Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Good Critic is Hard to Find

Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is the most disturbing work of literature I know of; reading it is a genuinely painful experience. An author (at least, a respectable one) who subjects her readers to such an experience must have a very important insight to convey, and I think O'Connor does. Here is how I read her story (with a nod to Dr. Russell for some of his insights); let me know how I do.

The family is described at the beginning of the story as quite ordinary; they are immersed in their mundane tasks, the father reading the newspaper, the children perusing the comics. Little love - one might even say, little concern - is apparent among the various members of the family; Bailey ignores his mother as she speaks to him, the children speak disrespectfully towards their grandmother. To ask if these are good people or bad people seems entirely inappropriate; they are uncommitted people, who, like the great horde in the antechamber of the Inferno, have never taken the side of good or evil in their lives.

The grandmother seems particularly frivolous, fawning over her kitten, obsessed with making a decorous appearance. When the family stops at Red Sammy's barbecue, she mourns with the proprietor over the loss of "better times," and they agree that "Europe was entirely to blame for the way things were now." This preoccupation with other people's sinfulness seems to mark in O'Connor's work those characters who fail to live a genuinely moral life (I am thinking here of "The Life You Save May Be Your Own").

Then the accident happens and the Misfit appears. Here is a character who clearly has taken a side, and its the side of evil, the most heinous evil imaginable. He explains to the grandmother that the reason he acts as he does is because he is convinced that he has been wronged by his incarceration; since the world is a realm of injustice, he sees no reason why he himself should be any different: "You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you're going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it." As he goes on to say, "I call myself the Misfit, because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment."

Of course, the Misfit's conception of himself as "a man more sinned against than sinning" reveals an obvious, even ridiculous, lack of self-understanding. But I think it is also true that his words have a representative character; all men, in so far as they are subject to "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" find it impossible to match their sufferings to their sins in a comprehensive manner. This, in the most practical sense, is what it means to live in a fallen world.

And yet, as the Misfit recognizes, if Christ rose from the dead, then the order of an unjust world (which is essentially disorder) has been overthrown, and our duty is to commit ourselves to acting in accord with the just order of the world to come: "If He did what He said, then its nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him." Of course, the other alternative is apparent: "if He didn't, then its nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness." His words here are reminiscent of Ivan Karimozov's dictum "if God does not exist, then all things are permitted." The life of the Misfit demonstrates as emphatically as possible what exactly he believes concerning this question.

But the grandmother? Her response to the Misfit is "maybe he didn't raise the dead." This response, too, is revealing and what it reveals is a soul uncommitted. But an unrestrained commitment is precisely what the Misfit (and not just the Misfit) says Christ's triumph requires of us. So in this respect, the grandmother and the Misfit are living lives of a similar moral tenor; this is why the grandmother's last words to the Misfit are: "You're one of my own children." Both have failed to make that commitment to the Gospel which alone can justify the strenuous efforts of a moral life. Both of them, in the absence of that commitment, enjoy that awful liberty which is really death, the liberty to do whatever we want. The difference between them is that the Misfit is conscious of this, and the grandmother is not; the enormous disparity in the kinds of lives they live is really a consequence of taste, more than anything. But the grandmother, in so far as she too belongs to the unjust order of a fallen world, is a misfit also. We all are, and it is only in a consistent commitment to the kingdom of heaven that we can discover the world into which we truly fit.

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