Sunday, October 3, 2010

Optional Author: Flannery O'Connor Part II

And we’re back! Here are the last three stories from Flannery O’Connor that made it onto the M.A exam list.

Good Country People

This is definitely my favorite story. It is just so bizarre and strange, and yet it makes some good points.

Hulga (whose real name is Joy, but she changed it to the ugliest sounding name she could think of) lives at with her mom, Mrs. Hopewell, whom she pretty much despises. She is one of O’Connor’s many characters who is dependent on her mother and resents her for it. Hulga also has a Ph.D. in philosophy but does absolutely nothing with it. What she does do with it is decide she is an Atheist, which also annoys her mother.

Mrs. Hopewell is a well-meaning but incredibly vapid woman. She sticks to stock phrases such as “it takes all kinds to make the world go ‘round,” “that’s life,” and “good country people are the salt of the earth.” She manages to fit all three in one breath while talking to one Bible salesman she has already decided is a good country person. However, at the end of the story the reader is shown that he is anything but.

Manley Pointer is a Bible salesman who keeps a hollowed out bible that contains a flask in his briefcase. Despite all of her knowledge and pride, Hulga manages to be completely taken in by this guy and gets her fake leg stolen by him. The situation is made even more interesting (if you could imagine that) by the fact that it all seems to be about control for Hulga. She took control of her own name by changing it, and became annoyed when a friend of her mother’s actually started using it, thus taking away its ugly power. And before Manley took her leg, Hulga was okay with what was happening between, especially since she probably believed she was the one seducing him. And yet, he was the one who demanded she say she loved him, and he is the one who made off with the fake leg. Hulga is another educated character that O’Connor has no mercy on. And the fact that she is an Atheist puts a nail in the coffin.

So why is this funny? She is an annoying and prideful woman has her fake leg stolen by a Bible salesman. I really don’t feel I need to say more than that.

Everything That Rises Must Converge

Julian is another educated character that now depends on a mother he hates and actively seeks out ways to upset. He wants to be a writer, but right now he sells typewriters and doesn’t make enough to move out on his own.

Julian’s mom is somewhat vapid like Mrs. Hopewell from “Good Country People,” but there are some differences. First, Julian’s mom is not even given a name, so I have to keep referring to her as Julian’s mom. Second, her sense of identity is rooted in her family’s former wealth. She now insists on essentially living in the ghetto because it is the same are her family used to live in when they were wealthy and had their own plantation and slaves. She can’t accept that her family has come down in the world, and she resents that a lot of black people have come up. This actually has a lot to do with the title. The idea that “everything that rises must converge” is a principle of physics. In this story, as the black people rise along with the white people, the two are going to inevitably collide. This it what happens in the end, which results to Julian yelling at his mother like she is a child, which results in her stroke and possibly death (not sure as the ending is somewhat ambiguous). However, black and white people are not the only things that collide – there is also Julian and his mother. Julian condescends to his mother because she is an obvious bigot and is stuck in the past. But Julian is just as racist as she is, just in another way. One of his chief fantasies is to bring home a black woman and tell his mother he is in love. He is okay with using black people so long as they upset his mom. Julian professes to not be controlled by his mother but he so clearly is (methinks the lady doth protest too much).

An interesting note about when Julian says “[I am] not controlled by [my] mother.” For the most part, O’Connor’s stories are written in the third person, but often there will be lines like this one that show that maybe her stories are coming from just one point of view. This can be called limited third person, selective third person, selective omniscience, or relative discourse. In other words, it is first person parading as third.

So why is this story funny? Julian’s mom wears this hideous hat that she is so proud of, only to see a black woman get on the bus with the exact same hat. This same black woman is the one who knocks her down at the bus stop when she condescends to give her little boy a nickel. Sure there are no missing limbs, but still, it has its moments.

The Artificial Nigger

This story involves Mr. Head and his grandson Nelson’s big trip to the city. Mr. Head is hell-bent on teaching his grandson a lesson in pride by knocking him down a few pegs with a trip to the scary city. The thing is, as annoyed as he is with Nelson, he hopes the city scares his grandson to the point where he’ll decide to never leave him.

There aren’t any educated people for O’Connor to pick on, but Mr. Head is so disgustingly racist that there is a deep sense of satisfaction in the reader when he gets himself and his grandson lost in a predominantly black neighborhood in the big city. Also, his attempt to teach Nelson a lesson backfires when he denies being related to his grandson. The people around can tell that the two of them are obviously related, and now he has also hurt his grandson. Nelson won’t even speak to his grandfather, and Mr. Head is guilt-ridden, knowing what he did was unforgivable.

The ironic thing is, this trip to the city does scare Nelson, and by the end of the story he declares, “I’m glad I’ve went once, but I’ll never go back again!” But this victory comes to Mr. Head after he has grasped the depravity of what he has done and is now ready to “enter Paradise.” In other words, if I understand O’Connor correctly, Mr. Head is ready to die now after what he has done.

There is an actual artificial nigger in the story. It is a plaster figure that Mr. Head and Nelson encounter while lost in one of the suburban neighborhoods of the city. It is about Nelson’s size but is falling apart. It is clearly old and hasn’t been kept up. The central image to the story is falling apart. The two of them stare at it in wonder, and it seems to bring them back together after the terrible moment of the betrayal. “They could both feel it dissolving their differences like an action of mercy. Mr. Head had never known before what mercy felt like because he had been too good to deserve any, but he felt he knew now.”

So why is this funny? Early in the story, while Mr. Head is still trying to teach Nelson a lesson, a black man walks past them on the train. When Mr. Head asks Nelson “What was that?” Nelson simply answers that it was a man. When asked for clarification, he says it was a fat man, and then he guesses an old man. Upon learning that it was a nigger, Nelson is surprised. “’You said they were black,’ he said in an angry voice. ‘You never said they were tan. How do you expect me to know anything when you don’t tell me right?’” Good stuff.

There will not be blog post next week as I will be out of town at the Austin City Limits Music Festival (Woo-Hoo!). I just don’t see myself being in the mood to delve into great literary works after spending three solid eight-hour days in the sun with thousands of other music lovers. Therefore, I will return the following week (hopefully free of sunburns) with a re-examination of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

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