The Misfit’s Hat, Mr. Shiftlet’s Car, and Symbolism in O’Connor’s Fiction

Earlier this week, Madeleine asked the following question:

Did FO write these stories with all sorts of symbols and hidden meanings like a rich treasure hunt waiting for persistent readers, or was she writing good stories with some meat to chew on? I’m just wondering if I should be thinking every detail is important to extra meaning or just a detail important to setting a mood or a backdrop for her story. (And yes, the answer can be both, but some writers lean more one way or the other.)

That’s a tricky question, and one that gets at the very heart of what we’re doing in the Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club. Madeleine is asking, in effect, “How do we get from the concrete details of the story to the meaning of the story?” If there’s a more fundamental (or important) question a reader can ask, I don’t know what it is.

The last thing I would want to do would be to dissect O’Connor’s stories (or anybody’s stories) in such a way that they are drained of the pleasure that is to be had in them. If I had to choose between enjoying a story and understanding it, I would choose to enjoy it every time. However, I’m convinced that, when it comes to reading, enjoyment is one of the surest paths toward understanding. So was Flannery O’Connor. She wrote:

In most English classes the short story has become a kind of literary specimen to be dissected. Every time a story of mine appears in a Freshman anthology, I have a vision of it, with its little organs laid open, like a frog in a bottle.

I realize that a certain amount of this what-is-the-significance has to go on, but I think something has gone wrong in the process when, for so many students, the story becomes simply a problem to be solved, something which you evaporate to get Instant Enlightenment.

A story isn’t really any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind. Properly, you analyze to enjoy, but it’s equally true that to analyze with any discrimination, you have to have enjoyed already, and I think that the best reason to hear a story read is that it should stimulate that primary enjoyment. (Mystery and Manners p. 108)

So then, whatever we do with the concrete details of O’Connor’s stories, let us not turn our reading into an exercise in dissection. O’Connor told a story about a run-in with an English teacher: “‘Miss O’Connor,’ he said, ‘why was the Misfit’s hat black?’ I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats.’ He looked pretty disappointed.” There is symbolism in O’Connor, but I don’t think symbol-hunting is especially helpful as an initial approach to a story. A good fiction writer uses concrete details to create a world that the reader can believe and inhabit. If those concrete details can also serve as symbols, all the better.*

There is a kind of symbol that is more or less arbitrary. We all agree that a wedding ring is a symbol of marriage. But it’s a symbol only because we choose to agree it’s a symbol; I’ve heard the preacher say the thing about the ring having no beginning and no end, etc. etc., but if somebody hadn’t told me that a gold band was a symbol of holy matrimony, I wouldn’t have guessed it in a hundred years. Consider, on the other hand, the car in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” It’s a symbol too, but a very different kind of symbol than the wedding ring. It symbolizes freedom, independence, a sense of being unmoored, for better or for worse. And anybody who has ever turned sixteen understands that without needing any explanation. When Mr. Shiftlet’s yearns after the Craters’ car, there is symbolism at work, but it’s not a secret code by any means. Or consider Mr. Shiftlet’s missing arm; it’s an outward expression of an inward incompleteness and brokenness; it’s a symbol. But it’s a “natural” symbol–something that any reader is equipped to pick up on if he or she is paying attention.

So when Madeleine asks if O’Connor included “symbols and hidden meanings” in her stories, I would have to say that there are plenty of symbols, but I don’t think there are all that many hidden meanings. In the comments on the previous post, there was some discussion about what peacocks represent in traditional symbology. I don’t mean to suggest that those discussions are irrelevant or uninteresting, but they are secondary to what O’Connor offers right there in the plain text:

The priest let his eyes wander toward the birds. They had reached the middle of the lawn. The cock stopped suddenly and curving his neck backwards, he raised his tail and spread it with a shimmering timbrous noise. Tiers of small pregnant suns floated in a green-gold haze over his head. The priest stood transfixed, his jaw slack. Mrs. McIntyre wondered where she had ever seen such an idiotic old man. “Christ will come like that,” he said in a loud gay voice and wiped his hand over his mouth and stood there, gaping.

The peacock symbolizes glory because anybody who has ever seen a peacock knows that it is glorious.

Or to return to the Misfit’s black hat, there is a long tradition in American storytelling whereby black hats represent bad men. Okay, but of all the ways O’Connor shows us that the Misfit is a bad man, surely that is one of the least interesting and least compelling. An English teacher stands in front of Flannery O’Connor herself, and that’s what he wants to talk about? A serial killer wearing the kind of hat that old boys in Georgia wore in the 1950s–I’m more interested in that detail as a piece of world-building than as a symbol of evil. And, as Madeleine has observed already, it can be both.

I want to conclude with one more observation that is not directly related to Madeleine’s question but is relevant to the larger project of the Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club. I have written at some length about the fact that there is typically a moment of revelation (which is also a moment of violence) in an O’Connor story, and that in that moment, a main character has an opportunity to receive grace. I still think that’s one helpful way into a story. But I don’t want to give the impression that I have given you the formula for reading and understanding all of O’Connor’s work. These stories are complex–and none of her short stories are more complex than “The Displaced Person.” The “moment of revelation” is just one tool on the reader’s tool belt. Keep pulling out your other tools.

 

*An allegory works the other way around, by the way; any concrete detail is there to symbolize some abstraction, and if it helps to create an inhabitable world, that’s ok too. I have to say, however, that I don’t really know of any allegories that depict an inhabitable world. That’s why I’m not very interested in allegory–not even Pilgrim’s Progress. (I realize I’m not supposed to say that out loud.)

Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club, Week 4–“The Displaced Person”

DisplacedTractor

DisplacedTractor

In the summer of 1953, Flannery O’Connor’s mother Regina hired a new farm laborer named Matysiak. He and his family moved into one of the houses at Andalusia, the O’Connor’s dairy farm. Originally from Poland, the Matysiaks were among the millions of Europeans who were left homeless at the end of World War II. Thousands of these “Displaced Persons” ended up in the United States, and a few of them made their way to Middle Georgia.
The Matysiaks seemed to work out well enough at Andalusia; there were no catastrophes comparable to those of “The Displaced Person,” the story that O’Connor wrote in the fall of 1953, just after the Matysiaks moved in. Nevertheless, there were cultural barriers to overcome. In one of her letters, O’Connor depicted a scene in which Regina and her dairyman’s wife (identified as Mrs. P. in The Habit of Being) were making curtains out of chicken feed sacks for the Displaced Persons’ house:

Regina was complaining that the green sacks wouldn’t look so good in the same room where the pink ones were and Mrs. P. (who has no teeth on one side of her mouth) says in a very superior voice, “Do you think they’ll know what colors even is?

While “The Displaced Person” is by no means autobiographical, Flannery O’Connor draws from her immediate surroundings in ways that we haven’t yet seen in the stories we have read together. The dairy farm where the story is set is clearly a version of Andalusia, right down to the peacocks. More important than the physical setting are the social dynamics of the place. The efficient, energetic, no-nonsense Mrs. McIntyre is a version of Regina O’Connor, who ran her dairy farm as a mostly benevolent dictator, complaining constantly about the help and the peacocks. We will see various iterations of this character throughout the stories we read this summer (she makes her first appearance in “A Circle in the Fire,” a story that we skipped). The Shortleys are an amalgam of the white families who came and went (and sometimes came back) every few years at Andalusia. And Astor and Sulk, the two black dairy workers, are lifted straight from the letters in which O’Connor describes the black families who were a fixture at Andalusia.

The white landowner, the itinerant white help, and the black help, who have no choice but to stay, form a triangle that is dysfunctional, inefficient, unjust, but surprisingly stable. Everybody knows his or her place, everybody complains about his or her place, but everybody depends on everybody else. By introducing the Displaced Person into the dynamic, Mrs. McIntyre disrupts the equilibrium and sets the story in motion.

Mr. Guizac, the Displaced Person, displaces every other person in the story. In his fundamental decency, nothing has prepared him to navigate the social complexities of the world he now finds himself in. Consider Mrs. Shortley’s assessment of Mr. Guizac’s interaction with Sulk and Astor:

When Gobblehook first come here, you recollect how he shook their hands, like he didn’t know the difference, like he might have been as black as them, but when it come to finding out Sulk was taking turkeys, he gone on and told her. I known he was taking turkeys. I could have told her myself.

Mr. Guizac shook Sulk’s hand for the same reason he ratted him out: he viewed his black co-workers as human beings, worthy of a handshake and also accountable for their actions. The other whites in the story don’t do Sulk the dignity of expecting honesty from him–a state of affairs that confuses Guizac:

Mrs. McIntyre told [Sulk] to go put the turkey back and then she was a long time explaining to the Pole that all Negroes will steal. She finally had to call Rudolph and tell him in English and have him tell his father in Polish, and Mr. Guizac had gone off with a startled disappointed face.

It is the Shortleys who are the most conscious of the threat presented by the Displaced Person. If indeed there are “ten million billion” people ready to come and do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, there will be no place for the Shortleys. No wonder Mrs. Shortley begins to view Mr. Guizac as evil incarnate. In his smile she sees Europe stretched out, “mysterious and evil, the devil’s experiment station.” The black workers, for their part, don’t feel especially threatened. As Astor tells Sulk, “your place too low for anybody to dispute with you for it.”

Mrs. McIntyre, on the other hand, is at first delighted with the idea of the equilibrium being upset. She understands how much the sorriness of her workers, white and black, is costing her. Within the class structure as it has existed in her world, Mrs. McIntyre has had few options. She is too tight with money to pay her workers well, so she has paid instead in other ways–the instability of white workers coming and going, or the occasional stolen turkey. Mr. Guizac represents a whole new way of doing things. He is smart, energetic, and thrifty, and he works for cheap. To Mrs. McIntyre’s way of thinking, the Displaced Person’s displacing of the Shortleys and their ilk is the best thing that could happen. She is a pragmatist, not an idealist.

But as it turns out, Mrs. McIntyre’s pragmatism is no match for her racism. When she finds out that Mr. Guizac plans to marry his cousin off to Sulk, all bets are off. Her tacit racism flares into an especially ugly speech. “Mr. Guizac! You would bring this poor innocent child over here and try to marry her to an half-witted thieving black stinking nigger! What kind of a monster are you!” And suddenly she does see him as a monster, just as Mrs. Shortley had. She sees his very face as a patched-together, monstrous thing. She goes on to explain to Mr. Guizac that even if a black man can marry a white woman in Europe, it can’t be done in the American South. That was a legal fact, by the way. Miscegenation laws forbade interracial marriage in many states (including Georgia) until they were struck down by the Supreme court in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case.

Now, for the first time, the pragmatic Mrs. McIntyre begins to speak of her situation in moral and religious terms.

“I cannot understand how a man who calls himself a Christian,” she said, “could bring a poor innocent girl over here and marry her to something like that. I cannot understand it. I cannot!”

Mr. Guizac, still not comprehending the mores of the society he has been dropped into, takes a much more humane view of his cousin’s situation. “‘She no care he black,’ he said. ‘She in camp three year.'”

In Part III of the story, Mrs. McIntyre’s struggle is more overtly religious than economic or social. I love the cross-threaded conversation she has with the priest after finding out about Mr. Guizac’s scheme. She is trying to explain her actions in practical terms, but the priest insists on seeing it in moral and theological terms. Ultimately he is so entranced by the peacock, that symbol of transcendence, that he scarcely hears what Mrs. McIntyre is saying to him.

“He has nowhere to go,” he said. Then he said, “Dear lady, I know you well enough to know you wouldn’t turn him out for a trifle!” And without waiting for an answer he raised his hand and gave her his blessing in a rumbling voice.

She smiled angrily and said, “I didn’t create this situation, of course.”

The priest let his eyes wander toward the birds. They had reached the middle of the lawn. The cock stopped suddenly and curving his neck backwards, he raised his tail and spread it with a shimmering timbrous noise. Tears of small pregnant suns floated in a green golden haze over his head. The priest stood transfixed, his jaw slack. Mrs. McIntyre wondered where she had ever seen such an idiotic old man. “Christ will come like that,” he said in a loud gay voice and stood there, gaping.

Mrs. McIntyre’s face assumed a set puritanical expression and she reddened. Christ in the conversation embarrassed her the way sex had her mother. “It is not my responsibility that Mr. Guizac has nowhere to go,” she said. “I do not find myself responsible for all the extra people in the world.”

The old man did not seem to hear her. His attention was fixed on the cock, who was taking minute steps backward, his head against the spread tail. “The transfiguration,” he murmured.

She had no idea what he was talking about. “Mr. Guizac didn’t have to come here in the first place,” she said, giving him a hard look.

The cock lowered his tail and began to pick grass.

“He didn’t have to come in the first place,” she repeated, emphasizing each word.

The old man smiled absently. “He came to redeem us,” he said and blandly reached for her hand and shook it and said he must go.

For the remainder of the story, Mrs. McIntyre struggles mightily with her conscience. It is to her credit that she struggles rather than ignoring the priest altogether, as much as she would like to. “She felt she had been tricked by the old priest. He had said that there was no legal obligation for her to keep the Displaced Person if he was not satisfactory, but then he had brought up the moral one.” In her next conversation with the priest, Mrs. McIntyre finally identifies what exactly is at stake in her opposition to the D.P. Mr. Guizac. “As far as I’m concerned,” she said and glared at him fiercely, “Christ was just another D.P.”

Jesus, like Mr. Guizac, disturbs the equilibrium of a world that has learned to live with its own brokenness. As the Misfit said, “He thrown everything off balance.”

Mrs. McIntyre would appear to have two options: she can receive the Displaced Person and accept a new equilibrium, or she can reject him and go back to the old dysfunction. In the end, she chooses to reject the Displace Person, conspiring with Mr. Shortley and Sulk to murder the man who had upset the old balance. “[Mrs. McIntyre] had felt her eyes and Mr. Shortley’s eyes and the Negro’s eyes come together in one look that froze them in collusion forever, and she had heard the little noise the Pole made as the tractor wheel broke his backbone.” With the D.P. out of the way, the old triad of landowner, white dairyman, and black laborer, it appears, should be able to pick up where it left off.

However, the death of the Displaced Person does not make it possible for everyone to resume his or her place in the old order. Everyone is displaced, including the landowner herself. Mr. Guizac “thrown everything off balance.”

As I have remarked before, grace is extended in all of O’Connor’s stories. I read this story as one of the ones in which that proffered grace is rejected. However, I could be convinced otherwise. It could be that being displaced from the farm is exactly what Mrs. McIntyre needed. The picture of the old priest faithfully coming by and teaching her the doctrines of the church is hopeful. What do you think?

“The Displaced Person” is a long and complex story, and I scarcely touched on some of the most important parts–Mrs. Shortley’s stroke, at the end of Part I, for instance, or her prophetic utterances, or the satanic imagery around Mr. Shortley in Part III, or O’Connor’s portrayal of the black characters, or the peacocks. I’m hoping to touch on some of these questions later in the week, but feel free to address any of them in the comments below.

Flannery O’Connor on Freelance Protestantism

I hope you have had a chance to read through the discussion on “The River” over the last couple of days. It has been extremely insightful and lively–and also courteous, I might add. One thing that has become evident is that a reader’s interpretation of the story’s end hinges on how that reader understands the baptism–big Bevel baptizing little Bevel. If that is a true baptism, then Harry/Bevel’s being pulled down by the river at the end is a rescue from the clutches of Mr. Paradise. If it is a false baptism, then the boy’s drowning is a terrible sadness, and Mr. Paradise is a benefactor who tried and failed to save him. Those aren’t the only two possible readings, but they do represent two poles of interpretation.
Given the fact that O’Connor was both Catholic and highly educated, it would seem that she would have little sympathy for the countrified Protestants in her stories. In fact, her stance toward them was complex. I offer up these quotations from O’Connor’s letters as a catalyst for further discussion…

On Wise Blood‘s Haze Motes:

Haze is saved by virtue of having wise blood; it’s too wise for him ultimately to deny Christ. Wise blood has to be these people’s means of grace–they have no sacraments.The religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion, something which I as a Catholic find painful and touching and grimly comic. It’s full of unconscious pride that lands them in all sorts of ridiculous religious predicaments. They have nothing to correct their practical heresies and so they work them out dramatically. If this were merely comic to me, it would be no good, but I accept the same fundamental doctrines of sin and redemption and judgment that they do. (Habit of Being, p. 350)

 

To a Protestant correspondent:

The Catholic finds it easier to understand the atheist than the Protestant, but easier to love the Protestant than the atheist. The fact is though now that the fundamentalist Protestants, as far as doctrine goes, are closer to their traditional enemy, the Church of Rome, than they are to the advanced elements in Protestantism. … It’s the Catholic Church who calls you “separated brethren,” she who feels the awful loss. (Habit of Being, p. 341)

 

To a friend who said she couldn’t quite believe Christianity because it wasn’t emotionally satisfying:

I can never agree with you that the Incarnation, or any truth, has to satisfy emotionally to be right. … There are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive…. The thought of everybody lolling about in an emotionally satisfying faith is repugnant to me. I believe that we are ultimately directed Godward but that this journey is often impeded by emotion. (Habit of Being, pp. 99-100)

Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club Week 3: “The River”

BaptismRiver

BaptismRiver

Little Harry/Bevel, the main character of “The River,” has spent his whole life in a world where he doesn’t he doesn’t matter. He lives, in fact, in a world where nothing matters. Everything is a joke in his parents’ world. His father jokingly calls him “old man,” and he is compared to “an old sheep waiting to be let out,” but his parents are perpetually adolescent, refusing to take any responsibility for him.
From the boy’s first encounter with Mrs. Connin, he starts his exodus out of his parents’ world and into another. He gives himself a new name, affiliating himself with the preacher Bevel Summers (and it is worth noting that the narrator never calls the boy anything but Bevel thereafter). He doesn’t know what ails him, but something in him resonates when he hears that Mrs. Connin is taking him to hear a faith healer preach.

“Will he heal me?” Bevel asked.
“What you got?”
“I’m hungry,” he decided finally.

He’s talking about a physical hunger, but this is a story about a spiritual hunger that little Bevel doesn’t have any language for. His visit to another world stirs up in him longings he didn’t know he had and reveals to him things he had never had any way of knowing.

He had found out already this morning that he had been made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ. Before he had thought it had been a doctor named Sladewall, a fat man with a yellow mustache who gave him shots and thought his name was Herbert, but this must have been a joke. They joked a lot where he lived. If he had thought about it before, he would have thought Jesus Christ was a word like “oh” or “damn” or “God,” or maybe somebody who had cheated them out of something sometime.

O’Connor was a gifted ironist. And yet in this story she strikes a blow against a view of the world that is finally ironic. She admires the earnestness of those good country people, Mrs. Connin and Bevel Summers. Little Bevel’s family represent a theme that we will see in many of the stories that we will read throughout the rest of the summer. They represent an urbanity and sophistication that is never adequate to support the weight of truth. Simple country folk–even ignorant country folk–always come closer to the mark than the sophisticated. That’s not to say that the ignorant and unsophisticated are always right in O’Connor’s fiction. They are wrong often enough. I merely suggest that their track record is quite a bit better than that of the educated and citified.

One of the many ironies of O’Connor’s career is that her reading audience shared much more in common with little Bevel’s parents than with Mrs. Connin and her ilk. But if any reader mistakes his own disdain for the earnest but ignorant Mrs. Connin and Bevel Summers for any disdain on O’Connor’s part, he will soon find himself in the ditch like Bailey Boy’s car. On more than one occasion O’Connor made it clear that, Catholic though she was, she came down on the side of the backwoods pew-jumper. (I will offer up the specifics in a later post.)

But I digress.

When Little Bevel stands before the preacher whose name he has taken, he is offered a chance finally to be a part of something real and un-ironic:

“If I Baptize you,” the preacher said, “you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ. You’ll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life. Do you want that?”

“Yes,” the child said, and thought, I won’t go back to the apartment then, I’ll go under the river.

“You won’t be the same again,” the preacher said. “You’ll count.” Then he turned his face to the people and began to preach and Bevel looked over his shoulder at the pieces of the white sun scattered in the river. Suddenly the preacher said, “All right, I’m going to Baptize you now,” and without more warning, he tightened his hold and swung him upside down and plunged his head into the water. He held him under while he said the words of Baptism and then he jerked him up again and looked sternly at the gasping child. Bevel’s eyes were dark and dilated. “You count now,” the preacher said. “You didn’t even count before.”

It’s a scary scene, with the boy being held under water and coming up gasping. But I don’t think O’Connor meant any of this ironically. The boy does count now in a way that he didn’t count–indeed, still doesn’t count–at the apartment. The Ashfields take offense at the fact that Mrs. Connin let the boy be baptized and had the preacher pray for Mrs. Ashfield, but they don’t offer any alternative meaning for him to grasp onto. The next morning, the boy is as abandoned as ever when he wakes up at home. It is no surprise that he returns to the river in search of the kingdom of Christ–the kingdom where he counts.

“The River” is a highly discussible story because it is more ambiguous than many of O’Connor’s stories. Here are a few of the questions that remain for me:

  • What do you make of the boy’s determination “not to fool with preachers any more but to Baptize himself”?
  • Why is Mrs. Connin twice described as looking like a skeleton?
  • What do we do with those hogs? It’s clear enough that the shoats in the pen are connected to the hogs that received the evil spirits that Jesus cast out of the man…but what are we to make of it? And is there any significance to the fact that Mrs. Connin got the story wrong? Jesus didn’t cast pigs out of the man; he cast spirits out and into the pigs. I just take it as evidence that Mrs. Connin is ignorant and confused; but does that in any way diminish her authority as a guide for the little boy?
  • I didn’t even touch on Mr. Paradise, who is obviously an extremely important figure. What’s he doing in the story? Why is is name Paradise?
  • Some of you may completely disagree with my reading and see some irony or something sinister in Bevel Summers. If so, let’s hear from you.

In Which Rebecca Reynolds Ties Up Some Loose Ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right on.

On Monday,we start “The River,” in which a little boy gets run over by some hogs–and that’s the least of his problems.

 

“The Life You Save”–The TV Play

GeneKelley

GeneKelley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Angel of Gawd”– “The Life You Save,” Day 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club, Week 2: “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where you come from, Mr. Shiftlet?”

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

“Are you married or are you single?”

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

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

“The meanest of them sparkled”

treesparkle

treesparkle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ain’t she cute?” the woman repeated, stretching her mouth politely.

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

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

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

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

On the Misfit

Good Man Cover

Good Man Cover

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

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

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

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