Ms. Flannery O’ Connor hits you over the head with a hammer in the best sort of way–you can tell she probably spent a good portion of her life reveling in John 2, when Jesus runs into the temple like a maniac, flipping tables, flinging money to the ground like chaff, and chasing the doves and other livestock out the temple doors.
She’s also profoundly aware of the ways in which the Spirit moves within our hearts in a similar manner, convicting us of our humanity when we try to cover ourselves up with religious garments.
“Think of all we have. Lord,” she said and sighed, “we have everything,” and she looked around at her rich pastures and hills heavy with timber and shook her head as if it might all be a burden she was trying to shake off her back.
Mrs. Pritchard studied the woods. “All I got is four abscess teeth,” she remarked.
“Well, be thankful you don’t have five,” Mrs. Cope snapped and threw back a clump of grass. “We might all be destroyed by a hurricane. I can always find something to be thankful for.
-From A Circle in the Fire
Mrs. Pritchard’s jeering, cynical response comes off as tame compared to the abject qualities of Mrs. Cope’s response. Mrs. Cope, in A Circle in the Fire, wears that religious demeanor brashly.
She is the unquestionable queen of her world; Ms. Cope makes this abundantly clear within these first few lines. Her words of thanks seem less like an actual display of gratitude to God, and more like a desperate hold on to her own kingdom of plenty coexisting with human lack. Ms. O’Connor later uses setting to imply that those hills heavy with timber are like the walls of a fortress. They Protect Ms. Cope from the outside world, and from the sound of the dialogue mentioned above it also seems that these fortress walls may have the effect of a prison.
I find Ms. Cope’s attitude and words most disturbing because I have shared her mindset and expressed those same hollow sentiments. I keep walls around all that I care for and shake my head at the tragedies of life that others endure. Like Mrs. Cope, when it comes down to it, all I want is the sun to keep shining on my work, and my home, where my life takes place. And even if trouble comes, that is fine, because God only gives you what you can handle, right?
Suddenly, enter in three wild, trouble making, naked miscreants from the Atlanta slums–well, okay, they don’t just enter into the story naked, but they might as well have considering how Mrs. Cope regards them. These three boys go on a trespassing rampage like no other.
The boys reject all of Mrs. Cope’s attempts to placate their starving eyes with sandwiches and coke, and they reject her insistence that they must leave the farm the next day. Instead of leaving, the three boys live out on the land, choosing to bathe in the cattle trough, ride her horses bareback, and sneak into her dairy shed for fresh milk.
Without completely spoiling the eccentric, somewhat dark ending of Ms. O’Connor’s story, I will say that these three young men intentionally resemble another trio from the book of Daniel who interact with the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar; they are strangers in a strange land. They reject everything that the king and his court offer (see Daniel 1), and they aren’t too keen on worshiping whatever golden image you place in front of them.
Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food
Granted, the Misfits’ motives in A Circle In The Fire are not to display faith and trust in God. But I think Ms. O’Connor makes these rebellious Atlantan prophets come from seedier origins for a few reasons:
I. When you read the story of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, church culture almost immediately seats you on their side. I think Ms. O’Connor wants nothing more than to complicate that relationship by making us sympathetic to Ms. Cope at times, and other times sympathetic to the three boys. All of Flannery O’Connors characters are human through and through, full of absurdities, contradictions, cares, and pleasures. There are no villains, only people.
II. You can’t con trespassing thieves with your religious garments. They may be familiar with desperation, but they aren’t stupid. They are people of business, and they can discern what business others are all about. They see through the courtesies of people who are really looking out for themselves.
III. The more we insulate ourselves from the world and build up our fortress walls, our own personal Babylons, the more we retreat from God’s kingdom working into the earth, and the more alone we are when the troubles of the earth fall hard upon us.