"For Christ's Sake Fix Him"
Use of the Child in Two Stories
by Flannery O'Connor

Tom Murphy, O. Carm.
An Essay Written for the Preceptorial on Woolf, Dinesen and O'Connor
St. John's College, Santa Fe
Summer 1984

The tendency of our modern society and of all its thought and culture is to deny and to deride this simple, natural awareness, and to make man - from the very beginning both afraid of faith and ashamed of it. The first step to living faith is then, as it has always been one way or another, a denial and a rejection of the standards of thought complacently accepted by rationalistic doubt.
Thomas Merton

I tell you this: unless you turn round and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.
Matthew 18.3

Ah! il n'y a plus d'enfants.

In "The River" and "The Lame Shall Enter First" Flannery O'Connor sustains her theme of human sinfulness and the possibility of redemption. At the heart of this structure rests the problem of Faith. In both stories that problem is embodied in three ages of humanity: childhood, adolescence and adulthood. While her realistic narrative resists a purely allegorical use of these three generations, correspondences between the two stories' characters align childhood with inarticulate desire (a precondition for faith), adolescence with articulate and dogmatic faith, and adulthood with varying degrees of doubt. (Mrs. Connin in "The River" is a notable exception to this last category.)

Since both stories culminate in the death of a child, this essay will explore the uses of those children in relation to adolescent and adult characters. There are such striking parallels between the stories that we may accuse O'Connor of merely rewriting "The River" from an adult's viewpoint; but, in fact, this shift offers a unique chance to explore the nature of evil and accounts for the unrelenting ironies of "The Lame Shall Enter First" as we move from the effects of human sinfulness (the suffering of the child Bevel) to its source (the blind agency of the adult Sheppard).

A child stands at the center of each tale. The viewpoint of Harry Ashfield (hereafter Bevel) illuminates and limits all that we see in "The River". Norton, in "The Lame Shall Enter First", is just as central, but he operates more as a presence than as a focal consciousness. In this story what we know of the child we must surmise through the distorting and diffracting vision of his father, Sheppard. The silence and relative passivity of both Bevel and Norton help to establish them as calm central poles around which the other characters (mainly, but not exclusively, adults) cavort with their anxieties, cruelties, minor kindnesses and moral "expertise". The two boys might also be likened to bare screens upon which the adult world projects its own fantasies of sin and redemption. Sheppard sees Norton as selfishness incarnate, and both Norton's and Bevel's parents are painfully aware of their sons' failings. This attitude is perfectly embodied in the apparently simple events which open "The River".

The child stood glum and limp in the middle of the dark living room while his father pulled him into a plaid coat. His right arm was hung in the sleeve but the father buttoned the coat anyway and pushed him forward toward a pale spotted hand that stuck through the half-open door.
"He ain't fixed right," a loud voice said from the hall.
"Well then for Christ's sake fix him," the father muttered.

This passage typifies one of O'Connor's most effective techniques: the use of emblematic comments or double entendres to create another plane of meaning within the story - a "meta-realistic" narrative, or prose narrative which approaches the density of poetry. Through these representative moments, words, actions and observed details serve the realistic needs of the narration (Bevel's coat isn't on straight; his father is apathetic or inattentive) and focus the reader's awareness on strong thematic concerns (the world's moral disarray).

That the child needs to be "fixed" suggests another analogy for adult-child relations in these stories. The home has become a workshop or laboratory in which the modern human consciousness is engineered. We sense that both Bevel and Norton have been tampered with, have been used as guinea pigs beneath the rationalistic and secularized glare of the parents. For if the parents cannot accept or save the entire world, they might at least create a working model and microcosm in their children and their homes. This frustration surfaces in the Ashfields' dark cynicism and Sheppard's unconsciously cruel and manipulative messianic delusions. The Ashfields' moral vision is clearly incorporated in the art they hang on their wall: "black lines crossing into broken planes of violent color." Is this the vision they hope to pass on to their son? The child-sitter, Mrs. Connin, supplies an alternative to such negativity as she concludes, "I wouldn't have drew it." And, in fact, the art Bevel sees in her home ("pictures and calendars") is directly emblematic of that lady's family and faith.

That the child needs to be fixed "for Christ's sake" introduces the text's typically skewed approach to religious themes. The father's profanity unwittingly expresses a deep and disturbing truth: the universality of human imperfection. Not only does the child need fixing, but so does the parent.
Such ironic moments, coupled with the sensitive selection of detail in the setting, provide the reader with the "critical eyeglasses" necessary for understanding. "The Lame Shall Enter First" opens with a subtler, but no less telling, image:

Sheppard sat on a stool at the bar that divided the kitchen in half, eating his cereal out of the individual pasteboard box it came in.

The "divided" kitchen and the "individual" cereal box attach themselves to Sheppard in a way that implies his seriously alienated spirit. This image and the first paragraph's final one of "a narrow brush halo over his (Sheppard's) pink sensitive face" (in which we may see "narrow" as a telling modification of "halo") sandwich Sheppard's moralistic judgments of Norton. Here again, the explicitly religious "halo" establishes an ironic distance between itself and Sheppard's severe criticism of Norton.

The laboratory/home in each story may have different objects in mind; but both end with the same product; a dead child. The Ashfields' neglect of their son is such that we might decide that their only intention is to keep him out of sight, hair and mind. We learn in the story, however, that Bevel has believed he was created by "a doctor named Sladewell" rather than some divine force. We read,

They joked a lot where he lived. If he had thought about it before, he would have thought Jesus Christ was a word like "oh" or "damn" or "God," or maybe somebody who had cheated them out of something sometime.

Harry Ashfield has been raised into a world in which nothing is serious, nothing matters, except perhaps the grim and comical awareness that nothing matters. His parents might justify their neglect of him as a continual lesson in "life without illusions," but nothing is explicit. These adults are shadows. Sheppard has tried to raise his son in an illusion-free atmosphere; "he could not allow himself to bring him up on a lie." Concerning Norton's dead mother, Sheppard can only say,

"She doesn't exist." He put his hand on the child's shoulder. "That's all I have to give you," he said in a softer, exasperated tone, "the truth".

But this truth is sterile; it means nothing and offers no hope to Norton who, as a child, needs the simple security of Rufus Johnson's heaven and hell. Sheppard's "truth" of nonexistence is as barren and threatening a gift as the sinister art on the Ashfields' wall. His attitudes, though they are superficially value-oriented ("All he wanted for the child was that he be good and unselfish.") and perhaps designed to spare his son some disillusionment in later life, are actually deadly.
Though Sheppard pushes Norton to see the "truth" of human mortality in his absent, nonexistent mother, he also is avoiding that painful reality by fleeing to his work. The text binds father and son through images of withdrawal and concealment. Sheppard's office is described as "a narrow closet." Upon his return from work on the day of Rufus' disturbing arrival, the father discovers his son in the closet.

An old gray winter coat of his wife's still hung there. He pushed it aside but it didn't move. He pulled it open roughly and winced as if he had seen the larva inside a cocoon. Norton stood in it, his face swollen and pale, with a drugged look of misery in it.

Sheppard is as deeply involved in denial as Norton is. Both are "closeted". Norton has, as we might expect from a child, wrapped himself in an unconscious but strikingly clear expression of his (and his father's) central problem. Sheppard "pushed it aside but it didn't move." He can rid himself of neither the pain of his wife's death nor the problem of his all too present son. Norton in the cocoon of the coat in the closet confronts Sheppard "with a possibility" - as all good prophetic symbols do - but Sheppard retreats from consciousness by dragging Norton out and proposing to Rufus (satanic sign) that he help him save his terribly selfish son.

In the "confessional" of his office, Sheppard believes that "he explained, he did not absolve," - a phrase most indicative of Sheppard's problem. An explanation is a rational and relatively easy process. There is something mechanical about it: if you understand human psychology, resistances and defense mechanisms, you can easily interpret the actions of others, point out problems, and "fix" them. Absolution, on the other hand, suggests a cleaning up, a healing interaction of human and divine powers, a restoration of hope which is beyond Sheppard's vision. Later he upbraids Rufus' bible reading with, "You don't believe it. You're too intelligent."

Sheppard has tried to forge a Faustian alliance with Rufus against Norton, but Rufus will not be "saved" any more than Norton will surrender his hope.
Bevel's "pre-baptismal" name is Harry Ashfield and he lives in a gray apartment reeking of old cigarettes, stale party food and shadowy parental voices. Norton, on the other hand, must live with a father who regularly proclaims the boy's best interest, yet consistently denies him emotional support and images of possible transcendence. CONTINUE ...

The Comforts of Home: A Most Useful Flannery O'Connor Site.