Roads have always made me uncomfortable. Long stretches devoid of populated centers that tie patches of civilization together in a big net, roads are transitional places, liminal places. They are the in-between spaces separating the start from the finish. They aren’t meant to be inhabited for long and the longer I find myself on one, the more worried I become. Sometimes it feels like I may never reach my intended destination.
Roads have been prominently featured in several of Flannery O’Connor’s stories and oftentimes they lead to disaster. Take for example the family trip in A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Thanks to the old grandmother’s meddling, her family ends up wrecked in the wilderness, far from help, face to face with a killer. They become trapped in this liminal space where life takes a turn they could never have expected. One could argue that Flannery O’Connor’s life took a turn she didn’t expect when her lupus reared its ugly head.
Flannery had no intention of returning to Milledgeville to live. She had enjoyed her time in New York and Connecticut, living with Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. But life had a different plan for her. On a trip back to visit for Christmas, Flannery fell terribly ill and was soon after diagnosed with lupus, the same disease that claimed her father’s life about ten years prior. It would’ve been easy for her to see her move to Andalusia as a temporary arrangement, a liminal space, a sidetrack to her intended life’s journey. In time, however, it became clear that Andalusia was not temporary, and circumstance had stranded her in a place she didn’t expect.
Her frustration and unease with transitional spaces can be seen in her writing, specifically with imagery of the road. The Life You Save May Be Your Own starts with Mr. Shiftlet strolling down the dirt road toward Lucy Nells sitting on their porch. The road acts as a vehicle, moving them from their life prior to Mr. Shiftlet to the aftermath of his visit. Their home is not Mr. Shiftlet’s home, it’s a liminal space for him. The same can be seen in A Circle In the Fire, where the three young boys take the road which pushes the farm from peace to devastation. And the shocking final scene of A View of the Woods takes place on a road when the grandfather takes young, poor Mary Fortune to a secluded stretch of dirt.
This is all just speculation and personal bias, of course, but it’s a pattern I see and respect. So the next time you find yourself waiting for a delayed bus or plane, when everyone seems to be moving towards their destination except you, take a moment and spare a thought for where you are, what the place is and what it means to be there, and what it makes you think and feel.