Flannery O’Connor and Peacocks

King of the Birds series, part 3 of 3

As a prominent southern gothic author, Flannery O’Connor dedicated her life to her two passions: her writing and her birds. From the age of 5, Flannery’s love of birds only grew after she taught her pet chicken to walk both forward and backwards at her childhood home in Savannah, Georgia. After moving to Andalusia with her mother, Regina, Flannery expanded upon her fascination with the avian species two decades later. 

Even with, “a pen of pheasants and a pen of quail, a flock of turkeys, seventeen geese, a tribe of mallard ducks, three Japanese silkie bantams, two polish crusted ones, and several chickens,”[1] Flannery believed her collection to be lacking. As stated in her 1961 essay, she originally titled “Living With a Peacock” and published in Holiday. Though unfamiliar with the great bird, while reading the Florida Market Bulletin, Flannery discovered an advertisement for a peacock, peahen, and four peachicks. To which she later announced to Regina that she would be ordering the small family. The birds arrived via railway express and Flannery recounts, “the crate was on the platform and from one end of it protruded a long royal blue neck and crusted head. A white line above and below each eye gave the investigating head an expression of alert.”[2]  The essay inspired by her birds first appeared in the travel magazine was reprinted in Mystery and Manners and is better known as “King of the Birds.”

Flannery O’Connor Mystery and Manners, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1970).

However, Regina was not as enthusiastic by the peafowl’s presence, as the numerous birds loved nothing more than to feast upon her flowers. To solve this problem, Regina erected a small fence around her prized shrubbery. The logic behind this was that if the fence were high, the peafowl would jump on and over it, but “they don’t have sense enough to jump over a low wire.”[3] Flannery was content to let the peafowl breed and grow as they pleased, despite the disruptions the birds caused the farm and the neighborhood. The peafowl would eat from her uncle’s fig trees, the peanuts from the peanut hay in the barn loft, and the vegetable gardens. Regardless of their behavior, the peafowl were a sight to behold for visitors to the farm. Flannery explains to her readers as she did to visitors, “when it suits him, the peacock will face you,” showing off its fan of feathers.[4] In the nine years since the first of Flannery’s peafowl arrived at the farm, the bird’s population exploded till they exceeded forty heads.

Not only a constant presence on the farm, but peafowl also show up in Flannery’s works. Flannery uses the peacock as a symbol or simile for a character’s pride or vanity within her stories. The proud, disabled philosopher Hulga, in O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” is stated to be as “sensitive about the artificial leg as a peacock with his tail.”[5] Today, the Andalusia Farmhouse Museum owns a pair of peafowl fondly named Astor and Mrs. Shortly after the characters in Flannery’s “The Displaced Person.” While the museum cannot host a harem of birds such as Flannery maintained, they proudly care for a coupled peacock and peahen in memorandum of one of Flannery’s greatest passions.

[1] Flannery O’Connor, “Living with a Peacock.” Holiday Magazine. https://holidaymag.wordpress.com/2012/03/30/living-with-a-peacock-by-flannery-oconnor-september-1961/

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Flannery O’Connor, “Good Country People,” in The Complete Stories, (New York, Farrar , Straus and Giroux, 1971), 288

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