LITERATURE AND THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION
Flannery O’Connor: A Good Man is Hard to Find
What needs to be established is the naivety portrayed by the protagonist in this story, namely, the grandmother. She is the all-loving Christian who is loyal to those around her, contrary to the circumstances existing in society. This story is centred around a grandmother travelling through the south of America with her family. The plot shows the ignorance expressed by this woman thus resulting in her misfortune. The thesis is ...”A good man is hard to find”... This point of view shows that any member of society can present himself as amiable but, what is the true nature of the supposed person? What is depicted in this story is that not only is it difficult to locate a loyal and honest citizen but once this appears as such, ironically, one’s judgment can be totally wrong. We find that the grandmother feels sympathy for the ex-convict and tries to provide such an example to her family. She feels that since The Misfit assisted them after the car accident then this simply suggests that he is a good person. …”Listen,” the grandmother almost screamed “I know you’re a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people”... But what about The Misfit himself. How does he manipulate the emotions of the grandmother to carry out his evil deeds. To show the false perception of The Misfit’s character there is a reference to his parents as being from God. His father supposedly had a golden heart. His mother was the finest woman created by God. The description of The Misfit’s “strong white teeth” refers to holy angels, sainthood, and a heavenly type of character. This is in contrast to the shock experienced by the grandmother and her family later on. They think they are in the hands of a noble servant of God who has come to rescue them from danger but this is shown as otherwise while the story unfolds.[i]
To show that The Misfit was a human being and not perfect like God himself we see the former as cunningly placing himself in a subordinate position to highlight his supposed purity, and gentleness. The grandmother states... “I just know you’re a good man,” ... “You’re not a bit common!”… “I ain’t a good man,” The Misfit said, “... but I ain’t the worst in the world neither” ...The Misfit refers to the way he stands out in front of his brothers and sisters showing that he is in some way better, and as living his life in a more fulfilling way compared to them. He uses emotive language by suggesting that his “daddy” describes him (The Misfit) as such, thus showing that a wise, respected member of his family made the suggestion and that it must therefore be valid.[ii]
To what extent does The Misfit substantiate his actions as being permitted by the saviour Jesus Christ? Or more so, how is such a perception falsely justified by The Misfit? According to Richard Giannone (1999: p.50), The Misfit feels no connection to Jesus’ authority which supposedly controls fate. This eventuates in more ruptures of the spirit. The Misfit is aware ... “that Jesus” has “thown everything off balance” by raising the dead, and he owns that, if one accepts Jesus once and for all as the norm of truth,” “it’s nothing for you to do but throwaway everything and follow Him.” As in Mark 10, we also find The Misfit providing solutions where he lacks the humility to make use of them. The Misfit forgives himself on an historical basis; he feels out of place. He was absent when the small group conversed with Christ and is of the opinion ... “that” “it ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known”.[iii]
To carry the absurdity of the situation further The Misfit actually believes that he is blessed by his behaviour and that likewise he is equivalent to the Lord’s followers (in a sense, the disciples). Richard Giannone (1999:p.50) also points out that The Misfit’s yearning for certitude is a contemporary misinterpretation of faith. Those present with Jesus behaved as clumsily as us. They did not understand him, and also left him. Only with the advent of the resurrection were the disciples able to comprehend the Word they heard. The interior word which The Misfit hears is not visualised by him thus showing that he is blessed.
Therefore, The Misfit ... “is miscast” “like I am now” “recognising that he shares” “the same case with Him” “and yet being separated from the sacrificial event that would have spared him a life of pain” ‘‘No pleasure but meanness”, he concludes, almost snarling. His torture shakes the grandmother into covering his exposed humanness with a maternal embrace”: “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!”[iv]
The story finishes with an ironic transition in mood and atmosphere. The Misfit juxtaposes himself with Jesus Christ. As the latter was falsely imprisoned, the former suggests that he was confronted with the same situation to gain sympathy from the grandmother, her family and the readers. As the grandmother shows her maternal love and describes The Misfit, as “one of my babies”, he shoots her three times and the poor soul supposedly dies. As The Misfit is referred to as being bitten by a snake we find that the devil which tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden did the same with The Misfit here and he (The Misfit) is no longer portrayed as “Jesus” or a falsely accused convict which we should, pity, but one which merely should be loathed.[v]
Furthermore Richard Giannone (1999: p.51) highlights the fact that, at the story’s conclusion, The Misfit distances himself from God. We see this in his pointless anger where he shows no remorse for his victims. He does little less than what satisfies his will which eventuates in his soul deteriorating to the extreme. This story exemplifies a spiritual disposition which literary critics might consider as an example of emotionally heroic on the grandmother’s part but in actual fact from a religious or even more so a Christian perspective it merely depicts one of the lowest and harshest forms of sin.[vi]
Flannery O’Connor: Revelation
To what extent does Ruby Turpin consider herself as being a gracious gift from God? How does she control those around her in this sense? Richard Giannone (1999: p.215) points out that this is shown where Ruby Turpin receives a message addressed to her for a while but she only comprehends what she pleases. The occurrences on one scorching summer day, from early on in the physician’s office to dusk while on the farm, penetrate Ruby’s prejudgments to consider “some abysmal life-giving knowledge”. The common interpretation of this fresh awareness is equal to Ruby’s realisation of her arrogance in placing others under her control. While perceiving her rudeness she likewise sees the advantage of submitting to the force dominating everything. The revelation here, relates to an evocation of Ruby’s voice as a component to an admission of God’s righteousness. The indication evolves from and eventuates with divine mystery, which brings life and results in the affectionate appearance of Ruby Turpin.[vii]
But how does Ruby miscalculate God’s feelings towards her? Here Ruby perceives her harsh attitude towards others in the world as being justified in this sense. Further on this point, Richard Giannone (1999: p.216) states that Ruby compares her yearning for propriety and need for beauty as a female, and confuses it with existing as an amiable woman adored by God. Her harmful behaviour constitutes the similar wanting to be treasured before God. God’s favour, in her opinion, is just. Ruby justifies her cruelty to those around her and to herself by feeling that the world is fair. Her strict sense of justice places damnation as a realistic feeling. Ruby is prepared for condemnation since she is aware of God’s wrath towards her. Her emotions are overpowered by fear. By accepting some common oppressions and too vain to foresee her complicity in this area, Ruby permits local prejudice to act as the regime of grace by labelling racism as “God given”. She views herself as a Christian while degrading others by putting themselves to blame and therefore being responsible for their outcome. Subordinate status allows more scorn. Subordination also assists Ruby to cover her caution of judgment by raising vanity to divine acceptance.[viii] Ruby is pleased when she considers gratefully as she usually does, that... God “had – not made her a nigger or white-trash or ugly!”...[ix] Ruby feels that she only needs to present herself before God as a regular Church attender and legal landowner and this will secure her eternity. Although a common perception for Christians the mistake is that Ruby is misled by following her personal virtue and power and not necessarily God’s. Justice cannot be differentiated from love. All Christians have a God-given duty to respect the law of love.[x]
Ruby is unaware of God’s role in people’s reaching salvation in the after life. Richard Giannone (1999: p.219) highlights this point where Ruby finds that she has upturned things. By misinterpreting the Lord’s Day she has cut law from promise. She finds that the only way to salvation is by doing the correct thing but neglects the fact that redemption is solely God’s work. Also, O’Connor shows deliverance as a medley rather than a careful piece of Ruby’s housekeeping. On this note, Giannone states:
…The purple streak in the sky across the crimson field in which clean blacks and poor whites are decked out in the white robes of Revelation (7:13-17), followed by Freaks and lunatics, shouting and clapping and leaping like Frogs”, is a boisterous exhibition of Jesus’ promise in the vineyard parable (Mathew 20:1-16) that the last shall be first. But we should not be at all sedate about the motley pageant. If we are, we risk joining in step with the prim, respectable marchers whose starchiness excludes them from the carnival fun. O’Connor’s festive concreteness carries the theological day in “Revelation”. The multicoloured spectacle is the peacock’s plumage fanning out in human liturgical form.[xi]
Richard Giannone (1999: p.219) comprehensively depicts a further aspect of the story which is significant, that being where the exhibition is more than just an indication of God’s justice and mercy. The conclusion of “Revelation” evokes Ruby Turpin’s new awareness of felt obligation. Once the vision lessens, she still hears voices of the joyful souls screaming hallelujah. Their wanted praise for divine mercy relieves Ruby of her obsession with not existing as a negroe or an ugly or penniless person, something she admires, since what she treasures tarnishes her grace. Ruby Turpin shames herself by feeling untrue rectitude to present to God. She is driven in the correct direction as she embarks gradually back to the house “along the darkening path”. Ruby greets honourable sinners who are heading for God. They are united as Ruby confronts her guilt. The reflection of sin may lessen her arrogance, but not her zest.[xii]
...Ruby Turpin remains one of those country women “who just sort of springs to life”... … “you can’t hold them down or shut their mouths”... (Letters 546). Brashness will serve her will not that the future goal is clear. Her eyes “fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead”... “They can see God’s sense of humour”.[xiii] This shows that one should not underestimate God’s intentions for us. Even though our future appears as promising both in this life and the latter one no future goal can be comprehensively guaranteed to anyone other than to God himself.
1. Giannone, Richard, Flannery O’Connor and the Mystery of Love, New York, Fordham University Press, 1999.
2. O’Connor, Flannery, The Complete Stories, London, Faber and Faber, 1990.
[i]Flannery, O’Connor, The Complete Stories, London, Faber and Faber, 1990, p.127.
[iii]Richard Giannone, Flannery O’Connor and the Mystery of Love, New York, Fordham University Press, 1999, p.50.
[v]O’Connor, op cit, p.132.
[vi]Giannone, op cit, p.51.
[vii]Giannone, op cit, p.215.
[viii]Giannone, op cit, p.216.
[x]Giannone, op cit, pp.216-217.
[xi]Giannone, cit op, p.219.