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Flannery O'Connor : inversions, subversion et résistances / Inversion, Subversion and Resistance

Anne-Laure Tissut

“Going nowhere”: space, the automobile, and the mechanics of violence in three stories by Flannery O'Connor

Aaron Smith


L'automobile, le tracteur, le tramway, sont dans la mythologie américaine autant de symboles de modernité et de progrès. L'automobile en particulier a été l'objet d'une récupération métonymique dans la littérature américaine blanche et "masculine", créant tout un genre dans lequel la technologie et la locomotion sont autant de moyens de libération spirituelle. Au contraire, dans les nouvelles de Flannery O'Connor, le véhicule est un intrus, un vecteur de violence, perpétuellement en panne, et pénétrant métaphoriquement et littéralement les espaces sociaux et physiques hermétiques d'un sud fondamentalement statique et en dégénérescence. La disposition même de l'espace diégétique des nouvelles met en place un mécanisme narratologique qui décline le trope de la route sous une forme inverse de celle des récits de routes canoniques, même si tous les éléments de ces récits sont ici présents. Le travail porte surtout sur "A Good Man is Hard to Find", "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" et à un moindre degré, "The Displaced Person".

Texte intégral

1Anchored eternally in an American South whose cultural institutions are deteriorating, many of Flannery O'Connor's stories are nonetheless stories of physical and spiritual travel. The characters are figures in movement, endlessly voyaging to the city, towards the woods, towards sin, towards the blinding light of grace. Like so many of their counterparts in American fiction, they look towards the road, suitcase in hand, but their gaze is clouded by a perplexity and angst that moors them in place. For these characters, travel is not an escape from social constraints; it is a soul-rending experience on a cosmic scale, a separation with the known that is terrifying rather than euphoric. Behind these characters, lurking menacingly in the garages and barns and more numerous than the characters themselves, are the cars, tractors, combines, cutters and balers that have become the historical agents of social upheaval, and in O'Connor's stories, the fictional agents of revelation and death.

  • 1 Cf. Primeau, 6,69.
  • 2 Ibid., 127.

2Ronald Primeau, in Romance of the Road, has adapted the concept of “liminality” to the study of road narratives. He sees in these stories a voluntary marginalization of the narrators and the characters.1 Travel narratives happen “outside,” on the margins, between departures and arrivals. One could say the opposite of many O'Connor stories, which unfold between arrivals (of the modern dispersed outsider) and departures (of the unified southern self). They are stories of transition from stasis to movement, an infinite loop of departures without destination, and more importantly, without return, or what Primeau calls “reentry”2.

3In O'Connor's stories, this problematic and abortive travel generally takes place in a recurring three-poled fictional space, based on the traditional layout of rural America and composed of the road, the lane, and the plantation.

4The plantation, whether real (“Greenleaf,” “A View of the Woods,” “The Displaced Person”), remembered (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”) or imagined, is usually a womb-like space, narrated from the interior. It is the “here” that anchors the stories and gives them their local specificity. Misleadingly preserved, misleadingly eternal, the plantation exists in O'Connor's fiction only to be violated.

5At a certain distance from the plantation is the road, a synecdoche of the city, itself a synecdoche of modernity as a whole. As opposed to the plantation, O'Connor's roads are necessarily narrated from a distance; they are the “there” to the plantation's “here,” the unknown to the plantation's known, representing otherness, contingency, unpredictability, and mystery. With a few exceptions (notably “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Everything that Rises Must Converge”), the road itself is mostly absent from the narrative, and serves primarily as a point of origin and a vanishing point, both antecedent and subsequent to the main action of the stories. O'Connor's roads are far removed from the canonical form found in Kerouac, Wolfe, or Whitman, and has more in common with Steinbeck's in The Grapes of Wrath, or Faulkner's in As I Lay Dying. The road here is a locus of violence and an agent of expropriation that is treacherous, pitiless, morally and literally muddy. It impedes or devours the characters rather than liberating them.

6The road and the plantation are linked by the lane. Cutting through forests or fields (“The Displaced Person”), tree-lined (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”), the lane is a channel of transition between two poles of the voyage. It is in fact the visible portion of the road which, in O'Connor's stories, is often invisible and abstract, lurking just beyond the tree line, just beyond the narrator's earthly perception. For the inhabitants of the plantation, the lane is both the path of arrival for the exterior world and its adjuncts, vice and death, and the path of physical and spiritual departure for the characters themselves. It is via the lane that the outsider arrives like a messenger from the hereafter to break the fragile equilibrium to which the plantation inhabitants cling.

7In “The Life you Save May Be Your Own,” the old woman and her deaf-mute daughter occupy one of many closed, highly feminized versions of the plantation in O'Connor's fiction. The two women, who share the same name, are in fact complementary figures. The mother is a feminine version of the outsider, Shiftlet: calculating, shrewd, and a master of double language. The daughter is myopic, mentally handicapped, and communicates only with groans and squeals. She is a static and embryonic figure, living in a timeless place described repeatedly by the old woman as “permanent” (“a permanent place”, 151, “a permanent house”, 152). The girl herself seems frozen in time, appearing to be an adolescent when she is in fact over thirty years old. Living in foetal dependence on her mother, the girl is above all without knowledge or experience of the world, “the most innocent girl in the world” (152). She has apparently never left the property and is, according to the mother, unaware of such icons of modernity and urbanization as hotels (152).

8Shiftlet, on the contrary, is already preparing for his departure in the first lines of the story, during the ambiguous arrival that opens many of O'Connor's stories. He is a Janus-faced man of movement, looking simultaneaously both forward and backward. As he walks down the lane to the house, Shiftlet turns to contemplate the sunset at the end of the road from which he comes, and towards which he will leave at the end of the story. Throughout his initial conversation with the mother, he has one eye locked on the means of his departure: the old broken-down Ford in the shed.

9Like Lucifer himself, Shiftlet is a “friendless drifting man” (152) from everywhere and from nowhere at the same time, answering to many names:

“I can tell you my name is Tom T. Shiftlet and I come from Tarwater Tenessee, but you never have seen me before: how do you know I ain't lying? How do you know my name ain't Aaron Sparks, lady, and I come from Singleberry, Georgia, or how do you know it's not George Speeds and I come from Lucy, Alabama, or how you know I ain't Thompson Bright from Toolafalls, Mississippi?” (147-48)

10Even Shiftlet's adopted name is a double-entendre, simultaneously proclaiming both what he is—shifty—and what he is most definitely not—shiftless.

11Whereas Lucynell's existence ends at the limits of the property, Shiftlet's experience of the world, if he is to be believed, is extensive, as if he has lived multiple lives:

He had been a gospel singer, a foreman on the railroad, an assistant in the undertaking parlor, and he come over the radio for three months with Uncle Roy and his Red Creek Wranglers. He said he had fought and bled in the Arm Service of his country and visited every foreign land. (148)

  • 3 Feeley, 29-30.

12Kathleen Feeley has pointed out the malleable, histrionic nature of Shiftlet's character, who “shifts” as it were, from one role to another, from drifter to philosopher to suitor to mentor.3 During his short stay on the Crater farm, he dons the hat of the amateur philosopher, but most importantly, that of the handy-man, fluent in the language of mechanical technology and determined to rejuvenate the decrepit farm. He boasts: “There ain't a broken thing on this plantation that I couldn't fix for you” (149). The primary object of his attention is of course the broken-down automobile that bears witness to the vital male essence that is missing from the farm. At the request of the mother who is apparently unaware of his inevitable departure, Shiftlet takes up residence in the car, sleeping and even shaving in it.

13Shiftlet lifts the hood and peers inside the automobile like the surgeon in his anecdote, who cuts out a human heart to contemplate its mysteries. But unlike the surgeon or the courthouse Ordinary with his blood tests who cannot truly understand the object of their own study, Shiftlet succeeds in penetrating the mechanical mysteries of the automobile. Shifting into the role of a perverted Christ-figure, he breathes life into the automobile “as if he had just raised the dead” (151), infusing it with a masculine sexual energy that electrifies both him (he is described as “sitting very erect”, 151), and Lucynell, who squeals with delight as the Ford comes lurching out of the shed.

  • 4 For a general history of the Model A, see Flink, James J. The Automobile Age. Cambridge: The MIT P (...)

14As the standard icon of American modernity, the automobile is far more than a machine, it is, in the words of Ronald Primeau, “status, success, dreams, adventure, mystery, and sex” (5). The make and model of the automobile in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” are not without significance. Shiftlet judges it to be “about a 1928 or'29 Ford,” (147) that is to say, the Model A that replaced the mythical Model T. The Model Τ was of course a direct product of the assembly line production system and famous for its utter uniformity (Henry Ford reportedly once said “Any customer can have a [Model T] painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black”). Its replacement, the Model A, produced between 1927 and 1931, was famous for its variety. The standard chassis and body were produced in several colors and a myriad of styles, including Business, Sport and Roadster Coupes, convertibles, station wagons, taxicabs, and trucks.4 This is still the automobile of mass production, in the words of Shiftlet, where “one man puts in one bolt and another man puts in another bolt and another man puts in another bolt” (150), but it is also the automobile of selling dreams and projecting images, where each customer can have an object industrially custom-tailored to match the life he imagines for himself but does not yet have. This longing is painfully present in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” where both Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater are more than willing to quite literally “sell their souls” for material convenience (in the form of a well-maintained farm) and vanity (in the form of a green automobile with a yellow racing stripe).

15Shiftlet, the car-lover and armchair Marxist, is both an avatar and a disingenuous critic of modernity. When Shiftlet declares “The body, lady, is like a house: it don't go anywhere; but the spirit, lady, is like an automobile: always on the move” (152), he is ironically inverting our traditional conception of soul-body dualism. In his modern world, the soul wanders, dragging the body behind.

16At the same time as Shiftlet renovates the Crater farm and grotesquely re-animates the automobile, he teaches Lucynell a parody of language. She gains the use of a single word, “bird,” that is in fact not language at all because it is detached from the semiotic apparatus that is necessary for meaning. Lucynell's use of the word is pre-linguistic and is in fact another form of her grunting and squealing. But by taking her at least partially out of her mutism, Shiftlet is symbolically preparing her for another transition, to take place on the road, that from purity to corruption.

17Lucynell's physical departure from the farm, her sexual initiation, and her acquisition of “speech,” are simultaneous and synonymous. To leave home is to begin to know the unknown, and knowledge, as often the case in O'Connor's stories, is experienced as a trauma that will transform the girl-martyr into an angelic, otherworldly being. At the precise moment of her betrayal by Shiftlet in a roadside diner called, significantly, “The Hot Spot,” Lucynell is physically transfigured, in an outward manifestation of her birth into, and resistance to, the corruption of the road and the modern world. She falls asleep rather than eat at her first diner, and both the narrator and the waiter of the restaurant marvel at her “pink-gold hair” (154), remarking: “She looks like an angel of Gawd” (154).

18For Shiftlet, Marshall MacLuhan's metaphorical “mechanical bride” is made explicit. Despite his arranged marriage to Lucynell, it is alone with his Ford that he “drives off into the sunset” (“The sun began to set directly in front of the automobile”, 155), and it is with it that he will ultimately spend his rainy wedding night in “Mobile,” Alabama, in moral and physical flux and profoundly “unsatisfied.” Mr. Guizac in “The Displaced Person” bears a certain resemblance to Shiftlet. Guizac is another “man from nowhere,” an out-cast in the physical sense. He arrives on the McIntyre plantation in a black car, accompanied by a priest in black, like an undertaker come to deliver a body. Mrs. Shortley instantly associates Guizac and his family with the technological modern death she has seen in newsreel images of Nazi concentration camps.

19The Guizac family, like Shiftlet, carry the gift of language, but a parody of language. They speak a broken form of English, and in the eyes of Mrs. Shortley, an incomprehensible “gabble gabble” (209) that she finds both ridiculous and threatening. She dismisses this linguistic alterity at first, claiming that “they can't talk” (196), before coming to view it as supernatural and otherworldy, allowing the Guizacs to understand the incomprehensible. Mrs. Shortley sees a kind of menacing omniscience in their bilingualism, visualizing the Polish words as “dirty and all-knowing” (95), and claiming that “knowing two languages was like having eyes in the back of your head” (233). She even suspects Mr. Guizac of secretly and inexplicably understanding everything they say: “I wouldn't be a tall surprised if he didn't know everything you say, whether it be in English or not” (207).

20The Guizacs' supernatural knowledge can be associated with their direct experience, of the modern world and of death on a scale that the other inhabitants of the plantation cannot comprehend, even in the mediated form of the newsreel. In a certain sense, for Mrs. Shortley, and gradually for the other inhabitants of the plantation, the Guizacs come from the near future, beyond the grave, from the kingdom of the dead, a “mysterious and evil” Europe (205), and they carry death like a virus.

21Beyond his linguistic knowledge and his knowledge of death, Guizac, like Shiftlet in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” carries the gift of the handyman; he speaks the language of machines, animates them, and in fact relates to them more easily than to the other inhabitants of the plantation:

Mr. Guizac could drive a tractor, use the rotary hay-baler, the silage cutter, the combine, the letz mill, or any other machine she had on the place. He was an expert mechanic, a carpenter, and a mason. (201)

22These machines are mysterious and menacing because they invert the social order dictated by mass manual labour. As Mrs. Shortley reminds herself: “the tractor had made the mule worthless. [...] the next thing to go [...] will be niggers” (205). The static hierarchy of the southern plantation is destablized by Guizac, a figure of movement and an embodiment of modernity, who brings technology and technological death into a stable and closed system. As Mrs McIntyre remarks late in the story, “He's extra and he's upset the balance around here” (231). Guizac is therefore an agent of social mobility, in addition to being a figure of physical mobility, an unwilling traveler with an intimate human knowledge of an inhuman world. He is a problematic Christ figure, blurring the boundaries between master and slave, proprietor and worker, black and white. Significantly, one of his gravest sins on the plantation is his attempt to arrange a marriage between his cousin and one of the black farmhands.

23Throughout the story, O'Connor plays on the primary, secondary, and idiomatic meanings of the word “place.” The word is used to designate the plantation itself (“this is my place”, 223), as a synonym for “a job” (“places are not easy to get nowadays”, 199), or a social station (“Your place too low for anybody to dispute you with it”, 206), but also a “home” in the broad sense, as in the story's title. To leave the plantation is to abandon all of these “places” at once, to leave the known and the fixed for the unkowns of the road, and throughout the story this grows to become the Displaced Person's crowning transgression. Guizac's identity slowly becomes not that of a victim of expropriation, but an agent of voluntary and treacherous displacement. Mr. Shortley remarks bitterly of Guizac, “Its the people that run away from where they come from that I ain't got any use for” (232). On the plantation, the idea begins to spread virally that Guizac is secretly planning to rise above his designated station, by putting aside a portion of his pay to buy an automobile, the ultimate visible symbol of moving up a rung on the social ladder (205).

24Mrs. McIntyre becomes obsessed by this new race of beings in motion, eternally saving up for an automobile:

She'd been hanging onto this place for thirty years, always just barely making it against people who came from nowhere and were going nowhere, who didn't want anything but an automobile (229) “all they want is a car.” (231)

25In the end, it is Mrs. Shortley—not Guizac—who sets out on the road with her family after learning that her husband is about to be fired. It is an act of pre-emptive abandonment that she hopes will transform their forced exile into volontary exile. Like Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater, Guizac and Mrs. Shortley are in fact homologous characters despite their antagonism in the story. Like Guizac, for whom “Nothing was done quick enough to suit him” (202), Mrs. Shortley has a deep disdain for all that is physically static, from the “shiftless” (199) black workers watching the goings on with millennial patience, to backwards Europe, which refuses stubbornly to “advance” (196). It is not so much the threat of Guizac's mobility that pushes her to leave, as a shift in the social hierarchy that would place her and her husband in the same category as the endless stream of “poor white trash” (202) that have come and gone throughout the years, the “Ringfields and Collins and Jarrells and Perkins and Pinkins and Herrins” (202).

26Mrs Shortley will not make it far, and is killed by a stroke in violent convulsions in an automobile that has become a casket, just as the Mrs. May's car becomes a sacrificial altar in “Greenleaf.” Ironically surrounded by all her earthly possessions, Mrs. Shortley experiences in turn the final and irrevocable expropriation “displaced in the world from all that belonged to her” (214), as her children gaze in horror at the “gray slick road before them” (214) repeating over and over again the unanswerable personal and human question that haunts the story from beginning to end: “Where we going, Ma? Where we going?” (213-214).

27In the end Mrs. McIntyre becomes convinced of Guizac's negative influence on the equilibrium of the plantation, but she is unable to switch from being a stabilizing force to an expropriating force. Her static nature, like Shiftlet or Guizac's dynamic nature, is an immutable part of her psychology. She is a character who is simply not capable of leaving or forcing others to do so: “She had never discharged anyone before, they had all left her” (231). At the end of the story, after the departure of all other inhabitants of the plantation except Astor, Mrs. McIntyre becomes literally paralyzed, eternally frozen as punishment for her immobility in the moment of Guizac's death.

28Guizac himself is killed by the very machine that both initially guaranteed and then undermined his place on the plantation. The tractor is almost a willing participant in the murder of Guizac, “calculating its own path” (234), breaking out of stasis into deadly movement.

29If “The Displaced Person” and “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” dramatize the mechanized arrivals and departures that serve respectively as impetus and mechanism for cataclysmic metaphysical moments, in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” O'Connor creates a road narrative that conforms closely to the traditions of the genre. Here the departure point of the narration is the city, where the nostalgic grandmother lives with her son and his family. But from the point of view of diegetic time, the departure has already taken place. Like the old man in “The Geranium” or Enoch Emory and Hazel Motes in the stories serving as groundwork for Wise Blood, the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” has already endured her traumatic departure from the old south, and is left to live out her impossible return in fantasy. Here even the plantation is displaced and ghostly; as the grandmother realizes too late, the pillared plantation house she remembers is not in Georgia at all, but in a Tennessee that her grandchildren have never seen and do not respect.

30The portion of the story that takes place on the road is a sort of microcosm of modern American road culture, complete with Coca-Cola, mileage statistics, breathless billboard slogans, roadside barbecue stands, and automobile games. The family seems to be plunged fully into the unproblematic road mythology that so many of O'Connor's drifters aspire to. The story turns on its head, however, when the grandmother recalls the phantom plantation. The family backtracks and then leaves the highway, downgrading from modem pavement to the packed dirt of a south that is “Gone With the Wind” (120), sending the grandmother into a reverie about the slower times “when there were no paved roads and thirty miles was a day's journey” (124).

31After their accident, as if on cue, The Misfit arrives, like the priest in “The Displaced Person,” in a “big black battered hearse-like automobile” (126). The Misfit bears as striking resemblance to Shiftlet in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” He is a drifter, someone who doesn't “fit in” (misfit), coming from nowhere and heading there too. He is a shape-shifter, nameless, a man of extensive direct experience of the modern world's violence:

“I was a Gospel singer for a while,” the Misfit said. “I been most everything. Been in the arm service, both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twict married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive oncet [...] I even seen a woman flogged.” (129-130)

32Despite all of this worldly knowledge, he, like Shiftlet, lacks the one essential bit of knowledge that would spiritually anchor him, and lead him fully into either faith or hedonism: the supernatural reality of Christ. Without this knowledge, his wandering, like Shiftlet's, is joyless and empty, the wandering of an exile rather than an adventurer.

33Like Guizac and Shiftlet, The Misfit is a problematic Christ/devil figure, a destabilizing force, who has “thrown everything off balance” (131), provoking virtuous penitence with despicable acts, generating hate with their mysterious virtue. Substituting perpetual movement to stasis, random violence to the structured and codified violence of the southern slave culture, malleable identities to solid ones, the Misfit is, like Shiftlet, an incarnation of high speed modern culture, exposing both the corruption and violence of the road and that of the plantation in the collision of the two. Like Mary Fortune in “A View of the Woods,” Mrs. Shortley in “The Displace Person,” the grandmother reaches her “inevitable destination,” in the words of Mr. Fortune in “A View of the Woods” (353), on a road that is more metaphysical than physical, more theme than setting, that leads not to any place, but as Mr Fortune says, “either to heaven or hell” (348).



O'CONNOR Flannery, The Complete Stories. 1971. London: Faber and Faber, 1991.

FEELEY Kathleen, Flannery O'Connor: Voice of the Peacock. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1972.

PRIMEAU Ronald, Romance of the Road: The Literature of the American Highway. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1996.


1 Cf. Primeau, 6,69.

2 Ibid., 127.

3 Feeley, 29-30.

4 For a general history of the Model A, see Flink, James J. The Automobile Age. Cambridge: The MIT Press. 1988. For a detailed look at the various body styles of the Model A, see Miller, Ray, and Embree, Glenn. Henry's Lady: An Illustrated History of the Model A Ford. Evergreen Press. 1972.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2006

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