Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

The Inside-Out World in Frank O'Connor's Stories

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

The Inside-Out World in Frank O'Connor's Stories

Article excerpt

Patrick Kavanagh comments brilliantly - at least in one sense - on the elusiveness of Frank O'Connor's writing. "He seems to me," writes Kavanagh, "to fall between two stools. He is neither on the safe earth nor among the stars. What makes his work deceptive is the fact that he is very nearly on the earth. He is - as it were - about one inch from the grass" (14-15). A better description of the in-between, limbo-like horror that creeps into O'Connor's stories is hard to find. What Kavanagh does not grant, however, is the power this narrative consciousness can wield. Instead, Kavanagh deems it strictly a defect:

As I pursue him I am continually losing the trail. Has he a direction? His feet are too seldom on the earth for me to follow. Is he merely a high-flying entertainer? Does his work hold the mirror up to life? Does he mean anything? (13)

At the end of his piece, Kavanagh delivers the coup de grace, predicting that "the dusty contents" of O'Connor's stories will one day "be blown by the wind" (21).

Now it is important to note that Kavanagh is writing in 1946, before the publication of The Lonely Voice (1962), in which O'Connor discusses precisely the characteristics Kavanagh mentions - not as defects, but as the bulwarks of short-story writing. The creation of this outside work of criticism does not alter the fact that, for at least one reader, O'Connor's stories did not stand on their own, but the work does allow us a glimpse of how the apparent failure to find either solid footing on the earth or a place among the stars may not be failure after all. The combination Kavanagh saw as suspect - eloquent narrative and common subject matter, or a "powerful engine drawing a light load" (Kavanagh 21) - is styled in The Lonely Voice as an essential fusion of the short story: "Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society, superimposed sometimes on symbolic figures whom they caricature and echo - Christ, Socrates, Moses" (O'Connor, Lonely Voice 19). What is apparent in this characterization is that fusion of the tiny and the grand is essential, for O'Connor, in the short story. What he calls the "little man" (16) is frequently surrounded - even if mockingly surrounded - by mythic themes.

What Kavanagh deems paltry subject matter, then, actually nourishes rather than undermines many of O'Connor's tales. O'Connor uses smallness to accent the collision between the tiny world of the self and the vast expanse of the world outside. He shows, furthermore, not only the collision between the worlds but the subtle complicity between them, as characters apparently looking outward are actually looking inward. Consequently "aloneness" in O'Connor is a slippery term, a word that can indicate connection as well as - and even at the same time as - separation. When characters find togetherness in O'Connor they often do it through the mutual explorations of their own psyches, plunging into their own lonelinesses that turn up common desires, common terrain.

Deborah Averill notices the intimate ways in which O'Connor's characters weave themselves into each other's lives when she says they "continuously touch each other, lie in bed discussing their problems or fall in love" (29). Even more central for this essay is her assertion that O'Connor's "perceptions of emptiness lead him to seek an intensification of life" (29). My approach differs from Averill's in that while she emphasizes the "animal vitality" displayed by lonely characters grown acutely sensitive to their desires, I want to stress the psychological journey into self that makes isolation and communion simultaneous, even when there is no physical contact. I consequently disagree with Gerry Brenner's comment that "In none of his characters' situations does O'Connor discover mythic or symbolically monumental significance" (468). I think he does. I think the journey into self, in O'Connor, is a mythic journey that uncovers shared, fundamental human elements - and hence in itself constitutes a kind of at-one-ness with others (as in "The Story Teller") as well as a prelude to direct communion (as in "There Is a Lone House"). …

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