Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Flannery O'Connor's Empowered Women

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Flannery O'Connor's Empowered Women

Article excerpt

In a Jungian analysis of three key works of short fiction by Flannery O'Connor, "A Circle in the Fire," "The Displaced Person," and "Greenleaf," Mary L. Morton claims that these stories "dramatize the ludicrosity of women who have denied the spirit of femininity, the anima" and that the sympathy that O'Connor generates for the protagonists of these stories is a "trick on some readers" (57). In fact, these characters, as well as other O'Connor characters in similar positions, do not really deny their femininity, they exploit it, sometimes to the point that they seem to be parodying it. And they should arouse in most readers not only sympathy but also a grudging respect. Unlikable as these women may appear, all deserve credit for employing a clever strategy in attempting to survive in a man's world while essentially manless, and all deserve sympathy because they are faced with an impossible task in having to synthesize aspects of both gender roles in order to maintain their livelihoods.

While these "managerial types," as Morton terms them (58), or "assertive widows," as Suzanne Morrow Paulson refers to them (39), are all overly demanding of their hired hands, all are justified in their aggressiveness by their common economic situation. As Louise Westling has observed, O'Connor's South of the fifties is nearly as hostile to the plight of widows managing farms as the South of the immediate post-Civil War period had been, when "widows who attempted to manage their own affairs were regarded as arrogant" (146). While these women may have "consciously adopted a masculine ethic" (Morton 58), thereby denying an essential part of their own femininity, there is really little choice involved; O'Connor's empowered women all sincerely believe that typically masculine, aggressive behavior is the only way to overcome the misogyny inherent in the lower class male workers they must control in order to keep their farms operating. Each woman is forced by necessity to channel whatever nurturing instinct she has into assuring the survival of her "place," a significant term used by each.

In fact, the women from the above stories display a rather admirable adeptness at manipulating the myth of the "Southern lady" to help them survive in a patriarchal society. These women firmly maintain that, as "ladies" in the traditional Southern sense of the term, they are entitled to the respect, protection and labor of those around them, particularly those of a lower caste. They lay claim to all of the privileges due a "Southern lady" while also having assumed all of the economic power of an absent male. This proves to be an effective combination for a time, allowing this character to feel that she can--and must--be as "iron-handed" as any male property owner while still feeling perfectly entitled to sympathy for having to debase herself by running things. Her stature as a "lady" entitles her to complain about being abused and disrespected by her subordinates because she is "only a woman," yet this complaint serves as a weapon to encourage others to be far more tolerant than they would otherwise be toward a male superior.

The basic situation in these stories is the same: all of these characters are, presumably, widows who have inherited farms--but little money--from their departed husbands and are left to manage on their own, quite in conflict with what their upbringings have told them is the proper place for a "lady." The economic support traditionally provided by the husband is gone, and all three of these women are left to fill the power vacuum; they are forced to take on the completely unladylike position of manager/employer. It is a role that each woman is actually quite adept at, and each is able to keep her "place" running well for a time, despite uncooperative employees. The farms that these women inherit provide unique venues for them, since these farms constitute a confluence of the private, domestic sphere in which female empowerment is unquestioned, with the public, economic sphere in which Southern ladies traditionally have had no role. …

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