Violence in Flannery O’Connor: The Partridge Festival

There are three or four Flannery O’Connor’s short stories that are widely anthologized, and many more of the thirty-one stories she wrote in her short life of thirty-nine years, that should be better known. “The Partridge Festival” is one of them, which I discovered in reading her Complete Works.  No one who reads O’Connor fails to recognize her preoccupation with violence. What makes a person a killer is a theme she returns to over and over again. That concern is also visible in the title she chooses for her second novel The Violent Bear It Away. It is also a theme that has preoccupied me.  More than one American author has delved into the violent streak running through our history, most notably also in the work of Joyce Carol Oates.

The continuation of mass shootings even after the killing of twenty children in December of 2012 make this story particularly meaningful. O’Connor began writing this story in September 1959,  and it was first published in The Critic in 1961, before the Kennedy assassination and the ever-growing list of assassinations and shootings since November 22, 1963. Partridge is a fictional southern town that hosts an annual azalea festival. The event continues as scheduled despite the shooting of six townsmen. The murderer is the town eccentric and loner, a man named Singleton, who goes on the killing spree after he is the victim of a mock punishment, a cruel joke, for not wearing a festival badge.  As the story opens, he is considered insane and confined to the state mental institution for the killings. The whole scenario is one we have heard repeated so many times in the United States. Remarkably, “The Partridge Festival” singles out elements persisting in our culture, which are not just confined to the South, or can be dismissed as merely Southern Gothic writing in operation.

Calhoun, a young man who returns to his hometown ostensibly for the festival and to visit his great aunts, really is in Partridge because he is fascinated with Singleton (O’Connor’s choice of names is never random) with whom he senses a kinship.  Singleton disavows and disdains the pettiness and silliness of the town just like Calhoun does. At the danger of simplifying the complexity of this story, the idea of kinship is key to the understanding and appreciation of the complicity of every character in the murders. Calhoun walks around the town asking people their opinion of Singleton, much like TV reporters do today. O’Connor writes: “He would have liked to start, in Socratic fashion, a street discussion about where the real guilt for the six deaths lay, but as he surveyed the scene, he saw no one who looked capable of any genuine interest in meaning. ” He takes a seat at a drugstore counter and pronounces that, “Partridge is guilty.” The soda fountain boy responds, “Partridge can’t shoot nobody.”  He visits the barbershop to find out how more of the locals feel about the shootings. Every opinion voiced in the barbershop contains its bigoted logic, even as with masterful irony O’Connor exposes Calhoun’s own prejudices.

The story unfolds in a way in which the reader is compelled to ask: How are all the characters, even Calhoun who is the relentless investigator and the killer’s sympathizer,  part of the shootings in Partridge, and how are we, in fact, kin with the killer? Can the answers to these questions be found in our neglect of the mentally ill and a failure to recognize our kinship with the misfit, the disabled, and the dispossessed?  We fail also to recognize that under similar circumstances, we also might go mad, if bullied and badgered enough?

Eerily, Partridge goes on about its business just as we go on about our business after every report of a school shooting.

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