REVIEW: SIGN LANGUAGE: READING FLANNERY O’CONNOR’S GRAPHIC NARRATIVE BY AUTHOR, RUTH REINICHE
There has been endless critical analysis about Flannery O’Connor, so much that I wondered if there was anything new to say. Well, it turns out there is. Ruth Reiniche’s Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative, provides a fresh and innovative look at Flannery O’Connor’s pictorial visions drawing from her early years as a cartoonist at The Colonnade, her progression from the linocut into living art or tableaux vivants identified in her characters, O’Connor’s symbolism comparted to fifteenth century still life paintings, to a look at her dualistic writing methods where Reiniche identifies elements of photography in her short stories and novels thereby constructing “verbal snapshots.” Sign Language is a study on the evolution of O’Connor’s pictorial text and how it is translated through various art forms that scholars, professors, students, fans of O’Connor, and serious writers could all benefit from reading.
Reiniche first focuses her initial attention on O’Connor’s undergraduate years at Georgia State College for Women where O’Connor worked as a cartoonist on a weekly paper, The Colonnade. O’Connor created linocuts to produce her cartoon images and added amusing captions beneath them. The cartoons are simple flat depictions in black and white and are quite charming. Essentially, this method is a type of printmaking that involves cutting or gouging a design into a sheet of linoleum which is later inked with a roller. It is similar to wood printing except that linoleum is much softer than wood, making it easier to manage. We’ve all seen linocuts, but perhaps were unaware of the technique. For instance, most are familiar with the famous linocut “Don Quixote” by Pablo Picasso. One of the many points I found interesting was Reiniche’s comparison between O’Connor’s cartoons in The Colonnade to well-known New Yorker cartoonists James Thurber, Helen E. Hokinson, and George Price. I particularly liked her comparison of Hokinson’s empty-headed rich society woman to the coed cartoons O’Connor illustrated for the campus newspaper. Reiniche suggests these depictions of Southern womanhood would later emerge in O’Connor’s fictional characters. In the cartoon images of women, O’Connor used clothing to interpret the various social cliques on the campus: “The “Girlie-girls” wear puffy sleeves and pinafores; “smart” girls wear glasses, sensible clothing, and saddle shoes: and WAVES (the woman’s section of the U.S. Naval Reserve stationed on the campus of Georgia State College for Women) are “far-sighted,” serious, and detached from the coed scene that surrounds them.” Unfortunately, Sign Language does not contain the images Reiniche so accurately describes, and I am sure the lack of images had something to do with publishing costs. It is easy enough to locate the cartoon images online which is what I suggest readers do. What is relevant is the cultivation of O’Connor’s flat, black and white linocut cartoons into what would later develop into some of her characters. Writers do not one day simply acquire a style or technique; it takes years to hone the craft. Whether you are an emerging writer or an established author, understanding O’Connor’s pictorial process is beneficial when considering your own development of character and scene and as a writer myself, I found it rather encouraging to see a master of fiction, like O’Connor, develop the flat characters (in her cartoons) and give them flesh and bones.
Reiniche contends that O’Connor pictorial text in O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood can be viewed through the same medium as a painter of still life and specifically fifteenth century vanitas. This is a fascinating correlation and I believe a very obscure one. Reiniche compares the scene in Wise Blood where Hazel Motes returns to his childhood home as a “virtual vanitas still life framed by skeletal shell of what use to be his home. Both Hazel’s head and the shell of the house have been described as skeletal or skull-like. In place of the candle, O’Connor has chosen two “twisted” envelopes” [Hazel lights on fire while he traverses his childhood home].” Skulls, snuffed-out candles, rotting flowers, fruit, maps, hourglasses, and gold are common symbolic objects found in vanitas, reminding us of man’s mortality (skulls, rotting flowers) pictured alongside the temptations of wealth (fruit and gold) with Hazel Motes burning letters symbolic of the snuffed-out candles in a vanita. The shell of the house is a skull and even Hazel’s head is also described as skull-like with his mother’s empty chifforobe as the heart of the home acting as a pseudo-coffin. Finally, Hazel leaves a note, what Reiniche likens to his memento mori (Latin for “remember you must die”) on his mother’s chifforobe, threatening to hunt and kill anyone who steals it. I struggled reading Wise Blood, but the vanita connection makes me want to revisit Wise Blood with new eyes. As a reader of O’Connor, I have realized that I only touched the surface of O’Connor’s religious motifs and symbols of redemption and man’s fall from grace. What Reiniche has discovered provides a deeper level between writer and reader. It magnifies O’Connor’s dualistic narrative between the real and the spiritual or the divine. The reader is not simply reading words on a page but experiencing O’Connor’s vision and in that way becomes an observer. Writers are known for their powers of observation, but this manner of observation has the effect of placing the reader before a framed piece of art in a museum.
Reiniche contends that O’Connor’s linocut cartoons evolved into “recognizable tableaux vivants that suggest the work of both classical and contemporary artists.” The tableau vivant which began more as a parlor game later progressed onto the stage, and are live recreations inspired by paintings, literature, mythology, and Biblical stories where individuals are staged to reconstruct an image. There is a theatrical aspect to living art even though the framed models are silent and frozen in time. Like Reiniche, I also saw visions of the characters and scenes O’Connor describes with concurrent images flashing before me as I read. It is quite easy to imagine her scenes framed in a tableau vivant manner. Moreover, the correlation between the tableau vivant and particularly post WWII images of women in advertisements was particularly interesting. We’ve all seen these offensive 1950s advertisements of men spanking women for serving flat stale coffee or images of a pregnant woman being able to resume her breakfast cooking duties now that she is on a morning sickness pill. Reiniche likens these advertisements to the tableau vivant—women being defined and staged into domestic roles of cooking, cleaning, and caring for the family. Although Reiniche explores all the female characters of Wise Blood, my favorite example is the character of Ruby, from the short story, “A Stroke of Good Fortune.” (Note, Ruby is “absent” from Wise Blood. If you read Sign Language, Reiniche provides a wonderful breakdown of the novel’s female characters in the published version of Wise Blood verses the manuscript version, as well as a thought-provoking reason for the “removal” of Ruby.) While Ruby did not make the cut in Wise Blood, her evolution from the manuscript into “A Stroke of Good Fortune” and her pictorial interpretation is fascinating. For those of you who are art teachers or creative writing instructors, this would be a wonderful teaching tool to demonstrate to your students. Reiniche describes Ruby as being “defined by the products advertised daily on television and in women’s magazines” and Reiniche remarks on her resemblance to a cartoon titled “The Crop” O’Connor did for the college yearbook. “The Crop” features a college girl’s head surrounded by groceries, captioned with “Where our pennies go.” Ruby contemplates herself in the mirror before ascending the stairs to her apartment and O’Connor describes her body as a funeral urn, or as Reiniche points out, the momento mori you would find in a vinata. Ruby doesn’t recognize herself in the mirror: “her head balanced like a big florid vegetable at the top of the sack…against her right cheek was a gritty collard green…[and] mulberry-colored hair stacked in sausage rolls around her head.” There is no difference between her and her sack of foodstuffs—her entire body is designed for consumerism and domesticity. I always rooted for Ruby. She desperately wanted control of her own body, her disdain for her pregnancy is palpable. This was before the Pill. Reiniche made me even more sympathetic for Ruby. It wasn’t just her future of child rearing and house duties, but her entire body had been constructed into the 1950s ideal housewife—a sort of slavery trapped in her female form.
I’ve often seen O’Connor’s characters as caricatures, over-exaggerated and over-the-top. Ruby’s struggle up the stairs is near annoying as are the internal complaints of the displaced father in “The Geranium,” and am I the only one who was glad the grandmother was murdered in “A Good Man is Hard to Find?” Most writers would say caricature is a bad thing, as bad as a cliché, but the characters in comics must be over-emphasized for effect, because you have a limited time to make a statement with sometimes only one action (think of O’Connor’s single-panel cartoons) and a caption. I find O’Connor’s characters more effective in shorter form and prefer her short stories to her novels. For myself, a little goes a long way with O’Connor’s characters. Yet, the characters I mentioned previously are not caricatures, but (and this is my opinion) only become fully articulated at the end where the reader undergoes a moment of understanding with the character. I think Reiniche sums it up well when she proposes that the difference between O’Connor’s novels and her short stories are that the novels are “virtual galleries of pictorial moments, [while] the short stories showcase one or two signs that reverberate throughout the story as a whole.” She refers to these pictorial moments in O’Connor’s short stories as “gestures” though some use the phrase” “moments of grace.” For myself, these “gestures” have more force behind them because O’Connor’s message is conveyed in the briefest form. Her short stories hit you hard. Reading Sign Language, I now understand how O’Connor became so efficient with delivering her message. She taught herself early on via her cartoons, reworking and reworking those characters into her fiction, designing characters you come back to time and time again, like the misfit or Ruby.
There are so many interesting points in Sign Language. Unfortunately, I can only touch on the ones that resonated the most with me and one of those points is how Reiniche employs the methods of French theorist and philosopher, Roland Barthes. Barthes created a technique for decoding photos in such a manner as to reveal a message. Reiniche uses Barthes’ system first the short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and later in O’Connor’s novel, The Violent Bear It Away. For brevity sake and because more readers are familiar with “A Good Man is Hard to Find” I will look at Reiniche’s treatment in O’Connor’s famous short story and how Reiniche’s identifies Barthes’ theory of studium and punctum and the effect those theories have on the text. (As a note of interest, Reiniche takes a step-by-step approach, distinguishing what she calls “verbal snapshots” in the novel The Violent Bear It Away and in doing so identifies a “double consciousness” that (and I agree) should be considered when reading O’Connor.) Not to oversimplify, but the punctum is the emotional response that the viewer has with the photo; it is more individual and outside the control of the photographer because it draws from the viewer’s personal experiences, whereas the studium is universal. The studuim may be what initially appeals to the viewer and provides recognizable symbols that reach across culture, religion, history, and affect the viewer congruently. I read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” at least annually and I reread it after reading Sign Language, employing these concepts of photography to the images conveyed. According to Reiniche “the studium of the photographic moment is the historical significance of the child juxtaposed with Stone Mountain. The punctum is the wave. The child’s wave as the family places the scene in the family’s present even though the grandmother tries to freeze the child in the past by calling him a “’pickaninny.’” Reiniche describes Barthes’ punctum as “an element in the photograph rising and shooting out of it like an arrow piercing the view and inflicting a wound.” I am huge fan of the American photographer William Eggleston whose photos of the American South have always translated into an O’Connor story for me. Eggleston is famous for his color photography and his images are of the common man and woman doing common things, much like O’Connor’s everyday person. Yet, they both draw out something much deeper and transcend the mundane. I think Reiniche hit the target here. O’Connor’s writing is dualistic in nature and is much like viewing a photo and uncovering O’Connor’s divine in the ordinary. There is an element of voyeurism in reading O’Connor I had not realized until I read Sign Language, as if I am looking through the camera eye of O’Connor and receiving her messages via her “verbal snapshots.” I’m not a poet, but I imagine this would be an excellent approach when constructing visual imagery, because the snapshots are rapid visuals designed to provoke a response. Creative writing instructors would do well to have their students examine stories through this method Reiniche points out as well.
If you are serious writer, the techniques Reiniche describes will make you want to reconsider your own visual text and methodology. Reiniche was inspired to work on this project when she was reading the unfinished copy of Why Do the Heathen Rage? where she discovered O’Connor’s pictorial method. O’Connor’s character, Walter Tilman, was writing a letter using photos. He arranged and rearranged photos and analyzed his visual message. Reiniche realized she had unearthed O’Connor’s technique via Tilman and recognized it is as a type of sign language, or the “visual metanarrative that coexists with the linear narrative” in O’Connor’s work. This method reminds me of my own workshop experiences where instructors sometimes use visual prompts and assign writing exercises. What Reiniche has done for me by writing Sign Language and defining O’Connor’s pictorial technique is to provide me as a writer a new way of consuming and articulating imagery from mass media, photography, still life, abstract art, and on and on, a way in which to translate my own fiction, and of course, a much more profound appreciation for Flannery O’Connor’s work.
Link to Flannery O’Connor’s Cartoons: VIEW IMAGES
More About Ruth Reiniche:
I have a B.A. from University of Michigan, a M.A. from Grand Valley State University, and a PhD. from the University of Arizona, and I have been a teacher my entire life. I taught GED prep in migrant camps. I spent a career teaching high school English. I have taught parenting to teen-aged mothers. During the recession of the 1980s, I taught resume writing and job seeking skills to unemployed adults. At nights, I taught basic math and reading skills in an Adult Basic Education learning center. To assist students who could not physically attend classes, I went to their homes as a homebound teacher. On the weekends I taught knitting classes. Most recently, I have been a Freshman Composition instructor at the University of Arizona. That was, as I heard someone say on television the other day, in the “before times.” Our world is changing. Social structures are realigning. Educational institutions are now re-examining what exactly it means to be educated and, consequently, what it means to be an educator.
I researched and wrote Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative in the “before times.” I now am reading O’Connor’s work as well as my own, with new eyes. As O’Connor puts it, a text should enable “the reader to see the whole world no matter how limited his particular scene” When she said this, I believe she was not just talking about the twentieth century world of her present, but about the world that encompasses the past, present and future: the world as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Today (in the “after-times”) , it becomes all the more important to read and interpret O’Connor’s Sign Language.
 O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. NY; Noonday Press, 1969.
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