17.6.20

Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" Is As Relevant Today As It Was in 1955 (When It Was First Published)

There are a few short stories I keep coming back to in my life. I first read Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" in college. I was hooked. And don't read this blog post if you have not read the story. Here is a copy so you can return here after you've read it. You're welcome.
A black, empty vehicle idles in the driveway.
Photo by Anton Kraev on Unsplash
Reading "A Good Man is Hard to Find" in College
My professor, Sr. Jeanne d'Arc Kernion, was a senior Catholic Nun with a doctorate in English. She had been the mother superior of her monastery until it had dwindled in numbers. She was one of the few sisters left — her motherhouse was in Atchinson, Kansas — but she stayed in Louisiana until she retired a few years ago. She was one of the best English teachers I ever had because her instruction came with a love of fiction. She was always reading a new novel every week — and I felt like, for her, talking about fiction was as easy as making one's coffee with warm milk in the morning. I took her Contemporary Fiction course — which was a way for her to teach college-age students many of her favorite works of fiction she could cram into a semester.

Coming from the South We All Knew Someone Like the Grandmother (And More Spoilers!)
We read O'Connor in that class — and I think for me, at nineteen or twenty years old, I knew people like the Grandmother. So she wasn't that shocking. In the South, we had grandmothers before anyone ever heard of a "Karen"! I also remember being attuned to O'Connor's insertions of absurd details. For example, a monkey is tied to a Chinaberry tree in the story. Who does that? And the unnamed mother has a face, according to the text, as innocent as a cabbage! Those strange details hooked me to O'Connor's fictional world, which is why I devoured her other stories and two works of fiction with delight.

O'Connor's fictional world is inter-connected — while her stories do not feature repeat characters and there isn't overarching worldbuilding inherent to her storytelling — it is evident that the universe of the Grandmother and the Misfit are the same universe as Hazel Motes in Wise Blood and Mr. Shiflet in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." The universal theme that connects all of O'Connor's fiction is that our lives of dreary banality can often become undone by the macabre to shake us out of our complacency. In "A Good Man" — it's the innocent family vacation that ultimately turns deadly that shakes the reader out of their complacency. But, as you notice, if you've read the story repeatedly, O'Connor has signposted the narrative with heavy-handed hints that something awful is just around the corner.

O'Connor's Foreshadowing Technique is in Retrospect Obvious, But No One Gets it At First
I'm a high school English teacher, and I often teach the short story to Ninth and Tenth graders. I like to read the story out loud, and I have different students read different parts. I tend to read the narration. No one gets the foreshadowing until the end. Most of my students are surprised when I remind them that the Grandmother reads about the Misfit in the newspaper — it's mentioned in the first paragraph! And a quarter of the way in — Red Sammy's wife talks about a murderer attacking her restaurant. And there are other less than obvious hints. The Grandmother complains that she should dress formally for the car ride in case anyone who would find her dead on the roadside would know right away she was a lady!

Spoiler Alert! And Why People Don't See the Misfit Coming
There is also symbolic foreshadowing of the Grandmother pointing out to June Star and John Wesley a cotton field cemetery dotted with five or six grave markings. Oh no. In the end — the body count is six dead. I am assuming you, my reader, have read the short story, or you wouldn't be reading my review — but now I know you will return to the text and find the examples I just pointed out to you. My students are often shocked. And I think it says a lot about O'Connor's craft as a writer. She does not write a stray sentence. Every word, every line, is purposeful — even the details, that on first reading, seem redundant, at the end are memorable and shocking. Ironically, the Grandmother would worry about what her corpse looked like — as if people would wonder whether her dress color matched her hat! But it's those details that stick with us, the absurd and zany happenings of the Grandmother's storytelling and the insouciant children, June Starr and John Wesley — that catch our attention, and we are drawn into their world that by the end, we forget there is a Misfit on the loose. We don't see him coming.

The Grandmother's Actions Are the Biggest Red Flag
Yes, people don't see the Misfit coming, and they miss the textual clues that point to a potential dumpster fire. Yet — the sticking point is that it's all the Grandmother's fault! I think many readers see the Grandmother as goofy and a nag — slightly annoying and hypocritical. But there is also something else about the Grandmother that bothers me (besides being an archetypical Southern nag).

She doesn't think about the ramifications of her actions. If you chart it out, the entire story is the Grandmother's series of mistakes that lead to her and her family's death. And she is oblivious to her moral responsibility in this fate until the end — when in the story's climactic moment, she sees the Misfit and reaches out to him and says he is one of her own babies. I think the Grandmother sees that she is about to die, but she also, in a flash, has a revelation about her own broken, human condition.

People sometimes quip that before you die your life flashes before your eyes. But for the Grandmother — I think — she sees everything she did wrong in painstaking detail. She saw how she didn't want to go on the vacation, and when she reluctantly went, she hid the cat in her basket so no one would find out. She never thinks that perhaps her son, in reserving a motel room, would need to know that there was a cat on board. She ironically is worried that in her absence, the cat will accidentally turn on the gas burner and asphyxiate itself. When in truth, her caviler attitude is one step that brings her to her own death. Telling her son and family that she knows the location of a house with a secret door — I won't riddle you with all of the details — she forces everyone to go on a wild goose chase, which eventually leads them off the beaten path and lost. The Grandmother realizes that she has no idea how to find the house — that's it's not in Georgia — but in Tennessee — and in that moment instead coming clean with everyone she jostles the basket with Pitty Sing the cat — who jumps out in a rube-goldberg scenario that causes the Father to lose control of the car and crash it.

You may miss it if you have only read the story once — but there is a moment when the Grandmother is crouched in the fetal position, another foreshadowing of her death? She fantasizes that she is injured, so her son will have pity on her rather than become angry about leading the family astray. Now — it is perhaps easy to whisk away the Grandmother's action as just a senile senior citizen. But if we take the Grandmother to court, it becomes clear that this is a person who would rather be hurt, to be injured, to put her family in danger, rather than act honestly and allow her words to match her actions.

The Grandmother's Racist Microaggressions Should Also Be Considered
Take her behavior earlier in the story when she and Red Sammy, the Bar-b-que restaurant owner, are railing on about the moral degradation of society. But the Grandmother enjoys touting moral platitudes, but easily her actions belie her words. She thinks nothing of taking a photograph of a little black child she sees on the side of the road, not wearing pants (or, as we say in the South, britches). And she thinks nothing of telling her grandchildren a story loaded with racist innuendo about Black people.

O'Connor inserts these insensitivities into the mouth of the Grandmother because it is another way to show that this is a person who does not reflect on the implications of their actions — at all. But the Grandmother is also a person who very easily will point the finger at someone else. So when the Misfit and his henchman find the Grandmother and her family stuck on the side of the road, again, the Grandmother does not hesitate to endanger her family further when she recognizes him and shouts out his name. I should add here that I am not a criminal murderer, but if I were, I certainly would not want a witness to recognize me and shout my name, for all to hear — especially if I am a recently escaped federal prisoner. Now I do not mean to suggest that the Grandmother directly planned and caused her and her family's demise — but I will argue that O'Connor is suggesting that much of society's problems lie in an inability to truly and authentically reflect on our actions.

O'Connor's Story is Radically Relevant in Our Times that Does Not Seem Much Different from 1955
Returning to the racist and demeaning behavior of the Grandmother — she has probably never been put to task for how she talks about and treats people of color. She has become smug in her moral uprightness that she is unable, or unwilling, to see her participation in oppressing those that are not like her. An inability to appreciate difference, to see color, to see racial division is why, O'Connor's short story, is relevant for today — written over fifty years ago, its portrayal of a white person who cannot zoom out and see how she is part of a bigger problem painfully rings true in the recent events surrounding the death of George Floyd.

Black Americans have rallied together and protested the murder of an innocent Black man at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. And cries have been shouted across the nation that we as a people, must come to terms with our conflicted relationship to race in this country. The axial moment of "A Good Man" is that the Grandmother only comes to realize her cooperation at the moment of her death — as I mentioned earlier in this blog post. The Misfit shoots her twice in the heart — which is telling — because the heart is the symbol of emotion and love. And the Misfit shot her in a moment of recoil when the Grandmother, in an almost tender moment of love, reaches out to him and calls him her child.

"'She would have been a good woman,' the Misfit said, 'if there had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life'"
I think readers miss something relevant to what happens after the Misfit kills the Grandmother. The Misfit is taken back by his violence and is shaken more than he would typically be, wiping his glasses of the blood of the woman he has just shot. His henchman criticizes him, and he retorts, it is no real pleasure in life. And at that moment he says, perhaps, the most quotable line from the story — "'She would have been a good woman,' the Misfit said, 'if it had. been somebody to shoot her every minute of her life.'" I read this to say, that the Misfit recognizes that it was something good, something preternaturally good, about the Grandmother's final action, that causes him to recoil like a snake and kill her.

I think of a person tending to a wounded dog — and the dog, not recognizing the person's kindness, bites him. The Misfit has had a life of criminality, disavowal of goodness, and a childhood deprived of love and care. In the Misfit, we see a man who has indeed been a "miss fit." He does not fit into society's fabric, so he has isolated himself and chosen a life of delinquency. It is hinted that he killed his own family. And that his father physically abused him.

When O'Connor Alludes to Jesus She is Being More than Just Religious
And the Misfit's theological discussion with his Grandmother — that Jesus threw it all off balance is telling. The Misfit cannot accept a person like Jesus because the Misfit's own life has been absent of the kind of love that Jesus represents. In fact, in an almost desiring way, the Misfit wishes he had seen the person of Jesus with his own eyes and witnessed his miracles. He would have to see it to believe it. But isn't that the final irony of this messed up tale? That a racist, empty-headed, middle-class, commodity obsessed, superficial white woman becomes a beacon of love that infiltrates the misfit's hardened heart. Let that sink in.

Now we don't know what happens to the Misfit. Because the story ends. And as a teaching tip — have your students continue the story! And you may be aware that O'Connor herself gave a rendering of what she believed will become of the Misfit. She sees the Grandmother's action as a moment of grace that plants itself in the heart of the misfit that will grow like a mustard seed into a crow-filled tree! That's an interesting visual metaphor, the action of grace. And I get it. Grace (or call it a moment of aesthetic judgment) is this instantaneous moment of undeserved love — or mercy — that humans are capable of — but we often do not consider it — taken in more by reports of humanity's baser nature or propensity for violence and harm.

So how are we to come away with this story? What is the message that it leaves us with, ultimately? I think the message of "A Good Man is Hard to find" is that "the good" is something that does not come out of moral uprightness or outward bearing signs of good behavior. Do you remember who says the title of the story? It's Red Sammy — and he certainly is not the paragon of a good man. Or is he?

Goodness is Not a Polite Profile But an Eruption
In this story, the good cannot be a profile we affix to a person. As when we say, "Oh, he's good because of XYZ." Goodness is an eruption, a sudden moment of grace that can spring up when we least expect it — come in at a moment of otherwise sheer terror to open up the world anew. Perhaps the Misfit is right — Jesus threw the world off balance. Jesus — here — being an analog for that which comes into the world, despite its own gnarly roughness, and can shine forth.

Isn't it absurd that in O'Connor's worldview, that turns out to be a miserly old woman? I guess that is the truth of "A Good Man is Hard to Find". So now. I try to judge people less harshly. I also try to be more aware of my own words and how they match my actions. When I first read the story with Sister Jean d'Arc, I saw myself as a good man. I was in school, and I tried my best to go to Church, to help others. But I feel like this story is about how the usual trappings of goodness often don't reveal our true selves. For example — remember bratty June Starr and John Wesley? In the story, the children, even though they are spoiled brats and do not show respect to their elders, see the adults' hypocrisy. The family in this story do not listen to one another. They regularly talk over one another — and I think O'Connor presents us with this family for a reason. For they are not unlike many families I know — or the family I come from — in which we often bicker and complain, but rarely take a breath, and achieve quiet. And listen.

Advertisement for a TpT Short Discussion Guide: A Good Man is Hard to Find Made by Stones of Erasmus © 2020

12.6.20

Journal & Rant: Quotation On Owning Property (And How This Aphorism Unnerves Me)

He who has the property in the soil has the same up to the sky.
Arrow Magazine Advert 1950s
Property Rights Are Not Something to Argue About With Americans
     I found the above aphorism in a quote book from England published in 1856. It would not be hard to convince a mogul in the real estate business that the above aphorism is a truth worth considering. In the United States, property ownership is next to godliness. Don't mess with someone's land. Ever since Europeans set their toe on the Americas, men were imbued with insane logic that what they claimed from the crown and God was rightfully their property. The Native Americans? Puh-shah — we came, we saw, we converted them to Christianity. Freedom, baby! Manifest destiny! But why is this concept of land ownership so ingrained in American culture? And why is it a dangerous thought? And should we reconsider it?
But What Do I Own, Really?
     As a teenager, I was suspicious of most things (as is usual for a teen). I remember telling my aunt who had come over for dinner that "I'd never own a house." She laughed. And then spent the remainder of our mirliton stuffed with hamburger meat as to why I should reconsider my statement. And now at forty years old, I still don't own property. I have no land deeds to my name. Nah dah
     My landlessness is probably due to the fact that I live in New York City where no one in my income bracket owns a piece of property unless they inherited it — or live three states out from the city center. And I am comfortable with renting. And I don't own a car, either, because I live in a neighborhood close to a commuter train, subway station, and bus lines. But I also choose to live in New York — yet it is not where I was born — that would be the South  and certainly in South Louisiana to be middle class, to be white, to be American — is to own a house. 
     In fact, right after Hurricane Katrina, property values were ridiculously low. The government was literally giving land away in a program called "The Road Home"  to anyone who would grab it (taken from folks who had lost their mortgage because of displacement or who did not have the capital to rebuild). I never bought one of those post-Katrina properties but I know a few folks who did and they act like they got a great deal. But what if you lost your property, do you still have the sky? There is a Massasoit saying that goes something like how can we claim we own land when it belongs to Mother Nature — "How can one man say it belongs only to him?". I am amazed by how in radical ways, changing the perspective we have on private land ownership can change how we live together in a community. 
      For example, changing a busy avenue to a pedestrian mall during this recent Cornavirus epidemic has transformed my neighborhood. Where you would normally see cars buzzing down a busy thoroughfare a broad avenue turns into a long park for people to safely social distance and get fresh air! But I also live in a neighborhood bereft of public green space despite the fact that many of the apartments in my neighborhood are historic "garden apartments" — boasting gorgeous park spaces within the confines of private, closed-off buildings. Take a moment and think about how your city or neighborhood would drastically change if even a half percent of private land was open to the public. If you are pessimistic about this prospect then you are missing the opportunity to create connections between others that are desperately needed in this country.  
And How Land Ownership Ties Into Racial Ideology in America
     The same aunt who rattled off arguments to me as to why I should own a house finally bought a house. She had rented for years — but I think she resented this fact (and now, oddly, she sends me Facebook messages of black people who apparently are against the Black Lives Movement. As if she has found a treasure worth saving. "See," she thinks. "Greig will abandon his liberal ways once he sees a black person agrees with me!" She bought her house in a mixed neighborhood; she exclaims to me uncomfortably how much she loves her "black neighbors" — as if she is surprised by the comfort and safety she feels. 
      My aunt sees herself as an underdog — like a lot of white people who have a not-so-thinly-veiled disgust for any movement that touts racial equality. See. She just bought that house and has come to peace with living in close proximity to people who do not look like her. It doesn't matter that she is over sixty and will have the house paid off in forty years! She has a house. 
      But a mortgage scares the heck out of me. If I lose my job or if my income suddenly plummets it sucks that I would have to move and find cheaper housing but if I had a mortgage what would I do? I honestly believe homeownership, despite its risks, makes a certain group of American white people satisfied — they've achieved the American dream. And those Facebook messages? They're rants about how George Floyd was a criminal and no one wants to admit it and that it's hypocritical to have a funeral for him with such grand public attendance because we are in the middle of a pandemic. I can't make this stuff up.
Racism Is Bad — Until It Affects Me Personally
     I feel like people, a lot of people, do not understand racism and its ugly tentacles and how racism stretches out and chokes, black people, and white people — and brown people. As James Baldwin mentions in a documentary, I Am Not Your Negroe, made a few years ago that garnered Academy Award accolades — Baldwin's words are the voiceover of the documentary overlayed with archival material of our country's racial history, tied to recent events — there are no white people. Ever. White is just a metaphor for power and it is Chase Manhattan Bank. The same people you probably owe your mortgage to.
     So. How do I feel about the aphorism, now? Do I own the same property up to the sky? I am going to replace the quote with a different one and make it a mantra: "Leave the earth as you found it". If leaving my mark on the world means the suffering of someone else, then I want no part in it. I say that knowing full well, I am caught up in a system that is totally against this notion — but I want to believe it and as long as I am still alive I refuse to stop fighting for this belief. 
Source: Macdonnel, David Evans. A manual of quotations, by E.H. Michelsen. United Kingdom, n.p, 1856.

3.6.20

Philosophy in the Classroom (Or, the Living Room): Five Resources to Get Young People Thinking About Ethics and Moral Decision Making


As we gear up for Summertime and Summer Reading, I am thinking about FIVE ethically-minded resources to share with young people.


A Young Man in the Stacks
Photo by Aw Creative on Unsplash
1. The Ones Who Walk Away from OmelasUrsula K. LeGuin's short(ish) story is about a nearly perfect society. But the inhabitants of this supposed utopia have a dark, hidden secret. The story becomes a thought experiment on moral values and what we sacrifice to live better lives for ourselves (at the expense of others).
Detail of the infamous "Ring of Gyges" that magically grants invisibility to its wearer2. Caught You! The Ring of Gyges from Plato's Republic - Do you only do what is right when others are looking? What if you could do whatever you wanted — would you still be motivated to do the right thing? Get kids thinking about these moral questions with a free "Philosophy in the Classroom" lesson plan I made on fairness and justice. 
Painterly image of Plato's Cave (from the point of view of the prisoner climbing out of the cave and seeing the sun for the first time)
3. Plato's Allegory of the Cave in Plain Language - In this classic story from Plato, the Ancient Greek Philosopher imagines a shadow world where one prisoner longs to be free. Find out what the prisoner finds and the consequences of his discovery when he shares it with his friends. 
Till We Have Faces by C.S. LewisThe Four Loves
4. Two Books by C.S. Lewis - This English author is a creative writer who instills imaginative and ethical thinking in children! I loved the Narnia books growing up — but you may not know Lewis wrote a prolific amount of books that do not include Mr. Tumnuis and the Pevensie children. It may be a little advanced for very young kiddos, but he wrote a beautiful book called The Four Loves. It is an extended essay on the different kinds of love. He also wrote a book based on the Greek Myth of Cupid and Psyche entitled Till We Have Faces — an incredible retelling of a classic tale.

Charlotte's Web
5. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White — Don't be fooled by its children's book reputation. E.B. White has crafted a delicate book about growing up, friendship, and love. The first chapter, alone, is a lesson in moral decision-making skills that any kid will relate to and want to discuss in detail.
Sources:

Le, Guin U. K. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Mankato (Minnesota: Creative Education, 1993. Print.
Lewis, C S. The Four Loves. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1991. Print.
Lewis, C S. Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. 2017, 1956. Print.

Plato, , and Andrea Tschemplik. The Republic: The Comprehensive Student Edition. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005. Print.
White, E B, and Garth Williams. Charlotte's Web. New York, NY: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 1952. Print.
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