For anyone who has taken a modern literature or creative writing class, chances are they have read Flannery O’Connor’s, A good man is hard to find. It’s an American classic, written by one of the world’s greatest storytellers. O’Connor’s dark and often grotesque characters are noted for being heartless and morbid, whose actions are often cruel, violent and immoral. However, the characters in it, regardless of the path they take, are touched by salvation and Divine Providence.
O’Connor’s stories take place in the South and the reader is transported to a time and place in American history when the civil rights movement was at its height. The Flannery O’Connor stories were and continue to be criticized for using derogatory language towards African Americans. Whether O’Connor was a racist herself is still debated in literary and academic circles alike. While race is a focal point in some of her stories, Flannery O’Connor did not take an apparent stand on the Civil Rights movement that was under her feet. She wrote the South as she was herself, and emulated her character’s racial comments in her dialogue as contemporary common people did.
Many people reading O’Connor for the first time don’t realize that all of his works have their roots in Catholicism. He comes from a school of Catholic writers at the time that includes Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Walker Percy. At first glance, most of her works do not mention her Catholic beliefs. In fact, one could question her value system because, frankly, her characters are very un-Christian. However, all his stories are embedded with symbols of Divine Providence and the roots of Catholic thought.
A history of early Catholicism in four paragraphs
In order for us to understand the inner workings of O’Connor’s stories, we must understand the inner workings of the Catholic faith:
In the year 313 AD. C., Constantine the Great legalized Christianity and moved the center of the Roman Empire to Byzantium. This would eventually give rise to the Byzantine Empire. With Constantine living in his newly designated city of Constantinople, he gifted Rome to the Pope to help oversee his rule. This was a final blow to the Roman Empire, creating a domino effect that would eventually collapse the Empire. Over time, ancient Christianity split into two separate entities: the Eastern Orthodox Catholicism of the Byzantines and Roman Catholicism. This split was caused by two centers of Christian thought separated by two locations on the map.
Bear with me for a second, as this movement in history lays the foundation for Western culture and the beginning of Catholic philosophy, on which O’Connor’s stories are based. While very similar, Eastern Orthodox Catholicism centered the scriptures on the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost; while the Roman Catholics founded their biblical philosophy on the Incarnation of Christ himself, the idea that God became human to suffer and die for our sins.
Members of the early Eastern Orthodox had a Greek orientation and, following in the footsteps of Socrates and Plato, created a philosophy around the Holy Trinity. They questioned faith: If Jesus was both God and man, did he know he was God? In the flesh, was Jesus capable of sinning? As a man, was Jesus omniscient or limited in his knowledge?
The Incarnation of Christ approach in Roman Catholic belief made God human. According to the Roman Catholic faith, Jesus knew everything, and through his crucifixion, Jesus saved mankind. Since God had become present in the flesh, God could intervene in human affairs through Divine Providence, the very foundation of Flannery O’Connor’s stories.
The short stories of Flannery O’Connor
Of all the forms of fiction, the short story is the most difficult both to read and to write. The story itself is very condensed. Take the O’Connor story, The life you save can be yourswhere O’Connor’s protagonist, a nomadic man, Mr. Shiftlet, a carpenter whose first notable gesture is raising his arms to the sun, “his figure formed a crooked cross”, walks up to a house and is greeted by Lucynelle, an old woman washed without teeth, and her mute and innocent daughter, also named Lucynelle.
As he speaks, Mr. Shiftlet notices a rusty, black, broken-down car sitting in the yard. The old lady tells him that she hasn’t run in fifteen years. Mr. Shiftlet and the old woman talk all afternoon, as the sun sets over the three of them, a symbol of things to come. In time, Mr. Schiftlet is welcomed into the house, where he fixes up the place in exchange for room and board. He eventually repairs the broken down, rusty car.
The old woman convinces Mr. Shiftlet to marry young Lucynelle, his only prized possession. Mr. Shiftlet agrees to this arrangement and they arrive at the courthouse to be married. The old lady who gives him seventeen dollars to take her innocent Lucynelle to a motel for her honeymoon.
The two couples leave by car in the afternoon. They continue, driving into the night, where they stop at a restaurant for a bite to eat. Young Lucynelle, tired, falls asleep at the counter. The guy working the counter says, “Looks like a God angle.” In response, Mr. Shiftlet replies, “hitchhiker”, and gives the boy money for food when he wakes up. Mr. Shiftlet leaves, abandoning the mute Lucynelle in the middle of nowhere.
O’Connor’s Divine Providence story takes root as Mr. Shiftlet wanders off into the night, heading for Mobile, Alabama. Along the way, he sees signs that read, “Drive carefully. The life you can save may be your own.” After driving, he picks up a hitchhiker, a boy, another token who tells Mr. Schiftlet, “Go to hell!” The boy jumps out of the car. The story ends when a cloud of turnips passes by him and it starts to rain.
The life you can save may be yours It is based on Matthew 5:45 which says: “That you may be children of your Father who is in heaven, who makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and who sends rain on the just and the unjust.”
The literary analysis of this satire is impressive. There is symbol after symbol: there is the heart that Mr. Schiftlet talks about at the beginning of the story in connection with the cloud of turnips at the end of the piece, the descriptive color of Lucynelle, making her the symbol of the Virgin Mary, and of the colors of the newly painted car should be carefully examined. All this symbolism paints another story: a truth of the human condition and free will in relation to the divine order of the world.
O’Connor’s reading in a pseudo-modern age
Reading O’Connor at the foot of the 21st century not only takes us into the history of the deep south, in a time when black men and women fought for equal protection under the law, but his stories force us to confront the ugly truths and flaws of ourselves. This demonstration cannot be more evident than in his story, Everything that arises must converge.
This is a revealing story of the social and racial changes facing the South in the 1950s, and weaves it into a transformation of its own, in which the protagonist, a young Julián, faces the sudden death of his mother, symbolizing the african freedom. American people. The death of his mother emulates the realization of a new era in which the South has arrived.
As a pseudo-modern society, we are at a turning point. Because of global communications, we see the world as it is, as O’Connor saw the South. We see poverty, war, revolution, famine and disease seeping into our news headlines on a daily basis. Most of us wander aimlessly, drinking a foamy coffee drink, connected to our mobile devices and 3G networks, unaware that half of the underdeveloped world is looking our way to save them. All of O’Connor’s stories boil down to salvation and the possibility that Divine Providence might touch our lives in ways we least expect.