Exploring Empty Houses and Teeming Literature: Vacancy and Vision in the Literature of Flannery O'Connor

Once upon a quiet evening, taking a new road out of the small Kansas town I resided in, I noticed an old farmhouse on top of a little hill. It was on fire. Liquid flames were lapping from every window and the outer paneling glowed as if a meteoric ember were about to explode the structure from the inside. It was incredible. But this was a vacant house, and it turns out, not even fire accepted to be an occupant. The flames that had looked so real to me from the distance were, in fact, a reflection of the setting sun.

Though this mirage lasted only a moment, it left an impression on me, and it started me pondering vacancy and vision. I have always thought that what we are can be influenced, to a certain degree, by what we choose to rest our eyes upon. The more we look at the sunrise or sunset, the more we resemble it. The more we stare into the heart of life and the mystery of God, the more our hearts will pump for the love of it. Our eyes speak for us, as they reflect what we gaze upon back out into the world. Unlike the house, however, we have the will to choose what we gaze upon, and whether this view take up residence in our hearts or not.

The house was dark as the night and open to it

 and though he saw that the fence around it had partly fallen

and that weeds were growing through the porch floor,

 he didn’t realize all at once that it was only a shell,

there was nothing here but a skeleton of a house.”

 

Flannery O’Connor, Wise Bloo

The Catholic author Flannery O’Connor captures both the horror and the sheer comical madness of vacancy and nihilism in her short novel Wise Blood. Its protagonist, Hazel Motes, denies the divinity of Christ and the necessity of salvation and starts his own church, The Church Without Christ, “where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.” No sin is too great, and no man needs saving, since nothing means anything in this world. Throughout the course of the novel Haze, as he is commonly called, grapples with what this nihilism actually means. As he stares into this nothingness and preaches its message from the pulpit of his car, he begins to resemble what he studies. Like the windows in an abandoned home, or the empty home of Haze’s youth, an observer notes that his eyes “don’t look like they see what he’s looking at but they keep on looking.” Even to those he meets, Haze does not seem truly present, and what presence he does have increasingly resembles a void. As haunting as an empty house, Haze contemplates the emptiness of his world, and comes to resemble it more and more. However, unlike the empty home of his youth, he can never be emptied of his will, and in a certain sense, this makes the whole process even more haunting and real. Haze is choosing to be emptied, though he does so passively.

In dealing with human choice and vision, O’Connor brings up gritty topics in her prose, something that intimidates many Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Though the subject matter may not be typically wholesome (i.e. censoring the sinful stuff), it is WHOLEsome in the sense that it offers a complete view of a person. Even the emptiest, vilest characters in an O’Connor story are not reduced to objects or foils to nobler characters. In fact, there are no nobler characters in an O'Connor novel. She only deals with human characters, and in doing so, presents us with a picture of ourselves. We are shocked by their wretchedness, and then we find that we are shocked at ourselves. We are brought back constantly to our own humanity, its brokenness, and its call to fullness and redemption.  The process by which O'Connor leads us there however, is through emptiness.

Haze is certainly empty, but though he stares through vacant eyes, O’Connor never leads the reader to believe that Haze has completely lost his freedom of will.  His own choices can lead him into emptiness or to fullness. Though presented with many choices that drive the plot, the most crucial is as follows: emptied, Haze can turn towards nothing or he can turn towards God. If the choice is nothing, then he will remain as nothing. His eyes will continue to reflect as windows do in an empty home, even as it remains empty. If he chooses God, he will be pierced and occupied. Whichever road he takes will sweep him away, change his vision, and change him. Haze is a shell of a man, much like the house of his childhood is but a shell of a house, but O’Connor reminds us that he is a man. He is a whole man, grown hazy, and because of this, he is wholly redeemable.