The Promise of Flawed Characters

The author Paul Lisicky describes how Flannery O’Connor pulls her subjects apart to make them stronger.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Flannery O’Connor’s short stories are famously harrowing. But Paul Lisicky, the author of The Narrow Door, says they’re much more than little, mean-spirited torment chambers (and not just because she’s funny). In his essay for this series, he looks closely at “Revelation,” in which a narrow-minded woman responds to public humiliation with surprising generosity. In this, Lisicky sees O’Connor’s vision emerge: The author subjects her characters to humiliation, betrayal, and violence to move them beyond their limitations, giving them the chance to emerge better from the wreckage of what they once were.

The Narrow Door is Lisicky’s ode to two loved ones who left him, for very different reasons: About a year after a best friend lost her fight against cancer, his then-husband fell in love with someone else. Lisicky admits that as a memoirist, the temptation is to “turn darkness into light”; especially when writing about death, we tend to burnish painful memories until they shine, trying to offer something redemptive from the ashes. As in O’Connor’s writing, pain here offers an opportunity—it’s a chance to avoid the easy outs of sentimentality and false comfort, and to speak honestly about two difficult kinds of love, two complicated forms of hurt.

Paul Lisicky is also the author of the memoir Famous Builder and the novels Lawnboy and The Burning House. He teaches graduate writing at the University of Rutgers-Camden.

Paul Lisicky: I didn’t have to train myself to love Flannery O’Connor back when I first encountered her work in a creative-writing workshop. She wasn’t an acquired taste, such as Jane Bowles or Virginia Woolf, writers whom I came to love after several tries. Instantly I got O’Connor’s irreverence, her vitality, her play, her infatuation with human absurdity: snobbery, complacency—all of it. She was a writer who sounded like she was having fun. Bleak fun, to be sure. I could just picture her cracking herself up in front of the typewriter.

And yet the fun never felt easy or slight. I sensed that the work was written by a pretty grave person, someone who didn’t take human foibles lightly. She believed that actions mattered, had consequence. The fun here was never for the sake of an easy laugh. The fun was poised over an abyss, or under a thunderhead—it was hard to know for sure.

The first story I read of hers was “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” in which a family confronts a serial killer on a road trip to Florida. As a young writer I was riveted by its division into two halves: the first broadly comic, the second outright devastating, as each member of the family is shot, one by one by one. In workshops I’d been taught to value control and consistency. So much of what was praised in class seemed to be in sync with some imaginary command to strictness, as if characters weren’t allowed to be messy, chaotic creatures on the page. Weren’t we just reinforcing the social order with all these rules? Why weren’t we questioning them? But O’Connor’s story violated all that. It unleashed some anarchy—part God, part Devil—and made a new kind of story. Sure, it had the look of a linear story but it also managed to demolish such a story. Her example gave me permission to be bolder on the page, though it would take me years to make use of that permission.

I loved “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” for its ability to shake me into my bones—try reading the whole thing aloud sometime and you’ll hear exactly what I mean. But the story that really got to me was “Revelation.” Its effect might not be as dramatic as “A Good Man”—after all, no one is murdered—but a different kind of violence takes place. Here, a 47-year-old woman is humiliated by a young, college-educated woman in front of strangers.

The bulk of the story transpires in a doctor’s waiting room, in which the central character, Ruby Turpin, accompanies her laconic husband, Claude, to his doctor’s appointment. She’s one of those people who’s uncomfortable with silence, terrified of self-examination, though she doesn’t yet know that about herself. She talks and talks and talks and talks and talks. She needs to be the center of attention and makes sure that happens by addressing everyone in the room, enfolding them into her little monarchy. But she isn’t exactly interested in making connections with others. The scene is about all about her desire to perform a certain version of herself: respectable, quick to laugh, grateful, blessed by Jesus for her “good disposition.” The small space contains a cross-section of 1960s small-town Georgia society: a “leathery, old woman,” in a cotton print dress; a mother with “snuff-stained lips” and her little boy; a “stylish, pleasant” lady; and her scowling daughter, Mary Grace, head buried in a textbook titled Human Development.

Most of the people in the waiting room are unfazed by the racist, cringeworthy things coming out of Ruby’s mouth. Maybe they’ve all heard it before; it’s been in the air and Ruby is simply playing her part. But it’s different for Mary Grace. She’s been away to college and now she’s stuck at home, trapped in what she now realizes is a brutal and provincial backwater. Ruby certainly represents everything she loathes about the place and fears for herself. Will Mary Grace become Ruby one day? Well, maybe home is powerful enough to do that do a person.

Maybe it’s the raw fear of that that prompts her to throw that heavy textbook at Ruby’s forehead.

The doctor is called in. Mary Grace is on the floor; a syringe slides into her arm. The room goes quiet, while Ruby sits frozen in her chair.

There was no doubt in her mind that the girl did know her, know her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition. “What you got to say to me?” she asked hoarsely and held her breath, waiting, as for a revelation.

The girl raised her head. Her gaze locked with Mrs. Turpin’s. “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” she whispered. Her voice was low but clear. Her eyes burned for a moment as if she saw with pleasure that her message had struck its target.

For many readers, the story pivots on one single line of dialogue. In the long, steady aftermath of this eruption, Ruby looks out from high spot over her pasture, her cotton field, the “dark green dusty wood” beyond. “Who do you think you are?” she yells to a silent, indifferent God. An outrageous question, especially coming from the mouth of a self-professed Christian. The audacity of it would be hilarious if Ruby weren’t in the deepest turmoil, which she seems to have experienced bodily, all the way down into her flesh. Words have sliced through her, and everything she’s ever understood about herself has been carved up, within full sight of spectators.

But the description I keep coming back to takes place several paragraphs later than that. It’s funny that you can live with a story for years and not take in an image so central to its vision. It reverberates with the authority of a painting and practically has a life of its own, outside the narrative. It could be a little story all by itself, standing up on its own hind legs.

Then like a monumental statue coming to life, she bent her head slowly and gazed, as if through the very heart of mystery, down into the pig parlor at the hogs. They had settled all in one corner around the old sow who was grunting softly. A red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant with a secret life.

Up until this point, pigs stand as a metaphor to Ruby. Though she defends her hogs to the snuff-stained woman (“our hogs are not dirty and they don’t stink”), they’re still livestock. They’re still creatures who need to be hosed down.  So it’s no surprise that Ruby would be shocked to be called a warthog; the shaming of it hurts far more than the physical attack. We already know some details about Ruby’s appearance—her little black eyes, her “very large” presence, which made the already small waiting room “even smaller”—but this comparison ends up overriding everything we’ve imagined. We now picture her with stray hairs on her face, wide nostrils, little bumps.

And yet Ruby changes in this passage. Her perceptions become active, personal, dynamic. For a fleeting moment, the pigs aren’t simply a mirror for herself. She’s seeing the pigs, as, well, pigs. They’re beyond metaphor. They aren’t clouded by the expected perceptions of them. They don’t need to be hosed down. And aren’t they a little beautiful, these pigs, leaning into one another, musical, grunting softly? A mother beside her children, safe, tight, in a contained space. And that glow about them, not just any glow, but suffused with red.

It’s ironic that once Ruby sees the pigs as pigs, the pigs seem to move outside space and time. The story is quiet about this second transformation: to do anything more than that would be to break the spell. They’re at the center of the mystery. They’re creatures of another consciousness, beyond language, transcending our capacity to name and understand. They pant not just with life, but with secret life. And that word seems to mean everything here. Secrecy is something to treasure: inexhaustible, vast, and larger than ourselves.

This awful Ruby, whom we’ve been so quick to judge and make fun of, has confounded us again.

It’s so easy to simplify O’Connor, to see the stories as little punishment machines that intend to flatten the characters until they behave as they’re supposed to. Even sophisticated readers are prone to missing out on all the nuances in the work. The aim of these stories is certainly satirical, but that’s only part of the plan. Her characters always have the capacity to morph, not just once but many times, and that’s the lesson I take into myself: into my own writing, and into what I value about the work of other writers who matter to me. That people, no matter how inert they seem to be, contain the capacity to surprise us, to change.

Growth doesn’t happen without destruction—that one too. To miss out on that fact is to miss out on everything. Yes, O’Connor destroys some of her characters—subjects them to humiliation, degradation, violence. But maybe that’s because she understands human stubbornness, how we cling to our limitations until events of great force alter us. Maybe this attitude stems from her Christian vision—of a savior made holy through the horrors of crucifixion—or from the plight of her own tormented body, tortured by illness for much of her too-short life. In any case, O’Connor shatters her characters so they can see.

If Ruby Turpin stayed rooted in her horribleness, the story would be small and mean, a minor curiosity, not really worthy of our extended consideration. Instead we have something riskier and more volatile. O’Connor’s stories seem to start out small, realist, and regional, but it’s a fake-out: She knows that, ultimately, she’ll shake her characters to the core, and in the process challenge us. A narrative, when it’s really alive, will always disturb you when you’re there to seek comfort, and sing in two contrary voices when you just want to hear a single, pure melody. But it is impossible not to be lifted by such a strange and beautiful animal. Lifted and destroyed.