A World of Speculation

OK. She’s done it this time. In her story “The Crop,” Flannery O’Connor has taken her satire a step too far—skewering a writer in search of a story. As the old joke goes, “I resemble that remark.”

Miss Willerton (and O’Connor never gives us her first name) lives with her two sisters and her brother-in-law (and O’Connor never gives us their last names) in a comfortable home. The sisters are all about the household and taking care of the husband; Miss Willerton’s task, after breakfast, is to sweep the crumbs off the table. She doesn’t even do that well, because she is so focused on her next story.

After her task is done, she hurries up to her room and sits in front of her typewriter. What to write about? “That was the hardest part of writing a story, she always said.” A baker? “Foreign bakers were very picturesque, she thought.”

She rejects the baker: “no social tension.” She rejects teachers because they “weren’t timely.”

“Social problem. Social problem. Hmmm. Sharecroppers!”

“Miss Willerton had never been intimately connected with sharecroppers but, she reflected, they would make as arty as subject as any, and they would give her that air of social concern which was so valuable to have in the circles she was hoping to travel!”

The story begins with a sharecropper named Lot Motun and his dog. She goes through a lot of writing philosophy while constructing the first two sentences of the story,, and O’Connor’s satire shines through the philosophy.

Now Miss Willerton needs to give Lot a love interest. “There would have to be some quite violent, naturalistic scenes, the sadistic sort of thing one read in connection with that class.”

“Lot would be tall, stooped, and shaggy but with sad eyes that made him look like a gentleman in spite of his red neck and big fumbling hands.” His woman “would be more or less pretty—yellow hair, fat ankles, muddy-colored eyes.”

At this point, Miss Willerton’s imagination kicks into high gear, and she enters the story. She kills the yellow-haired woman to defend Lot and takes the woman’s place in the household. Months pass of hope and trouble and despair. Just at the climax of the story, when the couple can either afford a cow or lose everything, a baby arrives. She asks Lot what more she can do for him, and her sister answers, asking her to go to the grocery store.

Miss Willerton agrees to go, with some irritation.

There are two items on the grocery list, and Miss Willerton has a hard time remembering them. She’s not quite familiar with the process of grocery shopping, and the fact that other people are also shopping is another source of irritation to her. She despises the people she sees there:

“Nothing in it but trifling domestic doings—women buying beans—riding children in those grocery go-carts—higgling about an eighth of a pound more or less of squash—what did they get out of it? . . . Where was there any chance for self-expression, for creation, for art?”

As she’s returning to her car, her sharecropper couple came toward her in the parking lot: The long and shaggy man, the yellow-haired woman. Miss Willerton’s descriptions of them were on the mark, but here they are down to earth and real. The woman wears an inane smile, and the man has yellow knots on the side of his neck and a rash over his forehead.

Miss Willerton shudders. “Ugh,” she says.

Once back in the safety of her room, she rereads the paragraph about Lot Motun and decides it’s not a good subject. “She needed something more colorful, more arty.” She transfers her enthusiasm to the Irish.

It’s easy to laugh at the obliviousness—on so many levels—of Miss Willerton: how little she knows or sees about the life around her and how much she thinks she knows about the craft of writing; her dismissal of the value of live human beings, as opposed to the manikins she creates in her imagination; her slavish concern for what “people” will think of her and her attention to the important issues of the time.

But I have to admit that while it’s funny because I perceive other people do it, the reason it’s uncomfortable is that it captures my own temptations as a writer—and possibly O’Connor’s as well. She had the courage to satirize her own “guild,” and she does it very well.

Credits:

  • Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.
  • Photo by Daria Kraplak on Unsplash