Two Rats in a Cage:
Sustaining Tension and Advancing Plot
In Flannery O’Conner’s
Flannery O’Conner’s short story “The Turkey” is an excellent example of an author at the height of her powers adding plot twist after plot twist after plot twist to establish, sustain, and maintain tension in a short story. In fact, in this story, the technique itself adds to the setting of the story because it changes often and advances quickly and sporadically, much like the imagination and thoughts of its main character/protagonist – a ten-year-old boy. Also, complex like the boy is complex, there is more than one theme being represented through parallel plot lines in the story: the pursuit and disposition of the turkey, literally, first; and the introduction and tentative exploration of religion and religious rules by the same boy, rules that seem even less certain and more elusive than the actual turkey (an O’Connor favorite theme).
Tension builds from the opening paragraph of “The Turkey.” First we’re entertained through a stereotypical gunfighter scene from a Western, and then: (p. 42)
And then he saw it, just moving slightly through the bushes farther over, a touch of bronze and a rustle and then, through another gap in the leaves, the eye, set in red folds that covered the head and hung down along the neck, trembling slightly. He stood perfectly still and the turkey took another step, then stopped, with one foot lifted, and listened.
The Western scene throws off our concentration, especially once we discover it is not real; it is not what we expect, but nonetheless it is there in the mind of our protagonist, so it is real to him, and sets the stage for the pace and themes of the story (good guys versus bad guys — brilliant). O’Connor doesn’t tell us what the protagonist is even looking at (“it”) until almost 50 words into the paragraph — after the gunfighter scene, to boot (pun intended). Only then does she reveal that what is being seen is “the turkey.” Besides using “it” to suspend the object, O’Connor releases images to us through the character’s eyes and describes what he is seeing first, even before he knows what it is that he is seeing. Significant too is that the turkey is being observed in a woods, and the view itself is partial at best, and shielded at the least. This is a writing technique to sustain tension, true— but it might also be said to describe religion itself, ie something there, perhaps, that one can only ever see partially if at all because of the bushes and the trees. (Remember the classic religious fable of the three blind men trying to describe an elephant?). And of course, to finish off this paragraph and transition/carry us into the next, the turkey is poised to run. Our protagonist is “perfectly still” (no mistake on the word choice of “perfectly” = godly), and the turkey is in a skittish position, ready to run with a very real possibility that Ruller (our main character — nice word choice, again) may very well lose the turkey after a long pursuit, which may be foreshadowing his pursuit of religious truth and/or proof as well.
Once up and running (by paragraph two), O’Conner literally takes us for a ride. The pursuit and plot shifts are fast and furious, themselves mimicking the pursuit of the turkey and religious truth. The plot proceeds roughly like this: Ruller looks for a rock to throw (“like the ground was just swept”). Ruller determines the turkey is limping — he has a better chance. Then he determines that the turkey is lame. Then he determines that the turkey can’t fly, and he reassures himself that “he’s going to have it. He’s going to have it if he had to chase it out of the state.” And finally, he envisions himself having caught the turkey and experiences the jubilation and public recognition that he would receive: “He saw himself going in the front door with it slung over his shoulder, and them all screaming, “Look at Ruller with that wild turkey! Ruller, where did you get that turkey?”)
And this was all in the next two paragraphs.
O’Conner lays the boy’s thoughts on a bed of images of the turkey, the wild turkey in its natural environment. Ruller is definitely not of this turkey’s environment, but he knows it well. O’Conner also creates tension with the comparison of Ruller’s imagination, what sets him apart from the dumb turkey, an animal after all, and the actions of the turkey – scared, timid, a fatally wounded turkey in a natural world of survival of the fittest. Ruller in fact has a wild and vivid imagination — which makes his encounters with religious thought and truth later in the story all that much more powerful.
Techniques O’Conner uses to create and sustain tension include lots of imagery to contrast Ruller’s imagination and the survival world of the turkey, and the reality of its wounded reality – a boy at the height of his imaginative powers versus a wing-shot turkey. Over and over again she has Ruller get close to the turkey but fail to catch him. And the turkey, in turn, is continually poised to run and always checking, suspecting but not able to completely shake its pursuer. Besides imagery, O’Connor uses Ruller’s own imagination and self-talk to create tension through first-person point of view. As we’ve seen, Ruller not only has a good imagination, but is able to project the future, ie his own success before the battle is over. Besides his homecoming scene earlier, Ruller raises the stakes and imagines his triumph over his brother Hanes and his father’s exclamation of Ruller’s accomplishment. These projections, at one point even going back to the Western scene, confuses time in the story – we are going back and forth in time and imagination just as we are going back and forth in the forest., never quite able to see the turkey completely, only partially at a time; never able to see Ruller fully, only partially, bit by bit, in something other than chronological time. Ruller even at one point runs into a tree in his pursuit – he won’t give up without trying his hardest. Dizzy and virtually knocked out, the turkey thirty feet away and heading for safety in the woods, Ruller is at his lowest: ”It was like somebody played a dirty trick on him (p 45).”
It was then that Ruller’s imagination took yet another leap, and he began experimenting with swearing in his pursuit of the turkey, his attention now off the turkey and thinking about becoming a thief instead, and shocking his grandmother. The plot lines converge in a critical scene: (p. 48)
He thought about chasing the turkey for nothing. It was a dirty trick. He bet he could be a jewel thief. He bet he could have all Scotland Yard on his tail. Hell.
He got up. God could go around sticking things in your face and making you chase them all afternoon for nothing.
You shouldn’t think that way about God, though.
But that was the way he felt. If that was the way he felt, could he help it? He looked around quickly as if someone might be hiding in the bushes, then suddenly he started.
It was rolled over at the edge of a thicket – a pile of ruffled bronze with a red head lying limp along the ground…Maybe, he considered, he was supposed to take it.
Look at the repetition that O’Conner gives us to sustain the tension. Not only are words and phrases repeated (“that was the way he felt”), but the images of the chase and the turkey and the woods and bushes and God are also repeated. Conflict is created by the use of the words “could” and “should.” And then, just when a decision is made, Ruller’s world reverses directions: “Maybe…he was supposed to take it.” Through no real effort on his part (the turkey was shot and no doubt going to die anyways), Ruller obtained the turkey and got what he thought he wanted. Sounds something like grace, eh?
And that was the beginning of the end for Ruller, the source of his undoing. His wanting something badly and pursuing it— then getting it and dealing with the consequences, let alone keeping it — are, in short, the human condition.
This story could be divided into three parts: The chase and capture of the turkey. Ruller’s walk through town and seeming triumph. Paying the begger (“should”), and the ultimate theft of the turkey (reality). Ruller lost what he had pursued so hard: why? Because he had wanted it so badly? Or because that was reality? And in some greater sense, the turkey wasn’t his to have anyways, suggested by the hunter in town who had supposedly shot the bird but could not or would not pursue it as hard as Ruller did. Here O’Connor perhaps shows us the difference between age and youth, maturity and inexperience, creating even more conflict and tension.
O’Conner plays the dual themes of pursuit and religious truth against one another throughout all three scenes. In each O’Connor uses imagery, repetition, the wild imagination and projections of Ruller; the breakneck chase and altering of past, present and future time in the process; and the conflict of pursuit (effort) and grace (divine) to create and sustain tension. “The Turkey” is a classic example of taking one plot line and attacking it over and over and over, literally changing it on the run, nuance by nuance, pursuing and perhaps finally capturing all the possible outcomes of the plot line.
Flannery O’Connor’s ability to achieve all of this in such a short story is a tribute to her creativity and writing technique. In “The Turkey,” she found the sweet spot where her plots, themes, settings and characters converged.
O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Conner. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. New York.