Saturday, May 19, 2012

Flannery O'Connor--A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955)

A Good Man is Hard to Find is O’Connor’s first collection of short stories, which followed her first novel, Wise Blood, in 1952.  This collection includes both “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People,” two of my favorite of her stories.  Its stories contain over references to what O’Connor referred to as the “Christ-haunted South,” such as the story “A River, in which a young white boy is taken to a river baptism by his babysitter Mrs. Connin.  The childish point of view in “A River” provides a sardonic and yet tragic take on charismatic religion, as the boy finds Mrs. Connin’s religious ceremony quite educational: “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….If he had thought about it before today, he would have thought Jesus Christ was a word like “oh” or “dam” or “God,” or maybe somebody who had cheated them out of something sometime” (160).  He is so inspired by the baptism that he finds his way back to the river to baptize himself, and the story ends with him being carried downstream alone.
In “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” one-armed Mr. Tom T. Shiftlet from Tarwater, Tennessee, appears at the home of Lucynell Crater and her deaf adolescent daughter by the same name.  The one-armed man fixes things around their home, works on their dead car, and teaches the deaf girl to say words.  The mother arranges Mr. Shiftlet’s marriage to the daughter, negotiating a price for the Shiftlet to take her daughter, throwing in the car and the farm.  After their marriage at the courthouse, Shiftlet abandons the girl at a diner on their alleged honeymoon in a strange, short story which reverberates with the male abandonment in “Good Country People.” 
Several stories make reference to the effects of war, particularly WWII.  In “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” Ruby deal with her shiftless brother Rufus, back from but seemingly unchanged by the European Theater.  In “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” Ruby, like Shiftlet, contemplates the possibility of life without a heart as she denies her actual state of pregnancy.  The two women in “A Circle in the Fire” cite the atrocities in Europe as things to be grateful for are happening at a distance.  “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” follows General Sash, 104-year-old veteran whose appearance in his military regalia makes him a symbol of “old traditions!  Dignity! Honor! Courage!” (253).  The General was not actually a general, but a soldier in the Civil War, and has no memory of that, losing a son in the Spanish-American War, or other history than receiving his uniform twelve years ago for the premiere of Gone with the Wind.  And in “The Displaced Person,” Mrs. McIntyre struggles to cope with the changes wrought by the arrival of refugees from Poland.  She is able to adapt only to a certain extent, however; while she tolerates the idea of locals marrying Polish people in order to bring them over, when the displaced people try to marry local black people, a line is crossed.  She watches Mr. Guizac, the Polish man who attempts to arrange this marriage, be run over by a tractor, and fails to alert anyone to the accident before it happens. 
“A Temple of the Holy Ghost” has an interesting vision of female ugliness:
All week end the two girls were calling each other Temple One and Temple Tow, shaking with laughter and getting so read and hot that they were positively ugly, particularly Joanne who had spots on her face anyway.  They came in the brown convent uniforms they had to wear at Mount St. Scholastica but as soon as they opened their suitcases, they took off the uniforms and put on red skirts and loud blouses.  They put on lipstick and their Sunday shoes and walked around in the high heels all over the house, always passing the long mirror in the hall slowly to get a look a their legs. (197)
These girls are described as boycrazy morons, so once again, ugliness is a marker of female sexuality.  Although this is the judgment of the twelve-year-old narrator, she, too, is described as ugly, though more in her behavior than in her appearance.  After the cook asks why she must be so ugly all of the time, she connects her ugliness to her being too smart for her own good (203).  In this story, the older girls ridicule the notion of their bodies as “temples of the holy ghost” as their convent teachers insist; the narrator, on the other hand, in her interest in becoming a saint, contemplates her own body’s abilities to be an actual temple in her pursuit of sainthood.
“The Artificial Nigger,” like many of the stories in this collection, depicts country people unable to handle modernity.  Mr. Head, from a rural area of Georgia where they’ve run all of the black people out, takes his grandson Nelson to Atlanta in an attempt to introduce Nelson to the wonders of the big city.  They are so out of their element, however, that they become lost and desperate.  Nelson’s life in the country has been so sheltered that he has never seen a person of color, and he is overwhelmed by the black people he encounters in Atlanta.  At the end of the story, they see what to the reader is an offensive stereotype statue of a black man eating watermelon.  However, to Mr. Head and Nelson, this statue is terrifying; as Mr. Head notes, “They ain’t got enough real ones here.  They got to have an artificial one” (230).
Throughout these stories, themes of rural people who have trouble adapting to a changing world repeat.  The cultural clashes are often race-based (as “The Displaced Person” reveals, such race-based conflicts are not always Caucasian versus African-American), and the conflicts usually have extreme, grotesque results.  Certainly, there is a strong threat of dark humor which runs throughout, but it is a usually tied to the grotesque in some way.

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