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Sin or Insanity?
Salvation through Retaliation in Flannery O'Connor's "The Partridge Festival"
© May 2008, Stephen Sparrow

In the early 1970s, internationally renowned psychiatrist Ronald David Laing dumbfounded many of his professional colleagues by declaring that apart from cases where the human brain had been affected by physiological illness, physical injury, or some deformity existing at birth, all mental illness was nothing other than social phenomena, which, just as in the case of "normal" social behaviours, has been acquired by the individual from his adjacent social environment. Laing was no Freudian so it was little wonder that psychiatrists world wide were dismayed, since the effect of his pronouncement meant that in most cases their methods to cure the mad (as Laing called them) were futile, and that furthermore, the money being poured into trying to identify a gene responsible for schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders was money wasted and tantamount to man searching for God through a high powered microscope.

Laing's controversial statement should make us all grateful, since any purported genetic link to mental illness would in the future inevitably be used to screen individuals in an experimental attempt to eliminate what "experts" see as mental illness and what the rest of us might prosaically refer to as bizarre or unusual behaviour--which is often the stuff of every interesting story ever told. The corollary is that any attempt at genetic manipulation to modify human behaviour is an attack on free will and as such is doomed to fail. Having said that, there are some mindsets where free will is a practical impossibility--obsessive states leading to paranoia are an obvious example, but rarely if ever is one born into that condition. Obsessive states usually come about through behaviour that over a period has so gradually changed, that even those closest to the afflicted person barely notice the effect until it is much too late to easily reverse the condition.

Having mentioned free will, my definition of it is: the freedom to change our hearts for better or for worse, such freedom being rooted in the supernatural virtue of hope. Hope being the universal craving for mercy, which is engraved on all human hearts and completely incompatible with Darwin's theory of natural selection (a.k.a. survival of the fittest), which by its own rule would completely crush any sign of mercy at the moment of hatching. But the fact is mercy exists: we have all experienced it; either by receiving it or dispensing it, or at different times both.

Devoutly Catholic, Flannery O'Connor was deeply distrustful of modern psychiatric practice and in her short story "The Comforts of Home", her character Sarah Ham admits that she habitually lied because she was insecure. O'Connor's omniscient narrator then informs us that Sarah "had passed through the hands of several psychiatrists who had put the finishing touches to her education." O'Connor also dismissed as a romantic notion, the "traditional" association of insanity with the Divine (letter to John Hawkes 22/6/61).

"The Partridge Festival" is framed around the annual azalea festival in the town of the titular name. A local resident named Singleton (a play on the name Simpleton, with the change signifying alienation) had been humiliated by pranksters for refusing to buy an Azalea Festival Badge and ten days later when festival formalities were in full swing, "had appeared in a side door on the courthouse porch and with a silent automatic pistol, had shot five of the dignitaries seated there and by mistake one person in the crowd." Six deaths resulted and instead of Singleton being arraigned for murder, he was cursorily examined and summarily admitted to Quincey Mental Hospital. The attendant publicity was sufficient to make Calhoun drive the 150 miles to visit his two aunts who lived together in the town: two elderly women who under normal circumstances drove him nuts. The pretext Calhoun used for his visit was to see his elderly relatives, but in reality his agenda was to get the background to the murders and write about them; especially about Singleton's motive. But before even arriving in Partridge, Calhoun had already developed his own theory on the unfortunate man. He considered Singleton a martyr and believed that the town got its just desserts for being nothing other than a community of hypocrites.

On the morning of his first full day in Partridge, Calhoun walked the five blocks to the town center where in a series of encounters, he tests out his opinion on Singleton. A hearse driving past initiates an exchange in which an elderly male bystander describes five of Singleton's victims as "fine men. Perished in the line of duty." But the sixth, (a man named Biller) is no loss. "The only bullet that went right. Biller was a wastrel. Drunk at the time...The only thing Singleton ever did good was to rid us of Biller...Now somebody ought to rid us of Singleton." A little later a seething Calhoun enters a barbershop and, seated in a swivel chair, now endures the barber's assessment on what sort of moral and cultural defective the killer was. More enraged than ever and without waiting for the barber to properly finish, Calhoun put money down and "made for the door, letting it slam behind him in judgment on the place."

Through his two aunts, Calhoun met the enterprising young female student named Mary Elizabeth living next door, and the following day they walked together into town to observe the beauty pageant; young women parading in swimwear. They tried to convince each other that their interest was purely academic. Mary Elizabeth said she found "this whole place...false and rotten to the core...They prostitute azaleas." A short time later when Calhoun asked for her opinion of Singleton she stunned him by saying that she thought of him is a Christ figure. "I mean as myth," she said scowling. "I'm not a Christian." The rapport between the two begins to sour and the omniscient narrator informs the reader that Calhoun and Mary Elizabeth "look at each other with open and intense dislike." But still their fascination with Singleton and their perceived hypocrisy of the Partridge worthies kept them talking and they hatched a plan to meet with Singleton in custody. The next day they drove to Quincey where Mary Elizabeth convinced hospital staff that they were Singleton's kin, and had traveled some distance to see and support him. After Singleton was escorted into the room, their encounter was brief and shocking to both Calhoun and the young woman.

The story begs the question over Singleton's culpability, just as in real life it still hangs over the mass killers at Columbine and Virginia Tech. Are such murderers intrinsically evil--in other words are they sinners or are they insane? Using R. D. Laing's criterion of insanity we are forced to conclude that Singleton's shocking behaviour was in part, the result of his being shunned by the "good" folk of Partridge: in which case the matter comes under the category of sin. The Gospel of St Matthew 25: 31 - 42 contains the classic text relating to man's inhumanity to man and the judgment waiting those who have callously ignored the stranger, the naked, the hungry and those in prison. Regarding the culpability of Partridge residents, we find Flannery O'Connor passing judgment on a town that, through indifference and prejudice, could not be bothered to support the less fortunate among them. The sin had not started with the killings, it began with the unwillingness of those who knew Singleton, to "carry their cross". Instead they attempted to get out from under their cross and load it onto Singleton by alienating him. The senseless, humiliating prank increased the weight of Singleton's cross, and, unbeknown to his tormentors, Singleton was by then in an obsessive state with only one valve left to relieve the pressure--and that was retaliation. He handed back his cross by killing some of his tormentor's elected representatives plus one wastrel.

In another letter to John Hawkes [20/4/61] O'Connor wrote that she invented Singleton "as another comic instance of the diabolical," and in "The Catholic Novelist In The Protestant South" she declared, "evil is not simply a problem to be solved, it is a mystery to be endured." In "The Partridge Festival" O'Connor underscored the embarrassment displayed by the upright citizens of Partridge, who, faced with rank evil, sidestepped the issue. In declaring Singleton insane they absolved themselves from blame.

Considering Calhoun and Mary Elizabeth, the reader finds them just as culpable as the rest of the townsfolk. They acted like vultures (sales men) gathering to see how they could profit from all this hypocrisy and mayhem. When Singleton was ushered into the room where they waited, the killer still retained one means of retaliation and he used it and showed the visitors that the noble martyr they wanted to portray was just as vulgar and obsessively self absorbed as they were.

Modern perceptions of insanity point to a society where human beings have forgotten their need for the grace of God, thereby ushering in a number of novel but largely ineffective forms of mental health treatment. Popular psychology is one such example--where groups such as the Center for Social Therapy encourage the mentally ill to think that it is sufficient merely to identify and examine their neuroses and guilt complexes through casual discussion in order to start walking the path to recovery. From a Catholic perspective it is axiomatic that this "therapy" is merely confession without grace. Such strategies to cope with the stress of modern living are a sign of modern man's misfortune, a misfortune that is quite simply the re-emergence of the ancient Manichean heresy--meaning that the material world has distanced itself from the spiritual. The rapidly growing "me first" mentality of the last sixty years now relies on science to resolve every crisis. Flannery O'Connor highlighted the problem in her essay "A Memoir of Mary Ann" when she said, "in the absence of this [Christian] faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber."

Absence of love is the medium in which sin flourishes, and insanity is not infrequently sin's accompanying dark angel, whether it be attached to the sinned against or the sinner, and most of Partridge's citizens played a direct, if unknowing, part in the drama of Singleton's revenge. Driving away from Quincey, Calhoun saw himself reflected in the lens of Mary Elizabeth's spectacles. He saw in his face the gift of life that was pushing him forward "to the future to raise festival after festival. Like a master salesman [that he was], it seemed to have been waiting there from all time to claim him."


Suggested further reading: "Novelist and Believer" pp 154 - 168 and "A Memoir of Mary Ann" pp 213 -237 in Mystery and Manners: Selected Prose. Essays and Lectures of Flannery O'Connor


Letter from Katherine Mansfield to S. S. Koteliansky1 August 1922

Short story writer Katherine Mansfield was at this time suffering from terminal tuberculosis and for health reasons living in the south of France. 

I hope you are better. If you need a doctor, Sorapure is a good man--intelligent and quiet. He does not discuss Lloyd George (British Prime Minister) with me, either. This is a great relief. All the other English doctors that I know have just finished reading the Daily Mail by the time they reach me. 

It is a pity that [D.H.] Lawrence is driven so far. I am sure that Western Australia will not help. The desire to travel is a great, real temptation. But does it do any good? It seems to me to correspond to the feelings of a sick man who thinks always `if only I can get away from here I shall be better.' However--there is nothing to be done. One must go through with it. No one can stop that sick man, either, from moving on and on. But Lawrence, I am sure, will get well. 

Perhaps you will be seeing Brett in a few days? She goes back to England tomorrow. I feel awfully inclined to Campbell2 about her for a little. But it would take a whole book to say all that one feels. She is a terrible proof of the influence one's childhood has upon one. And there has been nothing stronger in her life to counteract that influence. I do not ever think she will be an adult being. She is weak; she is a vine; she longs to cling. She cannot nourish herself from the earth; she must feed on the sap of another. How can these creatures ever be happy? By happy I mean at peace with themselves. She is seeking someone who will make her forget that early neglect, that bullying and contempt. But the person who would satisfy her would have to dedicate himself to curing all the results of her unhappiness--her distrust, for instance, her suspicions, her fears. He would have to take every single picture and paint it with her, just as a singer, by singing with his pupil can make that weak voice strong and confident. . . But even then, she would not be cured. I believe one can cure nobody, one can change nobody fundamentally. The born slave cannot become a free man. He can only become freer. I have refused to believe that for years, and yet I am certain it is true, it is even a law of life. But it is equally true that hidden in the slave there are makings of the free man. And these makings are very nice in Brett, very sensitive and generous. I love her for them. They make me want to help her as much as I can. 

I am content. I prefer to leave our meeting to chance. To know you are there is enough. If I knew I was going to die I should even ask you definitely to come and see me. For I should hate to die without one long, uninterrupted talk with you. But short of it--it does not greatly matter. 

1 S. S. Koteliansky--Russian Jewish emigre in England with publishing connections. 
2 To `Campbell' was to ramble on amiably in the manner of their old friend Gordon Campbell (later Lord Glenavy) husband of Beatrice Campbell to whom some of Mansfield's letters are addressed.

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