Flannery Friday: “Good Country People” (1955)

March 29th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

In February 1955, just as she was readying the order of stories for A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Flannery O’Connor wrote a story, “Good Country People,” over the course of four days that she later gushed about in letters to publisher Robert Giroux (Feb. 26) and Thomas Mabry (March 1).  In her letter to Mabry, she outlines the story’s connections with her other fictions and and how her faith informs her writing:

I am glad you see the belief in mine because it is there.  The truth is my stories have been watered and fed by Dogma.  I am a Catholic (not because it’s advantageous to my writing but because I was born and brought up one) and at some point in my life I realized that not only was I a Catholic but that this was all I was, that I was a Catholic not like someone else would be a Baptist or a Methodist but like someone else would be an atheist.  If my stories are complete it is because I see everything as beginning with original sin, taking in the Redemption, and reckoning on a final judgment.  I have heard people say that all this stifles a writer, but that is foolishness; it only preserves your sense of mystery…

I have delayed my collection a little by writing a story two weeks ago called “Good Country People.”  It is the best thing I have done and they will include it if doing so doesn’t cost them too much money.  If they don’t include it, I am going to send you a copy of it because it is one of those examples of the will and the imagination fusing and it is so rare an experience for me that I am a little unhinged by it. (pp. 930-931, Library of America edition)

In many aspects, “Good Country People” lives up to O’Connor’s self-appraisal.  In it can be found the echo of themes that she explored in her earlier fictions, as well as a conclusion that might be, along with those of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “The River,” one of her best.  It, like several other tales in the 1955 collection, is an exploration of pride and the forms in which it manifest itself.  “Good Country People” also relies heavily on irony, as seemingly innocuous events early in the story are inverted by story’s end and recast as something darker, more significant than what otherwise might be expected.

The story opens with the reflections of a landlady, Mrs. Hopewell.  Although Mrs. Hopewell is not the central character in “Good Country People,” her meditations on people, particularly her tenants, the Freemans, and her daughter Joy, establish the dissonance between how the characters see themselves and how the situation actually is:

Since she [Mrs. Freeman] was the type who had to be into everything, then, Mrs. Hopewell had decided, she would not only let her be into everything, she would see to it that she was into everything – she would giver her the responsibility of everything, she would put her in charge.  Mrs. Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other people’s in such a constructive way that she never felt the lack.  She had hired the Freemans and she had kept them four years.

Nothing is perfect.  This was one of Mrs. Hopewell’s favorite sayings.  Another was:  that is life!  And still another, the most important, was:  well, other people have their opinions too.  She would make these statements, usually at the table, in a tone of gentle insistence as if no one held them but her, and the large hulking Joy, whose constant outrage had obliterated every expression from her face, would stare just a little to the side of her, her eyes icy blue, with the look of someone who has achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it. (pp. 264-265)

There is more than just a faint echo of “A Good Man is Hard to Find”‘s grandmother or the child from “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” in Mrs. Hopewell and her miserable, bitter daughter.  The mother’s false sense of propriety finds its twisted mirror image in the daughter’s sneering, self-loathing self.  Joy, the victim of some childhood hunting accident that led to the amputation of a leg, is the object of her mother’s pity, which infuriates Joy (or rather, Hulga, as she legally changed her name to that when she reached adulthood) to no end.  If Mrs. Hopewell can be seen as a representation of the vacuous, self-blinding “good” member of society, Joy/Hulga in turn represents the frustrated, bitter pride of those who feel as though they have been denied fairness in life.  Further burdened with a “weak heart” that might curtail her life, Joy/Hulga has built up high walls of resentment and bitterness.  Possessing a Ph.D. in Philosophy and yet unable to find even a modicum of happiness or joy in her life, the now thirty-two year-old Hulga believes that by embracing nihilism (or what she understands to be nihilism) that she will gain a sense of superiority over others that her body has failed to allow her to do.  It is an ugly portrait of an character and yet that ugliness fascinates O’Connor.  She easily could have merely set Hulga up for a dashing of this false sense of herself, but she goes beyond Hulga’s petty self and delves into a deeper, societal-wide hypocrisy that presumes to know “good country people” (and by implication, its opposite) when they see it.

“Good Country People” turns from internal character analyses toward a metaphorical discussion of pride and self-blindness when an apparently naive, bumbling Bible salesman, Manly Pointer, makes his appearance, futilely trying to sell a Bible to Mrs. Hopewell:

He didn’t get up.  He began to twist his hands and looking down at them, he said softly, “Well, lady, I’ll tell you the truth – not many people want to buy one nowadays and besides, I know I’m real simple.  I don’t know how to say a thing but to say it.  I’m just a country boy.”  He glanced up into her unfriendly face.  “People like you don’t like to fool with country people like me!”

“Why!” she cried, “good country people are the salt of the earth!  Besides, we all have different ways of doing, it takes all kinds to make the world go ’round.  That’s life!” (pp. 270-271)

Embarrassed enough to ask him to stay for dinner, Mrs. Hopewell finds herself beguiled by Pointer’s seemingly simple earnestness, so unlike her own jaundiced view of people.  Yet somehow, he manages to catch Joy/Hulga’s attention enough to surprise Mrs. Hopewell.  However, for Hulga, this is little more to her than an opportunity to defraud a simpleton, a way to prove to herself that her belief that she can see through everything will be confirmed.  The two plan to walk together in the countryside the following Saturday.  Hulga makes vague plans on how to seduce this simple-minded salesman, but as the two walk and eventually climb into a barn loft, this apparent fool is nobody’s fool at all, as he casually crushes each of Hulga’s cherished beliefs in her superiority, leaving her forlornly to recognize the depths to which she has been duped, not just by “Pointer,” but also by her own self-pride in “knowing” that there was ultimately nothingness around which people constructed their fantasies.

O’Connor does an outstanding job in developing events leading up to Pointer’s unmasking of his true self.  The little self-deceptions that Hulga, her mother, and even the relatively worldly Mrs. Freeman engage in see their fruitions in the story’s final three pages.  Yet there is more to “Good Country People” than the revelation of the deficiencies of Hulga’s view of herself and the world.  There is the sense of multiple self-deceptions and self-blinding behaviors that can be seen in people from all walks of life.  O’Connor not only makes a statement regarding the limitations of “nihilistic” worldviews, she also presents in an unflattering light the self-importance that people attach to themselves.  Beyond Hulga’s prideful belief that nothing matters lurks the mother’s milder yet ultimately no better view of others around her or Mrs. Freeman’s more cynical view of society.  Even “good country people” is little more than the imagined prosperous lauding an equally imagined group of poor souls whose “goodness” is merely a cover for their inability to manipulate the deceit-ridden world around them.  O’Connor turns a bright light on this view, revealing its core of benign contemptuousness.  In this can be seen a greater sense of inflated pride, in that “we won’t be taken in like that!” while time and time again, this assumption is proven to be false.  “Good Country People” succeeds as a tale because it operates on more than just the plot level.  The irony of seeing Joy/Hulga’s preconceptions turned against her is only the surface level of a story that has deeper thematic levels, each of which reinforce each other and create a deceptively complex tale that reveals new layers upon successive re-readings.  Out of the ten stories that appear in A Good Man is Hard to Find, “Good Country People” is the equal to “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and the last story in the collection, “The Displaced Person,” for its prose, characterization, and thematic treatments.  Simply put, it is an outstanding short story, one that can be approached from multiple perspectives and still possess a vitality to it even after it has been dissected and its components probed extensively.

Flannery Friday: “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” (1953)

March 22nd, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

In several of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, character foibles provide the main narrative drive.  There is something satisfying, in a Schadenfreude sort of way, in seeing a character’s preconceptions of the world torn to shreds.  This certainly can be seen in “A Circle in the Fire” and even within “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” but this narrative device is used most directly in O’Connor’s only Civil War-related story, “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” (1953).  This story, eleven pages long in the Library of America edition, is short, sharp, and succinct in its treatment of misplaced pride.  This story of an decrepit 104 year-old Civil War veteran, “General” Sash and his 62 year-old teacher granddaughter, Sally Poker, does not contain the depth of most of O’Connor’s other stories, but it does not need it, as it is so vicious and yet touching that the surface of the story should suffice for most readers.

“A Late Encounter with the Enemy” is seen through both the General and Sally Poker’s points-of-view.  The passage quoted below, taken from the first two paragraphs of the story, illustrate perfectly the story’s structure and development:

General Sash was a hundred and four years old.  He lived with his granddaughter, Sally Poker Sash, who was sixty-two years old and who prayed every night on her knees that he would live until her graduation from college.  The General didn’t give two slaps for her graduation but he never doubted he would live for it.  Living had got to be such a habit with him that he couldn’t conceive of any other condition.  A graduation exercise was not exactly his idea of a good time, even if, as she said, he would be expected to sit on the stage in his uniform.  She said there would be a long procession of teachers and students in their robes but that there wouldn’t be anything to equal him in his uniform.  He knew this well enough without her telling him, and as for the damm procession, it could march to hell and back and not cause him a quiver.  He liked parades with floats full of Miss Americas and Miss Daytona Beaches and Miss Queen Cotton Products.  He didn’t have any use for processions and a procession full of schoolteachers was about as deadly as the River Styx to his way of thinking.  However, he was willing to sit on the stage in his uniform so that they could see him.

Sally Poker was not as sure as he was that he would live until her graduation.  There had not been any perceptible change in him for the last five years, but she had the sense that she might be cheated out of her triumph because she so often was.  She had been going to summer school every year for the past twenty years because when she started teaching, there were no such things as degrees.  In those times, she said, everything was normal but nothing had been normal since she was sixteen, and for the past twenty summers, when she should have been resting, she had had to take a trunk in the burning heat to the state teachers’ college; and though when she returned in the fall, she always taught in the exact way she had been taught not to teach, this was a mild revenge that didn’t satisfy her sense of justice.  She wanted the General at her graduation because she wanted to show what she stood for, or, as she said, “what all was behind her,” and was not behind them.  This them was not anybody in particular.  It was just all the upstarts who had turned the world on its head and unsettled the ways of decent living. (pp. 252-253)

Here are dual narratives that parallel and compete with one another.  First is the old man, living his last days in a haze of forgotten memories and lustful desires, seeking to be the center of attention.  He lives in part because he cannot think of being anything else other than alive.  He knows his past is a partial fantasy; he cannot bear to remember (or so one might suspect, if he had a choice in the matter) what he had endured.  He has been reduced to nothing more than a living relic, but he still views himself as a handsome old codger whose greatest pleasure is being surrounded by pretty women.  He occupies only the Present; the Past and Future are equally meaningless to him.

His granddaughter, however, inhabits the past and the remembered failures of her life.  She embraces it as a refuge from the real and perceived humiliations of her life, such as the state forcing her after years of being a teacher to go to college in order to learn how to be a teacher or the wrong shoes that she wears for an important occasion.  Her pride is not in her present state but in the half-real, half-fictional past that she has constructed for her family from the living corpse of her grandfather.  There is no familial affection present in her relations to him; he is a means to her glorification, a symbol of her being able at long last to thumb her nose at those “upstarts” who are challenging the precious social order that she has held dear for decades.

Characters such as these immediately grab the reader’s attention, for their vanity and self-absorption made for a delightful comeuppance comedy or a searing moral tale.  O’Connor manages to capture elements of both in this story, all the while also succeeding in making these characters sympathetic even as we might take delight in seeing their pride crushed.  Although the story ends abruptly with the General’s “late encounter with the enemy,” “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” is one of O’Connor’s more memorable tales because the reader is able to delve deeper than normal into the characters’ mindsets.  It may not be her best tale, but “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” certainly one of O’Connor’s better character portraits.

Flannery Friday: “A Circle in the Fire” (1954)

March 15th, 2013 § 2 comments § permalink

Out of the stories covered so far from her 1955 collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find, “A Circle in the Fire” (1954) might be one of the hardest of Flannery O’Connor’s stories to decipher on a thematic/religious level.  It’s not so much that the narrative is difficult (it is not), but rather that on the surface the “circle in the fire” metaphor appears to run counter to several of the themes that O’Connor addresses in her other stories.  Yet there is something about this story that tugs at the reader, as though reminding her that there is something being overlooked.  However, this “overlooked” element perhaps is as much an underdeveloped theme as it is a failure on the reader’s part to identify precisely just what that might be.

“A Circle in the Fire” opens, as do most of O’Connor’s works, in rural Georgia sometime in the early-to-mid twentieth century.  Two women, Mrs. Pritchard and Mrs. Cope, described through their contrasts and their former similarities, are discussing local calamities, such as the suffering of a woman who gave birth while hooked up to an iron lung, while gardening.  O’Connor’s vivid description of the land they are gardening, such as Mrs. Cope’s “work[ing] at the weeds and nut grass as if they were an evil sent directly by the devil to destroy the place” (p. 232), foreshadows the events that follow.  It is an arid summer and Mrs. Cope’s fields and woods are tinderbox-dry.  She and Mrs. Pritchard worry about fire, and yet that “fire” has a more sinister metaphorical connotation.  There is a tinge of judgment in how Mrs. Cope views the world, from the depravities of youth to the black servants of her neighbor:  “Her Negroes were as destructive and impersonal as the nut grass.” (p. 233).  In short, O’Connor devotes the first quarter or so of this eighteen-page story to contrasting Mrs. Cope’s harsh, judgmental view of the world with the sere landscape.

The story then turns to three youths, somewhere around 11-13 years of age, who appear on Mrs. Cope’s property.  One, Powell, is the second son of a former tenant, now recently deceased in Florida, and he has persuaded the others to come to Mrs. Cope’s plantation-sized farm ostensibly in order to remember older, more carefree days of walking the fields and riding the horses.  Mrs. Cope quickly becomes suspicious of the boys and their laconic, almost surly responses to her perfunctory hospitality:

“In the woods!” she said.  “Oh no!  The woods are very dry now, I can’t have people smoking in my woods.  You’ll have to camp out in the field, in this field here next to the house, where there aren’t any trees.”

“Where she can keep her eye on you,” the child said under her breath.

“Her woods,” the large boy muttered and got out of the hammock.

“We’ll sleep in the field,” Powell said but not particularly as if he were talking to her.  “This afternoon I’m going to show them about this place.”  The other two were already walking away and he got up and bounded after them and the two women sat with the black suitcase between them.

“Not no thank you, not no nothing,” Mrs. Pritchard remarked.

“They only played with what we gave them to eat,” Mrs. Cope said in a hurt voice.

Mrs. Pritchard suggested that they might not like soft drinks.

“They certainly looked hungry,” Mrs. Cope said. (p. 240)

This quoted passage contains the germ of the conflicts that constitute the remaining half of the story.  Mrs. Cope sets out to do what she feels she is obligated to do, but her actions are always tinged by the suspicion that the boys are up to no good and that they themselves might be as bad-hearted as a hardened criminal.  Her suspicions are fueled by reports from Mrs. Pritchard of the boys riding Mrs. Cope’s horses, smoking cigarettes, and perhaps purloining food.  In her eyes, the boys become less and less those on the cusp of adolescence and more and more like little devils sent to torment her.  O’Connor’s decision to tell this story strictly through Mrs. Cope’s limited perspective allows her to illustrate through dialogue Mrs. Cope’s inability to understand the boys with whom she has entered into a struggle for control.  Yet this narrative choices robs the story of some of its potential vitality, as the three boys by story’s end have been reduced to little more than symbols of Mrs. Cope’s misguided worldview; they are not fleshed out and their actions at the story’s end feel sketchy and incomplete.

On a thematic level, there seems to be an attempt to create a warped, twisted parallel to the Biblical story of the fiery furnace, with the three boys representing the defiant Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in their refusal to conform to the ways of Babylon.  The boys refuse most of the food that is offered to them, not out of fear of defilement but for other, possibly more nefarious reasons.  They go against the commandments that Mrs. Cope gives them regarding what parts of her land that they can visit and where they can sleep before they are to be picked up by Powell’s uncle. And then there is the “circle in the fire” that closes the story, their escape from a conflagration that they started themselves, seemingly in spite of Mrs. Cope’s fears of a brush fire.  Yet these parallels feel weak and underdeveloped.  Part of this no doubt is due to the lack of attention devoted to the boys themselves, yet part of it likely is due to O’Connor’s story feeling “stretched” and too insubstantial for the purposes she had in mind.  The result is a story that feels incomplete, sketchy, as though it were lacking the depth of O’Connor’s other stories.  It may not be as weak as “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” but “A Circle in the Fire” is one of the weaker stories in A Good Man is Hard to Find.

Flannery Friday: “The Artificial Nigger” (1955)

March 8th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

It is little secret to anyone that the American South has had a long, troubled history regarding racial relations.  If anything, it likely is viewed as the epitome of racism, with its chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, and being the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan.  If ever the doctrine of Original Sin could be applied so thoroughly to a region and to a whole class of people, doubtless it would be the South in regards to racism, even though a closer look would reveal some discrepancies.  Today, it is hard to look at a story written in the 1950s by a white Southerner entitled “The Artificial Nigger” (1955) and wonder how there isn’t at least the decent asterisk-marking of the offending racial epithet, if not an outright condemnation of a story that almost certainly has to contain objectionable language, if not repulsive, outdated views regarding a minority group.  Yet such knee-jerk reactions would rob the reader of the chance of reading a work that makes a profound statement about the ridiculous societal views through the image of an “artificial nigger.”

The story opens with a sixty year-old grandfather, Mr. Head, awakening during a moonlit light on the eve of his trip with his ten year-old grandson, Nelson, to Atlanta.  O’Connor has imbued this story with several symbolic metaphors and the passage describing Mr. Head’s view of himself and the reason for their travel to the city foreshadows later events:

Sixty years had not dulled his responses; his physical reactions, like his moral ones, were guided by his will and strong character, and these could be seen plainly in his features.  He had a long tube-like face with a long rounded open jaw and a long depressed nose.  His eyes were alert but quiet, and in the miraculous moonlight they had a look of composure and of ancient wisdom as if they belonged to one of the great guides of men.  He might have been Vergil summoned in the middle of the night to go to Dante, or better, Raphael, awakened by a blast of God’s light to fly to the side of Tobias.  The only dark spot in the room was Nelson’s pallet, underneath the shadow of the window. (p. 210)

It is fairly obvious that Mr. Head’s view of himself as a sort of “guide” for his young grandson is going to be upended by the narrative.  But within this passage is a wealth of images:  the raw, drawn-out features of a rural inhabitant; the “miraculous moonlight” that mirrors the light of the day (and of the divine); the references to Dante’s The Divine Comedy and to the biblical book of Tobit; the “darkness” of the boy’s sleeping spot, presaging the grandfather’s view of the boy’s insubordinate pride.  As discussed in my earlier review of “A Stroke of Good Fortune” (1954), pride is one of the seven capital sins that O’Connor addresses frequently in her fiction.  But instead of the hurt pride of one who perceives herself to be “lost” to the charity of others, pride here in “The Artificial Nigger” takes different forms.  There is the pride of the white Southerner who does not want to “lower” himself to address the downtrodden African Americans; the pride of a grandfather wanting to demonstrate his worthiness and world-traveler qualities to his young grandson; and the fear that the young boy has too much pride in a city (Atlanta) in which he was born but from which he was taken at the age of one to the countryside.  Over the course of  twenty-two pages, O’Connor explodes these prideful elements in a story that mixes dark comedy with a sharp, keen critique of mid-20th century racial prejudices.

The plot of the story revolves around the grandfather’s pride (of which he is blissfully unaware until several calamities befall him) getting in the way of both him and his grandson making their way through Atlanta.  From his refusal to admit that he (only a three-time visitor to the city) does not know the way around the city (exacerbated by the circles they make before the boy points out the obvious to him) to his reluctance to seek help (forcing the young boy to be his proxy and see help from a matronly black woman; a key moment in the story) to the trick he pulls on the boy that backfires, the grandfather’s pride in recognizing that the “guide” is perhaps the one who is in most need of guidance occupies center stage.   This pride is not limited to the grandfather; in him, we can see traces of it in our own self-views and in how we choose to treat others.  It is no accident that the true “guides” of this story are from the social/ethnic group that the grandfather dismisses so readily.  And certainly it is the image of the “artificial nigger” that simultaneously reveals the limits of human pride and which brings the grandfather and grandson back together after the series of calamitous events had threatened to sunder their relationship:

He had not walked five hundred yards down the road when he saw, within reach of him, the plaster figure of a Negro sitting bent over on a low yellow brick fence that curved around a wide lawn.  The Negro was about Nelson’s size and he was pitched forward at an unsteady angle because the putty that held him to the wall had cracked.  One of his eyes was entirely white and he held a piece of brown watermelon.

Mr. Head stood looking at him silently until Nelson stopped at a little distance.  Then as the two of them stood there, Mr. Head breathed, “An artificial nigger!”

It was not possible to tell if the artificial Negro were meant to be young or old; he looked too miserable to be either.  He was meant to look happy because his mouth was stretched up at the corners but the chipped eye and the angle he was cocked at gave him a wild look of misery instead.

“An artificial nigger!” Nelson repeated in Mr. Head’s exact tone.

The two of them stood there with their necks forward at almost the same angle and their shoulders curved in almost exactly the same way and their hands trembling identically in their pockets.  Mr. Head looked like an ancient child and Nelson like a miniature old man.  They stood gazing at the artificial Negro as if they were faced with some great mystery, some monument to another’s victory that brought them together in their common defeat.  They could both feel it dissolving their differences like an action of mercy.  Mr. Head had never known before what mercy felt like because he had been too good to deserve any, but he felt he knew now. (pp. 229-230)

Mercy.  It is a strange thing to encounter in a tale that starts off with an old pompous fool and which journeys through a maze of self-deceit and undeserving contempt for a downtrodden race of people, but mercy certainly lies at the heart of this tale.  O’Connor is rather explicit about this in the concluding paragraphs, as Mr. Head elaborates upon this feeling that he first recognizes in the passage quoted above:  mercy is not ever something that humans merit, but which is instead a fountain that springs from God’s love and which can envelop even the most inveterate sinner.  Although today using an entire race of people to serve mostly as a backdrop for a singular person’s realization of his faults likely would be considered to be at least in poor taste, in the 1950s South, doubtless it was a sobering, blistering message regarding the sin of pride and the resultant degradation of the African American communities at the hands of white Southerners who could not bring themselves to admit that their pride had led to horrific treatment of a whole race of people.  Yet limits must be placed on interpreting O’Connor’s story as being part of a greater civil rights struggle.  She certainly was no social progressive, merely one who did not like the excesses of segregation.  Several of her letters during this time period bear this out quite clearly.  Yet nearly sixty years after this story was published, “The Artificial Nigger” is relevant today not for its views regarding African Americans but in its carefully constructed series of metaphors for sin and mercy.  Such religious imagery may not be for everyone’s tastes, but it certainly does capture a Catholic view of the matter very well.

Flannery Friday: “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” (1954)

March 1st, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

If “A Stroke of Good Fortune” can be considered one of Flannery O’Connor’s least substantive stories, then the next story found in the 1955 collection A Good Man is Hard to Find, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” (1954) is perhaps one of her deepest, most symbol-laden stories.  It is a tale that encompasses the pervasiveness of pride; the search for love and acceptance; and the acquiescence of the soul to God’s will.  “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” perhaps is the most “Catholic” of O’Connor’s tales in this collection, as it covers not just the sins of the soul but also the redemptive power of faith.

Like most of her tales, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” is set in contemporary 1940s-1950s Georgia.  An unnamed twelve year-old girl is the protagonist and her caustic, malicious behavior toward those around her serves as the catalyst for this tale.  The story begins with the girl’s mother having picked up the girl’s two twin fourteen year-old cousins for the weekend from a convent school 45 miles away.  The twins at first glance are shallow, vain, boy-obsessed girls who possess their own traits of maliciousness.  When the mother despairs of how to entertain them for the weekend, the girl suggests two unflattering male chaperones out of mirthful spite.  Changing the topic, the mother asks them why they’ve nicknamed themselves “Temple One” and “Temple Two”:

She asked them why they called each other Temple One and Temple Two and this sent them off into gales of giggles.  Finally they managed to explain.  Sister Perpetua, the oldest nun at the Sisters of Mercy in Mayville, had given them a lecture on what to do if a young man should – here they laughed so hard they were not able to go on without going back to the beginning – on what to do if a young man should – they put their heads in their laps – on what to do if – they finally managed to shout it out – if he should “behave in an ungentlemanly manner with them in the back of an automobile.”  Sister Perpetua said they were to say, “Stop sir!  I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost!” and that would put an end to it.  The child sat up off the floor with a blank face.  She didn’t see anything so funny in this.  What was really funny was the idea of Mr. Cheatam or Alonzo Myers beauing them around.  That killed her. (p. 199)

At this point, the story easily could have devolved into a tearing down of the twins (Susan and Joanne) for their slightly impious behavior, but O’Connor is playing a deeper game here.  It is the girl, who is mostly ignored by her older cousins, who is the centerpiece.  When the twins are introduced to two strappin’ farm boys who are likely bound to be Church of God preachers (after an observation from the girl that they are going to be so “because you don’t have to know nothing to be one.” (p. 200)) and they slyly mock their ignorant fundamentalism by returning their singing of songs such as “The Old Rugged Cross” with an a capella singing of “Tantum Ergo,” it is not their behavior that elicits commentary but rather the girl’s.  Hidden from view, her yelling of “You big dumb ox!”  “You big dumb Church of God ox!” (p. 202) leads to a lecture from the cook:

“Howcome you be so ugly sometime?” the cook asked.

“Those stupid idiots,” the child said.

The lanterns gilded the leaves of the trees orange on the level where they hung and above them was black-green and below them were different dim muted colors that made the girls sitting at the table look prettier than they were.  From time to time, the child turned her head and glared out the kitchen window at the scene below.

“God could strike you deaf dumb and blind,” the cook said, “and then you wouldn’t be as smart as you is.”

“I would still be smarter than some,” the child said. (p. 203)

Here the child’s pride can be seen.  She has rejected a seat at the garden table with her cousins and the two boys she has just ridiculed from hiding.  She would rather pretend that she is superior to them and that she is rejecting them rather than admitting that they do not desire her company.  She has cloaked herself with pride, believing that her loneliness is the result of her superiority rather than due to the ugliness of her character.  She reflects upon the upcoming fair and how she was denied a visit to it outside of the one designated for young schoolchildren.  She suspects that the fair’s “adult” tents contain things of medicine, thus revealing her own ignorance of the cruel maliciousness of such things as “the freak show.”  She ponders on the evening’s events, the bit about the “temple of the Holy Ghost” and the cook’s lecture:

She would have to be a saint because that was the occupation that included everything you could know; and yet she knew she would never be a saint.  She did not steal or murder but she was a born liar and slothful and she sassed her mother and was deliberately ugly to almost everybody.  She was eaten up also with the sin of Pride, the worst one.  She made fun of the Baptist preacher who came to the school at commencement to give the devotional.  She would pull down her mouth and hold her forehead as if she were in agony and groan, “Fawther, we thank Thee,” exactly the way he did and she had been told many times not to do it.  She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick. (p. 204)

Here the child’s true character is laid bare.  Behind pride’s cloak lurks a sense of insecurity, that she is ultimately small and mean and perhaps insignificant when the sums of her life are totaled.  Yet she is not without hope.  When the twins return around midnight, talking almost breathlessly about the “freak” they saw (a hermaphrodite) going across a curtained divide from a male audience to a female one, showing her body and proclaiming:

“God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way.  This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way.  I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it.  I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen.  I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it.  I don’t dispute hit.” (p. 206)

the girl is affected by this and she imagines a dialogue between the “freak” and the people that would encapsulate the body, no matter its form, being “a temple of the Holy Ghost.”  This thought lingers with the child the next day, as she, her mother, and the twins drive to the convent of Mount St. Scholastica.  As they arrive at the convent and the nuns hurry them in, as the benediction was beginning, the child is struck by the mystery of the Mass and how it tied into her worried thoughts:

The child knelt down between her mother and the nun and they were went into the “Tantum Ergo” before her ugly thoughts stopped and she began to realize that she was in the presence of God.  Hep me not to be so mean, she began mechanically.  Hep me not to give her so much sass.  Hep me not to talk like I do.  Her mind began to get quiet and then empty but when the priest raised the monstrance with the Host shining ivory-colored in the center of it, she was thinking of the tent at the fair that had the freak in it.  The freak was saying, “I don’t dispute hit.  This is the way He wanted me to be.” (pp. 208-209)

If in the other stories grace is not truly found (even though desired by several of the characters, particularly the young boy in “The River”), here at the end of “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” when the child looks out the car window at the end and sees that the sun “was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood and when it sank out of sight, it left a line in the sky like a red clay road hanging over the trees” (p. 209), there is the sense that this character at least might indeed find some semblance of redemption.  Doubtless this is intentional, that in contrast to the various Protestants and former believers in her tales who seek (and fail) to find forgiveness or redemption in their actions, here in the mystery of the Mass and in the use of the “freak” to underscore just how “freakish” unredeemed humanity is that O’Connor closes a tale not with a smirk or a sad sigh but with a glimmer of hope.  While doubtless some readers may find the religious symbolism to be off-putting, their use in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” is effective and poignant.  It may be one of her best-executed tales because it encapsulates much of her own self within these pages, not to mention that the juvenile protagonist perhaps reminds us more clearly of our own foibles and desires to reform.

Flannery Friday: “A Stroke of Good Fortune” (1953)

February 22nd, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

Not every single story that Flannery O’Connor wrote was “serious literature,” the type that allows for extensive textual pulling and prodding to yield bumper crops full of symbolism and portentous commentary on the human condition(s).  She herself professed in her letters bemusement at how earnest some people were at deriving meanings from characters and situations that she loosely based on actual events that she had witnessed growing up in Georgia during the early-to-mid 20th century.  Yet there are some stories in A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955) that are lighter and perhaps slighter in nature and tone than the majority of her fictions.  “A Stroke of Good Fortune” (1953) is one of these works.  It is an amusing tale that does contain just enough overt references to symbolic foreshadowing to please those who look for these elements in a tale, but it is little more than just a diversionary tale, one that does not linger as much in the reader’s mind after reading it as do most of her other tales.

The steps were a thin black rent in the middle of the house, covered with a mole-colored carpet that looked as if it grew from the floor.  They stuck straight up like steeple steps, it seemed to her.  They reared up.  The minute she stood at the bottom of them, they reared up and got steeper for her benefit.  As she gazed up them, her mouth widened and turned down in a look of complete disgust.  She was in no condition to go up anything.  She was sick.  Madam Zoleeda had told her but not before she knew it herself.

Madam Zoleeda was the palmist on Highway 87.  She had said, “A long illness,” but she had added, whispering, with a very I-already-know-but-I-won’t-tell look, “it will bring you a stroke of good fortune!”  and then had sat back grinning, a stout woman with green eyes that moved in their sockets as if they had been oiled.  Ruby didn’t need to be told.  She had already figured out the good fortune.  Moving.  For months she had had a distinct feeling that they were going to move.  Bill Hall couldn’t hold off much longer. (p. 185)

This quote is the first of several allusionary passages in “A Stroke of Good Fortune” that give clues as to what ails thirty-four year-old Ruby.  Ruby has found herself these past few months to be increasingly ill, with sudden nauseous spells.  Married yet childless, she considers herself smarter and more fortunate than her mother and sisters because she is not burdened with squalling young children, as those would drain her of vitality even quicker than it did her mother.  She takes a vain pride in her youthful looks, remarking early in the tale that she is younger-looking than her youngest brother, Rufus, a just-returned veteran who is fourteen years younger than herself.  This pride, coupled with the confusions of the past few months as to the changes in her condition, serves to set up the series of amusing events throughout the story.

He looked old too.  He looked older than she did and he was fourteen years younger.  She was extremely young looking for her age.  Not that thirty-four is any age and anyway she was married.  She had to smile, thinking about that, because she had done so much better than her sisters – they had married from around.  “This breathlessness,” she muttered, stopping again.  She decided that she would have to sit down.

There were twenty-eight steps in each flight – twenty-eight. (pp. 186-187)

The step numbers here are an important clue, along with the fact that Ruby lives on the fifth floor of her apartment complex.  Yet while the reader by now might have figured out Ruby’s “malady,” what with the two quotes already provided and the early description of Ruby as becoming “urn-shaped,” the narrative sustains itself with the tension between Ruby’s puzzled, sometimes terrified thoughts about her “worsening” condition and what the reader might already know is the true “stroke of good fortune” that the palmist declared that Ruby would experience.

There are more references to this, such as this little passage:

The steps were going up and down like a seesaw with her in the middle of it.  She did not want to get nauseated.  Not that again.  Now no.  No.  She was not.  She sat tightly to the steps with her eyes shut until the dizziness stopped a little and the nausea subsided.  No, I’m not going to no doctor, she said.  No.  No.  She was not.  They would have to carry her there knocked out before she would go.  She had done all right doctoring herself all these years – no bad sick spells, no teeth out, no children, all that by herself.  She would have had five children right now if she hadn’t been careful.

She wondered more than once if this breathlessness could be heart trouble.  Once in a while, going up the steps, there’d be a pain in her chest along with it.  That was what she wanted it to be – heart trouble.  They couldn’t very well remove your heart.  They’d have to knock her in the head before they’d get her near a hospital, they’d have to – suppose she would die if they didn’t? (p. 187)

Stories such as this that rely on the main character to be clueless about what is actually transpiring around them can quickly grow wearisome if the writer doesn’t resolve their naivety in a timely fashion.  “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” which is thirteen pages in the Library of America edition, comes close to tedious repetition by story’s end.  The quotes provided here, taken from the first four pages of the story, should already give the reader all the clues necessary as to deciphering what truly ails Ruby.  Yet several of her self-doubts are repeated in the pages that follow to the point where the story can barely sustain its narrative force.  The narrative “twist,” presented as a combination of a joke and a commentary on how easily we can self-deceive ourselves, is too slight.  There is little else to the story other than Ruby’s self-delusion.  “A Stroke of Good Fortune” might bring out a brief smirk or even a quick chuckle from the reader when she solves the puzzle, but there is little else to the story that recommends itself to the reader.  The characterization is decent, but O’Connor does better in the majority of her fictions.  Sometimes, however, the slight, less resounding tales serve a purpose.  Within the greater collection of A Good Man is Hard to Find, “A Stroke of Good Fortune” provides a respite of sorts from the menacing atmosphere of the previous three stories, showing that O’Connor’s characters can be amusing in their mendacity as well as being afflicted by it.  It is not O’Connor at her best, but it does demonstrate that she is no one-note composer either.

Flannery Friday: “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” (1953)

February 15th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

Unlike the previous Flannery O’Connor stories reviewed here, her 1953 short story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” defies easy description.  There are no preachers of a Church without Christ, no Misfits giving the lie to “good breeding” and genteel manners, no confused young boys trying to self-baptize themselves in order to wash away the detritus of their young lives.   Yet “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” has its own haunting quality about it, perhaps because it is so subtle in its presentation of souls trying to gain advantage in life, whether or not it is at another’s expense.

“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” opens with an old woman and her daughter on a porch, apparently in northern Georgia or Tennessee, when an apparent drifter, a Mr. Shiftlet, appears, searching for a place to stay.  The mother tries to gauge Shiftlet’s intent (at first, he is described as being “a tramp”) and the two engage in a series of bantering probes, trying to peer deeper into the other’s true intentions.  There is a wry, black humor occurring here, with the adult daughter, Lucynell (the younger; the mother is also named Lucynell), being caught in the middle of a sort of perverse bargaining between the two.  The mother wants her married; Shiftlet at first takes more interest in the ancient Ford that’s been parked there since the girl’s father died some fifteen years before.  Soon into their semantic circling, Shiftlet says this:

He flipped away the dead match and blew a stream of gray into the evening.  A sly look came over his face.  “Lady,” he said, “nowadays, people’ll do anything anyways.  I can tell you my name is Tom T. Shiftlet and I come from Tarwater, Tennessee, but you never have seen me before:  how you know I ain’t lying?  How you know my name ain’t Aaron Sparks, lady, and I come from Singleberry, Georgia, or how you know it’s not George Speeds and I come from Lucy, Alabama, or how you know I ain’t Thompson Bright from Toolafalls, Mississippi?”

“I don’t know nothing about you,” the old woman muttered, irked.

“Lady,” he said, “people don’t care how they lie.  Maybe the best I can tell you is, I’m a man; but listen lady,” he said and paused and made his tone more ominous still, “what is a man?” (pp. 174-175)

“What is a man?”  What a portent-filled question this is; in some ways, what is a “human” lies close to the heart of O’Connor’s fictions.  What makes us lie to each other’s faces, trying to gain an advantage that most often is negligible at best?  Why do we go about trying to “pull a fast one,” to cover ourselves with our own fabrications in order to present a false face to the world?  These questions, although unspoken in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” loom large over it.

Shiftlet and the mother come to a series of arrangements, grudgingly agreed to by each.  Shiftlet will do work for shelter and the car.  Lucynell, the innocent girl with “pink-gold hair and blue eyes,” becomes the next center of attention.  Her mother wants to marry her off; Shiftlet responds to her probing into his marital status curtly:

There was a long silence.  “Lady,” he said finally, “where would you find you an innocent woman today?  I wouldn’t have any of this trash I could just pick up.” (p. 175)

There is ironic foreshadowing in this line, considering how Lucynell, whose silence is eventually explained, is often depicted as an innocent among the fallen.  As her mother and Shiftlet continue to haggle in the week to come, Lucynell becomes engaged to Shiftlet, to her mother’s great delight, as she seems to be relieved at the thought of her burden being removed.  Yet Shiftlet, who began by bargaining for a place to stay, begins to wheedle for more:  the car (then the car with a fresh coat of paint), a “mortgage-free farm,” and then a dowry for him to marry Lucynell.  The mother, in her desperate desire to rid herself of her deaf-mute daughter’s care, eventually accedes to these terms.

One of the themes that comes to the fore around the midpoint of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” is that of the dualism of body and spirit, of permanence and wandering:

“Lucynell don’t even know what a hotel is,” the old woman m uttered.  “Listen her, Mr. Shiftlet,” she said, sliding forward in her chair, “you’d be getting a permanent house and a deep well and the most innocent girl in the world.  You don’t need no money.  Lemme tell you something:  there ain’t any place in the world for a poor disabled friendless drifting man.”

The ugly words settled in Mr. Shiftlet’s head like a group of buzzards in the top of a tree.  He didn’t answer at once.  He rolled himself a cigarette and lit it and then he said in an even voice, “Lady, a man is divided into two parts, body and spirit.”

The old woman clamped her gums together.

“A body and a spirit,” he repeated.  “The body, lady, is like a house:  it don’t go anywhere, but the spirit, lady, is like a automobile:  always on the move, always…”

“Listen, Mr. Shiftlet,” she said, “my well never goes dry and my house is always warm in the winter and there’s no mortgage on a thing about this place.  You can go to the courthouse and see for yourself.  And yonder that shed is a fine automobile.”  She laid the bait carefully.  “You can have it painted by Saturday.  I’ll pay for the paint.”

In the darkness, Mr. Shiftlet’s smile stretched like a weary snake waking up by a fire.  After a second he recalled himself and said, “I’m only saying a man’s spirit means more to him than anything else.  I would have to take my wife off for the week end without no regards at all for cost.  I got to follow where my spirit says to go.” (pp. 179-180)

Not only does this scene set up the final third of the novel, it lays bare the inner conflict within Shiftlet’s soul:  the desire to be “free,” to have his “spirit” roaming wherever it may.  It is a powerful desire, one that leads him to the ultimate betrayal of innocence.  Yet conscience is a powerful thing and a road sign dealing with speeding, the titular “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” pricks Shiftlet painfully.  His self-justifications for his actions are ripped apart and shown for the lies they are when he encounters a young hitchhiker at the end (the connection with how innocent Lucynell is abandoned is made quite explicit), who calls his statements for the lies that they are.  As the story closes, Shiftlet is anguished, yet ultimately unrepentant. It is with him “rac[ing] the galloping shower into Mobile” that provides a metaphoric parallel to a man being chased by hellhounds.  Shiftlet is guilty as all and he knows it and the ultimate question of “the life you save may be your own” takes on a different level of meaning.  While it certainly is lesser in scope than the majority of her other stories, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” is a muter yet only slightly less powerful work than her more well-known tales.

 

Flannery Friday: “The River” (1953)

February 8th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

Religious life in the American South has fascinated and repulsed non-natives for the past few generations.  The South’s complex relationship to the tenants of (American) Protestant Christianity bewilders those who are not accustomed to its myriad expressions of faith.  Last week in my review of Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel, Wise Blood, I discussed the more “modern” form of religious expression, that of the heretical “movements” that decentralized church hierarchies into a protean mass of storefront chapels and “preachers” that have distilled certain elements of American Protestantism into a sleek package that appeals to those who are searching for a “moral compass” in their lives and who refuse to have any truck with matters of creeds and dogmas.  Yet there is something distinctly “Southern” about the characters in O’Connor’s 1953 short story, “The River,” that it bears reminding readers that O’Connor’s stories often focused on the particular socio-religious interactions that dominate Southern culture in ways that are foreign to other Americans (not to mention those from outside the United States).  As O’Connor said in her 1963 essay “The Catholic Novelist in the South”:

The things we see, hear, smell and touch affect us long before we believe anything at all.  The South impresses its image on the Southern writer from the moment he is able to distinguish one sound from another.  He takes it in through his ears and hears it again in his own voice, and, by the time he is able to use his imagination for fiction, he finds that his senses respond irrevocably to a certain reality, and particularly to the sound of a certain reality.  The Southern writer’s greatest tie with the South is through his ear, which is usually sharp but not too versatile outside his own idiom.  With a few exceptions, such as Miss Katherine Anne Porter, he is not too often successfully cosmopolitan in fiction, but the fact is that he doesn’t need to be.  A distinctive idiom is a powerful instrument for keeping fiction social.  When one Southern character speaks, regardless of his station in life, an echo of all Southern life is heard.  This helps to keep Southern fiction from being a fiction of purely private experience. (p. 855)

This simultaneous lack of “cosmopolitan” characters and “an echo of all Southern life” can be seen in many of O’Connor’s most compelling fictions.  Sometimes, as in the case of the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the rigid morality defined by its provincial character is portrayed in all of its glorious hypocrisies and shortcomings.  In “The River,” however, there is a tragic quality to this tale of a young boy who seeks redemption, both for himself and for his mother.  In it can be found an echo of creek baptisms and even multiple baptisms whenever a teen or adult switches congregations in search for that rapturous moment in which s/he feels as though the symbolic drowning of baptism might this time (the first?  second?  fifth?) wash them fully of their sins.

The story opens with a little boy, Bevel (actually Harry, but he changes his name to the name of the minister in response to a question from his chaperone), who is about four or five, getting ready to travel with a neighbor, Mrs. Connin to the countryside to hear an itinerant minister perform a healing service at the local river.  The opening pages of the story describes in gentle ironic terms the poverty of the place, with the dilapidated hog pens and an escaped shoat hog illustrating the lives that the Connins and their neighbors lived, before the scene at the river accentuates the difference between the squalor of their lives and the intensity of their faith in the cleansing power of river healing.  Young Harry/Bevel, dirty as many young boys can be, is largely ignorant of the faith, as is seen in this passage:

You found out more when you left where you lived.  He had found out already this morning that he had been made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ.  Before he had thought it had been a doctor named Sladewall, a fat man with a yellow mustache who gave him shots and thought his name was Herbert, but this must have been a joke.  They joked a lot where he lived.  If he had thought about it before, he would have thought Jesus Christ was a word like “oh” or “damm” or “God,” or maybe somebody who had cheated them out of something sometime.  When he had asked Mrs. Connin who the man in the sheet in the picture over her bed was, she had looked at him a while with her mouth open.  Then she had said, “That’s Jesus,” and she had kept on looking at him.” (p. 160)

There is an enduring innocent quality to young Harry/Bevel in this story.  He is ignorant of the tenets of Christianity or even the image of the Christ, but he is also oblivious at first to those adults who are also seeking the Sublime at the riverbank.  As the Connins and Harry/Bevel arrive at the riverbank, they encounter a rangy youth of perhaps 19 who has waded out into the river and is singing a hymn.  This is the preacher Bevel, and what he says captures the conflicting qualities of evangelical Southern revival/healing services:

“Maybe I know why you come,” he said in the twangy voice, “maybe I don’t.”

“If you ain’t come for Jesus, you ain’t come for me.  If you just come to see can you leave your pain in the river, you ain’t come for Jesus.  You can’t leave your pain in the river,” he said.  “I never told nobody that.”  He stopped and looked down at his knees.

“I seen you cure a woman oncet!” a sudden high voice shouted from the hump of people.  “Seen that woman git up and walk out straight where she had limped in!”

The preacher lifted one foot and then the other.  He seemed almost but not quite to smile.  “You might as well go home if that’s what you come for,” he said.

Then he lifted his head and arms and shouted, “Listen to what I got to say, you people!  There ain’t but one river and that’s the River of Life, made out of Jesus’ Blood.  That’s the river you have to lay your pain in, in the River of Faith, in the River of Life, in the River of Love, in the rich red river of Jesus’ Blood, you people!” (p. 162)

The audiences are searching for a release from their pains:  from arthritis, from heartbreak, from the abandonment of kinfolk and friends.  They desire to be cleansed of their real and perceived sins, to be able to walk out of the river changed irrevocably from what they were before.  From the testifying of those on the shore in response to the preacher’s call-and-response sermon, a fervor arises that O’Connor captures perfectly.  In reading this middle section of the story, I was reminded of my adolescence, occasionally having to travel with my parents on Sunday afternoons to gospel singings that my Baptist relatives (I was raised Methodist, before abandoning that denomination in my early 20s) would participate in.  I can still recall vividly the thundering sermons calling for people to (re)commit themselves to Christ, lest the baptisms that many of them had would be rendered ineffectual.  In hindsight, it was confusing for me and in reflection the services differed significantly from the liturgies of my youth and present.  So when O’Connor has the young Harry/Bevel come into contact with the preacher Bevel and hear what baptism means, it felt so true to the events I witnessed in the 1980s:

The preacher didn’t smile.  His bony face was rigid and his narrow gray eyes reflected the almost colorless sky.  There was a loud laugh from the old man sitting on the car bumper and Bevel grasped the back of the preacher’s collar and helf it tightly.  The grin had already disappeared from his face.  He had the sudden feeling that this was not a joke.  Where he lived everything was a joke.  From the preacher’s face, he knew immediately that nothing the preacher said or did was a joke.  “My mother named me that,” he said quickly.

“Have you ever been Baptized?” the preacher asked.

“What’s that?” he murmured.

“If I Baptize you,” the preacher said, “you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ.  You’ll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life.  Do you want that?”

“Yes,” the child said, and thought, I won’t go back to the apartment then, I’ll go under the river.

“You won’t be the same again,” the preacher said.  “You’ll count.”  Then he turned his face to the people and began to preach and Bevel looked over his shoulder at the pieces of the white sun scattered in the river.  Suddenly the preacher said, “All right, I’m going to Baptize you now,” and without more warning, he tightened his hold and swung him upside down and plunged his head into the water.  He held him under while he said the words of Baptism and then he jerked him up again and looked sternly at the gasping child.  Bevel’s eyes were dark and dilated.  “You count now,” the preacher said.  “You didn’t even count before.” (pp. 164-165)

Here occurs the beginning of the heartache that comprises the story’s final third.  The boy wants so desperately to be good, to be redeemed, to truly “be counted,” now that he is told that he “counts.”  He wants a prayer for his mother, whose illness at the beginning of the story is finally revealed.  Yet this revelation, that he wants the good Lord to heal his mama from the pain of her hangover, draws anger from the preacher and derisive laughter from the crowd.  The innocence of child only goes so far, it seems, and the boy is stung by this.  When the Connins return him late that night to his parents and his mother is informed of the boy’s pseudonym, baptism, and prayer for her, she is in turns horrified and offended that he was exposed to such religious matters.  His parents’ irritation at the credulous believers who believed in the efficacy of river baptisms is misinterpreted by the young boy as being a commentary on his quality of his own recent “conversion.”  He wants to “count,” he wants to have the pains “washed away,” like the preacher talked about.  He wanted to be cleansed, no matter how many dipping into the river waters it would take.

The end result is tragic.  It is sobering to read and it make make one’s heart ache.  O’Connor, who earlier described with detached irony the peculiar beliefs of the local Protestant evangelicals, does not play up the end for laughs.  We see the end unfold from the boy’s perspective and his sincere, burning desire to find the Kingdom of Christ (of which he knew nothing until the morning before) is disturbing because the new-found fervor is expressed in such a sad, moving fashion.  The final three paragraphs transform “The River,” making it not a mocking commentary on rural Southern Protestant practices, but instead a commentary on how the combination of ignorance and faith can lead one into a disastrous revelation.  The symbolic drowning of Baptism, which O’Connor references in places throughout the story, becomes all too real:  the literalization of the figurative is tragic.  Yet there is no sense here that O’Connor ridicules Harry/Bevel.  Instead, she takes pity on him, showing through his viewpoint the circumstances that led to his fateful end.  He at least found peace and that is a quality that is so hard to demonstrate in fiction, much less in real life.  That O’Connor is able to accomplish this within 18 pages is a remarkable achievement and “The River” perhaps is one of her strongest fictions due to this.

Flannery Friday: Wise Blood (1952)

February 1st, 2013 § 2 comments § permalink

It is almost impossible to write about Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, especially her 1952 novel Wise Blood, without addressing the issues of religiosity and the depiction of the grotesque.  For O’Connor, the two were often intertwined.  In her 1960 essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” O’Connor opines that:

Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.  To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.  That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety.  But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.  The Southerner who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.  Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive.  They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature.  In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature. (pp. 817-818)

A half-century later, there is certainly much truth still to this observation.  Walk (or rather, drive, as the roads are not conducive for walking any more) down the streets and by-ways of almost any-size Southern town or hamlet and you will likely see signs advertising the upcoming revival or tent meeting.  Perhaps some of the old general stores that were shuttered in the 1970s and 1980s as Walmart invaded like the Zebra Mussel have reopened as storefront churches, with canvas signs stretched over the remains of old mobile electric signage (with the arrowheads, no longer flashing in the night, serving as a relic of a more secular past), advertising a new “man of God” who has come to lead the wayward home before the Rapture comes and the Elect are swept up en masse, leaving the sinners behind to grovel for mercy from an unrelenting Lord.  There is no appearance of joy in places like “The Word Chapel” (former home of a used car dealership) or “The Holiness Fellowship” (where ten years before was a men’s clothing store).  Instead, there is an air of expectant apocalypse hanging in these dark and cheerless former cathedrals to American small business.   The sinners have congregated here in hopes of having the Christ-ghost exorcised from them in meeting halls that are part PTA meetings and part sanitariums where the collective guilt is expiated through thunderous “AMEN!s” and the trembles and shakes overwhelm those who seek a connection, no matter how tenuous, with the luminous.

For those who live outside this environment, such happenings would be beyond strange; they would seem to herald a sort of mass psychosis that perhaps represents a threat to a whole host of social and cultural causes long championed as being just and right for human society.  When one sees the world as a sort of quasi-Manichean struggle between an omnipotent (yes, he saw you sneaking away with that pilfered cupcake!) God and a clever, temptatious Devil who embodied all of our desires and lusts, anything that appears to favor proscribed behaviors is viewed with deep suspicion, if not outright fear and hatred.  Yet this “Christ-haunted” soul (and “soul” is the appropriate word here) rejects the banality of existence.  If there is a God (and by presumption, an Enemy), then it bears consideration that humanity is more than the sum of its Egos, Ids, and Superegos.  It may not be a comfortable worldview for many to consider, but if one is going to understand Hazel Motes and the characters that populate O’Connor’s 1952 novel Wise Blood, then this worldview has to be at least considered on its own terms.

Wise Blood centers around four individuals, each of whom have become disillusioned with life and the faith that imbues local life:  a recently-discharged WWII veteran, Hazel Motes, who has become an atheist in the wake of a crisis of faith; the prostitute/boarding house owner Leora Watts; an 18 year-old zookeeper, Enoch Emery, who has been kicked out of his home by his abusive father; and a local con-artist, Hoover Shoats, who takes Hazel’s ideas and turns them into a new antireligious church movement.  Each of the characters is presented as being at once a modern form of a (heretical) holy person and a fool, with wry observations and black comedy often employed to underscore the (in)sincere craziness of their (dis)beliefs.  Take for instance this passage in Chapter 3, where Hazel speaks of his vision for a church that has no Christ in it:

“My Jesus,” Haze said.  He learned forward near an old woman with blue hair and a collar of red wooden beads.  “You better get on the other side, lady,” he said.  “There’s a fool down there giving out tracts.”  The crowd behind the old woman pushed her on, but she looked at him for an instant with two bright flea eyes.  He started toward her through the people but she was already too far away and he pushed back to where he had been standing against the wall.  “Sweet Jesus Christ Crucified,” he said, “I want to tell you people something.  Maybe you think you’re not clean because you don’t believe.  Well you are clean, let me tell you that.  Every one of you people are clean and let me tell you why if you think it’s because of Jesus Christ Crucified you’re wrong.  I don’t say he wasn’t crucified but I say it wasn’t for you.  Listenhere, I’m a preacher myself and I preach the truth.”  The crowd was moving fast.  It was a large spread raveling and the separate threads disappeared down the dark streets.  “Don’t I know what exists and what don’t?”  he cried.  “Don’t I have eyes in my head?  Am I a blind man?  Listenhere,” he called, “I’m going to preach a new church – the church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified.  It won’t cost you nothing to join my church.  It’s not started yet but it’s going to be.”  The few people who were left glanced at him once or twice.  There were tracts scattered below over the sidewalk and out on the street.  The blind man was sitting on the bottom step.  Enoch Emery was on the other side, standing on the lion’s head, trying to balance himself, and the child was standing near him, watching Haze.  “I don’t need Jesus,” Haze said.  “What do I need with Jesus?  I got Leora Watts.” (pp. 30-31)

In plain yet impassioned words, Hazel lays out a vision in which those who feel guilty over not living up to the high call of Christ can find cleanness through their rejection of an ideology that has segregated them from any possible communion with God.  It sounds ridiculous on the surface and the more one contemplates it, the dafter it becomes.  Yet for those souls who desire peace from the worries of damnation from a divinity that they consciously reject yet subconsciously suspect is hovering right over them unseen yet felt, this is like manna from heaven or water flowing from the rock struck in the desert.  O’Connor here has sympathy for these benighted fools even as she shows, through scenes such as the purportedly blind preacher, Asa Hawks (who supposedly put quicklime in his eyes as a testimony of his faith), removing his shades to reveal that his eyes were not in fact damaged, that there is a hollowness to these new religious movements that seek to grasp the essence of faith without understanding just what it was they were trying to seize.  Her characters, metaphorically (and later, literally) blind to what it was they were reaching for, turn to con games, to meetings that temporarily assuage guilt before despair drives them to acts of lust, greed, and violence.  It is not hard to see these characters as desperate fools, but desperate, sincere fools can generate sympathy from both the author and the reader and for the most part, the sympathies that are engendered through actions late in the novel touch us because we have come to see these acts as extensions of the misplaced yet fascinating (non)faith that the characters have come to embody.

Wise Blood is a strange novel in that black comedy is used to accentuate the foibles of the characters yet the main effect is an odd sort of tragic nobility that envelops (devours?) the characters before their arcs conclude.  It is a shrewd social commentary of a region that even today is viewed askance by outsiders for its peculiar social customs and seeming hostility to modern cultural and social advancements.  Yet the deeper the reader tries to understand the worldviews of Wise Blood‘s characters (and by extension, those of O’Connor’s characters in her other stories), the more moving and disturbing the work becomes.  There is no simple denouement, no easy, pat conclusion to the story.  Instead, the issues raised early in the novel about matters of faith and desire are left suspended in front of the reader, awaiting for us to consider them at our own leisure in our own ways.  That is the subtle beauty of Wise Blood and 61 years after its initial publication, it still is one of O’Connor’s most widely-discussed stories.

Flannery Friday: “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1953)

January 25th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

She said she thought it was going to be a good day for driving, neither too hot nor too cold, and she cautioned Bailey that the speed limit was fifty-five miles an hour and that the patrolmen hid themselves behind billboards and small clumps of trees and sped out after you before you had a chance to slow down.  She pointed out interesting details of the scenery:  Stone Mountain; the blue granite that in some places came up to both sides of the highway; the brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple; and the various crops that made rows of green lace-work on the ground.  The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.  The children were reading comic magazines and their mother had gone back to sleep.

“Let’s go through Georgia fast so we won’t have to look at it much,” John Wesley said.

“If I were a little boy,” said the grandmother, “I wouldn’t talk about my native state that way.  Tennessee has the mountains and Georgia has the hills.”

“Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground,” John Wesley said, “and Georgia is a lousy state too.”

“You said it,” June Star said.

“In my time,” said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, “children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else.  People did right then.  Oh look at the cute little pickanniny!” she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack.  “Wouldn’t that make a picture, now?” she asked and they all turned and looked at the little Negro out of the back window.  He waved.

“He didn’t have any britches on,” June Star said.

“He probably didn’t have any,” the grandmother explained.  “Little niggers in the country don’t have things like we do.  If I could paint, I’d paint that picture,” she said. (pp. 138-139)

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1953), later the eponymous title of her 1955 collection, is one of Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor’s most famous stories.  In a little over 15 pages, she constructs a tale in which the social conventions of late 1940s Southern “polite society” are stripped down and their base hypocrisies are laid bare.  There is a lot to unpack from this tale, as there are elements here that O’Connor would revisit in her other fictions.

The passage quoted above appears very early in the tale.  An apparently widowed grandmother, her son, wife, and two children are traveling to Florida for a vacation.  The grandmother does not want to go; she wants to revisit the places of her youth, namely the mountains of East Tennessee where she has kin.  For her, the hills of Georgia and the mountains of eastern Tennessee are home.  It is where she was raised and the values of this region she considers to be the standard from which those of all other regions fail to match.  Her son and his wife, however, are not as enamored with this region and their two children, somewhere between 8 and 12 based on their liking for certain things and their approach to life, have a casual disdain for both states; they want to experience change and aren’t as tied down.  In just a few bits of dialogue, O’Connor has established a generational shift in attitude, but then she goes one step further and shows the vicious limits of the grandmother’s worldview by her condescending, racist view of a black youth.  “Cute as a picture,” with the connotation of all blacks being little more than naive children to her.  It is a passing reference in this story, but there are reappearances of this attitude in other O’Connor stories, so it bears noting now that it is difficult at times to separate the author’s complex views on the issue (some of her essays, which in her day might be viewed as more progressive than staunch segregationist attitudes, would today be viewed more dimly than when they were composed).  But here in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” it is intended to show the grandmother’s “values” in a way that sets up the explosive conclusion.

The first half of the story deals with the family’s travels down south through the clay country of Georgia, with the family asking the owner of a country BBQ place, an unctuous barbeque seller who belies his own comment with his appearance and actions,  about an escaped convict known as “The Misfit”:

“Did you read about that criminal, The Misfit, that’s escaped?” asked the grandmother.

“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he didn’t attact this place right here,” said the woman.  “If he hears about it being here, I wouldn’t be none surprised to see him.  If he hears it’s two cent in the cash register, I wouldn’t be a tall surprised if he…”

“That’ll do,” Red Sam said.  “Go bring these people their Co’-Colas,” and the woman went off to get the rest of the order.

“A good man is hard to find,” Red Sammy said.  “Everything is getting terrible.  I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched.  Not no more.”

He and the grandmother discussed better times.  The old lady said that in her opinion Europe was entirely to blame for the way things were now.  She said the way Europe acted you would think we were made of money and Red Sam said it was no use talking about it, she was exactly right.  The children ran outside into the white sunlight and looked at the monkey in the lacy chinaberry tree.  He was busy catching fleas on himself and biting each one carefully between his teeth as if it were a delicacy. (p. 142)

Although this story is set a few years after the end of World War II, this sort of conversation continues to take place every day at nearly-dilapidated gas stations, front porch restaurants, and farmer’s markets all across the rural parts of the South.  The values have changed.  Dem furr’ners.  The animalistic qualities of the imprisoned.  Why we would never be that way.  The oblivious nature of such self-blinding, self-congratulatory bromides is not only a sharp, biting social commentary, but it directly sets up the “a good man is hard to find” theme of the story’s second half.   Here, the prison escapee The Misfit is set up to be outside these values, to be something rather than someone.  It all falls within the parameters of “polite society’s” view of those who transgress its social mores.  Yet as is often case in O’Connor’s stories, those who subscribe to such rigid, absolutist views are set up for a fall.

It is in the story’s final half where everything unites in a devastating conclusion.  The family car overturns on a hilly road and among the grandmother’s internal monologue of how they should have just gone to the mountains of East Tennessee rather than this godforsaken country road, there are images of her hat still pinned to her head, but with the stiff front brim broken and the violet spray hanging off to the side.  The connection between the damaged and yet still relatively intact attire and the value system that the grandmother represents is clear, yet there is something more to it.  There is also the implication of the fool clinging to unworthy values, to someone who is blind to the changing world around them.  While the children express juvenile disappointment in no deaths or other signs of violence as they scream “‘We’ve had an ACCIDENT!’ the children screamed in a frenzy of delight. (p. 145),” there suddenly appears the metaphorical boogeyman, The Misfit and his crew.

The grandmother immediately recognizes him from his wanted ads and makes the mistake of acknowledging this.  As he and his crew are forced to round up the family and take them away, she continues to try and reason with him:

“Listen,” the grandmother almost screamed, “I know you’re a good man.  You don’t look a bit like you have common blood.  I know you must come from nice people!”

“Yes mam,” he said, “finest people in the world.”  When he smiled he showed a row of strong white teeth.  “God never made a finer woman than my mother and my daddy’s heart was pure gold,” he said.  The boy with the red sweat shirt had come around behind them and was standing with his gun at his hip.  The Misfit squatted down on the ground.  “Watch them children, Bobby Lee,” he said.  “You know they make me nervous.”  He looked at the six of them huddled together in front of him and he seemed to be embarrassed as if he couldn’t think of anything to say.  “Ain’t a cloud in the sky,” he remarked, looking up at it.  “Don’t see no sun but don’t see no cloud neither.” (p. 147)

All of her appeals to “good blood,” to manners and to the respect of life down to religion, all of these are easily countered by The Misfit.  It is, for him, society who has failed him rather than he failing society.  Through imagery such as his description of himself as being “buried alive” when sent to the penitentiary for a crime he claims he does not remember or understand (although he says the state claims it was murder of his father years before), there are certain allusions to Christianity, both in the grandmother’s attempt to get him to pray and become “good” and in The Misfit’s conclusion that such religious matters falter in the light of this:

“Yes’m,” The Misfit said as if he agreed.  “Jesus thown everything off balance.  It was the same case with Him as with me except He hasn’t committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me.  Of course,” he said, “they never shown me my papers.  That’s why I sign myself now.  I said long ago, you get you a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it.  Then you’ll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you’ll have something to prove you ain’t been treated right.  I call myself The Misfit,” he said, “because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.” (p. 151)

Here lies the crux of the debate embedded within “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”  How should a society adjudicate those who “sin” or otherwise go against their laws and values?  Should such people be “buried alive” in prison, pushed away because of their heinous actions?  Should there be a dehumanization of those who commit such acts of violence, a removal of them from society that goes beyond just the punishment/rehabilitation aspects of law and order?  This is what The Misfit and the grandmother argue over.  Or rather, the grandmother naively clings to a faith in goodness as embedded in society and in the ability of The Misfit to rejoin it, while he sees further and realizes that he would never be accepted back and that even if he desired so, the order in question is itself flawed.

O’Connor has this exchange take place while The Misfit’s followers “take care” of the other family members.  The matter is as much settled with the finality of pistol shots as it is with the reduction of the grandmother to babbling about how maybe The Misfit really was one of “her children” (itself an allusion to not just the long-denied shared humanity between them, but also to the religious aspects of this).  This conclusion is devastating because it is the final, inevitable response to all of the previously-held assumptions of the grandmother.  The society and its values which she treasures has been shown to her to be not worth a bucket of warm spit in the eyes of one who has walked outside of it.  The “good man” being “hard to find” is shown to be not just the condemnation of the misguided by those who are blinded by their own inflated sense of self-importance, but also a commentary on the violence and darkness that lurks within human hearts.  It is an unsettling commentary, but one which O’Connor revisits in different guises in several more of the stories found in the 1955 anthology A Good Man is Hard to Find.  “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is a powerful tale because the little bits that O’Connor adds to the main plot aid in creating a collision of social views that underscore the fundamental hypocrisies of “polite society,” particularly that of post-WWII Southern towns and farms.  When read alongside other O’Connor tales, it serves not just as an example of her writing style, but also as a representative tale that contains the germ of several other stories within it.

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