Peacocks, Vanity, and the Prick of Conscience

Peacocks (“royal turkeys”) are famous for their foolish vanity, but in Flannery O’Connor’s “An Afternoon in the Woods,” a more ordinary turkey (and a dead one at that) tempts a young boy into the sin of vain pride.

“VAIN AS A PEACOCK,” we used to say, back when vanity was a vice rare enough to be remarked on. If you’ve never lived with a peacock, you may not realize just how vain they can be. I had a chance to become acquainted with these creatures when I was in college in northern Illinois and occasionally stayed on my aunt’s farm.

A Fowl Menagerie

My Aunt June, like Flannery O’Connor (probably their only similarity), loved all sorts of barnyard birds, including peafowl. She had inherited the farm with her brother, Reynolds; he looked after the hog farming while June stayed busy breeding, raising, and selling all sorts of birds and their eggs: chickens, ducks, and geese as well as more exotic kinds of birds, such as peacock and rheas (a South American cousin of the better-known ostrich). Her eggs were very popular at Easter time, because some of her chickens laid lavender or green eggs.

Each of these bird species has its own native personality, and you need to understand the differences if you want to get along with them. You can’t act around a goose the same way you would with a duck—geese are bossy and territorial and, if you stray into a part of the farmyard where a gander doesn’t think you should go, it will bite you on the backside (“goose” you).

The rheas, tall stately birds with a kind of innate dignitas, were my aunt’s favorite — they had a special enclosure with a high chain-link fence, intended to keep them safe from predators. Rheas mate for life, which turned out to be unfortunate, because one day the male of the breeding pair got out of the pen and was savaged by a dog (or coyote?) and died of its wounds.  The female pined away and eventually died of her own wound — a broken heart.

The peacocks, more beautiful than the rhea but less known for monogamy, were not only the loveliest but also the most ridiculous of my aunt’s farmyard fowl. In some languages (Spanish, for instance) they are called “royal turkeys,” and indeed they look like overdressed turkeys–but don’t tell them that! They are quite proud of their finery (“proud as a peacock” is another familiar phrase). The ones I saw on my aunt’s farm would strut around like emperors, no matter how scraggly and bedraggled their tail feathers might be. Even when they were well-preened, their illusion of grandeur was wrecked as soon as they opened their mouths to utter their characteristic screech.

The peacocks had their own house—the cocks, that is, not the drab hens, who had few bragging rights. The walls inside the peacock house were lined with metal mirrors to reflect the birds’ splendor and tickle their vanity. They would strut in, singly, to fan their tails and bask in their glory reflected on every vertical surface. Their preening lasted only until they noticed that other peacock, the one in the mirror taunting them with the grandeur of his tail. At this sight, they invariably would rush to the mirror to peck out the eyes of their hated rival. Every mirror in the peacock house bore innumerable dents from birds who had tried to massacre their own reflections. Their jealousy was so fierce that, once they began their attack, it was a fight to the death — figuratively in most instances, although I remember at least one case in which the bird actually pecked himself to death. Usually, the idiot birds would exhaust themselves and limp back out of the house to recover out of sight of their hated rival. At any rate, they made an indelible mark on my imagination as images of the deadly sin of pride.

Flannery O’Connor’s “Royal Turkeys”

Book cover: The Terrible Speed of Mercy, by Jonathan Rogers.

What reminded me of the peacock house (and my aunt, dead now many years) was Jonathan Rogers’ biography of Flannery O’Connor, The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor, in which he highlights the way details of O’Connor’s own life often provided the seed of a story. He recounts her decision to add peafowl to her menagerie of more ordinary barnyard birds, against the advice of her mother, Regina, who complained that peacocks would eat up her flower beds. And, sure enough, after the glorified turkeys took over the grounds, Flannery admitted in her 1961 essay, “The King of the Birds”:

Peacocks not only eat flowers, they eat them systematically, beginning at the head of a row and going down it. If they are not hungry, they will pick the flower anyway, if it is attractive, and let it drop.

Given her fascination with these birds and their ostentatious vanity, which cannot bear even so humble a rival as an attractive blossom, I’m astonished that peacocks are not featured more prominently in her stories. The closest thing I can recall is a turkey–an ordinary, wild turkey, not a “royal turkey”–which becomes an occasion of vanity for a miserable young boy when it falls dead into his grasp in “An Afternoon in the Woods.”

Temptation in the Woods

It might have been an ordinary turkey, but for young Manley it represents a temptation to pride and vainglory. To hear his family tell it, this boy has never done anything right, and he desperately wants to do something to impress them. One day while he is moping in the woods, a fine, fat turkey, wounded under one wing by an unseen hunter, stumbles into his grasp and dies, an unearned prize. A moment before, Manley had been practicing curses and, when he discovers the newly-dead bird, he assumes it is a trap prepared for him by God, whom he has just been blaspheming. But then he recalls the parable of the prodigal son and other stories of repentant sinners rewarded and decides it may be a divine bribe to keep him from going bad.

It’s a bribe he decides to take. As he heaves the dead turkey over one shoulder and trudges into town to show off, he imagines the works of philanthropy he will perform in response to this opportunity for redemption. He prays for a beggar to cross his path so that he can demonstrate the sincerity of his resolve and, when the town’s old beggar woman actually does pass him by, he gives her a dime—but not his fat turkey.

The boy’s vanity, however, gets the best of him when, pretending that he brought down the turkey himself, he shows the bird off to some bullies who are stalking him. Ignoring his boasts, they snatch the turkey from him and then swagger off, laughing. Manley, humiliated and frightened by their behavior, seems to realize that he has just failed a test of character. Scurrying away from the scene of his moral defeat, he feels his failure pursuing him like “Something Awful [that] was tearing behind him with its arms rigid and its fingers ready to clutch.”

We’ve all had moments like that, I think. Just as we are preening ourselves on our virtue, some chance event suddenly puts us to a test that we fail miserably. I can think of one or two such incidents that still make me cringe in shame whenever I think of them, even after years or even decades. Flannery O’Connor’s stories are like that, too—there’s nary a one that won’t prick you in some secret, tender place. Like young Manley, we should take the sting of conscience as a reminder to “go and sin no more.”

By the way, I recommend The Terrible Speed of Mercy. Jonathan Rogers seems to understand and appreciate Flannery O’Connor and her work better than many of her biographers. You can get a taste of his approach here. Find brief reviews of some other biographies of Flannery O’Connor here.

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