Team Teaching Middle English Literature
With Flannery O'Connor
Susan K. Hagen
There has been a considerable amount of hand wringing lately over
contemporary students' reluctance to take courses in medieval studies in general and
medieval literature in particular. Whether it is an issue of language difficulty, or
cultural alterity, or apparent discontinuity between medieval concerns and present-day
curiosities, enrollments--we hear--are dropping. Certainly I have experienced some
reluctance on the part of students to tackle Middle English, but I have felt more
strongly their tendency to marginalize medieval literature and its accompanying world
view as too distant, too different from that own. In other words, they find medieval
literature altogether too medieval in all of the word's pejorative connotations. In
particular, I find young men and women of the Baptist/Methodist Southeast as either
dismissive of or perplexed by medieval catholicism. One way to dispel such
assumptions of dissimilarity and disconnection is to link medieval and contemporary
texts within required reading lists to show modern writers still struggling with
I've found such a link in Flannery O'Connor's short stories. Students feel
comfortable with her rural southern settings, with the limited urban skylines of her
southern cities, even with her grotesque and degenerate characters. They know of
Bible salesmen, they remember disdain for niggers, and recognize all the undependable
stereotypes of "good country people." As a result, O'Connor's catholicism, though
theologically exotic and in need of a little special effort to puzzle through, is not
completely foreign. If the message isn't clear at first, at least the overall picture is.
Now it isn't just Flannery O'Connor's catholicism that makes her short stories
an effective means of communicating to students something about medieval religious
habits of mind; otherwise we could use James Joyce just as well. Neither is it what
is usually referred to as her Southern Gothicism that draws me to her as a team
teacher, for although reading her short stories may leave us with images of cathedral
grotesques, manuscript marginalia, or Heronomas Bosch paintings, the gothicism in
Southern Gothicism has more to do with the nineteenth century than the fourteenth.
O'Connor, herself, indicated that such a view of the gothic hardly applied to her
writing. In a 1962 lecture at East Texas State University titled "Some Aspects of the
Grotesque in Southern Literature," she objected to being placed in either the School
of Southern Degeneracy or the School of Southern Gothicism: "'Degeneracy' she
said, 'at least can be taken in a moral sense,' for it suggests a standard to degenerate
from; but 'the Gothic is a degeneracy which is not recognized as such'" (Dowell 235).
The thing that makes Flannery O'Connor of interest to medievalists is not the
ugliness or the meanness of her characters but all that gothicism, the grotesquesrie,
the deformed, distorted, and degenerate humanity of her stories placed in the
landscape of a Christocentric world. In that same lecture, O'Connor claimed that, "'in
the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological" (Dowell
236). Unlike contemporary Catholicism, the South had not, she felt, lost the sense
of Original Sin (Andreas 25). Thirty-two years later and after 19 years of teaching in
Alabama, this is a claim I cannot refute. And even if the peculiar brand of Baptist and
Methodist--or even Church of God--theology is liturgically and doctrinally far from the
theology of medieval Europe, there is one thing in common, one central point of
connection that makes O'Connor's stories, however odd, still familiar to my students--
and that is Jesus. We may not say that the South is Christ-centered in a medieval
sense, but as O'Connor said, "'it is certainly Christ-haunted'" (Dowell 236).
From the place names in her stories to the biblical suggestiveness of the names
and actions of her characters, O'Connor offers students an exercise in reading akin
to that of the medieval exegete, one that forces them through the literal to the moral
and ultimately on to the anagogical in the medieval sense. And the resulting reading
is constant: when we see ourselves as we are, when we strip away the pretensions,
we see the truly limited and ignorant nature of humanity, we see our Original Sin.
When we abandon our self-will and stop struggling against the God who haunts us,
our false visions of reality fashioned by our egos vanish before the true vision of a
created world with, in O'Connor's words, "'all that implies of human limitations and
human obligations to an all-powerful Creator'" (Dowell 236). We see our place among
the company of every other human (Andreas 25). Seeing what we are comes through
moments of grace; forgiveness for what we are comes through Christ.
There are three O'Connor short stories I want to mention to you and to suggest
how they may be used within a course in medieval literature. If you've ever taught
an introduction to literature course out of any of the popular anthologies, then two of
them are probably quite familiar to you. The stories are "A Good Man Is Hard to
Find," "Revelation," and "Parker's Back." First "Revelation."
There probably is no better illustration of the acceptance of one's common
humanity through a moment of grace than this short story. There certainly is no
better illustration of what one critic calls the movement from cupiditas to caritas in
O'Connor's fiction; that is what James Andreas calls movement from "ego-centered
behavior that is usually disguised as its better--as altruism, self-respect, or good
manners and 'breeding'" to "a behavior where mutual interdependence, or what
O'Connor calls 'convergence' is discovered" (25).
The story opens with Ruby Turpin entering a doctor's waiting room with her
husband Claud who has been kicked by a cow. As she and Claud wait, she takes
hard stock of the other people in the room. There was some white-trash, a "red-
headed youngish woman" who was not white-trash, just common, a well-dressed,
pleasant looking lady, and her daughter, an ill-mannered ugly girl in Girl Scout shoes
with heavy socks who was reading a book titled Human Development. Listening to
the Gospel song playing on the radio in the background, Mrs. Turpin's "heart rose.
[Jesus] had not made her a nigger or white-trash or ugly! He had made her herself
and given her a little of everything. Jesus, thank you! she said. Thank you thank you
A few moments later, agreeing with the pleasant lady in regard to her ugly
tempered daughter that "'It never hurt anyone to smile,'" Mrs. Turpin notes,
"If it's one thing I am, . . .it's grateful. When I think who all I could have been
beside myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition
besides, I just feel like shouting, 'Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the
way it is!' . . .'Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!' she cried aloud."
Suddenly the book Human Development "struck her directly over her left eye." Nurse,
doctor, and mother scramble to subdue the ugly girl. Transfixed by the girl's eyes
focused on her, Mrs. Turpin asks "'What you got to say to me?'" waiting, as
O'Connor says "as for a revelation." "Go back to hell where you came from, you old
wart hog" [the girl] whispered."
Haunted by this command, Ruby Turpin spends the rest of the day in
puzzlement and concentration. Finally, while hosing down the hog pen that evening
she whispers to God in a fierce voice, "What do you send me a message like that
for?" "How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?" If
students can understand the answer to this question, they can understand the
medieval notion of Original Sin. Struggling against the recognition that she shares in
the common legacy of humanity, Ruby Turpin wants to know how she is like a hog,
and why with plenty of white-trash around the message had to come to her.
Challenging God to go on and call her a wart hog from hell, to put the top rung on the
bottom, she yells out "There'll still be a top and a bottom!" Shaking with fury, she
demands of God, "Who do you think you are?"
In a final vision, something akin to the great medieval leveling of death and
damnation and salvation forces itself upon her. With an ironic humor reminiscent of
Chaucer and beatific purification echoing Dante, O'Connor writes
A visionary lights settled in her eyes. She saw the streak [of the setting sun]
as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of
living fire. Upon it a horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were
whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands
of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting
and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession
was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself
and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use
it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching
behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for
good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on
key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their
virtues were being burned away.
In painful clarity, Ruby Turpin recognizes, as one critic put it, "the inadequacy of her
respectability and the shallowness of her values" (Pepin 26). The vision shows her
how--considered by God no more worthy than white-trash, or niggers, or freaks--she
can be both a wart hog before the judgment seat of God and saved, too. If
"Revelation" can help students understand the nature of Original Sin and the
inscrutable nature of God's wisdom, the "A Good Man is Hard to Find" can certainly
help them see both the frailty of human will and the kindred nature of human
existence. Like Ruby Turpin, the grandmother of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"
considers herself a lady. Dressing for her road trip to Florida with her son Bailey, his
wife, and their three children, she carries her white cotton gloves and pins "a purple
spray of cloth violets containing a sachet to her neckline"; as her interior monologue
tells us, "In case of an accident anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know
at once that she was a lady." And the thought is grimly prophetic. Badgered into
traveling down a rutted dirt road that the grandmother mistakenly thinks will lead to
an old plantation, they do have an accident.
Injured, confused, and stranded in a deep ditch beside the road, the family is
discover by the Misfit, a murderer escaped by the Federal Pen and headed toward
Florida. The grandmother recognizes him from a newspaper picture and immediately
begins pleading that she knows he's a good man, that he does not look like he has
a bit of common blood in him, that surely he wouldn't shoot a lady. All this even
though just an hour or so before she was commiserating with a nasty restaurant
owner over that fact that "a good man is hard to find" these days. The Misfit orders
one of the two young men with him to take Bailey and his son off. Calling "Bailey
Boy! after her son in a tragic voice, the grandmother desperately turns to the Misfit
and continues, "I know you're a good man" . . ."You're not a bit common!"
"'Nome, I ain't a good man'" he replies. Two pistol shots come from the
woods. Between discussions of praying and the Misfit's confusion over why he was
ever put in the penitentiary in the first place, the wife and remaining children are taken
off by the two young men. Alone with the Misfit, now dressed in Bailey's hideous
yellow vacation shirt with big parrots all over it, the grandmother wants to tell him he
must pray, but all she can do is mutter "'Jesus, Jesus,' meaning Jesus will help you."
But the Misfit says he can't turn to Jesus because he was not there and he does not
know for himself that Jesus raised the dead. He wishes he had been there though,
for if he had he says, "'I would have known and I wouldn't be like I am now.'"
Thinking his voice is about to crack and the Misfit is about to cry, "the
grandmother's head cleared for an instant," the story tells us, and she "murmured,
'Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!' She reached out and
touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and
shot her three times through the chest." The grandmother falls dead, her face
"smiling up at the cloudless sky." "She would have been a good woman. . .if it had
been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life" the Misfit concludes.
This grim synopsis conveys none the humor of the story or it richly suggestive
imagery, but it does focus in on the very moment of grace in O'Connor's stories, that
moment at which, through great personal pain, one suddenly sees clearly, escapes the
fabricated reality of ego and self-will and sees things for what they truly are. As
O'Connor noted of the grandmother's death, "'violence is strangely capable of
returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of
grace'" (qtd. in Clark, 68).
The Misfit chooses evil over good because he was not there to witness Jesus
raising people from the dead; the grandmother claimed to have chosen good, but the
choice was hollow, superficial and selfish, for as the Misfit says, if Jesus did do what
is claimed of him then there is nothing to do "'but throw away everything and follow
him.'" Knowing her own failing, she suddenly knows the Misfit for one of her own.
Such awareness that places one so squarely in the context of flawed humanity is
essentially medieval, as is the rationale for evil which is so tragically the result of a
rejection of good--an Augustinian turning from the Good. The grandmother's face
smiling up at the cloudless sky, however, reminds us, like so many medieval
manuscript illustrations or death scenes in medieval drama, even a last minute turning
may result through Christ's mercy and grace in salvation.
From Original Sin to Grace to Redemption, let me turn to "Parker's Back." At
fourteen O. E. Park saw a tattooed man at a circus; for him it was a vision of
kalidescopic beauty--a moment of rapture--that he would try for the next fourteen
years to relive by having his own body almost completely covered in designs. But he
could never recapture that original emotion, either in his tatoos or in his marriage to
the religiously hard and cold Sarah Ruth who thought even churches were idolations
and who shared no love for his tattoos but lots of speculation about what Jesus was
going to say to him at the judgment seat of God for having all those pictures drawn
all over him. They were she insisted, "vanity of vanities." Parker is a man
desperately searching to recapture one brief moment of rapture and finding it no
where. Claiming to be no religious man himself, but looking for the one tattoo he was
sure the Bible reading Sarah Ruth could not reject, Parker decided to have Jesus
tattooed on his back.
Going through the pattern book at the tattoo parlor, Parker rejected The Good
Shepherd, Forbid them Not, The Smiling Jesus, and Jesus the Physician's Friend in
compelling favor of "the haloed head of a flat Byzantine Christ with all-demanding
eyes." It took three days to complete the face on Parker's back. When he finally
stood positioned between two mirrors to view the finished tattoo, he "turned white,
and moved away. The eyes in the reflected face continued to look at him--still,
straight, all-demanding, enclosed in silence."
Before going home Parker stops in a local pool hall where the men jokingly
demand to see his newest tattoo and forcibly lift his shirt only to let it fall "again like
a veil over the face" in a profound silence. To break the tense silence of their sudden
embarrassment literally in the face of this Christ, they rib Parker about getting religion
until they provoke him into starting a fight then throw him out of the pool hall for his
trouble making. With his expulsion, the story tells us, "a calm descended on the pool
hall as nerve shattering as if the long barnlike room were the ship from which Jonah
had been cast into the sea." Sitting in the alley, "examining his soul," Parker "saw
it as a spider web of facts and lies that was not at all important to him but which
appeared to be necessary in spite of his opinion." There was nothing now to do but
to return home.
Angered by his three-day absence, Sarah Ruth will not let him in the house until
he says who was there rattling the door knob. She won't accept the name O. E.; she
wants his given name:
"Obadiah," he whispered and all at once he felt the light pouring through him,
turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors, a garden of trees
and birds and beasts.
"Obadiah Elihue!" he whispered.
Once in, Parker removed his shirt and turned his back to his wife. Instead of the
wonder and appreciation he sought, he was greeted with shouts of "Idolatry!" and
beaten with a broom across his shoulders until "large welts had formed on the face
of the tattooed Christ." Her eyes hardening even more, Sarah Ruth exiles him to the
pecan tree in the yard. The story concludes, "There he was--who called himself
Obadiah Elihue--leaning against the tree, crying like a baby."
As several critics have noted, Parker--like Jonah--"is in a flight from The Holy"
(Jorgenson 401). In spite of himself though, he brings the image of God into the pool
hall and becomes its herald to Sarah Ruth:
"Don't you know who it is?" Parker demands of his wife, as he forces her to
look at the tatoo.
"It's him," Parker said.
The Christ on his back beaten and bruised, leaning on the tree, and crying like a baby,
Parker finally ironically "faces" the god he has been fleeing. Parker accepts the
suffering joy that comes with this Christ (see Burns). No longer ashamed of his Old
Testament name, he is for the first time since his childhood Obadiah Elihue again. He
is himself again--he's back--Parker's back. The Jesus whose image he carried is much
more the Christ of medieval passion and of devotional lyric than of Good Shephard or
the smiling Jesus of southern Sunday School.
The scholarship documenting Flannery O'Connor's reading of medieval authors,
elucidating the scriptural implications of her character and place names, attesting to
the overall medieval tone/mood of her fiction exists in rich abundance.
If we can so enrich an understanding of O'Connor with medieval texts and
contexts, why not use our students' receptivity to her fiction to help us enrich their
understanding of a medieval mentality. Why not team-teach with Flannery O'Connor?
Andreas, James. "'If It's a Symbol, the Hell with It': The Medieval Gothic Style of
Flannery O'Connor in 'Everything That Rises Must Converge.'" Christianity and
Literature 38.2 (1989): 23-41.
Burns, Dan. "Flannery O'Conner's 'Parker's Back': The Key to the End." Notes on
Contemporary Literature 17 (1987): 11-12.
Clark, Michael. "Flannery O'Connor's 'A Good Man is Hard to Find': The Moment of
Grace." English Language Notes 29.2 (1991): 66-69.
Dowell, Bob. "The Moment of Grace in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor." College
English 27 (1965): 235-39.
Jorgenson, Eric. "A Note on the Jonah Motif in 'Parker's Back.'" Studies in Short
Fiction 21.4 (1984): 400-02.
Pepin, Ronald E. "Latin Names and Images of Ugliness in Flannery O'Connor's
'Revelation.'" ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews
6.1 (1993): 25-27.