In “A Circle in the Fire,” Flannery O’Connor initially relies on idle gossip to once again dwell into the pain of everyday existence. Here we have Mrs. Cope and Mrs. Pritchard, two women fighting to stay negative yet seemingly positive, interested, and some ways relevant as they tend to the yard. Mrs. Pritchard prattles on about visiting a wake in which she calmly relays the spectacle of seeing a woman interned with her deceased child, a child conceived and born while the mother was in an iron lung. At the same time, Mrs. Cope praises her very existence, taking on the familiar debonair haughtiness found in much of O’Connor’s writing. This woman, while our focus, is barely likeable in that she feels that she occupies a sphere of greatness above all others: “‘I have the best kept place in the county and do you know why? Because I work. I’ve had to work to save the place and work to keep it” (178). Thus Mrs. Cope repeatedly shows just how much better she is, just how proud. The farm, her Negros, her life is hers and hers alone, her creation, but as she often mentions here fear of fire, said creation is in fact seen as tenuous. Further, in her mind, she stands as deserving due to her innate gratitude, one that she freely shares with the world around her: “‘All I got is four abscess teeth,’ she remarked. ‘Well be thankful you don’t have five’” (177). Because she works, because she is thankful, Mrs. Cope deserves rewards, position, and spiritual acclaim.
These rewards explode with the arrival of a former Negro farmhand’s son, Powell, and his two friends, each of whom upsets the gossip filled balance. Here stands three boys, starved, but unwanting of anything but the ability to have a run of the farm and live out the fantasy of Powell’s childhood memories riding horses and being free. These three boys stand as outsiders beyond Mrs. Cope’s grasp and understanding. Not only can she not control them, they fail to grasp the idea of control. Their rebellious spirit jabs at her, fueling the flames. Further they represent pure danger, for as Cope fears fire, their wild ways could ignite a blaze at any moment, not only on the farm but also in the innocence of her child, a character that exists seemingly as only a set of meek eyes in the background for the first half of the story until it becomes clear to the ladies that the boys are not just passing through and that their presence comes in the form of joyous lechery.
The boys treat the farm as their playground—they ride the horses, steal milk and food, lie about leaving, release the bull, and that is just the start. As O’Connor so often does, she forces a full hearty character in Mrs. Cope to face one thing she can’t control: people who lack the will to be controlled. Try as Mrs. Cope does to cope and control, the boys are faster, sneakier, and looking for something the woman seems unwilling to give: unbridled freedom. Thus she darts about in hopes of stopping an unstoppable force, the very hurricane she predicted could come at any moment during the story’s opening pages: “‘We might all be destroyed by a hurricane. I can always find something to be thankful for’” (177). These boys exists as the storm, arriving without notice and plunging her life into despair. While she worked to control every facet of her farm, the boys split hairs and push her buttons in their discord: “‘I think I have been very nice to you boys. I’ve fed you twice. Now I’m going into town and if you’re still here when I come back, I’ll call the sheriff’” (189). While the threats seemed to work, and the boys vanish, the tone remains ominous as the eye of the storm passes over. It is through the eyes of the child playing in the woods that the reader comes to see the end of Mrs. Cope’s security, the death of her hard work, and the realization of her biggest fear: fire.
- “He had on a sweat shirt with a faded destroyer printed on it but his chest was so hollow that the destroyer was broken in the middle and seemed on the point of going under” (179).
- “She worked at the weeds and nut grass as if they were an evil sent directly by the devil to destroy the place” (175).
- “They looked as if they were used to being hungry and it was no business of hers” (180).
Other posts on the The Complete Stories include “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “The Geranium,” “The Barber,” “The Wildcat,” “The Crop” “The Turkey” “The Train” “The Peeler,”“The Heart of the Park” “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” “Enoch and the Gorilla,” “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” “The River,” “A Circle in the Fire,” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” If the book interests you, please use the link in the first paragraph or click the picture to support my efforts when you purchase the text.