Flannery O’Connor on Lenten Despair

Spiritual Sunday

Next week I will travel to the University of Ljubljana to deliver a series of lectures as part of a professor exchange program that a former Slovenian student of mine (now a faculty member) set up. I will discuss Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” in an American short story class, and as O’Connor is always good for Lenten meditation, I use today’s post to sort through some of what I will say.

Although O’Connor was Catholic, she was raised in the midst of America’s southern Bible Belt (Georgia), and many of her God-obsessed characters are Christian evangelicals, with all the focus on hellfire and damnation that we expect from them. I can’t do a deep dive into the relationship between her Catholicism and her community’s Calvinism, but she appears to use fundamentalist beliefs to accentuate spiritual desolation and Catholicism to remind us that, when we recognize our pride and repent, we will find God. That is what occurs in “Good Man.”

The prideful character is the grandmother, a manipulative woman who behaves as a child. O’Connor does not find children to be innocent, and the two older grandchildren are rude and nasty, Jone Star (7) and John Wesley (8) reminding us that kids aren’t Wordsworthian shepherd boys and “best philosophers.” Nevertheless, the grandmother’s behavior is less excusable as she is old enough to know better.

When she fails to have her way on a family trip to Florida, she manages to screw things up, first getting the family lost and then precipitating a car crash. An escaped serial killer (“The Misfit”) witnesses the accident, and the grandmother’s final mistake is to admit that she recognizes him from wanted posters. This seals her doom and that of her family.

The rural Georgia landscape gives off the aura of a spiritual wasteland or Jesus’s desert:

They turned onto the dirt road and the car raced roughly along in a swirl of pink dust. The grandmother recalled the times when there were no paved roads and thirty miles was a day’s journey. The dirt road was hilly and there were sudden washes in it and sharp curves on dangerous embankments. All at once they would be on a hill, looking down over the blue tops of trees for miles around, then the next minute, they would be in a red depression with the dust-coated trees looking down on them.

This desolation is mirrored in The Misfit’s vision of an absurd world filled with meaningless suffering. The Misfit identifies with Jesus since he himself (or so he says) has been unjustly imprisoned:

“It was the same case with Him as with me except He hadn’t committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me. Of course,” he said, “they never shown me my papers. That’s why I sign myself now. I said long ago, you get you a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it. Then you’ll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you’ll have something to prove you ain’t been treated right. I call myself The Misfit,” he said, “because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.”

If there is no final arbiter of good and bad, then every action is pretty much the same:

I found out the crime don’t matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you’re going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it.

An actual resurrection changes the moral calculus, however. If love did indeed triumph over death and the grave, then nothing makes sense other than casting aside one’s nets and following Jesus. The possibility of God undermines the Misfit’s confidence that what he is doing makes no difference, which is why Jesus “thown everything off balance”:

Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can–by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.

Throughout the discussion, the grandmother has been trotting out religious platitudes that lack conviction. She may never in her life have wrestled with the dark night of the soul or regarded Christianity as more than empty convention and a way to feel superior to others:

“Pray, pray,” the grandmother began, “pray, pray . . .”
“I never was a bad boy that I remember of,” The Misfit said in an almost dreamy voice, “but somewheres along the line I done something wrong and got sent to the penitentiary. I was buried alive,” and he looked up and held her attention to him by a steady stare.
“That’s when you should have started to pray,” she said.

By the end, it is the grandmother, under the force of the Misfit’s words and the murder of her family, who enters the realm of doubt, and she commits Peter’s betrayal:

“Maybe He didn’t raise the dead,” the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her.

The Misfit, meanwhile, agonizes over his uncertainty and wants solid proof:

“I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t,” The Misfit said. “I wisht I had of been there,” he said, hitting the ground with his fist. “It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady,” he said in a high voice, “if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.”

As Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor would say, he is one of those who require miracles if they are to believe.

The story’s turning point occurs at this moment. For perhaps the first time in her life, the grandmother steps out of her narcissist’s cocoon and responds with genuine compassion to the Misfit’s existential misery. The subsequent action happens in a flash, a sign of just how small a crack it takes for God’s grace to enter in. We see the grandmother’s version of Jesus forgiving His tormentors from the cross:

His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.

His tear-befogged glasses show that he too has had the opportunity, in this moment, to experience grace. But because love is so painful, he recoils as though bitten by a snake. The grandmother pays for having penetrated his defenses.

He has enough insight, however, to understand that she has found salvation. She has experienced God’s love and dies with a child’s innocent smile on her face, her vision for the first time unclouded:

Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.

Without his glasses, The Misfit’s eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking. “Take her off and thow her where you thown the others,” he said, picking up the cat that was rubbing itself against his leg.

“She was a talker, wasn’t she?” Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.

“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Her moment of grace, meanwhile, has thrown his own life choices into doubt. Whereas before he talked about “no pleasure but meanness,” now he realizes that he is doomed to walk forever in a hell he has created for himself:

“Some fun!” Bobby Lee said.

“Shut up, Bobby Lee” The Misfit said. “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

Lent is a time to acknowledge and grapple with our doubts. This is not a season for Sunday school platitudes.

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