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Monday, May 07, 2007

GROTESQUE COUPLES: LOVE AND GRACE IN FLANNERY O'CONNOR

I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil” says Flannery O’Connor in “Mystery and Manners” (Galloway). Her grotesque couples, whether composed of possible lovers, mother and son, or mother and daughter, in “Good Country People,” “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “Everything that Rises must Converge,” and “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” represent the account of the battle in that territory and the tale of how grace finally opened a gate there where love was the great absent.

O’Connor’s characters seem to follow a pattern of grotesque exaggeration in women and a suspicious elusiveness in men which in their interaction give that unique literary quality in her stories: unstable comedy doomed to develop in tragedy. In “Good Country People” we can find many couples: Mrs. Hopewell, the ridiculous mother who manipulates to prevail and Mrs. Freeman, the nosey maid; Mrs. Hopewell and her daughter Joy/Hulga, the arrogant Ph.D. in Philosophy; Mrs. Freeman and Joy as well as Mrs. Freeman and her own two daughters; Mrs. Hopewell and Manley Pointer, the fake Christian selling Bibles; and, finally, the central couple to them all, around which revolves the story, Joy/Hulga and Manley Porter. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find” we assist to the same ballet of odd couples: the grandmother, another narcissistic and manipulative woman, and her silent and apparently submissive son Bailey; Bailey and his mute and indifferent wife who has a face ”as broad and innocent as a cabbage”; the two grand children, John Wesley and June Star, in charge to speak out all the truths the adults prefer to ignore, and opposing their grandmother; Pitty Sing, the cat, and The Misfit, as the two agents of fate; the two Misfit’s partners, Hiram and Bobby Lee; and the starring couple, the grandmother obliged to face The Misfit and her son Bailey through the shirt The Misfit is wearing after killing him, and ultimately, facing herself and what she has provoked. In “Everything That Rises Must Converge” a shameful Julian is confronted by his mother, a fat woman with high blood pressure, and they both couple in the bus with other passengers, the mother with her seat neighbor and Julian with a black passenger, while feelings of shame and racism intertwine in all these relationships until the again tragic end, with the death of the mother. In “The Life You Save May Be your Own” we have a couple composed by another powerful, dominant, proud and finally blind mother taking care of her deaf mute daughter, both living in a farm in the woods; another mysterious man, Mr. Shiftlet, arrives as an apparent savior, as in “Good Country People,” builds a relationship with the old mother till he gains her complete trust, marries the daughter, then leaves her and runs away with the family car, forming a last devilish couple with his desired object, the reason of all his manipulation on mother and daughter. These grotesque couples mean to convey a moral: the grotesque is nothing but an exaggeration of sinful traits; where sin reigns there is a need to identify it and to repent; repentance will come only with the help of grace. As Galloway notes: “Flannery O’Connor remained a devout Catholic throughout, and this fact, coupled with the constant awareness of her own impending death, both filtered through an acute literary sensibility, gives us valuable insight into just what went into those thirty –two stories and the two novels: cathartic bitterness, a belief in grace as something devastating to the recipient, a gelid concept of salvation, and violence as a force for good.”(Galloway)

It is very interesting to compare all the feminine characters in these stories. As many in other stories, they are dominant, maybe as Flannery O’Connor’s mother was dominant in her life. These usually extroverted and histrionic women express, if not exactly sin, at least a territory apt to attract actions from wicked men. We see then these women who seem very sure of themselves, mistresses in their own world, becoming the victims of con men or of a murderer, like the grandmother in the most terrible and achieved of O’Connor’s stories. In spite of these extremes or precisely because of them, “O’Connor is compassionate to her characters in that she gives them the opportunity of receiving grace, however devastating that might be to their fragile self-images, as well as their fragile mortal frames, for in O’Connor, grace often comes at the moment of grisly death.”(Galloway). Men are those who provide violence or the lies which allow them to have things their way. In this sense, violence is the gate by which grace can enter in the sinful lives of the victims: “I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace,” says O’ Connor (Galloway). At the end of “Good Country People,” The Misfit makes a memorable comment about the grandmother: “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”(O’Connor) As Galloway has remarked, the grandmother has her last minute chance to understand what her life had been about: “O’Connor provides her with an epiphany, one which she probably would not have been able to deal with, had she lived. Self-knowledge can be a curse, and, indeed, it is the characters that are allowed to live that there are the more to be pitied, for they are confronted with the unbearable truth of their own folly, their own pathetic, wasted lives, which they can no longer deny.”(Galloway). As a writer, O’Connor has the strength to become a puppeteer God. She holds firmly her characters by their threads while providing them with an extreme circumstance in which they can find the occasion to step on the side of love instead of remaining on the side of sin. In this sense, Flannery O’Connor demonstrates clearly that sin lives and grows in the absence of love, and that grace doesn’t mean anything else but a surrendering to love. The end of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” leaves an unexpected lesson: “Indeed, the grandmother’s epiphany may be that goodness has been in her midst, within her reach. The good man was one of her babies, one of her children. The good man was Bailey.”(Nester).

In a letter written to Winifred McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor writes: ”There is a moment in every story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment.” (Galloway). Galloway points out that most of Flannery’s short stories are constructed in such a way as to dramatize the sinfulness and the need for grace and that “As the idea of grace figures prominently in Catholicism, so it does in O’Connor.” Always sinners in need of grace, women and men are represented in very distinct ways: men can look like saviors but be in fact swindlers or con men; women, like Joy/Hulga, can look powerful and even smarter than the rest and become later crucified for what they couldn’t see or prevent. That South “hardly Christ-centered” but “most certain Christ- haunted” (O’Connor) is always present, forcing us to look for Christ in every character, man or woman, and if Lucynell also ends in her cross, The Misfit is seen by the grandmother as a son of God after he has killed the whole family. Like any outstanding writer, Flannery O’Connor engaged her own feelings in her work. Because of the insistence in showing men as deceitful and because O’Connor was a woman, we wonder as readers how her own love life was, as she was never married, and how she might have perceived and felt this theme of sin, love and grace in her personal life, which in many aspects seems to have been a source of inspiration for many of her stories.


That grace, which for O’ Connor always comes under a certain form of violence, may have been provided in her own life by lupus, the disease which finally killed her. “Lupus was in control of her fate. What kind of strange disease attacks itself, its own living cells? As an artist, she must have thought about this disease differently than her doctors. Violence on its own life giving system is not only frightening but it does not make sense”(McGovern) If lupus was for her the violence and the door to grace, the consequence was a life devoted to art. Mc Govern quotes a book from Josephine Hendin, “The World of Flannery O’Connor,” where she makes this comment on her visit to O’Connor’s last home, the farm Andalusia:
“Sitting on this porch, I felt for the first time that O’Connor’s disease did not radically change her life. Its horror was that it prevented her life from changing at all. The loneliness it dictated for her was too familiar to the ‘shy, glum girl’ whose feelings had been under control, who seemed so alone everywhere. Her illness seems only to have reinforced and cemented an isolation that always existed, a feeling of being ‘other’ that she could sometimes accept with wry good humor.” (McGovern).

Her disease never became part of her stories but frustrated love as in Joy/Hulga deceived by Manley Pointer or Lucynell abandoned by Mr. Shiftlet looks instead related to her personal life. Mark Bosco has closely studied Flannery O’Connor’s letters collected in “The Habit of Being” and he remarks that they offer “a sense of O’Connor’s personal development as an artist and offer insight into her personality. What they do not provide, however, is an account of romantic interest in her life. Many critics have assumed that her physical condition, compromised after the onset of lupus in her twenties, precluded her forming ---even hoping to form—deep attachments with men.” Some other critics, like Julie Buckner Armstrong, considered a possible repressed lesbianism but report also “the work of Sally Fitzgerald, who believed that the author was a lifelong victim of unrequited [heterosexual] love and provided as evidence a list of men she fell for who did not fall for her.”(Buckner Armstrong). The truth seems more on the side of unrequited love, as the one reported by Bosco, that Flannery had for Erik Langkjaer, a young Dane studying in Georgia, who slightly flirted with her while she had hopes that he would become a great love and a possible husband. Langkaer left America because he was homesick but also after “he realized that O’Connor had fallen mildly in love with him and that, although he liked and admired her, he was not simply in love with her.” (Bosco) Unrequited love offers always a grotesque side to exploit, made out of the blindness and arrogance of those who expect a love which will not be fulfilled. “Good Country People” could be Flannery’s sublimation of this frustrated love story and Bosco reports that in a later interview Langkjaer recognized the kiss scene in the story and Joy’s reaction, as the reaction Flannery had when he kissed her.

In January 9, 1955, in one of the letters she sent to an indifferent Langkjaer soon to be married to another woman, and in the hope of keeping the relationship alive, Flannery begs: “Write me an unintelligible post card please so I will have an excuse to write you a letter. My mother doesn’t think it is proper for me to send mail when I don’t receive it.” (Bosco). Her mother appears in this letter as one of her own powerful censoring grotesque characters and herself as a yet innocent maid who doesn’t want to know her lover doesn’t love her, another pattern for a future grotesque character at the time of realizing she was denying reality and lying to herself. Bosco points out that “At thirty she was still a young woman but chronically ill. Though she was not yet on crutches when she met Langkjaer, they became part of her life by the time she wrote her first letter to him.” Love failed, and lupus became grace. She had nine more full years to write, before dying.

Flannery O’Connor’s publisher, Robert Giroux, remembers what Thomas Merton, another great Catholic writer and philosopher, said after she died: “I write her name with honor, for all the truth and all the craft with which she shows man’s fall and his dishonor.” (Giroux, xv) A truth extracted from her own fall and dishonor, a craft profound enough to dig in her own experience of grotesque and humble to feed her characters. In her own words: “The main concern of the fiction writer is with mystery as it is incarnated in human life” (O’Connor), that is to say, where sin meets grace.


Works Cited
Baym, Nina. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 6th. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.
Bosco, Mark. "Consenting to Love: Autobiographical Roots of 'Good Country People'." The Southern Review Spring 2005: 283-297.
Buckner Armstrong, Julie. "Flannery O'Connor: A Life." Southern Quarterly Winter 2003: 156-159.
Folks, Jeffrey J. "Flannery O'Connor in Her Letters: 'A Refugee from Deep Thought'." Modern Age Spring 2005: 176-181.
Galloway, Patrick. "The Dark Side of the Cross: Flannery O'Connor's Short Fiction." 19 Apr 2007 .
Giroux, Robert. Introduction to Flannery O'Connor The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1971.
McGovern, Linda. "A Good Writer is Hard to Find: The Search for Flannery O'Connor."19Apr2007 .
Nester, Nancy L. "O'Connor's 'A good Man is Hard to Find'." The Explicator Winter 2006: 115-119.
O'Connor, Flannery. A Good Man is Hard to Find. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace , 1976.
O'Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1971.
O'Connor, Flannery. "The Columbia World of Quotations." 19 Apr 2007 .

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