Escaping the Waste Land: On Flannery O’Connor and T.S. Eliot

March 27, 2017 | 7 books mentioned 12 7 min read

Early in her novel Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor describes protagonist Hazel Motes, leader of the Church without Christ, by the silhouette he casts on the sidewalk. “Haze’s shadow,” she writes, “was now behind him and now before him.” It’s a strange way to situate a character — skulking between his shadows — but it’s not unprecedented. In The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot’s narrator refers to “Your shadow at morning striding behind you/Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you.” Coincidence? Nobody can say for certain. But in the rare case of a critic linking O’Connor and Eliot, Sally Fitzgerald (O’Connor’s close friend) wrote that “it was Eliot and his Waste Land who provided for her the first impetus to write such a book as Wise Blood.”

cover Harold Bloom, the literary critic who thrives on making such connections, famously argued that great writers, burdened by what he called the “anxiety of influence,” subconsciously misread established literary giants to achieve originality. But in this case, O’Connor is not misreading Eliot. She’s answering him. The Waste Land delivers a darkly poetic proposition. Every line relentlessly reiterates the theme that, in the wake of World War One, hope had been leached from life. Existence, in the poem’s assessment, culminates in a word one rueful lover repeats in The Waste Land’s second section: “Nothing . . . Nothing. . . nothing . . .nothing . . .Nothing.”

O’Connor was a Catholic whose literary ambitions hewed to an active faith. For her, nothing could come from nothing. She embraced The Waste Land’s despair but refused to accept its emptiness. In her essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” she wrote, “I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the storyteller to observe.” This belief — informed by a desire to observe from a Christian angle — compelled her to both absorb the meaningless in Eliot’sThe Waste Land while, at the same time, offering a response. Of Hazel Motes, she once wrote, “His search for a physical home mirrors his search for a spiritual one, and although he finds neither, it is the latter search which saves him from becoming a member of the wasteland and makes him worth 75,000 words.”

cover In both Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, O’Connor — as Harold Bloom would expect one to — evokes Eliot’s wasteland by replicating its prominent themes. She transplants the desolate urban iconography of The Waste Land’s to the small rural enclaves of the American South. O’Connor’s southern landscape is the “upsidedown half of the world,” a sad and painful sprawl of land where “each weed that grew out of the gravel looked like a live green nerve.” At times her landscape seems on the verge of exploding into flames and, in least one instance, at the end of The Violent Bear it Away, does just that. But in the midst of this desolation and conflagration she confronts Eliot’s dried-up nothing with a flood of something. Decisively, if jarringly, she proposes a vision — albeit a strange vision (Eliot once said of O’Connor, “She has certainly an uncanny talent of high order but my nerves are just not strong enough to take much of a disturbance”) — of human redemption.

Eliot delivers the ruins. O’Connor preserves them, navigates them, and then, inspired by Catholicism, discovers in them an original form of grace.

Whatever anxiety O’Connor experienced over mimicking Eliot (probably not very much), she didn’t attempt to hide it. In O’Connor’s second (and final) novel, The Violent Bear It Away, the 14-year-old Francis Marion Tarwater receives from his aging uncle, with whom he lives in a countrified wasteland, careful instructions on how to bury his large dead body when he eventually keels over in their isolated abode. After digging what the uncle insisted had to be a proper hole (“I want it ten foot”), Tarwater was then, according to the uncle’s directions, instructed to “prop me with some bricks so I won’t roll into it and don’t let the dogs nudge me over the edge before it’s finished. You better pen up the dogs.” In The Waste Land’s single reference to burial, a soldier home from war in London sees a former comrade walking across London Bridge and asks, “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” And then: “Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to man/Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again.”

cover In both instances, in both wastelands, dogs are banished from the graveside. They will not be set loose to complete Antony’s famous order, delivered in Act III, Scene I of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, at Caesar’s funeral, to “let slip the dogs of war.” That act would miss the point in these mirrored wastelands because, as both Eliot and O’Connor suggest, whatever justice is to be attained is, alas, pointless. The body is interred. The play is over. Death is death. Dust is dust. The dogs must be locked away.

Perhaps the only prospect worse than death is, for both authors, eternal earthly life. It’s a prospect that both Eliot and O’Connor symbolize in the form of a shriveled, miniaturized body. The Waste Land opens with an epigraph that declares (in part): “Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere.” Translation: “Now I myself with my own eyes saw the Sybil of Cumae hanging in a jar.” According to myth, the Sybil of Cumae asked Apollo for eternal life but, in so doing, forgot to ask for eternal youth. Wish granted, the Sybil ages forever, shrinking to the point that she fits in a glass jar. The image is reliably referenced later in the poem as a symbol of existential hopelessness (“You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.”)

What worked for Eliot worked for O’Connor. In Wise Blood, Enoch Emery, the trickster sidekick whose friendship Haze Motes rejects, steals a mummified dwarf (displayed in a glass case) from a local museum and delivers it to Sabbath Lily Hawks, the nymph lover of Motes, in a paper sac. Enoch wants Motes, despite his bad attitude, to have the desiccated and shrunken mummy as a “new jesus” symbol for his Church Without Christ. Earlier in the novel, when Enoch first sees the mummy, he approaches it cautiously, after reading a sign on the wall that tells him “he was once as tall as you or me.” As with Eliot’s Sybil, the mummy has diminished in size over time. The scene ends when a mother walks into the museum with two boys, both of who approach the glass and peer at the blackened figure.

cover O’Connor, again in Wise Blood, practically completes Eliot’s scene for him. In Eliot’s epigraph (which inexplicably switches to Greek), two boys approach the Sybil in the jar (some think this was the inspiration for Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar), just as the boys do in O’Connor’s museum. They ask her, “What do you want?” and the Sybil replies, in true Eliot fashion, “I want to die.” O’Connor grants the Sybil her wish when, after Sabbath showed Motes the mummified new Jesus, he “snatched the shriveled body and threw it against the wall.” Upon impact, “the head popped and the trash inside sprayed in a little cloud of dust.”

Few words are more evocative of The Waste Land than that carefully considered word: dust (a mote of dust). If there is a line that best captures the depth of the poem’s existential terror it comes when the narrator promises, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” — or, as O’Connor suggests, maybe in the shattered head of a purloined dwarf.

O’Connor’s novels also follow Eliot’s lead on the theme of blindness. The inability to see, partially or completely, pervades The Waste Land. The “hyacinth girl,” from section one, describes a moment of potential romantic happiness when the girl notes of her possible lover, “we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,/Your arms full and your hair wet.” It’s one of the poem’s only moments of hope. But it’s immediately dashed when the hyacinth girl recalls how, quite suddenly, “I could not speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither/Living nor dead, and I knew nothing.” Later in the same section, the prophetess “Madame Sosostris,” consults her “wicked pack of cards” — is there any hope in there? — and finds a Phoenician sailor with “pearls that were his eyes” as well as a “one-eyed merchant.” The merchant on the tarot card carries something possibly significant on his back, but it turns out to be something for which Madame Sosotris must confess, “I am forbidden to see.” Some prophetess — she’s without foresight.

cover Sight, or lack thereof, is even more central to inner mechanics of Wise Blood. Hazel Motes, who can see normally when we meet him, eventually blinds himself in an act of spiritual rage. Motes’s antagonist, the preacher Asa Hawks, also sees normally, but fakes blindness as a ruse to foster donations. When naming her characters, O’Connor must have had in mind “seeing like a hawk” and the biblical “why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (And maybe even King Lear.) Either way, the theme of compromised sight is even in peripheral scenes. When Motes and Sabbath encounter a caged black bear at Tennessee gas station (don’t laugh, I once saw a caged ostrich an east-Texas gas station), we learn that “the bear had only one eye.” Enoch Emery’s landlady was “almost totally blind but moved about by an acute sense of smell.” Sabbath Lily says to her father about Haze, “I like his eyes. They don’t seem to see what he’s looking at, but they keep on looking.”

The similarities continue in other areas as well. They appear when Tarwater is raped in The Violent Bear it Away, and in Tarwater’s sadistic baptism (which results in drowning the feeble initiate). But, in the end, O’Connor isn’t content with simply mimicking Eliot’s hellscape of despair. Instead, she yanks us in the opposite direction — from a ghastly landscape to a strange paradise of redemption. And she does so in a way that, indeed, made her a true original — at once devout, humorous, and spiritual. It is in that last description of Motes’s eyes — “but they keep on looking” — that O’Connor’s faith intervenes, her Catholicism asks to be honored, and she lays an eccentric basis for hope.

Eliot ends his poem with a spiritual assessment of a wasted land that’s so devoid of life (specifically water) that it even dries out any prospect of Christ’s resurrection and, by extension, the rest of humanity. “After the agony in stony places/The shouting and the crying/Prison and palace and reverberation/Of thunder of spring over distant mountains/He who was living is now dead/We who are living are now dying.” To be sure, Motes doesn’t escape death. He dies in the back seat of a cop car. But before his death, after his blindness, as his spiritual vision intensifies towards something, he takes to staging his own crucifixion (wrapping himself in barbed wire and filling his shoes with rocks), and attempts his own conversion experience through a painful form of redemption.

The book ends with Motes’s corpse propped in a chair at the home of his landlady. Her name — evoking the water that never quenched The Waste Land — is Mrs. Flood, and her final observation — that she thinks (with her eyes shut) she sees “a pin point of light” in his dead eye sockets — is the twinkle of hope that you can search for throughout The Waste Land and never find. It is O’Connor’s way of answering, and escaping, The Waste Land. It is her way of resurrecting Motes, and ensuring that his quest for meaning never loses significance.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

is a writer and historian living in Austin, Texas. His articles and essays have appeared in Harper's, the Paris Review online, The New York Times Book Review, The American Scholar, the Virginia Quarterly Review, The New Yorker online, Pacific Standard, Salon, and Slate. He is writing a book about art and expression in the American South called The Wild Beautiful Poets We Grow From The Road.


  1. This essay has a fascinating premise and a flawed execution. The author knows O’Connor much better than I do but seems to only have a shmoop-esque understanding of The Waste Land.

    The Sibyl and the Greek boys speak Greek because they are Greek. The Epigram is a quote from The Satyricon.

    While full of pain and despair, The Waste Land is also full of hope (and indeed it rains at the end). It is a Modernist image not of Dante’s hell but of purgatory (hence the ending and the “Shantih”).

    Finally, the author alleges references to Eliot and The Waste Land and then misses the most obvious reference in the whole essay. If O’Connor lifted anything from Eliot it was trimming “he was once as tall as you or me” from The Waste Land’s “Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.”

  2. This is quite a good college-level essay.

    Given the author’s argument, though:

    1. How does he interpret the strange fate of Enoch Emory (in “Wise Blood”), which was to kill the owner of a gorilla costume and then, apparently disencumbered from his humanity, escape in the wilderness in a costumed-but-feral state?

    2. Blindness as a thematic element MUCH predates “King Lear.” I mean, really, isn’t Oedipus (and, especially, Oedipus at Colonus) the more obvious predecessor for O’Connor’s use of blindness in “Wise Blood”? How might that affect his explication?

    3. How does the author explain the extraordinary exceptionality of “Parker’s Back,” written at the very end of O’Connor’s life? In that wonderful story, it is not at all clear how Catholicism plays a part. In contrary: It seems like “Catholicism” has taken a back-seat to the idea of “Belief” in general. I mean, the Byzantine Christ in Parker’s tattoo references (I think) the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches. But, though Parker, through his choice of inscribed Eastern iconography, has “gone schismatic,” my feeling is that O’Connor is with him. Discuss.

    4. Why, why, why, do we keep discussing O’Connor by her own lights? I mean, she was at pains, in letter after letter, and in several essays, to offer “Catholic” interpretations of her own stories. As Frederick Crews discussed many years ago (NYRB 4/26/1990), though, it might be more useful to disregard her own explanations and instead focus on the ways the stories complicate the author’s own relationship to her creations. (That said: he was/is way too harsh on her.)

    SO many essays/articles/books have been written on O’Connor’s Catholicism. (And not a few of them have referenced Eliot, by the way.) Why do we keep doing this? Frankly: O’Connor, despite my long-term love of her voice and prose, needs to find critics who can make her “relevant” now.

    THAT will be hard to do, I think, even though I made a pilgrimage to her grave thirty years ago.

    I still love her–but I’m not sure one should still TEACH her.

  3. At The Millions the essays are always pitched at the level of a second semester sophomore.

  4. @Hickey Freeman

    I don’t think that “always” is fair at all, but one of the incidental blessings of the hive-mind talking to itself (aka The Internet) is the ability of a statement of opinion, or an “official” essay, to pull, from the shadows, the unexpected contribution of the knowledgeable spectator. In this case, Michael Link’s comment really adds something to Mcwilliams’ essay… as does the comment from G.M. Palmer. I’d like to be able to write “brings something to the conversation” but, unfortunately, the article-writers at The Millions don’t stoop to engaging “below the line” very often at all, as though we’re all still stuck in the good old paper days of the NYer and Paris Review (et al) and the unilateral (structurally authoritarian) flow of opinion.

    The finest articles here often seem to disappear with little or no comment; I think slightly more engaged article-writers would fix that problem.

  5. I’m more than happy to engage in a conversation below the line, above it, on it, in it. Wherever. I think most comments here are great and I learn from them. I’m just reading, thinking, and writing what I observe. Never claim to be The Authority.


  6. @James McWilliams

    Most excellent! I was an F.O. enthusiast years ago, but know the least about her, of all of us here in this thread.

    How do you respond to question #3 of Michael Link’s comment?

  7. I had not read “Parker’s Back” since high school–a Catholic high school in the south, no less. I can only imagine how the priest who taught us interpreted the story. But, on re-reading it, I agree that O’Connor is certainly questioning Catholicism, or at least the version that compels the ritualistic tattooing of Madonnas and Christs onto the body. That said, to argue (as I imagine many do) that Parker turns his back on Christ seems too easy an interpretation. The permanence of the tattoo, further adorned with Parker’s own bloody welts, seems consistent with FO’s theme of characters ineluctably grappling with an already grotesque manifestation of faith, rather than simply replacing it with a more secularized system of belief. In any case, how Catholicism plays a part in Parker’s experience seems less important to me than the simple fact that it does play a part. (But do note that my intention in the piece was not necessarily to focus on the Catholic theme, but rather to highlight FO’s debt to TS Eliot, especially in Wise Blood). Thanks.

  8. “I can only imagine how the priest who taught us interpreted the story.”

    It’s actually a bit of a mixed bag, this one… for me it lacked the subtle, balanced inexorability of the pieces slowly fitting together, to form the story’s meaning, as crystallized in the end, that F.O.’s best stories have. And the forces of Judgement/ Comeuppance that energize her best tales have, in this one, to me, pushed everything else out of the story. No astonishing metaphors; no astonishingly metaphorical descriptions of action (the supreme exemplars of her talent in all that being Greenleaf and The Displaced Person, in my opinion). Most of what thrilled me about F.O., when I was much younger, seems rare or self-parodying in Parker’s Back. Parker’s back by the end of the story but his return to the “fold” has no kick to it.

    The weakness (for me) of Parker’s Back aside, I can see just as much reason to compare F. O. to Franz Kafka as to Eliot.

  9. Michael,

    I think we keep discussing FO’s Catholicism because it seems so inextricable from the aesthetic structural mode of her stories and storytelling. Her characters do not have agency of any real sort–they are all saddled with some variety of inherent sinfulness (usually pride), and the stories themselves are exquisitely wrought and carefully calibrated torture devices designed to bring them the maximum amount of suffering. True, you don’t have to be a Catholic to have this kind of worldview, but it’s difficult to ignore in her particular context. In my deeply flawed mental firmament of art I tend to pin FO closer to someone like Bosch than anyone of her era or region.

    Will check out Crews’ article, thanks.

  10. Dean Koontz’s works, particularly his Odd Thomas series, includes all of these references: gypsy mummy’s “You are destined to be together forever” being the most obvious. He alludes to Eliot and O’Connor throughout the series.

  11. I love this essay. Also–as some mention above–I have often though that O’Connor’s allegorical vision in her stories is more paradoxical than her own statements about intent. The stories themselves, I think, often allow opposite interpretations simultaneously, so that is possible to read them as confirmations of faith or something far more nihilistic. FC, it seems, wanted people to understand that Christian sensibility inspired under her work–and held strong by her underlying belief–but she was too good of an artist to make her stories simplistic, and understood the paradoxical nature of allegory.

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