Jonathan Rogers’s outstanding discussion of Flannery O’Connor’s stories is now in its fifth week, and if you haven’t been over to his blog to see what’s going on, you’re really missing out on some great insights. This week’s discussion is about the short story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” Don’t miss it.
Here’s part of Jonathan’s intro to this week’s discussion:
For those who view Flannery O’Connor’s fiction as a freak show, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” would appear to be Exhibit A. Its most memorable scene describes a hermaphrodite in an actual carnival freak show. But O’Connor doesn’t offer up the hermaphrodite simply as an object of curiosity for gawkers and voyeurs. She doesn’t, in other words, offer up this freak in the spirit of the freak show. The hermaphrodite, to my way of thinking, is surprisingly human, a figure of pathos and even a strange dignity, calling the audience to a civility and charity that one wouldn’t necessarily expect from freak show attendees:
“This is the way [God] wanted me to be, and I ain’t disputing His way. I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it. I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen. I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it. I don’t dispute hit.”
I realize that my impression of the hermaphrodite’s dignity is subjective and that another reader might interpret his/her speech entirely differently. A better clue to the meaning of the hermaphrodite comes from the Tantum ergo, the Latin hymn sung by the Catholic schoolgirls on the porch and sung again during the benediction at the convent. The hymn was written by Thomas Aquinas, whom O’Connor read every night before bed. Here is a translation of the first stanza:
Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail,
Lo! o’er ancient forms departing
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith for all defects supplying
Where the feeble senses fail.
The hermaphrodite, like the rest of the freaks in O’Connor’s fiction, stands for all of us, broken and needing the grace that supplies our defects. The people who go to the freak show expecting to see a sub-human creature are instead challenged to be more humane, more charitable.
Click here to read the rest of Jonathan’s post and join the discussion. If you haven’t yet read the story, Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories are available in the Rabbit Room store.