Flannery O’Connor is hands-down my favorite short story writer (although, admittedly I’m not a big short story reader). Her collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories is my favorite of her two collections, but the stories in this collection are also very good. They have all the meanness and drama, plus the wonderful use of dialect and dialogue, that makes O’Connor such an interesting writer. I’m not sure she’s ever written a likable character, but boy are her characters interesting! I don’t like them, I wouldn’t want to know them, but I cannot look away from them.
The main reason that I consider this collection inferior to her other collection is that so many of the nine stories follow a predictable pattern; you could perhaps call them variations on a theme. There’s an older person, usually a mother but sometimes a father or grandparent, and a child, usually an adult child but sometimes a younger one. There’s conflict between the generations, and the story shows how that conflict plays out.
The stories are almost all set in the American South, and most of the time, the conflict involves a parent who is set in old-fashioned Southern ways, and a child who has learned to live in the present day. To some degree, that pattern appears in six of the stories: “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” “Greenleaf,” “The Enduring Chill,” “The Comforts of Home,” “Judgment Day,” and possibly even “A View of the Woods.” Some of these stories are quite different from each other, but that tension between the generations is at the heart of all of them—and it glimmers around the edges of “The Lame Shall Enter First,” one of my favorite stories in the collection (and the one with perhaps the most devastating of all O’Connor’s endings).
This generational tension, particularly in the 1960s South, is an extremely rich source of material. Often, the younger children have returned from college or living up North and now see themselves as better and more enlightened than their parents. The sons in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “The Enduring Chill” are willing (even eager!) to sit next to black people on the bus or share a cigarette with them, while their elders insist on maintaining a separation—a polite separation, but still a separation. The ostensibly non-racist sons end up coming across as jerks in their superior attitudes—and also racist because in the end they’re using their African-American neighbors merely to show their backwards mothers how the world is supposed to work in this new day. They’re not people; they’re object lessons.
O’Connor’s attitude toward race is problematic; there’s no denying it. Her characters use racist language frequently and casually, but I can’t condemn her for that. It is, after all, how people talked in that time and place. That doesn’t make it nice, but it does make the stories feel true. What’s more difficult to cope with is the way she seems to accept the separation between the races. The mothers who like things the way they are and are uncomfortable with change are not nearly as unsympathetically portrayed as the sons who want to push them forward. But in putting more overtly racist views mostly in the minds and mouths of the elders, she shows that such overt racism may be on its way toward dying a natural death, and there’s nothing in the stories that makes this natural death seem like a bad thing. I don’t know what O’Connor’s actual feelings were, but the stories seem to express a desire for people not to look on others with judgment, whatever their race or class, even as the author herself sits in judgment on everyone. Mostly, she judges people for judging, I think.
Most of the stories in this collection are dark, with a tragic, or comic-tragic, twist at the end. But even the saddest stories have funny moments, like when the son in “The Enduring Chill” asks his mother to have a Jesuit priest come to see him at what he believes is his deathbed. The son, Asbury, likes the Jesuits because he met a Jesuit intellectual when he was living in New York. Asbury is not interested in the health of his soul; he’s just craving some intelligent conversation while he’s stuck dying in Georgia. When the priest comes, the exchange goes like this:
“You’ll have to shout,” [the priest] said. “Blind in one ear and deaf in the other.”
“What do you think of Joyce?” Asbury said louder.
“Joyce? Joyce who?” asked the priest.
“James Joyce,” Asbury said and laughed.
The priest brushed his huge hand in the air as if he were bothered by gnats. “I haven’t met him,” he said. “Now. Do you say your morning and night prayers?”
Asbury appeared confused. “Joyce was a great writer,” he murmured, forgetting to shout.
“You don’t eh?” said the priest. “Well you will never learn to be good unless you pray regularly. You cannot love Jesus unless you speak to Him.”
“The myth of the dying god has always fascinated me,” Asbury shouted, but the priest did not appear to catch it.
The story that stands out the most from the others in the collection is “Revelation,” probably the only one with anything approaching a happy ending and the least dramatic story in the bunch. It centers on a middle-aged woman named Mrs Turpin sitting in a doctor’s waiting room with her husband Claud and passing judgment on everyone she sees. She seems to like nothing better than to put people in categories and rank them according to their respectability. But a series of events brings her a revelation, and the story closes with this beautiful passage, one of those rare glimpses of stunning beauty that sometimes appear in O’Connor’s writing:
A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.
I think this passage embodies one of the things I love about O’Connor. All her characters are grotesques, and even their virtues in the end aren’t much use—or even virtues at all. But ultimately, there’s a sense that all of them are on that vast swinging bridge toward heaven. And if they are, we all can be.