A Circle in the Fire by Flannery O’Connor

In A Circle in the Fire by Flannery O’Connor we have the theme of control, pride and fear. Taken from A Good Man is Hard to Find the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that O’Connor is delving into the theme of control. The main protagonist, Mrs Cope, is busy doing some weeding on her property in rural Georgia. This is significant because it suggests that Mrs Cope is attempting to control the spread of weeds. There is also another incident very early on in the story of Mrs Cope trying to exert control (over people). This occurs when Mrs Cope challenges Culver (farm hand) because he drives around the gate rather than through it. Mrs Cope gives out to him but it is through his actions (by driving around the gate and then being challenged by Mrs Cope) that the reader gets the sense of Mrs Cope is trying to control her environment. It is also interesting that when Sally Virginia (Mrs Cope’s daughter) is looking from the second storey window at her mother and Mrs Pritchard as they are weeding, O’Connor describes the tree line on the farm as being like a fortress. This idea of Mrs Cope’s farm (small plantation) being a fortress is important because it highlights to the reader that it is something that Mrs Cope has control over (or at least she thinks she does). Also it becomes clear to the reader as they read the story that Mrs Cope defines her worth by her ownership of the farm (prideful attachment). Mrs Cope’s name may also be significant as O’Connor could be using irony. Later in the story the reader realises that Mrs Cope, doesn’t cope very well.

It is through the introduction of the three young boys (Powell Boyd, Garfield Smith and W.T Harper) and their arrival on the farm that the reader begins to see how little control Mrs Cope actually has over her property. The first incident highlighting how little control Mrs Cope actually has occurs when Garfield throws his cigarette on the ground. Mrs Cope tells him to pick it up. It is a particularly dry summer and Mrs Cope is afraid of a fire being started. Garfield’s action is important because it is through it that the reader realises that Mrs Cope’s world (her farm) isn’t necessarily the fortress she thinks it to be. Another example of Mrs Cope trying to control things is when Powell tells Mrs Cope that he and his friends plan on staying the night in her barn. Again Mrs Cope isn’t happy with this and ends up suggesting to the boys that they can spend one night in her field rather than in the barn. Mrs Cope again appears to be afraid because of Garfield’s smoking and fears he will set the hay in the barn on fire. Ideally Mrs Cope doesn’t want the boys on her property (control again) but is resigned to them staying for one night. O’Connor again highlights the idea of fear when W.T tells Mrs Cope how much Powell has told him and Garfield about the farm, how Powell remembers riding horses on the farm with his father when he was younger. Mrs Cope tells the boys that the horses aren’t shod and that they can’t ride them, the reader learning that Mrs Cope has a fear of someone hurting themselves on her farm and suing her.

It soon becomes clear to the reader, through the boys actions, that neither Mrs Cope nor the farm hands are able to manage (or control) the boys. Not only have they stolen some milk and taken some of the horses out riding but Mrs Pritchard tells Mrs Cope that they have also let one of the bulls loose. Despite all this Mrs Cope still believes that she can control the boys but when she talks to them (as they are throwing stones at her mailbox) it soon becomes clear to the reader that the boys aren’t listening to her. Mrs Cope tells them that if they are still on her property when she returns from town, she’ll call the sheriff.  This may be significant as it might suggest that Mrs Cope is beginning to realise that she has no control or cannot exert any control over the boys. It is also interesting that when she returns from town and despite Mrs Pritchard’s assertions that the boys are still somewhere on the farm, Mrs Cope believes that she has finally got the better of the boys and that they have left her farm for good. Mrs Cope belief that the boys are gone may be important as it can suggest that through her pride, she is blind to Mrs Pritchard’s assertions. It is possible that Mrs Cope is naively believing in her own abilities to get rid of the boys. It is only later (the next day) when Sally Virginia is walking through the woods that the reader realises that the boys are still on the farm.

The imagery of the boys bathing in the cattle trough and running through the woods naked is also important as it suggests that the boys can’t be tamed or controlled.  W.T’s claim of ownership of the farm may also be significant as it is through it that the reader again realises that Mrs Cope has little control over her property, something that is highlighted when the boys light a fire. It is at this point, after Sally Virginia has told her mother about the fire that Mrs Copes biggest fears have been realised, a fire is taking control. The fire is important because it is through it that the reader senses that O’Connor is in some ways mirroring the story (Book of Daniel) of King Nebuchadnezzar and Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Like Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah the three boys have refused to idolize Mrs Cope’s false God (her property, a possession).

The ending of the story may also be significant. Despite Mrs Cope telling the farmhands ‘Hurry, hurry, don’t you see it.’ Culver is in no rush to put the fire out. This may suggest that the importance Mrs Cope has placed on her property, is not mirrored by Culver or the other farmhands. It may also suggest that Culver and the other farmhands are open to change, while Mrs Cope attempts to restore some type of order on the farm.  Whichever is the case it does becomes clear to the reader that Mrs Cope’s world has changed and whether she accepts the change remains unknown but what is certain to the reader is how fragile Mrs Cope’s world actually is. It is not the fortress she thought it was.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "A Circle in the Fire by Flannery O'Connor." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 3 Jan. 2014. Web.


  • A really good comment. I have just read the story, but understand it only after reading this comment.

  • Yes, I would have not understood her stories at all too much without these detailed explainers. We were reading this short story book in a book club and nobody liked the stories at all. Some did not finish it after the first story – “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. I was grossed out but I am the curious type so did some research and then grew to understand where O’Connor is coming from and the stories started to appeal to me. But even though I am sympathetic it is still it is hard to figure out by myself. Her brand of violent redemption…

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Susan. I find that a lot of O’Connor’s writing (short stories) is on the edge, leaning towards violence. I’m not sure why. I sometimes think that because she was a steadfast Catholic she was giving people a warning or a moral lesson on how to live their lives. It would have been interesting, if she had lived longer, to see what form her writing would have taken.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Susan. I find that a lot of O’Connor’s writing (short stories) is on the edge, leaning towards violence. I’m not sure why. I sometimes think that because she was a steadfast Catholic she was giving people a warning or a moral lesson on how to live their lives. It would have been interesting, if she had lived longer, to see what form her writing would have taken.

  • Amazing short story. I appreciated other two things, too: the role of Mrs. Pritchard, who is really annoying. And the fact that Mrs. Cope’s daughter, in the beginning, moves through the house like behind a theatre, listening from different points of view.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment and insight Mattia. You’ve seen a little more in the story than I managed to see.

  • I think it also says that Mrs Pritchard, the boys, and the farmhands were jealous of Mrs Cope because she owned this farm that they wished they owned too and because they did not own it they felt that Mrs Cope was selfish and wanted to be treated like a Queen or King. When the earth in reality belongs to all not just some. They wanted what she had but did she really have it? Was it only just hers? No. It was everybody’s.

  • I think the last line of the story is key, as it illustrates the only being who is truly in charge. Mrs. Cope believes in God but she does not trust God. I used to be quite afraid of flying until a pilot told me that I had to trust that he (the pilot) wanted to live just as much as I wanted to live. We all want to be in control but the simple fact is that we are not. Nor are we equipped to be. Mrs. P. Realizes this but Mrs. C. Takes no heed and thus what Mrs C fears most happens.

  • Very astute comments
    This seems to me to be a metaphor for our physical being, and the inevitable forces of nature and spirit that come to prey. Natural inclinations, self centered, and based on fear, are confronted and beset upon , as is life itself. The way Cope treats her farmhand, and the high handed preaching she gives the teens, are evidence of her grandiose and self serving excess, BUT, not unreasonable if viewed as life in a vacuum, where common compassion is second place underneath the whims and dictates of the ego

    But the voices of her mind, Pritchard, as re assurance of her value system, and the child, as even further extension of her ego, in the attack and defense, are assaulted by outside demons sent. It is unclear, to me, because of my limitations, where they are sent from, whether God, more likely, or the Devil? But the attack on the value system and physical being is inevitable and the degradation of the mind, spirit, and body, seems ordained, as our body, spirit and mind, or soul, is eventually brought to bear under the forces of nature, as created in the ultimate plan. I still like the other interpretations, as well or better than my own, but I saw the human as a person under attack, as a metaphor for the plantation under attack. Especially as one ruled by the excess of ego. I love her writing, and see the use of color, the vivid green the boy saw through his water smeared glasses, the vivid green as life itself, which the teen either admired or envied, or was sent to destroy. I wonder?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for that insightful input David.

      • Thank you very much. I am not sure if my idea is off base, but it came to me, based on the concept of change that was introduced, which makes sense to me. It attests to her writing ability to provoke so many universal ideas. I had read a critique about her use of color, and never forgot that her colorful imagery lent power to her stories. Merry Christmas.

  • I found this stoy both gripping and frightening particularly in light of her other writing such as A Good Man is Hard to Find and the Violent Bear it Away. Cope’s daughter represents the insightful but vulnerable people among us. She sizes the boys up as marauders and bullies and desires to prorect her Mother and property. Thus the imagery of her being armed when she seeks the boys in the woods. I think O’connor backed off a bit from her instinct of the innocent being violated by others. Although she offers some justification for the boys actions such as poor upbringing and basic human nature. It takes a strong stomach to read O’connor.

  • I am thoroughly enjoying my book of short stories by Flannery O’Connor. I find her descriptions very amusing and then something unexpected and unfortunate happens. As for Mrs Cope, aside from being controlling I find her thoughtless about the plight of others. She could have handled the situation differently by being nicer to the boys. All she offered them was crackers and Coca Cola, the epitome of unnutritious food. I know they took her by surprise but she could have given them something good to eat and and been more sympathetic. This would have saved her a lot of anguish.

  • I love how Flannery O’Conner expresses grace as an invitation to see ourselves for who we truly are. Most of her main characters lack clarity regarding their own vices and spend time looking for faults in others. Every story seems to have a movement towards a “moment of grace” when the main character has the opportunity to accept another more honest view of themselves. The violence always reminds me that we, in our pride, resist the truth until it bears down on us.

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