Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

The Saving Rape: Flannery O'Connor and Patriarchal Religion

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

The Saving Rape: Flannery O'Connor and Patriarchal Religion

Article excerpt

"Batter my heart, three-personed God" - so begins Donne's Holy Sonnet 14, the best-known literary text in English that figures spiritual redemption as a purifying sexual assault:

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthral me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Nothing in O'Connor quite so flagrantly bears out the feminist theologian Mary Daly's assertion that "[t]he myths and symbols of Christianity are essentially sexist" - which is to say "rapist."(1) Certainly none of O'Connor's women - neither Mrs. May nor Mrs. Turpin nor Joy/Hulga Hopewell - invites assault. Still, it is the author's strategy in "Greenleaf," "Revelation," and "Good Country People" to knock these proud female characters down a notch - for Mrs. May that notch is death itself - by forcing upon them, in a sexually humiliating and often violent way, the humbling knowledge that they are after all women. It is not simply that they are merely human while God is divine; it is rather that they are female while God is male. O'Connor's insistence that these women surrender their pride, which has been masculine in its figuration, to Christ and that the dramatization of this abasement take the form of sexual submission bears also on their relationships with the men in their lives. As Daly scornfully puts it, "Since |God' is male, the male is God" (p. 609). 1 wish to examine in the light of these observations the fates of those three women. But let us first consider, for the sake of contrast, the case of Asbury Fox, the effeminate mama's boy in "The Enduring Chill," whose rescue by the "Third Person of the Trinity" destines him to become a man.(2)

At the end of this story a male character lies sprawled on his bed, "[t]he old life in him . . . exhausted," as a phallic Holy Ghost (represented by a birdlike water stain on the ceiling, a "fierce bird with [an] icicle in its beak" [p. 374]) descends on him. This tableau anticipates our last glimpse in "Good Country People" of Hulga, who has herself "lost her life" during a seduction in a barn loft. However, it is not the man's sexual vulnerability that O'Connor exploits in "The Enduring Chill"; for it is as a female that this prepubescent "boy of twenty-five" (p. 357) is violated by Dr. Block: "Asbury lay with a rigid outraged stare" - that "outraged" hints of rape - "while the privacy of his blood was invaded by this idiot" (p. 367).(3) Later, when we hear of the picture in Asbury's room of "a maiden chained to a rock," which he has his mother remove before the priest's visit, we realize that Asbury, confined by undulant fever to his bed, is playing Andromeda to the Holy Ghost's Perseus (p. 374). Flat on his back in bed, Asbury plays Andromeda, "punished," as Horace Gregory's Ovid explains, "Because the poor girl had a foolish mother / Who talked too much."(4)

On the first page of the story O'Connor establishes a contrast between "a god [Asbury] didn't know" (p. 357) and his oversolicitous mother whom he accuses, in a letter we learn about later, of having clipped his wings - of having rendered him impotent (p. 364). From his response to her suggestion that he remove his coat - "I'm old enough to know when I want to take my coat off!" (p. 358) - it is clear that Asbury resents his mother's treating him like a little boy. The question posed by the story at the outset is whether or not he is justified in feeling that she has pinioned him. This question goes hand in glove with the contrast - the conflict even - between the mother and the god he doesn't know. In other words, an affirmative answer - yes, Mrs. Fox has not let her son grow up - implies also that she has neglected to introduce him to that God: she has failed to place him within that "mythic symbolic procession toward |God,'" in Daly's caustic description, which "begins with belief in possession by evil forces . . ., release from which requires captivity by the church. …

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