In Which Rebecca Reynolds Ties Up Some Loose Ends

Today concludes our discussion of "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." A comment yesterday from Rebecca Reynolds touches on the one character we haven't really discussed yet: Lucynell the Younger. It was too insightful to leave in the comment thread. Enjoy...and if you are moved to read more from Rebecca, check out her excellent blog, Little Boots Liturgies.

I saw three dimensions to this story. Pragmatic (the old woman), philosophical (Mr. Shiftlet), and the "is-ness" of true spirituality (Lucynell). Lucynell shows several signs of otherworldliness. She is piercingly colorful against the dirty grey of the rest of the story. She has eyes the blue of a peacock’s neck and hair of pink gold. She is ageless. Her hands are useless. When Mr. Shiftlet toys with flame, she scolds him. (Powerful image I won't explore here.) Lucynell is also a fool, making those awkward errors a person makes when he/she does not make transactions in the consciousness of the common. She has not the ability to hear the world, and no voice to speak into it. She is in the world but not of it. She has no use for philosophy or pragmatism. As is fitting, she is the fool of the story. (When receptors beyond philosophy or pragmatics have atrophied, anyone who doesn't communicate on those terms is considered a fool.) The single word she mimics (“bird”) is an often-used symbol for the realm of the spirit, yet she is not even wordly enough to connect verbalization to a physical bird or philosophical symbol. She simply is.

The older I get, the more I realize I have missed “IS-ness.” We busy ourselves with ruminations, and regurgitations, and plans to do things. Yet there is something altogether different to the simple act of being. Spiritually, in particular.

Lucynell raises the same questions of multi-dimensionality that persons of innocence often stir inside me. Perhaps I am projecting because I am an idealist, but I can never shake the feeling that folks with such gifts point to an untapped realm that I am too busy, too educated, and too responsible to hear.

In light of all this, I adore Jonathan’s comments about Mr. Shiftlet’s attempts to be his own savior. The old woman does likewise. Each person is his or her own "Jesus." The only person in this story unwilling to save herself (including the boy, which is why I see him an accidental prophet, not an angel) is Lucynell.

The life you save may be your own? What irony. As if saving ourselves were the goal. What if Lucynell, sleeping fool on the diner counter, is the story victor instead of the victim?

Right on.

On Monday,we start "The River," in which a little boy gets run over by some hogs--and that's the least of his problems.


"The Life You Save"--The TV Play


In the summer of 1956, Flannery O'Connor and her mother Regina got a fancy new refrigerator—“the kind that spits ice cubes at you, the trays shoot out and hit you in the stomach, and if you step on a certain button, the whole thing glides from the wall and knocks you down.” They paid for it with the proceeds from the sale of the television rights to "The Life You Save May Be Your Own."

At first O'Connor heard that Mr. Shiftlet was to be played by Ronald Reagan, but Gene Kelley ended up playing the part. Kelley described the story as “a kind of hillbilly thing in which I play a guy who befriends [emphasis O'Connor’s] a deaf-mute girl in the hills of Kentucky. It gives me a chance to do some straight acting, something I really have no opportunity to do in movies.”

O'Connor was confident that the television people would butcher her story. “Mr. Shiftlet and the idiot daughter will no doubt go off in a Chrysler and live happily ever after. Anyway…while they make hash out of my story, [Regina] and me will make ice in the new refrigerator.”

The show aired on March 1, 1957. The O'Connors did not have a television, so they went to Regina's sister's house to watch with the college librarian and a few other friends from Milledgeville. O'Connor reported that she was “not overcome with [Gene Kelley’s] acting powers… The best I can say for it is that conceivably it could have been worse. Just conceivably.”

But the play itself wasn’t nearly as hard to swallow as the reaction of the townspeople. “They feel that I have arrived at last,” she complained. “they are willing to forget that the original story was not as good as the television play. Children now point to me on the street. It’s mighty disheartening.”

When she heard a rumor (surely tongue-in-cheek) that somebody had contacted Rodgers and Hammerstein about a musical adaptation of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” O'Connor contributed some lyrics:

The life you save may be your own Hand me that there tellyphone Hideho and hip hooray I am in this thang for pay.

"A Angel of Gawd"-- "The Life You Save," Day 2

We had some great discussion yesterday about the last act of "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." I had planned to write today about that portion of the story; yesterday's comments provide an excellent way to start. You can go back and read the back-and-forth, which was very insightful. Meanwhile, I'll start with Chris's first comment in the thread:

One thing you didn't mention, and I am still a bit mystified over, is the presence of the boy/hitchhiker and how Mr. Shiftlet, seemingly out of nowhere, opens up to him about his mother, and then receives that stinging insult. The boy seems more symbol than real. He's in and out, almost like a deus ex machina. I also found this line interesting: "A cloud, the exact color of the boy's hat and shaped like a turnip, had descended over the sky..." Again, more symbol than real?

I'm not sure I would use the word "symbol" to describe the boy, though he's certainly not a full-fledged character. Chris makes an important point when he notes that the looming thunderhead (clearly a symbol of divine judgment) is the color of the boy's hat. That detail draws a clear connection between the boy and the judgment of God and suggests, it seems to me, that the boy somehow speaks for God in the way that, say, the textbook-flinging girl in "Revelation" speaks for God when she passes judgment on Ruby Turpin. The boy appears and disappears the way that angels so often do in stories. Chris has suggested that the boy's sudden appearance and lack of context might mean he's a symbol--a perfectly reasonable assessment. I'm suggesting that it could also mean he's an angel, bringing a message from God. If you're bothered by the idea of an angel referring to two mothers as a "fleabag" and a "stinking polecat," well, so am I.

But consider this possibility: Mr. Shiftlet's deepest problem is that he thinks he is his own Jesus. Look at this description of the man as he stands before the sunset: "He swung both his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross." A crooked cross? That kind of imagery isn't accidental. Later, when he has gotten the car running, "He had an expression of serious modesty on his face as if he had just raised the dead." Only God, of course, can do that. Mr. Shiftlet's gnomic pronouncements, empty though they may be, are modeled after the speech ways of a cult leader or messianic figure.

Mr. Shiftlet is determined to be his own Savior. His self-seriousness is comical, but it also represents serious soul-danger. He embodies a specifically twentieth-century American brand of self-sufficiency, with its commitment to self-improvement and self-confidence and hustle and, ultimately, the mobility represented by his longing for a car.

If indeed Mr. Shiftlet believes himself to be his own savior, then the boy hitchhiker's insult takes on a whole new significance, especially in light of the fact that O'Connor was a devout Catholic. By saying that Mr. Shiftlet is the son of a stinking polecat, the boy is saying that he is decidedly not the Son of Mary. Mr. Shiftlet cannot save himself or anyone else. Like the rest of us, he is born under the curse of Original Sin.

When the boy jumps out of the car, Mr. Shiftlet is left to ponder these things alone. The experience confirms his belief that the world is rotten (the story's original title was "The World Is Almost Rotten"). A question worth discussing is whether or not Mr. Shiftlet includes himself in that assessment. These sentences leave some room for interpretation:

Mr. Shiftlet felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him. He raised his arm and let it fall again to his breast. "Oh Lord!" he prayed. "Break forth and was the slime from this earth."

Bryana Johnson commented yesterday that this episode gives Mr. Shiftlet "an opportunity to show us that he is fully aware of his own rottenness...But although he is acknowledging that he is sickened by the state of the world, and by the evil he is a part of, he doesn't ever appear to have any intention of doing things any differently than he always has." The gesture of breast-beating would suggest that perhaps Mr. Shiftlet does understand his own rottenness and feels some guilt about it.

Bryana's reading is reasonable, but I read it slightly differently. I'm not convinced that Mr. Shiftlet ever understands that he is as rotten as the rest of the world. The idea that the world's rottenness threatens to engulf him suggests that he still sees that rottenness as being outside him (in my reading of the sentence, anyway). He steps on the gas to leave the world's rottenness behind him, but in the process he outruns the storm that washes things clean. I'm reminded of Hazel Motes's belief that the best way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.

What do you think? Could the runaway boy in overalls be "a angel of Gawd," or is this a case of over-reading?

We still haven't gotten around to the boy in the diner and his declaration that Lucynell the younger is "a angel of Gawd." What do you make of that scene?

Flannery O'Connor Summer Reading Club, Week 2: "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"

The Flannery O'Connor Summer Reading Club continues this week with "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." The central action of "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"" is a battle of wits between Mr. Shiftlet and Lucynell Crater--Shiftlet angling to get the old woman's car, the old woman manipulating Shiftlet to marry his daughter. It is tempting to call their mental chess match, with its measures and countermeasures, a duel of competing world views. Mr. Shiftlet presents himself as a philosopher, constantly steering the conversation toward life's imponderables. The old woman is a pragmatist, earth-bound and world-weary, the kind of person who believes she sees through everything.

But even if these two characters compete with one another, I'm not sure their world views do. Both Mr. Shiftlet's philosophizing and Lucynell Crater's no-nonsense materialism are both ways of avoiding any claims that God might have on their lives. Mr. Shiftlet's restlessness is not that of a man in search of truth, but the restlessness of a man running from truth. His favorite topic, the theme of his song, is unknowability.

"There's one of these doctors in Atlanta that's taken a knife and cut the human heart...and studied it like it was a day-old chicken, and lady...he don't know no more about it than you or me."

"People don't care how they lie. Maybe the best I can tell you is, I'm a man; but listen lady...what is a man?"

"What do they know about my blood? If they was to take my heart and cut it out..they wouldn't know a thing about me. It didn't satisfy me at all."

The old woman's pragmatism cuts through all that. She asks no philosophical questions, answerable or unanswerable. When she asks anything at all, she is asking for information she can use.

"Where you come from, Mr. Shiftlet?"

"What you carry in that tin box, Mr. Shiftlet?"

"Are you married or are you single?"

When Mr. Shiftlet marvels at the sunset, Mrs. Crater, empty of both curiosity and wonder, shuts him down with a remark that is true enough but misses the point altogether: "Does it every evening." She dismisses all of Mr. Shiftlet's big talk with a curt answer or a practical question or a clamping of the jaw. Her world is simple; its meaning is summed up in a deep well, a warm house, and no mortgage. And a son-in-law. Her pragmatism reaches its logical conclusion in her remarks to Mr. Shiftlet about her mute daughter: "One that can't talk can't sass you back our use foul language." True enough. But missing the point altogether.

Lucynell Crater's earth-boundness is answered by Mr. Shiftlet's rootlessness. He is on the run from grace; he longs for a car so that he can run faster and farther. Throughout O'Connor's oeuvre there are characters who try to run away from God. Some get caught anyway, and some don't. The fact that Mr. Shiftlet is still running at the end of the story--that is to say, he hasn't been caught--doesn't speak well for his spiritual condition. He calls on the God in the thunderhead to "break forth and wash the slime from this earth." But rather than letting himself be washed clean, he steps on the gas and races ahead of the storm. O'Connor, as I mentioned last week, saw more hope for soul of the serial killer the Misfit than for the soul of the comparatively harmless Mr. Shiftlet. The Misfit is standing still at the end of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." The last we see of Mr. Shiftlet, he's still running.

"The meanest of them sparkled"


Unless she was on the subject of peacocks, Flannery O'Connor didn't often wax lyrical about the beauties of nature, but every now and then she surprises you, as in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," when she describes the scenery on the family's road trip: "The trees were full of silver-white sunlight, and the meanest of them sparkled." It's a lovely little sentence--not earth-shattering, but striking in its contrast to the ugliness that ensues. Those sparkling trees always makes me think of Marvell's "Corinna's Going A-Maying":

Get up, sweet slug-a-bed, and see The dew bespangling herb and tree.

We expect these things from seventeenth-century poets, not so much from Flannery O'Connor. The next sentence, however, brings us back to familiar O'Connor territory: "The children were reading comic magazines and their mother had gone back to sleep." Oblivious, all of them, to the wonders all around.

I marvel at O'Connor's prose every time I pick it up. Consider an exchange that you probably didn't think twice about, between June Star and Red Sammy's wife.

June Star said play something she could tap to so the children's mother put in another dime and played a fast number and June Star stepped out onto the dance floor and did her tap routine.

"Ain't she cute?" Red Sam's wife said. "Would you like to come be my little girl?"

"No I certainly wouldn't," June Star said. "I wouldn't live in a broken-down place like this for a million bucks! And she ran back to the table.

"Ain't she cute?" the woman repeated, stretching her mouth politely.

Again, nothing earth-shattering. But that first clumsy, tumbling run-on of a sentence sounds like a little girl's bad tap dance routine. The country woman's speech is so familiar that I'm almost sure I've heard somebody somewhere say exactly those words. And that phrase "stretched her mouth" in place of "smiled"--could there be a more economical way to communicate the woman's pained restraint? All this in one of the least memorable passages in the story.

In O'Connor's fiction, even the little throw-away lines are pitch-perfect. The meanest of them sparkle.

What sentences struck you as you read "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

Next up in the Flannery O'Connor Summer Reading Club. We'll start "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" on Monday, June 11. The working title for this story was "The World Is Almost Rotten." Here's something you might ponder in your heart as you read the story of Mr. Shiftlet and the Lucynell Craters. O'Connor wrote, "I can fancy a character like the Misfit being redeemable, but a character like Mr. Shiftlet as being unredeemable." In another letter she wrote that Mr. Shiftlet is "of the Devil because nothing in him resists the Devil." What do you reckon is so bad about Mr. Shiftlet? (That's a rhetorical question; save your answers for next week).

On the Misfit

Good Man Cover
Good Man Cover

Flannery O'Connor once referred to the Misfit as "a prophet gone wrong" (Mystery and Manners, 101). She made it clear in her speeches and letters that the Misfit is indeed a wicked man and neither a Christ figure as some readers suggested nor the grandmother's moral superior as other readers suggested. Nevertheless, it is the Misfit who speaks the truth regarding Jesus. That moment of truth is a turning point for the grandmother, who has carefully insulated herself from the hard truths of the gospel. But it is also, as O'Connor herself suggested, a key moment for all of her fiction. She wrote to her friend Cecil Dawkins, "As the Misfit said, 'He thrown everything off balance and it's nothing for you to do but follow Him or find some meanness.' That is the fulcrum that lifts my particular stories." The Misfit chose nihilism, but at least he understood the choice. And by making the choice clear to the grandmother, he made it possible for her to choose as well. A commenter on a previous post was troubled by the fact that the Misfit is so lacking in moral authority, and yet he says things that O'Connor expects us to take seriously. Well, sure. It's the great irony of the story, that this satanic figure, this murderer, is the one who makes grace accessible to the Bible Belt grandmother. It is a comic turn, entirely unexpected, even impossible, like the moron Dogberry saving the day in "Much Ado," or the beaten-down Mr. Micawber bringing Uriah Heep to justice in David Copperfield, or Aslan defeating death by dying himself. O'Connor spoke of her stories as comedies; the devil would seem to carry the day, but the joke ends up being on him. She once wrote to a friend, "In general the Devil can always be a subject for my kind of comedy one way or another. I suppose this is because he is always accomplishing ends other than his own" (The Habit of Being, 367).

Bonus O'Connor quotation: I have always thought of the Misfit as being not a "real" character so much as a symbol or stand-in for the devil himself. I was surprised, therefore, when I ran across this statement from O'Connor, which demonstrates how wrong my view of the Misfit had been:

I don't want to equate the Misfit with the devil. I prefer to think that, however unlikely this may seem, the old lady's gesture, like the mustard seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit's heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become. But that's another story. (Mystery and Manners, 112-113)

Discussion Question: "It's no real pleasure in life."

The Flannery O'Connor Summer Reading Club continues this morning with a discussion question about the Misfit. The Misfit tells the grandmother that if Jesus did indeed raise the dead, there is nothing to do but to throw away everything and follow him. If, on the other hand, Jesus didn't raise the dead, "then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness." No pleasure but meanness--that's precisely what Milton's Satan would have said if Milton had been from Middle Georgia instead of London. But at the very end of the story, after he has shot the grandmother, the Misfit rebuffs his sidekick Bobby Lee, who says it's been "some fun" killing the family: "Shut up, Bobby Lee. It's no real pleasure in life."

What do you make of this apparent reversal by the Misfit? The floor of the Flannery O'Connor Summer Reading Club is now open for discussion.

Flannery O'Connor Summer Reading Club Week 1: "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"


In introductory remarks she made before a public reading of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," Flannery O'Connor said, "Properly, you analyze to enjoy, but it's equally true that to analyze with any discrimination, you have to have enjoyed already." This, I believe, should be a foundational principle of the Flannery O'Connor Summer Reading Club. There is a kind of insight that is available only to those who have enjoyed a thing. And I do enjoy Flannery O'Connor's stories. Writing The Terrible Speed of Mercy, my forthcoming biography of O'Connor, was a pretty grueling two-year process (O'Connor herself described book-writing as "a terrible experience, in which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay"). Nevertheless, the day after I submitted the manuscript, I couldn't resist the urge to pick up the books I had inhabited for so long--The Complete Stories, The Habit of Being, Mystery and Manners--and flip through my favorite passages. Which is to say, any insights I might offer over the next few weeks grow out of my pleasure in the stories and will, I hope, increase your pleasure in them.

When it comes to "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," hardly anything could increase your enjoyment more than hearing O'Connor read it herself. I mentioned this yesterday, but if you have half an hour or so, do listen to it here. On that same page, you can find O'Connor reading a paper called "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction," which you can also read in Mystery and Manners.

Enough preliminaries. On to the story proper.

O'Connor has a reputation for unexpected endings. But in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," she telegraphs how the ending from the first paragraph, with the Grandmother rattling the newspaper at Bailey's head and announcing that it would be a bad idea to drive south, where the Misfit lurks: "I wouldn't take my children in any direction with a a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn't answer to my conscience if I did." On the next page, with reference to the Grandmother's carefully chosen traveling outfit, the narrator remarks, "In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady." From the conversation with Red Sammy and his wife to the fact that they get off the road near Toobmsboro (about twenty-five miles south of Milledgeville), the specter of sudden death haunts the story throughouth.

I don't remember what it was like to read this story for the first time. I'm hoping to hear from a reader who didn't come to the story already knowing that the Misfit was going to wipe the family out. I'd be curious to know what a first-time reader does with all that foreshadowing. Even as O'Connor puts prescient words in the grandmother's mouth, she gives us reason not to trust a word the old woman says. In the beginning of the story, her warnings about the Misfit appear to be manipulative nattering; when Bailey ignores her, I'm not thinking "Bailey, you fool! Listen to your mother's wisdom!" I'm thinking he probably has to do a lot of ignoring just to get by in that house. When the grandmother discusses the Misfit with Red Sammy, to me it feels like the kind of "hell in a hand basket" talk that one expects to hear from the elderly.

The grandmother speaks almost exclusively in cliches. Those cliches insulate her from the ultimate realities that surround her--sin, redemption, judgment, mercy, death, life--even when those cliches speak of those ultimate truths. She tells the Misfit, "If you would pray, Jesus would help you." Which is true enough, but in her mouth--at that point in the story, anyway--it is as much a cliche as "People are not as nice as they used to be," or "It's a beautiful day," or "You wouldn't shoot a lady, would you?"

A key moment for understanding the Grandmother comes immediately after the grandmother is left alone with the Misfit:

Alone with the Misfit, the grandmother found that she had lost her voice. There was not a cloud in the sky nor any sun. There was nothing around her but woods. She wanted to tell him that he must pray. She opened and closed her mouth several times before anything came out. Finally she found herself saying, "Jesus, Jesus," meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing.

A good Southern lady, the grandmother would never dream of taking the Lord's name in vain. But, as it turns out, she has been taking the Lord's name in vain all her life. Her telling the Misfit to pray, that Jesus would help him, was simply another way of manipulating to get her way. Here at this moment of extremity, she is about to come to terms with the ultimate truths that she has been mouthing about. "Jesus, Jesus," she says, in what might as well be a kind of profanity. And yet Jesus intervenes anyway. By invoking the name of Jesus, the grandmother elicits a speech from the Misfit in which, ironically, he tells the truth about Jesus: "He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw everything away and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can."

And now, finally, the grandmother says the first honest thing she has said the whole story. She expresses an honest doubt:

"Maybe He didn't raise the dead," the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her.

That honest doubt cracks open the door for an honest acceptance of truths to which the grandmother had only given lip-service before. Just before her death, she finally realizes that she is a sinner herself, more kin to the Misfit than she would have ever been able to acknowledge. In an instant of clear-headedness she tells the Misfit, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" She has finally pushed through the cliches that have preserved her self-righteousness and is ready to meet her Maker--and not a second too soon.

I realize that it is not self-evident that this is a moment of grace for the grandmother. I speak so confidently about it only because of what O'Connor herself said about it: "...I am interested in the indication of Grace, the moment when you know that Grace has been offered and accepted--such as the moment when the Grandmother realizes the Misfit is one of her own children. These moments are prepared for (by me anyway) by the intensity of the evil circumstances" (Habit of Being, p. 367-8).

In remarks prefatory to a reading of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," O'Connor said

In my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world (Mystery and Manners, p. 112).

Elsewhere O'Connor wrote, "There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment." The trick in reading O'Connor's fiction is to learn to recognize those moments; she was perfectly willing to leave them obscure, which troubles many Christian readers. But those of us who believe that grace intervenes in our real-world existence acknowledge that those interventions are often (perhaps usually) obscure, don't we?

My next post will be about that Satanic figure, the Misfit, and the ways in which he inadvertently "accomplishes a good deal of groundwork that seems to be necessary before grace is effective." Meanwhile, I would love to hear your thoughts on the grandmother and on the foreshadowing that seems so glaringly obvious once you know how the story ends. And I would especially like to hear from anyone who is coming to the story for the first time or who at least remembers the experience of reading it for the first time.

The Flannery O'Connor Summer Reading Club

Remember me? It has been a while, but summer is here and my first year back teaching is complete, so I thought it would be fun to host some summer reading discussions at My biography of Flannery O'Connor--The Terrible Speed of Mercy--will be released later this summer, so why don't we read through some of her stories? Each Monday from now through the end of August I will post an article about one of O'Connor's stories (see the schedule below). I hope to post follow-up articles each week as well, but my blogging muscles are atrophied after so long, so I'd better not commit to more than the Monday article each week. I hope you'll be moved to lively discussion about these stories, which can be quite controversial. We'll start Monday, June 4, with "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," a story that you have likely read already. It is also the only story that you can hear read by the author; click here for scratchy but amazing audio of O'Connor reading "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" at Vanderbilt).

Here is the schedule for the Flannery O'Connor Summer Reading Club:

Week of June 4: "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" Week of June 11: "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" Week of June 18: "The River" Week of June 25: "The Displaced Person" Week of July 2: "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" Week of July 9: "The Artificial Nigger" Week of July 16: "Good Country People" Week of July 23: "Greenleaf" Week of July 30: "A View of the Woods" Week of August 6: "The Enduring Chill" Week of August 13: "Everything that Rises Must Converge" Week of August 20: "Revelation" Week of August 27: "Parker's Back"

All of these stories appear in The Complete Stories. I hope you'll be able to join in the conversation.

On Offensive Stories

Tim Filston asked a great question regarding Flannery O'Connor, and I hated to let it languish in the comments, so I'll address it in a post. He wrote,

Flannery 10-4
Flannery 10-4

I'm looking forward to your insights about her.  Her willingness to face off with the dark, ugly side of human nature seems courageous to me, and not just in a thrill-seeking way.  When a writer depicts the human heart as only a bruised thing, then the reader can only expect "there-there" assurance that everything will be alright.  But, O'Connor calls the reader down into corruption (it seems to me) so that we might have a shot at being called up--higher up than we started. What do you think--am I in the ballpark with this, or is this a stretch? Don't tell me I have to wait till June...?

Tim, I think you're more than in the ballpark. I think you're somewhere around the pitcher's mound. I wrote this biography for all those people who have heard they're supposed to be getting some spiritual meaning out of O'Connor's stories but just can't get there. Your remarks get close to the heart of what O'Connor is doing in these awful stories (awful, you'll remember, meant 'filled with awe' or 'awe-inspiring' before it meant 'terrible'; I'm drawing on all those meanings here).

So you won't have to wait until June, here's a relevant tidbit from the introduction to The Terrible Speed of Mercy:

Blessed are the freaks and the lunatics, who at least have sense enough not to put any faith in their own respectability or virtue or talents. The freaks in O’Connor’s stories stand for all of us, deformed in so many ways by Original Sin. All of us, as the old hymn says, are “weak and wounded, sick and sore…lost and ruined by the Fall.” The freakishness and violence in O’Connor’s stories, so often mistaken for a kind of misanthropy, turn out to be a call to mercy.

In O’Connor’s unique vision, the physical world, even at its seediest and ugliest, is a place where grace still does its work. In fact, it is exactly the place where grace does its work. Truth tells itself here, no matter how loud it has to shout.

People are offended by Flannery O'Connor's stories, and they ought to be. They're offensive. I'm reminded of what Peter said about Jesus: he was "a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense." Jesus's parables would offend us if we hadn't heard them so many times--or if we were paying better attention. After acting like a complete jerk, the Prodigal Son comes home, welcomed into his father's arms. The older brother,who has been behaving himself, keeping his nose clean, takes offense, and we can all understand why. It's a little shocking to realize that Jesus presents the older brother as just as big a jerk as the younger brother--much more shocking for Jesus's original audience than for those of us who know what we're supposed to think about the story. The parables, in my understanding, are driven by that dissonance between the truth and the way we feel about the truth. Jesus shows us what the kingdom of God looks like; if we allow ourselves to be offended by that vision, we begin to see what needs to happen in our hearts. I claim to love grace, but I'm bothered by the fact that the vineyard workers who showed up an hour before dark get paid the same amount as the workers who started at daybreak. I can either reject that parable altogether, or I can think about why my heart doesn't line up with the things I say I believe. But it would be a big mistake to explain away the offense--to say it's not really that offensive.

O'Connor's stories are offensive and shocking in a different way; they were, to borrow her imagery, startling figures drawn for the almost-blind. But I do believe she was working from Jesus's storytelling playbook, using shock and offense to show us something about our hearts. To quote again from the introduction to my book,

If the stories offend conventional morality, it is because the gospel itself is an offense to conventional morality. Grace is a scandal; it always has been. Jesus put out the glad hand to lepers and cripples and prostitutes and losers of every stripe even as he called the self-righteous a brood of vipers.

In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” it is painful to see a mostly harmless old grandmother come to terms with God and herself only at gunpoint. It is even more painful to see her get shot anyway. In a more properly moral story, she would be rewarded for her late-breaking insight and her life would be spared. But the story only enacts what Christians say they believe already: that to lose one’s body for the sake of one’s soul is a good trade indeed. It’s a mystery, and no small part of the mystery is the reader’s visceral reaction to truths he claims to believe already. O’Connor invites us to step into such mysteries, but she never resolves them. She never reduces them to something manageable.

O’Connor speaks with the ardor of an Old Testament prophet in her stories. She’s like an Isaiah who never quite gets around to “Comfort ye my people.” Except for this: there is a kind of comfort in finally facing the truth about oneself. That’s what happens in every one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories: in a moment of extremity, a character—usually a self-satisfied, self-sufficient character—finally comes to see the truth of his or her situation. He is accountable to a great God who is the source of all. He inhabits mysteries that are too great for him. And for the first time there is hope, even if he doesn’t understand it yet.

If you keep asking questions, Tim, I might end up cutting and pasting the whole book into blog posts. Thanks for asking.