Flannery O’Connor certainly likes stories about perception. Of course, for her stories to work, a character must have a very strong perception of themselves. Or, at the very least, her characters must be so immersed in their perceptions that they never actually recognize the truth.
The Turkey plays on this concept beautifully. It’s a heartbreaking and haunting story about an event that on its surface doesn’t appear to be either. The story follows a young boy and his attempts to catch an injured turkey and bring it home.
O’Connor sets everything up right from the start, and it is amazing. The story begins with the main character, an eleven-year-old named Ruller, imagining himself as the leader of a gang of cowboys. Throughout the story his fantasies develop: he goes from gang leader, to someone famous in his town for capturing the turkey, to someone affirmed by his family for providing them with food, to a salty, unsavory “bad boy,” to an unusual boy, to one specially ordained by God to help “bad boys.”
Yes, in ten pages he goes through a lot of fantasies–a lot of perceptions about himself. But the important thing seems to be that never once does he face reality. He jumps from fantasy to fantasy but never stops by reality on his way. The reality he keeps running into, and then quickly avoiding with his perceptions, is that his hunt for the turkey is futile.
Consider it: here is a fast turkey, who knows the woods well, running from an eleven-year old boy who is slightly absent-minded, and doesn’t know these woods terribly well. The boy isn’t going to catch the turkey. The hunt is futile.
And so to avoid this truth Ruller creates his fantasies, and it’s painfully obvious. As his hunt for the turkey continues, to avoid reality, he completely contradicts his previous fantasies to create new ones that take into account the realities he’s facing. This is most obvious in these two passages:
As soon as he got in the door, they would holler, “How did you tear your clothes and where did you get that knot on your forehead?” He was going to say he fell in a hole. What difference would it make? Yeah, God, what difference would it make?
He almost stopped. He had never heard himself think that tone before. He wondered should he take the thought back. He guessed it was pretty bad; but heck, it was the way he felt. He couldn’t help feeling that way. Heck…hell, it was the way he felt. He guessed he couldn’t help that.
This is when he’s still in his “bad boy” fantasy, following a passage of profuse cursing. Notice, in this fantasy he can’t help but think the way he does. Later, when the turkey finally bleeds out and he gets it, he becomes convinced that God gave it to him. God must have a special interest in him, he reasons. And then O’Connor writes this:
He had been going to keep the dime for something. He might get another one from his grandmother. How about a ******* dime kid? He pulled his mouth piously out of the grin. He wasn’t going to think that way anymore.
His first fantasy was based on the hunt for the turkey going badly, and his realization that it might be futile. Of course, he won’t accept that, but immediately creates a new fantasy in which it doesn’t matter–and in this fantasy he can’t help but think the way he does.
Then, when he gets the turkey, a new fantasy emerges in which he can help what he thinks.
The point being this: Ruller is desperate to avoid truth, just like many of O’Connor’s characters. And all of this sets up what I believe to be one of the more powerful endings I’ve read of O’Connor’s. Ruller finally gets the turkey and decides, in order to show it off, to walk back through town. He’s still in the “God has a peculiar interest in me” fantasy, and the townspeople’s interest in the turkey reinforces that.
Some country boys in their mid-teens begin to follow him as he goes through the town. Ruller assumes, wrapped up as he is in his fantasy, that they are so incredibly impressed by his catch that they just want to see it closer. Ruller stops and lets them catch up.
“Lemme see it here,” [one of the boys] said.
Ruller handed him the turkey. “You see down there where the bullet hole is?” he asked. “Well, I think it was shot twice in the same hole, I think it was…” The turkey’s head flew in his face as the [boy] slung it up in the air and over his own shoulder and turned. The others turned with him and together they sauntered off in the direction they had come, the turkey sticking stiff out on the [boy’s] back, and its head swinging slowly in a circle as he walked away.
Ruller has become so entrenched in his own perception he can’t see the obvious coming. He’s slammed into reality, and he can’t avoid it now.
He turned toward home, almost creeping. He walked four blocks and then suddenly, noticing that it was dark, he began to run. He ran faster and faster, and as he turned up the road to his house his heart was running as fast as his legs and he was certain that Something Awful was tearing behind him with its arms rigid and its fingers ready to clutch.
The last sentence is precisely what O’Connor is all about–the truth is Something Awful to her characters because the truth isn’t what they want. “The truth doesn’t change according to our ability to stomach it,” O’Connor is often quoted as saying.
Ruller couldn’t see the truth, and to him it is “Something Awful.” It’s trying to catch him. It’s a monster ready to devour him and it is coming fast. And so Ruller must run faster to avoid the awful speed of truth.
In other words, welcome to O’Connor.