The World Made Flesh
"She would have been a good woman...if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." It is a line offered by a murderer in Flannery O'Connor's 'A Good Man is Hard to Find'. It is a brilliant line because it tells us something about the murderer and the woman he has killed, but also creates an askew moral universe, leaving the story properly troublesome. This is a tale about an old lady who persuades her family to travel from Georgia to Tennessee where they have relatives. Her son would prefer to take the wife and kids to Florida, but the old lady says she has read about a killer called the Misfit who was last seen in the Sunshine state. What makes the line chilling and telling is that we could easily hear it in the mouth of a cop who takes out a violent felon - to someone who would seem to need authority in his life. But instead it is offered by the killer, and about an old lady who just can't shut up. Yet the killer has a point - throughout the story she is opinionated, loud, demanding and tiresome. Once a gun is pointed in her direction her attitude changes. Not long before he kills her she says, "why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children." O'Connor wonders whether the killers values are more valid than the old lady's from a certain point of view; from the perspective of honour over hypocrisy, of knowing the status of your place in the world, over smugly assuming it.
In an essay collection Mystery and Manners, O'Connor says that the difference between18th and 19th century novels and those of the modern era rests on the disappearance of the author. "In the past they were always coming in, explaining and psychologizing about their characters. But along about the time of Henry James, the author began to tell his story in a different way. He began to let it come through the minds and eyes of the characters themselves, and he sat behind the scenes, apparently disinterested." We might not agree with O'Connor entirely: weren't 19th century narrators more invisible than many a 20th century writer? Aren't Proust, Musil and Broch very present in their work; and isn't the novel of ideas quite 20th century? Yet there are also many writers for whom the notion of authorial presence disappears as we find in the nouveau roman, for example, where description seems distinct from perception, and where we cannot easily note the link between a mind at work and the descriptions offered. This is central to Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet's fiction.
However, what is startling about the line in 'A Good Man is Hard to Find' is the absence of a moral. Now in modern fiction whether the author's presence is there or absent, what we often notice is that values cannot easily be assumed. O'Connor seems here to take this further than most, or at least in a particular direction. Not because she believes that all values are equal, more that certain values from a certain angle become more valuable than others. Generally, societally, the old woman is not much of a problem. She is a bit irritating and verbose, but these are hardly reasons to shoot her. The Misfit is murderous; rather more of a problem. Yet what happens if a writer acknowledges that the irritating can be more abominable than the homicidal? Often enough people will say when someone annoys them that if they don't shut up they'll shoot them. It is a hyperbolic reaction to a minor frustration, and of course they do no such thing. They are well aware that the annoyance is a minor infraction. To kill them would be, to put it mildly, a major one. Yet the line in O'Connor's story captures an aspect of this play on infractional values, and does so as if refusing a right-to-bear-arms assumption that we find in many books and films. This is where a killer is shot dead by the hero aware that if he doesn't kill the villain, the killer will shoot him. Many a filmmaker and star might insist that they are ethically for gun control (including unlikely figures such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone), but when we look at the films themselves they support the use of the gun over the rule of law. Many a baddie is dispatched rather than carted off to prison.
Now of course the moral logic behind a hero killing a villain rests on the notion that the baddies are committing major infractions. In O'Connor's exploration the presence of a gun means that you don't have to draw distinctions between the two. One has instant access to the alleviation of that irritation. Someone who gets on one's nerves can find themselves at the end of our gun. When the Misfit refers to the old lady as someone who might be a nice woman if somebody had been there to shoot her every minute of her life, we might agree with the sentiment but hardly the action. Usually in popular entertainment the sentiment and action match; the infractions are heinous, the dispatching necessary. O'Connor doesn't tell us what to think as we might often find in 19th century novels, but this isn't because the narrator is present or absent. It is more that the moral is evident in the earlier novels, and tampered with in much, great modern fiction.
What might seem odd here is to know that O'Connor saw herself as a religious writer. Speaking of 'A Good Man is Hard to Find' in an essay in Mystery and Manners, she says "the assumptions that underlie this use of it, however, are those of the central Christian mysteries. These are assumptions to which a large part of the modern audience takes exception." For O'Connor the heroine of the story is the grandmother, while for a number of teachers who have taught the story the "Grandmother is evil...one of these teachers told me that his students, and particularly the Southern students, resisted this interpretation with a certain bemused vigor, and he didn't understand why." O'Connor says that they knew from experience that the old lady lacked comprehension but possessed a good heart. She sees the story as someone going to meet their maker and believes that a great story needs to "suggest both the world and eternity. The action or gesture I'm talking about would have to be on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it."
Whether we agree to read the story according to O'Connor's beliefs or not, we can see it does not concur with standard moral systems. If we invoked the Hollywood film, and that many of its participants support gun control but in movies are rarely without a gun in their hands, the films rarely trouble themselves with such contradictions diegetically. Within its self-contained narrative universe justice has been done. In the real world we might wish to have gun control and a proper legal system allowing for due process, but in the fictional one who wants to sit around for another two hours to watch a nasty piece of work go through a court of law? Such films are not telling us how to think, but partly because the thinking is already so absorbed and prevalent that no commentary is required. If O'Connor insists that in her work it is important to attend to the drama and ignore commentary, the achievement doesn't rest there, but in her capacity to write stories that convey an unusual moral without arriving at the unbelievable. Nobody watching a baddie removed by the hero wonders why, but when O'Connor says that the old lady is the heroine in A Good Man is Hard to Find we do. What happens is that in the moment of her impending death the grandmother sees that she and the Misfit are part of the same universe, and that her death is not so significant and her feeling for the Misfit not entirely false. It is a moment of clarity even if it happens only to be a moment. It would be this that allows for grace. As O'Connor says "the Grandmother is at last alone, facing the Misfit. Her head clears for an instant and she realizes, even in her limited way, that she is responsible for the man before her and joined to him by ties of kinship which have their roots deep in the mystery she has been merely prattling on about so far." (Mystery and Manners) If narrative convention insists that the hero remains good and the villain bad, and that the removal of the latter is an issue of morality without the need for legality, then A Good Man is Hard to Find asks us to attend to the spiritual to the detriment of the moral. It pushes much further into the problem of good, and leaves the title with reverberations.
Good comes up again in Good Country People. Here Mrs Hopewell lives with her adult daughter on a farm in Georgia. The daughter has a PhD, a changed name and a wooden leg. She lost the limb twenty years earlier, changed her name from Joy to Hulga at twenty one, and gained a doctorate in philosophy confirming that life wasn't so great. Hulga isn't so useful around the farm, but the mother has long since hired a family to do a lot of the work. "Mrs Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other people's in such a constructive way that she never felt the lack." After all the Freemans were "good country people, and that if, in this day and age, you get good country people you had better hang on to them." One day a bible salesman turns up and Mrs Hopewell regards him as good country person too - "salt of the earth", but boring. "He bored me to death but he was so sincere and genuine I couldn't be rude to him." Hulga, however, seems to feel an affinity with the man and arranges to meet him one morning. The mother can't see any common denominator between this man who believes in Jesus, and her daughter who would seem to believe in nothing. The mother would sometimes look at what Hulga was reading and once came across an underlined passage on science: "we know it by wishing to know nothing of nothing." It is a passage from Heidegger whose name the tale chooses to withhold.
The story feels odd here technically. We use the word cautiously not least because O'Connor would be suspicious of it. "Technique is a word they all trot out. I talked to a writers club once, and during the question time, one good soul said, "Will you give me the technique for the frame within a frame short story?" I had to admit I was so ignorant I didn't know what that was..." (Mystery and Manners) Instead of conveying a brief discussion between the bible salesman and Hulga we first see it from her mother's point of view as they talk at the gate. "Mrs Hopewell could not hear what he said but she trembled to think what Joy would say to him." There was her daughter with a doctorate in philosophy discussing things with a simpleton salesman. But then that evening we get Hulga's take on events and it seems she has taken the bible salesman very seriously indeed, thinking back to the moments they talked, and looking forward to picnicking with him the next day.
For most of the story the point of view has been the mother's, commenting on Mrs and Mrs Freeman, their daughters, and on Hulga. But then the story concentrates much more on Hulga and her feelings for this young man. She initially doesn't seem to care that much for him after he kisses her, saying, "the kiss, which had more pressure than feeling behind it, produced that extra surge of adrenalin in the girl that enables one to carry a packed trunk out of a burning house, but in her, the power went at once to the brain." It isn't in conventional pleasure that Hulga can find feeling, but in believing a man can see in her the singular. The bible salesman persuades her to show him her wooden leg and says "it's what makes you different. You ain't like anybody else." "She decided for the first time that she was face to face with real innocence." But it seems more that she is face to face with real evil as he refuses to give her the leg back. As he pushes her down and kisses her the adrenaline comes, but without much positive feeling accompanying it. "Her brain seemed to have stopped thinking altogether and be about some other function that it was not very good at." She can't believe a Christian would act like this, but sees that actually he is just like them all - he does one thing and says another. But he says he isn't even a Christian, he just sells crappy bibles for cash. At the end of the story her mother and Mrs Freeman see in the distance the salesman. The mother says, "Why that looks like that nice dull young man that tried to sell me a bible yesterday." He might have failed to make a sale, but he had convinced her he was someone he wasn't. Again we wonder about the term good in the title as O'Connor plays with our moral coordinates.
In Mystery and Manners O'Connor talks about the story's symbolic properties, and her resistance to them. She discusses the central character who she sees as spiritually as well as physically crippled. Believing in nothing but her own belief in nothing, we might assume there is a wooden part to her soul to accompany the wooden leg. Now of course this is never stated O'Connor insists. "The fiction writer states as little as possible." As the story continues so the wooden leg accumulates meaning and in time we sense how various characters in the story feel about the artificial limb. By the time the bible salesman steals it, we accept that he has stolen a part of her personality. "If you want to say that the wooden leg is a symbol, you can say that. But it is a wooden leg first, and as a wooden leg it is absolutely necessary to the story." We might not agree that the fiction writer's purpose is to state as little as possible. There are numerous great writers who state a great deal, from Proust to Kundera, Musil to Broch, and indeed Kundera has a phrase for doing so: meditative interrogation, discussed in The Art of the Novel. More interesting is O'Connor's claim that "the peculiar problem of the short-story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible." Statement initself wouldn't be enough, of course, otherwise the story wouldn't be a work of fiction at all, but a series of authorial assertions. But the symbolic can be an assertion in abstract form, and O'Connor doesn't want that either. She wants, if you like, the legness of the leg. "It has its place on the literal level of the story, but it operates in depth as well as on the surface. It increases the story in every direction, and this is essentially the way a story escapes being short." It isn't that the story is symbolic; more that it is reverberative. The leg is important to the daughter, the mother and the bible salesman and will thus become important to the reader too. O'Connor looks for the detail that will create not abstract certitude (a clear symbolic meaning), but a ricocheting image structure.
As Lisa Alther says in the introduction to A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, "just as Catholicism tries to translate its spiritual institutions into worldly terms through its rituals and through the person of Christ - "the Word made flesh" - so does Flannery O'Connor try to incorporate her transcendent concerns in concrete situations involving very distinctive characters." Though O'Connor would see herself as a Catholic writer who wrote essays including 'Catholic Novelists', 'Novelist and Believer', and 'The Catholic Writer in the Protestant South', for our purposes what is intriguing is the idea of the Word made flesh: the notion that the writer seeks revelation. Description wouldn't be enough, nor would statement. It resides in finding the balance between showing the story and telling it, and finding in telling details the images or words that can allow it to be revelatory at all. In 'A Good Man is Hard to Find' we find it in the line we opened with; in 'Good Country People' in the image of the woman's leg. The word can be made flesh in various ways.
In 'The Artificial Nigger' we might again see the symbolic. The artificial nigger of the title is the plaster figure that Nelson and his grandfather see when visiting the city for the first time in the boy's life. What they see is an artificial negro about the same size as Nelson, holding a watermelon. Throughout, the grandfather Mr Head has warned Nelson of black men so that when he sees his first he doesn't know what to make of him. The pair of them are on the train and a man walks past and Mr Head asks Nelson what did he just see. Nelson says a fat man, then an old man, and finally his grandfather tells him what had just walked past: "that was a nigger." The boy is confused. His grandfather said negroes were black, "you never said they were tan. How do you expect me to know anything when you don't tell me right." Is the black man he sees any different from the plaster statue; are they both artificial niggers in the boy's eyes as they fail to meet his perceptual expectations? When his grandfather asks him what he initially sees, he notices shape and age first. His prejudice, such as it is, bases itself on the assumption of colour. The black man isn't black enough to be black, and this creates resentment in Nelson to accompany and accommodate his prejudice. "He felt that the negro had deliberately walked down the aisle in order to make a fool of him and he hated him with a fierce raw fresh hate; and also, he understood now why his grandfather hated them."
Yet the story hinges on an act of cowardice on his grandfather's part. Mr Head might be telling the boy about the workings of the world, but the idea of kith and kin means little when they get into a fix. Both tired and lost in the city the granddad lets the boy fall asleep against a covered trash can, and wakes him up with a kick to the can that echoes down the alleyway. The boy jumps up, runs for his life, and finds himself lying on the pavement alongside a woman and her groceries, with the latter screaming for the police as Mr Head catches up with him. Yet in the presence of the cops, Nelson's grandfather disowns the lad. "This is not my boy...I never seen him before." If Nelson doesn't recognize a real black man when he sees one, and reflects on the artificial black boy he comes across, then his grandfather has hardly helped the boy's perceptual assertiveness. The boy can't trust what he sees and can't trust what his grandfather says. If this is the image made flesh, then the flesh is weak. Yet this allows O'Connor to end the story on a hint of an epiphany for the grandfather, and a hardening perhaps of the young boy's prejudices about the city and all it contains: "I'm glad I've went once, but I'll never go back again!" Mr Head reckons that "he had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair." As he seems appalled at his actions, "judging himself with the thoroughness of God" he also acknowledges that "he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time." The artificial nigger of the title leads to us wondering whether artificiality takes various forms, including moral ones. Has Mr Head been the artificial authority figure who can no longer expect to see admiration in the eyes of his grandson, no matter how much the boy needs to see him this way?
The story is also, however, of course a tale of Judas, and maybe one way of looking at O'Connor's resistance to the symbolic, while playing up its properties, is to take into account a remark by O'Connor contemporary and compatriot John Cheever. In Paris Review the interviewer says "certainly you use a lot of resonances from myths" after Cheever says "Cocteau said that writing is a force of memory that is not understood. I agree with this." But he is also very suspicious of a claim by William Golding that the interviewer mentions: that Goldman thought he was the type of writer who had an idea and looked for a myth to embody it. Cheever says he doesn't really know what Goldman is talking about, but that he absorbs the biblical and the mythical as it allows the work to contains resonances. This seems more true still of O'Connor as we see that her stories have the force of the biblical without being reduceable to biblical fables. 'A Good Man is Hard to Find' suggests an avenging angel, 'Good Country Folk', the inversion of the good samaritan, and 'The Artificial Nigger indicative of a Judas tale. The stories have the impact of biblical myth without the limitations of ready application.
Finally, we can turn to 'The Displaced Person'. What biblical aspect might we discern? We could talk more generally of the kindness of strangers, the idea of taking someone in that finds its most pronounced example in Mary and Joseph finding a stable in which Jesus could be born after there is no room at the inn. this was a peripatetic couple far from home; displaced people indeed. In O'Connor's story Mrs McIntyre is a woman whose older husband has long since passed away and who has left her with very little except a farm to run. He was a judge who managed to spend his money as he made it, and now Mrs McIntyre "has taxes to pay. I have the insurance to keep up, I have the repair bills. I have the feed bills." She hires a Polish worker, Mr Guizac who has nowhere else to go, but while her gesture is generous her thoughts aren't always so kind. "At last...I've got somebody I can depend on. For years I've been fooling with sorry people. Sorry people. Poor white trash and niggers." Over time though she wonders what she has done when the Pole decides he will allow his sixteen-year-old cousin from Poland to come over and marry a black man, and thereafter she thinks of ways to get rid of him. Usually, people would leave of their own accord, but not this one. That is until the divine intervenes when Mr Guizac gets run over by a large tractor; the wheel breaking his backbone. She watches as his wife and children huddle over the body in the freezing cold winter temperatures. She has her wish; but of course we should be careful what we wish for. Coming down with a nervous affliction in the wake of the death, she develops a numbness in one of her legs, her eyesight grew steadily worse, and her voice gave out.
Once again we have a story exploring biblical questions but coming up with devilish answers. If in A 'Good Man is Hard to Find' a woman finds her soul at the end of a gun, in 'Good Country People' Hulga discovers how empty life really can be when she comes across a man she perceives as one of life's innocents, and finds him to be a sham opportunist. In 'The Artificial Nigger,' Mr Head accepts he is one of life's sinners, but remains a racist nevertheless. As he says of the titular statue, "They ain't got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one." If O'Connor sees herself as a religious writer we have to accept she is so of an unusual kind. In 'Church and the Fiction Writer' she says "we lost our innocence in the Fall, and our return to it is through the Redemption which was brought about by Christ's death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality... " The good fiction writer is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Any sign of God cannot be preconceptually arrived at the by the writer; the writing will decide how much redemption is possible. O'Connor's stories indicate that God moves in very mysterious ways indeed, so that his presence rarely suggests the positive; more that the Lord can be seen by his capacity to present himself negatively. Yet he presents himself nevertheless. At one moment in The Displaced Person the priest who brought Mr Guizac says "he came to redeem us" while the man who will be partly responsible for Guizac's death (he brakes the large tractor on an incline and it rolls down crushing Guizac) insists "Revenge is mine, saith the Lord". Much of the writing seems to take place between human motivation and divine intervention, but the human motivations are rarely benign, and the intervention rarely other than malignant. As O'Connor says 'In the Protestant South', the reader often "has the mistaken concern with exalted human behavior, that it is a pretentious concern. It is, however, simply a concern with the human reaction to that which, instant by instant, gives life to the soul. It is a concern with a realization that breeds charity and with the charity that breeds action." O'Connor's work rarely produces happy souls in this world (and who knows what will happen in the next), but this hardly seems to be what interests her. It is as if she gives proper meaning to the term bible belt, with the latter word capable of punning possibilities that suggest a good smack. Her stories provide less a sting in the tale than a metaphysical slap in the face: there is a sense in which if someone were to find Christ, they would probably discover him stuck on a cross.
© Tony McKibbin