Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

FLANNERY O’CONNOR: Everything That Rises Must Converge

The Great Books introduction tells us that Flannery O’Connor was a native Southerner and a devout Catholic. She was also a great writer who has earned her place in the Great Books series. O’Connor once explained that a story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way… When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The only way to understand this short story is to read it yourself. No explanations will do. So in O’Connor’s own words we can judge how well she fits in with other great writers we’ve been reading. Gorky’s story about Chelkash is one example. Cheklash is an accomplished thief and is very good at what he does. He recruits a young kid to help him steal. How would that kind of thing be viewed through Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Catholic eyes? She has one character say it like this: “What gets my goat is all those boys from good families stealing automobile tires,” the woman with the protruding teeth said. “I told my boy, I said you may not be rich but you been raised right and if I ever catch you in any such mess, they can send you on to the reformatory. Be exactly where you belong.” Gorky would have loved that kind of writing. In just a few well-chosen words O’Connor captures not only the Southern slang language but also the culture that produces the kind of people who talk like that. The Southern aristocracy had obviously left its mark on O’Connor’s Southern viewpoint. Aristocracy? Tocqueville had brilliant insight into the way an aristocracy can be created in an American-style industrial economy. But Flannery O’Connor knows about Southern agrarian aristocracy. This short exchange between mother and son is a good example: “Of course,” she said, “if you know who you are, you can go anywhere.” She said this every time he took her to the reducing class. “Most of them in it are not our kind of people,” she said, “but I can be gracious to anybody. I know who I am.” “They don't give a damn for your graciousness,” Julian said savagely. “Knowing who you are is good for one generation only. You haven't the foggiest idea where you stand now or who you are.” She stopped and allowed her eyes to flash at him. “I most certainly do know who I am,” she said, “and if you don't know who you are, I'm ashamed of you.” Next, Claude Bernard talks about observation and experiment in the laboratory. O’Connor’s laboratory is a small town in Georgia. Another exchange between mother and son goes like this: “True culture is in the mind, the mind,” he said, and tapped his head, “the mind.” “It's in the heart,” she said, “and in how you do things and how you do things is because of who you are.” So who’s right? Is “true culture” in the mind or in the heart? Take Claude Bernard’s advice and observe what happens. Julian’s mother often says things that make him cringe. Her racism is a relic of the past and he’s been to college. Now he’s more open-minded and wants to help improve race relations but he had never been successful in making any Negro friends. His mother, on the other hand, immediately makes friends on the bus with a young black boy. This leads to a physical assault by the boy’s mother. She hits Julian’s mother and causes her to have a stroke. As Julian’s mother tries to focus her failing mind she reverts to what makes her feel most secure: “Tell Grandpa to come get me,” she said. He stared, stricken. “Tell Caroline to come get me,” she said. Julian’s mother is dying. At first she asks for her Grandpa. But as she fades closer to death she calls out for someone who makes her feel even more secure, Caroline. Who is Caroline? "I remember the old darky who was my nurse, Caroline. There was no better person in the world. I've always had a great respect for my colored friends,” she said. “I’d do anything in the world for them and they'd. . .” She referred to Caroline as an “old darky” but also said there was no better person in the world. I’d do anything in the world for them… Julian was different: When he got on a bus by himself, he made it a point to sit down beside a Negro, in reparation as it were for his mother's sins. Who’s the real racist? Read the story and decide for yourself.


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