Photo of Georgia College Admission’s Building, Alma Mater of Flannery O’Connor
Re: Leora Watts and the Ill-Fitting Pink Nightgown
Mrs. Watts was sitting alone in a white iron bed, cutting her toenails with a large pair of scissors. She was a big woman with very yellow hair and white skin that glistened with a greasy preparation. She had on a pink nightgown that would have better fit a smaller figure. (O’Connor WB 33)
Since Dawn has been kind enough to give me this space, I want to talk about a project I have been working on for about a year now. It is an extension of my “sign language” analysis and my working title for the project is Sign Language: Stitching a Landscape. My argument is that telling our stories, regardless of the style of the text, will alter the landscape of our perceptions and of our lives. My project focuses on women’s stories. I believe it is crucial to know the thoughts and desires of the women who lived before us and it will be necessary for the women that follow us to know what we valued, how we faced fear, and how we loved. As evidenced by my work on Flannery O’Connor, the voices of texts that are not the printed word, but are given form by narrative, have long compelled my attention. The texts I am examining in my current research are “hand-made.” When a writer incorporates the construction of a “hand-worked” text such as a weaving, a quilt, or a knitted garment into the plotline of her novel or short story, the fictional work bursts open in a way that could not be accomplished by other means. These kinds of texts are highly gendered. For several years I have been collecting works in which writers have embedded “hand-made” pieces to construct characters and to indicate context by illustrating patterns and motifs from the larger world. Essentially, it is a way of holding the past, present, and future in the palm of one’s hand. My contention is that when these “hand-made” items appear, they speak with a sign language that transcends time and place. It is most often a language of feeling that is expressed in a woman’s voice and by the work of her hands.
This, strangely enough, takes us back to Leora Watts’s “pink nightgown.” In my work on O’Connor, I referenced how she uses paintings, ads, and films, mostly generated by males, to amplify her narrative. However, it is O’Connor, herself, who assembles the objects that visually define her female characters: the pink nightgown, a nail clipper, a dandelion hair accessory, a chifforobe, a broom. I see O’Connor as the designer and maker and her characters as her creations. I, now, want to move beyond that work and into the hands and minds of makers and their creations who are embedded in pieces of literature. Why are they there? Do they fit my “world in the palm of the hand” criteria?
I will now describe two short examples from novels that I am currently analyzing.
Early on in her novel Northbridge Rectory, Angela Thirkell uses the knitting in a mother’s hands to illustrate the enormity of facing the presence of inconceivable dangers. Mrs. Villars is a young rector’s wife whose responsibility it is to organize the “war work” of her husband’s first parish. We join Mrs. Villars as she discusses the connotation of the word “living” with her parish knitting group, all of whom are working on some war project: knitting garments to supplement the uniforms of British soldiers (WWII).
‘It is quire dreadful,’ said Mrs. Villars, putting down her knitting (which was mittens for her younger son in the Royal Air Force), ‘the way some people behave with words so that you cannot use them. “Living” has almost got out of control’ (6).
This was the tenth novel I had read by Thirkell, so I was accustomed to her way of bringing the outside world into the context of the small English village, but Mrs. Villars’s mitten arrested my attention. Why was she knitting mittens for a soldier? Thanks to Google, I found knitting patterns officially designed for soldiers’ mittens. Requirements for these mittens included olive drab yarn and the addition of a trigger finger to the basic mitten shape… a trigger finger. Mrs. Villars had probably knitted various sizes of mittens for her son as he grew up and she now sits in her parish knitting group making him adult size mittens that require a trigger finger. No wonder she is obsessed with the slippery connotation of the word “living.” Knitting a mitten, for Mrs. Villars, is a hopeful act of faith that her son will be alive to wear them when she finishes. In this one sentence Thirkell uses this mitten with a trigger finger juxtaposed with the word “living” to open the door to the world war raging outside of this fictional English village as well as in the real world that roiled around Thirkell as she wrote in 1941.
While Thirkell’s mitten serves as a metaphor for a mother’s wish to protect her son, a quilt serves as a metaphor for a life in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In the novel, as Baby Suggs is dying, she calls out for color.
There wasn’t any except for two orange squares in a quilt that made the absence shout. The walls of the room were slate-colored, the floor earth brown, the wooden dresser the color of itself, curtains white, and the dominating feature, the quilt over an iron cot, was made up of scraps of blue serge, black, brown and gray wool—the full range of the dark and the muted that thrift and modesty allowed. In that sober field, two patches of orange looked wild—like life in the raw. (46)
An analysis of the life of Baby Suggs, born a slave and living with intolerable loss is too complex to carry out in this space. The two orange patches, however, speak directly to us as readers, reaching out beyond the frame of the work, in the same way that characters in O’Connor’s single panel cartoons did. Those two orange patches impel us to look over the landscapes of our own lives and wonder. What if we knew we would have only two orange patches? Would we go on? Would it be worth it? What are we to do about these orange patches presented to us by Toni Morrison?
To me, it is the contemplation of these questions that necessitates the need for storytelling in our lives. I know I do not stand alone when I think of Mrs. Villars’s mittens as I make masks for my grandchildren to wear to school or when I consider the patchwork of a valued human life…a life that matters.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Penguin, 1987.
O’Connor, Flannery. Wise Blood. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1949.
Thirkell, Angela. Northbridge Rectory. Great Britain: Hamish Hamilton, Ltd., 1941.
 These are some of the texts with which I am working: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, Beloved by Toni Morrison, A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, In Love and Trouble by Alice Walker, A Single Thread by Tracey Chevalier, The Professor’s House by Willa Cather, Northbridge Rectory by Angela Thirkell, and on and on.
July 16: Presentation at a Georgia Center for the Book Event Link
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TO PURCHASE SIGN LANGUAGE: Mercer University Press or Amazon
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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