Sunday, September 26, 2010

Optional Author: Flannery O'Connor Part I

I am actually pretty excited about this one. All of my other blog posts on either writers I have to read or writers I have chosen have been full of snide remarks and comments questioning their merit as literary. And while that will continue here, at least this time I am doing it with the author and not at them. Flannery O’Connor’s short stories are unapologetically southern and fall into that category where they are both funny and horrifying…but mostly funny. And for some reason, that appeals to me.

This is “Part I” because the class only got to discuss one of the four stories that are on the list. I’ll discuss “A Good Man is Hard to Find” after I post the usual business of genre, themes, and history.


O’Connor’s writing has been thrown into the genre of southern gothic along with other southern authors, such as Harper Lee and William Faulkner. Southern gothic novels contain grotesque and fantastic incidents that are set in the south. What is interesting about this genre when it comes to O’Connor is how she felt about the term “grotesque.” She felt that any writing by a southern author will appear to be grotesque by any northern reader, except when it is actually grotesque, and then the northerner will read it as “realistic.” O’Connor wrote about experiences that the reader would not normally encounter in everyday life. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” an annoying grandmother inadvertently causes a car accident that results in the death of her entire family (not from the actual car accident thought); in “Good Country People,” a woman gets her fake leg stolen by a Bible salesman; in “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” a woman is hit and suffers a stroke after offering a child a nickel; and in “The Artificial Nigger,” a grandfather coldly denies being related to his grandson after the boy finds himself in trouble in the big city. None of these incidents are “everyday,” but they are slightly horrifying. And when O’Connor writes them, they become humorous. Of course, what makes O’Connor southern gothic is also what causes her stories to be categorized as dark comedy.

O’Connor’s stories could also be satire. The people she writes about and subsequently makes fun of (and sometimes judges and condemns) are unmistakably southern. In her stories, there are details and images included that would only be found in the south. She exposes the deep rooted racism of the south, and usually her most racist, bigoted, and hypocritical characters are the ones who meet the worst end – usually death or some other violence. And while O’Connor was proudly southern, she was also proudly Roman Catholic. The characters in her stories that fail to keep Jesus in the center meet with either humiliating or emotionally devastating circumstances (sometimes they’re the same). Basically, if you’re a character in an O’Connor short story, you better love Jesus as well as ALL of his children.


Southern is obvious, so let us move on.

And although she was very Roman Catholic, she mostly wrote about Baptists. This could be because Catholics were scarce in her part of Georgia. And as far as the southern reader goes, Baptists were probably more relatable.

Racism is also obvious, but the first time you read O’Connor (or at least the first time I read her), is appears that she is racist. But once you realize that all of the racist characters, overtly or otherwise, do not meet a favorable ending, it is clear that she is making a point here. Most of her characters are white, but the presence of black people is felt through how the white characters feel about them.

Disabilities and missing limbs are also common, sometimes for the sake of humor. And the ones with the disabilities or missing the limbs are not always sympathetic.

O’Connor also shows no mercy to the educated. O’Connor went to college herself, but she shows absolutely no mercy to those in her stories that went to college, but do absolutely nothing with it. Julian in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” went off to college only to return to live in his mother’s house and sell typewriters. Hulga in “Good Country People” got a Ph.D. in philosophy, but she also lives with her mother and does nothing with her knowledge.

Final thing about themes (although this really isn’t a theme): the titles of O’Connor’s stories tend to be declarative statements. Other story titles include “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead,” and even “The Lame Shall Enter First.” Another commonality about her titles is that they are hard to connect with her stories. Try it…you’ll see what I mean.


Most of O’Connor’s short stories were written in the 1950s. This is the age that projected the idealized nuclear family (Leave it to Beaver). All houses looked the same, and Eisenhower was seen as a symbol of complacency and conformity. Interestingly enough, some of the best art, film, literature, and music that came out of the 1950s were usually the kind that went against this conformity. This was also when censorship was challenged, and by the end of the 1950s, Nabokov’s Lolita was available in the U.S. Another kind of important note about the 1950s: it was the decade that started with Jim Crow laws, and ended without them.

O’Connor wrote at the tail end of the short story age. She did also write novels, but her greatest contribution to literature was definitely her short stories. In the present day, short stories have become like poetry: they have a limited readership and very few writers (as in none) can make a living off of it. Sad but true.

A Good Man is Hard to Find

Grandma is the center of the story, which is right where she wants to be…and then it gets her entire family killed. She is self-centered, selfish, manipulative, racist, sneaky, proud, and super annoying. The car accident the leaves her family stranded as sitting ducks in a ditch is all her fault, no if, ands, or buts about it. But even as her family (which includes her son, his wife, their son, daughter, and baby) is killed off by criminals who actually may have stopped to help until she opened her mouth and identified who they are, she is only thinking of herself. She never admits her mistake, never apologizes, never even says goodbye as they are taking her son away to shoot him. What she does say is “You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?” Nothing about her son, nothing about her grandchildren, nothing about the baby. It appears that the killer finally shot her only because she talked too much. Absolutely awful and horrifying.

So why is it funny? Because the woman subsequently gets herself and her entire family killed because she hid her cat in the car. The grandma is so awful, but in reality, we all know someone like her. It is funny because it is true, but it is also funny because it reaches that point where it is so terrible that you can either laugh or cry. And somehow, O’Connor gets the reader to choose laughter.

So that is Flannery O’Connor for now. Next week will cover the final three stories on the M.A. exam list, including my personal favorite, “Good Country People.”

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Required Poet: Sylvia Plath Part I

While we actually read quite a few of Sylvia Plath’s poems that made it on the M.A. exam list, we really only got to talk about “Daddy.” And since I already feel incredibly inadequate when dealing with poetry, not to mention Sylvia Plath’s poetry, I think I will just cover this poem for now. Hopefully I will have the chance to get a better handle on the other poems later. But until then…


Plath was most often grouped with the Confessional Poets. The Confessional Poets tended to draw on painful personal experiences for their poetry. The experiences are usually embarrassing and unflattering, and often deal with issues of mental illness, sexuality, and pretty much any kind of family dysfunction.

Other Confessional Poets of the time included Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke (who shares the same item number as Plath in the M.A. exam list), and Anne Sexton.


As far as “Daddy” goes, one common theme throughout the poem is that of the Holocaust. Plath paints her father as a follower of Hitler, with German words sprinkled throughout the poem. To take the metaphor just one more step further, in stanzas seven and eight, Plath begins to describe herself as a Jew.

The other prominent theme in this poem is that of death. In line six, Plath declares “Daddy, I have had to kill you.” Plath’s real father died of complications after his leg was amputated when an infected toe became gangrenous. With this in mind, this line doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. However, she does proceed to “kill” him in the sense that she makes him out to be one of the most deplorable type of people on earth – a Nazi (she also proceeds to liken him to the devil and a vampire). She mentions the actual death in line 57 (“I was ten when they buried you”), and then admits to the purpose of her own attempted suicide in lines 58 and 59 (At twenty I tried to die/And get back, back, back to you). And because she died before she had her chance to kill him herself, she “made a model of [him]” in line 64. Her model of him is the model she is making in the poem, and then she proceeds to slowly kill him. Plath is so obsessed/upset over her father’s death that the two declarations that she is “through” do not at all ring true.

Another interesting thing about this poem is that it is written in the style of a nursery rhyme. When it is spoken in such a way, its adult themes and issues become even more disturbing.


In 1962 when this poem was written, the Holocaust was not talked about as readily as it is now. This choice of metaphor was actually quite shocking at the time. And what makes this even more interesting is that Plath’s father was incredibly anti-Nazi.

And as already mentioned, Plath’s father died after a complication from a surgery. It was a completed accidental death, but Plath seems to blame him for dying too soon, even though she vows she would have killed him herself anyway. Plath proclaimed that her father was an autocrat and that she both despised and admired him. She admitted to wishing him dead, but when he did die, she imagined she had killed him.

So that is what I have for “Daddy.” Next week I’ll be able to cover all of the stories by optional short story writer Flannery O’Connor that are on the M.A. exam list. I am actually really excited about that as I love her stories and I am interested to see what my professor has to say about this southern writer.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Required Work: Tom Jones

This book is long. Like Bleak House long. Even reading a summary just now almost put me to sleep.

Although this book is almost twice as long as Invisible Man, this post probably won’t even be half as involved as my post was on Ellison’s novel for two simple reasons: 1. It has been a few years since I have read Tom Jones, while I was able to post of Invisible Man in just a few days after I had read it; and 2. I didn’t get the following notes from a lecture. I am basically pulling from my memory and the summary I just read. And to make things even more difficult, this isn’t exactly a book that a lot of people have read (or at least finished). I may force myself to watch the movie at some point, because I am definitely NOT rereading it.


To me, Tom Jones reads like a very long and convoluted romantic comedy. Tom truly is a good person and wants very much to do what is right, but his temper, and his appetite for food, alcohol, and women constantly get him into trouble (although in almost every instance, Tom can honestly say, “Hey, she came onto me!”). There is one woman, Sophia Western, whom it is obvious Tom wants to end up with, and Sophia cares for him as well. But Fielding keeps these two crazy kids apart for 800+ pages through various misadventures, miscommunications, and misunderstandings. There are family members who think Sophia can do better, enemies who want Tom to do worst, women who want Tom for themselves, and then there is just Tom, who is fully capable of creating his own trouble. Most of the adventures have a comedic tone to them, with Tom and Sophia being united in an ending that everyone saw coming. See? Just like a romantic comedy.

Tom Jones is also very much a social commentary and satire. Upon publication the book was condemned by critics for being lewd and unseemly. However, what really seemed to upset them was Fielding’s funny attack on 18th century British society and its hypocrisies. Throughout the novel, Tom Jones is looked down upon for being a foundling and/or bastard, when really has one of the purest hearts of the entire cast. This criticism of class friction served as Fielding’s social commentary. And while they are intent on looking down on him, they are still very willing to use him to get what they want, which usually involves the wealth of the man who raised him, Squire Allworthy. Fielding makes the point that the family you are born into does not determine the quality of your character.

And of course, Tom Jones fits the category of a Bildungsroman. The book follows Tom from adolescence to adulthood, but also follows him from the English countryside to London after he leaves Squire Allworthy’s house. Tom does undergo a change as well. He remains a good person, but at the end of the novel, the narrator states that whatever tendency he had towards vice had been corrected by staying in contact with Squire Allworthy, and also by his marriage to Sophia.


One thing that always comes to mind when I think of this book (besides its length) is the intrusive narrator. Fielding wrote the book with a third person omniscient narrator. Of course, readers are more used to being directly addressed when it comes to first person narrators, but Fielding allows his narrator to not only know everything, but also tell the story as he is a participant. Many times throughout the novel, the narrator will stop the flow of the story, usually right before a crucial revelation, to go off on some tangent that could not be further from the reader’s mind. We are given intricate details we never asked for (maybe this is where Dickens got this from), and it almost seems as if this unseen narrator is enjoying telling the story. Fielding managed to create an omniscient narrator that the reader has a hard time trusting.

There is also a running theme of travel and escape. After Tom is basically kicked out of Squire Allworthy’s house, he travels from the English countryside to London. Sophia, who escapes her father’s house, also makes the same journey with her maid. Someone is continually after the both of them. With Sophia it is usually someone trying to return her to her father so she can be forced to marry Blifil, and with Tom it is often someone he has offended, or a woman he has recently slept with. Of course, the physical journey across England serves as a metaphor for the bigger journey of Tom’s transformation from a lusty hot-headed boy into a responsible man. But with escape and travel often being one and the same in the novel, I do wonder if Fielding is making the point that, much like Sophia, Tom isn’t just traveling, but also escaping.

Now, this probably isn’t a theme so much as it is something that just keeps happening, but even when just going through the summary I lost count of the number of women that threw themselves at Tom, one of which he later believes is his real mother (she isn’t though so it isn’t weird after all). Like I said, probably doesn’t count as a theme, but I felt I should bring it up.


Tom Jones is one of the earliest English prose works describable as a novel (also included in this category are Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels). Published in six parts in 1749, it was criticized for its inclusion of prostitution and sexual promiscuity and was seen as a “low” novel.

Fielding modeled the character of Sophia after Charlotte Cradock, the woman he elopes with in November of 1734. Tragically, Charlotte died of a fever in Fielding’s arms in 1744. He would actually go on to marry Mary Daniel, the family maid, in April of 1747.

As for next week…I really don’t have a plan. I’m sure I’ll come up with something, but as of right now, it is a surprise.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Required Work: Invisible Man

Right out of the gate, my professor decided to start the semester off with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It is the longest book of the semester, and also the only one that is a required work on the reading list. Obviously, it is truly a great thing to be able to benefit from an expert’s opinion when it comes to any books from the list. Ideas were presented that I would have never thought of. And since this is an intense book (with a capital "I"), it really helped to be able to process it with other students and therefore gain further insight into Ellison’s world.

The following is my attempt to put my notes together in a coherent format that will hopefully benefit everyone. I do wish we were spending a little more time on the book, but from the looks of the syllabus, the class will have to move on if we are going to cover everything.


Oh this is complicated.

I guess I’ll go ahead and start with the Bildungsroman: a German word that describes a novel that explores the moral and psychological growth of the main character, usually from adolescence to adulthood (For this novel, this genre is appropriate, but there is still some debate over whether it works for Huck Finn. On the one hand Huck does decide he would rather go to hell than to turn Jim in. But on the other hand, the novel does not follow him into adulthood, and he doesn’t change completely. My advice: pick one viewpoint and argue it well). The novel begins with the nameless main character graduating from high school and delivering an excellent speech…so excellent in fact, that he is offered the chance to deliver it again in front of some very important people. He does eventually get the chance to deliver that speech, but only after being forced to take place in a battle royal where young black men are blindfolded and forced to fight each other for the entertainment of rich white men. I’ll spare you the terrifying details (I’ll let you discover those little gems on your own), but throughout the entire episode (which lasts a horrifyingly long 18 pages) the narrator keeps wondering when he will be able to give his speech. He is so focused on receiving approval that no matter how much he is put through, he just wonders when it will all end so that he can have the big moment he is promised.

So the narrator starts from a young man who is desperate to please, and ends up as the invisible man: he realizes that everyone seems to have their own agenda and plan for his life, none of which end up working for him. In fact, not only do they not work for him, but they all seem to end in disaster. He definitely changes both morally and psychologically before the novel’s end.

But of course, since this is a book by an African-American author written in the early 1950’s, the racial themes and social justice issues cannot be ignored. The novel can be described as a social commentary, or even a protest novel in the same vein as Richard Wright’s Black Boy (who Ellison actually worked for at tone point in his life). The only problem with the novel being associated the genre of protest novels is that Ellison was attempting to go beyond what protest novels were doing during his time. Ellison wanted to move beyond the anger and resentment of protest novels and couple it with artistry and creativity. Of course, he was criticized for this (by black and white people), but I think the novel is still plenty angry, and why can’t a protest novel also be creative? Anyway, the point is that this is a tricky genre when it comes to this book.

Another genre that I find very intriguing when it comes to Invisible Man is that of the epic. There are even various references to The Odyssey that I will bring up later in the theme section. The narrator goes from attending an all black college in the Deep South to becoming a great lecturer for the Communist party in New York City. When that also falls apart on him, he is literally forced underground.

The thing about an epic is that by the end of the story, the hero has accomplished feats so amazing that he has literally made a name for himself. He has become so great that poets will sing of his name for the rest of time. But at the end of Invisible Man, the narrator still doesn’t have a name. His name is often referenced, and he is even given names by other characters, but in the end he just embraces his invisibility. Definitely a genre worth looking into for this book.


I’ll go ahead and throw out the easy one: unreliable narrator. Pretty much anytime the narrator is not omniscient, they are unreliable. Add to the fact that this guy has been severely hurt and damaged over and over again, and the reader is dealing with someone that cannot be trusted to give a clear-headed objective account of his own past.

While the narrator is being expelled from college, the college president, Dr. Bledsoe, explains to him that "The white folk tell everyone what to think- except men like me. I tell them; that’s my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about." Later on, towards the end of the novel, Brother Jack is reprimanding the narrator for going forward with an action without passing it through the committee first. Brother Jack has to explain the narrator that when it comes to helping the community, "[They] do not shape [their] policies to the mistaken and infantile notions of the man in the street. [Their] job is not to ask them what they think but to tell them." This is interesting on two fronts: 1. the first instance is a black man talking about white people while the second instance is a white man talking about black people. 2. In the grand scheme of the entire novel, the narrator is really telling the reader what to think. With the examples he has given us, it really is no surprise we have a hard time trusting him.

Now for another somewhat obvious theme, but one that is a little more fun. The novel is full of references to the eye/seeing/invisibility (it’s in the title and the first line of the book)/blindness. On the first page, the narrator explains how people don’t see him, and throughout the novel we realize that no one really did. Everyone seems to only see in him what they can get out of him for his own purpose. The general public seems to be blind to him as a person. He is also blind to the fact that everyone is just using him. He is so needy for both approval and attention that he blindly follows all authority until the circumstance explodes in his face (at one point, there appears to be an actual explosion). Then there are the allusions to the eye. In order to keep from getting away from myself, I’ll just list them and try to keep from explaining each one in detail: 1. Brother Jack’s fake glass eye pops out, 2. Homer Barbee, the preacher who gives an incredibly moving speech about the founder of the all black college the narrator attends turns out to be blind, 3. Homer the poet, who is attributed the authorship of both The Iliad and The Odyssey, is believed to be blind, 4. The narrator works for Liberty Paint for a very brief time, and their specialty is Optic White (which interestingly enough can only be made by adding ten drops of black to a white mixture),and 5. Many many more that I have probably missed.

All of these issues with eyes and blindness could be why the narrator has such a natural inclination and talent towards making powerful and moving speeches. He uses the power of his words to move people. Of course, Homer Barbee does that as well, and as much as he is attempting to move those students towards respect for the founder, at the end of the day he is still blind (in more ways than one). For Invisible Man, a blind man making a motivational speech seems more like someone trying to pull something over on some eager and gullible students. In other words, it is another instance of someone telling someone else what to think.
And now, fun with names!
The narrator: doesn’t have a name, but is given a few. Even more interesting as it appears that Ellison took great care in the names he gave to all of his other characters. Also, in The Odyssey, Odysseus tells the Cyclops that his name is "Nobody," (or "No one," depending on your translation).Homer Barbee: as already mentioned, Homer is the blind poet we credit with The Odyssey. Jim Trueblood: he embodies a lot of the stereotypes white people attributed to black people at that time – illiterate, incestuous, poor, etc. Oddly enough, he eventually gains more support from the local white people than he does from blacks. Brother Tod Clifton: The word "Tod" means death in German. In Old Welsh, "Clifton" means bridge between two mountains. When he dies near the end of the novel, it could mean the death of the purpose the Brotherhood wished to accomplish through him.And that is really the best I have. I would mention some others but I fear the rest of what I have sounds like I am reaching.


Really only a few quick (hopefully) points I want to make here.

This book was published two years before the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education, where the idea of separate but equal was pretty much found to be not true in the U.S.

As mentioned before, Ellison was friends with Richard Wright and even worked for him, although he did not entirely agree with all of Wright’s political views.

The college that the narrator attended appears to be modeled after the Tuskegee Institute, which was an all black college at the time, and also the college Ellison himself attended. Booker T. Washington, whose name actually comes up in the novel at one point, was at one time the president of Tuskegee. When the narrator reaches Harlem, he ends up as a sort of rival to the fanatical black nationalist Ras the Exhorter, who does not believe that black people should be working with white people. This rivals a similar conflict that happened in history between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. Interestingly enough, it mirrors another rivalry that would happen later in history between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Ralph Ellison’s middle name is actually Waldo. That’s right; he was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, someone else whose name comes up twice in the book. The first time he is mentioned by the white trustee that he is driving around the college. The narrator mentions that he has never read any of his work, but intends to. The second time it is the name of a different white trustee the narrator is attempting to get a job from upon arriving in New York. He doesn’t get the job, making the point that you can’t depend on your namesake. This hints at the final point the nameless narrator will learn at the end of the novel – you have to make your own way.

So that is Invisible Man. It makes such a difference when I have a professor explain pretty much every little thing to me.

Sadly, I don’t have that luxury with Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. I did read it awhile ago for a class, but I have since forgotten a few things and thrown away my notes. Even so, I will do my best. I can take the time to do it because my class will be exploring poetry for the next two weeks. Also, it is my first request from a fellow student who will be taking the exam in the spring. Honestly, I was avoiding doing it, and this gives me a reason to get it over with.