THIS WEEK’S STORIES:
- The Heart of the Park
- A Stroke of Good Fortune
- Enoch and the Gorilla
- A Good Man is Hard to Find
- A Late Encounter with the Enemy
- The Life You Save May Be Your Own
- The River
Last week, most of our stories were written to fulfill Flannery O’Connor’s MFA thesis requirements. Some stories were chapters from Wise Blood, which was finally published as a book in 1952. After Wise Blood, O’Connor published a collection of short stories entitled A Good Man is Hard to Find in 1955. The book had “. . . some 4,000 copies sold in three printings by September 1955” (source). As I mentioned, O’Connor was a devout Catholic her entire life. According to Jessica Hooten, the characters in O’Connor’s short story collection, characters like Mr. Shiftlet in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” are often autonomous to the degree of selfishness. They may not be solitary physically, but are alone in their minds, such as the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” who manipulates, complains, and is prideful (source).
There are selfish, prideful characters in many of O’Connor’s stories this week, suggesting the author believed that a person who did not join a community, perhaps even implying a religious community, perhaps a person who had not found God, was evil. Let’s explore one story at a time!
EXAMINING THE second SEVEN STORIES:
“The Heart of the Park” (published 1949 in Partisan Review, part of Wise Blood pub. 1952) is a story I find interesting because separating this chapter out from the rest of Wise Blood gives readers a chance to get to know Enoch better. He’s a horrible person, but because I don’t know what he’s going to do next, I can’t look away. Enoch has ritualized his days: first he spies on women at the pool, then gets the malted milkshake and harasses the employee, then checks on all the animals and gives them dirty looks and curses, and finally he visits the mummy. Catholics, if nothing, are ritual-loving people. Enoch’s sins seem obvious, but he’s also one of those autonomous people I mentioned above. He drags Hazel around the zoo and has no qualms with spying and harassment. Would he be evil in O’Connor’s opinion?
“A Stroke of Good Fortune” (published 1949 in Tomorrow then reprinted in A Good Man is Hard to Find collection in 1955) is one of those stories I enjoy for the rare perspective of a woman who did not want children before birth control was widely available . “To Room Nineteen” by Doris Lessing is another brilliant piece I recommend. What begins with determined woman named Ruby becomes worrisome. I was convinced her lack of oxygen was leading up to a heart attack (or a stroke, given the title?). Ruby, too, is autonomous. No doctors, denying help from neighbors, and her brother might as well be dead for as useful as she finds him. Avoiding doctors is a source of pride. What might her pregnancy symbolize? This baby seems to come from “nowhere” based on Ruby’s reaction, and I saw her as a Mary figure about to give birth to a baby that will bring her close to God and her husband.
“Enoch and the Gorilla” (published 1952 in New World Writing, then part of Wise Blood — 1952) is a wild chapter. What is the significance of Enoch beating up a man in a gorilla suit, burying his clothes (which implies he murdered the man), and then running around in the gorilla suit himself? When I listened to the audiobook of Wise Blood I struggled here because I didn’t realize what was going on. O’Connor writes on a slant, especially the way she describes Enoch putting on the suit as being like two humans joining. In a weird way, Enoch the autonomous becomes a young man reaching out. He shakes hands while wearing the suit, his first handshake since he moved to the city. But we know from “The Heart of the Park” that Enoch hates animals. Is it that the city loves the zoo animals, so Enoch must renounce himself as a man, become a gorilla, and find community? The mind boggles in delightful ways.
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” (published 1953 in Modern Writing I and 1955 in self-titled collection) stood out differently to me; The Misfit’s father died of the Spanish flu of 1918 in 1919, reminding me that pandemics go on until we’re vaccinated. Though a serial killer, The Misfit and the grandmother are both autonomous figures bullying others. Instead of defining “good” as Christian/Catholic, the grandmother tells The Misfit he has good blood, a good family — that he isn’t common. People frequently view The Misfit as a Christ figure because both paid for the sins of others. But if O’Connor felt autonomy to the point of selfishness was a sin, I’m not so sure. And I’m always confused when The Misfit says he wished he was there when Jesus raised the dead. I’m not religious, but I thought Jesus is supposed to raise the dead on Judgment Day, a day yet to occur.
“A Late Encounter with the Enemy” (published in 1953 in Harper’s Bazaar and 1955 in A Good Man collection) has another autonomous character, even though he requires a lot of assistance: a 104-year-old soldier whose rank is bloated, but he loves photo ops and kissing young women he doesn’t know. He ignores his daughter unless her event centers on him. By rejecting his military past, the man keeps himself alive. I thought it clever how the procession of graduates in their caps and gowns triggered a memory of charging soldiers, which is what ends the selfish old man.
“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” (published in 1953 in Kenyon Review and 1955 in A Good Man collection) was a bit tricksy at first because I couldn’t figure out what everyone was up to. A mother who wouldn’t give up her child but does. A solitary man who doesn’t know what a man is. A handicap that on the surface plays little role in the plot. I felt the story suggested that Mr. Shiftlet, whose name is so close to “shiftless” and implies impermanence and autonomy, suggested that he married the daughter for access to the car, which would return him to his mother. I saw connections to Zora Neale Hurston’s stories with the trickster figure, and both writers were southern women. Beyond the symbolism, I wondered how the daughter, who couldn’t speak or care for herself, would figure out how to get home after Mr. Shiftlet abandons her.
“The River” (published in 1953 in Sewanee Review and 1955 in A Good Man collection) contains two selfish, autonomous people: the boy’s parents. Neglected, he must rip the pages from his books to get new ones, and he absorbs a different identity to find community with his babysitter, knowing she’ll be pleased if he has the same name as her beloved preacher. It’s interesting that Catholics have priests but O’Connor’s religious figures are often preachers. I felt Henry made decisions too chock-full of symbolism to be a believable four-year-old boy, but I appreciated the way he’s described as a survivor, going so far as to drown himself to get ride a river to religion, community, and being counted. So, what’s the significance of the man trying to rescue Henry from drowning/finding religion being named Mr. Paradise?
- A Circle in the Fire
- The Displaced Person
- A Temple of the Holy Ghost
- The Artificial Nigger
- Good Country People
- You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead
- Did you see connections between any of the stories and characters?
- Did you like the stories better from Week 1 or Week 2?
- Does weaving in religion, possibly where it’s not needed, weaken O’Connor’s stories? I’m thinking especially of that line, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children” right before The Misfit kills the grandmother.