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Happy Endings

© Sally Fitzgerald - originally published in Image magazine, 1997
reprinted January 2010 with permission of the author

One of the complaints about Flannery O'Connor's stories is that so many of them seem to end badly for her characters. Terrible things happen, most often leaving those characters either dead or crushed, and the reader a little stunned. One of Flannery's aunts had a milder objection: "No one gets married."

Of course O. E. Parker and Sarah Ruth Cates get married, in "Parker's Back", but this wedding hardly constitutes an improvement, from the romantic point of view, and the ending of that story has to be looked at from a special perspective if it is to be called happy.

The same is true of most of the rest of Flannery O'Connor's stories and novels --or parable's as they have been called in all seriousness. The perspective from which they must be seen if they are to be properly understood is that of her Christian faith. Whether or not one shares that faith, its tenets must be understood by readers when they reflect on the fiction of this writer who so effectively dramatized them, for in her case those tenets were the groundwork of her concrete and sacramental sense of life. Both the prayers of her specifically Catholic credo and her own circumstances reminded her daily of our mortality. She might have, like most of the rest of us, glided rather casually over the reference to "the hour of our death" in a prayer which she like most Catholics of her time, and for centuries before, had said daily since childhood. It might have seemed only abstractly applicable to herself in her youth, had not her experience made the reality of immediacy of that hour all too strongly felt. Most of us are allowed to forget death's inevitability for long periods of time, and we tend to order our priorities accordingly. She was never allowed to forget.

As most of her readers probably know by now, she was an invalid who died at the age of thirty-nine, having lived only 13 years after the onset of a crippling disease for which was no cure; and she had been orphaned of her father -- after his long illness of the same malady -- when she was hardly more than a child. That is to say, in Robert Frost's words, she became "acquainted with the night" early on. Moreover, when the Lupus struck her down, Her own life had not only been cut off in many ways, but even what was left to her of it was lived in constant danger. This can only have made her more aware than most of us that all life we know must ultimately be defined in the context of death.

Her faith taught her, and continued to sustain her in the belief, however, that it must be understood in the even larger context of ongoing life, both in eternity, and in space and time for the rest of surviving humanity, including those whose lives are deeply touched by the deaths of other individuals. And her faith further taught her that both death and life must be understood in the context of divine love. John Cheever puts the question: "How can a people who do not understand love hope to understand death, and who will sound the alarm?" Flannery O'Connor sounded it and also turned the question around to ask: "How can a people who do not understand death hope to understand love?"

When we have understood the answers to these questions, she seems to be telling us, we will find more happy endings in her stories than we have previously recognized.

A story about six people, including three children, coldly murdered on a vacation trip to Florida may seem an unlikely place to look for happy endings, but I would like to re-examine that story, one of her most widely read: "A Good Man Is Hard To Find." For here, interestingly enough, is precisely where such a hopeful outcome is unmistakably suggested, and this story before all others should serve to open one's eyes to Flannery O'Connor's intentions and methods.

The germ of the story, like a number of others, came from the newspapers close to home -- in this instance from several newspaper accounts of unrelated matters shortly before she wrote the story, in 1953. The title she found in a local item -- with photograph -- concerning a prize-winning performance by a hideously painted up little girl still in kitten teeth, decked out in ribbons and tutu and sausage curls, singing, "A Good Man is Hard To Find." Beyond the title, there is no connection between the photograph and the events of the short story, but possibly this child served to inspire the awful little granddaughter, June Star, who sasses her way through the action, and does her tap routine at the barbecue stand of Red Sammy Butts, the fat veteran "with the happy laugh," who is so thoroughly nasty to his wife. Flannery thought well enough of this newspaper photograph and caption to pass them along for my delectation, together with various ads and testimonials of patent medicines and inspirational columns from the local press, and I remember the clipping very clearly. So did she, and she took the nectar from it to make her fictional honey.

About the same time, an article appeared in the Atlanta paper about a small-time robber who called himself "The Misfit," in a self-pitying explanation or excuse for his crimes. A clipping about him and his honorary title turned up among her papers. Obviously, the name he gave himself was the only thing about this man that much interested the author, and certainly he was no match for the towering figure she turned him into. Incidentally, his excuse for his peccadilloes was taken rather literally in the judicial system: he was judged to be of unsound mind and committed to the lunatic asylum--Milledgeville, the town in which Flannery lived. This news cannot have escaped her notice. By the way, the mental hospital there was once the largest in the world under one roof. Flannery once described Milledgeville as a town of 8000, of whom 4000 were locked up.

There was a third element in the inspirational mix for the story and this was also to be found in the newspapers, in a series of accounts of another criminal "aloose" in the region. The subject was the person of Mr. James Francis ("Three Gun") Hill, who amassed a record of 26 kidnappings in four States, an equal number of robberies, 10 car thefts, and a daring rescue of four Florida convicts from a prison gang--all brought off in two fun filled weeks. The papers at the time were full of these accounts, and the lurid headlines of the day might well have excited a grandmother like the one who is shaking a newspaper at Bailey Boy's bald head and lecturing him on the dangers to be feared on the road to Florida, when the O'Connor story opens.

Mr. Hill was a far more formidable figure than the original self-styled Misfit, and a more vivid one. Newspaper photographs show him to have looked almost exactly as she described the character in her story, complete with metal rimmed spectacles. There were other details evidently appropriated by Flannery from life, or life as strained through the Atlanta Journal and the Atlantic Constitution: Mr. Hill was proud of his courtly manners, and in one press account called himself a "gentle man bandit," explaining that he never cussed before ladies. (Readers will remember that Flannery's mass murderer blushes when Bailey curses his mother for her incautious tongue.) In some accounts "Three Gun" Hill had two accomplices, although the fictional Hiram and Bobby Lee seem entirely imagined by O'Connor in their physical aspects and rather subhuman personalities.

The Misfit in O'Connor's story recounts a brush with a "head doctor," which accords with the fate of both these actual criminals who initially inspired her. "Three Gun" Hill, too, was committed to an insane asylum in the end, when he pled guilty to the charges against him. He was sent to a hospital in Tennessee, however, and not to Milledgeville, but the author no doubt read about the sentencing, and maybe that the eventual guilty plea suggested to her the beginnings of capitulation, the stirring of life in the Misfit, whom she conceived as a spoiled prophet, on which note her story ends.

Such a movement of the spirit seems faintly signified by the character's comment after the murders, when he indicates that he recognizes the real feeling behind the grandmother's words and gesture, by remarking that "she would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." The Misfit then drops his ill-suited politeness and tells the odious Bobby Lee to "shut up" his heartless peasantries; and finally implicitly repudiates his own stated view of the unique value and satisfactions of "meanness" by adding, "it's no real pleasure in life."

Not much, as a movement of the spirit, but to my reading the author can only have meant to posit in him the first glimmer of recognition, and acknowledgement, of the guilt and sorrow that must be the first step toward the only happy ending possible for such a man. As Flannery told an audience once when she read the story aloud: "it is to be hoped that the grandmother's gesture will be planted like a mustard seed in the heart of the Misfit and grow there into a great crow filled tree, turning him into the prophet he was meant to be." Serious and thoughtful as he was, even in his evil, an eventually penitent Misfit would almost certainly be the equivalent of a prophet by O'Connor's definition, i.e., what she called "a seer of distances." In the case of the Misfit, at the end of the story he wipes his spectacles, and we see him with his glasses--a metaphor for his insight or spiritual vision--clean at last, and his eyes red rimmed and defenseless.

But what of the others, the five who lie shot lead in the woods, and the murdered grandmother, who had caused all the trouble by her mindless subterfuges and artist tongue, and who is now described as lying "in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child's and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky," about to be thrown into the woods with the rest of her family? How can this dreadful scene be called in any sense a happy or even a hopeful ending?

For one thing, the old lady's smile shows us beyond any doubt what the author wishes us to see. O'Connor wants us to understand that, as with the drowning child in "The River," the old woman's "fear and fury" have left her and she has, it is very pointedly suggested by her described posture, "become as a little child," echoing the requisite for entering the cloudless kingdom of heaven, which was for Flannery O'Connor the only happy ending to be sought, or for that matter to be hoped for, by any of us. The grandmother has accepted the grace offered to her; she has passed the test of real charity and been transformed by her realization. She has recognized the human ties that bind her to the criminal, and has assumed the responsibility and sorrow of one generation for the next.

Indeed, anyone with a penchant for the mythical might even see her as a figure for Eve, old and worn and suffering, touched with pity for her wicked and suffering son, Cain, and seeking to comfort him even as she mourns the brother he has murdered.

With or without mythical undertones, however, the grandmother in this story is, like every O'Connor character, still very much an individual -- not untypical, but irreducibly herself: a garrulous old Southern woman, shabby genteel, once courted with monogrammed watermelons by Mr E. A. Teagarden who had "bought Coca-Cola stock when it first came out... and died a very wealthy man." Shallow, silly, absurdly determined to live -- or at least to dress -- up to her view of herself as a "lady," she comes to recognizable life in the story. By all accounts in Flannery's family, she was closely modeled on the writer's great Aunt Julia Cline: a speaking likeness, according to Aunt Julia's son-in-law. In the story, she is also imprudently and, even stupidly, concerned for her cat, Pitty Sing: but she is also inexplicably fond of her sullen son, Bailey, his inert wife, and their horrible children.

Flannery was always puzzled by the harsh judgment passed on the grandmother by readers. Andrew Lytle, regarded her as a witch, complete with cat; John Hawkes couldn't understand why his students insisted that she wasn't so bad; critics used such extreme words as "vile hypocrite," "liar," "manipulative," and "craven" (pointing to her frantic attempt to save her life by momentarily denying the Resurrection she has been prattling on about earlier). Flannery (who no doubt remembered that Peter had likewise denied his Lord out of fear) defended the old woman, however, as not having a bad heart, and I can certainly find nothing in the story to suggest that she is an evil figure.

She isn't particularly truthful, but she is more an impulsive fancifier than a deliberate liar, and there is no real malice in her. Even when she unwittingly sets in motion the events leading to the family's murder, she has only been trying to amuse John Wesley and June Star and, and keep them quiet and peaceful. I feel that her own unsinkable cheerfulness must be accounted virtue in her, and amounts to almost a kind of courage in that bleak household, and on that trip. Nor does she lack courage in extremis, as when she faces the awful figures who appear on the road above the ditch where Pitty Sing has landed the travelers. The old woman tries hard to dissuade the Misfit and save the situation. When she fails in this effort and sees her family demolished and her own death at hand, she rises to the occasion in another, more important, way: she is able to feel pity for the monstrous man squatting on the ground in front of her and, we may certainly assume, to forgive him. In the face of his pain, which she recognizes as real, she openly claims him as another son, one of her own children (even one of her own babies--perhaps implicitly suggesting that he may one day be returned to spiritual infancy by a rebirth). It is perfectly true that the gun pointed at her ear has turned her into "a good woman," or rather, it has bought out the goodness and grace that are already in her. As I believe Pascal said, "If I had not known you, I would not have found you." Her gesture is as, O'Connor said it had to be, both in and beyond character, made at a moment when time and eternity meet.

Nor is she the only one to show grace under pressure: Bailey not only goes off to meet his fate with some courage, reassuringly holding his little boy's hand, but he tacitly apologizes to his mother for the curse he had flung at her a few minutes before. "Wait on me, Mamma," he calls, "I'll be back in a minute." His wife, her face still presumably as broad and innocent as a cabbage, but white now and glassy-eyed with fear, nevertheless politely thanks the Misfit for inviting her to join her husband and, trailing a broken arm, follows the executioner into the woods with her baby on her other arm, and June Star being dragged along beside her. The little girl has to be dragged, not so much out of fear as out of disdain for help from the gross Bobby Lee. There are no shrieks or recriminations or abject pleas to the murderers for mercy; all the family members die with commendable dignity, revealing themselves as they are essentially, in their fullest humanity. God, one feels, is with them.

Any reading of this story beyond the first will reveal O'Connor's terrible irony and the means by which she intimates that something unspeakable is about to happen, long before it does. On a first reading, however, there is no reason to think much about the grandmother's opening tirade about the newspaper stories of a criminal at large in the region. This might well have been only the means of setting the scene, introducing the family, and the prospective trip, and characterizing in particular the old lady, by the rattle of her talk. In a second reading, however, we know better, and we feel our first chill on the first page --at the words, "you read here what it says he did to those people." At first, then, we are likely only to laugh at the description of the grandmother's traveling costume, assembled so that "anybody seeing her dead on the highway would know that she was a lady." On the second reading, we hear an unmistakable knell behind the words. Out of town and on the highway a little later, the travelers pass a cotton field with "five or six graves" in it, and the third knell sounds. "The family burying ground...that belonged to the plantation," the grandmother explains, and the children want to know where the plantation is. "Gone with the wind," she tells them, "Ha ha." And two more bells toll. When they stop at the barbecue stand, we learn from Red Sammy Butts that three men who might answer the criminals' description have cheated him out of some gasoline. But this news is so obscured by lunchtime chatter, by unspoken tension between the, "the happy veteran" and his dour wife, by the jukebox and of the grandmother's solo dance in her chair to a record of "The Tennessee Waltz," and by June Star's tap-dancing performance and her outrageous rudeness to Mrs. Butts, that it hardly sinks in that we are again being ominously warned of the Misfit's nearness. Then, back on the road, after John Wesley and his sister have bawled and kicked their way to obtaining their fathers consent to seek out the nonexistent house their grandmother says she remembers, Bailey tells them that "this is the one and only time... we're going to stop." The bell tolls again for so indeed it is, the last, the one and only stop. They turn off onto a red dirt road to Toomsboro. As it happens, Toomsboro is a real town in Wilkinson County, Georgia, not far from Milledgeville, so the play on words may at first go unnoticed. Not, however, on a second reading. When the grandmother first sees the Misfit, she "had the peculiar feeling that the bespectacled man was someone she knew. His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but she could not recall who he was." She has of course known--or known about him --all her life, because his face is the face of Death itself, incarnate before her. A few paragraphs later, as the family members are surrounded by the three men who will murder them, the author describes the line of woods behind the scene as gaping "like a dark open mouth" --suggesting an open grave. And so it goes.

In our first encounter with the story, we may laugh right up to the first invitation to Bailey to "step over yonder in them woods." In a second reading, we know more, and a tension is built up in the course of the drama that becomes almost unbearable. Even Flannery found it to be the only one of her stories that she could read aloud without laughing so hard that she would have to stop and compose herself.

Nevertheless, in her terms, the ending of the story is altogether promising. The death of the grandmother is unquestionably "a happy death," something the author, like all Catholics, had been taught to pray for every day of her life. And the "terrible mercy" O'Connor perceived and so often made the subject of her fiction, seems certain to have been extended to the other victims here, as well. We are not told this, of course, or even shown it directly, as we are in the case of the grandmother. We must infer it from the demeanor of the rest of the family, for loose ends are never tied up neatly in these stories.

No more are we told what portends for the Misfit, except as it is suggested in the slight change of position evidenced by his final comment. But we know that he, as well as the doomed family, is a target of grace. During his discussion of large matters with the grandmother, he remarked, "Yes'm, somebody is always after you." In passing, this seems only a banal response to one of the old ladies inanities, but if we are familiar with O'Connor's works, and some other works of literary art, our minds go instantly to "the wild ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of [Hazel Mote's] mind" in her novel Wise Blood. We are likely to remember too, Francis Thompson's The Hound of Heaven, and the mysterious personage in the T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland, of whom it is said, "There is always another one walking beside you." Or we may think of Aeschylus, whose Orestes says of his Furies: "You don't see them, you don't --but I see them; they are hunting me down; I must move on."

In this connection, we should perhaps note what we might call O'Connor's use of the "economy of grace," explicit in the working out of this story, and implicit in most of her other stories: that is, the mode in which the lives --and deaths --of these people interact and affect each of the others, in the noumenal as well as the sensible realm. It is only through the appearance of the deathly Misfit that the petty and insignificant members of Bailey's family are pushed to the extremes of their various natures and come to accept and act upon the grace offered them in their desperate situation, and to live up to the dignity of their humanity as they die. By the same token, it is only through their death at his hands and, most of all, through his encounter with the grandmother, as a medium for grace, that the murderer is brought to question his own religious doubts and ensuing conclusions, that have made him, as he says, "like I am now." So grace is shown to cut both ways, to affect both sides, becoming accessible to both victim and the victimizer.

Flannery O'Connor said in one of her letters that Wise Blood is a very hopeful book. So far as I know, she didn't actually say that "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" is a very hopeful story, but she might well have, because in her terms it is. And it is a hopeful story with a happy ending, if we remember the line spoken in a Fulke Greville work, by the character Eternity, who says: "I am the measure of Felicity."

 

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