychological states. Like Asbury’s world in New York, where he has expected to find freedom, this room in Georgia becomes for him a place without narrative, a place where he has failed to produce a novel. His conversation with the priest—funny as it is—nonetheless intensifies—with its babble-like characteristics—the sense of disorder. Asbury and the priest are having not a conversation, but simultaneous monologues. Nevertheless the babble is, in fact, of Asbury’s and not the priest’s making. Despite the priest’s not being the sophisticated Jesuit Asbury is expecting, the priest has indeed uttered a Word (Christ), who empowers all genuine creativity. Thus Asbury’s perception of the space has been transfigured. When Asbury looks out the window—perhaps looking outside of himself for the first time—he is able to await something new. His perception is changed by a whirlwind that removes the film from his eyes.

A final example, "The Heart of the Park," also raises some interesting questions regarding spatiality. (O’Connor incorporates this story in a different form as a chapter in her novel Wise Blood, but it has this name as the short story.) It is Enoch Emery’s relationship to the city park that shifts the focus to Enoch’s quest for the Holy and away from Hazel’s (Hazel Weaver in this story, not Motes) quest to establish his Jesus-less Church. Enoch’s religious experience is shaped by his response to the spatial forms found in the public park.

As the story unfolds, Enoch is performing his daily ritual in the public park, which contains a zoo, a swimming pool, hedges, and a small forest—called the woods. This park is set off from the surrounding areas and even has its gate guarded, at least on the first shift, by Enoch. The gate is described as being made of conrete shaped to resemble two trees. The sign in the park between the two concrete trees reads CITY FOREST PARK. Typically one thinks of the city and the forest as opposing entities, but oddly this park combines both. Forests, as we have seen in other of O’Connor’s stories, are places where both evil and good dwell. What remains of this sylvan setting despite its being part of an urban plan possibly suggests some remnant of the essentially good creation, but the pilgrimage that leads Enoch to the temple is parody at best. First, O’Connor’s naming the story’s protagonist Enoch would unlikely have been accidental. In the Bible, Enoch is the son of Cain, and when Cain builds the first City, he names it after his son. So as humorous as one might find Enoch Emery, his name and the fact that he is a guard for the City Forest Park suggest a religious meaning to the story. Enoch believes that he must visit the park to perform the same activities daily. In fact, his behavior in the park suggests that he relates to this environment ritually.6 Of course one could describe Enoch as being simply psychotic and the repetitive behavior as merely a symptom of his psychosis. And he may very well be psychotic.

Yet it is difficult to argue that Enoch’s response to much that he finds there is rooted in a sense of the numinous. He hides in the hedge to leer at the swimmers. He confronts and ridicules the animals in the zoo with a seriousness that suggests anything other than sanity. His actions toward the caged animals exemplify O’Connor’s tendency to give many of her characters physical traits that resemble those of animals. Describing her characters in this way suggests that humanity is incomplete and in need of redemption. The problem here is that the spatial context of Enoch’s daily pilgrimage takes place in one vast wasteland, where it would seem no genuine hierophany is possible. But he finds it necessary to visit the park every day, and his visit always culminates in his arrival at the MVSEVM, the public museum at the edge of the park.

One of the most significant allusions is the location of the forest in front of the Museum, pronounced "Muveesevum" by Enoch. The MVSEVM is ostensibly a museum, but it can also be seen to parody a Graeco-Roman temple. Often in the classical world, a temple’s location was sacred because the site itself was holy. The ancient Greek temple was the residence of some deity, and typically in many ancient societies nothing was more numinous than a forest 7. Thus the Museum is a kind of Temple because it contains the presence of something Enoch Emery believes to be sacred—the shrunken man—and the parody continues in O’Connor’s locating the building being adjacent to the white-socked trees that represent the sacred Greek forest. One could, of course, interpret Enoch’s habitual activities of having a milkshake, ridiculing the zoo’s inhabitants, leering at the swimmers, and making the votive visit to the mvsevm as a yearning for some sort of meaningful activity that ritual usually embodies. However, the problem is that the space he inhabits points to nothing other than consumerism. While it is a somewhat anachronistic comparison, Enoch’s ritual in the park looks very much like that of a consumer in any shopping mall. Something of Lefebrve’s critique of "the production of space" seems to be resonating in this story. As Lefebvre would argue, the planning—planning frequently done by architects—exists for reasons other than the enhancement of human communities. Yet despite this inhumane and essentially secular space, Enoch—by means of his "wise blood"—perceives vestiges of the sacred that elicit a ritual-like response from him. If one could interpret ritual as an aesthetic response, then Enoch’s response to the produced space of the Forest City Park intensifies the emptiness of the space he encounters in this story. In other words there is no basic coherence in this park complex. Enoch is an observer. Clearly, what he lacks is the possibility of participation.

Enoch’s "wise-blood" clearly responds to this artificial space of Forest City Park, but the reader may wonder just exactly what kind of knowing occurs by means of Enoch’s "wise-blood." Is this kind of knowing something merely sensual, or is O’Connor suggesting an aesthetic perception that is sacramental and will lead eventually to a transformation of both Enoch’s understanding and his being? Certainly Enoch’s ability to recognize Hazel’s worthiness to participate in the park ritual comes by way of his wise blood. But the question remains: Does Forest City Park imitate some genuine reality, and in what sense is architecture capable of imitation?

"Although her characters usually receive some kind of final transformation, it too often comes to them as they are isolated and alone."

The problem with Enoch is that the space he responds to discloses no knowledge. Architectural critic and theorist Demetri Porphyrios observes that "the theory of imitation seems to suggest that art and architecture are a form of knowledge that serves to deepen our understanding of ourselves and thus our familiarity of the world" (62). Enoch experiences no truth about himself nor the world he lives in. The sacred grove and the sacred temple beyond (Mvsevm) are simply produced space that, within the atmosphere of this story, imitates nothing. Enoch is afraid to utter the sacred name Mvsevm. This museum is not a testimony to any culture’s living tradition. He sees his own reflection when he peers into the glass case containing the shrunken man (a reflection that may parody the imago dei doctrine), but the woman who comes in after him seems to have a more appropriate response to the odd collection of artifacts: she simply sees it as a part of the entertainment the park has to offer. She is there to add one more bit of entertainment to her shopping cart of daily activities. Neither Enoch’s desire for something more nor his apocalypse at the end of the story makes the deeper truth of Forest City Park otherwise. There simply is no deeper truth. The entire complex exists for nothing beyond entertainment

In "The Fiction Writer and His Country" O’Connor says that the writer’s’ country is his or her world-view and "It suggests everything from the actual countryside that a novelist describes, on, to, and through the peculiar characteristics of his own region and his nation, and on through and under all of those to his true country, which the writer with Christian convictions will consider to be what is eternal and absolute" (CW 801). Yet the atmosphere in Forest City Park seems in many ways quite out of step with those southern landscapes O’Connor found so suitable for her vocation as a writer. From the manufactured trees ornamenting the park’s gates, to the Orange Crush soda stand, and finally to Mvsevm with its linoleum-smelling interior, the reader discovers that this compound discloses no particular time and no particular place. In this landscape, arrival at what O’Connor calls "true country" is deferred. So even in Enoch’s apocalyptic moment when he discovers a drop of his own blood on the ground in the "center of the city," one feels that he is really in the midst of nothing more than a theme park that points to nothing beyond itself.

Architecture and forests are generally opposite experiences, but in O’Connor’s stories, as literary space they have common rhetorical functions. These "spaces" sometimes can be interpreted in ways that perhaps do not fully conform to O’Connor’s orthodoxy. David Eggenschwiler argues that O’Connor is essentially a Christian humanist who held that the "various problems of human life "were interconnected" (140). Certainly, the problems that people confront in her fiction are interconnected with a consistent theology, but it seems difficult to reconcile that theology with many of the Christian humanists she discusses—and endorses—in her non-fiction. While in many cases, this rhetoric serves her larger vision of sinners experiencing the unconditional love of God, this rhetoric almost always indicates the major character’s separation from both nature and human communities. Although her characters usually receive some kind of final transformation, it too often comes to them as they are isolated and alone. The spaces in which these stories unfold contribute to this isolation. One rarely gets the sense that a moment of grace opens into a larger life where one participates in the body of Christ.


1. In her essay "Flannery O’Connor’s Poetics of Space, Beck" argues that the space O’Connor creates makes the characters experience of space as "existential." Beck also focuses on the various ways that space contributes to thematic issues in her stories such as the antagonism between the human and the divine. Thus "the sun and sky represent the most powerful cosmic forces that confront the human being" (138) and a "general pessimism as regards matter" (140) pervade her work where "entropy" is the chief characteristic of all human-made space. She also notes perceptively that O’Connor’s use of space eliminates perspective. Ruthann Knechel Johansen’s The Narrative Secret of Flannery O’Connor, building upon Frederick Asals and Louise Westling’s earlier work on O’Connor’s use of spatiality, says that her early short stories indicate a "strong sense of place despite the absence of a geopolitical region" and that many of her characters are not satisfied in the particular place where they find themselves (17).

2. O’Connor says that although she admired Pascal, she did not think Jansenism was healthy for the Church (HB, 304). For a discussion of Guardini, see T. M. Schoof, A Survey of Catholic Theology 1800-1979, trans. N.D. Smith (London: Paulist Newman Press, 1970).

3. Although this affirmation is obscured in some of her fiction, O’Connor clearly affirms her belief in the goodness of creation and in the doctrine of the Imago Dei. See HB, 90.

4. Seel writes persuasively of the presence of heirophanies in O’Connor’s stories (26). The problem is whether or not these hierophanies mediate grace.

5. For an interesting discussion of the western culture’s ambivalence toward the idea of the "forest" and for a recent discussion of the significance of the Forest in Dante’s Inferno, see Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, 80-87.

6. Seel argues that we must understand O’Connor’s work in the context of ritual paradigms, not only those of Catholicism but also those of pre-Christian origin as well.

7. For a full discussion of the relationship between the forest and the Greek Temple one should consult Vincent Scully, Architecture: The Natural and the Manmade, 39-99.




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© 2001 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

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