Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

Seeing Potential in the Heathen: Flannery O'Connor's Unfinished Novel

Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

Seeing Potential in the Heathen: Flannery O'Connor's Unfinished Novel

Article excerpt

In an early article on Flannery O'Connor's unfinished manuscripts for "Why Do the Heathen Rage?" Marian Burns proffers four possible reasons for O'Connor's difficulty with what would be her final effort at a novel, the two thorniest of which seem to Burns to be the following: first, the character she was creating in Walter was a protagonist very unlike her previous types; less abrasive, more contemplative, and leaning decidedly towards Catholic sensibilities, Walter was a radical departure from O'Connor's usual acerbic, defiant figures, and he posed a challenge in character development. Second, Burns argues that the plot structure O'Connor was developing was also antithetical to her usual dramatic, crisis-driven stories, which work towards a usually violent climax and end abruptly after a moment of grace is offered. Burns' point is well-taken; only in "Revelation" does O'Connor diverge slightly from this pattern, allowing Ruby Turpin some maturation from the first offering of grace via a second spiritual vision. Walter, by contrast, has a significant spiritual revelation quite early in the plot line, which would necessitate O'Connor's writing a story centering on the effects of that illumination and Walter's subsequent growth of faith. This sticking point no doubt became stickier when O'Connor began toying with the idea of using her published story "The Enduring Chill" as the first chapter of this novel, for that text ends with a decisive moment of grace which O'Connor would either need to work well beyond or evade in order to have it-or another crisis-appear much later in the novel.

In one re-working of her "Heathen" manuscript, O'Connor makes a feeble effort at the latter, revising the ending of "The Enduring Chill" to have Asbury flee from his sickbed and from the priest and Dr. Block "as if from a gathering of devils" (Folder 234).1 Another scene, repeated nowhere else in the manuscripts, seems to be an effort by O'Connor to segue from the "opening chapter" of "The Enduring Chill" into the novel proper; this scene opens with "By the end of the summer Asbury's health had been restored sufficiently to permit him to wander idly about the place on horseback" (Folder 194a). It is not clear whether O'Connor intended to retain Asbury's conversion experience as preliminary to this scene.

In a follow up to Burns, Virginia Wray's seminal article, "Flannery O'Connor's 'Why Do the Heathen Rage?' and the Quotidian 'Larger Things,"' suggests two additional difficulties O'Connor may have faced in drafting the novel-the first of which Wray develops at length: that her correspondence with Maryat Lee on issues of racial relations and civil rights issues were causing her to be less certain of her own positions on race issues and her consequent depiction of them in "Heathen" through Walter and Oona's acerbic exchange of letters on the topic. The second difficulty Wray mentions but does not elaborate on is the possibility that O'Connor was attempting her first fictional depiction of a mature love relationship.

Both Burns' and Wray's explanations for O'Connor's slow progress on the novel are legitimate and convincing. My purpose is not to refute or to expand upon their logics, but to offer a reading of the unfinished "Heathen" manuscripts that suggests a confluence of these four attributes of the unfinished novel. For, as incomplete as the manuscripts are, sufficient evidence exists to argue that O'Connor intended, for the first time, to center a narrative on post-conversion growth and its implications for relationships, both personal and racial. This is begun through the characters of Walter and Oona, who, not surprisingly, represent clashing philosophies, opposite sides of a Manichean split. Walter eschews the corporeal and, in spite of himself, has a predisposition towards the spiritual. Oona, conversely, rejects the spiritual and places all her value in physicality and human action. The manuscripts also offer evidence that O'Connor intended the deepening relationship between Walter and Oona to be mutually conducive to their spiritual growth, enabling both to move towards each other and away from their oppositions, resulting in a balanced incarnational model that would not only characterize their romantic relationship but that also would posit a workable theology of race relations as well. …

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