"A View of the Woods" 335
O'Connor completed "A View of the Woods" by the fall of 1956 and sent it to Harper's Bazaar. She doubted they would accept it, thinking it "may be a little grim for the dryer set."26 And she was correct. The story was published in the fall 1957 issue of Partisan Review, and also was included in The Best American Short Stories of 1958. In a letter to a friend about this story, she indicates her idea of art—"impressing an idea on matter" or using "reality to make a different kind of reality."' Several years later, when O'Connor had read Teilhard, she used similar language to note the scientist's effort: "penetrate matter until spirit is revealed in it." In "A View of the Woods," O'Connor impresses her idea on the woods—that they represent a Christ figure—and gives life to the idea through a central character, the young Mary Fortune Pitts. In this story, what matters is that the characters hold onto "a view of the woods."
In the first paragraph, O'Connor gives the woods symbolic weight, for their appearance has a Christlike power: "a black line of woods which appeared at both ends of the view to walk across the water and continue along the edge of the fields" (525). In spite of the fact that the grandfather, Mark Fortune, plans to sell the lawn that will end the family's view of the woods, the persistence of the woods and their symbolic Christlike weight never falters. As the old man is dying, "he saw that the gaunt trees had thickened into mysterious dark files that were marching across the water and away into the distance" (546). At the beginning and ending of the story, these woods appear to walk on water.
O'Connor alludes to the story in Matthew where Jesus moves toward his disciples in a boat across a storm-tossed sea: "And in the fourth watch of the night, [Jesus] came to them walking upon the sea" (Matthew 14:25, Rheims-Douay Version).
On a literal level, this story is a candidate for one of O'Connor's darkest, most violent escapades, for in it a seventynine-year-old grandfather and his nine-year-old favorite grandchild grip, claw, and pound each other to death in the midst of those woods. The issue is the old man's tedious desire to sell his land by lots, in the name of progress, to spite his resident son-in-law, Pitts. This recurring activity has been fine with his granddaughter until the day he announces one more plan: "I'm going to. Sell the lot right in front of the house for a gas station" (531). To him, it is just another lot with no special significance. To her, however, it is the "lawn . . . where we play . . . , see the woods across the road" and where "my daddy grazes his calves" (532). It is the loss of the view of the woods, repeated three times in their conversation, that most alarms the old man. He cannot understand her position. Mark Fortune is representative of modern materialists; he wants the easy accessibility of convenience. When he looks at those woods for the first time with Mary Fortune's concern in mind, he sees only woods where a "pine trunk is a pine trunk"; however, on the third glance, the trees have a different look and he is aware of being "held there in the midst of an uncomfortable mystery that he had not apprehended before" (538). He feels the "mystery" but shuts his eyes to it. Mary Fortune does not want this land sold, and she is willing to fight to their mutual deaths to defend her position. If the woods are only woods, whether engagingly pretty or horrifyingly ominous, the story is bleak and its vision is sullen, which is why this story cannot rest on its bizarre surface level.
For O'Connor, the vision that piloted her stories was never lighthearted and easy. Integrity to her vision meant characters had to yield, to suffer, to die, if necessary, so that an essential Christian point could be driven home. During the Christmas of 1956, she sent a copy of the story to the Fitzgeralds with a message that suggests her earnestness: "I enclose a little morality play of mine for your Christmas cheer but as it is not very cheerful, I'd advise you to leave off reading it until after the season."' What O'Connor means to underline is, as she tells a friend, "one is saved and the other is damned. . . . One has to die first because one kills the other."'° Mark Fortune is the intended damned. He thinks of the Pittses as fools, for they would "let a cow pasture interfere with progress" (525) and "with the future" (528). He prefers the selling of his land to a man who allows an outside display of "old used-car bodies . . . , stone cranes and chickens, urns, jardinieres, whirligigs" (535). Mary Fortune Pitts is the planned saved. She values the view of the land, preferring the "profusion of pink and yellow and purple weeds, and on across the red road, to the sullen line of black pine woods fringed On top with green" (537). Mary Fortune, however, is by no means a Christian advocate in the story, so as O'Connor' s "saved," she is a pawn in a role that is larger than her comprehension.
In a story where primary colors abound, Mary Fortune, in her yellow dress, follows with interest the desecration of the red clay by the giant yellow machines, that, monsterlike, "gorge" themselves and "with the sound of a deep sustained nausea and a slow Mechanical revulsion, turn and spit [the clay] up" (525). At the story's beginning, Mary Fortune watches the scene intently with her grandfather, who sees in her his own fascination. In spite of the seventy years that separate them, they have converged as doubles, one for the other, outside and inside, and, in his mind, they view the world the same way. What the old man cannot fathom is her seeming complicity with her father, the idiot Pitts, in allowing him to beat her. While Mary Fortune denies those beatings, claiming five times that "nobody has ever beat me, . . . and if anybody tries it, I'd kill him" (544 with slight variations on 530, 530-31, 533, 541). The old man is proud of his heritage as "PURE Fortune" (541) and wants his granddaughter to follow suit.
Mark Fortune's decision to sell the lawn splits the perceived convergence at the story's beginning. The middle of the story eVoses the old man's path toward inevitable destruction as he does not heed his granddaughter's warning not to sell the land and not to beat her. The prospective buyer of the land, Tilman, has a name that suggests a till keeper, a man who would care about money, a modern materialist, like Fortune himself. Tilman, who advertises in "dazzling red letters" (535), is described as the devil incarnate, reminiscent of the serpent that deceives Eve in the temptation scene in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3). He inhabits a "dark store"; he is a man of "quick action and few words," with an "insignificant head weaving snake-fashion above [his folded arms]," containing narrow eyes and a "tongue [that is] always exposed in his partly opened mouth" (542). At the moment of closure on the land transaction, Mary Fortune hurls the first of many bottles across the store at this devil who would destroy her view of the woods. This retaliation on her part, this defense of her view, is the stunt that causes the old man to beat her.
The five death threats that she has issued him if he attempts to lay hands on her mean nothing to him. Both prepare for serious warfare as she removes her glasses and causes his to fly to the side. Whenever glasses are removed in an O'Connor story, outward physical sight is symbolically replaced by inward spiritual clarity. On a figurative level, she is fighting to protect her view of the woods, that through the Christ image inherent in them is also the "uncomfortable mystery" (538). On the literal level, she lights into him for all she is worth, clawing his arms, battering his knees, pounding his chest, and biting the side of his jaw. His appeal to her to stop reverts to the language of Southern manners. She should not abuse "an old man" and especially one who is related: "I'm your grandfather!" (545). The physical torment yields to her resounding blow with language; she abandons him forever in her declaration that she is "PURE Pitts" (545). In saying this, Fortune responds as though he has heard a rallying cry. He must blot out what is not "Fortune" and what does not see the world Fortune's way: "With his hands still tight around her neck, he lifted her head and brought it down once hard against the rock that happened to be under it. Then he brought it down twice mOre" (545). On the symbolic level, the modern materialist denies his Christ, elevating convenience above spiritual mystery. On the literal level, he kills his granddaughter, sacrificing her to his own greed and pride.
This exertion, however, brings about his hallucination and a fatal stroke. The ending converges in his perceived self-discovery of that "uncomfortable mystery" of the woods; he is not the master of this land, the controller of its destiny. The woods, which "march across the water" (546) oblivious to his human designs, overpower him. He is alone with only the "yellow monster" to his side (546), the gorging tractor, unmoving. To his side, as well, is Mary Fortune, a smaller monster also dressed in yellow who, likewise, does not move. The two characters converge in death at the end of the story. The younger of the two has defended her cause and died in pursuit of her belief that the view of the woods must prevail.