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No Hell, No Dignity, No Hope
A Stroll Through Flannery O'Connor's "The Lame Shall Enter First"

©30 August 2001, Stephen Sparrow

Let’s not beat around the bush, Flannery O’Connor wrote Christian fiction. Back handed or black Christian literature if you like, but for those who look long and hard enough, God is there present in the details, just as He is present in Scripture narratives. She may be coming at it from the opposite end, the dark end, but O’Connor wrote parables; modern ones hinging on the Christian faith. A faith which in O’Connor’s case is specifically Roman Catholic and of a particularly mature ‘vintage’. She was soaked in the story of Christian redemption and the freedom it gained for the world. O’Connor both lived her faith and lived for it.

But, what happens to people without faith? People who either want no part of the Redemption story or who have never heard of it and let’s be clear about this, in Western Nations the head shakers are now far more numerous than the ignorant. So here, we are primarily talking about ‘doubters’ who look sideways at mysteries and decide they want nothing further to do with them.

Pride is always at the root of doubt, and pride cancels out the humility, which is necessary before faith has a chance to even germinate. Now O’Connor had no problem with ‘doubters’. She freely admitted suffering from doubt herself and described it as a torment, but she saw in it, the process by which her own faith was deepened. She never saw doubt as a stumbling block. So faith, as we are told in scripture is a gift. It is there for the having, if we want it and it is one of only two routes through any crisis of belief. The other is despair.

Despair manifests itself in addictions and in essence addictions are "a running away from reality." It may be an addiction to work or alcohol or stamp collecting or even to performing charitable acts or it may in extreme cases result in the individual throwing the towel in completely and committing suicide, i.e. a rejection of every thing in favour of NO thing. Unfortunately for our understanding of these things, we have this tendency to associate suicide only with extreme pessimism.   However, some years ago I recall reading an essay by G. K. Chesterton, in which he threw more light on the matter by declaring that unbridled optimism would probably contribute to far more suicides than pessimism ever would. Speaking for myself, I think that optimism and pessimism are both forms of despair. They are distorted attitudes. Attitudes out of balance, where the individual sees only what he wants to see. In both pessimism and optimism per se, reality is rare and a close inspection would probably turn up a whole clutch of compensating addictions, from housewives with manias for cleanliness to junkies shooting up on heroin. Anything to avoid facing reality, which can be rather like a small child’s fear of the dark or fear of the unknown. A fear, which can only be lifted by somebody the child trusts, usually his parents. That reality, which means that at the most fundamental level, God is our Father and we are his children.

Needless to say, we human beings are complex creatures and unfortunately for us, for most of last century, the yardstick (our conscience) used for judging the human soul has been dumped and now we have social scientists, who using a combination of statistics and formulae, grope around in the dark, telling us all to keep waiting until they come out with the answer. Of course, if they had only listened, anyone could have told them that by far the best diviners of the soul are the storytellers; the thinkers and writers; and thinking must precede the writing of the words. Nowadays, these same scientists have taken away our souls and replaced them with psyches; things that can be measured: or so we are led to believe!! Ninety years ago Chesterton summed up Man as “an animal [gone] completely off its head.” In the years since, many eminent thinkers have made similar statements. The last I noticed (and I don’t go hunting them) was a recent interview with English novelist J. G. Ballard who commented, “we’re not rational creatures. Madness lies within us” (The Spectator 18 Aug. 2001).

Flannery O’Connor’s character Sheppard (The Lame Shall Enter First) considered himself rational and therefore superior to those who he viewed as irrational i.e. those who believed in God. He was a classic example of the liberal type described by O’Connor in a letter to Cecil Dawkins in 1958 .

“The notion of the perfectibility of man came about at the time of the Enlightenment in the 18th century....The Liberal approach is that man has never fallen, never incurred guilt, and is ultimately perfectible by his own unaided efforts. Therefore, evil in this light is a problem of better housing, sanitation, health, etc. and all mysteries will eventually be cleared up. Judgement is out of place because man is not responsible.”

O’Connor’s ‘Sheppard’ was a liberal. He was one of those irritatingly enthusiastic myopic optimists who hide their despair from themselves inside a ‘blind’ thing known as ‘progress’. Yes, Sheppard definitely believed in ‘progress.’

French philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943) dismissed ‘Progress’ as a doctrine. She held that it was meaningless and said, “The idea of progress is the idea of the gradual ‘coming to birth’ in the course of time, of the better from the less good. Science demonstrates that an increase of energy can only come from an exterior source of energy….. Spiritual things are controlled by an analogous law. We cannot be made better except by the influence upon us of what is better than we are. That is why when we are looking for someone to provide what is lacking in us, we always have to address ourselves to the past; for the future, which exists only in our imagination, is even less real than the present.”  

It was O’Connor’s friend Betty Hester who introduced her to Simone Weil’s writings and it’s a safe bet that O’Connor came across that ‘piece of Weil’ somewhere in the books Hester loaned her, but an equally safe bet is that for O’Connor, it was only a re encounter with that same maxim.

The Lame Shall Enter First is about a solo father (Sheppard) and his ten-year-old son (Norton) attempting to come to terms with love and death. At the start of the story, Norton’s mother has been dead for just over a year and Sheppard is irritated that the boy has still not recovered from the loss. The liberal minded Sheppard has coped by burying himself in his job as city recreational director. He also spends each Saturday ‘counselling’ at the local youth reformatory where he comes in contact with a young teenaged delinquent named Rufus Johnson who Sheppard decides to take under his wing. Johnson despises Sheppard but with the streets as his only option after release from the reformatory, he accepts Sheppard’s offer of hospitality. Sheppard thinks he can buy Johnson’s confidence and affection and change him, but he hasn’t realized that he’s become entangled with a clever young criminal with an ego to match his own. Within the relationship we see two faces of despair squaring off against each other. A grown man and a fourteen-year-old youth, engaged in a struggle, each using the other for his own end. A forty something optimist up against a youthful cynic.   Johnson had some knowledge of the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man, but he saw himself as beyond redemption. He thought that goodness was out of his reach and as a result he succumbed to despair.    He had obviously never really understood the Parable of The Prodigal Son.

On the other hand Sheppard’s despair prevented him from believing in evil. Remember he’s a ‘liberal’, he believes in progress. His guide for ‘the good’ lies in an imagined future. He has conveniently forgotten that his knowledge of good (& evil) came from the past, starting with the Garden of Eden. Sheppard is a control freak, whereas Johnson’s world is one of freedom.

When Sheppard looks at Johnson, he expects some day to feel the glory reflected from a youth changed into his own image, thinking and acting just like himself. When we look at Sheppard, we see a tiny tin grinning god. One more member of an army of ‘Hitlers’ on their way to the next ‘world war’. We see the grinning face of despair on which Totalitarianism thrives.

Rufus Johnson is also disabled physically. He has a large and ungainly clubfoot and Sheppard is obsessed with the idea of helping Johnson by buying him a new built up shoe, convinced that this ‘kindness’ will enable him to influence Johnson away from his delinquency. Johnson is measured up for his new shoe and a week or so later is taken in to collect it. But after trying it on once, he refuses to wear it and goes back to using his old ugly one, surely a pointer here that Sheppard’s best efforts to effect a change in Johnson’s behaviour are doomed to failure. The new boot symbolises new life; tried on once then tossed to one side and rejected.   The ugly old boot is Johnson’s delinquency, which he returns to; using it as a method to destroy the illusion held by Sheppard that he can turn Johnson around.

Johnson is proud of his ‘talents’; his criminality, and his gamesmanship with the police. He lives for nothing else but he also knows it is wrong and he revels in this knowledge, at the same time as despising the hypocrisy of people like Sheppard, who pride themselves in being able to cure street kids by an applied antiseptic charity: a Christless formula in lieu of Christian love. Johnson holds the Joker (freewill) among his cards and is determined to prove Sheppard wrong and yet Sheppard believes kindness will overcome. He treats Johnson like a wild cat he’s befriended and thinks that all that’s needed to change him is a warm bed, good food and an appeal to his intelligence.    The contrast would be with Mother Teresa of Calcutta who spent a lifetime helping the poor. For her, the dignity of the soul was supreme and her first priority was to instil an awareness of God’s love for every human being, from which flows the virtue of Hope. Mother Teresa loved the poor and saw Christ in them. She lived among them and like them she owned practically nothing.

However, returning to Sheppard; we find him elated that Johnson has grudgingly accepted the invitation to move in to his home. Now he can indulge himself by influencing Johnson’s turnaround with the spin-off that it might benefit Norton and force the child to share for a change. Sheppard thinks of his son as a selfish and self-centred child, somewhat on the dull side and therefore unable to perform as an extension of his (Sheppard’s) ego. Because Norton cannot live up to his expectations, Sheppard has resorted to treating him with a mix of impatience and indifference. Norton now faced with a choice between his unsympathetic and often absent father or the omni present Johnson, predictably moves under Johnson’s wing where he begins receiving a new sort of education. In response to Norton’s persistent questioning about where his mother might be, the older youth told him that as long as she was not a whore and if she believed in Jesus she was ‘saved’. Johnson’s knowledge of Christianity was crude and deformed, coming as it did partly from his fundamentalist grandfather and partly from dire slogans on roadside billboards.  Rationalist Sheppard was outraged. He had told Norton that his dead mother was nowhere and that death, when it came, ended everything. What Rufus Johnson had said contradicted it all but for Norton it was an exciting piece of news, knowing now that his mother was somewhere.

To help in Johnson’s education and also Norton’s, Sheppard bought them a high-powered telescope. Sheppard was fascinated by science, especially astronomy. The irony here of course is that most of his knowledge of astronomy was based more on what he had accepted on faith than on any investigation he had undertaken personally and yet he sees it as a tool to wean Johnson away from his fixation on Christian media such as evil and damnation.    The relationship between Sheppard and Johnson soured as Norton turned more and more to his new mentor and hero who provided a confused idea of heaven, leading Norton to think that his mother is up in the sky among the stars and he begins to search for her using the telescope. To add to Sheppard’s problems, the police get onto Johnson alleging that he’s the one responsible for a number of home vandalisms in the area. Sheppard is the confused one now, he doesn’t know who to believe, the police, or Johnson, who strenuously protests his innocence. Sheppard’s cosy little world is starting to unravel and things get even worse when he discovers Johnson ‘teaching’ Norton from a bible the pair has stolen from a Ten Cent Store. Sheppard and Johnson quarreled violently about this. O’Connor’s use of irony here is devastating. We could perhaps sympathise with Sheppard’s irritation at his son learning from a bible: but from one that’s been stolen! Poor confused Sheppard is living in a world based on biblical virtue, but a world where if he had his way, all bibles would be banned. One wonders how O’Connor manages to keep a straight face while composing scenes like this.

The rationalism of Sheppard was a sterile creed, which destroyed Norton. At his tender age he needed a simple faith. He missed his mother and her love had not been replaced. The nearest thing to it was his relationship with Rufus Johnson whose motives for taking Norton ‘under his wing’ were aimed more at annoying Sheppard than supplying any sort of emotional help. Johnson offered more acceptable explanations than Norton's father had. The idea that his mother was in heaven, among the stars had definite appeal. It was the same sort of belief that small children have when they hang up a stocking on Christmas Eve. It was the simple childlike faith of Norton, which enabled him to believe that he was seeing his mother in the stars when Sheppard discovered him looking through the telescope and waving. Norton wanted to believe because he needed to. He needed to know that his mother was somewhere.

Sheppard's great sin was Adam's failing; pride. Sheppard refused to believe in the Doctrine of the Fall of Man. By default he had adopted the opposite Doctrine ‘Progress’, which holds that Man is born capable of perfecting himself unaided, which begs the question: In all of human existence, why is it that so far this attempt to reach perfection has resulted largely in a near perfect orgy of blood letting? There is no middle ground between the Doctrine of the Fall and its opposite; the Doctrine of Progress. The Fall is honoured by failure and death. Progress is dishonoured by those same two things.

The result of Sheppard's ‘belief’ (addiction) was the suicide of Norton and paradoxically it was a suicide that grew out of optimism. What Norton could see through the telescope was what he desperately wanted to see-- His mother. It was probably in the same realm as the sort of things people claim to be able to see when they 'read' palms or left over tealeaves, but tragically in this case it was a misguided child attempting to understand death and love. At the age of ten, Norton was still innocent. For him, suicide was merely a means to be reunited with his mother. He had only recently told his father of his ambition to become a spaceman. Now we see why.

Johnson’s delinquency was also an addiction. It was grotesque behaviour, a deliberate turning away from God, and he knew it and reveled in boasting about it.   When being counseled in the reformatory, Johnson had shocked Sheppard by claiming that being in Satan’s power was to blame for his problems. Of course Sheppard’s shock stemmed from his encounter with what he held to be nothing more than a superstition.

As a result of the counseling sessions, Johnson had easily seen through Sheppard’s superficiality and hypocrisy and when Johnson first arrived at the house, Norton gave him a ‘tour of inspection’. One door he looked through was into the guest bathroom with its pink toilet. Norton explained, “it's for company...but he (Sheppard) uses it sometimes.” to which Johnson replied. “He ought to empty his head in it.” In one pungent retort we discover O’Connor’s opinion of liberal, atheistic humanism.

On another occasion Johnson turns to Norton and referring to Sheppard (with another twist of irony) said. “How do you stand it kid? He thinks he’s Jesus.”

Toward the end of the story when the police bring Johnson back to the house after being caught in the act of vandalising a home and with a reporter present, Johnson lashes out at Sheppard making sordid accusations against him concluding with,“He’s a dirty atheist. He doesn’t believe in hell.” A reversal of the usual argument.

In her letters and talks Flannery O’Connor often covered the subject of non-belief in the unpalatable. In one talk she quoted French novelist Baudelaire who said, “The devil’s greatest wile is to convince us he does not exist.” And in others.

“Literature, like virtue, does not thrive in an atmosphere where the devil is not recognised as existing both in himself and as a dramatic necessity for the writer.”

“Where this no belief in the soul there is very little drama.”

“Redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.”

Faith was another concern. In a letter to Alfred Corn (30 May 1962) O’Connor wrote, “Where you have absolute solutions, however, you have no need of faith. Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge.”

I have no trouble believing that Flannery O’Connor would also have come across this piece about proofs for Christianity from French writer and poet Charles Pèguy who said. “Christianity has never had…proofs…. Its best proof, its only proof, is not to offer proofs…. Otherwise there would be no liberty for man.”

This statement is another thread in the link between Faith, Redemption and Free Will. O’Connor was familiar with Pèguy.

But, returning to the end of the story. After the police have dragged Johnson away, Sheppard looks into himself and realizes the truth. He has wasted much of the time that could have been spent with his son.

“His heart constricted with a repulsion for himself so clear and intense that he gasped for breath. He had stuffed his own emptiness with good works like a glutton. He had ignored his own child to feed his vision of himself.”

Sheppard has belatedly discovered that everything he cherished has fallen apart. He’s failed on a massive scale. Johnson is back behind bars and Norton is dead. It has to be asked, how Sheppard will cope with things now. Will he allow himself to be completely overpowered by despair or will he bit by bit come to terms with mystery and the Doctrine of the Fall? O’Connor, excellent storyteller that she is, invariably leaves us to wonder.

In a 1959 letter to Louise Abbot, which is full of sound spiritual maxims, O’Connor wrote. “God made us to love Him. It takes two to love. It takes liberty. It takes the right to reject. If there were no hell, we would be like the animals. No hell, no dignity.” She could easily have added “and no hope as well.”

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