The Refiner’s Fire: Fiction

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Violent Shakings Of Grace

Flannery O’Connor wrote stories and raised peacocks, and there are similarities between her endeavors. ‘The cock opens his tail by shaking himself violently,” she wrote in a magazine article about her avocation:

Then you will see in a green-bronze arch around him a galaxy of gazing, haloed suns.…

Many people, I have found, are congenitally unable to appreciate the sight of a peacock. Once or twice I have been asked what the peacock is “good for”—a question which gets no answer from me because it deserves none [reprinted in Mystery and Manners, edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969, p. 10; all succeeding non-fiction quotations are from this volume].

She tells of a telephone repairman’s response to the sight:

The bird turned slightly to the right and the little planets above him hung in bronze, then he turned slightly to the left and they were hung in green.…

“Well, what did you think of that?” I asked.

“Never saw such long ugly legs,” the man said. “I bet that rascal could outrun a bus” [pp. 11, 12].

There are, to be sure, as many violent shakings and ugly legs in Miss O’Connor’s stories as among her peacocks, and many readers have wondered what the stories are “good for.” The author once told of a letter she’d received from a student:

[She] said she would be “graciously appreciative” if I would tell her “just what enlightenment” I expected her to get from each of my stories. I suspect she had a paper to write. I wrote her back to forget about the enlightenment and just try to enjoy them. I knew that was the most unsatisfactory answer I could have given because, of course, she didn’t want to enjoy them, she just wanted to figure them out [p. 107].

The fact is, the stories are ...

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