A Divine Comedy: Violence and Salvation in Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find

21 Aug
Flannery O'Connor

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In a 1955 letter to Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor describes a Connecticut dinner party at which she read the title story from her collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find. After her performance, a guest opined that “it was a shame someone with so much talent should look upon life as a horror story.” (1). Indeed, reduced to its barest plot points, A Good Man Is Hard to Find does read like the synopsis of a pulpy horror film: a trio of murderous freaks, led by an escaped convict called The Misfit, slaughter a helpless family of six on a Georgia farm road.

But Flannery O’Connor’s writing transcends simple horror, instead spinning a tale of miraculous redemption framed by dark slapstick comedy. The violence O’Connor sets into motion is brutal, but meant to shock us into spiritual awakening, much like the punch line of a joke is meant to shock us into laughter; indeed, if O’Connor’s is a horrific epiphany, it’s because it cannot be otherwise. As she states in her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction:”

There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. (819)

O’Connor must reacquaint us with evil if she is to show us the price of a soul’s redemption. In A Good Man Is Hard to Find, she uses satire to illustrate the active evil of murderers, the passive evil of grandmothers, and the alienation from the Divine that all evil holds in common. The terrifying moment of redemption she offers us is all the more precious for being both traumatically earned, and, in seeming contrast to the rigorously unsentimental satiric tone, profoundly compassionate. A Good Man Is Hard to Find is a blazing satirical attack on disbelief, but  with a fiercely empathetic heart.

A chief weapon in O’Connor’s satiric arsenal is the character of the unnamed grandmother. She is a stock archetype in Flannery O’Connor’s oeuvre; a fussy, manipulative, ridiculously old-fashioned Southern matron. Like Mrs. Turpin in Revelation or Julian’s Mother in Everything That Rises Must Converge, the grandmother in A Good Man Is Hard to Find is a living fossil of calcified Southern womanhood. The grandmother is obsessed with the outward appurtenances of a niceness the opposite of which isn’t cruelty, but commonness:

Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady. (138)

Not only is the old woman appearance-obsessed, but her worldview is so absurdly limited that she assumes everyone is equally superficial; “anyone” would infer her exalted status from the fake flowers pinned on her, even if she were a corpse. It’s an absurd image, as well as an efficiently ominous one, given what befalls her.

As with O’Connor’s other ridiculous matrons, the grandmother’s offspring often reject or ridicule her pretensions. Her family’s disdain prompts the grandmother to continually invoke a vanished age of better manners and, not coincidentally, entrenched Jim Crow-era Southern attitudes:

“In my time,” said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, “children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then. Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!” she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack. (139)

O’Connor immediately juxtaposes the grandmother’s pre-lapsarian “people did right back then” with a grossly reductive racial slur; manners may have mattered greatly “in [her] time,” but the dignity of fellow human beings of presumed lesser status clearly did not.

So intent is this woman on pursuing her romanticized sense of heritage that she succeeds in hijacking a planned family vacation to Florida. She had wanted instead “to visit some of her connections in East Tennessee.”(137) What these “connections” are we do not discover, but O’Connor’s use of “connections” rather than, say, “relatives,” suggests that the grandmother is drawn merely to her own relationship with Tennessee, rather than to any human loved ones there. Her Tennessee connections remain abstract, and her actual family couldn’t care less about them. Her eight-year-old grandson even dismisses the state as “just a hillbilly dumping ground.”(139)

Nevertheless, the old woman holds fast to her illusions, set to the tune of The Tennessee Waltz, replete with a gentleman suitor of her youth who owned Coca-Cola shares, and played against a backdrop of a dimly-remembered six-columned plantation house she visited once. On the family’s car trip through Georgia, the grandmother decides that this very plantation house is a crucial “educational” digression, and manipulates her family into trying to find it on a desolate rural back road. She even fabricates a wholly fictitious secret panel in the house which hides Confederate treasure, “not telling the truth but wishing she were” (143) in order to heighten the scabrous allure of the past. She is monomaniacal in dragging her offspring into a counterfeit plantation past along with her.

It is at this moment that O’Connor ratchets up both the character’s slapstick, and the story’s larger narrative irony. En route to her architectural delusion of grandeur, the mythologizing old woman suddenly experiences the “horrible thought” that the house is not on this Georgia road (which runs just past the darkly-named “Toombsville”) after all, but in Tennessee (if, the reader wonders, it ever existed). The old woman’s convulsive reactive twitch is a sharp burlesque of secret embarrassment. Its violence startles the cat she’s hidden in her valise, which attacks her son, causing him to drive off the road and crash. This visceral catastrophe is at once absurdly funny and decidedly fatal, as it renders the family helpless and exposed to the inevitable onslaught of The Misfit. Deepening the irony is the fact that had the family driven straight to Florida without the grandmother’s interference, they may have avoided the Misfit altogether.

The Misfit and his two accomplices arrive on the scene with preternatural efficiency in a “big black battered hearse-like automobile” (145), and the ensuing description of the men gives the reader little hope that they are genteel Southern gentlemen bent on chivalry. We meet Hiram, a spectre-like figure whose hat ominously obscures his face, and Bobby Lee, a grinning “fat boy” wearing a sweatshirt “with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” (146) Bobby Lee may be read as a perverse ironic reference to the Confederate heritage the grandmother so idolizes; another Robert Lee, the Civil War General, famously rode a silver gelding named Traveller throughout the war. It is as though the grandmother’s dream of the South has transformed into a grinning sweatshirt-clad nightmare.

As for The Misfit himself, he is described as gray-haired, bespectacled, and scholarly, as well as apologetically polite about his half-dressed appearance. This unassuming shabbiness somewhat recalls Dostoevsky’s down-at-heels Devil of The Brothers Karamazov. But the similarity ends there. Unlike Dostoevsky’s retiring, rather passively sardonic Devil figure, The Misfit exudes a commanding menace. We never see the Devil of Karamazov up to any sin of commission, whereas The Misfit efficiently dispatches the old woman’s family to their death in the woods at the hands of his henchmen.

Faced even with the murder of her entire family, O’Connor’s old woman still clings to her characteristic comical snobbishness, attempting to flatter The Misfit’s vanity by exclaiming “’I know you’re a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!’”(147) She thus subjects The Misfit to the same absurd superficial duality of niceness vs. commonness to which she has always held everyone.

She further entreats him to pray to Jesus, even calling Jesus’ name. This recitation is more like conventional superstitious piety than like prayer, however, another facet of her manipulation rather than a plea arising from faith, “almost sound[ing] as if she might be cursing” (151). And in any case, this facile evocation of Christianity renders The Misfit only more dangerous:

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” the Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown 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…if I had been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” (152)

The Misfit has made a choice arising out of the sin of despair; he refuses to make the leap of faith in Christ’s divinity and has consigned himself to “no pleasure but meanness.” It’s the tragedy of free will, the decision of a profoundly alienated human soul.

And with the story’s most transcendent touch of irony, it is The Misfit’s very despair that causes the grandmother’s sudden arrival at a state of Divine Grace. Grace isn’t visited upon her by the love of her family or her previous religious training, (which is likely Protestant, given that her grandson’s name is John Wesley (137), a seeming allusion to Methodism). It is The Misfit’s “face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry” (152) that moves her, suddenly, murmuringly, to truly empathize with him. She is no longer angling to survive her encounter, but has simply arrived, with the swift ineluctable mystery of a miracle, at a state where love and soulful connection transcend all obstacles, even that fatal distance between murderer and victim. She is simply dazzled by its truth, exclaiming “’Why, you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’She reached out and touched him on the shoulder.” (152)

The Misfit seems to experience this outreach as a mortal assault, recoiling “as if a snake had bitten him and [shooting] her three times through the chest.”(152) Te still-unnamed grandmother dies with a smile on her face, gazing into heaven. At the cost of her life, her soul has been redeemed. And the Misfit has witnessed her Grace, firsthand. He acknowledges that had she faced the great cost of her soul before her final confrontation, she “would have been a good woman.” Afterwards, wiping his spectacles, The Misfit is pale and “defenseless-looking.” To the idiotic Bobby Lee, he amends his statement that there’s no pleasure in life but meanness, stating instead that there’s no pleasure in life at all.

I think this tiny shift in his apprehension of pleasure, bleak as it seems, leaves room for hope of The Misfit’s salvation. His last and only solace in the absence of the Divine, that of doing people harm, has been robbed of him by the grandmother’s final, transcendent empathy. A Good Man Is Hard to Find remains a comedy, not a tragedy, precisely because of The Misfit’s newly shaken state of despair, in which, perhaps, all is not lost.

Works Cited

O’Connor, Mary Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” Flannery O’Connor Collected Works New York: The Library of America, 1988.

O’Connor, Mary Flannery. A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Flannery O’Connor Collected Works New York: The Library of America, 1988.

O’Connor, Flannery. “Letter to Sally and Robert Fitzgerald,January 1955” Flannery O’Connor Collected Works New York: The Library of America, 1988.

The Role of Bills: Marxist Implications in Chekhov’s “A Woman’s Kingdom”

22 Aug
Anton Chekhov

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Chekhov’s short story “A Woman’s Kingdom” opens not with a wry physical description of the liege of the titular kingdom, nor a rapturous, cinematic bird’s eye view of the natural landscape of the kingdom itself, but instead with the image of a roll of banknotes; prosaic, commercial, and dirty. This roll of fifteen hundred roubles plays a central role in the unfolding story. Far from being presented as a positive treasure, the roll of roubles serves as a bitter talisman, an emblem of shame and guilt for the story’s protagonist, Anna Akimovna, a young newly-rich bourgeois “benefactress” who finds herself unable to truly help anyone, least of all herself.

The roll of bills, we are told, was sent to Anna by a bailiff at her “forest villa,” and is the award from a lawsuit, the details of which Chekhov does not share with us, and of which, indeed, Anna likely does not even want to know. From the very start, Anna is painted as an unhappy young woman who remains completely mystified and alienated by her great wealth. Of her relationship to the roll of banknotes and its source, Chekhov tells us:

Anna Akimovna disliked and feared such words as “awarded damages” and “won the suit.” She knew that it was impossible to do without the law, but for some reason, whenever Nazaritch, the manager of the factory, or the bailiff of her villa in the country, both of whom frequently went to law, used to win lawsuits of some sort for her benefit, she always felt uneasy and, as it were, ashamed. On this occasion, too, she felt uneasy and awkward, and wanted to put that fifteen hundred roubles further away that it might be out of her sight.

Anna’s uneasiness seems to arise from her knowledge that she didn’t earn this money through any kind of labor, but instead garnered it through the efforts of others–efforts not on her behalf, precisely, but through the anonymous machinations of a legal system which, according to both Chekhov and Marxist doctrine, will always favor the owning class. In other words, Anna is a capitalist, and came by this sum simply by being a member of the owning class. Tellingly, this particular roll of banknotes was not even generated by any kind of physical or industrial labor at all, but by the legal processes of capitalism itself.

Anna’s emotional unease from this roll of bills, and more broadly, from the “role” of bills and of money in her life in general, dramatizes another important Marxist doctrine, which holds that alienation is a fundamental characteristic of capitalist society. Under capitalism, workers have no inherent stake in the fields they till but do not own, nor in the products they manufacture but do not profit from. Meanwhile the owners of the land and of the means of production likewise have no cause-and-effect human relationship with the money they rake in. Illustrating this economic disconnect, Chekhov shows us Anna recalling a past visit to her factory she owns, and which she perceives as

…an impression of hell. It seemed to her as though the wheels, the levers, and the hot hissing cylinders were trying to tear themselves away from their fastenings to crush the men, while the men, not hearing one another, ran about with anxious faces, and busied themselves about the machines, trying to stop their terrible movement.

All labor functions as crushing exploitation of humanity for purposes of capital; conversely, all capital results from exploitation of humanity. The “hot hissing cylinders” of capitalism are not seen to be making anything beneficial; the workers could as well be endeavoring to stop the “terrible machines” rather than to run them. Indeed, confronted with the absurd spectacle of labor in the factory: Anna looked, listened, did not understand, smiled graciously, and felt ashamed. To get hundreds of thousands of roubles from a business which one does not understand and cannot like — how strange it is!

Also, as if to underscore her appointed role in this capitalist system, Chekhov tells us that Anna receives “anonymous letters,” telling her “that she was a millionaire and exploiter — that she was devouring other men’s lives and sucking the blood of the workers.” This wording recalls the most extreme Marxist revolutionary rhetoric. Interestingly, Chekhov very well may be using the rhetoric of this anonymous letter to illustrate a flaw in Marxist revolutionary thought; after all, Anna isn’t purposefully sucking anybody’s blood; she’s not brutal, but helpless.

“A Woman’s Kingdom” is set at Christmastime, and the traditional holiday of giving only serves to underscore the bitterness at the story’s heart. While Anna regards herself, despairingly, as “silly” and “frivolous,” she does entertain a sense of responsibility, or at least noblesse oblige, regarding the roll of bills. However, she struggles with how to make the roll of bills actually benefit anybody. She considers breaking up the sum and distributing it to the workers, or to the poor, but each portion would be uselessly tiny. Here, Chekhov seems to suggest, is the fundamental, absurd tragicomedy of capitalism, laid bare: even a relatively well-meaning person, who may grasp the idea that the capital they have witlessly accumulated is a result of an unjust system, may have little power to ameliorate the exploitative conditions of the people from whose labor they profit.

Musing over her troubles, Anna becomes nostalgic for her childhood, at which time she had yet to become rich:

Anna Akimovna looked at the women and young people, and she suddenly felt a longing for a plain rough life among a crowd. She recalled vividly that far-away time when she used to be called Anyutka, when she was a little girl and used to lie under the same quilt with her mother…and she longed to wash, to iron, to run to the shop and the tavern as she used to do every day when she lived with her mother. She ought to have been a work-girl and not the factory owner! Her big house with its chandeliers and pictures … the young people of both sexes who came almost every day to ask her for money, and with whom she always for some reason felt guilty; and the clerks, the doctors, and the ladies who were charitable at her expense, who flattered her and secretly despised her for her humble origin — how wearisome and alien it all was to her!

The traditional Chekhovian theme of childhood nostalgia is made all the more poignant by the Marxist implications in “A Woman’s Kingdom.” Anna is further alienated in her capitalist wealth by being “of humble origin”; she experiences a kind of survivor’s guilt at having emerged from the working class into the owning class, and seeks a soulful connection with some kind of work, such as she felt she had as a child. Chekhov tells us that Anna sees the factory workers as not entirely foreign, as some in her exalted position might, but instead “was constantly recognizing in the crowd her own father or mother or uncle,” and that “she was no more afraid of peasants or workpeople, drunk or sober, than of her acquaintances of the educated class.” Here Chekhov shows sympathy for Anna, in that she recognizes the fellow humanity of the peasants and workpeople, and perhaps is not irretrievably identified with the “educated class”. But her flashes of empathy and idealism serve no social good.

For example, wanting to exorcise her guilt and shame at the roll of bills, Anna finally decides to award the entire sum to some disadvantaged person as a Yuletide windfall. She considers this an “amusing” idea, and takes “at random” from a pile of begging letters that of Tchalikov, an unemployed petty official with a tubercular wife and five daughters. However, upon visiting the family, Anna becomes disillusioned with her intended act of charity. The arbitrarily-chosen family aren’t as bad off as Anna hoped; Mrs. Tchalikov doesn’t appear to be consumptive, and the girls are “chubby,” not underfed. Most importantly, Anna takes issue with Tchalikov’s grasping entitlement. Though he maintains an obsequious facade, he makes continual “disparaging phrases about his gentle birth, and it was evident that he was humbling himself because he considered himself superior to her.” Tchalikov enacts yet another Marxist preoccupation, that of social class; Tchalikov is bitter at his fate as a fallen member of the gentry, and believes that due to his “gentle birth,” capitalism (as symbolized by Anna, the “benefactress,”) owes him a living. He, like Anna, is alienated from labor, but unlike the bourgeois-rich Anna, he has no capital.

Anna leaves the Tchalikov’s without giving them the full roll of bills, instead resentfully granting them only a twenty-five roubles. Before leaving the Tchalikov’s apartment Anna encounters their lodger, Pimenov, an amateur watchmaker who works in her factory. Pimenov captures Anna’s imagination with his air of forthright, hardworking masculinity. Here Chekhov illustrates the sexual element of Anna’s alienation; devoid of a suitor from within her own class ( due perhaps in part to her humble birth,) Anna objectifies Pimenov, making of him a romantic fantasy. For her, this working man becomes the emblem of her longing to return to a “rough life among a crowd”, as well as a possible resolution of her loneliness. She feels that the traditional female role, that of a wife and mother subservient to a  husband’s “manly strength” would absolve her of her guilt and unease:

“If I could fall in love,” she thought, stretching; the very thought of this sent a rush of warmth to her heart. “And if I could escape from the factory . . .” she mused, imagining how the weight of those factory buildings, barracks, and schools would roll off her conscience, roll off her mind. . . . Then she remembered her father, and thought if he had lived longer he would certainly have married her to a working man — to Pimenov, for instance. He would have told her to marry, and that would have been all about it. And it would have been a good thing; then the factory would have passed into capable hands.

Later in the story, Anna even half-jokingly confesses to a spinsterish local gossip, Spiridorovna, that she would like to arrange a marriage with Pimenov, and takes comfort in her fantasy of a peaceful future with him.

Standing in stark contrast to the workingman fantasy of Pimenov stands the character of “the lawyer Lysevitch,” an erudite, smooth-talking schemer. On Christmas Day, after skipping church and receiving various visitors who pay homage and ask for money, Anna entertains this aristocratic lawyer (as well as a dull civil councilor, Krylin, who dozes through most of his appearance in the story.) Anna has a long history with Lysevitch, who knew her father and her uncle, and who is tied through the processes of capitalism to her financial concerns:

Anna Akimovna knew that [Lysevitch] had nothing to do at the factory, but she could not dismiss him — she had not the moral courage; and besides, she was used to him. He used to call himself her legal adviser, and his salary, which he invariably sent for on the first of the month punctually, he used to call “stern prose.” Anna Akimovna knew that when, after her father’s death, the timber of her forest was sold for railway sleepers, Lysevitch had made more than fifteen thousand out of the transaction, and had shared it with Nazaritch. When first she found out they had cheated her she had wept bitterly, but afterwards she had grown used to it.

Thus, Chekhov shows us once again that Anna recognizes the injustice surrounding her, but that she has “grown used to it,” and hasn’t the “moral courage” to effect change. She is the very model of what critic Ronald Hingley identifies in Chekhov’s oeuvre as “dreary resignation.”

In true Chekhovian form, the characters in “A Woman’s Kingdom” are dwarfed by the faceless social institutions surrounding them. Nobody, Chekhov seems to be suggesting, truly benefits from an unjust capitalist system. The workers are exploited in their labor and wretched living conditions; the well-born gentry are resentful and entitled of the newly-rich bourgeoisie; and the bourgeoisie are alienated from those of lesser economic status, and are ripped off by their lawyers:

[Lysevitch] laid his cheek on [Anna’s] hand and said in the tone commonly used in coaxing little children:

“My precious, why have you punished me?”

“How? When?”

“I have had no Christmas present from you.”

Anna Akimovna had never heard before of their sending a Christmas box to the lawyer, and now she was at a loss how much to give him. But she must give him something, for he was expecting it, though he looked at her with eyes full of love.

“I suppose Nazaritch forgot it,” she said, “but it is not too late to set it right.”

She suddenly remembered the fifteen hundred she had received the day before, which was now lying in the toilet drawer in her bedroom. And when she brought that ungrateful money and gave it to the lawyer, and he put it in his coat pocket with indolent grace, the whole incident passed off charmingly and naturally. The sudden reminder of a Christmas box and this fifteen hundred was not unbecoming in Lysevitch.

In whose eyes is this grasping, entitled conduct of Lysevitch “not unbecoming?” Within the framework of the text, it is most obviously Anna who fails, or more accurately refuses, to see the injustice in Lysevitch’s request of the roll of bills. Anna hands over the “ungrateful money” without question. It is Chekhov who sees it as unbecoming, surely, and herein lies another Marxist principle; that the owning class keeps capital to itself. There is to be no redistribution of wealth in Chekhov’s story. Within the machinery of an unjust and exploitative capitalist system, labor goes unrewarded while capital generates more capital, which is always held firmly by those in power. Capital is exchanged from the wealthy to the wealthy in the form of bribes, crooked business deals, lawsuits, and “Christmas boxes.”

As for Anna’s alienation and loneliness, it only deepens after her parting with the “ungrateful” and “shameful” roll of bills. Alone on Christmas night, she reconsiders her fantasy of a simple married life with the workingman Pimenov:

…against her own will,[Anna] imagined Pimenov dining with Lysevitch and Krylin, and his timid, unintellectual figure seemed to her pitiful and helpless, and she felt repelled by it. And only now, for the first time in the whole day, she realized clearly that all she had said and thought about Pimenov and marrying a workman was nonsense, folly, and wilfulness. To convince herself of the opposite, to overcome her repulsion, she tried to recall what she had said at dinner, but now she could not see anything in it: shame at her own thoughts and actions, and the fear that she had said something improper during the day, and disgust at her own lack of spirit, overwhelmed her completely.

Try as she might to “escape the factory”, Anna Akimovna is mired in her woman’s kingdom. She is too rarefied to love a working man, too sensitive to enjoy her power and privileges ruthlessly, too fearful to effect social change, too newly-rich to escape snubbing. Marxist doctrines maintain that the machine of capitalism exploits the proletariat; but Chekhov illustrates its soul-numbing effect on its beneficiaries, as well.

Works Cited

Chekhov, Anton. “A Woman’s Kingdom.” Text found online at http://www.online-literature.com/anton_chekhov/1271/ 05/12/07

Editors, Marxist Internet Archive, online text at http://www.marxists.org/subject/students/index.htm 5/12/07

Hingley, Ronald (quote from class handout)

Animal Husbandry and Doomed Mythic Marriage in William Faulkner’s The Hamlet

22 Aug
William Faulkner

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In Ike Snopes and Jack Houston, William Faulkner gives us pastoral heroes twinned in tragedy, their harmonized losses amplifying The Hamlet’s elegiac theme of a natural world sacrificed to commercial corruption. Each man achieves a profound spiritual “animal husbandry”; Ike marries a cow, while Houston marries as a stallion. And both characters run fatally afoul of the Snopes clan’s own distorted animal husbandry, a mercantilism in which the transcendent natural world is not beloved, but merely bought and “beefed.”

As often happens in The Hamlet, it is the decent bystander Ratliff who sets the novel’s marital theme into a moral framework. Chapter One of Book Three, “A Long, Hot Summer,” opens with Ratliff angrily pondering the recent forced wedding between the pregnant Eula Varner and the rapacious Flem Snopes:

What [Ratliff] felt was outrage at the waste, the useless squandering; at a situation intrinsically  and inherently wrong by any economy, like building a log dead-fall and baiting it with a freshened heifer to catch a rat… (page 176)

Eula’s marriage to Flem is perverse, unnatural, fiduciary. Flem Snopes, ceaselessly acquisitive and coldly asexual, is the man least able to husband Eula’s animal fecundity.

Not coincidentally, Ratliff immediately goes from musing on Eula as “freshened heifer” to learning of two additional, interconnected bovine dilemmas. On Varner’s storefront porch, Ratliff hears talk of a legal imbroglio involving widower farmer Jack Houston impounding Mink Snopes’s bull for pasturing fees. Then, an invitation is leeringly extended to Ratliff from the men and boys on the Varner porch to observe some furtive, unnamed farcical burlesque, which we learn later is the sexual union of the childlike Ike Snopes and a cow.

But rather than subjecting us to this peep show right away, Faulkner hurries us on to Chapter Two, in which we pass with Ike from local gossip and sordid mundanity into the realm of the mythic natural world. Here Ike Snopes, with no language other than Faulkner’s soaring lyrical rendering of his sensory experience, embarks on a classical courtship of his beloved. His pursuit elevates him from shambling, drooling, moaning “stock-diddl[er]” (222)into successful pastoral lover.

Ike pursues, cajoles, adores the cow, who is traditionally reticent, elusive, and beautiful. The pursuit turns conventionally heroic as Ike rescues the cow from the barn fire, shouldering her out of the ditch and towards the creek, where she finally rewards his ardor by allowing him to touch her:

She does not even stop drinking; his hand has lain on her flank for a second or two before she lifts her dripping muzzle and looks back at him, once more maiden meditant, shame-free. (page 193)

With the cow’s acquiescence, Ike’s pursuit becomes holy union. Not even Houston, the cow’s “legal” owner, can dissuade Ike. He skillfully elopes with the cow into the woods, where they eat together and he festoons her with flower petals, recalling Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn: To what green altar, O mysterious priest/Lead’st thou that heifer lowing to the skies,/And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?

This chapter concludes with a symbolic wedding night, the couple “nestling back in the nest-form of sleep, the mammalian attar. They lie down together.” (206) Ike has achieved literal animal husbandry. He both shepherds the animal, and is her mate.

Houston, the cow’s owner, interrupts Ike’s extended reverie twice; in fact, Ike and Houston encounter each other only twice in the novel. Both times, they meet in a vivid natural world of animals and animal imagery.

Houston has his own animal cohorts. He is repeatedly described as a widower with no family, but his uncannily wise dog, who mourns and attempts to avenge him after his murder, is omnipresent. In Houston’s first encounter with Ike, the dog drives Ike away not by barking but “shouting.”(185) The dog behaves as a sort of interlocutor, Houston’s animal intermediary. In Ike and Houston’s second encounter, in the creekbed, Houston approaches on a galloping horse he controls solely with his voice, bareback and “without even a hackamore,”(194) in an image of preternatural horsemanship. Where Ike is able to enter spiritual union with the cow, Houston seems to employ a kind of animist horse-and-dog magic.

Houston’s animism extends to his role in animal husbandry, a term with a double meaning for him as for Ike. But whereas Ike is an animal’s husband, Houston is the animal—-a headstrong horse-man tamed into good husband-ship by a plain and patient girl in “dove-colored clothing.”(227)

Chapter Two of Book Three says of Houston, at fourteen years of age, that he is “not wild, he was merely unbitted yet.”(228) Faulkner goes on to characterize Houston, in his return to Frenchman’s Bend and Lucy, as:

…the beast, prime solitary and sufficient out of the wild fields, drawn to the trap and knowing it to be a trap, not comprehending why it was doomed but knowing it was, and not afraid now—and not quite wild. (237)

A contrast to Ike and the cow, in Houston’s marriage courtship it is the female who pursues. Even gender-reversed, theirs is nevertheless a classical pastoral romance. Lucy, like Ike, pursues her beloved ardently. She cajoles, offering him the classic horse-bait of apples from her school lunchbox, and attempts to tame him through education, which he resists. A schoolyard wag even observes that Lucy “was forcing Jack Houston to make the rise to the second grade” (page 231), mirroring Ike’s shouldering the cow up the rise from the ditch during the barn fire. Ike is rewarded for his pushing with a torrent of cow manure; Lucy is rewarded for hers with thirteen years of resistance before Houston finally succumbs to her.

Interestingly, Houston’s rootless, “bitless” masculinity, his emergence in Yoknapatawpha County from the wild newness of Texas, even his surname, evoke the dangerous Texan horses that Flem Snopes and Buck Hipps inflict on Frenchmen’s bend a few chapters later. It’s as though bovines are Faulknerian shorthand for everything domestically female and fecund, while equines suggest masculine violence and chaos, as we see in Lucy’s death:

Then the stallion killed her. She was hunting a missing hen-nest in the stable. The negro man had warned her: “He’s a horse, missy. But he’s a man horse. You keep out of there.” But she was not afraid. It was as if she had recognized that transubstantiation, that duality, and thought even if she did not say it: Nonsense. I’ve married him now. (239)

This stallion-man transubstantiation is a mysterious and ambiguous one. Perhaps her dismissal of the stablehand’s warning suggests some tragic hubris on Lucy Houston’s part; she believes her taming of her stallion husband has inured her to any stallion’s violence. Perhaps Faulkner is suggesting that no husband is a good idea; after all, The Hamlet’s array of male spouses contains a wife-beater, a murderer, a despot, and a frog. Or perhaps Faulkner is suggesting that any romantic pursuit involves a degree of hubris, as well as risk of unbearable loss.

Houston’s mourning for his wife and instinctive understanding of pastoral love inform his decision to give Ike the cow. Although money changes hands, it is an unnamed and uncounted sum, more a ritual gesture than a commercial endeavor. Among the male characters of The Hamlet, Houston and Ike are the least mercenary; and where Houston has little interest in money, Ike has less than none, as Mrs. Littlejohn points out. “What else could he do with [the money]?’ she said. ‘What else did he ever want?’”(216)

But Ike loses his sacred cow to his cousin Snopeses, who conspire to purchase and slaughter “the partner of his sin” and feed her to him, supposing that this may cause him to “chase nothing but human women.” (223) As I.O. Snopes dickers with his cousin Eck over their relative financial contributions towards the beloved cow’s “beefing,” he refers to the act as “sacrifice to the name [we] bear.” (225) I.O. worries specifically that further public perusal of Ike’s love life may undermine the Snopes clan’s many financial and political dealings. Faulkner spares us the details of the beefing, but we do catch a glimpse of Ike some time afterwards, despondently clutching a wooden cow doll as emblem of his loss.

Like Ike’s cow, Houston can be seen as a sacrificial animal, Lucy’s stallion husband murdered by Mink Snopes over a three-dollar pasturing fee. In a final Snopesian insult to his and Ike’s shared pastoralism, Mink Snopes attempts to rob Houston’s corpse. The money on his person, which Mink does not recover, is Ike’s useless and dead money, the beloved cow’s bride price.

Works Cited

Faulkner, William. The Hamlet. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.

Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Class handout

The Eyes of God: Guilt, Belief and Existentialism in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors

22 Aug
“]Cover of "Crimes and Misdemeanors [Region...

In Woody Allen’s film Crimes and Misdemeanors, as in Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, a protagonist commits cold-blooded murder, after which he comes to grips with his guilt, and more broadly, with a Universe which seems to allow for grave human misdeeds. And whereas Dostoevsky asserts the necessity of suffering and atonement in accordance with Divine Law, Allen posits that in the seeming absence of an all-knowing God, individuals must bear responsibility alone in an indifferent Universe. Interestingly, both Dostoevsky and Allen uphold a moral code; but where Dostoevsky’s Orthodox Christianity dictates his terms, Allen paints an Existential portrait of sin that leaves the viewer with more questions than answers.

The parallels between Crime and Punishment and Crimes and Misdemeanors are perhaps clearest in the divided consciousnesses of their protagonists. Raskolnikov, whose very name evokes in Russian the idea of raskol, or “schism,” can be seen to have two selves; one is a being of tremendous arrogance, who believes he may commit murder both as a means of ridding the world of a “useless old woman,” and to prove himself a Napoleon-like “great man” to whom the ordinary rules of common morality do not apply. But Raskolnikov contains as a humanitarian self as well, one inclined to help a drunken and abused girl on the thoroughfare, and who gives money to the impoverished Marmeladov family. Raskolnikov’s morally conscious self torments him after his crime, making him ill. He ultimately heals the psychic rupture he has inflicted upon his psyche by confessing the murders of the pawnbroker and her sister, and atoning through his suffering, thus submitting to the Law of God.

In Crimes and Misdemeanors, interestingly, the role of protagonist is itself divided.  Half of the “role” of Raskolnikov goes to Allen’s character of Judah Rosenthal, as portrayed by Martin Landau. Judah is a successful ophthalmologist who arranges the murder of his unstable mistress, thus freeing himself (or so he believes) of the consequences of adultery. Unlike Raskolnikov, Judah is a wealthy man who can afford to hire his brother to commit the murder, though later Judah reflects that “God is a luxury I can’t afford.” Like Raskolnikov, Judah is tormented by guilt after his murder, but he does not confess and atone.

But thematically, in Allen’s film the “Raskolnikov role” is played also by the comic-relief character of documentary filmmaker Clifford Stern, portrayed by Allen himself. Judah may be seen to commit Raskolnikov’s crime of murder, whereas Cliff suffers some of the outward circumstances of Raskolnikov’s condition; Cliff, like Raskolnikov, is a struggling thinker who worries about money, aspires to greatness, and chafes at his connection to an arrogant  “self-made man.”

In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is disgusted by his beloved sister Dounia’s engagement to the capitalist Luzhin, and hates the fact that his sister intends to sacrifice herself for Raskolnikov’s sake; in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Cliff’s “Luzhin” is his wife’s brother, Lester (portrayed by Alan Alda), who provides Cliff with the odious, though lucrative job of composing a laudatory biographical documentary about his tremendous success. Cliff would rather be working on his documentary about Professor Levi, a wise old existentialist philosopher, but he needs Lester’s money.

Both Cliff and Raskolnikov abhor their clownish brother-in-law’s grasping, self-congratulatory commercialism, and both reject it; Raskolnikov by rebuffing Luzhin’s offer of financial support, and Cliff by juxtaposing filmed scenes of Lester’s pomposity and crapulousness with stock footage of Mussolini and of Francis the Talking Mule. In both cases, the brother-in-law is portrayed as comic relief to the major moral themes—but, significantly, in the fictive universe of Crimes and Misdemeanors, Alda’s Lester is seen to triumph. Cliff’s love interest, Halley, chooses to marry Lester instead of Cliff, whereas in Dostoevsky’s universe Dounia rejects Luzhin in the face of her brother’s disapproval. Thus we see once again that Dostoevsky’s universe is a far more just place than that of the Existentialist Allen.

Allen addresses (but does not resolve) his schismatic dual-Raskolnikov by having Judah “confess” his crime to Cliff in the film’s next-to last scene. Their conversation could be read as Judah confessing to a kind of alternate self. It encapsulates Judah’s coming-to-terms with his crime, as he recalls it to Cliff under the auspices of suggesting a plot for a film:

And after the awful deed is done, he finds that he’s plagued by deep-rooted guilt. Little sparks of his religious background which he’d rejected are suddenly stirred up. He hears his father’s voice. He imagines that God is watching his every move. Suddenly, it’s not an empty universe, but a just and moral one, and he’s violated it. Now, he’s panic-stricken. He’s on the verge of a mental collapse-an inch away from confessing the whole thing to the police. And then one morning, he awakens. The sun is shining, his family is around him and mysteriously, the crisis has lifted. He takes his family on a vacation to Europe and as the months pass, he finds he’s not punished. In fact, he prospers. The killing gets attributed to another person-a drifter who has a number of other murders to his credit, so I mean, what the hell? One more doesn’t even matter. Now he’s scott-free. His life is completely back to normal. Back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.

(Crimes and Misdemeanors, transcribed from video)

This recalls a similar description of guilt-induced “mental collapse” in Crime and Punishment. After committing the murders, Raskolnikov falls into a profound state of soul-sickness—indeed, he has violated a “just and moral” Universe, and ultimately succumbs to “confessing the whole thing to the police,” an option from which Allen’s Judah willfully turns. Even in the midst of Raskolnikov’s suffering, Dostoevsky hints at the presence of God, and the eventual coming-to-consciousness necessary to the murderer’s salvation:

[Raskolnikov] was not completely unconscious, however, all the time he was ill; he was in a feverish state, sometimes delirious, sometimes half conscious. He remembered a great deal afterwards. Sometimes it seemed as though there were a number of people round him; they wanted to take him away somewhere, there was a great deal of squabbling and discussing about him. … he distinguished another person, too, whom he seemed to know very well, though he could not remember who he was, and this fretted him, even made him cry. Sometimes he fancied he had been lying there a month; at other times it all seemed part of the same day. But of that he had no recollection, and yet every minute he felt that he had forgotten something he ought to remember. He worried and tormented himself trying to remember, moaned, flew into a rage, or sank into awful, intolerable terror. Then he struggled to get up, would have run away, but someone always prevented him by force, and he sank back into impotence and forgetfulness. At last he returned to complete consciousness.

(Crime and Punishment, Chapter 10, italics mine)

In Dostoevsky’s rendered Universe, murder controverts God’s sacred law. Raskolnikov’s “feverish state, sometimes delirious, sometimes half conscious” in which he “distinguished another person, too, whom he seemed to know very well, though he could not remember who he was” represents Dostoevsky’s belief that mental illness arises from a spiritual disconnect from God, a theme introduced in the doppelganger plot of his brilliant novella The Double. Indeed, one could even read the unidentified “other person” to be God himself, watching over Raskolnikov’s deterioration until the sick young murderer, with help from the sainted prostitute, Sonya, confesses and accepts responsibility for his transgression.

Like Raskolnikov, Judah is aware that he has committed a sin. Immediately after finding out his mistress’s murder has been accomplished, Judah announces to his wife and daughter  “I think I’ve done a terrible thing.” He also tells his hit-man brother, “It’s pure evil, Jack! A man kills for money and he doesn’t even know his victims! … She’s not an insect! You don’t just step on her!”  However, Judah eventually turns away from the implications of his crime.

The spiritual theme of sight and blindness is an important one in Allen’s film. In the  opening scene, Judah accepts a humanitarian award for providing a new ophthalmic wing of a hospital. In his acceptance speech, Judah muses:

I remember my father telling me, ‘The eyes of God are on us always.’ The eyes of God. What a phrase to a young boy. What were God’s eyes like? Unimaginably penetrating, intense eyes, I assumed. And I wonder if it was just a coincidence I made my specialty ophthalmology.

Judah was raised in religious faith; but he, much like a later Dostoevsky character, Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, has willfully turned from belief to a cynical form of self-justification that Dostoevsky would have abhorred.

The last we see of Judah in Allen’s film, he is a guest at the lavish wedding of a young woman whose father, the morally upright rabbi Ben, Judah is treating for blindness. Ben’s blindness, and Judah’s status as an eye doctor, are profound ironic statements by Allen; Ben represents Judeo-Christian law, and at the beginning of the film, he tells Judah that

…[there is] a fundamental difference in the way we view the world. You see it as harsh and empty of values and pitiless. And I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel it with all my heart a moral structure, with real meaning, and forgiveness, and a higher power, otherwise there’s no basis to live.

Later, in an imagined conversation with Ben about the murder, Ben tells Judah: “But the Law, Judah. Without the law, it’s all darkness… It’s a human life. You don’t think God sees?” Dostoevsky would argue that while Ben himself is consigned to a physical darkness, he remains upright in the eyes of an all-seeing God, whereas Judah the ophthalmologist is blind by choice. Allen makes no such unambiguous argument, though the song he chooses to play in the final moments of the film, while the blind rabbi dances with his daughter, is “I’ll be Seeing You.”  One might ask, who is doing the seeing?

In the penultimate “confession scene” of Crimes and Misdemeanors, documentarian Cliff conveys to murderer Judah much the same ideal as the sainted, blinded rabbi Ben does, but framed in existentialist terms rather than religious ones:

Cliff: But can [the murderer] ever go back [to normal]?

Judah: Well, people carry sins around with them…I mean, maybe once in a while he has a bad moment, but it passes. And with time, it all fades.

Cliff: Yeah, but then, you know, his worst beliefs are realized…

Judah: I said it was a chilling story, didn’t I?

Cliff: I don’t know, you know, I think it’d be tough for somebody to live with that, you know, very few guys could live with something like that on their conscience.

Judah: What do you mean? I mean, people carry awful deeds around with them…what do you expect them to do, turn themselves in? I mean, this is reality! In reality we rationalize, we deny, or we couldn’t go on living.

Cliff: Here’s what I would do, I would have him turn himself in because then, you see, your story assumes tragic proportions…in the absence of a God, or something, he is forced to assume that responsibility himself, then you have tragedy.

Judah: but that’s fiction, that’s movies… I mean, you’ve seen too many movies. I’m talking about reality. I mean, if you want a happy ending, you should go see a Hollywood movie.

(Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen et. al., transcribed from video)

Allen could be seen to relegate Dostoevsky’s ideal of a just and moral God to the status of a Hollywood formula happy-ending; a fantasy, itself a strongly Existentialist stance (per Nietzsche, especially).

Allen’s Judah and Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov ponder similar questions — in a Universe seemingly absent immediate consequences, is all permitted? Is the killing of another human being ever justified? — but the characters come to very different conclusions. Allen’s film concludes with its protagonist/murderer having decided that his mistress’s murder was worth it, as his “life of wealth and privilege” had been protected. One could argue that while Judah is not an atheist — indeed, he invokes his belief in God several times throughout the film — he behaves as though there is no Divine Law to which he could be held accountable. Existentialism, in his case, can be seen to actively subvert a moral code.

Raskolnikov, on the other hand, submits to Dostoevsky’s Divine Law.  Dostoevsky ends his novel with Raskolnikov serving seven years in Siberia, but with the promise of Sonia’s (and God’s) love promising his salvation. Judah is consigned to Hell, at least in Dostoevsky’s theology. Allen is perhaps not so sure. In interviews, Allen has characterized religious faith as a “gift,” one he himself does not profess to have received.

This difference in Raskolnikov’s and Judah’s outcomes illustrates a fundamental difference in Dostoevsky and Allen’s worldviews; for Dostoevsky, the redemption of an individual human soul comes about through sin, atonement through suffering, and eventual repentance; in Allen’s world, the absence of an active God renders every human soul accountable only to itself, thereby allowing a man such as Judah to continue with his life with “a few bad moments,” but ultimately turning away from the idea of sin and repentance and, as Allen has said in an interview of Judah’s character, “choosing not to punish himself.”

Yet, while Allen’s cosmology is far bleaker that Dostoevsky’s, the end scene of Crimes and Misdemeanors m allows for a possible glimpse of a virtuous life. As Ben dances with his daughter, a voice-over of Professor Levi intones that:

We’re all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions, moral choices. Some are on a grand scale, most of these choices are on lesser points. But we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, Human happiness does not seem to be included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying and even try to find joy from simple things, like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.

(Crimes and Misdemeanors, transcribed from video)

The character of Professor Levi seems to embody Allen’s Humanist-Existentialist worldview, much like the Christian doctrine of Father Zossima embodies Dostoevsky’s in The Brothers Karamazov. Unlike Dostoevsky (and Zossima), for whom the Universe turns on the just dictates of a compassionate, all-knowing God, Allen posits an “indifferent universe” in which work, family, and hope for the future must stand as their own ends. Whether this code is believable or not is up to the viewer—after all, Levy commits suicide, leaving the simple note “I’ve gone out the window,” whereas the Dostoevskian Orthodox elder, Zossima, despite his unexpected putrefaction, is lionized, and his precepts upheld. In any case, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov ultimately conforms to Christian Orthodox principles, and in this way stands for all humanity’s need to sin, atone and repent.

Addressing Raskolnikov’s atonement process, I am reminded of a class discussion in which a student asked, “Are we meant to like Raskolnikov?”

The professor answered,  “By the end of the novel, I believe we are meant to love him.”

By the end of Crimes and Misdemeanors, the viewer is meant to love neither Judah, nor Cliff. Perhaps this is because love is not written into the precepts of the humanitarian Existentialism Allen espouses. This, Dostoevsky would say, is precisely Existentialism’s failure; that no set of principles devoid of Christ’s love could measure up to the enormous human capacity for sin. Without suffering, atonement and redemption, no true love exists.

Works Cited

Bjorkman, Stig. Woody Allen on Woody Allen: In Conversation With Stig Bjorkman New York: Grove Press, 1995. (quote regarding character of Judah “not choosing to punish himself”).

Dostoevsky, Fyodor.

The Brothers Karamazov. (Translation by Constance Garnett) Available online at www.online-literature.com/dostoevsky/brothers_karamazov Accessed December 17, 2007

Crime and Punishment. (Translation by Constance Garnett.) Available online at http://www.online-literature.com/dostoevsky/crimeandpunishment/ Accessed December 17, 2007

The Double. (Transl. Constance Garnett.) Available online at http://fiction.eserver.org/novels/the_double.html Accessed December 17, 2007

Crimes and Misdemeanors. Dir. Woody Allen. Perfs. Woody Allen, Martin Landau. DVD. Orion Pictures, 1989.

Mairs, Tanya, PhD. The Novels of Dostoevsky class lecture, New School University, December 2006

” The Kraft Music Hall Woody Allen Special.” By Woody Allen, producer. Perf. Woody Allen, Billy Graham. ABC. WBCN, Boston. 21 Sept. 1969. (interview with Billy Graham about religious faith being a “gift,” clip available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6iAaxOAHCM )

A Divine Comedy: Satire and Salvation in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

22 Aug
Flannery O'Connor

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In a 1955 letter to Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor describes a Connecticut dinner party at which she read the title story from her collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find. After her performance, a guest opined that “it was a shame someone with so much talent should look upon life as a horror story.”  Indeed, reduced to its barest plot points, A Good Man Is Hard to Find does read like the synopsis of a pulpy horror film: a trio of murderous freaks, led by an escaped convict called The Misfit, slaughter a helpless family of six on a Georgia farm road.

But Flannery O’Connor’s writing transcends simple horror, instead spinning a tale of miraculous redemption framed by dark slapstick comedy. The violence O’Connor sets into motion is brutal, but meant to shock us into spiritual awakening, much like the punch line of a joke is meant to shock us into laughter; indeed, if O’Connor’s is a horrific epiphany, it’s because it cannot be otherwise. As she states in her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction:”

There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. (819)

O’Connor must reacquaint us with evil if she is to show us the price of a soul’s redemption. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” she uses satire to illustrate the active evil of murderers, the passive evil of grandmothers, and the alienation from the Divine that all evil holds in common. The terrifying moment of redemption she offers us is all the more precious for being both traumatically earned, and, in seeming contrast to the rigorously unsentimental satiric tone, profoundly compassionate. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is a blazing satirical attack on disbelief, but  with a fiercely empathetic heart.

A chief weapon in O’Connor’s satiric arsenal is the character of the unnamed grandmother. She is a stock archetype in Flannery O’Connor’s oeuvre; a fussy, manipulative, ridiculously old-fashioned Southern matron. Like Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation” or Julian’s Mother in “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is a living fossil of calcified Southern womanhood. The grandmother is obsessed with the outward appurtenances of a niceness the opposite of which isn’t cruelty, but commonness:

Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady. (138)

Not only is the old woman appearance-obsessed, but her worldview is so absurdly limited that she assumes everyone is equally superficial; “anyone” would infer her exalted status from the fake flowers pinned on her, even if she were a corpse. It’s an absurd image, as well as an efficiently ominous one, given what befalls her.

As with O’Connor’s other ridiculous matrons, the grandmother’s offspring often reject or ridicule her pretensions. Her family’s disdain prompts the grandmother to continually invoke a vanished age of better manners and, not coincidentally, entrenched Jim Crow-era Southern attitudes:

“In my time,” said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, “children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then. Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!” she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack. (139)

O’Connor immediately juxtaposes the grandmother’s pre-lapsarian “people did right back then” with a grossly reductive racial slur; manners may have mattered greatly “in [her] time,” but the dignity of fellow human beings of presumed lesser status clearly did not.

So intent is this woman on pursuing her romanticized sense of heritage that she succeeds in hijacking a planned family vacation to Florida. She had wanted instead “to visit some of her connections in East Tennessee.”(137) What these “connections” are we do not discover, but O’Connor’s use of “connections” rather than, say, “relatives,” suggests that the grandmother is drawn merely to her own relationship with Tennessee, rather than to any human loved ones there. Her Tennessee connections remain abstract, and her actual family couldn’t care less about them. Her eight-year-old grandson even dismisses the state as “just a hillbilly dumping ground.”(139)

Nevertheless, the old woman holds fast to her illusions, set to the tune of The Tennessee Waltz, replete with a gentleman suitor of her youth who owned Coca-Cola shares, and played against a backdrop of a dimly-remembered six-columned plantation house she visited once. On the family’s car trip through Georgia, the grandmother decides that this very plantation house is a crucial “educational” digression, and manipulates her family into trying to find it on a desolate rural back road. She even fabricates a wholly fictitious secret panel in the house which hides Confederate treasure, “not telling the truth but wishing she were” (143) in order to heighten the scabrous allure of the past. She is monomaniacal in dragging her offspring into a counterfeit plantation past along with her.

It is at this moment that O’Connor ratchets up both the character’s slapstick, and the story’s larger narrative irony. En route to her architectural delusion of grandeur, the mythologizing old woman suddenly experiences the “horrible thought” that the house is not on this Georgia road (which runs just past the darkly-named “Toombsville”) after all, but in Tennessee (if, the reader wonders, it ever existed). The old woman’s convulsive reactive twitch is a sharp burlesque of secret embarrassment. Its violence startles the cat she’s hidden in her valise, which attacks her son, causing him to drive off the road and crash. This visceral catastrophe is at once absurdly funny and decidedly fatal, as it renders the family helpless and exposed to the inevitable onslaught of The Misfit. Deepening the irony is the fact that had the family driven straight to Florida without the grandmother’s interference, they may have avoided the Misfit altogether.

The Misfit and his two accomplices arrive on the scene with preternatural efficiency in a “big black battered hearse-like automobile” (145), and the ensuing description of the men gives the reader little hope that they are genteel Southern gentlemen bent on chivalry. We meet Hiram, a spectre-like figure whose hat ominously obscures his face, and Bobby Lee, a grinning “fat boy” wearing a sweatshirt “with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” (146) Bobby Lee may be read as a perverse ironic reference to the Confederate heritage the grandmother so idolizes; another Robert Lee, the Civil War General, famously rode a silver gelding named Traveller throughout the war. It is as though the grandmother’s dream of the South has transformed into a grinning sweatshirt-clad nightmare.

As for The Misfit himself, he is described as gray-haired, bespectacled, and scholarly, as well as apologetically polite about his half-dressed appearance. This unassuming shabbiness somewhat recalls Dostoevsky’s down-at-heels Devil of The Brothers Karamazov. But the similarity ends there. Unlike Dostoevsky’s retiring, rather passively sardonic Devil figure, The Misfit exudes a commanding menace. We never see the Devil of Karamazov up to any sin of commission, whereas The Misfit efficiently dispatches the old woman’s family to their death in the woods at the hands of his henchmen.

Faced even with the murder of her entire family, O’Connor’s old woman still clings to her characteristic comical snobbishness, attempting to flatter The Misfit’s vanity by exclaiming “’I know you’re a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!’”(147) She thus subjects The Misfit to the same absurd superficial duality of niceness vs. commonness to which she has always held everyone.

She further entreats him to pray to Jesus, even calling Jesus’ name. This recitation is more like conventional superstitious piety than like prayer, however, another facet of her manipulation rather than a plea arising from faith, “almost sound[ing] as if she might be cursing” (151). And in any case, this facile evocation of Christianity renders The Misfit only more dangerous:

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” the Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown 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…if I had been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” (152)

The Misfit has made a choice arising out of the sin of despair; he refuses to make the leap of faith in Christ’s divinity and has consigned himself to “no pleasure but meanness.” It’s the tragedy of free will, the decision of a profoundly alienated human soul.

And with the story’s most transcendent touch of irony, it is The Misfit’s very despair that causes the grandmother’s sudden arrival at a state of Divine Grace. Grace isn’t visited upon her by the love of her family or her previous religious training, (which is likely Protestant, given that her grandson’s name is John Wesley (137), a seeming allusion to Methodism). It is The Misfit’s “face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry” (152) that moves her, suddenly, murmuringly, to truly empathize with him. She is no longer angling to survive her encounter, but has simply arrived, with the swift ineluctable mystery of a miracle, at a state where love and soulful connection transcend all obstacles, even that fatal distance between murderer and victim. She is simply dazzled by its truth, exclaiming “’Why, you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’She reached out and touched him on the shoulder.” (152)

The Misfit seems to experience this outreach as a mortal assault, recoiling “as if a snake had bitten him and [shooting] her three times through the chest.”(152) Te still-unnamed grandmother dies with a smile on her face, gazing into heaven. At the cost of her life, her soul has been redeemed. And the Misfit has witnessed her Grace, firsthand. He acknowledges that had she faced the great cost of her soul before her final confrontation, she “would have been a good woman.” Afterwards, wiping his spectacles, The Misfit is pale and “defenseless-looking.” To the idiotic Bobby Lee, he amends his statement that there’s no pleasure in life but meanness, stating instead that there’s no pleasure in life at all.

I think this tiny shift in his apprehension of pleasure, bleak as it seems, leaves room for hope of The Misfit’s salvation. His last and only solace in the absence of the Divine, that of doing people harm, has been robbed of him by the grandmother’s final, transcendent empathy. A Good Man Is Hard to Find remains a comedy, not a tragedy, precisely because of The Misfit’s newly shaken state of despair, in which, perhaps, all is not lost.

Works Cited

O’Connor, Mary Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” Flannery O’Connor Collected Works New York: The Library of America, 1988.

O’Connor, Mary Flannery. A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Flannery O’Connor Collected Works New York: The Library of America, 1988.

O’Connor, Flannery. “Letter to Sally and Robert Fitzgerald,January 1955” Flannery O’Connor Collected Works New York: The Library of America, 1988.

The Virus of Our History: Historical Determinants and Contexts in Shteyngart’s Absurdistan

22 Aug
Cover of "Absurdistan: A Novel"

Cover of Absurdistan: A Novel

The hero of Gary Shteyngart’s satiric novel Absurdistan is burdened as much by history as he is by his excess weight. From the novel’s opening —a plea to the INS to allow him into the US — Misha Vainberg (his last name touching both on vanity and futility) is a soul in bondage seeking freedom. History is Misha’s Egypt, and America the Promised Land towards which he wanders.

The entwined histories that hold Misha captive are that of the former Soviet Empire, now in rapid decline, and a literally disfiguring Judaism Misha both exploits and resents. Misha seeks to leave these traditions behind in favor of the New York City of cheerful laundromats, democratic subway cars hurtling ever forward, and comidas criollas. While America is not historyless, it constitutes relatively little baggage for Misha.  Indeed, Rouenna, Misha’s Bronx-born Afro-Latin/German/Irish girlfriend, can be seen as the ethnic culmination of America’s colonial past. Underprivileged, canny, and baldly opportunistic, Rouenna represents for Misha not the burdens of tradition and decline, but the promise of progress; and progress is Misha’s true religion. This American woman embodies an erotic escape from the Soviet/ Judaic baggage of Misha’s psyche; Rouenna is the Statue of Liberty welcoming Misha’s history-plagued soul into a new harbor. As the novel ends, Misha pledges to throw in his lot with Rouenna’s American one, come what may. The date of Misha’s decision is September 10, 2001. There’s no escaping history.

Primary in Misha’s experience of history is his survival of the fall of the USSR. Ironically, Misha is an economic beneficiary of the decline of Communist Empire, as the only son of the 1,238 richest man in Russia. His father Boris, a successful oligarch (read: gangster) emerged from prison at the dawn of a new era:

…By the time Beloved Papa got out, two things had happened: Gorbachev had graciously called off most of that annoying, unprofitable communism with the long lines and detonating television sets, and Beloved Papa had met everyone he would need to know in his re-incarnation as a Russian oligarch. All those Georgians and Tatars and Ukrainians with the sweaty-brow entrepreneurial spirit so beloved by the American consulate. All the Ingush and Ossetians and Chechens with the casual attitude toward public violence that would create the fine explosive Russia we know today. These men could throw a punch, strangle a hooker, fake a customs form, hijack a truck, blow up a restaurant, start a shell company, buy a television network, run for parliament. Oh, they were kapitalists, all right. (p. 58)

Here Shteyngart associates the rise of the oligarchy with the descent of the former USSR into crime, corruption, and chaos. The “entrepreneurial spirit” of post-Soviet kapitalism engenders not democratic opportunity, but an explosive violence animating every exchange of power, from punch-throwing to running for parliament. Boris Vainberg himself falls by the sword, blown up by fellow oligarchs “Oleg the Moose and his syphilitic cousin Zhora.”

Misha encounters Oleg and Zhora at his father’s funeral, and his personal anger and loss are dwarfed by the exigencies of Soviet and post-Soviet history.  He accepts Oleg’s assertion that “[my disagreements with your father] to the very last were just fights between brothers. I think, in some measure, we’re all sort of responsible for his death.” (p. 46)

Misha is all too aware that these aging gangsters share more in his father’s legacy than he does. He further understands that culpability for his father’s murder, much as in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, is collective:

Standing before the menfolk of my father’s generation, I could do nothing. Before their rough hands and stale cigarette-vodka smells, I could only shudder and feel, along with fright and disgust, appeasement and complicity. These miscreants were our country’s rulers. To survive their world, one has to wear many hats—perpetrator, victim, silent bystander. I could do a little of each.

(p. 47)

As for Misha’s own Soviet history, he mourns the loss of his Soviet childhood more viscerally than the loss of his father. Encountering a group of kindergartners crossing a busy St. Petersburg street, Misha is struck with the profound schism between hopeful past and an amputated future:

I looked back at the children, catching the boy with the red flag taking his first careful step onto the Bolshoi Prospekt, waving his banner with gusto, as if this were 1971, not 2001, and the flag he held were still the emblem of a superpower. I asked myself, If I were to give each of them US$100,000, would their lives change? Would they learn to become human beings upon completing their adolescence? Would the virus of our history be kept at bay by a cocktail of dollar-denominated humanism? Would they become, in a sense, Misha’s Children? But even with my largesse, I could see nothing positive befalling them. A temporary respite from alcoholism, harlotry, heart disease, and depression. Misha’s Children? Forget it. It would make more sense to have sex with their teacher and then buy her a refrigerator…I cried for the children of some Kindergarten No. 567, and for my own impotence and collusion in everything around me. Eventually, I promised myself, I would cry for dead Papa, too.

(p. 37)

After abnegating a possible future as young oligarch, and instead funding (though not participating in) a charity called Misha’s Children, Misha escapes St. Petersburg for the titular Absurdistan, a fictional former Soviet republic. Here Misha may be somewhat free of his Soviet sorrow, but his other historical burden, Judaism, is constantly brought to bear.

Alienated from the faith of his forefathers, Misha’s signal Jewish experience was a disfiguring circumcision at the hands of drunken Brooklyn Hasidim at the age of eighteen.  And while Misha may feel some  nostalgic ambivalence for Russia (demonstrated by his frequent reference to its literary giants such as Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Lermontov and Chekhov) Misha finds little to recommend in Jewishness. He advises his young stepmother Lyuba against converting to Judaism, complaining “I lost half my khui over it” (p. 59) and proclaiming “it’s just a codified system of anxieties…It’s a losing proposition for everyone involved, the Jew, his friend, even his enemy in the end.” (p.88)

When called upon by his erstwhile friends the Nanabragovs to act as Minister of Cultural Affairs, Misha’s cynicism regarding Jewish history becomes painfully clear. He formulates a “Modest Proposal” for a Holocaust Museum in Absurdistan in order to attract Israeli and American tourist money. Misha seeks to Disney-fy the Holocaust, reduce it to kitsch, yielding a sellable brand: “Even among the most thoroughly secular and unaffiliated young Jews, the Holocaust enjoys great name recognition.” (p 268) Only whitefish scores higher. He even proposes a themelike museum experience called “Holocaust for Kidz,” explaining that “studies have shown that it’s never too early to frighten a child with images of skeletal remains and naked women being chased by dogs across the Polish snow, “ and that “young participants will leave feeling alienated and profoundly depressed,”(270-271) to seek comfort in ice cream.

Luckily or unluckily, Misha’s Institute for Caspian Holocaust Studies, aka the Museum of Sevo-Jewish friendship, never comes to pass. Misha again enacts his roles as “perpetrator, victim, and silent bystander” as the Absurdstani war reveals itself to be an artificial sham spiraling out of control, the  Nanabragovs corrupt opportunists, and Misha’s own efforts in the political situation witless machinations benefiting solely the power elite.

Misha’s Jewish history does benefit him directly in one way, however—he is rescued from Absurdsvani violence by a tribe of “Mountain Jews,” who help him reach somewhat of a rapprochement with his Jewishness and reflect newly on his situation. Upon reflecting upon his circumstances—still rich, now casually affianced to the female scion of the Nanabragov dynasty, and bound for Belgium, of which he is a paid-for citizen, Misha decides instead at the last minute (one of the last minutes before 9/11/01, Shteyngart is careful to point out) to extricate himself from the Old World altogether and launch himself back into New York and Rouenna.

Misha’s desire for Rouenna never abates in Absurdistan; she is soother of his half-ruined khui, goddess of Laundromat and topless bar whose cultural baggage of poverty and racial complexity only increase her allure. She is the ever-optimistic, dark-skinned refutation to the pale sad Sarah, a Russian “Jewess” whom Misha encounters at his father’s funeral. True, Rouenna may be pregnant by Jerry Shteynfarb, another Russian Jewish émigré whom Misha knew at Accidental College and disdains as an opportunistic hack, but Misha decides, “[the baby] will be my child, too.  They are all my children, as far as I’m concerned.” (p. 332) Thus Misha’s Children are to be American—to be specific, Russian/Jewish/Puerto Rican/ German/Irish children, born in New York. This is Misha’s bid to escape history.

Not by accident, often Misha’s recollections of New York and Rouenna are expressed in images of flight:

I floated above the city, glancing generously in each direction. The careless hooks and crags of Queens and Brooklyn, slivers of industry, quadrangles of brown-bricked terrace flats; the frantic middle-class hopes of already half-darkened New Jersey tendering their resignation for the night; the carpeted grid of Manhattan sinking into the flat horizon, the garlands of yellow light—diffuse, flickering—that form the sprawl of tenements, the garlands of yellow light –swerving, opportunistic—that form the headlights of taxi caravans: the garlands of yellow light, aye, in their horizontal and vertical arrangements that form a final resting place for the collected hopes of our civilization.

And to my father, I say: I’m sorry, but this floating feeling, this yellow city at my feet, those full lips around what’s left of me, this is my happiness, Papa. This is my pierogi.

(p. 35)

This list, this prayer, this incantation, recalls less the Great Russian authors and seems to strive instead for a Whitmanesque optimism. Whether Misha Vainberg makes it back to New York in time for 9/11, the reader doesn’t know. But at least by novel’s end he’s lost some weight.

Works Cited

Shteyngart, Gary. Absurdistan. New York: Random House, 2006.

¡Hola y Holla!

12 Jun

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