Comparison of the Fictional Works of Mary Flannery O’Connor and Gregorio Brillantes

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

Flannery O’Connor: A Background

Mary Flannery O’Connor was an American writer born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925. She had spent years in Iowa and New York for her education, while the rest of her life was spent in her birth state, though more in Milledgeville, where she first moved to with her mother in 1938. She was forced to return to Milledgeville in 1951 because of her lupus, and from there, she would live as a writer until her death in 1964. If health allowed her, she also traveled to schools and universities, especially Roman Catholic ones, to discuss her work as a writer.

Along with all that, she was recognized as a promising writer especially since 1947, when she won the Rineheart-Iowa Fiction Award for a first novel she wrote. Past that, she had won two fellowships, a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, an O. Henry First Prize in Short Fiction, and two honorary degrees. Even after her death, a compilation of her short stories won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1971 (Edwards, Jr.).

While she can be called a Catholic writer, O’Connor has been classified as a Southern Gothic writer by critics and scholars. Southern Gothic fiction, like its roots, is prominently characterized by an exploration of an excessive society breaking down in madness, violence, and death, all of which involve racial issues more often than not (Marshall 3). In there, the villainous male European aristocrat is replaced by the American slave master, though the victim is still usually female. On top of that, the villain is also compelling, and they also suffer mental problems along with their victim, therefore creating a blur between them.

With that, a villain can also be considered a victim of their own debauchery, further aggravated by the fallen setting they are in. Such can be seen in O’Connor’s Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and the Bible salesman in “Good Country People,” the latter considered to be more terrifying because of his capability to seem so innocent, even to the cynically atheistic young woman he had tricked. Meanwhile, the former is supposedly a victim of false accusations turned into a mean killer evading the authorities (Marshall 8-11).

Further differentiating the Southern Gothic from the European Gothic which the former drew from is how the grotesque is showed more through the ordinary instead of the supernatural, or, at least, intertwines the two into a blurry tangle, the ordinary being more prominent among the two. Where there are supernatural monsters in European Gothic, there are deformed humans in Southern Gothic, such as that cynically atheistic young woman named Hulga, who ends up a victim in O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” The uniqueness of Southern Gothic there, though, can be further seen in how seemingly innocent or physically undeformed people can be villains, like the Misfit and the Bible salesman, who seem like ordinary humans until interactions with others cause them to reveal their true colors. Overall, though, the grim settings and themes plus the violent actions and developments of European Gothic are shared by Southern Gothic (Marshall 13-16).

“Good Country People” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” are among the most notable short stories by O’Connor, particularly in the Southern Gothic genre. The first story details how a fake Bible salesman conned his way into dinner with the Hopewells and even stole the daughter’s wooden leg. Its elements of Southern Gothic can be seen most prominently in the characters and their actions, with both apparently normal and apparently abnormal characters being both villain and victim in one way or another. There is Mrs. Hopewell, who looks at herself as “good country people,” filled with honesty, wisdom, and kindness, all while looking at the world around her as lacking, only to end up none the wiser as her family is conned by a lying Bible salesman, with whom she agrees with when he says that “You don’t see more honest people unless you go out way in the country” (O’Connor 8).

There is also Hulga, an atheist cripple who holds contempt for her hypocritical mother and practically the rest of the world while only considering her wooden leg her most precious thing, which then ends up stolen later on as the fake Bible salesman appeals to her desperate longing for love as well (O’Connor 14). And then there is the fake Bible salesman, who takes advantage of the mother’s and daughter’s pride, dropping his act and revealing a worse sort of contemptuous pride and even atheism when Hulga, in her disbelief at his true nature, calls him “a fine Christian” (O’Connor 16). The violence in this story does not have a lot of blood and guts, but it does have a lot more in terms of breaking someone’s mind and spirit. The most it gets in terms of physical violence, meanwhile, is when the fake Bible salesman swindles the wooden leg out of Hulga, leaving her in the second floor of a barn in the woods (O’Connor 16).

And then there is “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” which is a lot bloodier. In this story, an irritatingly whimsical grandmother on a road trip ends up leading herself and her subtly dysfunctional family to death by a murderer on the run. The grandmother is practically the only trickster in the story, though, which can be seen in moments like when she instigates that fatal detour by sparking her grandchildren’s interest in an old plantation with a house along the way (O’Connor 142-144). When they come across the Misfit and his cohorts, the grandmother seals their fate by carelessly identifying him out loud, only recognizing the gravity of the situation when her family begins to be dragged away two by two and killed in the forest (O’Connor 147-151).

The grandmother’s and the Misfit’s ways of being both victim and villain show most prominently there, with the Misfit talking about how he was supposedly falsely accused and jailed for killing his father, while the desperate grandmother meets her death in her attempts to appeal to whatever goodness he has left in him (O’Connor 150-152). Also of note is how the uniqueness of Southern Gothic fiction in general can be more seen in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” as its twisted characters do not have obvious physical deformities to mark them as morally deformed. Still, with “Good Country People” and more, Flannery O’Connor’s work is full of the grotesque that led to a Southern Gothic classification of her fiction.

The thing here, though, is that O’Connor objected to the Southern Gothic classification of her work, considering such a classification something that treats degeneracy as something that is not degeneracy (Dowell 235). Bob Dowell, in “The Moment of Grace in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor” argues that O’Connor’s work “is primarily concerned with man’s life-and-death spiritual struggle,” and that her protagonists, who have been rebelling against belief, end up realizing their sinfulness and getting into what she called a “moment of grace” at a great price (Dowell 236).

That label, which was used to describe the grandmother’s interaction with the Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is also particularly interesting in how it is not called something like an “entry to salvation.” In fact, in O’Connor’s stories, there is more violence than salvation. If such violent moments are “moments of grace,” then it seems as if the violence is emphasizing how they are just moments and not something grander like a transformation. It brings to mind the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ, with the Resurrection appearing impossible, even though its coming is certain.

Indeed, accepting the reality of such pain, which is deep within the already broken world and the humanity within it, all while also believing in the coming of salvation through God’s grace all over the world He created, even though it can seem impossible, is an essential in Catholic literature (Gioia 79). For example, in “Good Country People,” the main characters have a sense of longing for something better among all the villains/victims, though they only fail to reach out to it because of their pride that blinds them all. Mrs. Hopewell wishes to connect with her daughter, who was once named Joy, but she refuses to recognize Joy as Hulga (O’Connor 4). Hulga, meanwhile, goes on about how salvation is in recognizing that everything is meaningless, though she fails to recognize her vulnerability and how she still relies on others, which manifests when she tries to find love in the supposed Bible salesman who then steals her wooden leg (O’Connor 14-16).

Even the fake Bible salesman, despite his violations, can show some sense of humanity with how pitiful his parting words to the more learned Hulga were: “You ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!” (O’Connor 16). There is no move into salvation in the story, and there is a lot of sin, but there is a moment of grace, a glimmer of the possibility that things could go better if they ever bothered to believe in it and let God do the rest of the work.

Meanwhile, in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” one can interpret the grandmother’s appeals to the Misfit as something coming out of her selfishness. One can even agree with how the Misfit says that “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” But still, one can call the both of them human, as the grandmother, who died smiling, can be said to have recognized how she was no different from the Misfit she called a son, while the Misfit said “It’s no real pleasure in life” when he shushed his goon for expressing pleasure in the thought of shooting the grandmother every minute of her life (O’Connor 152-153).

Again, lots of sin and no move into salvation, but God’s grace shows its glimmers in those interactions, which humanity, whether real people or fictional characters, cannot exist without. Someone who refuses to believe in grace would be unable to see those glimmers, only seeing decay and despair going on and on, and not even a more obvious or flamboyant display of God’s grace would be able to move them. Such an idea is something that had been expressed before by Jesus through the character of Abraham warning that rich man in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and on top of that, if even Jesus Christ was grossly misunderstood by his community during His time on earth, then what more for those believers below him? O’Connor certainly shows those difficult ideas well through her stories, then, risking misunderstanding while still showing that one can still find salvation through God’s grace, though if only we opened the door for Him and His knocking.

As Bob Dowell had noted about the world of O’Connor’s stories, “whether one commits himself to evil deeds or good deeds makes little difference ultimately, for without Christ one’s actions only lead to evil” (Dowell 236). Whether the grandmother or the Misfit did good or bad, they would never be able to meet salvation without God being allowed to be more involved in their lives. Their interactions without God would only reveal more and more of their flaws, showing things like how broken a seemingly complete family is, all while hiding the true glimmers of grace beneath the piles of flaws. And of course, if a character is not someone who would strive to strengthen their belief in God, then why attempt a forced development into a state of salvation? An expression of vulnerability would certainly reveal a glimmer or two, but a lack of faith would only have that buried back into the darkness easily.

Gregorio Brillantes and Catholic Filipino Literature in English

Gregorio C. Brillantes was born in Camiling, Tarlac, in 1932. He studied at the Ateneo de Manila University, and he has done a significant amount of work as an editor and writer for magazines and publications (Esquire Philippines). He is also renowned as a Palanca Hall of Famer since 1995, which was the year that particular award was established (Palanca Awards). He had started gaining significant literary recognition soon after graduating from college in 1953, winning a one-thousand-peso prize in the Philippine Free Press short story contest during that year, and then winning it again during 1954 and 1956.

His fiction has been known to focus on middle-class provincials in a more present time, and those characters are people who grew with the Catholic faith ingrained into Philippine culture and their lives within it. And while the younger characters are a lot more idealistic and faithful, the older ones are more jaded and fallen, only to quietly slip back or even be jolted back into the faith through sudden suffering (Bernad 166-167).

Considering what makes Catholic literature and what has been said about Brillantes and his work, he can fall under that classification. For one, his rich and powerful characters are not necessarily happier or at more peace with their spots at the top, and they are also estranged from their families and maybe even themselves, although subtly (Bernad 167). Furthermore, even with the greater prominence of the Catholic religion, grace is still shown through glimmers and moments in Brillantes’s fiction. His work, which adheres to a more traditionally realist mode, is generally less violent than Flannery O’Connor’s, but his later work has “The Flood in Tarlac,” which has depictions of violence comparable to O’Connor’s grotesque yet theological presentations.

Though whether overtly or subtly violent, Brillantes shares similarities with O’Connor. His short story “Faith, Love, Time, and Dr. Lazaro” can be compared to O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” at least in that it features disillusioned protagonists who have no faith in God. Though while Hulga is a crippled atheist philosopher, Dr. Lazaro is a jaded country doctor. In Brillantes’s short story, Dr. Lazaro, accompanied by his son Ben, goes on a late night trip to try and treat an infant with tetanus, only for him to arrive too late. Except for Ben, who openly expresses a wish to be a priest, Dr. Lazaro’s family is a jaded one, with the country doctor expressing pessimism when he first knew about the infant’s condition, while his wife went on being quietly absorbed in herself, their son, her work, religious routine, and whatever else she would occupy her time with.

Adding to the jaded condition there is the memory of a late son who had killed himself long ago, too. And although a glimmer of grace becomes noticed by Dr. Lazaro for a bit after how he spent time with his remaining son, who had taken the wheel when they went to answer that call for the doctor, the story ends with that glimmer fading away into the darkness. And if there can be more to compare it with “Good Country People,” there is how Ben can be considered naive with his youthful dreams, something similar to Mrs. Hopewell and her simple-mindedness, though Ben is not really displayed as an immaturely hypocritical adult. The most manifestation young Ben’s flaws have is when he converses with his father about lay baptism, where he expresses a lack of knowledge and goes “But the church says” as well.

Meanwhile, “The Flood in Tarlac” can be very much compared to “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Featuring yet another doctor, Dr. Jose Caridad, as the protagonist, the story is about how he faced violence in the form of a natural disaster which three oppressed and murderous farmers also took advantage of. Unlike O’Connor’s story, though, Brillantes’s story has its protagonist barely alive and all his assailants dead, though there is a similarity in how the protagonists have dead family members at the end of their stories.

Still, all main characters are both victims and villains. Dr. Caridad’s family is mercilessly murdered, but the borderline mystical arrival of the murderers by boat in his flooded house was caused by his indifference to the poor farmers’ pleas against the land-grabbing they were facing, and that prideful indifference is what the doctor continues to cling to even at the end, considering how his wounded self was found saying that those murderous farmers had no right to enter his house that way (Brillantes 118-120).

Meanwhile, the murdered family had been all absorbed in their luxuries, with Maripaz being petty to the servants about the prepared food, Jocelyn being insistent on going to a party, and Bobby blasting his punk rock music all over the house (Brillantes 110). And then there are the three farmers, who dragged the rest of Dr. Caridad’s family into death, even though it was only Dr. Caridad who had directly incited their wrath, and even then, they failed to kill the head of the family himself (Brillantes 118-120).

Again, whatever glimmer or moment of grace can be found in the story can be seen in the characters’ humanity, especially their vulnerability, revealed through their interactions. They all had to suffer, but still, they all could have done better. They would still have to suffer even if they did do better, though, but then again, even Christ had to suffer like a human, even to the point of death, to save humanity.

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