31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 8: “The Comforts of Home” by Flannery O’Connor

May 8, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Everything That Rises Must Converge

In his critical study, Flannery O’Connor: An Introduction, Miles Orvell suggests that it would not be improper to identify – without irony – a group of O’Connor’s writings as falling under the rubric of “charity stories”:

These might include “A Circle in the Fire,” “The Comforts of Home,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” “The Lame Shall Enter First,” and even The Violent Bear It Away. All of these works deal in some way with a character whose sense of virtue is expressed through acts of charity – often involving a guest brought into the house: What do we do with the guest? Do we reform him? Let him be? Throw him out? Educate him? Give him gifts? These are the questions the stories seem to ask, and beneath them is the larger question – What is charity?

In “The Comforts of Home,” the interloper is a 19-year-old named Sarah Ham (note the surname), who has been incarcerated for passing bad cheques. The mother of a 35-year-old history writer named Thomas takes pity on Sarah (who refers to herself as Star Drake) and hires a lawyer who secures the girl’s parole. After the crotchety old woman who has agreed to give Sarah board kicks the girl out for drunkenness, Thomas’s mother takes her in over the objections of her son.

As with many of O’Connor’s best stories, “The Comforts of Home” employs an ironic mode; the irony here is vested in the character of Thomas, who is one in a long line of O’Connor intellectuals held up for scorn and ridicule. In this case, the irony involves Thomas’s repeated assertion that he will not abide Sarah’s presence in the house, because in his eyes she represents immorality and dissolution. “Thomas was not cynical,” we are told, “and so far from being opposed to virtue, he saw it as the principle of order and the only thing that makes life bearable.” Sarah, whom Thomas refers to as the “little slut,” represents, in his eyes, the antithesis of virtue and order. His mother, meanwhile, is possessed, in Thomas’s estimation, of “the best intentions,” yet is blinded by her charitable impulses; her tendency is “to make a mockery of virtue, to pursue it with such a mindless intensity that everyone involved was made a fool of and virtue itself became ridiculous.”

Thomas considers himself a model of virtue and purity, but for him, virtue must exist in moderation, because “a moderation of good produces likewise a moderation of evil,” something that Thomas feels his mother would understand “[h]ad she been in any degree intellectual.” The irony is that while Thomas proclaims himself virtuous, his propensity to withdraw from what he sees as an excess of charity on his mother’s part renders him practically ineffectual; he is paralyzed and unable to commit to any action, good or bad: “Thomas had inherited his father’s reason without his ruthlessness and his mother’s love of good without her tendency to pursue it. His plan for all practical action was to wait and see what developed.”

There is an additional level of irony at play regarding Thomas’s specific reaction to Sarah’s sexuality. Sarah is a flirtatious girl – a “nimpermaniac” according to Thomas’s mother, a “moral moron” according to Thomas himself. Rather than being disgusted by Sarah’s sexuality, however, Thomas is terrified of it. When his mother orders him to drive the girl back to the old lady’s house where she is boarding, Thomas is rendered literally mute when he finds himself alone in the girl’s presence: “At his desk, pen in hand, none was more articulate than Thomas. As soon as he found himself shut into the car with Sarah Ham, terror seized his tongue.” When Sarah appears in Thomas’s bedroom doorway at night, he repels her from his room by holding a chair out in front of him “like an animal trainer driving out a dangerous cat.”

Following the incident in his bedroom, Thomas issues an ultimatum to his mother: either the girl leaves or he does. This sequence is also shot through with irony, this time involving a blurring of the line between Thomas and Sarah:

“I keep thinking it might be you,” [Thomas’s mother] said, her hand still on her jaw. “If it were you, how do you think I’d feel if nobody took you in? What if you were a nimpermaniac and not a brilliant smart person and you did what you couldn’t help and …”

Thomas felt a deep unbearable loathing for himself as if he were turning slowly into the girl.

“What did she have on?” she asked abruptly, her eyes narrowing.

“Nothing!” he roared. “Now will you get her out of here!”

It does not take a committed Freudian to recognize Thomas’s self loathing, “as if he were turning slowly into the girl,” as resulting from a sublimated sexual desire for her. His violent reaction when questioned by his mother about Sarah’s state of undress – “Now will you get her out of here!” – is his attempt to repress what he considers to be his baser instincts in a (misguided) attempt to remain true to his idea of morality and uprightness. And yet the narrative will not allow him to escape from this sublimated desire. When he goes to plant a pistol in the girl’s purse so that the town’s corrupt sheriff (with whom Thomas is in collusion) will have an excuse to take her back to prison, the scene is presented in frankly sexualized language:

He grabbed the red pocketbook. It had a skin-like feel to his touch and as it opened, he caught an unmistakable odor of the girl. Wincing, he thrust in the gun and then drew back.

Sometimes, a gun is just a gun. Other times, it is a symbol for something else, something made abundantly clear by the description of the way Thomas “thrust” the object into the “skin-like” folds of the purse. After a triangulated scene featuring Thomas, his mother, and Sarah, in which Thomas accidentally shoots his mother, the sheriff bursts in to find Thomas and Sarah standing over the body as though “the killer and the slut were about to collapse into each other’s arms.” Although the sheriff misreads the scene he has stumbled upon, there is no denying the extension of the sexually charged language that has been pervasive throughout the story, nor its implications for the characters of Thomas and Sarah (“the killer and the slut”).

While confessing that he finds the plot of “The Comforts of Home” “one of the least convincing O’Connor ever devised,” Frederick Asals concludes that the figures of Thomas and Sarah are meant to be taken – at least on one level – as doubles, obverse exemplifications of a single psychological impulse:

In Jung’s language, then, Sarah Ham is the “anima-projection” of which Thomas is the “persona”; psychoanalytically viewed, the two characters are complementary figures, obverse doubles, alter egos. The arrival of the girl thus inevitably exacerbates all those psychic tensions which have lain dormant beneath Thomas’s bland exterior.

There is an indication in the story that the mother understands this – “I keep thinking it might be you,” she tells her son – as, on some level, does Thomas. His self-loathing arises out of a sense that he is “slowly turning into the girl”; although he explicitly avows his goodness as against Sarah’s evil, the story actively resists this reading, implying instead that the two characters are psychological reflections of one another.

The psychic tensions in the story run deeper than any thumbnail exegesis of this kind could possibly do justice to, and in any event a psychoanalytic reading of the story is only one of a number of possible approaches one might take in discussing it. Regardless of whether Asals is correct in finding the plot overly contrived (I tend to disagree), the story is nevertheless a crystalline example of O’Connor in her high ironic mode, a bitterly funny dissection of a complex morality, and a mordant comment on the old adage that “charity begins at home.”

Comments are closed.