Wooden Minds


Flannery O’Connor’s portrayal of her “intellectual” characters illustrates the dangers of valuing the life of the mind over life in community.

Flannery O’Connor, fiction writer, essayist, and ardent Catholic, would only have turned 88 this March 25th Yet, in some ways, she seems to be from a completely different era. She lived through the Second World War and part of the Cold War, as well as the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement and the space program. Unmarried and crippled by lupus before she turned 30, she seldom traveled. When not writing, she raised hundreds of chickens and peacocks around her house in rural Georgia.

A razor-sharp wit, O’Connor once wrote to a friend, “I don’t deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it.” Her aphorisms, lectures, and letters crackle with humor and insight, but what she really has to say finds its fullest expression in her fi tion. Her collected work, which won a National Book Award and three O. Henry Awards, bears witness to her belief that, “You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.” Or as she wrote in defense of stories on another occasion, “Our response to life is different if we have been taught only a definition of faith than if we have trembled with Abraham as he held the knife over Isaac.” Without presuming you’ve read her sto- ries, and without giving anything away, I’d like to focus on one subject for which her fiction, in its derision, shows great concern: the intellectual life.

The intellectual is a recurring archetype in O’Connor’s fiction. More than seven of her protagonists think highly of themselves as scholars, artists, and writers; they are college- educated, they usually live with their mothers, and they are snobs. There’s Julian from “Everything That Rises Must Converge”, whose education has turned him into a loafer, and the ailing, histrionic Asbury from “The Enduring Chill.” The historian Thomas prides himself on being rational and logical but becomes increasingly unhinged in “The Comforts of Home.” While O’Connor was tough on all of her characters—leading some critics to call her aesthetics “grotesque”—the intellectuals seem to come out in a particularly bad light.

Arguably, the funniest and best-known of them all is Hulga Hopewell from “Good Country People.” With her unladylike manners, Ph.D. in philosophy, and wooden prosthetic leg, Hulga inspires both pity and perplexity in those around her:

To her own mother she had said— without warning, without excuse, standing up in the middle of a meal with her face purple and her mouth half full—“Woman! Do you ever look inside? Do you ever look inside and see what you are not? God!” she had cried, sinking down again and staring at her plate, “Malebranche was right: we are not our own light. We are not our own light!” Mrs. Hopewell had no idea to this day what brought that on. She had only made the remark, hoping [Hulga] would take it in, that a smile never hurt anyone.

The intellectuals get some of O’Connor’s best lines: “All day [Hulga] sat on her neck in a deep chair, read- ing. Sometimes she went for walks but she didn’t like dogs or cats or birds or flowers or nature or nice young men. She looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity.” They also come to startling, violent ends. But to conclude that O’Connor was simply anti-intellectual is a gross misreading. For one thing, in spite of—and given—her shortcomings, Hulga is the character Flannery O’Connor has called a heroine, and also the most like herself. Ralph C. Wood points out that as a child, O’Connor had little patience for slower classmates, and as an adult “often chafed at the pusillanimity of small-town existence,” which makes the comparison self-convicting, rather than egotistical.

It’s been suggested that her intellectual characters’ greatest sin is their pride, for which they are soundly, even cruelly punished. But above all, what I find most punishing to them is the isolation of the intellectual life. A clear example is Julian’s standoffishness, with O’Connor’s satire coming through the extremeness of the last sentence here:

Behind the newspaper Julian was withdrawing into the inner compartment of his mind where he spent most of his time. This was a kind of mental bubble in which he established himself when he could not bear to be a part of what was going on around him. From it he could see out and judge but in it he was safe from any kind of penetra- tion from without. It was the only place where he felt free of the gen- eral idiocy of his fellows. His mother had never entered it but from it he could see her with absolute clarity.

Another example occurs in “The Comforts of Home”, when Thomas, thoroughly fed up with the company around him, “by an effort of will managed to look as if he were alone in the room.” (Consider, tangentially, how David Foster Wallace warned the 2008 graduating class of Kenyon College against “going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”)

Another image O’Connor uses to capture the isolating intellectual life is that of willful blindness to others. For example, when exasperated with her mother, Hulga takes on “the look of someone who has achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it.” By contrast, non-intellectual characters have a kind of unknowing blindness that is different from disregard, such as what Sarah has in “The Comforts of Home”: “There was something about the look of [her face] that suggested blindness but it was the blindness of those who don’t know they cannot see.”

In both cases, the danger of the intellectual life is that it has the capacity to displace true regard for other people. Christians, who believe that all of life is meant to be fundamentally relational (man to neighbor, man to God, and even God to Himself within the Trinity), need also be wary of the intellectual life squeezing out God and the church. Tellingly, O’Connor’s intellectuals are all atheists and agnostics. Is she then proposing a dichotomy between being intellectual or Christian? Can you love the life of the mind and follow Christ as well?

O’Connor’s own life suggests so. She was extremely well-read, had a Master’s degree, and recommended aspiring writers take a kind of a liberal arts approach to their craft: “Any discipline can help your writing: logic, mathematics, theology, and of course and particularly drawing. Anything that helps you to see, anything that makes you look.” At the same time, she was singularly unsentimental about the travails of loving one’s neighbor. As she once wrote, “It seems to be fact that you suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.” Above all, her life and work testified to “the central Christian mystery—that [the world] has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.”

I read her intellectual characters’ lack of belief in God as the equivalent of Jesus’s warning against riches. Just as Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25), so O’Connor’s intellectuals suggest that anyone who finds herself wise in her own eyes—or smart, or well-educated—is ironically unlikely to have room in their life for Truth itself.

But that isn’t the end of the story. O’Connor’s atheist and agnostic intellec- tual characters have one thing in common with her more provincial protagonists, who range from wailing Baptists to Jonah-figures on the run from God: their lives permit the intrusion of grace. In her own words, “My subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil. From my own experience in trying to make stories ‘work,’ I have discovered that what is needed is an action that is totally unexpected, yet totally believable, and I have found that, for me, this is always an action which indicates that grace has been offered. And frequently it is an action in which the devil has been the unwilling instrument of grace.”

On another occasion, she added, “All human nature vigorously refuses grace because grace changes us and change is painful.” The dramatic action of her stories allows for the abstract concept of grace to manifest itself as actual physical pain, even at times fatally. Yet she once gave the rejoinder, “A lot of people get killed in my stories, but nobody gets hurt.” I won’t spoil the ending of “Good Country People” (which is an excellent O’Connor story to read first), but what finally happens to Hulga forces her to face up to imprisoning isolation by putting her in a place where she needs other people’s help. In a quintessentially O’Connor ending, she comes to disaster, but within it gains grace.

A final symbol worth dwelling on in Connor’s stories is wood—from Hulga’s wooden leg to the characters’ behavior (“Thomas rose woodenly”). Wood indicates things that are hollow, false, and lifeless on their own. By likening the intellectual life to dead wood, O’Connor alludes beautifully to the good source of all life, as Jesus described Himself in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in Me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing.”

Books and degrees turn out to have no more saving power than any other idols O’Connor’s characters desire in their pursuit of the good life, the same timeless roster we know today: sex, power, wealth, status. The bottom line is not that the intellectual is further from God than any other, but that even the intellectual can be saved. 

Inez Tan

Inez Tan is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers' Program. She also works with the Augustine Collective (http://www.augustinecollective.org), a student-led movement of Christian journals on college campuses.