This short story collection was assigned in my Literature of the American South class this semester and, I’m saddened to say, Flannery O’Connor is the only woman writer we’re reading. This is incredibly disappointing, to say the least, although I will make up for it a bit by comparing the styles of Faulkner and Kate Chopin in my final paper. I have to say, though, that if it can only be one woman writer, I’m awfully glad it’s Flannery O’Connor. Her stories are right up my alley in a horrible, horrible way.
O’Connor was a staunch Catholic who believed that her stories were morality tales about grace, forgiveness, and the bounty of God. Which, I guess you could read in to certain stories if you tried really hard. But I think what’s even more obvious – and done much better by O’Connor – is the use of hypocrisy and irony to leave a lasting message/picture in the mind of the reader. There are 10 stories in this collection, and my class was assigned to read five of them. Of those five (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”, “The Life You Save may be Your Own”, “The Artificial Nigger”, “The Displaced Person” and “Good Country People”) the two that stick out the most as being especially worthy of comment – although all the stories are great – are “Good Country People and “The Artificial Nigger”.
“The Artificial Nigger” is the story of a young man, Nelson, and his first trip into the city with his grandfather, known only as Mr. Head (Nelson, however, swears that since he was born in the city, this is technically his second trip back). The two are undertaking the journey so that Mr. Head can, essentially, prove to Nelson that he doesn’t know as much as he’d like to belive he knows about being in the city. On the train on the way in to town, the two have a particularly telling conversation in which Nelson swears he could identify a “nigger” if he saw one but, when he sees an African American man, doesn’t seem to be able to make that association in reality. It’s a shining moment of the hypocrisy behind racism as brought out by O’Connor – hating someone for something genetically uncontrollable as a learned, not genetic, behavior. When the two are in the city, there is also a horrifying scene where, after leaving Nelson sleeping on the curb, Mr. Head watches as Nelson wakes up, panics, and takes off running. He soon careens into two women leaving the market and, when they begin to yell at him, Nelson looks for his grandfather. It’s then that Mr. Head denies that he knows Nelson at all, walking away until the whole thing calms down enough that Nelson is able to walk away after his grandfather. I was astounded to read about a grandfather deliberately and forcefully denying his relationship to his grandson, and foud it interesting to watch Nelson grow up in that moment, almost literally before the readers eyes. The “artificial nigger” of the title is a statue the two come across in the yard of a wealthier home in the city and, looking at the statue together, Mr. Head claims he is able to “feel the grace of God” and forgives himself his behavior.
“Good Country People” is a far different story, focused largely on issues of images and self-categorization. All throughout the story, the daugher Joy watches as her mother and their landlord rave on and on about the merits of “good country people”, the “salt of the earth”. Joy has changed her name to Hulga, gotten an advanced degree in philosophy, and become an athiest, all in an attempt to define herself as a not “good country person”, contrary to her mother’s desires. She searches for independance in these ways because, after being maimed as a child, she has a prosthetic leg and has severely limited mobility. She feels superior based on her education, which gets her in to trouble when the charming and handsome Bible salesman Manley Pointer comes to the house. She views him as a social experiment, something she can manipulate. Before long, and much to the joy of Joy/Hulga’s mother, the two go on a walk one day in to the hayloft of an abandoned barn, where anticipated necking ensues. It doesn’t take long, though, before Manley’s true nature as a liar and collector of the strange and unususal makes itself known and he ends up running off with Joy/Hulga’s leg. That’s right. He steals her prosthetic leg. It’d be completely horrifying if it weren’t kind of funny at the same time. Needless to say, Joy/Hulga then has to struggel with a number of her preconcieved notions about herself, if she was silly enough to be tricked the way she was by a person presenting a completely false front.
All in all, I’d say that there was a lot more darkness than I was expecting out of Ms. O’Connor. Which is part of the reason that I liked it. It soon became a running theme in the class that “a good man is hard to find in O’Connor’s book, but shitty asshats are a dime a dozen”. Loosely paraphrasing, of course. O’Connor was often critically smashed for her overwhelming scenes of violence and darkness, and I have to say that there is no short supply of all this. It also is a bit incongruous with her suppposedly steadfast Christian beliefs. But, all that aside, there are real people with real flaws at the heart of Flannery’s work, and that’s what comes to the front of all the nitty-gritty. It’s not exactly light or humorous reading – not all the time, at least – but it’s worthwhile reading for sure.