Flannery O’Connor: Stories

1953

Against the Romantic promise of the West, O’Connor’s stories paint a South that is always already lost, almost rotting in its baroque decline. Here, cliches turn on characters, rather than enabling nostalgia, as the titles of the stories show. The characters try to maintain metaphor in a literal landscape

“A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND”

A family is driving to Florida. The grandmother takes them on a back road to see an old house, but realizes that it is in another state. She says nothing. They get in an accident. She recognizes the car that pulls up to them as containing the Misfit, a criminal on the run. She tells him she recognizes him. They take first the man and boy, then the mother and girl, off to the woods to be shot. The distraught grandmother cries for “Bailey Boy”; we never once know his wife’s name since the focalization is largely through the grandmother as “the children’s mother.” “You’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” she says in a final act of grace, reaching out to the Misfit. “The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.”

Both the grandmother and the Misfit demonstrate a false consciousness seeking order. Her fear is the loss of the past, which he embodies.”She would of been a good woman… if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” says the Misfit. The tension here between cinematic “shooting,” the endless grace of a life under threat, and the misogynistic tone of a silently subjugated woman without agency are copresent in this line.

“THE LIFE YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN”

An old woman convinces her tenant Mr. Shiftlet to marry her disabled daughter Lucynell, who she passes off as 16, though she is nearly 30. “Because of her innocence it was impossible to guess.” Like Faulkner’s Benjy, Lucynell literalizes the muteness of Philomel. We are invited to consider that Mr. Shiftlet rapes Lucynell before the wedding – as he fixes the car, “terrible noises issued from the shed and the old woman rushed out of the house, thinking Lucynell was somewhere having a fit. Lucynell was sitting on a chicken crate, stamping her feet and screaming… but her fuss was drowned out by the car.” He stops at a diner with her on his honeymoon night, where Lucynell falls asleep at the table. He ditches her there, telling the waiter she’s a hitchhiker. On the road, he sees a sign that reads, “Drive carefully. The life you save may be your own.” He picks up a boy who is rude and jumps out of the moving car. “Oh Lord!… Break forth and wash the slime from this earth!” wishes Mr. Shiftlet. At that moment, it begins to rain heavily.

1965

“EVERYTHING THAT RISES MUST CONVERGE”

An obnoxious old woman and her theoretical son Julian, who is taking her to the YMCA, disagree about matters of race. While the old woman is a racist who thinks black children are cute, her son overcompensates by trying to befriend every black person on the bus by staring at them. In a twist of irony, a black mother is wearing the same hat his mother is so proud to have bought. “He felt completely detached from her. At that moment he could with pleasure have slapped her as he would have slapped a particularly obnoxious child in his charge.” The old woman tries to give a little colored child a penny after getting off the bus with her son. The child’s mother hits the white woman across the face with her purse. “‘Don’t think that was just an uppity Negro woman,’ he said. ‘That was the whole colored race which will no longer take your condescending pennies. That was your black double. She can wear the same hat as you… it looked better on her than it did on you… the old world is gone.'” At the last moment he feels bad and runs after her: “The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.”

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