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since faded in reputation give the reader insight into the extent to which his mother’s self-identity is deluded and outdated.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.
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.
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.
Old South vs New South
In Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” many deep-seated issues of the South are brought to the attention of the reader. While on the surface Julian, the protagonist, seems to reject the ideas of the old South such as slavery and racism toward African Americans, when one reads more closely, it is evident that his actions and thoughts do not correspond with his proclaimed beliefs. O’Connor’s use of first person narration allows the reader to peek into the mind of Julian in order to observe his perception of the world. By giving the reader access to his thoughts, Julian’s prejudices are much more apparent–which, in turn, reveals many unfortunate realities about the South. Without this narrative, it would be far more difficult for one to determine Julian’s genuine feelings toward African Americans.
This short story presents a shift in the type of racism that exists in the United States post-Jim Crow. The relationship between Julian and his mother is representative of this transition from the old South, which is structured with principles that support slavery, racism, and segregation, to a “new” South, that claims to be in favor of the equality of whites and blacks. While Julian’s mother clearly represents the ideals of the old South with her outright racist remarks such as “[African Americans] should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence”(2), Julian represents a new generation of forward-looking, open-minded individuals who supposedly reject the beliefs of the old South. This is problematic because many people, like Julian, may verbally reject the ideals of the older generation but are unaware that just because they are not explicitly racist does not mean that they do not have implicit biases that are arguably just as racist. Due to the first person perspective, the reader is able to recognize that the new generation has a skewed perception that they are unbiased, progressive people who will eliminate racism from the South.
By using a fairly mundane scenario for this short story, O’Connor is able to demonstrate that these issues of racial tensions in the South were prominent in day-to-day life. After reading this story it is hard to believe that an ordinary task, such as taking the bus, is capable of revealing so many imperfections in the way that whites perceived African Americans. It is easy to forget, as a modern reader, how normal it was to regularly view African Americans as an inferior race, whether it was intentional or not. O’Connor, through her basic story, does not allow this fact to go unnoticed to the reader. Even though this story may seem simple on the surface, with a closer reading, more and more problems present themselves.
For those of the older generation, such as Julian’s mother, the integration of the buses, as well as other forms of integration, makes them incredibly uncomfortable. When Julian and his mother get on the bus, everyone is white, and his mother remarks to the other passengers that “we have the bus to ourselves” (4). Unfortunately, this is representative of how many people who grew up in the old South felt about integration after Jim Crow laws were no longer in place. Later in the story, when an African American decides to sit in the front of the bus, Julian’s mother whispers to her son “now you see why I won’t ride on these buses by myself”(5). Reading the dialogue between the various white women on the bus gives the reader a sense of how purely racist many older people were in this time. While this is upsetting to the modern reader, this was the reality of the time. Earlier in the story, Julian’s mother proudly reminds him that his “great-grandfather had a plantation and two hundred slaves” and that black people “were better off when they were” slaves (2). Even though comments like these make Julian visibly upset, likely due to the college education he has had, his thoughts reveal quite the opposite.
Even though Julian vocalizes his opposition to the beliefs of this racist older generation through the dialogue with his mother, since the reader has access to his inner thoughts, his true perception of African Americans is not as unbiased as it may seem from the outside. If an outside observer was watching Julian, they would not necessarily be able to say that he was racist toward African Americans since he or she would be unaware of Julian’s intentions and reasoning behind interacting with them. However, to the reader, it is much more obvious that his purpose behind interacting with African Americans is to provoke his mother in order to “teach her a lesson”(6). Using African Americans as a tool to upset his mother exhibits the unfortunate reality that many people did not view African Americans as humans. He is using African Americans for his own desires just as they were used as slaves on plantations. Julian does not show any indication that he actually cares about African Americans as people and seems to only think about them in a context of using them as a weapon against his mother. It is almost as if he is playing a game with his mother when he interacts with them. Julian even goes as far as fantasizing about his mother being “desperately ill and his being able to secure only a Negro doctor for her”(7). His thoughts about how he can make his mother suffer is disturbing for the reader because he finds it almost humorous. It is unsettling that Julian doesn’t recognize these thoughts as being racist in nature; this behavior represents the internal prejudices that this new generation has toward African Americans in general.
Throughout the story, when Julian thinks of African Americans he is only capable of picturing “some of the better types” who are highly educated doctors, lawyers, and the like (6). He clearly finds himself superior to the majority of African Americans. When Julian awkwardly asks an African American for “a light,” despite the fact that he doesn’t smoke, it is obvious that Julian doesn’t know how to interact, even with small talk, with them. Even though Julian’s views are less extreme than those of the old South, it does not necessarily mean that they are less racist. While it may not entirely be Julian’s fault since his mother likely isolated him from the company of blacks, he only speaks of racial equality to annoy his mother, not out of any compassion for African Americans. This exemplifies that these racial prejudices are deeply rooted inside of him and other people in the new South.
The first person narration that O’Connor as well as many other southern writers use allow the reader to have exclusive access to the true thoughts and feelings of the main character. This allows the reader to understand and spot flaws in the character’s perception of his or her reality. For example, Julian is so sure that he isn’t racist since he constantly ridicules his mother; however, the reader is easily able to identify contradictions to his “beliefs” by examining his thoughts toward African Americans. Even though this lack of awareness of bias is still prevalent today, in the post-Jim Crow South, the tensions between blacks and whites were much stronger due to a mixture of these two different forms of racism. Unfortunately, many southerners, like Julian, are unaware of their implicit or unspoken racism and do not realize that they are not treating African Americans as equals or even as humans. While many of his mother’s comments make Julian “cringe,” his thoughts are constantly flooded with ways in which he can use African Americans as a means to infuriate his mother. While many blatantly believed that they should never had stopped being slaves, others are more indirectly racist. Julian reveals that people are capable of being unintentionally racist toward a group of people despite feeling as though they are doing the opposite. The misconceptions that Julian has about himself are concerning to the reader because if he doesn’t realize that there is a problem with the way he thinks about African Americans, then he won’t know that he needs to change along with many others who are a part of the new South.
The end of slavery gave hope to African Americans because they now wielded more control over their own lives; however, they continued to face both the harsh, direct racism from those in the older generation as well as the more indirect, unspoken racism from those of the younger generation. As Julian helplessly watches his mother die at the end of the story, the reader is witnessing the death of the old South while the new South emerges to take its place. Unfortunately, the underlying prejudices of the two generations are essentially identical; they are just presented in different ways. Racism is deeply implanted into the minds of southerners whether they like it or not. O’Connor makes it evident that newer does not always mean better. The South is now full of white people who are blind to their own prejudices, and this poses problems for the South as a whole because they have a false sense of progress when, in reality, nothing has changed.
Hulga Hopewell as an Example of Freakishness in Southern Gothic Literature
One of the most prominent and important features of Southern Gothic literature is its incorporation of a character that is a “freak” into the narrative, with this freak being someone who stands out due to a disability that is external, internal, or sometimes both. Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor displays mastery of the subject not only by creating freakish characters, but also by turning her stories into the freak shows that partially characterize our conceptions of the American South. Hulga Hopewell of O’Connor’s short story Good Country People exemplifies this method of storytelling, as she provides not only the character of the freak but also the situation with which the audience can feel the atmosphere of a freak show.
O’Connor believes that writers of Southern Gothic literature have a penchant for writing about freaks because “[they] are still able to recognize one”, a notion which entails the author having a conception of “the whole man”(44). Thus, the freak serves for the reader a comparison of their “completeness” and the character’s “incompleteness”. Her suggestion that freakishness is synonymous with incompletion correlates with Hulga, whose leg was shot off in a hunting accident as a child. The narrator writes from the point of view of her mother, saying, “She thought of [Hulga] still as a child because it tore her heart to think that instead of the poor stout girl in her thirties who had never danced a step or had any normal good times.” Mrs. Hopewell’s reflection upon her daughter is evidence of her belief that because of Hulga’s disability and freakishness, she lacks the “normal” experiences that supposedly shape people and is thus an incomplete person. This opinion sets the characterization of Hulga in motion, foreshadowing further evidence of her incompleteness in the narrative.
O’Connor also believes that when the protagonist of a piece of American literature is not distinctly “American”, he is a freak, or he at least has “a good deal of explaining to do” (37). This points out the deep contrast between two character types in American literature: the Northern, who is “American”, and the Southern, who is a “Freak”. Hulga embodies struggle between the two character types, as she is educated like those from the Urban north, but is also disabled and emotionally stunted like those of what is considered the uncivilized South. The internal struggle between the two characters is seen in the quote, “She had a weak heart. Joy had made it plain that if it had not been for this condition, she would be far from these red hills and good country people. She would be in a university lecturing to people who knew what she was talking about” (O’Connor, 5). While Hulga’s education is evidence of her trying to embody the Northern ideals of education, we find it doubtful that her “heart condition” is what is holding back from her intellectual pursuits, as it is most likely her immaturity and supposedly “southern” freakishness. Despite her sophisticated mind, O’Connor still labels her as a freak because of her emotional stiltedness that keeps her from becoming a well-rounded woman, highlighting the differences in Northern and Southern ideals, characterizations, and literatures.
Hulga’s deformity in character is solidified by the reaction of the reader to the final incident, the freak show sequence, in which a fake Bible salesman steals her wooden leg. She keeps saying, “Give me my leg!” as he runs off with it, and the one-legged woman is left stuck in the loft of a barn (18). One of the first instincts of the reader during this scene is to laugh, even a little bit, because of the bizarreness and darkely comic tone of the event. The scene is an uncomfortably humorous one, as the reader is torn between feeling sorry for Hulga and wanting to mock her as she’s being put in her place. The experience between the reader and the story is one of equal temperament to a classic freak show, in which “freaks” were exhibited to the public oftentimes to be laughed at. It’s horrific and uncomfortable, but it is not unexpected if the narrative takes place in a region that has such a history of inhumanity (slavery, etc.). The irony of O’Connor’s narrative is that it is called Good Country People, when all we really see are false values and in Hulga’s case, an exaggerated portrait of the grotesque.
Because of Hulga, Good Country People could be interpreted as a portrait of a freak and a written account of a freak show, as it evokes the emotions of compassion as well as certain degree of derision. This method of storytelling is how O’Connor reminds the audience of what it means to be “normal”, as characters like Hulga give us something to compare ourselves too. A fair part of O’Connor’s brilliance in the Southern Gothic genre is her aforementioned ability to see who a real “freak” is, even and especially the ones who look normal on the outside. The compassion, pity, and dark humor with which O’Connor writes her freaks is what sets her apart from other audience members at Southern freak shows, enabling her to describe a true experience of the South and freak culture as a whole.
The Dehumanization of Gregor in “The Metamorphosis” and General Sash in “A Late Encounter with the Enemy”
Dehumanization of the protagonist is a common thematic element in both Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and O’Connor’s “A Late Encounter of the Enemy,” although the various aspects of dehumanization differ between the two works. Dehumanization plays a role in the deaths of both Gregor and General Sash; both authors describe the tremendous pressure exerted on the characters by society, especially through the lens of each character’s view of his own dehumanization. This degradation comes with consequences, both positive and negative, that affect the families of each character. The full extent of the dehumanization of Gregor and General Sash is revealed slowly through the exposition and rising action of both stories until, in a moment of climax, their deaths resolve their struggles and bring peace to their ailing spirits. Tragically, this corruption of their moral and even physical selves comes not only from their society, but also from their families; in fact, in both cases, the families benefit from their dehumanization and cause it to happen. The differing attitudes of Gregor and General Sash toward their impending deaths is another point of contrast: General Sash is so corrupted that he accepts his dehumanization and even yearns for it, while Gregor, a young man, still sees his dehumanization as a prison from which he cannot escape.Gregor’s dehumanization in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is apparent from the first sentence of the novel: “When Gregor Samsa awoke in his bed one morning from unquiet dreams, he found himself transformed into an enormous insect” (612). This transformation, from a human into an insect, creates the tension of the story, as Gregor is literally dehumanized from the very beginning. The fact that Gregor is transformed into an insect is also significant, as this creature symbolizes Gregor’s spiritual transformation. Gregor’s spiritual degradation is revealed in the exposition of The Metamorphosis through Gregor’s views of his job as a traveling salesman and his boss, the Director. The Director acts as dictator over Gregor’s life, and Gregor despises his job: “‘Oh, God,’ he thought, ‘what a strenuous profession I’ve chosen — traveling day in, day out! The demands of business are far greater on the road than they are at the home office, and I’m burdened with the annoyances of travel besides: the worry about train connections; the irregular, bad meals; a social life limited to passing acquaintances who never become real friends. To hell with it!’” (612). Gregor’s focus on his job security is prevalent even after his transformation into an insect; he only seems to care about whether he will be fired. This fear is significant in the exposition of Gregor’s situation because it shows the grip that society’s expectations have on his life. Gregor, like an insect, has a specific job to accomplish, and if he cannot accomplish that job, he will be replaced. He abhors his situation and questions the merits of his occupation after his transformation: “Why was Gregor condemned to work at a company where the least infraction immediately attracted the greatest suspicion? Were all employees then without exception scoundrels; were there among them no loyal, devoted individuals?” (615). The significant word in this passage is “individuals”; no individuals exist in Gregor’s company, and thus he, as an individual and as a human being, does not exist.Gregor’s dehumanization is augmented through his relationship with his family. His family’s initial reaction is one of shock and horror; however, Grete, his sister, chooses to help Gregor survive. Although Gregor must sequester himself in his bedroom, Grete still treats him like a human being, and her actions — for example, giving him a selection of food to eat — show her concern for him (623). Gregor also cares about his family very much, and he attempts to make his existence more bearable for them: “[He was] consumed by worries and by vague hopes that all led to the same conclusion: that for the time being he should keep calm and, by exercising patience and the greatest consideration for his family, try to make bearable the unpleasantness that he would in his present condition inevitably cause them” (622). Unfortunately, Gregor’s transformation leaves his family trapped, both financially and physically; they are left with barely enough money to survive and have no way of moving apartments with Gregor. Furthermore, their efforts to please Gregor and treat him like a human being are detrimental to both Gregor and themselves. The food they give him leaves less food for themselves; and the removal of the furniture from his room, intended to allow Gregor freedom of movement, simply furthers Gregor’s alienation. Gregor, in an expression of the tension between his humanity and his bestial nature, finally decides that he must keep his humanity alive: “Granted, he would be able to crawl undisturbed in all directions, but he would at the same time forget, quickly and completely, his human past” (628). This tension heightens until Grete, Gregor’s last human connection, denies him and convinces her parents that the insect is not a human being. “‘You must simply try to rid yourself of the thought that it’s Gregor. Our real misfortune is that we believed it for so long. But how can it be Gregor? If it were Gregor, he would have seen long ago that such an animal cannot live with people and he would have left voluntarily” (638). The tragic irony in this moment is that Gregor is able to hear his sister’s debasement of him. Gregor, in his love of his family, is convinced that he must die: “His conviction that he had to disappear was even more definite than his sister’s” (639). Gregor’s dehumanization creates problems for both his family and himself that are an indirect cause of his death, but as he lies dying, he finds himself in a state of “empty and peaceful contemplation,” suggesting that, through death, he is finally freed.Like Kafka, Flannery O’Connor uses the dehumanization of General Sash in “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” to show a man corrupted by modern Southern values. The social expectations for General Sash are very high: he is put on display at various events for the public to see him in his general’s uniform and sword. For example, every year “he was bundled up and lent to the Capitol City Museum where he was displayed in a musty room full of old photographs, old uniforms, old artillery, and historic documents. All these were carefully preserved in glass cases so that children would not put their hands on them” (139). The word ‘all’ in this passage is purposefully ambiguous to include both the documents and General Sash himself, significantly showing that the General is merely an object of history to display in a glass case. The passage continues to say that “there was nothing about him to indicate that he was alive” (139), and in this statement General Sash’s dehumanization becomes apparent. However, unlike Gregor, General Sash desires his dehumanization. The only significant memory in his mind is “the premiere” in Atlanta, when he received his general’s uniform. General Sash likes to sit “on any stage,” and living “had got to be such a habit with him that he couldn’t conceive of any other condition” (134-35). His life is monotonous and dull, centered on appearances at premieres and other events; possibly because he has been alive for over a century, he does not enjoy life. Every aspect of his humanity has been drawn out of him, and all that is left is his general’s uniform and his sword.The General’s dehumanization contributes to his death because society’s expectations put unbearable pressure on him, and he can do nothing but die. However, society is not the only source of General Sash’s dehumanization; more importantly, it comes from his own granddaughter. General Sash’s granddaughter, Sally Poker, brings him to her graduation so that she could “hold her head very high as if she were saying, ‘See him! See him! My kin, all you upstarts! Glorious upright old man standing for the old traditions!’” (135). Much like Gregor’s family in The Metamorphosis, Sally Poker creates her grandfather’s condition when she puts him on the stage at the end. The final death scene is described as a battle between the General and his past, as if the General is finally trying to escape the expectations of the past that have been thrust upon him. “Then suddenly he saw that the black procession was almost on him. He recognized it, for it had been dogging all his days. He made such a desperate effort to see over it and find out what comes after the past that his hand clenched the sword until the blade touched bone” (143). The “black procession” is the procession of graduates upon the stage, but it also represents the procession of history that kills General Sash. The procession is a symbol of his dehumanization that has been “dogging all his days,” and in the climax of the story, he suddenly understands his plight. He confronts his own humanity and, in doing so, is killed.Both The Metamorphosis and “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” use dehumanization to express the tension that exists in human beings between individualism and social obligation, and also the metaphorical prison inside of which the protagonists exist. Gregor, in his job as a traveling salesman, feels trapped by his obligations to his family and to the Director. He is dehumanized by the lack of self-expression in his work, which is symbolized by his transformation into the ultimate mindless worker: an insect. The pressures exerted on him build until his family finally rejects him and he dies. Similarly, in “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” General Sash is living but not truly alive, in the sense that he is only living to represent the past. History is thrust upon him at all times, and he begins to enjoy, in an unfulfilling way, his state of constant exhibition. He is finally confronted in the climax of the story with his own humanity, and in this battle he loses. General Sash, like Gregor Samsa, is unable to escape the expectations of society and his own family, ultimately choosing death in his last attempt at freedom.Works CitedKafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Trans. Alexis Walker. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971.