Flannery O’Connor, a well-known author, wrote mostly about the relationship between people and God. O’Connor, a Roman Catholic, was devoted to her religion. Most of her stories revolve around southern, rural culture and the people who lived in this environment. O’Connor used many themes and symbols in her stories, and one symbol that particularly sticks out is a character’s eyes. Flannery O’Connor uses character’s eyes to convey qualities that lead to a profound understanding of their actions.
O’Connor uses eye color to reveal qualities about the characters because vision is an extremely important aspect of human life. The color of a character’s eyes in many of O’Connor’s short stories reflects their view of the world and the people around them. Vision, or someone’s ability to see through their eyes, has historically been referred to as more than just how someone is able to use sight, “[…] for the first two hundred years of its existence, the word “vision” referred exclusively to sight with the mind’s eye […]” (Nelson). Flannery O’Connor gives the reader an in-depth description of the eyes of a character because it gives the reader a preview of the character’s mind’s eye. For example, when a character has small, black eyes the reader is to assume that they are not pure, but a character with bright, blue eyes is seen as innocent. Flannery O’Connor uses these descriptions because she is revealing a part of the character to the reader.
One of the most prevalent examples of O’Connor’s symbolism with a character’s eyes is in her short story, “Revelation”. Ruby Turpin’s beady eyes scanned the waiting room and analyzed the people sitting there. Vision in its entirety is an important aspect in the story because at the end when Mrs. Turpin has her revelation, she has a vision of heaven and of a better life. When Ruby Turpin is surveying the waiting room, she is meeting the people’s eyes and judging them. In “Revelation”, “[an] examination of eyes as symbols reveals the gradual unfolding that leads Ruby Turpin to her ultimate personal revelation” (Smith). Mrs. Turpin’s judgment and hypocrisy lead to her revelation in the end. A reader can predict this by the description of her eyes. The fact that they are little and bright gives the reader a sense that she has a bright view of either herself or of the world, and since they are black the reader can tell that Mrs. Turpin is not the most innocent or kind character.
As the story progresses, the reader can understand why Ruby Turpin’s eyes are little, bright, and black because, although she has a cheery sense of her life, she is a hypocrite and in reality, is very lost. O’Connor brings in the symbolism of eyes and vision because of her religious beliefs. In the beliefs of Christianity, vision also holds a key role. Specifically, in “Revelation” the vision Mrs. Turpin has is life-changing. “The cost—and gift—of such a burning is a clarity of vision […]” (Bruner) and to Mrs. Turpin her burning revelation gives her a lack of ambiguity about her life thus far. The symbolism of Mrs. Turpin’s eyes is relative to the story not only because her eyes describe her personality, but because Mrs. Turpin’s view of the world is different due to her distorted vision.
Mary Grace’s eyes are also vastly incorporated into “Revelation.” Mary Grace and her mother both have blue eyes, but O’Connor describes the lady’s eyes as captivating and Mary Grace’s as distasteful. O’Connor’s description of Mary Grace’s eyes reflects Mrs. Turpin’s character more than Mary Grace’s. Mrs. Turpin is judging this young girl and viewing Mary Grace’s eyes as ugly. The description also shows how Mary Grace does not have eyes that are pleasant to look at, and that reflects on her character. Her unpleasant eyes display her unlikable character. Mary Grace also stares at Ruby Turpin throughout the story and gives her dirty looks. This eventually ends with Mary Grace’s outburst. When Mary Grace is looking at Mrs. Turpin, O’Connor describes her eyes as, “[…] fierce brilliant eyes” (371). The shift in Mary Grace’s eyes is a symbol of Mary Grace releasing her pent-up anger on Mrs. Turpin. Mary Grace’s eyes change because she is changing with them.
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Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” uses eye color to display the character’s qualities. In this particular story, O’Connor uses eye color to evoke an unexpected and sympathetic response from the reader towards the Misfit.
When the Misfit takes off his glasses, he drops the mask, in a way: “without his glasses, the Misfit’s eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking”. The gesture of the grandmother has stirred a humanity that he can’t accept, having always forcefully claimed independence. But O’Connor invites her readers to compare this gesture to the mustard seed: the title hints at this promising resolution—this hope (Lienard and May).
O’Connor is showing how the Misfit is hurting inside and that he is insecure. This description makes the readers sympathize with the Misfit and they are aware of his pain. The description of the grandmother’s brown eyes as radiant tells the readers that she is kind and joyous. This creates a general fondness of the grandmother as a character. The grandmother is very cheerful and has a good attitude even in the darkest times. When the Misfit kills her, the reader is affected because of the loss of her upbeat attitude. Flannery O’Connor describes the character’s eyes because the symbolism and description gives the reader insight into the personalities of her characters.
Another Flannery O’Connor story that uses eyes as symbolism is “Good Country People.” In this story, O’Connor describes most of the character’s eyes, but specifically focuses on Mrs. Freeman’s. When introducing Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman, she describes Mrs. Freeman’s eyes as having, “[…] never swerved to left or right but turned as the story turned […]” (350). This reveals a lot about Mrs. Freeman’s character to the reader. The reader now knows that Mrs. Freeman is nosy and gossips. O’Connor also writes that Mrs. Freeman has black piercing eyes, and this shows that she is not an innocent character and does not have the purest intentions. As the reader continues, they learn that Mrs. Freeman strives to look down on people and judge them. The symbolism of Mrs. Freeman’s eyes exhibits her nasty personality and judgmental behavior.
Throughout Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, she consistently uses a character’s eyes as a source to provide understanding of the character as a whole. Whether that be the movement, color, or shape, a character’s eyes are described in the story to display features of their personality or exposure to significant details. The description of a character’s eyes reveals a deeper meaning to their actions. This is a recurring symbol that enhances the short stories. “Revelation,” “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and “Good Country People,” all include examples of the symbolism of eyes O’Connor uses. Vision and a person’s eyes are an extremely important part of experiencing life that improve everyday existence for most people. A reader is able to understand a character in a profound and more meaningful way when they are made aware of the character’s eye color because as the early known proverb by Cicero (106-43 B.C) states, “The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter,” (McCarthy) a person reveals their emotional state within the first introductory gaze. O’Connor’s repetition of this symbolism allows it to be acknowledged by the reader and utilized in the comprehension of a character.