• Jacob Hess

A Circle In The Fire: A Story By O'Connor

Today we will be looking at the short story A Circle In The Fire by Flannery O’Connor. Like most of her fiction, this story is packed full of spiritual and theological imagery, so much so that it can be difficult to explore all of its many facets. I will share some of my thoughts with you, but be sure to comment below or message me if you have some thoughts of your own. This is a great short story with some powerful messages.


A Circle In The Fire follows a few days in the life of Mrs. Cope. It begins with Mrs. Cope and her friend Mrs. Pritchard, a woman who works for Mrs. Cope on her large estate. The two ladies are conversing about a woman with a baby in an iron lung when the child of a former employee arrives with two of his friends. It turns out the child, named Powell, always loved living on the farm and, after his father’s death, he has come to show his friends around the place and ride the horses.


Mrs. Cope is cordial with the boys, but she does not allow them to ride her horses because she “was always afraid someone would get hurt on her place and sue her for everything she had.”[1] However, she does allow the boys to stay the night in the field; she was afraid if they stayed in the barn or the woods they would burn it down with their cigarettes. The boys stay the night, but the next morning refuse to leave. After continued attempts at encouraging them to move on, the boys start causing trouble, pushing Mrs. Cope to threaten to go to the sheriff, which she believes finally scares the boys off.


The next day Mrs. Cope’s daughter goes out to find the boys and scare them off herself. She stumbles upon the boys on the other side of the woods that line Mrs. Cope’s farm. She overhears them talking about Mrs. Cope’s place and how it doesn’t belong to her. One of the boys declares that he would “’build a big parking lot on it’”[2] if he owned it. The boys race off into the woods and start lighting a fire. Mrs. Cope’s daughter, frightened, runs away and finds her mother and Mrs. Pritchard standing by the house watching the woods as they go up in flames.


I think a significant theme in this story is self-righteousness; a self-righteousness that separates us from others and often causes the abuse of the blessings God has given us. Throughout this story Mrs. Cope often refers to how thankful she is for all of God’s blessings. She even tries to be sure that others are thankful too. She says to the boys, “’Do you thank God every night for all He’s done for you?’”[3] Yet, behind this veil of piety Mrs. Cope is very protective of her things. This can be seen when her daughter notes that she is always afraid of firers starting in her woods; it can be seen when the boys arrive and Mrs. Cope takes precautions so that the boys don’t damage her property or hurt themselves “and sue her for everything.”[4] Mrs. Cope’s true attitude about her possessions comes to light in a conversation with Mrs. Pritchard. She says, “’I have the best kept place in the county and do you know why? Because I work. I’ve had to work to save this place and work to keep it.'"[5] Mrs. Cope may claim to be thankful to God for all she has, but her actions and words reveal that she is thankful to no one but herself. She believes she has earned her place all on her own.


The boys enter Mrs. Cope’s life like prophets,[6] exposing her for who she really is. The woods in flame bring to light a misery in Mrs. Cope, a misery that unites her to all those people she looked down upon with pity, a pity that she used to feel better about herself and her blessings from God. The flames represent the grace of God, which burns down our preconceived notions about how good we are and how much we deserve all the good things in our lives. The prophets (boys) proclaim this destructive grace, this grace that levels the rich and poor alike and brings them together in need at the foot of the cross where misery is met with love, where farms are turn into parking lots, where everyone is welcome; welcome to come and have their burdens burned away with a holy fire that leaves only what matters left among the ashes.

[1] A Circle In The Fire, Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories, pg. 180.

[2] A Circle In The Fire, Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories, pg. 192.

[3] A Circle In The Fire, Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories, pg. 184.

[4] A Circle In The Fire, Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories, pg. 180.

[5] A Circle In The Fire, Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories, pg. 178.

[6] A Circle In The Fire, Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories, pg. 193.


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