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L'Autre : journée d'étude sur les auteurs et sujets des concours 2006

Michel Naumann
Dominique Daniel

II. Littérature

The spirit versus the law in Nathaniel Hawthorne and Flannery O'Connor

Joëlle Lopez-Schadeck

Texte intégral

  • 1 William Rodney Allen in "Mr. Head and Hawthorne: Allusion and Conversion in Flannery O 'Connor's ' (...)

1Several critics have noted parallels between Flannery O'Connor and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The 19th century Puritan descendant from New-England and the Catholic writer from the South of the 1950s share a common preoccupation for Christian concerns, which has admittedly endowed their fiction with recurrent themes and patterns, treated through similar literary devices that partake of the same biblical heritage. William R. Allen1 points out in both authors "an insistence on man's fallen nature, a use of allegory, a departure from realism into the mode of romance", as he personally analyses the echoes of The Custom House in the opening section of "the Artificial Nigger". Indeed, O'Connor and Hawthorne resort to the same symbolism and imagery, and make use of the natural elements to create an atmosphere in which reality becomes imbued with the supernatural, and material things acquire a spiritual dimension. What I propose to show is a close resemblance through a thematic and figurative pattern that underlies most of their narratives: the conflict between two antagonistic forces, the law against the spirit, or the spirit versus the law, resulting in a confrontation of distinct characters, and an opposition of images, connotations, symbols and narrative patterns which confer to Hawthorne's as well as O'Connor's tales a parabolic dimension. This interpretation is in keeping with their Christian perspective, and their consequent use of the biblical intertext. After defining each notion, I will try to show how the conflict appears in Hawthorne's fiction, particularly in The Scarlet Letter, how it is dramatized in O'Connor's stories, underlining the cross-references between the two, then I will point out the role of the writer as an inspired (in-spiritus) artist confronted with the law.

2According to the OED, the word "law" designates a "rule made by authority for the proper regulation of a community or society or for correct conduct in life", with a double connotation, political and religious, which takes us back to the Law of Moses as the foundation of our Judaeo-Christian societies. The extended meaning refers to natural regularity (law of nature), or acknowledged theories (in science or economics) that equally point to an established norm to be accepted by every lawful citizen. Thereby a community builds its proper code of manners, set of values and hierarchical order. An "outlaw" is someone who has transgressed the moral conventions, disrupted the social order, and challenged the authorities. He thus becomes an outsider, casting himself out of the community. The word "spirit", if sometimes qualifying a person from a psychological or moral point of view, ("to be in high spirits", "a generous spirit"), essentially refers to the dimension of the immaterial, the supernatural, the religious. While the law partakes of reason, the spirit is irrational, but both notions meet in the well-known expression: "obey the spirit, not the letter, of the law", namely, "obey the real meaning or purpose underlying the law, contrasted with the apparent meaning" (OED). This distinction is to be found in the Scriptures: the ancient law of Moses defining the old covenant of God with His people has been renewed and replaced by the new Alliance set up by Jesus-Christ and inspired by the Holy Ghost. This renewal is ensured by the mystery of the Redemption, Christ's death through which the Christians'sins have been relieved, thereby the old Adam is born again, saved, and promised to eternal life, which entails a necessary reinterpretation of the Commandments.

  • 2 François Mauriac, Mémoires intérieurs. Flammarion, Paris 1985 (p 119).

3In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne has broken one of these Commandments, by committing adultery. The Puritan society of seventeenth century New-England where she belongs has not recognized the teachings of the Gospel, but sticks to the letter of Moses' law, condemning her to wear the scarlet letter which sets her as a social outcast. The first meaning of the letter is the letter of the law, to which François Mauriac2 gives his Catholic interpretation: "La lettre écarlate illustre sinistrement cette utilisation de l'esprit par la lettre impitoyable.... La lettre devenue folle ne se moque pas seulement de l'esprit, mais... bafoue la parole de Dieu." Referring to John's words (8: 4-11) about the adulteress forgiven by Jesus, Mauriac interprets the story as an abuse of God's law, so that the narrative might be centred not on Hester's sin, but on the sin of the Puritans who condemned her.

4Indeed the prelude to the romance announces this potential paradox. The Custom-House is a place of patriarchal hierarchy for which Hawthorne shows reverence and filial duty, but in which the law and customs appear tainted from the very beginning, through the description of its façade, particularly in the emblem of the American eagle. This symbol of the federal law, apparently impressive and powerful: "an enormous specimen... with outspread wings, a shield before her breast, and... a bunch of intermingled thunderbolts and barbed arrows in each claw" (The Scarlet Letter, 8), looks like a menace of war and imprisonment rather than a promise of peace and protection. "With the customary infirmity of temper that characterizes this unhappy fowl, she appears, by the fierceness of her beak and eye... to threaten mischief to the inoffensive community; and especially to warn all citizens, careful of their safety, against intruding on the premises which she overshadows with her wings" (SL 8): thereby the body of the law appears like a fortress not to be trespassed, at the risk of one's safety. The very principle of the law is entirely distorted: instead of ensuring the security of the citizens, the law puts it in jeopardy.

  • 3 John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress. 1966. Ed. With an introduction by N. H.

5The description of the Custom-House officers doesn't improve the picture: they seem to be made out of the same wood as the pillars of the portico or of the same granite as the steps; their stationary appearance suggests weakness, passivity and insecurity: "a row of venerable figures, sitting in old-fashioned chairs, which were tipped on their hind legs back against the wall. Oftentimes they were asleep, but occasionally might be heard talking together, in voices between speech and a snore, and with that lack of energy that distinguishes the occupants of alms-houses, and all other human beings that depend for subsistence on charity... or anything else but their own independent exertions" (SL 9-10, italics mine). The narrator is highly critical in depicting the representatives of law and order as devoid of the dynamism and consciousness necessary to legislators, particularly as they should embody the Puritan values of strong faith and hard work. Instead they indulge into sleep, and cannot respond to the pilgrim's call, as evoked in the work of John Bunyan3, when Christian loses the sacred roll while falling into sleep.

6The biblical reference to Matthew (9: 9): "These old gentlemen — seated, like Matthew, at the receipt of customs, but not very liable to be summoned thence, like him, for apostolic errands —" (SL 10) indicates that these old men, partaking of the Old Adam, cannot play the role of spirit-messengers. Therefore the law appears associated with old age, rigidity and immobility. Furthermore, the place of law and justice is identified as a place of "evil and corrupt practices into which... every Custom-House officer must be supposed to fall. Neither the front nor the back entrance of the Custom-House opens on the road to Paradise" (SL 14). So although the autobiographical narrator introduces himself as the respectful descendant of those legislators, his portrayal of the House doesn't arouse pure admiration, and orients the reader towards a disillusioned and suspicious view of the law.

7The narrative of The Scarlett Letter opens from the same standpoint, through the depiction of Boston's prison and marketplace highlighting the punishment of Hester Prynne as emanating from a harsh law supported by ruthless law-abiding citizens. Yet Hawthorne has shown a certain leniency on the part of the judges who have condemned Hester only to wear the red A, while she should have been whipped. Untrue to history, the romance serves to enhance the fanaticism of self-righteous people who are not satisfied with the public exposure of the sinner, but are asking for the most literal interpretation of the Ancient law, like the Pharisees condemning the adulteress: "'Why do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown, or the flesh of her forehead?'... 'This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there no law for it?"' (SL 39). For these fundamentalist interpreters of the letter, the spirit is of no avail. Yet the letter, from the very beginning, appears connoted with the spirit rather than with the law; again Hawthorne has taken liberty from the historical reality, as the emblem of adultery ought to be "Ad", not "A", but the single letter opens up a multiplicity of meanings that are further developed in the story: "Angel", "Atonement", "Absolution", once Hester has regained her place in the community. From the beginning, the emblematic letter opposes the "black shadow,... the grim and grisly presence of the town-beadle... [representing]... the whole dismal severity of the Puritanic code of law" (SL 39-40); the letter seems to cast a spell upon the whole assembly, including the harshest Puritan: "that SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom [...] had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself" (SL 41). These lines contain the same overtones of transcended reality that can be seen in Flannery O'Connor's fiction, when a character or a natural element acquires a supernatural dimension, enhanced here by the words "scarlet letter" written in capitals. Hester evokes the child of O'Connor's story, "The River", who, after being baptized, is told by the preacher: "'you count now'" (The Complete Stories, 168). Through her very sin, Hester is induced to pursue a spiritual quest, her transgression of the law directs her toward another world, distinguishing her from ordinary people.

  • 4 Pearl edited by E. V. Gordon, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1953. See also Peart: Introduction. Edited (...)

8Closely related to the red letter, the character of Pearl appears throughout the narrative as the representative of the Spirit opposing the dark figures of the law. Having embroidered the letter of her own will, Hester has also determined to dress her child in similar colourful clothes, which reveals her natural inclination to the light of the Spirit. She intuitively recognizes that her daughter partakes of the spiritual world and might show her the way to redemption. The child's name bears a double reference to the Scriptures (Matthew 13:45-46), and the medieval "Poem of the Pearl"4. Repeatedly identified as "an elfish spirit" or "an imp" by Dimmesdale and the lawful citizens, Pearl is also called "a strange child" by her mother, and "a nymph-child" or "an infant dryad" by the narrator who endows the illegitimate child with a supernatural dimension. In the chapter entitled "The Child at the Brook-Side", Pearl stands for the divine intermediary come to show her mother and father the way to salvation, while they were going to try and forget their sin by fleeing the community of Boston. Refusing to cross the brook in obedience to her mother's call, the child offers, with the sun's reflection in the brook, a radiant picture which associates her with Christ (the sun/son of Man), or the bride of Christ the Lamb from the medieval allegory. What appears at first like a child's tantrum is conveyed by the narrator like the allegory of a spirit in wrath: Pearl "burst into a fit of passion", stamping her foot, "gesticulating violently", with "extravagant contortions" and "piercing shrieks" (SL 134), and pointing at her mother's bosom deprived of the scarlet A which Hester has discarded in her sudden decision to escape. Pearl wants to remind her mother of the spiritual meaning of the letter which she has also rejected. Hester had previously wondered about her daughter being a "spirit-messenger... [with] the errand to soothe away the sorrow that lay cold in her mother's heart" (SL 117); now, confronted with the angry child whose attributes are those of the Holy Spirit: light, motion, and word, she feels compelled to pick up the letter, thereby turns back onto the way to redemption. The spirit here stands on the side of the law, thwarting the two transgressors' plan to escape, but it is the new law inspired and interpreted by Jesus, who alone can ensure man's salvation. Though Hester doesn't immediately acknowledge the symbolic meaning of the letter, she is later restored as a member of the community in which she will play the role of spiritual counsellor.

9Dimmesdale follows a similar, though more tormented, evolution; his is a double sin, having committed adultery with Hester, and being himself a law representative of the Puritan society that has condemned the young woman. He aggravates his fault by concealing the truth, behaving like a coward and a hypocrite. By refusing to acknowledge his child, he keeps denying the redemptive power of the spirit Pearl incarnates. Hence his constant suffering, shown by his continuously keeping his hand over his heart which is consumed with guilt. The dim-sighted pastor offers the allegory of the sanctified sinner tradition: having indulged in the multiple sins of weakness, hypocrisy and inertia, it is only after being tempted into escaping his duty of public exposure, and after his encounter with the spirit in wrath, that he will eventually come to relieve himself of his burden, by confessing his sin while acknowledging his daughter.

  • 5 Audrey Fogels, "Walking in the shadow of a dream... retired from the window", in Keyscenes, éditio (...)

10Like in The Custom-House, in The Scarlett Letter the members of the law appear tainted with sin and corruption while the supporters of the spirit stand out of the law. The pastor's passivity and refusal to speak echo the lack of speech and energy of the old custom-officers previously described. Governor Bellingham is characterized by his blindness as Audrey Fogels5 remarks in her analysis of "The Minister's Vigil", underlining the confusion of categories whereby the legitimate character is given an illegitimate sister, Mistress Hibbins, described as a "venerable witch-lady". The confrontation between a perverted law and the spirit also appears in the opposition between the figures of Pearl and Chillingworth: the lawful husband is associated with evil and death, as cruel as the fanatic crowd watching Hester. He represents the vengeful individual who wants to enforce his own law at all costs; he thereby proceeds to a continuous torturing of the parson, relishing in his victim's suffering, maintaining him in a deathly state of fear and inertia. This death-chilling force is in contrast with the "tumultuous rush of new life" transmitted to Dimmesdale through his daughter's touch in the scene of the Minister's Vigil. Through Chillingworth's fate, the narrator shows the victory of life over death, the triumph of the spiritual forces over the demonic forces of the law: "Nothing was more remarkable than the change which took place, almost immediately after Mr. Dimmesdale's death, in the appearance and demeanor of the old man.... All his strength and energy — all his vital and intellectual force — seemed at once to desert him; insomuch that he positively withered up, shrivelled away... like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in the sun" (SL 163-164). If the conclusion of Hawthorne's tale has aroused many pessimistic interpretations focusing on its apparent gloomy ending, I think that the allegory of Christ's Spirit winning out over the harsh, perverted law: "the weed wilting in the sun", opens up an actual ray of hope in this "gloom" which means only "semi-darkness" (OED). Mauriac's interpretation of the tale comes to the same conclusion:

"[Le] péché même [du pasteur] devient en lui un principe de total renouvellement devant ses frères, mais aussi devant Dieu. Et de même la lettre écarlate attachée à la poitrine de la jeune femme adultère fait d'elle aux yeux de toute la ville une sainte authentique et vénérée. Voici donc le pharisaïsme devenu créateur de sainteté.... L'Esprit utilise la lettre, si misérable que soit la lettre" (Mémoires Intérieurs 122).

11In other words, the letter of the Ancient Law has been transformed into the Word conveyed by the Holy Ghost. The fate granted to Pearl, who escapes the Puritan environment of his mother, illustrates the condition of the Spirit that cannot be confined by any law, according to Paul's teaching: "where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty" (2 Cor. 3: 17).

12This essence of the spiritual force is depicted through similar devices within Flannery O'Connor's short fiction. "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" serves as a model by setting out the two conflicting forces in the opening of the narrative. The force of the Spirit is significantly embodied in the marginal figure of the tramp, Mr. Shiftlet, who appears as the archetype of many other outlaws acting paradoxically as messengers of the divine. Indeed the whole fiction of Flannery O'Connor can be interpreted as one parabolic tale, in the sense of Jesus' parables meant for "the multitude to know about the mysteries of heaven" (Matthew 13:3-11). Those modern Pharisees that people O'Connor's plots, who are incapable of hearing the Word conveyed by the Spirit, stand on the side of the law, blinded in their self-righteousness, just like the puritan crowd in Hawthorne's romance, sticking to the Ancient Law to justify their deeds. The beginning of "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" opposes Mrs. Crater, the authoritative landlady, and Mr. Shiftlet, who intrudes her farm like a disrupting force. A static, motionless figure, Mrs. Crater, whose name suggests emptiness and death, remains seated with her daughter in her porch, pretending not to be disturbed by the unexpected arrival of a tramp, "no one to be afraid of'(Complete Stories, 145). The old woman bears the same features of dusty authority as the old Custom-House officers, partaking of the Old Adam, indulging in the same lack of energy; yet, she assumes an air of masculine authority that might impress her visitors:" She was about the size of a cedar fence post and she had a man's gray hat pulled down low over her head "{CS 146). Her look of almightiness is enhanced as she watches her visitor" with her arms folded across her chest as if she were the owner of the sun "(146): thereby usurping the very power of Christ (the sun/son of Man). Mr. Shiftlet's gait evokes a spirit-messenger: " His left coat sleeve was folded up to show there was only half an arm in it and his gaunt figure listed slightly to the side as if the breeze were pushing him (145, italics mine); the text here echoes the gospel of John (3:8) describing the Spirit: "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and wither it goeth: so is everyone that is born of the Spirit"; thus, incessant motion and unpredictability characterize the spirit messengers in O'Connor's fiction. Tom T. Shiftlet bears in his very name the urge to move and change, as well as the redemptive power of the cross (symbolized by the multiple "t" s). His maimed arm is also significant: in O'Connor's stories, difformity denotes human imperfection as the mark of the original sin. It is the Old Adam's "birth-mark", to echo Hawthorne's tale in which the denying of such imperfection leads to death. Contrary to Mrs. Crater "shading her eyes from the piercing sunset" {CS 145), the tramp has "his face turned toward the sun" (145), looking in the direction of the divine. But the two women, subjected to the same torpor as the Custom-House veterans, represent, through their common name: Lucyneil, the imprisonment of light in darkness: Lux-in-hell. The old unused automobile rusting in the garage stands for their total refusal to move, namely, their inability to awake to the spirit and to hear the Word of God.

13The thematic pattern of the narrative appears like a conflict between the old law and the new law, as Mrs. Crater, wanting to appropriate Mr. Shiftlet for her own use, coaxes him into marrying her daughter, denying her own words: "I wouldn't give her up for a casket of jewels" (CS 149). But her selfish endeavour to capture the spirit is bound to failure: the tramp escapes in the automobile, abandoning his bride on his way to "Mobile". The spirit cannot be imprisoned by the law, as Mr. Shiftlet puts it: "...the spirit, lady, is like a automobile: always on the move, always" (CS 152). Young Lucynell, though at first showing some interest in their visitor, eventually proves unable to speak the word taught by Mr. Shiftlet: "bird", which she mispronounces as: "dirt". By falling into sleep at their first stop on the road, she symbolically joins in her mother's inertia, thereby the two women remain shut up in a world of matter and vanity, according to the prophet's words: "all are of the dust and all turn to dust again"(Eccl. 3: 20).

14The dialogue between Mrs. Crater and Mr. Shiftlet just after the wedding ceremony highlights the essential distinction between the law and the spirit:

He looked morose and bitter as if he had just been insulted while someone held him. "That didn't satisfy me none," he said. "That was just something a woman in an office did, nothing but paper work and blood tests. What do they know about my blood? If they was to take my heart and cut it out," he said, "they wouldn't know a thing about me. It didn't satisfy me at all."
"It satisfied the law," the old woman said sharply.
"The law," Mr. Shiftlet said and spit "It's the law that don't satisfy me." (CS 153)

15The law of the courthouse cannot guarantee the authenticity of marriage, which partakes of the spirit and of the heart. The office woman doesn't bother with moral values, nor does Mrs. Crater who almost sells her daughter; both ignore the highest value professed by Christ: love. They resemble old Chilling worth, the lawful husband who, having abandoned his young bride for two years, still claimed to avenge his dishonour. The spirit-messenger embodied by Shiftlet is here to recall Christ's Word. The law devoid of spirit is the way to damnation.

16Another exemplification of the same parable is given in "The Displaced Person". Again, the opening of the narrative gives all the clues to interpreting the allegorical conflict: "The peacock was following Mrs. Shortley up the road to the hill where she meant to stand" (CS 194). The farm tenant's attitude recalls Mrs. Crater's authoritative appearance: "Her arms... folded,... she might have been the giant housewife of the countryside, come out at some sign of danger to see what the trouble was. She stood on two tremendous legs [Lex, legis meaning law], with the grand self-confidence of a mountain,... surveying everything. She ignored the white afternoon sun which was creeping behind a ragged wall of cloud as if it pretended to be an intruder..." (CS 194). Mrs. Shortley stands as the defender of the law established within the property, and asserts her domination against any intrusion of the spirit, the sun being once more the sign of the divine allied to the peacock and the stranger, Mr. Guizac, just about to arrive. The peacock here opposes the eagle of The Custom-House, by denoting the light motion of the spirit just as the latter stood for the harsh rigidity of the law: with "his tail — glittering green-gold and blue in the sunlight — lifted just enough so that it would not touch the ground" and "his attention... fixed in the distance on something no one else could see" (194), the peacock is related to the invisible and the divine. Associated with the Transfiguration, he represents a Christ-like figure in the same way as Guizac. Mrs. Shortley, whose name connotes a short-sighted vision, considers the bird like "nothing but a peachicken" (CS 198), thus estranging herself from the Spirit, and sticking to the literality of the law. To her the Polish refugee represents a danger, being of a different place and a different religion; her prejudice about Catholicism — the religion of the devil — echoes the intolerance of the Puritans for the Quakers shown by Hawthorne in his tale "The Gentle Boy". With a new way of thinking, the refugees, like the Quakers, threaten the established order of the community. Mrs. Shortley's preceding the peacock "up the road" shows her determination to impose her law. Therefore she shortly endeavours to drive Guizac out of the property. Like the Scribes and the Pharisees feeling their power threatened by Jesus, or the fanatical Puritans watching Hester Prynne, Mrs. Shortley invokes the law: "with foreigners on the place [...] you had to be on the lookout every minute. She thought there ought to be a law against them" (CS 204-205, italics mine).

17Her employer, Mrs. McIntyre, enforces this law. Although she has been induced by Father Flynn to take the refugees as extra help, she intends to maintain her authority over all: "I'm the one around here who holds all the strings together.... You're all dependent on me" (CS 217), but ironically fails to respond to the connotation of her name. Far from integrity (entire-ty), she tolerates corrupted manners (Mr. Shortley smokes in the dairy, and Sulk steals her poultry), arouses jealousy among her different help, and ignores charity: she only offers a shack to the refugees, justifying her miserly attitude by self-complacent words: "They should be grateful for anything they could get" (CS 196). Like the old Custom-House officers, she cannot prevent corruption, and like Mrs. Crater, she wants to appropriate the spirit-messenger for material purposes. "That man is my salvation!" (CS 203), she says as long as Guizac, being "thrifty and energetic"(CS 201), improves her productivity. Guizac, the other Christ-figure, in-spired by his faith, tries to restore honesty and respect within the farm, but his spirit of renovation goes too far: when he wants to marry his cousin to a black servant, Mrs. McIntyre rejects him as a threat to the Ancient law, the law of the segregated South. Then Mr. Guizac represents a real danger: in the multiple sense of the word displace, he threatens to disrupt, reverse, put upside down the old code of manners and institutions, partaking of Christ's revolutionary spirit. Mrs. McIntyre won't listen to the words of her black servant, Astor [Aster, the star, related to the sun], who sides with Guizac: "Black and white... is the same" (CS 215), he says, referring to Paul's words: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3: 28). Refusing to listen to the Word, the landlady joins Mrs. Shortley in deciding to get rid of the Pole. She proves unable to suffer the spiritual change Guizac represents: "He's extra and he's upset the balance around here" (CS 231, italics mine), she says, ironically recalling The Misfit's words in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find": "Jesus was the only One who ever raised the dead.... and He shouldn't have done it. He thrown everything off balance" (CS 132, italics mine). With the refugee's death (he is crushed by a tractor, a symbol of spiritual motion), Mrs. McIntyre fails in her attempt to capture the spirit. Then she is the one to feel displaced: "She felt she was in some foreign country,... and she watched like a stranger while the dead man was carried away in the ambulance" (235, italics mine). By losing her spiritual pole, she loses all: her sight, her voice and the use of her leg/lex. Deserted by the rest of her help, she falls into the same decaying state as the veterans of the Custom-House or old Chilling worth, attended only by a coloured woman and the priest who symbolically ensures a spiritual presence by feeding the peacock and nourishing the landlady with "the doctrines of the Church" (CS 235).

18The Catholic priest is a rare figure used to connote the spirit messenger in O'Connor's narratives. This role is more often played by outlaws and marginal characters showing the writer's own challenge of conventions. Those "startling figures" better serve the purpose of awakening her protagonists to the spirit, while they stick to the law. This law may be the segregationist law of the South, the law of science and progress, or the laws of commerce and mechanization that govern contemporary society and tend to alienate modern man from spiritual values. In each story we find a figure of this modern man: old men and women attached to old values, or secular intellectuals having forgotten or deliberately rejected any concern for the religious:'" All I've got is the dirt under my feet! "'(CS 203), ironically claims Mrs. McIntyre. In "A View of the Woods", Mr. Fortune's death offers the same image of desperate isolation, setting the old man by the side of "one huge yellow monster, as stationary as he was, gorging itself on clay"(CS 356). He, too, is deserted by the Spirit, having killed his granddaughter, his own little "Pearl". In The Violent Bear It Away, Rayber, the schoolmaster who has rejected the faith of his uncle, the old prophet, recalls Sheppard, the social worker of "The Lame Shall Enter First", who wants to put Rufus, a delinquent, back on the right track, forgetting to give love to his own son. In O'Connor's fiction, it takes a transgressor to disclose the flaws and weaknesses of the law and guide the characters — and the reader — towards the spiritual meaning of the letter. The Misfit joins the Evangelist of "'The River" in saying: "Believe Jesus or the devil!'...'Testify to one or the other!"' (CS 166). In Hawthorne's allegorical tales, the message is the same: a society that has forgotten the guidance of the spirit is prone to abusive and corrupted laws. "The Gentle Boy" illustrates the persecution of the Quakers that ends in the martyrdom of a child. However, the laws of nature ought to be respected: there's no point in trying to erase the mark of human imperfection, of man's participation in evil; sin lies within each human being, be it a judge, a priest or a delinquent, and it has to be acknowledged if man wants to be redeemed and saved. It is all part of the pilgrim's progress illustrated by Hester's and Dimmesdale's fates. Yet, obeying self-comforting laws, those magistrates, clergymen, landladies and intellectuals indulge in a self-righteousness that blinds them to the spirit. It takes a tramp, a Pole, a Misfit, an eccentric clergyman, to reveal the inner flaw that lies behind the "veil". In O'Connor's story "Good Country People", Hulga lives shut up in her own world of erroneous nihilism, and will have to be deprived of her artificial leg/ lec to acknowledge the spiritual truth pointed out by her manly seducer.

19Nathaniel Hawthorne and Flannery O'Connor share the same perspective through their use of allegory. Neither of them is a political activist, but standing against the traditional norms of a law deriving from the Founding Fathers, they both set out the renewing force of the spirit conveyed by Christ. Hawthorne's Puritan heritage and O'Connor's Catholic faith appear to converge on one same principle stated by Paul: " no man is justified by the law in the sight of God... The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith " (2 Gal. 3:11-12). If Hawthorne feels with a certain awe the judgement of his ancestors — the legislators — who would have disapproved of his being "a writer of story-books", "a degenerate fellow", "a fiddler" (SL 12), he resents their excesses and cruelties, and feels the need to atone for their sins: "I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them... may be now and henceforth removed" (SL 12). Through the redemptive task of writing, he exposes their intolerance, like the persecution of the Quakers.

  • 6 Nina Baym, "The Romantic Malgré Lui: Hawthorne in 'The Custom-House'", in The Scarlet Letter, Thir (...)

20Nina Baym has pointed out the meaning of the scarlet A for Art, art as inspiration, when the narrator of The Custom-House discovers the letter as the wrapping of the surveyor's manuscript containing the story. "The Puritan disapproves of Art", she says, and the letter "stands for a range of ideas about art in its social context, including the idea of the artist as a branded man", therefore "art when it is the expression of an artist's private fantasies [...] represents an act of civil disobedience which will, if its nature is recognized, be condemned by authority"6. The narrator-author of The Custom-House feels a sensation of red-hot iron at discovering the parcel of Surveyor Pue. At the same time he feels entrusted with a spiritual mission which takes him out of the torpor of his job; by this symbolical burn, he feels the urge to set to his writer's task, standing against the law of his ancestors. The spirit strikes with fire to arouse the writer's consciousness, recalling the three little demons, in O'Connor's story "A Circle in the Fire", who awaken Mrs. Cope by setting fire to her woods. Summoned by the ghost of the ancient surveyor, Hawthorne assumes the function of the artist as messenger of spiritual matters, allowing himself "as much license as if the facts had been entirely of [his] own invention" (SL 27). There is no proof that Hawthorne did actually find those papers in the Custom-House as the source of his romance, but he significantly underlines the liberty of the writer to go beyond reality, while relying on it as "the authenticity of the outline" (27).

21Hawthorne's choice of writing allegorical tales is in keeping with what O'Connor says of the mission of the artist, quoting Conrad: "My task is... by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see." In The Scarlet Letter, the shifting narrative voice serves this end: if he announces, in the beginning, "the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow" (SL 36), the narrator also hints at the rosebush surviving by the prison door as "some sweet moral blossom" (36) that might relieve this gloom. In the end, focusing on Hester "burdened with a life-long sorrow" (SL 166), not even allowed to join her lover in death, as a space separates their two graves, the narrative voice further remarks: "one tombstone served for both" (166), and concludes the tale with the herald's wording that casts a red light upon the sombre surrounding: the last word: "Gules", meaning "red", "scarlet", the colour of fire, love and passion, connotes the flame of the Spirit. A similar, though brighter, image appears in O'Connor's ending of "A Temple of the Holy Ghost", where the setting sun becomes "a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood" (CS 248). It is also contained in the name of "Rufus Johnson": "the red (rufus) son of John", the apostle in-spired by the Word and conveyer of the Word, who defies the law-abiding social worker ironically named "Sheppard", not "the good shepherd", but the good-thinking shepherd who wants to satisfy his own conscience. Rufus shouts at the policemen who are taking him away: "Jesus' ll save me, not that lying stinking atheist" (CS 480).

  • 7 See Margaret I. Meaders, "Flannery O'Connor: literary witch", The Colorado Quaterly 10 (Spring 196 (...)
  • 8 Arthur Kinney, "Flannery O'Connor and the Art of the Holy", The Virginia Qualerly Review, 64,2, 19 (...)
  • 9 In a letter to John Hawkes, "Fallen spirits are of course still spirits, and I suppose the Devil t (...)

22O'Connor's stories were described as "unladylike" and she was called "a literary witch".7 Indeed she stands out of customs and defies conventions, as Arthur Kinney remarks: "Her fiction was designed to lead away from the conventional to show how grotesque conventionality itself is".8 Her use of violence aroused negative criticism on the part of believers as well as non-believers, but she answered them all by maintaining her own belief in "the power of the written word" and her liberty as an artist. If she didn't take sides openly in the political issue of the civil rights, through her fiction she discloses the evolution that the law must undergo, and her black characters all stand on the side of the spirit. Mr. Head's descent into hell, culminating in his denying his grandson — which echoes Dimmesdale's refusal to acknowledge his daughter, and Peter's denial of Christ — is followed by the revelation of the artificial nigger that symbolizes redemption and serves to bring him together with Nelson. O'Connor's resort to violence is explained in a letter to T. R. Spivey, about her novel's title "The Violent Bear It Away": opposing her critics, she asserts that it has no Old Testament flavour, that "these are Christ's words", that "this is the violence of love, of giving more than the law demands" (Habit of Being 382). Love goes beyond the limits of the law, as shown by Hester Prynne when she declares that her union with Dimmesdale "had a consecration of its own" (SL 126). Recalling Mr. Shiftlet, she's dissatisfied with a law that acknowledges a marriage unfounded by love. Her sin turns her towards the spiritual, her transgression opens the way to redemption, as Georges Bataille points out: "la transgression [possède], en dépit d'un caractère dangereux, le pouvoir d'ouvrir un accès vers le monde sacré" (L'Erotisme 135), insisting on this paradox of Christianity: "l'accès au sacré est le Mal" (139). O'Connor likewise states the necessity to encounter the dragon by the side of the road, which echoes the necessary encounter with Christ: "no man cometh unto the Father but by me" (John 14: 6). Sinning puts the sinner on the way to Christ. O'Connor's misfits are the ones to show the Way, for "fallen spirits are of course still spirits"9. Love, the force of the Spirit, has to be violent, it is associated with energy, motion, animus, breath, while the lack of love entails inertia, decay and death.

  • 10 In Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Edited by S. and R. Fitzgerald. 1972. London, Faber & Fa (...)

23Nathaniel Hawthorne and Flannery O'Connor both put an emphasis on the conflict between the law and the spirit, and reveal the essential necessity for man to acknowledge evil, in order to find good. In "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" the grandmother becomes aware of evil and of her own participation in it, just as Young Goodman Brown discovers the reality of evil including the respectable members of his community. "[I] n us the good is something under construction", O'Connor says in her "Introduction to" A Memoir of Mary Ann "10, underlining the function of the grotesque as revealing at once good and evil. Hawthorne and O'Connor feel the same urge to write as a spiritual mission, in the same spirit of liberty inherent to literature that leaves the door open to interpretation. O'Connor's claim to be "a descendant of Hawthorne" as a writer of romances is justified. Referring to Hawthorne's daughter, Rose, who became a Catholic in charge of a Dominican Congregation, O'Connor says that she ["fulfilled in a practical way the hidden desires of her [father's] life" (. Mystery and Manners 219). In other words, O'Connor points out in her predecessor the same Christian concerns as she had, which appeared in his fiction but remained unfulfilled in his life, namely, his inclination to the spiritual, cultivated through his transcendentalist period, but not activated by a profession of faith. Yet, she believes they share the same conviction that, no matter the reverence owed to the law, the attraction to the spirit must prevail. "The Gentle Boy" shows the triumph of love over the law: the son of the persecuted woman is adopted by the Puritan magistrate who moves onto the Quakers' side. In "A Temple of the Holy Ghost", the authorities have the fair shut down, getting rid of the mysterious hermaphrodite, but the last image of the scarlet sun signifies the final domination of the divine spirit.



ALLEN William Rodney, "Mr. Head and Hawthorne: Allusion and Conversion in Flannery O'Connor's'The Artificial Nigger'" Studies in Southern Fiction 21. 1 (Winter 1984): 17-23.

BATAILLE Georges, L'érotisme, Paris, Editions de Minuit, 1957.

BAYM Nina, "The Romantic Malgré Lui: Hawthorne in 'The Custom House'", in The Scarlet Letter, Third Edition. S. Gross, S. Bradley, R. C. Beatty, and Ε. H. Long, eds. New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1988.

THE BIBLE, Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha. Carroll, Robert and Stephen Prickett, eds. Oxford, The World's Classics, 1997.

BUNYAN John, The Pilgrim's Progress 1966. Edited with an Introduction by Ν. H. Keeble. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1984.

FITZGERALD Sally, The Habit of Being. Letters, New York, Farrar-Straus-Giroux, 1979.

FITZGERALD Sally and Robert, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, 1972. London, Faber and Faber, 1984.

FOGELS Audrey, "Walking in the shadow of a dream... retired from the window" Keyscenes, Nantes, éditions du temps, 2005.

GORDON Ε. V Pearl, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1953.

HAWTHORNE Nathaniel, The Complete Short Stories, New York, Hanover House, 1959.

HORNBY A. s., The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (OED), London, Oxford University Press, 1974.

KINNEY Arthur F., "Flannery O'Connor and the Art of the Holy", The Virginia Quaterly Review, 64, 2, 1988: 215-230.

MAURIAC François, Mémoires Intérieurs, Paris, Flammarion, 1985.

MEADERS Margaret I., "Flannery O'Connor: literary witch", The Colorado Quaterly 10 (Spring 1962): 377-386.

O'CONNOR Flannery, The Complete Stories 1971. Faber and Faber, London, 1990.

PERSON Leland S., The Scarlet Letter and other writings, New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.

STANBURY Sarah, Pearl: Introduction, (online article). Originally published in Pearl, Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001.


1 William Rodney Allen in "Mr. Head and Hawthorne: Allusion and Conversion in Flannery O 'Connor's 'The Artificial Nigger'" Studies in Southern Fiction, Vol. 21:1 Winter 1984.

2 François Mauriac, Mémoires intérieurs. Flammarion, Paris 1985 (p 119).

3 John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress. 1966. Ed. With an introduction by N. H.

Keeble, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

4 Pearl edited by E. V. Gordon, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1953. See also Peart: Introduction. Edited by Sarah Stanbury (online). Originally published in Pearl. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001.

5 Audrey Fogels, "Walking in the shadow of a dream... retired from the window", in Keyscenes, éditions du temps, 2005, p. 57-58.

6 Nina Baym, "The Romantic Malgré Lui: Hawthorne in 'The Custom-House'", in The Scarlet Letter, Third Edition, Norton Critical Edition, 1988, p 269-270.

7 See Margaret I. Meaders, "Flannery O'Connor: literary witch", The Colorado Quaterly 10 (Spring 1962): p. 377-386.

8 Arthur Kinney, "Flannery O'Connor and the Art of the Holy", The Virginia Qualerly Review, 64,2, 1988: p. 215-230.

9 In a letter to John Hawkes, "Fallen spirits are of course still spirits, and I suppose the Devil teaches most of (he lessons that lead to self-knowledge" {Habit of Being, 439).

10 In Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Edited by S. and R. Fitzgerald. 1972. London, Faber & Faber, 1985 (226).


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