Off the Shelf: Review of The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor


Recently I’ve been spending a lot of my time reading the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. Here is link to a free online version of her complete short stories if you would like to sample some of her writings.

A couple of my favorites so far include: “The Lame Shall Enter First” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Here is a brief summary and a few of my thoughts on her story, “Why do the Heathen Rage?”

“Why do the Heathen Rage?” is the story of southern family with names like Mary Maud, Tilman, Walter and a servant named Roosevelt. I’m no expert on the writings of Flannery O’Connor, but this story seems to be all about the pain of powerlessness. Tilman, the family patriarch, has just returned home by ambulance from the state hospital where he has been convalescing from a debilitating stroke. Consider how O’Connor describes the impact of powerlessness on the family patriarch and the pressure his impotence will place upon his son Walter. 

Only his left eye, twisted inward, seemed to harbor his former personality. It burned with rage. The rest of his face was prepared for death. Justice was grim and she took satisfaction in it when she found it. It might take just this ruin to wake Walter up

The last sentence, “It might just take this ruin to wake Walter up” is a foreshadowing of the rest of the story. Tilman’s wife whose name we are not given has a real problem on her hands. Who is going to manage the farm now that Tilman has been crippled by his stroke? The obvious answer to that problem would be their son Walter, but clearly Walter is as impotent as his now dying father. Towards the middle of the story Walter’s mom pleads with him to take up the reins of responsibility and manage the family farm for her … Listen to Walter response below … after his mom offers to coach him through job saying, “I’ll tell you everything to do“

Walter responds with a smirk … He’s lived under the thumb of her controlling manipulation all his life and so responds saying … 

“That you would.” He looked at her and his half smile returned. “Lady,” he said, “you’re coming into your own. You were born to take over. If the old man had had his stroke ten years ago, we’d all be better off. You could have run a wagon train through the Bad Lands. You could stop a mob. You’re the last of the nineteenth century, you’re.…” “Walter,” she said, “you’re a man. I’m only a woman.” “A woman of your generation,” Walter said, “is better than a man of mine.” Her mouth drew into a tight line of outrage and her head trembled almost imperceptibly. “I would be ashamed to say it!” she whispered. 

Walter’s mom is clearly a controlling woman surrounded by powerless men and her rage is as real as her the rage revealed in her husband Tilman’s left eye. Walter is unfazed by his mother’s manipulation and contempt of him, and he responds to her attempt at shaming him in this way:

Walter dropped into the chair he had been sitting in and opened his book. A sluggish-looking flush settled on his face. “The only virtue of my generation,” he said, “is that it ain’t ashamed to tell the truth about itself.”

And so the story “Why do the Heathen Rage” invites the reader to explore their own sense of powerlessness … their own anger in the face of impotence and therein lies the power of O’Connor’s writings. She understands that all evil is not bad and that through our willingness to face our own brokenness we come face to face with the dark and disruptive grace of God.

I invite you to read one of her stories.