Short Stories by Flannery O’ Connor: A Review

Hollywood too remains forever torn between telling the truth as it is and diluting it to take away the bite of reality. Yes, telling the truth is a cliche because who knows what the truth truly is. However, creators of art often consciously deploy ways to make their work more likeable. Let us call that the dilution of truth.

Now, try as hard as we may the drudgery of life can not be escaped. The empty and listless hours. To be able to maintain the fine balance between soul and flesh against a constant drone and humming – (simply our heartbeats and breath.) Needs of the flesh are easy to understand and communicate while one can’t even be sure of the exact location of the soul or its true substance.

flannery-oconnor

Men of letters have largely focused on the trials and tribulations of fellow men as they work their way through the maze of existential dreads and distractions mainly because as men they honestly could have gotten only inside the skin of masculine characters. Women on the other hand seemingly agreed to leave the colosseum of existential strife to men taking the role of one who keeps the home base in order so the fighters can return, rejuvenate and head out again to keep the battle alive. Sure, times changed and it is a picture or rather an example from pre-medieval times.

Women hold their position of respect and dignity to remain reservoirs of strength and nurturance to their partners and children. However, every once in a while someone has to bend the rules a little. People had felt a need to even rebel against food and succour coming to them directly from the heavens in the form of manna. Eve had to disobey and so did Adam only to receive a much deserved boot out of garden of Edens. The presence of unyielding chaos in human life can only be countered by acceptance of some or other self-chosen denials, our grand illusions and superstitions, necessarily turning all of us into accomplices and highly unwilling fugitives, forever running to keep up the wall of our censors and restrictions, to keep at bay our fear of getting exposed.

Our grandest ideas and the most revered themes and personalities are kept from falling over the precipice of banality only by the strength of consensus invested in them. We agreed to believe in strips of paper, in anthropomorphic images, in symbols of regalia and holiness and that’s where the true power lies. The common belief system. It is the source for the notions behind proprietarily, adequacy, social acceptability, need for personality and consistency. So we can continue understanding each other intentions and keep ourselves from tearing everything apart.

Here is an author who dealt with similar themes.

One fine day, browsing randomly on the web, I stumbled upon the collection of short stories by Flannery O’ Connor. I had not a single clue about her writing and even of her status as a renowned author of Southern America.

flannry as a child

I have read some of the works of William Faulkner who is considered a legend of sorts with regards to his portrayal of the  quintessentiallly unique flavours and ‘sounds’  of Southern America.

Here was another author with a specific commitment to the depiction of Southern quirks and ways of being. The first story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is nothing less than a roaring tempest in a span of few pages. It is blatantly sexist to admit my sense of shock at finding a female author dealing with issues of serial killing, existential anguish and isolation with a nonchalance and natural ease of narration I had hitherto found solely to be province of brooding and serious masculine authors or eccentric movie makers like Scorcese and Coen Brothers.

america antelope canyon desktop backgrounds nature
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The narration of O’ Connor has shimmers of a brilliant screenplay. There are breathtaking moments, seamless narration, upsetting and unexpected turns and above all a violent ending befitting the reels of Tarantino. The characteristic uniqueness of O’ Connor lies in the juxtaposition of elite dreads and horrors, one is used to watching in classy Hollywood movies and reading in avant garde literature, with small, nondescript towns and villages of inhabitants who are leading uneventful lives with no interest in pursuing the extra-ordinary.

In “A Good Man is Hard to Find” the serial killer’s most personal victim is a loquacious grandmother. A pretty average elderly with not-so-uncommon idiosyncrasies of nature. This pattern of exposing the sublime to the mundane is present in almost all her stories. And quite surprisingly each story is a discovery of sorts with regard to the perspectives the author takes on the human nature.

mount rushmore
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

Particularly seething is her depiction of female helplessness in the face of unadulterated and abundantly excessive masculine expressions and  modes of being. One is reminded of one of the central claims made by Simone De Beauvoir in her seminal work, “The Second Sex,” pivoting almost all of social deficiencies experienced by women on their inability to access public spaces freely and to express themselves without inhibitions.

However, it would really be a careless stretch to bring O’ Connor’s writings anywhere close to the tag of feminism. It was quite later in my readings about O’ Connor life which was unfortunately quite short as she died at the young age of 39- she was diagnosed to be suffering from Lupus – I found her writings are considered a part of the Catholic Realist genre.

bible blur book catholic
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

About her works, O’ Connor had famously said, “The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism.” The strong and unmistakable religious overtone of her stories doesn’t make them restricted in any way. The present collection has stories dealing with themes of intersexuality and racial integration.

The Stories

A Good Man is Hard to Find

The story starts quite abruptly giving out the key point of the narration in the very first line, “THE GRANDMOTHER didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind.”

From here on, the story moves at a brisk pace. The domineering attitude of the grandmother moves the storyline forward. There is quite a bit of foreshadowing and many of the metaphors jump out at you because of their odd styling.

“..a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit’s ears.”

“She had her big black valise that looked like the head of a hippopotamus in one corner.”

The story is narrated with straight forward, descriptive sentences and has a sudden turn and a brutally sharp ending to it. The dialogues capture the regional connotations of the characters involved.

There are many witty and edgy one-liners in the story among which two stand out quite distinctly.

“Lady,” The Misfit said, looking beyond her far into the woods, “there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip.”

“Shut up, Bobby Lee,” The Misfit said. “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

The story as per media reports is going to be adapted into a John McNaughton directed movie.

The River

The second story of the collection has dark and ominous religious fervour and fanaticism to it. A young isolated boy experiences a full-fledged exposure to a young preacher who baptizes him by dipping his head under the muddy water of a river. The impressionable mind of the young boy is driven to an alarming state of fanaticism in throes of which he eventually loses his life.

O’ Connor uses simple and forward moving sentences to narrate the story. There is no attempt to actually provide any explanation or commentary on the changes in the boy’s condition. References to his changed demeanour and physiological effects suggest a heightened state of anxiety the boy is caught quite unawares into. The story cautions against the dangers of total immersion, something which is also a theme in Steinbeck‘s work “To a God Unknown.” The metaphors again are quite unique.

“When he got the child to the door and tried to shut it, he found her looming in it, a
speckled skeleton in a long pea-green coat and felt helmet.”

“”Good-by,” the little boy said and jumped as if he had been shot. “

“They looked like the skeleton of an old boat with two pointed ends, sailing slowly on the edge of the highway.”

The little five years old boy, shows an uncanny appetite for the unusual and uncommon as when asked for his name he replies with Bevel which is the name of the preacher rather than giving out his own name, Harry Ashfield. The young boy is already an outcast though he is blissfully ignorant of it. In a single day, an religious outburst of sorts exposes his personal realities to a tortuous and painful revision.

“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.”

“Once he had been beaten up in the park by some strange boys when his sitter forgot him, but he hadn’t known anything was going to happen that time until it was over.”

The narration is descriptive and the regional background is captured in the stylized utterances of the characters. The story has a bitter and tragic end.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own

O’ Connor has one strong setting and theme for each of the stories of this collection and one feels their powerful impact. From the uniqueness of the emotional states of the characters to the storyline, there is a searing novelty to it all. This present story titled after the warning signs on highways warning drivers to exercise caution again has a mix of dark humour and bitter tragedy set against a placid Southern background.

An old woman and her mentally deficient daughter, Lucynell Carter, are visited upon by a one arm vagabond, Mr. Shiflet. He asks for work and tactfully avoids any direct questions about his past and true intentions. The old woman desperately anxious about the future of her daughter is taken in by the charm of Mr Shiflet and eventually marries Lucynell. The cold practicality of the old woman is laid waste by the brash self-centred bruteness of Mr. Shiflet.

Here metaphors again have the uniqueness of O’ Connor and narration is clean and straightforward.

“A fat yellow moon appeared in the branches of the fig tree as if it were going to roost there with the chickens.”

 

A Stroke of Good Fortune

O’Connor deals with feminine concerns in this story. The anxieties associated with ageing, weight gain, reluctance to see a doctor lest it may result in a diagnosis of something terrible and resentment against members of the family members and neighbours who fail to address these concerns in a way which is neither condescending nor ungenuine are among the few of the issues marauding upon the senses of the central character of the story, Ruby.

O’Connor uncanny metaphors are in abundance in this story and so is her sardonic humor.

“she hung there collapsed from the hips, her head balanced like a big florid vegetable at the top of the sack”

“All the people who had lived at Pitman had had the good sense to leave it, either by dying or by moving to the city”

“a stout woman with green eyes that moved in their sockets as if they had been oiled”

“And there her two sisters were, both married four years with four children apiece.”

“If he had been hers, she’d have worn him out so  hard so many times he wouldn’t know how to leave his mess on a public stair.”

“She leaned a little closer and got a whiff of him that was like putting her nose under a buzzard’s wing.”

Ruby is in denial of her pregnancy and is in a heightened state of severe anxiety, a common state for many of O’ Connor’s characters, therefore, she is resentful against almost everyone and everything around her. As the story culminates, she finds herself no longer able what is actually weighing upon her.

“Then she recognized the feeling again, a little roll. It was as if it were not in her stomach. It was as if it were out nowhere in nothing, out nowhere, resting and waiting, with plenty of time.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s