“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: Who can know it?” Jeremiah 17: 9, The King James Bible
I’m delving into Flannery O’Connor like mad, looking for violence. It all started with my stumbling upon this YouTube clip of Father Robert Barron’s movie review of Coen Brothers’ acclaimed movie “Fargo.”
I was bemused to hear him compare Joel and Ethan Coen’s films to Flannery O’Connor’s stories, for in them we can find violence juxtaposed closely with humor. It has been years since I read O’Connor’s stories. After watching “Fargo” again the other night, I thought, I must read more of Flannery O’Connor, this time in a different light. I want to experience how this is true. I’m curious to find out how and why a deeply religious female author would instil violence in her stories. A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories is a good source for my purpose.
Within the ten stories in this collection, I’ve encountered shocking and disturbing scenes that if being shown in cinematic light today could match what’s on screen, not only physical violence, but malicious deceits, verbal abuse, nasty and mean motives leading to disturbing actions.
Here are some of the scenes: Leading the pack is “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, where a family of six from baby to Grandma is killed by an escaped convict The Misfit and his men. In “Good Country People”, a deceitful young man posing as a Bible salesman outsmarts a woman aiming to seduce him, overpowering her and robbing her prosthetic leg.
Or how about these scenes: A grandfather denies knowing his young grandson in the face of danger in an unfamiliar city in “The Artificial Nigger”. A stranger gaining the trust of an old woman and later marrying her deaf-mute daughter but ends up abandoning her and driving off with her mother’s car and money after the wedding in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”. Children setting off a wild-fire and endangering a home and its occupants out of revenge, jealousy, or plain malice in “A Circle in the Fire”. Almost all the stories depict human depravity in a shocking way, albeit intermingled with humor. But often, for me, the humor does not compensate for the disturbing and grotesque. From what I’ve read in this collection, O’Connor could well have written the movie “No Country for Old Men”, except she would have sprinkled with a dash of sardonic fun.
But why? If for anything but to show the depravity and the hypocrisy among supposedly ‘good country folks’, and by extension, all humanity, O’Connor is most successful. Like the choir boys turned savages in The Lord of the Flies, what we are is largely circumstantial, the author seems to point out. O’Connor is very bold and direct in conveying this message. She does not cover up the dark side of human nature but exposes it. By so doing, she points to the need for redemptive grace.
In “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, we see at the moment of imminent death, the grumpy Grandma looks at The Misfit in a new light, realizing that her existential predicament is not much different from the criminal’s. She says to The Misfit:
Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children! She reached out and touched him on the shoulder.
But her epiphany comes too late for herself.
The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.
While we see the murder of a seemingly innocent old woman, albeit hypocritical, O’Connor delivers the verdict of our human condition ironically by the words of The Misfit:
She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.
I find too, that violence in O’Connor’s stories are not gratuitous. It’s a situation, an action that comes as unexpected, and with that, O’Connor deftly tips the balance. These shocking acts usually serves to shatter the status quo of her characters, challenge their world view and convictions. O’Connor does not go about describing the grotesque in gory images, rather, in a matter-of-fact way. We only hear gun shots from afar when the other members of the family are killed. And for the Grandma, The Misfit “shot her three times through the chest.” These mere seven words send out the eerie and shocking effect of cold-blooded murder without having to dwell on the explicit.
Likewise, in “A Circle in the Fire”, it’s a few sardonic words from the disgruntled kid Powell that send chill down our spine as he lights up a match to set fire to the dry wooded area outside Mrs. Cope’s farm home:
Do you know what I would do with this place if I had the chance?… I’d build a big parking lot on it…
Powell told his two companions. Seeing this, the slow-witted daughter of Mrs. Cope’s runs home excited, shouting:
Mama, Mama, they’re going to build a parking lot here!
Yes, a likely scene and dialogue from a Coen Brothers movie.
But it is O’Connor’s own words that is most revealing in pointing out the reasons behind the violence:
In my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.
And violence is never an end in itself:
We hear many complaints about the prevalence of violence in modern fiction, and it is always assumed that this violence is bad thing and meant to be an end in itself. With the serious writer, violence is never an end in itself. It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially…
In reading (and movie watching, for that matter) we need to find and catch that glimpse of grace. With this, O’Connor had also set a standard for a good screenplay:
Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them.
It is the “intrusion of grace” that the violent act is set up for. Without the Grandma’s final epiphany and the gesture of reaching out to The Misfit, O’Connor had said, “I would have no story.”
The writer sure knew a bit about the human heart.