Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

"Erasing Angel": The Lucifer-Trickster Figure in Flannery O'Connor's Short Fiction

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

"Erasing Angel": The Lucifer-Trickster Figure in Flannery O'Connor's Short Fiction

Article excerpt

"A dimension taken away is one thing; a dimension added is another."

--Flannery O'Connor, "The Fiction Writer and His Country"

"The origins, liveliness, and durability of cultures," writes cultural historian Lewis Hyde, "require that there be space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that culture is based on" (9). In his excellent study Trikster Makes This World (1998), Hyde joins a long and distinguished line of critics examining the archetypal trickster-figure in world mythologies: a figure of mischievous disruption characterized by rule-breaking, lies, theft, shape-shifting, and wordplay; a citizen of contingencies and thresholds who, while subverting and denigrating existing orders, paradoxically thereby allows for a creative reanimation and restoration of social and metaphysical order. The fraternity of trickster-figures is a familiar one in folklore and myth: Hermes in Greek antiquity, the Chinese Monkey King, the Norse prankster Loki and East Africa's spider-god Anansi (transformed in American Gulla dialect to the folkloric "Aunt Nancy"), the Native American figures of Coyote and Raven, the Yoruba Eshu and the Maori trickster Maui, to mention just a few. From Puck to Prometheus, the pervasiveness of this image in human narrative suggests its centrality as an emblem for redemptive chaos and transformative disorder.

Although Flannery O'Connor's short fiction has long been anchored in the genre of Christian allegory, I believe that viewing her works through the lens of this archetype can expand received readings of her fiction. It may offer new insights as well into O'Connor's unique blend of comedy and corruption that characterizes her rendition of evil in the world. Specifically, her caricatures of Lucifer in four of her more allegorical stories of the 1950s--Tom Shiftlet in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," Manley Pointer in "Good Country People," The Misfit in "A Good Man is Hard to Find," and Powell Boyd in "A Circle in the Fire"-- share much with the folkloric figure of Trickster, not merely in their individual aspects as agents of chaos, but in the paradoxically redemptive function they perform.

Such folkloric and mythic elements in O'Connor have so far received scant critical attention. Of various genre studies, only one extended work --Ruthann Knechel Johansen's The Narrative Secret of Flannery O'Connor: The Trickster as Interpreter (1994)--takes up at any length the figure of the trickster in O'Connor. However, I believe Johansen's depiction of this archetypal figure manages to be on the one hand too broad, and on the other too benign. In the context of a narratological analysis of O'Connor's prose, Johansen associates tricksters with "interpreters": Hebraic prophets, mediators, inspired "newsbearers," and facilitators who are "always on the side of human beings" (31)--and ultimately she sees trickster as an emblem of the narrative act itself, a psychic embodiment of "the ironic imagination." While hermeneutically interesting, this more benevolent expansion of the archetype downplays much of the disruptive, purposeless, and chaotic nature of both the mythic trickster and O'Connor's use of him.

Far from being a "Christlike" seducer or helpful reconciler of conflicts (31), Trickster classically functions far more dynamically as the principle of disorder, a catalyst for subversion and loss. He is the "border breaker," the outlaw, the anomaly; deceiver and trick player, shape-shifter and situation-inverter; sacred messenger and "lewd bricoleur"(1)--one who, according to Joseph Campbell, "doesn't respect the values that you've set up for yourself, and smashes them" (qtd in Hynes and Doty 1). While Johansen does capture the essential ambiguity of this figure and acknowledges his "havoc-wreaking" as a ritual of renewal, in many ways her reading, when applied to O'Connor's fiction, becomes overly inclusive of all ironic or indeterminate figures. …

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