Tag Archives: Flannery O’Connor

The Grotesque in Flannery O’Connor’s Literature

Should Flannery O’Connor’s work be called grotesque? Many people, including Flannery O’Connor herself, have explored this question. Grotesque fiction brings something extraordinary and often disturbing to life by distorting the ordinary. O’Connor rejects such a label, in part because she rejects labels of any kind, arguing that labeling a writer or their work, with such titles as Southern or grotesque, limits what readers and critics expect upon reading their works (Mystery 37). Furthermore, she rejects the label grotesque, arguing instead that her works are better categorized as realism (Mystery 40). O’Connor’s short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories is filled with violence, deceitful characters, horror, and death in the context of everyday life in the South. Even if the author is resistant to calling her work grotesque, many people claim otherwise. Many aspects of O’Connor’s fiction support this argument, some of which can be explored in the collection A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories.

One of the more common comments made on O’Connor’s work is that it can be analyzed as a “psychoanalytic narrative” because her stories often suggest Freudian psychological theories (Fowler 128). Freud argued that a fear of castration is necessary for acceptance into society. Many critics, such as Kats and Mellard, see figurative castrations of characters in the violence of O’Connor’s stories. They see this violence as “purposeful” and serving to “stabilize social hierarchy and positions of dominance” (Fowler 128). Although O’Connor herself rejects Freud and his ideas because she believed he stood in opposition to religion, some of her works can be interpreted as reflecting his ideas (Wehner 300). One of the most commonly used examples supporting this claim is in “Good Country People” when Manley Pointer stealing Hulga’s prosthetic leg. Many critics interpret this scene as a symbolic castration, congruent with Freud’s theories. His theories focus greatly on the Oedipus complex, which most would agree, is an extremely disturbing concept. It’s only logical to conclude that a work of literature that reflects such disturbing ideas would fall into the category of the grotesque.

The characters O’Connor creates in her stories are undeniably a combination of grotesque and utterly ordinary. Katie Oliver points out that all of O’Connor’s works depict characters that are flawed in some way or another and that those “bodily handicaps symbolize the greater handicaps of the intellect, the heart, or the soul” (233). Her characters’ dearth of morals and intelligence is manifested in some kind of outward abnormality. One example is Hulga’s leg in “Good Country People,” which can be interpreted as her lack of faith. Each one of O’Connor’s stories features at least one character that is riddled with problems, which come back to haunt them. Such unique and disturbing characters make for an interesting, often frustrating, and most certainly grotesque read.

Another aspect of O’Connor’s fiction that enhances its absurdity is her characters’ names. A big part of one’s identity is contained within a name, and O’Connor uses names, nicknames, and their connotations to reflect her characters’ natures. Her characters often change their names, like Harry/Bevel in “The River” and Joy/Hulga in “Good Country People.” These name changes also tend to increase the absurdity and grotesqueness of the story. When Joy changes her name to Hulga it is because she feels it more accurately reflects her personality and her unattractive prosthetic leg, but for the reader, simply reading the name Hulga instead of Joy changes the tone of O’Connor’s work. A name can accurately accentuate the role and importance of certain characters, especially in the context of literature, where the reader can only envision what the author chooses to include in their descriptions. The character of “the Misfit” in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” has quite an understatement of name in the context of his murderous escapades. The discrepancy between his name and actions makes his character even more grotesque, as if the feeling of not fitting in is a good enough reason for murdering people. O’Connor also cleverly utilizes character names to create an abstract struggle between God and the devil within the physical struggle of Harry/Bevel’s drowning in “The River.” Mr. Paradise, whose name conjures images of heaven, tries to save Harry/Bevel from drowning after he has returned to the river to seek salvation but finds only death, as Mr. Paradise cannot reach him. O’Connor contradicts characters’ names and connotations with their actions and personalities to create an off kilter balance and disturbing realities.

Just as grotesque literature takes the ordinary and distorts it, O’Connor’s descriptions are often a puzzling and powerful combination of seemingly conflicting ideas or objects. As a reader you expect certain ways of describing sunsets and people, but O’Connor defies expectations by presenting these things in a different, more grotesque light. In “A Stroke of Good Fortune” O’Connor describes Ruby as “a short woman, shaped like a funeral urn” (A Good Man 67). Of all the ways to describe a person’s shape, O’Connor chooses to compare her to a funeral urn. It is just an object, but carries the weight of death and grief and the question of life beyond, transforming a typical physical description into a thought-provoking image. Mr. Shortley, in “The Displaced Person,” is described as “[folding] his hands on his bony chest and [pretending] he was a corpse” (A Good Man 224). Another author could have described this same posture as sleep but O’Connor takes the image to a gruesome level by describing him as dead. In “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” the last image of the sun setting is described as “a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood” (A Good Man 102). Sunsets are generally depicted as beautiful sights, filled with magnificent colors. O’Connor’s choice of words to describe the sun as “drenched in blood” and earlier on in the story as “bruised violet” maintain the typical colors one would expect in a description of the sunset but distort them by reflecting violence instead of beauty (A Good Man 91). Descriptive images such as these are scattered throughout the various short stories in this book and serve to create an ominous tone and often foreshadow the horror that is to come.

O’Connor uses humor to engage readers in her gruesome stories and compel their participation. Talking about Flannery O’Connor, Robert Lowell said, “I find it hard to think of a funnier or more frightening writer” (A Good Man back cover). Readers can identify the capacity for such grotesque beliefs and acts in the characters of O’Connor’s stories and also within themselves by participating in the characters’ misery through humor. The humorous instances in her stories often create self-reflective moments for the reader, in which they can look into themselves, question why they found that to be funny, and discover where such violence, horror, and ugliness could come from.   In “A Circle in the Fire” after Sally Virginia eavesdrops on the three black vagrant boys’ discussion of what they would do with her mother’s precious woods and watches them set the woods on fire she runs to her mother and exclaims, “Mama, they’re going to build a parking lot here!” (A Good Man 158). It’s humorous because her mother’s paranoia of the woods catching fire has been emphasized throughout the story, but at the same time it’s terrible to laugh because her paranoia has become reality. By adding humor to her work O’Connor subtly downplays the grotesque on the page but enhances it in the readers’ experience.

O’Connor’s works often emphasize Christianity and religion. She herself is an enthusiastic Catholic woman, who, through her literature, hopes to depict “the action of grace in territories largely held by the devil” (Fowler 127). Wehner calls her the “defender of the faith in twentieth century American literature” (301). The level of success she achieves in accomplishing this goal is questionable. In many of her stories, her characters are completely let down by religion and by their faith. Religion is an important theme in all of O’Connor’s works but is quite obvious in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The grandmother’s insistence that the Misfit comes from “good people” and he just needs to pray to Jesus is obliterated as the Misfit and his minions murder each of her family members and finally her. Religion is a system of morals and virtues as well as sin and damnation. Its dual nature is both merciful and vengeful, and often advertises the appearance of good but undeniably also has a darker and more grotesque side as well. The hope that many of O’Connor’s characters find in religion and rely on makes their disappointment and disillusionment even harder to witness when it fails them.

The most significant way in which O’Connor’s stories in A Good Man is Hard to Find should be considered grotesque is by readers’ reactions. Most people would agree that her stories are bizarre and leave one captivated, revolted, and everything in between. She does this by presenting absurd plots in the context of ordinary places, often leaving the climax of her stories unresolved. A good example is the ending of “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” which follows the graduation hopes of an older woman and the dementia and death of her grandfather. The story ends with the sentence: “That crafty scout had bumped him out the back way and rolled him at high speed down the flagstone path and was waiting now, with the corpse, in the long line at the Coca-Cola machine” (A Good Man 175). O’Connor’s combination of the boy’s fascination with the Coca-Cola machine and the grandfather’s corpse creates a disturbing image in which death is just an afterthought, a side note quickly mentioned and dwarfed by the excitement of a soda machine. O’Connor’s style of writing enhances the grotesqueness of her stories. She tells her stories in a very straightforward manner with short sentences, generally using simple grammatical structures and dominated by statements of action and dialogue. She gradually leads the reader on, hinting and foreshadowing what is to come, and then the big climax occurs. It’s often some horrible event or devastating epiphany which is told in an understated manner, as in “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” leaving the reader in a state of shock.

In contrast to the argument made here, many still claim O’Connor’s work should not be considered grotesque, even that such a category of literature does not exist. Flannery O’Connor describes what she considers to be true grotesque writing as realistic, and what people label as grotesque is just how Northerners see Southern writing (Mystery 40). The South is a place of appearances; where people emit the illusion of sophistication with their manners, pride, faith, and hospitality, but underneath it is a place ravaged by violence and a haunting history of prejudice and oppression. All of the stories in A Good Man is Hard to Find are set in the South, which is an appropriate setting for grotesque fiction as the previous sentence shows, but they are grotesque in more than just the eyes of Northerners; they are grotesque to people from everywhere. O’Connor argues her work is realism, that “[v]iolence is strangely capable of returning [her] characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace” (Fowler 127). But it’s hard to reconcile the level of brutality and violence in her stories with her goal of illustrating grace. Her characters more often end up death or miserable than finding grace.

 

Works Cited

Fowler, Doreen. “Flannery O’Connor’s Productive Violence.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal ofAmerican Literature, Culture, and Theory 67.2 (2011): 127-54. Project Muse. Web. 3 May 2014.

Kate Oliver (2004) O’Connor’s Good Country People, The Explicator, 62:4, 233-236, DOI: 10.1080/00144940409597232

O’Connor, Flannery. A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1955. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery, Sally Fitzgerald, and Robert Fitzgerald. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969. Google Books. Web.

Wehner, David Z. “Pulverizing The Idols: Flannery O’Connor’s Battle With Sigmund Freud And Carl Jung.” Mississippi Quarterly 65.2 (2012): 299-319. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 May 2014.

On Grace in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

In a 1958 letter to an unnamed friend, “A,” found in the collection The Habit of Being, Flannery O’Connor once remarked, “All of my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it,” (275). The themes of grace and redemption are vital to any work by O’Connor. Oftentimes her characters are seen at the beginning of a story as being estranged from O’Connor’s perception of God’s grace and living in what could be considered a life of sin. Throughout the course of the work, though, a change is enacted upon the character in which he or she experiences grace by way of a greater understanding of humanity. To O’Connor, the action of grace implies an experience in which one’s pride is replaced with humility, in which one experiences the true intimacy of life through human interaction, or by which one is released from the bondages of sin and returns to a life with God. The characters of the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and Harry Ashfield in “The River,” both experience the action of grace in some way throughout their respective short stories. In both cases, the bestowal of grace upon the character is violent and tragic, an indication of O’Connor’s thoughts on the nature of God’s grace. Through these characters, O’Connor presents that the action of God’s grace is not something that can be predicted, but rather an action that is surprising and life changing, as it brings the bestowed to a deeper, more intimate understanding of humanity, and requires a death of one’s old self.

In the titular short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” grace is bestowed upon the character of the grandmother in her fatal confrontation with the Misfit. Like the other characters mentioned above, the grandmother is presented at the beginning of the story as being distanced from God, as living in a life of sin. She is full of pride, arrogant, and judgmental. There are many instances in which these qualities are expressed at the beginning of the story. When the family is leaving for Florida, the grandmother is the first one ready to go, dressed in a navy blue dress and white cotton gloves. The narrator explains that she dresses in this way so that “in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (118). In this way, the grandmother is presented at the onset of the story as being concerned with appearances and material possessions. She believes that the standards of womanhood are not aspects of one’s character, but rather aspects of one’s wardrobe. This translates into a method of living in which the real sustenance of life is neglected in favor of what one presents on the surface. The grandmother’s inclination to the ephemeral aspects of life is apparent again when she hurls judgment at other people whom she does not know. As the car passes a shack belonging to a sharecropper family, the grandmother reminds the children that, “little niggers in the country don’t have things like we do,” (119). While this may be interpreted as her attempt at teaching the children to appreciate what they have, she never truly instills any real message in the kids, as she doesn’t take the necessary extra step in reminding them to be thankful, but simply observes the poverty of the “little niggers.” This type of attitude continues throughout the trip until the accident, when the Misfit joins the family.

Some scholars, such as David Eggenschwiler in his book The Christian Humanism of Flannery O’Connor, have noted the grandmother’s “persistent and often irritating grandmotherliness,” (91) as a symbol of her capacity for affection even in her sinful state. The reader is given the sense that the grandmother tries to be a good woman, even if her actions appear to be hypocritical and superficial. It is this potential to show true affection that allows the grandmother to receive grace in her confrontation with the Misfit. Only when she is faced with the threat death does she exhibit the true Christian ideals and experience grace. André Bleikasten, in his essay titled “The Heresy of Flannery O’Connor,” notes that, for the grandmother, “the beginning is quite literally the end, and the price paid for spiritual rebirth is an immediate death,” (153). The grandmother acknowledges her own ignorance as to the validity of Jesus’s resurrection, and thus is reminded that her entire morality is based on “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” (Hebrews 11:1). The true action of grace is bestowed upon the grandmother in her recognition that the Misfit is not so much a misfit as simply another fallen human. He and she are united in their sins with rest of humanity, and although the grandmother believes herself to be a lady, she is truly no different from the rest of the world. In a moment of clarity, she sees the Misfit and murmurs, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” (132) and reaches out to touch him as an intimate sign of their shared humanity before the Misfit shoots her in the chest. The reader is left unsure of how to feel regarding the grandmother’s death. On the one hand, her death is a tragedy as she had finally understood the meaning of grace and made a change from her sinful ways, only to be robber of the opportunity to live out this change. On the other hand, her encounter with the Misfit is redeeming in that it gave her the chance, at the end of her life, to experience her profound change and thus die a free, righteous woman. As the Misfit remarks at the end of the story, the grandmother “would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” (133).

Harry Ashfield, of O’Connor’s short story “The River,” is another character that pays the fatal price of spiritual rebirth, being granted God’s grace through his death by means of escaping his young, sinful life. Harry Ashfield is introduced as a young boy, “four or five,” (158) who, like the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is separated from God in the beginning of the story, not by any fault of his own, but simply through lack of introduction to religion. Harry is lives in the city (due to the prevalence of streetcar transportation one may assume New Orleans, a famously sinful city) with his neglectful, socialite parents. Harry’s parents show no regard for their boy’s well-being and are incredibly distant, caring more about nursing their hangovers than taking care of their son. Harry is not unaffected by his parents’ lifestyle; he shows iniquitous behavior in lying to Mrs. Connin about his name, attempting to jump on the tail of the dog at her house, and stealing her handkerchief and Bible. Harry’s first introduction to Jesus begins with a picture of Jesus the carpenter surrounded by little children he sees in Mrs. Connin’s house. She informs him that he was “made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ,” although he originally thought he had been made by “a doctor named Sladewell,” (163). This confusion emphasizes Harry’s inability to distinguish between the literal and the metaphorical or spiritual, a theme that reemerges with his two baptisms in the river.

The first baptism is a devastating experience for Harry, as he expects to be able to escape his apartment life with his parents and join Christ in the Kingdom of God, only to be shocked by the violence of the baptism. The preacher, Mr. Bevel, assures the crowd at the baptism that “there ain’t but one river and that’s the River of Life, made out of Jesus’s Blood,” (165) and promises Harry (who incidentally and jokingly calls himself Bevel), “if I baptize you, you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ,” (168). Enticed by the promise of entering God’s Kingdom, and not being able to distinguish between the muddy river he stands in and the spiritual River of Life advertised by the preacher, Harry responds that he would like to be baptized so that “[he] won’t go back to the apartment… [he’ll] go under the river,” (168). The shock and disappointment of this baptism is indicated by the violent words used to describe it. Harry is “swung upside down and plunged into the water,” before being “jerked” back up again and addressed “sternly” by Mr. Bevel (168). Unfortunately for Harry, after this devastating experience, he must return to his deplorable home and confront his parents in the midst of a party. Harry is still distanced from God in this state, as the next morning he deliberately spills ash trays onto the floor and rubs the ash into the carpet, causing a nuisance for the sake of nuisance, but it is from this state that he realizes how he can escape; “very slowly, his expression changed as if he were gradually seeing appear what he didn’t know he’d been looking for. Then all of a sudden he knew what he wanted to do,” (172). Harry no longer thinks of the religiosity of baptism as a joke, and decides to return to the river to baptize himself and finally escape to the promised Kingdom of Christ. The second baptism is as violent as the first, until he is finally caught by the current “like a long gentle hand” and “for an instant he was overcome with surprise… all his fury and fear left him,” (174). In this moment, his drowning, the action of grace is bestowed upon Harry, as he is finally freed from his world of sin and taken downstream. The apostle Paul acknowledges this aspect of baptism in his letter to the Romans, arguing that one is baptized in order that “[one] might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin,” (Romans 6:6-7). In an online analysis of this short story, user Dermot acknowledges that, “in his final moment, through striving for salvation, [Harry] has obtained grace through death. He has chosen God over a life living with his parents” (Dermot, The Sitting Bee). Although Harry’s acceptance into the Kingdom of Christ is paid for with his death, it is this faith that he can find the promised Kingdom that allows him to experience grace and escape the life riddled with sin.

To O’Connor, grace is the conversion of one’s self from a life of sin to a life of spiritual awakening in Christ. The characters of the grandmother and young Harry experience this conversion in the stories “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “The River,” but pay for it with their lives. For the grandmother, grace is given to her by her ultimate understanding of the equality of all humanity, her understanding that she is not any better or worse than the Misfit, that all humans are fallen and are in need of salvation. For Harry, grace is bestowed on him through his faith that he can truly find the metaphorical Kingdom of Christ beneath the murky waters of the literal river. Although his search ends in his death, the reader feels content that he has escaped the hell that is his life with neglectful parents and entered a new life in Christ. O’Connor utilizes these characters to make an important statement about her own perception of God’s grace; namely, that it is violent and tragic and requires a death of one’s old self. Both characters experience grace at the end of their lives in a violent conversion experience. According to Eggenschwiler, Harry’s fault was due his inability to “differentiate between the River of Life and the actual river, between faith and superstition,” (67) but the enlightened reader need not lose his literal life to experience grace. To O’Connor, one must simply lose their old life, their sinful life. Grace is not something easily earned, but its bestowal on a person brings one to a greater understanding of the intimacies of life, and allows him to be renewed and freed from a life of sin.

Works Cited

Fitzgerald, Sally. The Habit of Being: Flannery O’Connor. Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1979. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971. Print.

Eggenschwiler, David. Christian Humanism of Flannery O’Connor. Toronto: Copp Clark Publishing Company, 1972. Print.

André Bleikasten. “The Heresy of Flannery O’Conor.” Critical Essays on Flannery O’Connor. By Friedman, Melvin J., and Beverly Clark. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1985. Print.

Dermot. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Collection) – Flannery O’Connor – The Sitting Bee.” The Sitting Bee. Web.

Harper Collins Study Bible NRSV. Fully rev. ed. Harold W. Attridge. New York: Harper Collins, 2006. Print

Revised: A CLOSE READING ON FLANNERY O’CONNOR’S CRITICISM IN “GOOD COUNTRY PEOPLE”

Before Flannery O’Connor was a writer, she desired to become a political cartoonist, a person who emphasizes a character flaw of a politician or the stupidity of a political event by drawing it larger. But this mockery of politicians and events is not without purpose; it draws attention, literally, to areas of politics where change is required or might be made. In “Good Country People,” published in O’Conner’s 1955 collection A Good Man is Hard to Find, she emphasizes stereotypical human clichés or the flaws of her characters in the same way that she would expose those of a politician. Despite O’Connor’s southern roots and Roman Catholic faith, she criticizes every character within “Good Country People” from the bible-lovers to the highfalutin intellectual atheists. She does not seek likeability for her characters or offer resolutions in her story where resolutions do not exist, as the moral ambiguity of all her characters is meant to demonstrate the moral ambiguity of all human beings. In this way, O’Connor’s use of criticism exposes the reality of her character’s conceptions of what is good and meaningful as opposed to evil, whether it be religion, freedom, philosophy, etc., in hopes of improving those conceptions as well as any previous conceptions held by the reader.

The one-dimensional names O’Connor gives to her characters are immediately significant in that they assign a stereotypical function to each character, serving to interconnect them through collective criticism and point to numerous flawed conceptions of religion and freedom. Mrs. Hopewell literally hopes well, when she spews out clichés like “Nothing is perfect… that is life! And still another, the most important, was: well, other people have their opinions too” (1341). She shuts her eyes to any form of negativity or pessimism, especially the discourse of her daughter Joy (1346). Mrs. Freeman, whom she hires to take care of things around the house, is the foil to Mrs. Hopewell because she sees to everything. Her “steel-pointed eyes” look down on Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Hopewell’s daughter as they eat their breakfast every morning (1343). Yet, Mrs. Freeman is not a free man like her name suggests because she is the servant of Mrs. Hopewell, and her degree of interest in everyone’s affairs but her own leaves her little freedom to do anything for herself. Mrs. Hopewell labels her help or the Freeman family, “good country people” (1341) instead of trash, but the phrase “good country people” is later repeated throughout the story to refer ironically to Manly Pointer, who appears as a bible salesman at the beginning but turns out to be a thief of “interesting things” by the end (1353). It seems Mrs. Hopewell’s faith in God and in all humans to an almost comical degree led to her oversimplified impressions of both Mrs. Freeman and Manly Pointer. In Mrs. Hopewell’s last dialogue of the story upon seeing Manly Pointer run out of the woods, she preaches the words, “He was so simple… but I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple,” misperceiving the evil con artist that is Manly Pointer. However, Mrs. Freeman states frankly that not everyone can be that simple (1353). She does not close her eyes to the world around her like Mrs. Hopewell because not all free men can be oversimplified as do-gooders with so many existing liberties to do evil. Thus, Manly Pointer’s role points to the reoccurring misconception of blind faith in the story.

The divergence between blind faith and philosophy is introduced to the story through the comparison of Mrs. Hopewell to her daughter. While the interesting thing Manly Pointer stole was in fact the prosthetic leg belonging to Mrs. Hopewell’s daughter, he also points to the flaws of Joy, later turned Hulga. Although Hulga is thirty-two in the story and has already a Ph.D., Mrs. Hopewell still sees her as a child: “Here she went about all day in a six-year-old skirt and a yellow sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it… She was brilliant but she didn’t have a grain of sense” (1343). The childlike clothing choice and occasional mannerisms of Hulga throughout the story shows that one can have great intellect but be void of sense. It also demonstrates Hulga’s naivety or lack of real world experience. Mrs. Hopewell finds her reading books that denounce science on the basis that science is concerned only with “what-is” (1344). Since no phenomenon can ever fully be proved, science becomes the study of nothing. Hence, Hulga believes herself to be the embodiment of “what should be.” But if one’s world consists only of reading philosophical books with statements such as these and no confrontation with true hardship, it is very normal that religious faith would be seen as unnecessary. On the other hand, if one is not a college graduate but has experienced much over a lifetime, it is very normal that religious practice would be seen as a dominant part of life. Imagine the mixing of the two and they won’t see eye to eye. For example, Hulga once said to her mother, “Woman! Do you every look inside? Do you ever look inside and see what you are not? God!… Malebranche was right: we are not our own light!” (1344). While Hulga might have exclaimed “God!” out of frustration, it also seems that she is telling her mother, Mrs. Hopewell, that she cannot and will never be God or his preacher. Yet, in citing Malebranche, the philosopher, Hulga makes a mistake. He believed “we are not our own light” because God is our light, where as Hulga is trying to make the point that there is no light at all because there is no God in which to believe. It seems that O’Connor purposely employs this misquote so as to criticize both Mrs. Hopewell for her full reliance on God and Hulga for her full reliance on intellect at one time, creating opposing personas and a seemingly irremediable relationship. Malebranche was at once a philosopher and a man of faith; cannot Mrs. Hopewell and Hulga follow his lead?

The dichotomy or the line between religion and philosophy becomes even blurrier once O’Connor’s full criticism of Hulga’s reasoning is realized. Hulga prosthetic leg, an artificiality or deformity so to speak, exiles her from the rest of society (at least she believes it to). “She was as sensitive about the artificial leg as a peacock about his tail” (1351). She obsesses over the grotesqueness of the leg and projects that obsession onto others like Mrs. Freeman because she believes herself to be devoid of all feeling. Her name too is significant in that it is a mirror image of her ugly leg, having “arrived at it first purely on the basis of its ugly sound” (1342). She also chose Hulga because it would allow her to detach herself from her mother. No longer Joy, she would deny Mrs. Hopewell any joy from her person. Thus, she changes her name to something stronger and removes everything from her life in the same way she does her mother so as to become less vulnerable, except for her leg of course. But in reality, she can’t remove herself from society entirely like she could her leg because all people seek some sort of attention, acceptance, or companionship. Hulga’s interaction with Manly Pointer becomes proof of her desire for something of the sort as she believes she is seducing a childlike bible salesman, when really, he is seducing her naïve self. “She decided that for the first time in her life she was face to face with real innocence… it was like surrendering to him completely. It was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his” (1352). This seduction scene mirrors the image of Christ as someone decides to put all faith in him, which is ironic because Hulga is a proclaimed atheist and also because “innocence” is not normally associated with any form of seduction. Once Manly Pointer pulls out alcohol and playing cards from the inside of one of his Bibles, Hulga finally realizes his deception; he is not a “perfect Christian” (1353). The third and final irony is that Hulga attached herself to the only thing in her life that could literally be fully detached, her prosthetic leg, and Manly Pointer takes that leg upon leaving her. Pointer affirms at once that there exists both the idea of believing in absolutely nothing, as he turns out to be a nihilistic atheist himself, and having faith to contradict the evils of the world like theft. Hulga for example might need some kind of faith in her life after that experience. In conclusion, the reader is left not knowing which character to like or whether to side with religion, philosophy, or any other conception of good as O’Connor’s criticism has left no one and nothing unblemished.

O’Connor’s criticism seems to say that every human being is a composition of both good and evil parts. However, she does not attempt to preach or sermonize naively about how to become purely good or achieve perfection as a human being. With this quote, “…The good is something under construction. The modes of evil usually receive worthy expression. The modes of good have to be satisfied with a cliché or a smoothing down that will soften their real look.” (Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, 1969), Flannery O’Connor directs the reader to her ultimate goal. All of her characters from the faithful to the non-believers are criticized because none are fully developed in their conceptions of what is good and what is meaningful. Their character development is a forever-ongoing process as is the relationship between religion, philosophy, science, etc., in the real world. While Malebranche and Manly Pointer’s role seem to point to a form of coexistence between faith and philosophy as well as good and evil, we will never know the perfect combination. And while evil is easily recognizable, good cannot be recognized without evil; good requires the unmasking of clichés and evils to be realized. O’Connor’s use of criticism simply allows the reader to come closer to what is meaningful and good by unmasking what is not.

A Close Reading on Flannery O’Connor’s Criticism in “Good Country People”

Flannery O’Connor, a devout Roman Catholic of southern roots, writes in a radically different fashion than her counterparts of the time, focusing on issues of morality rather than racial relations or discrimination.  “Good Country People,” published in her 1955 collection A Good Man is Hard to Find, explores the moral ambiguity of every character presented within the story, and in doing so, demonstrates the moral ambiguity of all human beings. O’Connor seems to say that every human being is a composition of both good and evil parts. However, she does not attempt to preach any messages related to her faith or sermonize about how to ultimately achieve pure good or perfection. In fact, she criticizes every character from the bible-lovers to the highfalutin intellectual atheists throughout her story without offering any clear message at all. But how are readers supposed to enjoy a story that doesn’t allow likeability of any of its characters or that offers no positive resolution?

Before O’Conner was a writer, she desired to become a political cartoonist, a person who emphasizes a character flaw of a politician or the stupidity of a political event by drawing it larger. But this mockery of politicians and events is not without purpose; it draws attention, literally, to areas of politics where change is required or might be made. In “Good Country People,” O’Conner emphasizes stereotypical human clichés or the flaws of her characters in the same way that she would expose those of a politician. Likability isn’t the intention and in realizing that nothing and no one is perfect, she does not seek to offer resolutions in her story where resolutions do not exist. Her criticism is meant to expose the reality of her character’s conceptions of good, whether it be religion, philosophy, etc., in hopes of improving those conceptions as well as any conceptions held by the reader. Once perceived, this ultimate goal of O’Connor’s short story transcends her surface-level cynicism.

The one-dimensional names O’Connor gives to her characters are immediately significant in that they assign a stereotypical function to each character, serving to distinguish them from one another but also to criticize them all straightforwardly. Mrs. Hopewell literally “hopes well,” when she spews out clichés like “Nothing is perfect… that is life! And… other people have their opinions too” (1341). She has faith in God and in all humans to an almost comical degree, but while she oversimplifies, she also shuts her eyes to any form of pessimism: “Mrs. Hopewell could not understand deliberate rudeness, although she lived with it…” (1346). Mrs. Freeman, whom she hires to take care of things around the house, is the foil to Mrs. Hopewell because she sees to everything. Her “steel-pointed eyes” look down on Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Hopewell’s daughter as they eat their breakfast every morning (1343). She does not close her eyes to the world around her like Mrs. Hopewell because not all “free men” can be simplified as do-gooders with so many existing options to do evil. Yet, Mrs. Freeman is not a “free man” because her degree of interest in everyone’s affairs but her own leaves her little freedom to do anything for herself. Mrs. Hopewell labels Mrs. Freeman “good country people” (1341), rather than trash, but the phrase “good country people” is later repeated throughout the story to refer ironically to Manly Pointer. Manly Pointer appears as a bible salesman to Mrs. Hopewell at the beginning of the story, but turns out to be a thief of “interesting things” by the end (1353). In Mrs. Hopewell’s last dialogue of the story, she preaches the words, “He was so simple… but I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple,” not knowing that he is actually this evil con artist (1353). Manly Pointer “points” to her faith in God and the good of humanity that leads to her oversimplified impressions of people as a flaw. While the interesting thing he stole was in fact the prosthetic leg belonging to Mrs. Hopewell’s daughter, he also “points” to the flaws of Joy, later turned Hulga.

The divergence between different conceptions of what is right or good for society, between faith and philosophy, is introduced to the story through the comparison of Mrs. Hopewell and her daughter. Although Hulga is thirty-two in the story and has already a Ph.D., Mrs. Hopewell still sees her as a child: “Here she went about all day in a six-year-old skirt and a yellow sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it… She was brilliant but she didn’t have a grain of sense” (1343). The childlike clothing choice and occasional mannerisms of Hulga throughout the story shows that one can have great intellect but be void altogether of sense. It also demonstrates Hulga’s naivety or lack of real world experience. Mrs. Hopewell finds her reading books that denounce science on the basis that science is concerned only with “what-is” (1344), and since no phenomenon can ever fully be proved, science becomes the study of nothing. If one’s world consists only of reading books with statements such as these and no confrontation with true hardship, it is very normal that faith would be seen as unnecessary. On the other had, it is very normal that if one is not a student fresh out of college or has never attended college but has experienced much over their lifetime, that faith would be dominant in their life. Imagine the mixing of the two and they won’t see eye to eye. For example, Hulga once said to her mother, “Woman! Do you every look inside? Do you ever look inside and see what you are not? God!… Malebranche was right: we are not our own light!” (1344). While Hulga might have exclaimed “God!” out of frustration, it also seems that she is telling her mother, Mrs. Hopewell, that she is not God or his preacher. Yet, in citing Malebranche, the philosopher, Hulga makes a mistake. He believed “we are not our own light” because God is our light, where as Hulga is trying to make the point that there is no light at all because there is no God in which to believe. Malebranche was at once a philosopher and a man of faith. It seems that O’Connor purposely employs this misquote so as to criticize both Mrs. Hopewell for her full reliance on God and Hulga for her full reliance on intellect at one time, leaving no character in the story without criticism.

However, Hulga’s full criticism is not realized until the end of the story. Hulga wears a prosthetic leg as her real leg was shot off in a hunting accident when she was young, and this artificiality or deformity so to speak, exiles her from the rest of society (at least she believes it to). She obsesses over the grotesqueness of the leg and projects that obsession onto others like Mrs. Freeman because she believes herself to be devoid of all feeling. Yet, “she was as sensitive about the artificial leg as a peacock about his tail” (1351). Her name too is significant like those of the other character’s, having “arrived at it first purely on the basis of its ugly sound” (1342), a mirror image of her ugly leg, and secondly, because she would no longer be attached to her mother. No longer “Joy,” she would deny Mrs. Hopewell any “joy” from her person. Thus, she changes her name to something stronger and removes everything from her life in the same way she did her mother so as to become less vulnerable, except of course for the leg. She is deeply afraid of vulnerability. But in reality, she can’t remove herself from society entirely like she can her leg because all people seek some sort of attention, acceptance, or companionship. Hulga’s interaction with Manly Pointer becomes proof of her desire for something of the sort as she believes she is seducing a childlike bible salesman, when really, he is seducing her naïve self. “She decided that for the first time in her life she was face to face with real innocence… it was like surrendering to him completely. It was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his” (1352). This seduction scene mirrors the image of Christ as someone decides to put all faith in him, which is ironic because Hulga is a self-proclaimed atheist and also because the word “innocence” is not normally associated with any form of seduction. Once Manly Pointer pulls out alcohol and playing cards from the inside of one of his Bibles, Hulga finally realizes his deception; he is not a “perfect Christian” (1353). The third and final irony is that Hulga attaches herself to the only thing in her life that is literally fully detachable, her prosthetic leg, and Manly Pointer takes that leg upon leaving her. In conclusion, the reader is left not knowing which character to like or even to relate wholly to while Pointer affirms at once that there exists both the idea of believing in absolutely nothing, as he is a nihilistic atheist himself, and having faith to contradict the evils of the world like his own.

With this quote, “…The good is something under construction. The modes of evil usually receive worthy expression. The modes of good have to be satisfied with a cliché or a smoothing down that will soften their real look” (Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, 1969), Flannery O’Connor directs readers to her ultimate goal. All of her characters from the faithful to the non-believers are criticized because none are fully developed in their conceptions of what is good and what is meaningful. Their character development is a forever-ongoing process as is the relationship between religion, philosophy, science, etc., in the real world. While Malebranche and Manly Pointer’s roles in the story seem to “point” to a form of coexistence between faith and philosophy as well as good and evil, we will never know the perfect combination; and while evil is easily recognizable, good requires the unmasking of clichés and evils to be realized. O’Connor’s use of criticism simply allows the reader to come closer to what is meaningful and good by unmasking what is not.

A Comparison of O’Connor and Hemingway

From the Snows of Kilimanjaro ”

THE MARVELLOUS THING IS THAT IT’S painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.””Is it really?””Absolutely. I’m awfully sorry about the odor though. That must bother you.””Don’t! Please don’t.””Look at them,” he said. “Now is it sight or is it scent that brings them like that?”

From Good Country People

Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings. Her forward expression was
steady and driving like the advance of a heavy truck. Her eyes never swerved to left or right but turned as the story turned as if they followed a yellow line down the center of it. She seldom used the other expression because it was not often necessary for her to retract a statement, but when she did, her face came to a complete stop, there was an almost imperceptible movement of her black eyes, during which they seemed to be receding, and then the observer would see that Mrs. Freeman, though she might stand there as real as several grain sacks thrown on top of each other, was no longer there in spirit”

 

I found the style of introducing the characters in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Hemingway and “Good Country People” by O’Connor to be radically different. O’Connor begins by very specifically describing the characters and their mannerisms, such as Mrs. Freeman’s “forward expression”. In addition, O’Connor immediately provides the reader with insight on her relationship with the other characters, e.g. how she “thought of her as a child though she was thirty-two years old and highly educated”. In this manner, the setting and characters have been fairly well explored as the plot begins to progress. This is in stark contrast to Hemingway’s method of introduction: with sarcastic dialogue containing few context clues. The relationship between the two main characters is unclear, with much of the introductory dialogue consisting of seemingly light-hearted banter such as , “”Now is it sight or is it scent that brings them like that?”. It is revealed through more dialogue that the situation is much more dire than originally perceived as, and some information about the characters can be inferred. The nature of the characters are slowly revealed through this dialogue rather than explicitly provided by an omniscient narrator.

Though this contrast between the two authors could be a stylistic choice, it is important to note the circumstances that each story takes place in. “Good Country People” has a very every-day tone to it, with little urgency or direness. The characters experience various events (love, deception, frustration, etc.) that are quite commonplace. However, Hemingway’s protagonists are stranded on an African safari trip, with one of them facing imminent death by gangrene. Perhaps the direness of the situation is expressed by the lack of an omniscient narrator, in a cold, harsh world where man ultimately must face his demise alone. The more dire situation warrants a stripped down introduction with little context to emulate the urgency of the situation, while the more common circumstances can afford the explicit insight on the characters.

A comparison of Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” and Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal”

“She considered the name her personal affair. She had arrived at it first purely on the basis of its ugly sound and then the full genius of its fitness had struck her… She saw it as the name of her highest creative act. One of her major triumphs was that her mother had not been able to turn her dust into Joy, but the greater one was that she had been able to turn herself into Hulga” (O’Connor 1342).

“All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naive. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization that everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself” (Ellison 1211).

Both stories feature a character focused on his or her education. The narrator of Ellison’s “Battle Royal” is motivated to attend the town gathering to give a praised speech and is ultimately awarded a scholarship to attend college. Joy, or Hulga as she comes to be named, has a Ph.D. in philosophy and spends much of her time reading. One of the major differences between the characterization of the two is that  Ellison’s narrator seeks praise from other people, while Hulga acts only to please herself. Ellison develops a narrator who “asks everyone” how he should live his life. Throughout the battle royal, he cannot stop thinking about ultimately giving his speech and being praised by the white men gathered there. Constantly seeking recognition and approval from other people prevents one from living a life true to oneself. Being burdened by others’ opinions only serves as a detriment to self-improvement. Hulga realizes this when she can no longer put up with her mother smothering her. Though Mrs. Hopewell expresses dissatisfaction toward Hulga’s studies, Hulga proceeds to earn her Ph.D. and changes her name to further rebel against her mother’s control over her. A name is the fundamental way to define a person. By taking control of her life and changing her name to something she likes better, Hulga exhibits a character trait much different from Ellison’s narrator: self-awareness.

A similarity between the two stories is the objectification of the woman in “Battle Royal” when compared to Hulga being taken advantage of by Manley Pointer. The woman in “Battle Royal” is used to elicit desire in the young men. She is dehumanized when aspects of her are referred to as “the face,” “the hair,” and “the eyes” and when she herself is called simply “the blonde” (1213). She is defined by a sum of her parts, rather than respected as a woman. Meanwhile, Hulga is largely characterized by her artificial leg. Pointer has come to her under the pretense of loving her, but he really only wants to take advantage of her and then steal her leg. While the woman in “Battle Royal” feels disgust toward being characterized in such a way, the same cannot necessarily be said of Hulga (1214). Hulga, on the other hand, feels lost “without the leg” (1352). It is undeniably a part of her and makes her unique. She embraces the presence of her artificial limb and is “as sensitive about [it] as a peacock about his tail” (1351). Both women, however, are used by men who mean to take advantage of such aspects of their persons, and they are thus forced to face the reality that some people do not share their true intentions.

A Comparison of Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” and Sherwood Anderson’s “Hands”

“She saw him grab the leg and then she saw it for an instant slanted forlornly across the inside of the suitcase with a Bible at either side of its opposite ends” (1353).

“The nervous expressive fingers, flashing in and out of the light, might well have been mistaken for the fingers of the devotee going swiftly through decade after decade of his rosary” (758).

First, each story features a study of a very specific body part.  In “Good Country People,” this is Hulga’s leg, and it is Wing Biddlebaum’s hands in Anderson’s story.  Each of these anatomical pieces becomes an object of study because there is something broken and hidden behind them which have shaped the owner’s personalities.  Both Hulga and Wing Biddlebaum make efforts to conceal the body part which makes them district, which is seen in the fact that “no one ever touched [Hulga’s leg] but her,”(1351) and the claim that Wing Biddlebaum “wanted to keep [his hands] hidden away”(755).  Differences between the two situations begin to appear when we consider the nature of the body part being observed.  Wing Biddlebaum‘s hands are important because of what they have done and what they are capable of doing. His “nervous expressive fingers” provide images of motion and demonstration of emotion and desire.  Hulga’s artificial leg, however, is important for its stark physical reality.  It is mentioned in this quote as simply “the leg” and O’Connor offers very little description of the leg itself.  The lack of description emphasizes the fact that the leg is artificial, and thus incapable of expressing emotional truths.  Once she removes the artificial leg, she begins to imagine herself running away with the Bible salesman, as if that unfeeling apparatus had numbed the rest of her as well, so by removing it, she was left only with the live and lively parts of herself.

Next, the importance of names and renaming arises in each of these stories.  Wing Biddlebaum was born Adolf Myers, but he changed this name following the incident brought about by the use of his hands.  Hulga also chose to change her name.  Her mother named her Joy, but she chose to call herself Hulga “on the basis of its ugly sound” (1342).  Wing Biddlebaum and Hulga renamed themselves as an act of transformation and acceptance of the changes which their unique anatomical parts have dictated.  In “Good Country People,” O’Connor refers to Hulga and the Bible salesman as “the girl” and “the boy,” which strips both characters of the identities they have been assigned earlier in the story and prepares the reader for the reversal of roles when the Bible salesman adopts the role of the clever trickster and Hulga that of the simple figure of amusement for him.

Flannery O’Connor Background Info

An eccentric, quirky, and immensely interesting character, Flannery O’Connor is one of the most renowned and celebrated authors of the 20th century. O’Connor was born into the Bible Belt South in Savannah, Georgia on March 25, 1925, to a devoutly Roman Catholic family. This Catholic religion, especially in the context of her Southern roots, would serve as the foundation for much of her writing. O’Connor was an only child and moved with her family to Millidgeville, for her father’s job. At age 15, O’Connor’s father died of lupus, the disease that would eventually end her own life.

O’Connor went on to attend Georgia State College for Women, where she was an avid satiric cartoonist and editor for the newspaper. In 1945, she continued to pursue journalism at the University of Iowa; she initially intended to be a political cartoonist. Yet, finding that journalism was not her place, she entered into Paul Engle’s well-known Writing Workshop to study creative writing. Many of the professors and writers she worked with in this program asserted the enormous amount of talent she possessed. It was also here that O’Connor realized her unique knack for writing and published her first short story, The Geranium. After receiving her M.F.A, O’Connor spent some time on writing her first novel, Wise Blood, at Yaddo, an artist’s retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York. In 1949, to continue working on her writing, she  moved into the Connecticut apartment of her close friends, Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. Yet, this peaceful time in her life was suddenly interrupted when O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus, the incurable autoimmune disease. She was thus forced to move back to Milledgeville, to live on the family dairy farm, Andalusia. It was at this farm that O’Connor carried out the majority of the rest of her life. Yet, despite the debilitating disease she was stricken with, O’Connor still found the strength to continue pursuing her writing. She led a fairly simple yet profound life at Andalusia, where she would devote at least three hours each day to writing, seven days a week, attend mass almost every morning, take occasional trips to lecture, and correspond with friends, family, and young writers through letters. It is really amazing to think that even though Flannery O’Connor died before her time at the extremely young age of 39, and though she did not produce a vast amount of writings (two novels, two collections of short stories, and a variety of essays and letters), she is still such a powerful literary figure.

O’Connor has been characterized as a “Southern grotesque writer”, though she did not necessarily enjoy this categorization.  Though she grew up in the heart area of the South, and was largely affected in her writing by the context of those times, her writing does not focus on race relations aspect of the times, but rather centers around the “Christ-haunted” South. Her writings include themes and ideas of theology such as sin, guilt, redemption, morality, and grace. Many mark her writing as pertaining a “Christian vision” and having a “dark humor” to them. She thus very much had a “conscious intent” in her writings, to get across a message, which was largely one centering around aspects of religion.