Flannery O'Connor's Stories
Conflicting Identity Schemas in Everything That Rises Must Converge
In “Everything that Rises must Converge” Flannery O’ Connor compares the robustness of different methods of maintaining identity. The two identity schemas being compared are those of Julian, the highly individualistic, cerebral main character and his mother, a condescending Southern woman clinging to her fading social status. By focusing on the ongoing clash between these characters’ style of self-identification O’ Connor shows that they are mutually destructive to one another, but that Julian’s is more robust because it is built on an internal self-concept rather than a need to reference external concepts like class and family history.
Julian’s mother reveals her methods of assembling identity by constantly orienting herself relative to the culture and history around her, which she takes completely for granted. She blindly assumes the racial stereotypes that she thinks are appropriate to her perceived place in society, even going so far as to suggest that the old ways of slavery were a preferable state to the current racial realities. This shows that her identity is tied down to the culture of the “old South” and she is thus unable to respond appropriately to change in this culture. Her comments to Julian reflect her preoccupation with the past, in her talk of “going to Grandpa’s when [she] was a little girl” and the glory of the Godhigh family. Julian’s critical thoughts are directly antagonistic to her self-concept, and his reminders that the Godhigh mansion is now inhabited by “negroes” and that their neighborhood has long since faded in reputation give the reader insight into the extent to which his mother’s self-identity is deluded and outdated. His unspoken comments on her gaudy hat, a symbol of her deluded concept of self-importance, function in the same manner. Thus, when Julian’s mother sees the same hat on a black woman O’ Connor uses the moment as a triggering point for Julian to launch an attack on his mother’s self-concept in order to bring her down a notch by using reality as a reference instead of the constructs of culture and family history. This attack comes in the form of him speaking his mind and telling her bluntly, “you aren’t who you think you are.” This insight quite literally destroys her, because it tears down her self-concept entirely by invalidating the constructs it is based on.
O’ Connor allows Julian to win out in the final clash in order to show that his view that “true culture is in the mind” results in a more resilient self-concept. Julian realizes that it is in spite of his education, his race, his heritage and his mother that he is who he is, and not because of them. His independent self-concept allows him to evaluate reality without being blinded by tradition and cultural assumptions, and thus he does not have the difficulty with accommodating societal change into his identity that his mother has to face. Nonetheless, while Julian’s self-concept is robust enough to survive the story’s final climactic clash, it is not unaffected by his mother’s opposing means of identity formation. Even before the final clash we get a sense of deeply rooted guilt for feeling such condescension towards his mother, hence “everything that gave her pleasure was small and depressed him.” This depression that he feels arises from the guilt he experiences every time he pulls a little piece of the rug from under his mother’s sense of self by criticizing the cultural standards by which she identifies herself. Thus, at the end of the story, when he pulls the remainder of the rug out in its entirety, he is left at the precipice of a “world of guilt and sorrow”.
Thus, the story harshly outlines the potential damage that identity schemas can inflict on one another. As readers we are made aware of the potential for a clashing of identities in any relationship, and this awareness is further heightened by making the clash so pronounced that one self actually conquers another and wounds itself in the process. This reminds us that even while our beliefs may be that someone’s identity formation methods are flawed relative to our own, engaging their self-concept directly can result in damage on both sides rather than a remedy.
Tempus Fugit: A Different View of Southern Hospitality
In Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a lively family embarks on a trip fueled by foreboding images. Masterfully, O’Connor displays a crisp slice of Southern life. However, this picture of 1950s pastoral America is tainted with numerous sinister descriptions. An accident befalls the family of six on a back road as they head through rural Georgia. Their lives forever changed by the accident, the family feels the sting of change. At the same time, American society was also undergoing an alteration. The characters are pitted against an America embarking upon progressive policies, with social status giving birth to new class structures. Therefore, O’Connor’s main concern is with the icon of the ordinary American. She proves that inordinate darkness hides behind the countenance of apple pie and baseball. Through the foreshadowing images and characters in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” O’Connor creates a powerful commentary concerning the dark qualities of America’s changing South.A close examination of the work reveals that the family’s journey is doomed from the genesis. One of O’Connor’s stronger forewarning images is demonstrated when the grandmother wears an outfit so ostentatious that if she were to have an accident “anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (O’Connor 385). Almost as if she were dressing for her funeral, the grandmother’s display of flashy apparel provides a robust allusion of the hubris to come. Unfortunately, the grandmother has not realized that there is no dignity in death. For the grandmother to have the thought of an accident crossing her mind, O’Connor certainly alludes to the misfortune that befalls them down the road.However, one could argue that the grandmother’s attire is not foreshadowing, but a beautiful description of a Southern bell. During the 1950s, a Georgian woman was to be prim and proper at all times, her grace never fleeting. S. J. McCown argues that O’Connor has simply fashioned characters “with all the strength of mind, prejudices, [and] fears… which go to make a Southerner” (256). There is certainly no doubt that O’Connor wishes to present the perfect picture of a wholesome Southern family. But her main drive is to hint at the fallen social members to come. By presenting the grandmother in a brazen light, the contrast between the classic Southern grandmother and the gritty Southern Misfit would distinctly shine during the work’s conclusion.Another incidence of foreshadowing comes when the family stops at The Tower. Warning the family that the American dream stands on the brink of destruction, Red Sam tells the crowd, “These days you don’t know who to trust” (O’Connor 387). The idyllic picture of the American character was certainly stronger in the early 1900s, but times forced changes upon society. Families moved to cities, poverty began to rise, and a taste of the materialistic 1980s slowly emerged. Stanley Renner contends that the grandmother’s conversation with Red Sam “reawakens in the grandmother’s mind her dream of lost paradise” (234). However, O’Connor proves that living in the past while not adapting to changing social norms can be dangerous. As the family would find out, trust can be misplaced.Even Red Sammy is considered an evil and sinister image. Once the family enters The Tower, they sit in a “long dark room” as Red Sam joins them, wiping “his sweating red face” (O’Connor 387). Mingling a dark color with the crimson color of Satan, interesting imagery can be detected through this colorful character. C. R. Kropf concedes to this claim when he states that Red Sam “presides over his ‘famous barbecue’ and a ‘burnt-brown’ wife” (192). Cleverly, blatant images of burnt bodies and hellish flames become associated with Red Sam’s diner. But if Red Sam represents the devil, why warn the family of the dangers lurking in the common man? Spiritually, it is believed that the devil tests his victims. Red Sam provides a warning concerning the dangers of the past. His test lies in whether or not the family heeds his advice.In some instances, O’Connor writes more blatantly when foreshadowing the family’s demise. Having taken a nap, the grandmother awakens “outside of Toombsboro” (O’Connor 388). Probably the darkest of all the images in the work, the word ‘tomb’ leers in the face of the reader. To be sure, the grandmother laments and dreams of better times. Renner suggests that the grandmother’s dream of a better American life is “pointedly associated with death,” for it is outside Toombsboro where she reminisces about a slave plantation (234). The reader senses the irony when comparing the family’s America to that of the slave society upon which their country was built. Symbolizing both the death of the American dream and the forthcoming death of the family, Toombsboro undoubtedly sounds a threatening timbre.In another instance of dark serenity, O’Connor suggests that dwelling in the past can be deadly. When the grandmother describes a house she had visited in her youth, she tells how the house “had six white columns across the front” (O’Connor 388). Truly, the columns symbolize the six occupants of the automobile. And when they turn back towards the house, the six occupants trek towards the past, rather than marching onwards. Dark imagery is demonstrated by the “fact that the house, its six columns corresponding to the six occupants of the car, is not there” (Kropf 192). Just as the columns disappeared due to the reckless nature of time, so also must the family.Another instance of imagery that foreshadows destruction is illustrated through the family’s car. The automobile contains an innocent babe, a quiet mother, the rigid Bailey, exasperating children, and an overbearing grandmother. This generational circus provides unrefined conflicts as the age brackets collide. Carter Martin suggests that “the overwhelming irony of the boredom and tension is [not cured by] a coming into love and harmony, but sudden death” (212). Martin simply concludes that the friction of time caused the many conflicting feelings. Infatuated with the past, the grandmother tempts the young children with her remarkable stories. Solidly stuck in the present, Bailey continually guides the car and wife further from the grandmother’s principles. However, it is only through their deaths that unity is found.The healing decade of the 1950s could be felt in numerous aspects of the story. World War II had just ended, and America was again rising to a pristine social and economic position. Irony emerges in the work as the grandmother “discuss [es] better times” with Red Sam (O’Connor 388). A decade of destruction involving two world conflicts is not to be looked upon as ‘better times.’ However, the only important thing to this Southern grandmother was the emergence of the civil rights movement. Frederick Asals explains that the grandmother’s attitudes about Europe and blacks “all expose the automatic racism of the postwar South in those years immediately preceding the civil rights movement” (238). To her, sunny times occurred when slavery ran rampant, oppression leading the way. As long as class structures did not change, the global wars did not matter to the haughty Southern woman.Through the universal dread of the grave, the ominous visage of horror can be plainly detected. Towards the beginning of the family’s trip, they pass “a large cotton field with five or six graves fenced in the middle of it, like a small island” (O’Connor 386). Obviously referring to the six lives in the car, O’Connor sets the initial tone of the piece. Further foreshadowing is exposed when the grandmother states that the graveyard “belonged to the plantation” (O’Connor 386). Again, one notices a paradox between what constitutes ‘better times.’ By attaching death to a slave plantation, O’Connor wishes for the connotation to be dreadful and sad. But the grandmother does not see the plantation as having any dark overtones. For her, a heritage of cruelty and coercion stands as the keystone to Southern culture. Almost sardonic, O’Connor wishes to correct this misconception of Southern life.The careful setting created by O’Connor leads the reader to believe that the family’s attempt to relive the past brings them further into hell. The most common tint associated with hell, demons, and the devil is the color red. This significance is concretely shown when the family car overturns “in a red depression with the dust-coated trees looking down on them” (389). Representing the demons in hell, the trees are covered in dust that symbolizes ashes. Ergo, it is interesting to note that after His death, Jesus descended into hell to obtain the keys of life. Martin takes note of the setting and explains that when the grandmother reaches out towards The Misfit, she “accept[s] him as her own, as Christ accepted sinners” (211). No matter what, Jesus Christ accepts humanity, just as the grandmother should have accepted the metamorphosis of mores.The piece’s conclusion works best at revealing the staunch nature of the shifting period. After hearing the slaughter of her family emanate from the woods, the grandmother wants “to tell him [The Misfit] that he must pray” (O’Connor 393). The grandmother is only concerned with herself until the end, when she finally realizes how to care for others. Growing up surrounded by slaves, she had no pity on those that society deemed to be in a lower class. However, she suddenly perceives the error of her ways. The walls of prejudice that once stood before the elderly woman are broken, and she glimpses the fading good in her austere race. W. S. Marks insists that “it is only death, however, that speaks loudly enough to convince man of his foolish self-deceptions” (182). Knowing she is about to die, the grandmother suddenly thinks clearly for the first time in her life.Although appearing abundant in ideal, the American spirit is actually extremely rare. In a Southerner’s own mind, a prim and proud demeanor is cast over his heritage. But oftentimes, he forgets that change occurs for a reason. At times, frictions are provoked, but there is still no reason to live in the past. For behind every smile, gesture, and virtuous deed that a man does, goodness is fleeting. Too much trust in the past deposits excessive reliance on the present. Clearly, this fact leads to the untimely downfall of O’Connor’s stock Southern family.Works CitedAsals, Frederick. “An Introduction to ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’.” Short Story Criticism 23 (1996): 238.Kropf, C. R. “Theme and Setting in ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’.” Short Story Criticism 23 (1996): 192.Marks, W. S. “Advertisements for Grace: Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’.” Short Story Criticism 23 (1996): 182.Martin, Carter. “The Meanest of Them Sparkled: Beauty and Landscape in Flannery O’Connor’s Fiction.” Short Story Criticism 23 (1996): 212.McCown, S. J. “Flannery O’Connor and the Reality of Sin.” Contemporary Literary Criticism 21 (1982): 256.O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. 6th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002. 384-395.Renner, Stanley. “Secular Meaning in ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism 132 (2003): 234.
“And they lived happily ever after.” This picturesque phrase can hardly be described as a typical ending to a Flannery O’Connor work. In a ‘standard’ O’Connor piece, one can expect to find several allusions to religion, sardonic situations, and demented characters. “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” exemplifies a perfect example of O’Connor’s writing style. This story describes the opposite of a fairy-tale by bringing irony into the situations of the nurturing mother, the beautiful, innocent young woman, the hero who rescues the woman, and the romantic setting in a fairy-tale kingdom.Flannery O’Connor’s works are often thought of as grotesque, fanatic, or sarcastic. Many critics believe such style comes because of her misery in life. At the age of ten, her father dies of the disease she will be later diagnosed of. She lives a lonely life on a secluded farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. Though she does not exemplify a cheerful and optimistic person at all times, she makes personal triumphs through her writing and awards. She keeps a great deal of courage and brightness during her life-time. Though she welcomes many guests to her house, writes corresponding letters to friends, and experiences happy moment, she remains a rather serious intellectual. Her diagnosis of lupus has an effect on her manner of lifestyle but not her writing-style. One cannot conclude Flannery O’Connor writes about such grotesque subject matters because of her own misery and self-pity from being diagnosed with lupus; rather, as a Catholic and a uniquely gifted writer, she is fascinated with such controversial topics. If she were personally upset and distraught over her illness, she would make no effort to explain why such matters are of interest to her. She collects such letters and publishes them in a book. In one particular letter, O’Connor answers the question of why she writes about such topics. She clearly states, “I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic. This is a fact and nothing covers it like the bald statement. However, I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness […]” (F. O’Connor 90). By saying this, everything in her writing falls into perspective. As a dedicated Catholic, she centers her life on Christ, who is the Truth and the Light. When doing this, one is more able to see the black and white subject matters in life. Seeing the good and the bad, O’Connor conscientiously writes about the unpleasant because of her modern conscious which is fascinated with grotesque topics. Her ability to see such defiant themes comes as a sort of gift she receives as following the Christian faith. O’Connor says, “My own feeling is that the writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable” (F. O’Connor 68). The grotesque, the perverse, and the unacceptable are topics of nearly all of her published works. Each character, every setting, and all themes deal with distasteful issues and situations one could not imagine. Her perception of dark and evil comes directly from the Bible. Her unpleasant characters seem to have such traits as being:[…] lovers of their own selves, covetous, proud, boasters, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away. (2 Tim 3: 2-5)Men of this description become the characters in O’Connor’s stories at one point or another. When one, such as Miss O’Connor, knows the right and wrong of the world, yet still chooses to write on topics such as mentioned, it is because it “[…] gives an added dimension in which to work” (W. O’Connor 70). An author has little to work with when the characters are ideal Christians in a setting such as a ‘Bible Belt’ town in the South. O’Connor realizes for any variance and conflict, or for anything to take place at all in her stories, the characters must have trying experiences. As one philosopher, Heraclitus, states, “The way up is the way down.” O’Connor takes her characters through all earthly ugliness so that one may gain insight. As one professor writes:There are no shortcuts to beauty or to insight. We must go through the finite, the limited, the definite, omitting none of it lest we omit some of the potencies of being-in-the-flesh… The finite is not itself a generality, to be encompassed in one fell swoop. Rather, it contains many shapes, and byways and cleverness and powers and diversities and persons, and we must not go too fast from the many to the one. (Quinn 110)O’Connor’s peculiar detail is not used in vain. Using individual attention to every fictional element included in her stories, she utilizes the ugly to contrast the beauty. She may use the liars to exemplify the truth. O’Connor’s brilliant insight comes after the painstaking and somewhat ruthless challenges the characters go through. What may seem grotesque serves its purpose for one to see the ties between the natural, earthly, and the living compared with the supernatural, heavenly, or dead. So rightly, “None of her characters is sentimentalized, for she sees the potential evil in all human beings, and she is constantly aware of the incongruities in human actions” (W. O’Connor 70-71). Why would one lessen the amount of conflict taking place in the story? O’Connor sees the prospective outcome of each situation to bear a bit of information to help one gain insight to the ending. Her themes and morals often tie to the Catechism such as the Original Sin, Christ’s salvation, grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Her character Tom L. Shiftlet, a lesser villain compared to other O’Connor monstrosities, subtly compares to mercy, salvation, and the resurrection. Hence, her writing of grotesqueness of characters and her allusion to religion are written because of her unique mind, fascination with carnal sin, and her overwhelming conscience of Catholicism. The smaller details of her works are often a projection of her self-image, subtext, or comedic irony. O’Connor uses the finite, amoral, and grotesque characters and setting so one may more fully comprehend the truth or the moral conscience at an optimum level. Once the reader has a glimpse of the evil in the world, he will more easily understand the good, the light, and the truth. As critics often find innuendoes to Christ’s life, one can confidently conclude such writing style directly relates to Miss O’Connor’s firm belief in Catholicism.In “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” The beautiful and innocent young woman of this story in no way exhibits the image of a wonderful enchantress of any typical fairy-tale. When one is told to picture the heroine of the story, he may think of a girl who “[…] ha[s] long pink-gold hair and eyes as blue as a peacock’s neck” (F. O’Connor 623). Such angelic distinctiveness may be the only positive trait Lucynell possesses. O’Connor’s mention of a peacock is significant. She symbolizes peacock’s beauty as cherubic elegance. Or as one critic believes, “[…] the peacock symbolizes Christ’s divine nature […]” (Hyman 344). By placing this minute detail into Lucynell’s description, O’Connor alludes her characteristics to one who is heavenly innocent. Yet, since O’Connor creates no perfect characters, she projects her own negative self-image to balance Lucynell’s image. Therefore, because of this negative balance, Lucynell will never accomplish the feat of being the astonishingly beautiful and innocent woman who charms her way through life. The only person she ever charms is someone who does not have the pleasure of seeing her awake. As the newlywed couple sits in the diner, the young man comments, “‘She looks like an angel of Gawd'” (F. O’Connor 627). Would the boy remark the same way if he sees her out of her slumber? Most likely, he would observe a clumsy and obnoxious girl who cannot speak or compose herself in public. Lucynell may well be a beautiful young lady while she sleeps, but does not the beautiful heroine of the fairy-tale charm her way through life while she is awake? As opposed to the charismatic beauty of a mythical woman, Lucynell feels no shame or embarrassment as she strikes strange poses when complete strangers approach, nor does she attempt to mesmerize any man. She does however have the ability to run any possibility for marriage out the door. Who can fall in love with “[t]he big rosy-faced girl [who] follow[s] him around everywhere, saying ‘Burrttddt ddbirrrttdt,’ clapping her hands” (F. O’Connor 624)? The misfortune of Lucynell almost gives a feeling of sympathy as one understands that she will never become a beautiful and innocent heroine. Though Lucynell does not exemplify a character one wishes he is portrayed as, she remains the only link to innocence and salvation in the story. As one critic points out, “Thanks to her idiocy, Lucynell is as close to angelic innocence as a person can be […]” (Ragen 137). As undesirable as Lucynell’s innocence may be, one will be blameworthy if he betrays this type of divinity. Therefore, Shiftlet’s abandonment makes him culpable because he cons the trust of a nave woman. O’Connor also tries to warn every innocent young woman that she is vulnerable and may be taken advantage of by a deceiving man. For every woman, the reality remains that she may not ever accomplish the feat of being such a woman from a fairy tale. Only a handful of fictional women have been able to claim the victory of being a charismatic woman who men cannot resist. Though not to the intensity of Lucynell’s misfortune, every woman has flaws that keep her from portraying the image of the goddess-like belle. Since no such Venus truly exists, O’Connor creates the extremity of the opposite of an idol to foil the situation.The mother of a story may be placed into two categories: the wicked stepmother or the nurturing mother. In this case, Mrs. Crater exemplifies the mother who does not fit into either category; she is neither neglectful nor encouraging. Lucynell Crater is the only character of this tale who has the conscience to choose between right and wrong, innocence or ambition. The mother has one goal in mind: to marry off her daughter to any man who will have her. As Mr. Tom L. Shiftlet arrives at the rugged farm, Mrs. Crater sees the one opportunity to have her daughter married. She attempts to begin a relationship between the two as soon as she finds the opportunity. Mrs. Crater insinuates to Shiftlet her desire to have him with her daughter by saying, “‘Teach her to say sugarpie,’ she said. Mr. Shiftlet knew what was on her mind” (F. O’Connor 625). Lucynell does not miss any chance she has to have her daughter with this man. Though both Shiftlet and Lucynell are rather perceptive, Lucynell ignores the fact that there are questionable characteristics in this prospective son-in-law. Mrs. Crater’s choice to choose bad over good stands as evidence that the right answer is not always the final answer. Would a nurturing mother look over the fact that her only daughter may be marrying a deceiver? The prospector only agrees to take the daughter away when bribes are thrown into the deal. As Shiftlet and the mother discuss marriage proposals once again, Mrs. Crater “la[ys] the bait carefully. ‘You can have it painted by Saturday. I’ll pay for the paint'” (F. O’Connor 626). The mother’s many attempts to have her daughter married to someone who will only enter the relationship if a rusty piece of metal receives a paint job exemplifies her lack of concern. Perhaps at her age, her only ambition in life is to see her daughter wed. Yet, why would any decent mother ignore the obvious lack of sincerity in a man to marry her innocent and nave child? Mrs. Crater still feels she has to convince Shiftlet of his good choice to marry her daughter. Driving home from the foreshadowed wedding, the mother says, “‘Don’t Lucynell look pretty? Looks like a baby doll.’ […] ‘You got a prize!'” (F. O’Connor 626). Her vain attempts to keep her daughter and Shiftlet happy cease as she lets Lucynell leave for her ‘honeymoon’. Though Lucynell Crater has followed her own ambition and has seen her daughter hitched, her only daughter will suffer because of her mother’s blind aspirations. Miss Crater exemplifies the type of O’Connor character who is “[…] vain, selfish creatures blind to themselves, dead to others, and desperately in need of grace” (Milder 419). Yet, while the possible grace of her daughter stands before her eyes, she remains blinded by ambition. Mrs. Crater’s choice to follow her own desires makes her useless to others. Many mothers say to their daughters, “I only want you to be happy.” Through her actions, Lucynell shows she never wishes this for her daughter by matching her up with a misguiding and two-faced man. By filling her own goals first, the mother shows that she would rather make herself happy before she would wish the same for her daughter. Mrs. Crater is “[…] involved in sin as the rest of humanity” (Ragen 137). Though this sin may not stand as the carnal sins mankind commit, she sins by way of pride, greed, and symbolic blindness. Mrs. CraterAs the handsome hero rescues the beautiful girl and whisks her into his arms, he stumbles on a fallen branch and drops the heroine into a mud puddle. The clumsy man has ruined the fairy-tale ending. In Flannery O’ Connor’s twisted tale, Tom L. Shiftlet ruins the fairy-tale in more detrimental ways than a single act of awkwardness. If one imagines the main male character of a fairy-tale, one would see a well-built, charismatic, and intelligent man with a smile that would melt the heart of any damsel in distress. One would least likely think of an angular hero with a “[…] smile [that] stretche[s] like a weary snake waking up by a fire” (F. O’Connor 626). This very description would immediately intimate one to think of a shady and devilish character, not quite the typical hero. From the beginning, Shiftlet tries to represent a Christ-like character. His actions such as holding up his arms to make a crooked cross and giving life to a car which has not run in fifteen years allude to major actions during Christ’s ministry. O’Connor specifically writes such suggestive terms so one may clearly see that Tom L. Shiftlet’s is so far fetched from the typical hero that his filthy faults lie far beneath the sly surface. As much as Shiftlet tries to gain the temporary trust of others, Shiftlet, like others of O’Connor’s ‘villains’ “[…] are versions of the pseudo-Christ as con man, easily betraying those who put their faith in them […]” (Asals 133) Within the thin, angular, and one-armed man lies a manipulative and scheming character, a man with no moral integrity. He knows for himself that he has no moral convictions. He attempts to convince Mrs. Crater and his own self that he does by saying he has “[…] ‘a moral intelligence!’ and his face pierced out of the darkness into a shaft of doorlight and he stared at her as if he were astonished himself at this impossible truth” (F. O’Connor 624). Any true hero must base his decisions upon the virtuous desires of his honest heart. Without the knowledge of right and wrong, how can any man make correct decisions? This fact foreshadows that any acts coming from Shiftlet will be based on greed, lust, and carnal desires. One critic states, “Shiftlet is trying to save only his own life—while he is given the chance to at least improve Lucynell’s or Mrs. Crater’s” (Ragen 138). Although Shiftlet has one opportunity to perform Christ-like acts of service, he turns it down because of his selfish habits. What brings Shiftlet to the farm is the one thing he craves the most: a car2E The mother, having no intention of ever using the car again, uses it as bait to lure Shiftlet into a relationship with her ‘exquisite’ daughter. Shiftlet satisfies himself with the deal but does not keep to the agreements of keeping the car because he feels that the marriage was “‘[…] nothing but paper work and blood tests. […] It didn’t satisfy me at all'” (F. O’Connor 626). Shiftlet’s only satisfaction is found when he deceives and insults an innocent woman, steals a car, and prides himself on a pitiful act of assistance to a hitchhiker. In the end, all this ‘hero’ cares about is his own wants and pleasures. Only the ‘slime of the earth’ would create such discontent in other’s lives to suit one’s own lusts, certainly no hero. Shiftlet exemplifies O’Connor’s typical wicked characters. Shiftlet is a perfect projection of a hypocritical and perverse man who has an image of Christ and man. Because of O’Connor’s modern conscience, she finds it interesting to tie Christ and the devil into one individual and experiment with the outcome. Though Shiftlet is a lesser villain in comparison to other O’Connor’s characters, she makes a clear point that one cannot place his trust in the hands of a shady character without facing devastating consequences.Any fairy-tale will experience mild conflicts and challenges to make the story interesting, but luckily most have a happy ending. Within any typical story, two characters find love and spread happiness to those around them. In O’Connor’s twisted version, the farm does not present a lovely setting where love will surely transpire. The rustic farm shows a slight shimmer of hope because of the view of the mountainous horizon, the only loveliness in the setting. Even Shiftlet comments on the beauty of the scene by saying, “[…] a man had to escape to the country to see the world whole and that he wished he lived in a desolate place like this where he would see the sun go down every evening like God made it to do” (F. O’Connor 624). The scenery may be the only source of divine light shown in the story. To contrast the situation and make the end come out even more insightful by going through the finite, O’Connor writes the beauty of the horizon so the setting in the ending scene will be all the more opposite. In the beginning, “The sun, birds, mountains, sky and moon all reflect God’s presence” (Edelstein 139). Whereas in most fictional stories the weather foretells the ending, this opening setting adds an extra twist to what will happen. The beauty of the horizon adds to the foil of the grotesque characters. With the mother attempting to wed her only hopeless daughter and a man trying to steal what he can get his hands on, the setting can hardly be described as peaceful and ‘like God made it’. Unlike nearly any other fairy-tale, this story ends without any type of hope. Just as beautiful as the setting begins, that is how hideous it ends. As soon as Shiftlet neglects Lucynell in the diner and prepares to leave, nature begins to show her displeasure. Shiftlet observes, “Deep in the sky a storm was preparing very slowly and without thunder as if it meant to drain every drop of air from the earth before it broke” (F. O’Connor 627). Nature also represents the characters of the story. O’Connor ties Shiftlet’s darkness into every aspect of the story. One critic observes, “The story becomes a projection of his emotional state” (Hendin 349). The opaque storm front represents his subconscious’ build up of guilt. Like Shiftlet, the storm front prepares its coming calamity but gives fair warning which can be seen by anyone who looks closely. Perhaps the storm does not know how severe its own damage can be. Nevertheless, the storm’s peak will break with all its fury no matter how long it attempts to hold back. As Shiftlet drives on alone, “A cloud […] had descended over the sun, and another, worse looking, crouched behind the car. Mr. Shiftlet felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him” (F. O’Connor 627). Whether Shiftlet had a moral intelligence or not, he could still feel the guilt of his wrong doings, even if Mother Nature has to show him the punishment of his transgressions. One critic agrees by saying, “The storm suggests Shiflet’s quiet, affectless cruelty as much as it prepares for the rainfall to come” (Hendin 349). Even the storm-front is deceiving because it does not act like a typical storm breaking forth with wind and rain as it approaches. Shiftlet attempts to come in quietly and get all he can before he intends to break forth in a final stage of fury. As his own misery surrounds him, he wishes to flee from his surroundings, just as he had fled from his previous scene with Lucynell in the diner. Though this time, Shiftlet will take nothing with him: no young woman, no feelings of success, and not a shred of happiness2E In place of courage, honor, and valor, one finds deceit, disgrace, and dread. What fairy-tale ending leaves one with such discomfort and sickness? The setting brings the story to life, showing the cheapness, naivety, and irony of the story. O’Connor’s description of the dark storm coming upon makes one think of the symbolism of the sky. In the very beginning, the horizon shows a beautiful sunset at the end of a peaceful day. When Shiftlet arrives, the hope of the daylight begins to fade and the Craters must prepare to face the darkness of Shiftlet. In the daylight on the farm, one sees Shiftlet doing acts of kindness and service but when the darkness comes in, Shiftlet’s true desire of greed prevails. It was in the darkness of the night when one discovers Shiftlet’s devilish smile after he discusses the possible ownership of the car. By the end, O’Connor shows that the flashy pseudo-Christ qualities in Shiftlet have faded and the truthful darkness and evil prevail.O’Connor’s moral is clear. In reality, fairy-tales do not exist. Every situation bears a fault that will hamper the characters from finding their surreal ending. Most commonly the bad will overcome the good. Whereas most fictional stories have characters who seek for other’s happiness, this story proves that selfishness, ambition, and greed will overrule Christ-like qualities of love, service, and honesty. As Flannery O’Conner warns, one will assuredly encounter adversity, dishonesty, or untrustworthiness that will keep one from his coveted fairy-tale life.
Perilous Intelligence: The Dangers of Being Over-Intellectual in “Good Country People”
Is being an intellectual dangerous? If having more knowledge than another person can cause trouble in 2014, then exceptional intelligence certainly brought even more risks to its bearer in Flannery O’Connor’s society. O’Connor, one of the most well-known Southern Gothic authors, often wrote about the peril of intellectuals in her day. With one of the strangest endings, the short story “Good Country People,” fitting well with O’Connor’s common theme, tells the tale of the grumbling atheist Joy Hopewell and the traveling Bible salesman Manley Pointer. After beginning with a primary focus on the interaction between Joy’s mother and the young man, the story shifts to detail Joy and Manley’s ill-fated romp in the barn where his true colors are revealed and Joy’s wooden leg is stolen. Joy Hopewell’s professed “kind of salvation… [in realizing] that there’s nothing to see” prevents her from looking past the spiritually intellectual façade of Manley Pointer (13), recognizing his true belief that “good country people” do not get far in life (15), and understanding that the two actually hold very similar beliefs.
Although Joy views herself as enlightened, her scholarly belief that human existence holds no deeper meanings blinds her to many aspects of life and relationships. Her narrowness of vision, the reason behind her name change from “Joy” to “Hulga,” shines through in that she “doesn’t like dogs or cats or birds or flowers or nice young men” (4). Joy fails to find joy in nature or people because she believes there is nothing more to them then the fact that they simply occupy space. The polysyndeton of the sentence emphasizes the multitude of objects that have no meaning to her, and in looking at the world in this constrained way, she misses the simple beauty of a rose and finds relatively little happiness in the world around her. Hulga instead concentrates her scientific inquisitions on the philosophical aspects of humanity as a species as opposed to the nature of its individual members and thus “decide[s] that…she [is] face to face with real innocence” in Manley Pointer (14). For a girl that views herself as higher than others in her “economy” due to her supposedly superior intellectual beliefs (12), Hulga fails to look past her own convictions to see the young man for his true corrupt self. If she accepted that her perspective may not always apply to every aspect of life, she might have subsequently used her intelligence to detect Manley’s disguise.
Manley’s fake spiritual ideology that God comes first in his life gives him an air which not only immediately results in praise and trust but also serves as the framework for his deceptive disguise. As soon as the young man announces that he “wants to devote [his] life to Christian service” because he “has a heart condition” and “may not live long,” Mrs. Hopewell invites him to dinner (7). The young Bible salesman’s identification with a religious calling and his similarity to Hulga’s ailment transform him into a perfectly respectable figure of the time. No one would assume that a man so understandably devoted to an upright career path would have a true nature different than what he professes. Even when first alone with Hulga, Manley, reminding her that “[one] can never tell” when the necessity for the Word of God may arise, continues his frontage of religious devotion (12). While deceiving both Mrs. Hopewell and the college-educated Hulga, the “Christian” boy misleads us as readers as well. Before the interaction in the barn loft, there is no way for us to tell that Manley’s mentality differs from what he says. This lack of perception leads to Hulga’s placement of all her trust in him and ultimately to her realization that she should not have afforded him any of her confidence. Manley Pointer raises assurance in his morals and blindsides not only the characters in the story but also the readers by professing a deep and seemingly genuine spiritual intellect.
In reality, Manley, a clever con artist with a cynical outlook on life, believes that being simply good simply holds one back. He tells Hulga that in order to prove her love for him she must “show [him] how to take it [her wooden leg] off and on” (14). He so convincingly twists an emotion that Hulga does not even believe in so that she will make herself completely vulnerable to him. Manley ensures the success of his devious plan by acting so seemingly “in love” with her that she does not think that he would be the one using this feeling against her. Once Hulga recognizes his ploy, he reveals to her that he “may sell Bibles but [he] knows which end is up…and where [he is] going” (15). Though Manley participates in an honest profession, the use of the conjunction “but” indicates that he believes goodness in itself will not get him where he wants to go. He feels as though he must have an advantage over people, such as the other person lacking a leg, in order to achieve his desires. In disclosing his crafty web of lies, the young man reveals his wicked identity in which the only purpose of any good-naturedness is to cover up his schemes.
Although Hulga would never want to admit it, she and Manley Pointer harmonize in their intellectual beliefs more than one might think. Throughout the short story, O’Connor constantly describes Hulga as a “girl” rather than a “woman,” even though she is thirty two, and Manley as a “boy” instead of a “man,” even though he is nineteen, in order to emphasize that other characters view them as immature and childlike. In an intellectual sense, both characters have seasoned mindsets; Hulga’s comes from her extensive and lengthy education and Manley’s derives from his life experiences. Alternately, both truly are puerile in that they fail to identify other aspects of life beyond worldly observations. When Manley professes that God must watch over Hulga, she blatantly says that she “[does not] even believe in God” (11), and later we discover that he does not “believe in that crap” either (15). The dual atheism of the characters highlights how each of them arrived at the same place by different paths. Where Hulga’s search for knowledge leads her to disbelief in God just as it leads her to the barn, Manley’s quest to be in control brings him to an identical place both mentally and physically. Similarly, both confess – or rather openly proclaim – a central belief in nothing (13, 15). Hulga’s conviction influences her to see nothing in the smokescreen of Manley’s spirituality and Manley’s causes him to see nothing in the value of Hulga as a person. Though the characters’ parallel beliefs are deeply mentally rooted, only Hulga’s is roughly uprooted by the end of the story. If Hulga had recognized some of her own characteristics in Manley then she likely would have dealt with him very differently and avoided losing not only her leg but also her dignity and the confidence she held in her own intellectual ideology.
To Hulga Hopewell’s disadvantage, she fails to look beyond her own rigid profession of nothing as she unfortunately views her own intellectual ideas as ultimately superior to those of other people and in doing so fails to identify similar ideology in Manley Pointer and recognize him for his true devious, disbelieving nature. Throughout “Good Country People,” one can easily notice Flannery O’Connor’s repudiation of nihilism, the ideology that “all values are baseless and nothing in the world can be known or communicated” (Pratt). One can see that there is much more to both Manley and Hulga than their ideologies would profess and that moral and religious values do exists, whether they are adhered to or not. Is being an intellectual dangerous? While not all intellect leads to disaster, the tragic end of the story teaches us that a knowing acceptance of nothing is not only ungrounded, but also perilous.
O’Connor, Flannery. “Good Country People.” (1955): 1-16. UFL. University of Florida, 2014. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.
Pratt, Alan. “Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Nihilism. N.p., 2014. Web. 08 Oct. 2014.
Original Sin as Found in “The River”
Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The River” tells the unfortunate story of a young boy named Harry who finds himself searching for meaning in his life. Due to the neglectfulness of his parents, he is left to figure out his own morals and beliefs on his own. He struggles to find meaning in the world until one day he meets a pastor who gives him the hopeful message he had been longing for. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin explains that all humans are born with a sinful nature and we must make a conscious effort to choose to not fall into a sinful path. By understanding Augustine’s doctrine, one can better understand the underlying principles that can be found in the story that would otherwise go unnoticed to the reader.
Original sin in the story is most evidently found in the Ashfields’ household. The smell of dead cigarette butts, the emptiness of meaningless artwork, and the negative effects of alcohol plague their home with evidence of a sinful lifestyle. They are depicted as having fallen into the traps of several different sins because of their lack of religious beliefs. Their household represents the typical worldly, atheistic lifestyle that comes when people fail to realize their own total depravity and continue to live in their innate sinful ways.
The Ashfields prioritize their life poorly and have almost no concern with how they are raising their child. Harry’s parents view parenting as a joke. Flannery O’Connor writes, “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 ‘damn’ or ‘God’” (O’Connor, 33). Unfortunately, this surplus of jokes could not fill the void where Harry lacked guidance, causing his open-mindedness towards the sermon by the river and his misunderstanding of the metaphorical message that Pastor Bevel had been attempting to instill in him through his baptism. “The Ashfield apartment is a bleak environment filled with sardonic laughter, and all that passes for humour is drenched in cynicism” (Sparrow). They obviously do not value anything, nor do they take anything seriously, especially the way in which they parent their young, impressionable son. In giving him everything by spoiling him, they ended up giving him nothing. They tried to use worldly possessions to fill the empty spot where he needed spiritual guidance.
Along with their flawed parenting, Harry’s parent’s sinful ways also cause them to neglect him. They do not bother to introduce him to his new babysitter or to even dress him correctly because they are rushing to get rid of him. His parents’ neglect leads him to the idea that there is something wrong with him and that he does not matter to the world causing him to act up in ways such as dumping ash on the floor and tearing up his books. “’He ain’t fixed right,’ a loud voice said from the hall. ‘Well then for Christ’s sake fix him,’ the father muttered” (O’Connor, 25). O’Connor uses this exchange to represent human brokenness and Harry’s need for saving from both his negative family atmosphere and his own total depravity. Furthermore, throwing Christ’s name into the scene deepens the allusion and contrasts with the dismissiveness of the conversation.
Another biblical allusion that highlights this theme of neglect and rejection is when Harry’s true name is revealed to be Harry and not Bevel. “’His name ain’t Harry. It’s Bevel,’ Mrs. Connin said” (42). His parents instantly rejected this new name and mocked it his new identity, deepening his resentment towards them and his feeling of being insignificant. Significantly, the idea of Harry having a new name holds symbolic weight because name changing was important in Bible times. Also, a “bevel” is a carpenter’s tool which relates Harry’s new name to Jesus since he was widely known to be a carpenter. Harry understood the importance of his changed name and of his baptism because he knew that he was born into sin and it was up to him to get himself out of it. His parents were stubborn in their ways and had no motive to change to be better which is why they rejected his newfound identity.
Even at Harry’s young age he realizes something that his parents fail to notice: his total depravity. He knows that there is something wrong in him that needs fixing, but he was never given guidance. When Harry hears of the preacher he asks, “will he heal me?” (O’Connor, 28). Harry is sick with a spiritual hunger that is caused by his social and familial deprivation. He seeks love and reassurance that can only be found through Christ. Unfortunately, he misinterprets the pastor’s message of healing which leads to his drowning in the river when he tries to ‘baptize’ himself to reach the Kingdom of Christ.
The doctrine of original sin is alluded to in almost every aspect of “The River”. It is found in the sinful home of the Ashfield’s, in the flawed parenting that shaped Harry’s development, and in the neglect and rejection that Harry faced throughout his life. Flannery O’Connor did not hesitate to implement her own religion into her writing. She obviously believed in the idea of total depravity, causing her story to reflect this in a relatable way. Harry’s fight for acceptance and love is a relatable struggle that connects the reader to the story. Works Cited
Sparrow, Stephen. “Baptism and the Sense of Place in Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The River’ .” Getting Somewhere, 4 Mar. 2004, www.flanneryoconnor.org/ssbaptism.html.
O’Connor, Flannery. A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories. Mariner Books, 1977.
Why Flannery O’Connor Uses Violence to Represent Grace: Analysis of “Revelation,” “Greenleaf,” and Other Stories
At first glance, Flannery O’Connor’s work seems to begin and end with despair. In many of her works, she paradoxically uses styles that are grotesque and brutal to illustrate themes of grace and self-actualization. The use of violence returns her character to reality and prepares them for grace. Violence is a part of a relentless – at times terrifying – grace that hounds her characters. She shows violence similar to that of which threw Saul from his horse and blinded him, and, the same grace that drove the disciples to the ends of the earth where they suffered horrifying deaths. This suffering and violence is not just an unfortunate reality that sometimes confronts Christians, but is an integral part of what it means to encounter Christ. Although disturbing, O’Connor’s anagogical paradox is an effective literary technique, deepening the meaning of her stories so that the proud are humbled, the ignorant are enlightened and the wise are shown the wisdom of the world is foolishness.
Sin is a disease that every person has, but we are often unaware of the extent of how it has metastasized. As it is found in the book of Genesis, the first sin that caused the fall of humanity was a pride, a true spiritual sickness. It is a sin that tricks people into believing that they themselves are a God-level person, stating that they wish for their will to be done, rather than the will of God. An obsession causing a love of power and exercising their own will, as well as having control. The way for the prideful to gain humility is for them to be spiritually healed. For Mrs. Turpin, this spiritual healing of her pride takes place in a Doctor’s waiting room, which is symbolic of how one attends church to meet with God and have their sins forgiven. Through the description of Mrs. Turpin as “very large” she “made [the waiting room] look even smaller by her presence” (488), we can conclude that her pride has has given her a controlling presence, and she assumes that she has power over the other people in the waiting room. This power causes her to place judgments on these people as we see she has “sized up the seating situation”. O’Connor uses the character of Mary Grace to show Mrs. Turpin a revelation and as the name suggests, receives God’s grace. As we see through this character, eyes are truly the window to the soul and through seeing into Mrs. Turpin’s soul she is able to show her this grace. She is the only character in this story to have anagogical vision, though we see Mrs. Turpin starting to see the spiritual meanings of things later on. This is come on by a revelation, fittingly the title of the story, which is an event that forces one to see, forces Mrs. Turpin to see her pride as sin and the spiritual meaning in the world. Later there is a scene where Mary Grace is looking through Mrs. Turpin, showing her ability to see into Mrs. Turpin’s soul.
Mrs. Turpin cannot see anything behind her, only vague figures, meaning she is blind to her own sin. We also see that Mary’s “eyes seemed lit all of a sudden with a peculiar light, and unnatural light like night road signs give”, showing her anagogical vision. The reference of Mary Grace’s eyes as road signs represents a sign or a path that Mrs. Turpin needs to take. Since Mary Grace has anagogical vision, she sees that Mrs. Turpin needs to take the path of humility and is trying to urge her to see this.In a later scene, we see another description of Mary Grace’s eyes being “fixed like two drills on Mrs. Turpin”. This reference to a drill means that Mary Grace is pressing for Mrs. Turpin to get rid of the shell of pride she has, since a drill is used to break through a hard surface, trying to get to what is beneath it. With her eyes saying “This time there was no mistaking that there was something urgent behind them” we can see that Mary is urgently trying to get Mrs. Turpin to take a look at herself and the things she believes in.
Once Mary Grace attacks Mrs, Turpin, she realizes that the girls eyes “seemed a much lighter blue than before, as if a door that had been tightly closed behind them was now open to admit light and air.” Mrs. Turpin is about to open a door on her own belief system and look at herself in a different light. It is through the vision she has a t the end of the story that she realizes she has been wrong in what she believes in and it is through knowing that she was wrong that Mrs. Turpin receives grace. When taking a look at the word choice O’Connor used, we can see why she chose the color blue to describe Mary Grace’s eye, since Mary the mother of Jesus is also represented by this color and is also a symbol of Grace since it is through her that Jesus was able to come to earth and provide grace for all sinners. The attack by Mary Grace is a public humiliation for Mrs. Turpin which allows her to be publicly humbled. The aftermath of this revelation shows to have a humbling effect on Mrs. Turpin. She is starting to become more like Mary Grace with anagogic vision as we see “her eyes began to burn” just as Mary Grace’s eyes were described to “smolder and blaze” which was a fire to purify Mrs. Turpin’s sins, but now she is starting to realize these sins. This is significant, because before Mrs. Turpin’s eyes were full of pride, but now that they are being compared to Mary Grace’s eyes, we see that her eyes now burn with something other than pride. We also see that she “does not bother to lace” the shoes, where shoes used to be what she used to base her judgement of others off of. Now with her not worrying about the appearance of her own shoes shows that she does not worry about judgements from other people, and shows her humility. “Here lower lip protruded dangerously” can be seen as a reference to both Mary Grace and this pigs. Being compared to a pig is sign of humility, since in this story the pigs are referred to as lowly and fallen human nature.
As Mrs. Turpin has a revelation where she sees herself, Claud, and those of equal socioeconomic status bringing up the rear of the procession of Heaven, she realizes that she is just like the pigs and needs to become more humble, showing her pride abating. She sends a prayer to God, saying “Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and bottom”(507). She challenges God to put her on the bottom, referencing to Matthew 20:16, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” She is starting to understand that to have anagogical vision, one cannot place themselves first, but lower themselves to the place of a servant and allow for all to receive honor before themselves. At the end of the story, we see that “the sun was behind the wood, very red,” showing that it was setting. The sun is a parallel to the son of God, with the wood resembling the cross and red the blood and death, showing that the sun setting is a reference to the son dying. The death of Jesus was the ultimate example of grace, with him being sent to save all sinners from our sins. The presence of Christ’s redemptive love was a sacrifice to the world. This is why she got a another chance, because through the violence of Christ’s death we are able to have grace and are given the opportunity to have second chances.
Through the story Greenleaf, O’Connor portrays a story of God’s grace as she used the bull as a representation of Jesus and it’s death the sacrifice He made for man. Mrs. May is not a likable character, but O’Connor always uses disturbing, unlikeable characters to shatter our complacency and show the grace of God. Mrs. Greenleaf is similar to Mary Grace in being the only person in the story to have anagogic vision, where Mrs. May is similar to Mrs. Turpin, cannot see anagogically. She can see “indistinct grays and greens… through the window” which shows that she has some vision, but is anagogically blind. Similar to Mrs. Turpin, we see her become spiritually healed through the words “gaily”, “rest”, and “closed her eyes” where she is getting her happiness from nature (330, 332). Nature helps to show forth God’s beauty as an example of his creation, being the representation of His grace. Through the use of a piercing metaphor “The light outside was not so bright but she was conscious that the sun was directly on top of her head, like a silver bullet ready to drop into her brain” we see that Mrs. May instinctively shies away from the light of the son, the grace of God.This story shows us that grace is an encounter with God that saves us from our spiritual sickness, which in Mrs. May’s case is her pride. Having control means that you choose self over God’s hand in nature, where nature is the passageway of grace. What is most ironic about this is that the first time Mrs. May is aware of the bull is when she is asleep, which is when we lack control. As the bull is charging toward her it is described to be “gay” and “overjoyed” showing that it is wooing her, calling to her when her will is suspended, similar to how God woes his children. Perhaps the most evident example of grace in this story is the reference to the chalice that wine is served in for communion, which represents the spilt blood of Christ that is the reason for our salvation. Directly before Mrs. May’s death “she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable” showing that she was given anagogical vision (333). In order to save Mrs. May, the bull must die and serve as a sacrifice, which shows how the sacrifice that Jesus made was the ultimate example of grace.
In the story The Lame Shall Enter First, O’Connor uses the grotesque to literalize metaphors, that has been discovered to have been a major theme in many of her works. This story can be hard for the reader to understand, because Sheppard is portrayed as the antagonist, but is written in our own language. He is a reflection of ourselves, but we see that no one if O’Connor’s stories is beyond redemption, including ourselves, believing that in God all things are possible. O’Connor shows us the grace in evil, through the way that Rufus is closer to salvation than Sheppard because of his awareness to evil. Rufus is the symbol of sacrifice, through the description of red, the symbol of the blood of Christ, and through his proclamation that “nobody can save [him] but Jesus” (474). His statement “The lame shall enter first!” that inspired the title is an act of grace to Sheppard, calling him to humble himself (480). Rufus is one of the representations of anagogical vision as we see him “gaze beyond him” (450). Norton has one anagogic eye as he looked “toward the outer rim” (445). The telescope that Norton is enamored by is another symbol for anagogical vision, because it provides him with faith. Through this O’Connor teaches that it is only too late if one does not have anagogical vision, which inspires faith. The telescope inspired faith in the boy, which allowed him to be with his mother again. We see that through the anagogical vision there is hope for Rufus Johnson, and can hope that Sheppard can also find anagogical vision, so that he may experience redemption.
Through modern and postmodern literature it is difficult, almost impossible, to convey the moral force of the gospel. O’Connor is an author who knows that the violent or grotesque is a necessary tool for shocking readers out of their complacent, easy, and socially acceptable religion. She once wrote, “Writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable. To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” A gunshot is a much more mild form of death than crucifixion but, in A Good Man is Hard to Find it shocks our almost-blind culture. A prosthetic leg and a monkey suit are not nearly as absurd as the idea of a God who is at once fully divine and fully human but these elements are just strange enough to grab our attention. O’Connor’s violence, like much of the violence in scripture, serves to drive characters close to their purpose. This is incomprehensible to our fearful and privileged culture. But, the violence in her stories is at the service of grace, because it brings purpose and awareness. Reading O’Connor’s works shocks us, but this allows us the possibility to be able to understand the shocking nature of the Jesus story and what it means for our lives.
O’Connor’s stories may not have the common fairy tale endings, but neither do the stories in the new testament. Christ does not call us to earthly happiness; he calls us to suffering and death and resurrection. He calls us to join him in his triumph. The pathway there can be joyful but not always neat or pleasant. As Jesus said, “The Kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” The opportunity to be apart of the Kingdom of Heaven is the most extravagant form of grace one could receive.
O’Connor, Flannery, and Robert Giroux. “Revelation.” The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar,Straus and Giroux, 1971. 488-509. Print.O’Connor, Flannery, and Robert Giroux “Greenleaf.” The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971. 311-334. Print.O’Connor, Flannery, and Robert Giroux “The Lame Shall Enter First.” The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971. 445-482. Print.
You Wouldn’t Shoot a Lady, Would You?: Feminism and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” was written in the 1950’s at a time where women were mostly homemakers. O’Connor herself was profusely talented and graduated from the most prestigious creative writing program at Iowa State University. O’Connor suffered from Lupus, the same disease that killed her father. Because of lupus, O’Connor lived a simple life raising peafowl, writing, and painting in her small town of Milledgeville, Georgia with her mother. In her writing of “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, there is a dark sense of humor and a twisted ending that keeps readers intrigued and wanting more.the lack of women identity and the suffering of O’connor’s female characters in the story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” will be under feminist criticism .
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” is about a family on a road trip to Florida. None of the characters are very likeable and they all possess undesirable traits. The grandmother is very outspoken and likes to try and control the family while making her opinion widely known. The mother of the children is very passive, while the father is rude and selfish. The children are loud and fight all the time, and the Misfit is an escaped killer. On the way to Florida the Grandmother points out an old plantation she visited when she was younger and she and the children try to convince the father to go. During this time the family gets into a car accident and that’s when the misfit appears. He and his men end up killing the entire family and the story ends with the misfit saying there is no real pleasure in life.
In “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, there are three major female characters: The Grandmother, June Star, and The Children’s mother. When introduced to these different woman in different stages of life there is never a deeper level of introduction or interaction other than vanity. For example, the children’s mother is only described as a “young woman in slacks, whose face was a broad and innocent as a cabbage” (O’Connor 611) . The children’s mother does not get a name, and her only interaction with the story is to take on the typical role of being a caregiver. Author and editor of “On the Subject of the Feminist Business; Re-reading Flannery O’Connor” ,Teresa Caruso, points out that “… Flannery O’Connor’s work indicates that her women, even those without a face or voice who haunt the backgrounds of her stories are imprisoned, within a culture that defines female only in opposition to male, a society that values its women only for their duty to men.”(Caruso 3). The children’s mother is oppressed in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” for her not being granted a true existence. Whenever she is brought up she is either feeding the baby, holding the baby, dealing with her shoulder being broken or joining her family in death. The mother is in the background the entire time, yet we never notice her. She only exists for Bailey and the children.
One of the major settings in the story takes place in a ditch on the side of the road. The family had just gotten into the car accident and and the grandmother is hoping she is injured to be protected from her son. “The grandmother was curled up under the dashboard hoping she was injured so that Bailey’s wrath wouldn’t come down on her all at once”(O’Connor 617). In this setting after the accident the reader is able to see that the grandmother would rather be in physical pain as protection from her own son. Quoting Caroso, O’Connor is “…An author who routinely wounds, cripples, shoots and gores her female characters.” (Caroso 2). This shows us that the grandmother is apart of this wounded group with O’Connor’s characters; Adding to this thought, the children’s mother is the only one in the entire family to have an injury, painting the picture of women’s suffrage that exists in O’Connor’s writing and the hidden message between the lines of the pages. The theory is that O’Connor, using symbolism, breaks the mother’s shoulder, that bears the weight of the entire family, and has her be the only hurt one to show the reader that she was hurting long before the accident but her pain was not shown in a physical sense. It should be believed that the children’s mother has repressed emotions and her hurt is only to be healed when she joins her family in death.
Throughout the story O’Connor gives us a dark sense of humor with her conflicts she includes throughout the story. The grandmother and June Star show that their appearance matters. When June Star and the grandmother get into a fight the grandmother states that she will not curl June Star’s hair for anymore. “All right miss… Just remember that the next time you want me to curl your hair” (O’Connor 612). Then June Star replies and says her hair is naturally curly. What O’Connor shows us with this fight is how shallow the grandmother and June Star are. They seem to only care about their appearances. Another example of this is when O’Connor writes about the grandmother and the children’s mother and describes what they are wearing in full detail: The old lady settled herself comfortably, removing her white cotton gloves and putting them on the shelf in front of the back window. The children’s mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief, but the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know that she was a lady. (O’Connor 612)The wording of this shows that O’Connor is comparing the grandmother and the children’s mother. Because the children’s mother is wearing slacks and a kerchief rather than a dress, hat, pin, and gloves. This somehow makes her out to be “less than a lady”, although the fact if you are a lady or not comes from within and what you identify yourself with being
O’Connor suppresses the children’s mother’s womanhood by painting her to be less than the grandmother. This creates an internal conflict with the children’s mother because she is being painted out to be less than a lady. If the children’s mother was found dead on the side of the highway would a bystander assume she was not a lady because of her clothing? In the story June Star is a child and should be focusing on being such, but she is already thinking about what standards she should marry. After the grandmother tells the children a story from her past the narrator states: “June Star didn’t think it was any good. She wouldn’t marry a man that just brought her a watermelon on Saturday.” (O’Connor 614). Although the watermelon is a very sweet and kind gesture the grandmother does not focus on the man’s kindness but rather his wealth. It is told by the narrator “The grandmother said she would have done well to marry Mr.Teagarden because he was a gentleman and bought Coca-Cola stock when it first came out… a very wealthy man.” (O’Connor 614). Instead of elaborating on how he was a gentleman, O’Connor shows us that the grandmother and June Star only care about wealth and other shallow values. This can be tied to Caroso who states that “Readers risk being drawn into understanding O’Connor’s female characters through those cultural (male) ideals presented as acceptable by a patriarchal society.” (Caroso 4). With these ideas in mind that money is a backbone in love, June Star is being repressed from finding true love instead of being financially stable.
Throughout the story the grandmother is routinely ignored by her son Bailey. The only time the son speaks out to her is when the children and the grandmother are annoying him to go to the plantation. When Bailey speaks it is with anger and aggression. For example the narrator states that “‘All right!’ he shouted and drew the car to a stop on the side of the road. ‘Will you all shut up? Will you all just shut up for one second? If you don’t shut up, we won’t go anywhere.’” (O’Connor 616) The grandmother has a lot of anger and hate thrown towards her throughout the story, although the grandmother is not the greatest individual one can come across she is spoken down to and ends up being killed by the Misfit and he states “She would of been a good woman… if it had somebody to shoot her every minute of her life.” (O’Connor 622) This needs feminist criticism because the Misfit does not know the grandmother but takes her life while commenting on her character. The entitlement the Misfit has to take a life of a women gruesomely while stating she was not a good person shows the reader that O’Connor allows a world where women are not created as equal.
Robert Donahoo notes in his essay “O’Connor and the Female Mystique: “Limitations that Reality Opposed”” that “O’Connor’s fiction offers memorable female characters who are multidimensional, vital, and complexity meaningful… yet… these women have tended to draw the ire of feminist critics, largely for their perceived failure to to champion female empowerment and equality.” (Donahoo 9) This quote helps us to understand that the grandmother is not created equal to her male counterparts in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”.In conclusion, the women in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” are repressed and victim to the patriarchal world as seen from multiple examples that are painted throughout the lines in the story. Although they all seem to be hidden in the background and O’Connor didn’t bother to give two of them a name, they are there and they deserve to be recognised.
Caruso, Teresa. “Introduction.”On the Subject of Feminist Business; Re-reading Flannery O’Connor, edited by Teresa Caruso,Peter ang Publishing, Inc, 2004, pp.1-8.
Donahoo,Robert. “O’Connor and the Female Mystique: “Limitations that Reality Opposed”.On the Subject of Feminist Business; Re-reading Flannery O’Connor, edited by Teresa Caruso,Peter ang Publishing, Inc, 2004, pp.9-28
.O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, edited by Richard Bausch and R.V. Cassill, Shorter 8th edition, W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2015, pp.611-622.
Faith and Philosophy in Flannery O’ Connor’s “Good Country People”
Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Good Country People” mocks modern philosophy and those who follow it by suggesting that those who turn away from God will be taught, in one way or another, that God is real. The story, which takes place in the south, follows a girl who favors modern philosophy and how she is taken down by what seems to be the divinity of God. Through the characters presented in the story, O’Connor’s beliefs about Christianity and modern philosophy are revealed.
At the beginning of the story, Hulga is introduced as an arrogant girl with a belief in nothingness. She has a PhD in philosophy and sees herself as better than the people around her. The narrator describes her through the eyes of her mother, Mrs. Hopewell; “She was brilliant but she didn’t have a grain of sense. It seemed to Mrs. Hopewell that every year she grew less like other people and more like herself – bloated, rude, and squint-eyed” (1343). Hulga believes in existentialism and philosophy, which is exercise in the denial of God, and she takes arrogant pride in believing that she knows far more than her mother, or any other country person does, because she does not follow God. Flannery O’Connor, having a traditional conception of God, represents all those who believe in modern philosophy through Hulga, and she makes Hulga appear to be a horrible person. Hulga’s birth name is Joy, but she chooses not to go by it. The narrator says, “Her name was really Joy but as soon as she was twenty-one and away from home, she had had it legally changed. Mrs. Hopewell was certain that she had thought and thought until she had hit upon the ugliest name in any language…. Her legal name was Hulga” (1342). This is important because Hulga was given a beautiful name by her mother, who is of the Christian faith. But when Hulga becomes involved and interested in philosophy and the nothingness of the world, she changes her name to something ugly. Her name was chosen by herself, representing the denial of God and the acceptance of something ugly. Hulga, a philosopher who believes in nothingness, represents the way Flannery O’Connor saw those who turned away from God.
During the story, a bible salesman, Manley Pointer, works his way into Hulga’s life. Hulga, being arrogant and full of self-pride, believes she can show Manley the absolute truth, or at least the one she believes. When Manly invites her on a picnic, she agrees because she believes she can turn him away from God. Hulga keeps making it very clear that she does not believe in God throughout their time together. Hulga, when asked if she was not saved by God, says, “’I’m saved and you are damned but I told you I didn’t believe in God’” (1350). Nothing seemed to destroy Hulga’s confidence in her denial of God. Finally, near the end of the story, it is revealed that Manley is not a bible salesman but a fraud who steals from people. When he takes Hulga’s fake leg, she yells at him that perfect Christians like him do not do things like this. He replies by telling her he was never a Christian; “I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!” (1353). Manley was the deliverer of God. He was there to give Hulga slap in the face, to show her that only people who deny God with arrogance the way she did end up in pain. When Manley leaves after stealing Hulga’s leg, she watches from where she is stuck; “When she turned her churning face toward the opening, she saw his blue figure struggling successfully over the green speckled lake” (1353). The way he is described as a blue figure walking over water suggest not that he is God, but the presence of God. Like academics and philosophers, Hulga wants to be in control and always wants to be right. When she is with Manley, she believes he is just another Christian who follows along with everything. She tries to control him and push her beliefs on him. When he turns out to be just like her, she loses her control and gets punished. Manley and Hulga are not good country people because they turned their backs away from God. A belief in God is what makes one seemingly good. Manley being a terrible person, and Hulga having something horrible happen to her both supports Flannery O’Connor’s view of modern philosophy and those who follow it.
“Good Country People” thus mocks modern philosophy and the denial of God. By representing those who do not believe in God in Hulga and Manley, O’Connor is portraying the idea that those who deny God are either terrible people or will be punished. Hulga’s arrogance and belief that she is better than anyone else in her small town made her the perfect target for such cruel behavior. Manley, in being the deliverer of God’s message to Hulga, took away her leg and left her stranded. Flannery O’Connor’s traditional conception of God is presented through Hulga’s tragic tale; according to what O’Connor would believe, she got what she deserved.
Good and Evil Can Be Interchangeable: Morality in Flannery O’Connor
Who doesn’t want to be a good human being? Being good could bring one to happiness, joy, faith, and grace. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor, however, reveals a satiric reality in which not many people fully understand the fundamental meaning of being “a good man.” This short story is one of the most famous example of Southern Gothic literature. By focusing on strange events, local color, and eccentric characters, O’Connor successfully depicts the difference and similarity of the two main character’s moral code. Although the grandmother and Misfit have contrasting philosophies and principles, both struggle to discover their own righteousness which is buried deeply under their flaws. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” O’Connor uses many literary devices such as conflict, symbolism, foreshadowing, and irony to unfold the good and evil in the story.
Conflict is a main means of organizing the whole story, which begins with the disagreement between the grandmother and the rest of the family. The readers might be astonished by the fact that no one in the family cares about the grandmother or her opinions; even the children show no respect for her at all. O’Connor force the readers to question themselves: What has the grandmother done to be treated that way? The grandmother starts out to the readers as “a harmless, busybody, utterly self-absorbed but also amusing” (Bandy, 957). However, as the story unfolds, the grandmother eventually appears to be a selfish, dishonest, and not “good” person. The central conflict is the inner conflict of the grandmother, who blindly perceives herself superior to others. Her mistaken beliefs as being good and constantly pursuing her own conscience are what finally destroy the entire family. By taking them down to the wrong road and indirectly causing the accident, the grandmother is the one who brings the family to the Misfit. Furthermore, by thinking good people always follow their conscience, the grandmother wildly tells the Misfit she recognizes him which ultimately gets her family into danger. The grandmother proudly overdresses for the trip with “her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her necklace she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet” (O’Connor 941). The appearance of being a lady is the most important virtue that she wouldn’t want to pay anything to exchange that. Being a white lady means power and superior; thus, she relentlessly passes judgements on others. By arrogantly talking about her past, the grandmother represents an old-fashioned and upper-class Southern mindset.
One of the interesting part of the story is when she tries to tell John Wesley to be more respectful to his native state and others. Immediately, the grandmother uncovers her real self as a judgemental woman by pointing at the “cute little pickaninny” on the road and pleases her grandchildren with a watermelon story in which a “nigger boy” devoured it (O’Connor 942). At this moment, it is quite obvious that the grandmother “is filled with the prejudices of her class and her time” (Bandy 957). Repetitive use of the word “good” is symbolic as it reflects the way the grandmother views on others. She applies the label “good” indiscriminately to anyone as long as their expectation align with her own. For example, she considers Red Sammy as “a good man” because he blindly trusts people; she then, insists the Misfit is also “a good man” because, she reasons, he wouldn’t shoot a lady. Finally, she never begs the Misfit to spare her family; in fact, the only person she cares about is herself. On the surface, the grandmother is portrayed as a “good” person with her strong faith in God. The sins lie within her, however, shaping her as an evil woman by her own beliefs.
Not only conflict but also symbolism and foreshadowing are prominent narrative devices of the entire story. O’Connor has the readers to think and predict as she reveals portents of doom one by one. Right from the beginning, the grandmother warns her family about the Misfit, who is an escaped conflict, heading his way towards Florida. Following her conscience, the grandmother persuades her son not to “take [his] children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it” (O’Connor, 940). The seemingly ridiculous warning signals a confrontation with the Misfit is inevitable. Secondly, the grandmother dresses in a way as if she’s prepared for her own death. She carefully put on her Sunday best so that “anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (O’Connor, 941). As the story unfolds, O’Connor continues to reveal number of life-versus-death signs which prepare the readers for the upcoming catastrophe. While the family is on their way to Florida, they pass the cotton field with five or six graves which represent exactly the number of people in the car. The grandmother points and mentions they belonged to an old plantation which has “gone with the Wind” as it recalls a long gone destruction of the Old South (O’Connor 941). Finally, as the Misfit’s car approaches the family, it is described as a “big black batter hearse-like automobile” (O’Connor, 945). A hearse is a vehicle that carries coffins which foreshadows the faith of the family even before the Misfit gets out of the car. One of the main symbol in “A good man is hard to find” is the grandmother’s hat. The hat which she put on for the sole purpose of being a lady, symbolizes her mistaken moral code. Her only concern is the appearance as a Southern lady; ironically, it’s even more important to her than her own life and even her children’s. The hat represents her selfishness and fragile moral conviction. While facing the Misfit, the grandmother lets her hat fall to the ground as she recognizes her self-conception as goodness and purity is a big flat flaw.
O’Connor judiciously incorporates many literary devices to accomplish the main theme of “A good man is hard to find”; and irony is one of the most important devices which helps the ending of the story successful. Dramatic irony takes place when a character fails to recognize what is obvious to the reader. All through the story, the grandmother’s perception of herself and the society are greatly distorted. She considers herself as a Southern perfection and goodness in which the readers can all disagree by the way she passes judgment on others, blames Europe for the the loss of good people, manipulates her family, and mistakenly blurts out that she recognizes the Misfit. Only when facing the Misfit and death, the grandmother’s moral code is finally proved to be insubstantial and illusory. In contrast, the Misfit can be viewed as a villain as he and his men unrepentantly murder the whole family. However, he’s the only character in the story who has a consistent philosophy that everyone else seem to lack. He’s self-aware and carefully considers his action as well as his experiences in life; he knows “[He’s] not a good man, but [he’s] not the worst either” (O’Connor 949). The Misfit relies on his moral code to guide his action; whereas, the grandmother has to turn back to her own beliefs in attempt save herself. The story is a struggle of the two main characters who are trying find their own ways to righteousness. The final irony is when the evil man, the Misfit, evokes the grandmother who she really is, a sinner. Realizing her own mistakes and understanding how troubled and confused the Misfit is, the grandmother reaches out and touches him calling: “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children” (O’Connor 950). Throughout the entire story, it seems the grandmother finally does something meaningful and important as she’s sharing compassion and understanding with others. Everything becomes clear to her at this moment; she relizes “even in her limited way, that she is responsible for the man before her and joined him by ties of kinship” (O’Connor 952). The act of righteousness, however, is rewarded by three bullets on her chest.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” leaves many readers to feel unsatisfied with the death of an innocent family. However, the story’s ending brings up hope; both main characters most certainly recognize each other imperfection. Towards her death, the grandmother finally redeems herself by making a right gesture and reaching out to the Misfit. She dies with a smile a her face. The Misfit also changes from claiming earlier “no pleasure but meanness” to stating that it is no pleasure in life by killing. There is hope that the Misfit could be changed and be good. By incorporating various literary devices, O’Connor reveals that evil and good can come from many directions; and belief can be a factor causing one to act differently. The story suggests that anyone can be changed and saved by God’s grace, even a villain.
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Arguing about Literature, edited by John Schilb and John Clifford, Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2014, pp 939-951O’Connor, Flannery. “From Mystery and Manners.” Arguing about Literature, edited by John Schilb and John Clifford, Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2014, pp 951-952Bandy, Stephen. “From “One of My Babies”; The Misfit and the Grandmother.” Arguing about Literature, edited by John Schilb and John Clifford, Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2014, pp 956-959
Misfit’s Existentialist Views
Existentialism proposed the idea that one is a “free agent” in determining their own development through acts of one’s own free will and self-judgement. In Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” existentialist principles are embodied by the Misfit who lives by his own value system and interpretation of morality that influences his decisions, actions, and perspectives in life. That being said, the term ‘moral’ does not necessarily mean ‘good’ since ‘goodness’ is subjective to an individual’s own moral compass and their view of morality—it is wholly a matter of perspective and how one weighs both ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ Misfit’s own perception of ‘morality’ is merely through his view of what is ‘right,’ but not what is socially accepted as right: his actions are determined based on what ‘feels’ right. He conceptualizes morality through the view that his punishment is disproportionate to his crime and that committing crime does not matter because it is a societal construct, as is punishment too. Misfit’s worldview is best understood and interpreted as a fundamentally existentialist one: he defines himself by his free will and does what he wants to do in the realm of his own moral compass, he is interested in the human condition and why societal constructs are the way they are, and is intrigued in creating his own essence through his version of justice.
The way Misfit perceives free will is based on what he wants and he feels is ‘right’ in the moment through which he defines his own moral compass. His existentialist view of his life experiences can be encapsulated in the way he “don’t see no sun but don’t see no cloud either” (239). This quote is a metaphor that illustrates his view of how he perceives both ‘crime’ and ‘punishment’ and ‘good’ and ‘evil’ on the spectrum of neutrality rather than a spectrum of binaries; he emphasized neither one nor the either and views both in neutral terms. Since Misfit identifies with ‘good’ and ‘evil’ based on his own flawed perception of what is moral, he has no control on when he decides to commit a crime or an act of ‘goodness,’ but only when he wants to or ‘feels’ compelled to do so. For instance, in the middle of the narrative, the Misfit requests his henchmen to kill Bailey because the Misfit is ‘angry’ with Bailey’s use of profanity towards the old lady: “The old lady began to cry and The Misfit reddened. ‘Lady,’ he said, ‘don’t you get upset. Sometimes a man says things he don’t mean. I don’t reckon he meant to talk to you thataway’” (238). In this scene, it shows that his moral compass is skewed because he shows some compassion for the old lady, but on the other hand, he encourages Bailey’s expedient execution. The Misfit’s inherent contradictions are further emphasized when his tone is juxtaposed against that of Bailey’s. The Misfit says in a polite, casual way if Bailey “would…mind stepping back in them woods there with [the henchmen]” while Bailey reacts in a frightened, dumbfounded way, “we’re in a terrible predicament! Nobody realizes what this is” (239). This juxtaposition serves to underline the Misfit’s even-handed view of life and death as he is about to have Bailey executed, in contrast to Bailey who feels what is at stake in the relationship between life and death as he faces his own mortality. Evidently, the Misfit is fundamentally an existentialist, as he governs himself by the law of his own free will.
As someone who behaves in an existential way, the Misfit wants to understand the constructs of society in order to comprehend his own existence. Throughout the narrative, he delves into the implications of ‘crime’ and punishment,’ ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ and ‘life’ and ‘death’ without holding himself accountable to the social norms of these constructs. After Bailey is executed, the Misfit describes to the old lady how his own father had once perceived him: “‘My Daddy said I was a different breed of dog from my brothers and sisters. ‘You know,’ Daddy said, ‘it’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s others has to know why it is, and his boy is one of the latter. He’s going to be into everything!’” (239). This quote encapsulates the Misfit’s inherent interest in ‘everything’ to do with the primary elements of the human condition. Also, the father’s prophecy that the Misfit would ‘be into everything’ rings true in the narrative as the Misfit describes how he “was a gospel singer for a while…been in the arms service, both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twict married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive onct…even seen a woman flogged’” (240). The Misfit has had many diverse life experiences, between which he does not prefer any over the other and he does not attribute any value over the other, whether they are beautiful or horrible, the value is in the experience itself and nothing more. The way the Misfit sees his life experiences is existentialist insofar as ‘life’ and ‘death,’ ‘crime’ and ‘punishment,’ and ‘good’ and ‘evil’ have been played out in front of his eyes and yet, he gains nothing from this except experience. From all of his experiences, the Misfit’s philosophy is centered around the simple lesson: “‘I found out that crime don’t matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you’re going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it’” (241). The Misfit’s belief that ‘crime don’t matter’ and that no matter how severe or petty the crime is, the punishment remains the same because fundamentally, he does not believe in the construct of crime so therefore he does not understand the logic of punishment and the reason behind punishment having to ‘fit the crime.’ Although the Misfit seems that he has tried to understand societal constructs, he cannot because, in existentialist fashion, he does not have the ability or the desire to understand life in binaries, but only in gray.
Like an existentialist, the Misfit seeks to develop his own essence through his need to implement justice in the style he feels urged to, regardless of whether or not it conforms to society. At the end of the story, the Misfit explains an incongruous idea: “‘…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 being treated right’” (241). For someone who cannot conceptualize reasons to abide societal constructs, it is contradictory that the Misfit ‘sign[s] everything he does and keep[s] a copy of it.’ This contradiction highlights that the Misfit does understand society’s flawed system which does not always follow the rules it has made. Thus, the Misfit understands that the justice system is also flawed because he feels the need to ‘check and balance’ his own perception of ‘crime’ and ‘punishment’ with society’s view. For the Misfit, ‘crime’ and ‘punishment’ is a matter of perception, which he explores in his allusion to Jesus: “‘Jesus thrown everything off balance. It was the same case with Him as with me except He hadn’t committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me’” (241). This allusion to Jesus illustrates that the Misfit, like Jesus, had no ‘proof’ to defend himself against society’s judgement. The Misfit feels the justice system is fundamentally unfair and has always been so, even to Jesus. The Misfit therefore, sees it as his duty to make his own justice because society cannot—in making his own justice, he is creating his own essence. Before he kills the old lady, he pronounces his own essence: “‘I call myself the Misfit…because I can’t make for all I done wrong for what all I gone through in punishment’” (241). Labelling himself ‘the Misfit,’ is symbolic of him declaring that he is the master of his own essence, not anybody else. When he says ‘I can’t make what all I done wrong for what all I gone in punishment,’ he is describing how he commit crimes to balance the punishment he has already received. He is so obliged to his own justice that even when he kills the old lady, he sees her as another ‘check and balance’ in his own justice system: “‘It’s no real pleasure in life’” (242). The way the Misfit creates his own essence is his most existentialist quality, as he sees himself as his own bringer of justice without any guidance except his own moral compass.
Overall, the Misfit’s own view of ‘crime’ and ‘punishment,’ ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ and ‘life’ and ‘death’ is that of an existentialist one: he delineates his free will based on what he ‘feels’ is ‘right,’ he wants to understand and create his own existence by comprehending the function of societal constructs as they relate to his own self-determination, and he creates and fulfills his own essence by becoming an executor of justice. Throughout the narrative, the Misfit has no sense of control when he ‘feels’ like doing ‘good’ or committing ‘evil.’ He does, however, refer to the societal system as to how ‘crime’ and ‘punishment’ is judged, but he is not able to comprehend nor does he want to abide society’s judgement. He does not see ‘good’ and ‘evil’ as opposites on either end of the spectrum but impartial, as creating ‘experiences’ to fulfill his essence is merely dependent on his own moral compass. Thus, Misfit’s own theory of ‘check and balance’ is a cyclical problem instituted on itself: he establishes his own essence by creating and enacting ‘experiences’ to shape his worldview—he commits crimes he interprets as justice—but he finds no satisfaction, ‘no real pleasure’ in these acts, because to him, ‘crime’ and ‘punishment’ and ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are not opposed, they are equivalent—equally a matter of perception.