Sacramentality and the Short Story
Here are my rambling (key word: rambling!) thoughts on sacramentality and short stories, inspired by my students.
I just started a unit on short stories with my sophomores. As an introductory lesson, we’ve been learning about the 6 characteristics of a short story according to Edgar Allan Poe:
1. A short story should be able to be read in one sitting. (About one half hour to two hours)
2. A short story should have nothing in it that detracts from the design (no extra or un-necessary stuff).
3. A short story should aim for truth. Although most stories are fiction, and many of them include fantastical elements (e.g. “The Fall of the House of Usher”) they should nevertheless remain “true to the human heart.”
4. A short story should strive for unity of effect – one ambience or mood.
5. A short story’s effect should begin with the very first sentence.
6. A short story should be imaginative, inventive, and experimental – it should be trying to do something.
Then we read “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” by Flannery O’Connor as a class on Tuesday. I encourage you to read it, too. I tried my own unique versions of Southern accents for the voices of Mr. Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater, to help them hear how funny O’Connor is. They loved it.
But they stopped loving it when we got to the end of the story.
“What? That’s it?”
“What’s that random boy doing at the end?”
“You mean he just left her there?”
“That don’t make any sense, Ms. Shea.”
“I don’t get it.”
“What does it mean?”
“It don’t have no meaning.”
“This is stupid.”
I had, of course, tried to warn them beforehand. On our guided notes sheet I had included this interesting quote (below) by O’Connor about the art of storytelling. But it’s one thing to read a quote that challenges traditional notions of “theme” and “message.” It’s another thing to be put through a whole short story–which you enjoy–only to be disappointed at the end by confusion and–gosh darnit–mystery.
Also, they’re in high school. As much as they protest otherwise, they like to be told the meanings of things by authoritative adult sources.
In this quote I gave them, however, O’Connor pretty much dismantles traditional notions of figuring out the “message” or “theme” of a story, and the very notion that one can simply be told what the meaning of a story is. I can understand why my kids are frustrated, though. Aren’t they expected to explain the message of stuff they read in high school? If the story doesn’t yield that message easily, isn’t it understandable that they be angry or annoyed? After all, we’re talking about my grade in this class, here!
I should just let O’Connor speak:
I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.
When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.
– Flannery O’Connor
This is, of course, what our beloved Dr. Lowery of the University of Dallas Theology Department would call “the sacramental view of reality”–or, in this case, the sacramental view of storytelling. The meaning of a story is “embodied” and “made concrete” in it, and as such cannot be pulled out of it. For O’Connor, if you can say in a statement or two what a story “means,” then the story probably isn’t “a very good one” to begin with. It’s a mere moral dressed up in fancy garments.
I gave my students the example of the Eucharist. “What’s the Eucharist?”
“The body and blood of Jesus.”
“So I can’t just pray and receive his body and blood in a symbolic or ‘spiritual’ way? I have to eat the bread and wine?”
“Yeah you have to eat it.”
“Okay. Well, O’Connor is saying it’s the same with stories. You can’t get the ‘meaning’ or ‘message’ of a story any other way. You have to read the story itself – you have to eat and drink it. That’s where the meaning is. You can’t just pull it out in some abstract way. That’s what O’Connor thinks, anyway.”
For the typical high school student, this is very hard to accept. Like most people these days, they are Gnostics, and they would prefer to separate body and soul, sign from sacrament, story from meaning. It’s easier that way.
One of my very best students–a devout Protestant–was particularly offended by O’Connor’s view of stories. Not the Eucharist part, but the meaning part. She (very rightly) pointed out that O’Connor was basically saying that not everyone can figure out the meaning of a story. If the meaning is so embedded in the story itself, then it’s almost impossible to get it out. (O’Connor would say that it IS impossible). My student firmly believes, however, that stories should be accessible to everyone. If the message of the story isn’t clear, then why bother reading the story? Authors should make their messages understandable to us. God and Jesus, of course, make their messages understandable. (Do they?)
I did not say this in class, of course, but I was strongly reminded of sola scriptura and the Evangelical Protestant notion that individual Christians should be able to read the Bible and understand it without the mediation of Magisterial Authority or Tradition.
And then there is this, too. In my students’ essays I have long combated their habitual use of cliches–things that everybody already says or believes, therefore there is no point in saying them again–but I saw the other day that they not only write cliches, they look for them in stories. If a meaning is to be found, then it is most certainly a cliche meaning. Mr. Shiftlet, although he appears to be kind of a nice guy at the beginning, ends up abandoning Lucynell and stealing Mrs. Crater’s car. The high school student says, “This story shows us that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover.”
But such a trite moral doesn’t justify O’Connor’s story.
And that is what the high school student DOES understand. “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” “Don’t steal,” “Don’t be a hypocrite” — all of these things they already get. And they don’t want to be put through the emotional grinder of a Flannery O’Connor story if that’s the only thing they are going to “get out of it” at the end.
The hard task is to get them to see that there is more in the story–much more. It is THE hard task because I don’t fully understand what that”more” is. It’s mystery. It’s–as O’Connor says elsewhere– “pure idiot mystery,” and that’s what the modern gnostic cliche mind cannot stand or understand. The high school student in particular struggles with accepting and entering into mystery. It’s frightening.
I think this story by O’Connor is “true to the human heart” as Edgar Allan Poe would say–and indeed there are lots of images of the actual human heart in this story, being cut out of people’s chests and held by doctors–but I’m not exactly sure how to explain why.
But O’Connor told us it would be that way:
“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”
So, if you haven’t already, you should just go read her story.