Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

What Counts: Social Drama and Connectedness in Flannery O'Connor's "The River" and "Revelation"

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

What Counts: Social Drama and Connectedness in Flannery O'Connor's "The River" and "Revelation"

Article excerpt

This essay explores Flannery O'Connor's "The River" and "Revelation" from an interdisciplinary perspective. Concepts from the social sciences such as social dramas, ritual performance, and symbolic actions illuminate main moments of conflict and reconciliation between characters and their social milieu and aid understanding of the reading experience offered in O'Connor's stories.

Flannery O'Connor's life (1925-64) was short and relatively uneventful, its last thirteen years spent on a farm in Georgia. Her literary career lasted only twelve years, often interrupted when she was ill or hospitalized. Despite her relatively small body of work (two short novels, two dozen short stories, and essays and letters), academic and public response to it has been overwhelming. The MLA bibliography of 2014 lists 1,689 scholarly publications, a steady increase since 2009, when this number was 1,427. In 2009 O'Connor's Complete Stories was chosen by thousands of American readers as the best fiction book of all the National Book Award winners until that time.

The substantial area of O'Connor studies is unusual in comprising distinctly opposite strands of criticism. In an overview published in 2012, Irwin H. Streight outlines this long-standing dichotomy between what he terms O'Connor's co-religionists and the skeptics. The former group, which has produced the bulk of O'Connor studies, typically explores and finds in O'Connor's work a reflection of theological positions, and often chooses to be guided by the author's own statements about her work. The skeptics regard O'Connor's religious views as offensive and "undeserving of critical attention" and find her fictional world diabolical, manipulative, and "repugnant" (95). Others, too, have commented on these opposing critical groups. Jon Parrish Peede, who regards O'Connor as "an immutable voice through which a creator God powerfully spoke" (1), notes that the minority of O'Connor critics who oppose "existing scholarship" are a growing "subset" (3).

There is, however, a strong sense among critics today that O'Connor's work need not necessarily be approached from either one of these positions. Critics such as Carole K. Harris, Cynthia Seel, Jon Lance Bacon, John Duvall, and many others read O'Connor's fiction from a variety of critical perspectives that neither affirm nor resist O'Connor's religious views. This is also my stance in this essay, which takes an interdisciplinary perspective. Theories from anthropology and sociology provide the framework for my reading of central conflicts in "The River" and "Revelation," two of O'Connor's best-known stories, in which the protagonists' social environment is of central importance, informing their actions, their inner turmoil, and their final choices. Concepts taken from the social sciences such as social dramas, ritual performance, and symbolic actions illuminate the mechanisms underlying the interplay between O'Connor's characters and their communities, but also between the social and the mysterious in her work, bridging O'Connor's social realism and what she termed the "deeper kind of realism," the mysterious dimension that is part of her fictional world (qtd. in Streight 105). The essay's structure is patterned on anthropologist Victor Turner's (1920-1983) theory of social drama, which allows a detailed examination of the conflicts and the transformative experiences dramatized in "The River" and "Revelation."

Turner introduced the concept of social drama at the start of his career and elaborated it in much of his later work. Social drama, as defined by Turner, is "a public episode of tensional irruption" which is "a fact of everyone's experience in every human society" ("Social" 149) and which follows a sequential pattern that is universally observable, in "a large affair, like the Dreyfus affair or Watergate, or a struggle for village headmanship" (150). The concept is part of Turner's major contributions to social anthropology, theatre studies, and performance theory. …

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