Revolting Fictions: Flannery O'Connor's Letter to Her Mother

Article excerpt

In the middle of one of Flannery O'Connor's short stories, a character speaks of a letter which filled two notebooks left to his mother when he came home expecting to die. It was such a letter, Asbury Fox says in "The Enduring Chill," as Kafka had addressed to his father, meant to leave the parents with a painful realization of what they were. The allusion is revealing, for while most (if they have addressed the issue at all) have considered O'Connor's relationship with her mother to be loving, if difficult at times, O'Connor's later short stories strongly suggest a mother/daughter relationship which was much more troubling, crippling, and complex than conventionally assumed and which had significant bearing on O'Connor's writing.

Kafka's forty-five page "lawyer's letter" to his father, written five years before the son's death when he knew he was seriously ill, indicted the elder Kafka for the literary failures and aborted attempts at marriage which made the son feel at the age of thirty-six that he was still a child. Kafka's efforts to distinguish himself in the world, he says, were considered by his father to be acts of ingratitude, extravagance, disobedience, treachery, and madness. He felt constantly belittled by his father's judgments and reproaches and saw himself as disgusting vermin to his father's imposing bulk. He wrote, for instance, of a time when he was changing in a bathing hut, feeling skinny, weakly and slight in comparison to his father's vigor, height, and broadness, a "miserable specimen" not just in the eyes of his father but in the eyes of the whole world, for Hermann Kafka was for Franz the measure of all things. Indeed, as he wrote in his letter: "Sometimes I imagine the map of the world spread out and you stretched diagonally across it. And I feel as if I could consider living in only those regions that either are not covered by you or are not within your reach" (Kafka 115). Equally imposing were his father's unbounded confidence and tyrannical intolerance of difference: "From your armchair you ruled the world. Your opinion was correct, every other was mad, wild, meshugge, not normal. Your self-confidence indeed was so great that you had no need to be consistent at all and yet never ceased to be in the right" (21). At a very early age, Kafka insists, he felt threatened by his father's injunction not to contradict him, and the result, he insists, was that he lost the capacity to speak--except, that is, through fiction.

Living at the age of twenty-nine in his parents' house, feeling constantly invaded in a room he called a "connecting street" between the parlor and other bedrooms, Franz felt that his writing was the only place where he had a chance to breathe freely. In a puny effort to battle his father's immense authority, Kafka tried to locate his father's faults. "In order to assert myself even a little in relation to you," Kafka stated in his letter, "and partly too from a kind of vengefulness, I soon began to observe little ridiculous things about you, to collect them and to exaggerate them" (43). Also in defiance of his father, he tried to flee anything that even remotely reminded him of his parent: he left his father's business, he was overly conciliatory with the clerks his father denigrated or abused, he took greater interest in Judaism because his father observed only occasionally and with indifference, he attempted to marry though the prospect terrified him, and he wrote stories, an occupation disparaged by his father.

Yet, as Franz admitted, such impotent retaliations were part and parcel of the actual awe and respect he felt for his father and all attempts to break away from him ultimately resulted in the son's return to the father's orbit of influence. The focus of his thoughts, Kafka confesses, was the "terrible trial" between his father and himself, a trial in which his father, the son insists, constantly claims to be the judge, whereas Franz sees him as a party too, just as weak and deluded as the son. …