Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, September 28, 2015

O’CONNOR: Everything That Rises Must Converge (How to Evaluate Literature)

Last week Claude Bernard explained how we use the tools of observation and experiment to evaluate physical phenomena.  What tools can we use to evaluate literature?  Flannery O’Connor probably put it best.  “When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell them to read the story.  The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully.”  If we want to know what a story is “about” we have to read the story and experience it ourselves.  Bernard said in order to be scientific “the observer’s mind must be passive.”  It’s impossible to read Flannery O’Connor’s short story with a passive mind.  What is this story about?  An ungrateful son?  Racism?  Many different interpretations are possible because Flannery O’Connor is a very good writer.  Here are a couple of examples how she uses literature to flesh out her themes and makes them come alive for our reading experience.

The theme of the ungrateful son.  Consider this sentence.  “Julian did not like to consider all she did for him…”  Why not?  Isn’t he grateful for his mother’s sacrifices?  “Everything that gave her pleasure was small and depressed him.”  Why does Julian get depressed when his mother finds contentment in the simple joys of life?  “It occurred to him that it was he, not she, who could have appreciated (the old mansion she grew up in)…all the neighborhoods they had lived in had been a torment to him; whereas she had hardly known the difference.”  Whether she lived in a mansion or in a run-down neighborhood it was all the same to her.  Why did this irritate Julian?  According to him “she lived according to the laws of her own fantasy world, outside of which he had never seen her set foot.”  He believed she lived contentedly in her own “fantasy world” while his own world of reality was bleak and lonely.  But what really irked him about his mom was “the dwarf-like proportions of her moral nature.”  In Julian’s eyes she was an outright racist.  She was just too dumb to realize it.  He, on the other hand, had been to college and was enlightened about the new racial landscape.  This is a pretty good picture of an ungrateful son.

The theme of racism.  Julian’s mom viewed the world through her own prism.  Instead of breaking light down into a few colors her own personal prism broke life down into a few classes of people.  Here’s how her prism worked: “…if you know who you are, you can go anywhere.”  (She said this every time he took her to the YMCA 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.”  When she uses the phrase “not our kind of people” she’s not talking about black people.  She’s talking about other white folks in her YMCA class.  She can be gracious to them because that’s what people from her background do.  They act graciously toward their inferiors.  When she says “I know who I am” she’s really saying I know my place in society; I know how I should live.  And Julian’s mom applies this same equal opportunity cultural prism to everyone, regardless of race.  She says “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.”  This is the kind of talk that makes Julian cringe.  But what about his own enlightened attitude?  The story tells us “he had never been successful at making any Negro friends.”  Why not?  Julian wants to make friends with black people because they’re black; and to get back at his mother.  Julian’s mother wants to make friends with black people because they’re people; and because she likes them.  Her racism is a mile wide but it’s only an inch deep.  Of course that’s just one personal observation.  Other readers may make different observations.  Claude Bernard’s method is scientific: observation and experiment.  Flannery O’Connor’s method is literary: observation and experience.


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