O'Connor means to shock us into seeing: that's what we've observed in the previous posts. In this third and final article (see the introduction and follow-up) on O'Connor, again we'll match some prose from Mystery and Manners with a short story, "Good Country People." And once again we'll be called to see a bit more clearly.
'Novelist and Believer'
We're coming to recognize O'Connor's voice and themes, which are well represented in this talk published in Mystery and Manners, originally given in 1963 at Sweetbriar College in Virginia. I will highlight several key quotations for consideration and discussion.
We live in an unbelieving age but one which is markedly and lopsidedly spiritual . . . an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily. (M&M, 159)
O'Connor spends the first pages diagnosing the modern world of unbelief in which she created art. Consider the ways her diagnosis applies or does not apply today, and whether you would address these issues similarly now, 50 years later.
All my own experience has been that of the writer who believes, again in Pascal's words, in the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and not of the philosophers and scholars." This is an unlimited God and one who has revealed himself specifically. It is one who became man and rose from the dead. It is one who confounds the senses and the sensibilities, one known early on as a stumbling block. There is no way to gloss over this specification or to make it more acceptable to modern thought. This God is the object of ultimate concern and he has a name. (M&M, 161)
I include this quotation just because it's so shockingly direct, and I love to imagine O'Connor speaking it in the setting of an academic symposium where she had clearly been asked not to be so direct. How do you respond to her directness?
The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible. (M&M, 163)
What an indictment of much contemporary "Christian literature"! Consider the import of this statement for our reading as well as writing habits and for our nurturing of strong, honest fiction among Christians today.
[T]he maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy. Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe. (M&M, 167)
Is this true, and why? (And, if it's true, why is it wonderful?)
'Good Country People'
You've met the grandmother ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find"), and Mrs. Shortley and Mrs. McIntyre ("The Displaced Person"), so you'll recognize Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell in the opening scene of "Good Country People." They live in the world of self-satisfied Christian-sounding clichés. "Nothing is perfect. This was one of Mrs. Hopewell's favorite sayings. Another was: that is life! And still another, the most important, was: well, other people have their opinions too" (CS, 272-3).
But in this story the focus is on another character, Mrs. Hopewell's daughter Hulga, who lives surrounded by and raging against such stupidity. We meet several versions of this character throughout O'Connor's stories, but Hulga is perhaps the most memorable, with her PhD in philosophy, her defiant atheism, her wooden leg, and her weak heart that keeps her living at home. In some ways she's a bit like O'Connor herself, who because of her failing health returned to life with her devoted but not literarily sensitive mother on the family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia.
This story is anything but a railing against Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell, unseeing as they are. It's Hulga who most clearly needs and experiences the moment of seeing, given to her in the most painful (for her) and bizarre (for the reader) way. Let's get at that moment by summarizing the before, during, and after of that moment.
Before the Moment of Seeing
The majority of the story takes place before the moment of seeing, building up to it. In the process we don't experience any one perspective so much as the juxtaposition of Hulga's with the others'. What defines Hulga is her violent contempt for the world of her mother and her mother's hired help. Hulga (who changed her given name, Joy) considers herself released from religious delusions and inhabiting a more intellectual world, in which her eyes have been opened to the philosophy of nihilism and from which she looks with scorn on "good country people."
What precipitates the story's climactic moment is the arrival of Manley Pointer, the Bible salesman with black suitcase, bright blue suit, and yellow socks, perfectly playing the part of "good country people" who earnestly seek a life of "Chrustian service." Many critics take Hulga's plot to seduce Manley as a desire to emancipate this young believer from his religious delusions. Indeed, she envisions herself as his liberator. I have always seen in Hulga a suppressed desire to connect with true faith like that of a child—for she is utterly taken in by the young man's earnest show. She is drawn to him. Perhaps both desires are at work, on different levels.
Moment of Seeing
That brings us to the moment in the hayloft, during which Hulga is stripped of her hardness, her nihilism, her pride . . . her wooden leg! At first the seduction is a mental game, but finally Hulga surrenders to her feelings, drawn to this innocent boy who "had touched the truth about her" (CS, 289). She lets him remove what has become for her a kind of symbol of her identity: "she was as sensitive about the artificial leg as a peacock about his tail. No one ever touched it but her. She took care of it as someone else would his soul, in private and almost with her own eyes turned away" (CS, 288). Too late Hulga meets the real Manley Pointer (or whatever his name really is), with his liquor and lewd cards hiding under the Bibles in his suitcase. He runs off with her leg, her glasses, and a great parting line: "You ain't so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!" (CS, 291) But it is not too late for Hulga to have experienced a moment of crumbling, in which her own nihilistic illusions are all stripped away.
After the Moment of Seeing
After this moment of losing her leg and her hard soul (and her glasses), the story leaves Hulga straining to see out across the landscape, perhaps for the first time. When Manley first removed her glasses, she hardly noticed, for she "seldom paid any close attention to her surroundings" (CS, 287). But now she sees that she can't see, and she strains, just glimpsing "his blue figure struggling successfully over the green speckled lake." Walking on water, as some have suggested? A strange kind of savior for her? Perhaps, in a way. There was grace in this devastation.
As Jonathan Rogers writes in his recently published spiritual biography of O'Connor (The Terrible Speed of Mercy), "In O'Connor's unique vision, the physical world, even at its seediest and ugliest, is a place where grace still does its work. In fact, it is exactly the place where grace does its work. Truth tells itself here, no matter how loud it has to shout" (Rogers, xviii).
The other part of after is the story's conclusion, which takes us back with a kind of symmetry to Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman, the bookends who shape Hulga's story. In the end they're out in the pasture digging up "evil-smelling onion shoot[s] from the ground" (CS, 291), glimpsing that nice Bible salesman in the distance, squinting but not able to see the spiritual seismic shift that has just occurred.
Further Reflection or Discussion
1. How in this story does O'Connor fulfill the writer's "obligation to penetrate concrete reality"? What makes this story not abstract, but vivid and real?
2. Do your own character analysis of this character Hulga/Joy. What is going on inside her in this story, and what lines reveal that activity most clearly to us?
3. We've read painful moments of seeing in these O'Connor's stories. Contrast and compare these moments. What kind of seeing is O'Connor after in her fiction?
4. Which of O'Connor's works will you read next?