Discussion Question: “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

The Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club continues this morning with a discussion question about the Misfit. The Misfit tells the grandmother that if Jesus did indeed raise the dead, there is nothing to do but to throw away everything and follow him. If, on the other hand, Jesus didn’t raise the dead, “then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”
No pleasure but meanness–that’s precisely what Milton’s Satan would have said if Milton had been from Middle Georgia instead of London. But at the very end of the story, after he has shot the grandmother, the Misfit rebuffs his sidekick Bobby Lee, who says it’s been “some fun” killing the family: “Shut up, Bobby Lee. It’s no real pleasure in life.”

What do you make of this apparent reversal by the Misfit? The floor of the Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club is now open for discussion.

Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club Week 1: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

DirtRoad

DirtRoad

In introductory remarks she made before a public reading of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor said, “Properly, you analyze to enjoy, but it’s equally true that to analyze with any discrimination, you have to have enjoyed already.” This, I believe, should be a foundational principle of the Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club. There is a kind of insight that is available only to those who have enjoyed a thing.
And I do enjoy Flannery O’Connor’s stories. Writing The Terrible Speed of Mercy, my forthcoming biography of O’Connor, was a pretty grueling two-year process (O’Connor herself described book-writing as “a terrible experience, in which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay”). Nevertheless, the day after I submitted the manuscript, I couldn’t resist the urge to pick up the books I had inhabited for so long–The Complete Stories, The Habit of Being, Mystery and Manners–and flip through my favorite passages. Which is to say, any insights I might offer over the next few weeks grow out of my pleasure in the stories and will, I hope, increase your pleasure in them.

When it comes to “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” hardly anything could increase your enjoyment more than hearing O’Connor read it herself. I mentioned this yesterday, but if you have half an hour or so, do listen to it here. On that same page, you can find O’Connor reading a paper called “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” which you can also read in Mystery and Manners.

Enough preliminaries. On to the story proper.

O’Connor has a reputation for unexpected endings. But in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” she telegraphs how the ending from the first paragraph, with the Grandmother rattling the newspaper at Bailey’s head and announcing that it would be a bad idea to drive south, where the Misfit lurks: “I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.” On the next page, with reference to the Grandmother’s carefully chosen traveling outfit, the narrator remarks, “In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.” From the conversation with Red Sammy and his wife to the fact that they get off the road near Toobmsboro (about twenty-five miles south of Milledgeville), the specter of sudden death haunts the story throughouth.

I don’t remember what it was like to read this story for the first time. I’m hoping to hear from a reader who didn’t come to the story already knowing that the Misfit was going to wipe the family out. I’d be curious to know what a first-time reader does with all that foreshadowing. Even as O’Connor puts prescient words in the grandmother’s mouth, she gives us reason not to trust a word the old woman says. In the beginning of the story, her warnings about the Misfit appear to be manipulative nattering; when Bailey ignores her, I’m not thinking “Bailey, you fool! Listen to your mother’s wisdom!” I’m thinking he probably has to do a lot of ignoring just to get by in that house. When the grandmother discusses the Misfit with Red Sammy, to me it feels like the kind of “hell in a hand basket” talk that one expects to hear from the elderly.

The grandmother speaks almost exclusively in cliches. Those cliches insulate her from the ultimate realities that surround her–sin, redemption, judgment, mercy, death, life–even when those cliches speak of those ultimate truths. She tells the Misfit, “If you would pray, Jesus would help you.” Which is true enough, but in her mouth–at that point in the story, anyway–it is as much a cliche as “People are not as nice as they used to be,” or “It’s a beautiful day,” or “You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?”

A key moment for understanding the Grandmother comes immediately after the grandmother is left alone with the Misfit:

Alone with the Misfit, the grandmother found that she had lost her voice. There was not a cloud in the sky nor any sun. There was nothing around her but woods. She wanted to tell him that he must pray. She opened and closed her mouth several times before anything came out. Finally she found herself saying, “Jesus, Jesus,” meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing.

A good Southern lady, the grandmother would never dream of taking the Lord’s name in vain. But, as it turns out, she has been taking the Lord’s name in vain all her life. Her telling the Misfit to pray, that Jesus would help him, was simply another way of manipulating to get her way. Here at this moment of extremity, she is about to come to terms with the ultimate truths that she has been mouthing about. “Jesus, Jesus,” she says, in what might as well be a kind of profanity. And yet Jesus intervenes anyway. By invoking the name of Jesus, the grandmother elicits a speech from the Misfit in which, ironically, he tells the truth about Jesus: “He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw everything away and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can.”

And now, finally, the grandmother says the first honest thing she has said the whole story. She expresses an honest doubt:

“Maybe He didn’t raise the dead,” the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her.

That honest doubt cracks open the door for an honest acceptance of truths to which the grandmother had only given lip-service before. Just before her death, she finally realizes that she is a sinner herself, more kin to the Misfit than she would have ever been able to acknowledge. In an instant of clear-headedness she tells the Misfit, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She has finally pushed through the cliches that have preserved her self-righteousness and is ready to meet her Maker–and not a second too soon.

I realize that it is not self-evident that this is a moment of grace for the grandmother. I speak so confidently about it only because of what O’Connor herself said about it: “…I am interested in the indication of Grace, the moment when you know that Grace has been offered and accepted–such as the moment when the Grandmother realizes the Misfit is one of her own children. These moments are prepared for (by me anyway) by the intensity of the evil circumstances” (Habit of Being, p. 367-8).

In remarks prefatory to a reading of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” O’Connor said

In my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world (Mystery and Manners, p. 112).

Elsewhere O’Connor wrote, “There is a moment in every great 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.” The trick in reading O’Connor’s fiction is to learn to recognize those moments; she was perfectly willing to leave them obscure, which troubles many Christian readers. But those of us who believe that grace intervenes in our real-world existence acknowledge that those interventions are often (perhaps usually) obscure, don’t we?

My next post will be about that Satanic figure, the Misfit, and the ways in which he inadvertently “accomplishes a good deal of groundwork that seems to be necessary before grace is effective.” Meanwhile, I would love to hear your thoughts on the grandmother and on the foreshadowing that seems so glaringly obvious once you know how the story ends. And I would especially like to hear from anyone who is coming to the story for the first time or who at least remembers the experience of reading it for the first time.

The Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club

Remember me? It has been a while, but summer is here and my first year back teaching is complete, so I thought it would be fun to host some summer reading discussions at Jonathan-Rogers.com. My biography of Flannery O’Connor–The Terrible Speed of Mercy–will be released later this summer, so why don’t we read through some of her stories? Each Monday from now through the end of August I will post an article about one of O’Connor’s stories (see the schedule below). I hope to post follow-up articles each week as well, but my blogging muscles are atrophied after so long, so I’d better not commit to more than the Monday article each week. I hope you’ll be moved to lively discussion about these stories, which can be quite controversial.
We’ll start Monday, June 4, with “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a story that you have likely read already. It is also the only story that you can hear read by the author; click here for scratchy but amazing audio of O’Connor reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” at Vanderbilt).

Here is the schedule for the Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club:

Week of June 4: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
Week of June 11: “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”
Week of June 18: “The River”
Week of June 25: “The Displaced Person”
Week of July 2: “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”
Week of July 9: “The Artificial Nigger”
Week of July 16: “Good Country People”
Week of July 23: “Greenleaf”
Week of July 30: “A View of the Woods”
Week of August 6: “The Enduring Chill”
Week of August 13: “Everything that Rises Must Converge”
Week of August 20: “Revelation”
Week of August 27: “Parker’s Back”

All of these stories appear in The Complete Stories. I hope you’ll be able to join in the conversation.

On Offensive Stories

Tim Filston asked a great question regarding Flannery O’Connor, and I hated to let it languish in the comments, so I’ll address it in a post. He wrote,

Flannery 10-4

Flannery 10-4

I’m looking forward to your insights about her.  Her willingness to face off with the dark, ugly side of human nature seems courageous to me, and not just in a thrill-seeking way.  When a writer depicts the human heart as only a bruised thing, then the reader can only expect “there-there” assurance that everything will be alright.  But, O’Connor calls the reader down into corruption (it seems to me) so that we might have a shot at being called up–higher up than we started. What do you think–am I in the ballpark with this, or is this a stretch? Don’t tell me I have to wait till June…?

Tim, I think you’re more than in the ballpark. I think you’re somewhere around the pitcher’s mound. I wrote this biography for all those people who have heard they’re supposed to be getting some spiritual meaning out of O’Connor’s stories but just can’t get there. Your remarks get close to the heart of what O’Connor is doing in these awful stories (awful, you’ll remember, meant ‘filled with awe’ or ‘awe-inspiring’ before it meant ‘terrible’; I’m drawing on all those meanings here).

So you won’t have to wait until June, here’s a relevant tidbit from the introduction to The Terrible Speed of Mercy:

Blessed are the freaks and the lunatics, who at least have sense enough not to put any faith in their own respectability or virtue or talents. The freaks in O’Connor’s stories stand for all of us, deformed in so many ways by Original Sin. All of us, as the old hymn says, are “weak and wounded, sick and sore…lost and ruined by the Fall.” The freakishness and violence in O’Connor’s stories, so often mistaken for a kind of misanthropy, turn out to be a call to mercy.

In O’Connor’s unique vision, the physical world, even at its seediest and ugliest, is a place where grace still does its work. In fact, it is exactly the place where grace does its work. Truth tells itself here, no matter how loud it has to shout.

People are offended by Flannery O’Connor’s stories, and they ought to be. They’re offensive. I’m reminded of what Peter said about Jesus: he was “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.” Jesus’s parables would offend us if we hadn’t heard them so many times–or if we were paying better attention. After acting like a complete jerk, the Prodigal Son comes home, welcomed into his father’s arms. The older brother,who has been behaving himself, keeping his nose clean, takes offense, and we can all understand why. It’s a little shocking to realize that Jesus presents the older brother as just as big a jerk as the younger brother–much more shocking for Jesus’s original audience than for those of us who know what we’re supposed to think about the story. The parables, in my understanding, are driven by that dissonance between the truth and the way we feel about the truth. Jesus shows us what the kingdom of God looks like; if we allow ourselves to be offended by that vision, we begin to see what needs to happen in our hearts. I claim to love grace, but I’m bothered by the fact that the vineyard workers who showed up an hour before dark get paid the same amount as the workers who started at daybreak. I can either reject that parable altogether, or I can think about why my heart doesn’t line up with the things I say I believe. But it would be a big mistake to explain away the offense–to say it’s not really that offensive.

O’Connor’s stories are offensive and shocking in a different way; they were, to borrow her imagery, startling figures drawn for the almost-blind. But I do believe she was working from Jesus’s storytelling playbook, using shock and offense to show us something about our hearts. To quote again from the introduction to my book,

If the stories offend conventional morality, it is because the gospel itself is an offense to conventional morality. Grace is a scandal; it always has been. Jesus put out the glad hand to lepers and cripples and prostitutes and losers of every stripe even as he called the self-righteous a brood of vipers.

In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” it is painful to see a mostly harmless old grandmother come to terms with God and herself only at gunpoint. It is even more painful to see her get shot anyway. In a more properly moral story, she would be rewarded for her late-breaking insight and her life would be spared. But the story only enacts what Christians say they believe already: that to lose one’s body for the sake of one’s soul is a good trade indeed. It’s a mystery, and no small part of the mystery is the reader’s visceral reaction to truths he claims to believe already. O’Connor invites us to step into such mysteries, but she never resolves them. She never reduces them to something manageable.

O’Connor speaks with the ardor of an Old Testament prophet in her stories. She’s like an Isaiah who never quite gets around to “Comfort ye my people.” Except for this: there is a kind of comfort in finally facing the truth about oneself. That’s what happens in every one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories: in a moment of extremity, a character—usually a self-satisfied, self-sufficient character—finally comes to see the truth of his or her situation. He is accountable to a great God who is the source of all. He inhabits mysteries that are too great for him. And for the first time there is hope, even if he doesn’t understand it yet.

If you keep asking questions, Tim, I might end up cutting and pasting the whole book into blog posts. Thanks for asking.

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