Peacocks, Vanity, and the Possibility of Redemption

Flannery O'Connor and her peacocks

“Vain as a peacock,” we used to say, back when vanity was a vice rare enough to be remarked on. If you've never lived with a peacock, you may not realize just how vain they can be. I had a chance to become acquainted  with these creatures when I was in college in northern Illinois and occasionally stayed on the farm of my Aunt June who, like Flannery O’Connor (probably their only similarity), loved all sorts of barnyard fowl, including peafowl. June lived on the family farm she had inherited with her brother, Reynolds. He looked after the hog farming while June stayed busy breeding, raising, and selling all sorts of birds and bird eggs: chickens, ducks, and geese, as well as more exotic kinds of birds, such as peacock and rheas (a South American cousin of the better-known ostrich). I soon noticed that each of these bird species has its own native personality; you couldn't act around a goose the same way you could with a duck, for instance. Geese are bossy and territorial and, if you stray into a part of the farmyard where the goose doesn't think you should go, it will bite you on the backside (yes, it will “goose” you).

The rheas, tall stately birds with a kind of innate dignitas, were my aunt's favorite -- they had a special enclosure with a high chain-link fence, intended to keep them safe from predators. Rheas mate for life, which turned out to be unfortunate, because one day the male of the breeding pair got out of the pen and was savaged by a dog (or coyote?) and died of its wounds.  The female pined away and eventually died of her own wound -- a broken heart.

The peacocks, more beautiful than the rhea but less known for their fidelity, were not only the loveliest but also the most laughable of my aunt’s farmyard fowl. They would strut around like emperors, no matter how scraggly and bedraggled their tail feathers might be. Even when they were well-preened, their illusion of grandeur was wrecked as soon as they opened their mouths to utter their characteristic screech.

The peacocks had their own house -- the cocks, not the drab hens, who had few bragging rights. The house was lined with metal mirrors to reflect the birds’ splendor and tickle their vanity. They would go in, singly, to fan their tails and bask in their glory, which in the mirrored housed was reflected on every vertical surface. Their preening lasted only for a moment, though, before they noticed that other peacock, the one in the mirror taunting them with the grandeur of his tail. At this sight, they invariably would rush to the mirror to peck the eyes out of their hated rival. Every mirrored wall in the peacock house bore innumerable dents from birds who had tried to massacre their own reflections. Their jealousy was so fierce that, once they began their attack, it was a fight to the death -- figuratively in most instances, although literally in at least one case that recall. Usually, the idiot birds would exhaust themselves and limp back out of the house to recover, bruised and battered but determined to live and fight another day.

Flannery OConnors “Royal Turkeys”

What reminded me of the peacock house (and my aunt, dead now many years) was Jonathan Rogers’ biography of Flannery O’Connor, The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O'Connor, in which he highlights the way that details of O’Connor’s own life often provided the seed of a story. He recounts her decision to add peafowl to her menagerie of more ordinary barnyard birds, against the advice of her mother, Regina, who complained that peacocks would eat up her (Regina's) flower garden. After the glorified turkeys took over the grounds, Flannery admitted (in her 1961 essay, “The King of the Birds”):

Peacocks not only eat flowers, they eat them systematically, beginning at the head of a row and going down it. If they are not hungry, they will pick the flower anyway, if it is attractive, and let it drop.

Given her fascination with these birds and their ostentatious vanity, which cannot bear even so humble a rival as an attractive blossom, I’m astonished that (to my recollection) O’Connor never featured a peacock in her stories. The closest thing I can recall is a turkey (an ordinary, wild turkey, not a “royal turkey,” as the peacock is called in some languages), which becomes an occasion of vanity for a miserable young boy when it falls dead into his grasp in “An Afternoon in the Woods.”

Temptation in the Woods

It might have been an ordinary turkey, but it piqued the vanity of the lad into whose clutches it fell. Young Manley, to hear his family tell it, has never done anything right and yet somehow, when he least expects it, this treasure, a fine, fat turkey wounded under one wing by an unseen hunter, stumbles into his grasp and dies, an unearned prize.

Unearned but not to be unvaunted. A moment before, Manley had been practicing curses and, when he discovers the newly-dead bird, he assumes it is a trap prepared for him by God, whom he has just been blaspheming. But then he recalls the parable of the prodigal son and other stories of repentant sinners rewarded, and decides it may be that sort of thing, a divine bribe to keep him from going bad. It’s a bribe he decides to take. As he heaves the dead turkey over one shoulder and trudges into town to show off, he imagines the works of philanthropy he will perform in response to this opportunity for redemption. He prays for a beggar to cross his path so that he can demonstrate the sincerity of his resolve and, when the town’s old beggar woman actually does pass him by, he gives her a dime -- but not his fat turkey.

The boy's vanity, however, gets the best of him when he shows the bird off to some bullies who are stalking him -- and who snatch the turkey from him and wander off, laughing. The boy, humiliated and frightened by their behavior, seems to realize that he has just been tested and has failed, a failure that pursues him like “Something Awful [that] was tearing behind him with its arms rigid and its fingers ready to clutch.”

I think we've all had moments like that, when some chance event, just as we were preening ourselves on our virtue, suddenly puts us to a test that we fail miserably. I can think of one or two that still make me cringe in shame, even after years or even decades. Flannery O'Connor's stories are like that, too -- there's nary a one that won't prick you in some secret, tender place.

By the way, I recommend The Terrible Speed of Mercy. Jonathan Rogers seems to understand and appreciate Flannery O’Connor and her work better than many of her biographers. You can get a taste of his approach here or in the preview embedded here below.


Popular posts from this blog

Grace and Purification in Flannery O'Connor's “Revelation”

Reading and the Moral Imagination: Plato and truth in fiction

Mystery, thrills and suspense from contemporary Catholic writers

Rerum Novarum in context

Moral Imagination: Beauty, Truth, and Goodness

Epic poetry and the moral imagination

Zooming in on Ovid's acount of the Great Flood