Argumentative essay on the pain of the past in the stories of flannery o’connor

In this paper this paper will examine very closely four stories by Flannery O’Connor and justify the use of the phrase ‘ the pain of the past’ in the title. O’Connor’s life and background will be briefly examined, as will the historical context in which she wrote her stories. I will also examine other common features that are characteristic of her stories. The use of symbolism in her stories will be considered. The four stories I have chosen are ‘ Geranium’, ‘ The Barber’, ‘ Greenleaf’ and ‘ Everything that Rises Must Converge’ Each of the four stories will then be examined closely, before a conclusion that attempts to show what makes her short stories so valuable and so important as works of literature. The conclusion will also attempt to show how in the stories dealt with here – there is a clear element of progression in the latest story considered here – ‘ Everything that Rises Must Converge’.

O’Connor is now felt to be one of the outstanding short story writers in American literature. She was born in 1925, the only daughter of strict Catholics living in Georgia. It may be that the experience of being a Roman Catholic in the militantly protestant southern states helped her develop the empathy that she often shows in her stories towards figures who are outsiders or who are marginalized in some way. She published short stories regularly throughout her short writing career and completed two novels. Her reputation was growing at the time of her death in 1964. At the age of 25 she was diagnosed with lupus disease, a degenerative condition that had killed her father, this diagnosis limited her movements and she spent the rest of her life living with her mother at their dairy farm outside Milledgeville, Georgia.

The most important part of O’Connor’s context and background is that she writes about the American South in the era before the Civil Rights Movement changed the status of African Americans and introduced the real equality and freedom which had been delayed after Lincoln’s Declaration of Emancipation in 1863 by white politicians in the southern states. The so-called ‘ Jim Crow’ laws enforced throughout the southern states at the end of the 19th century had ensured a completely segregated society which allowed old prejudices and bigotry to survive, and kept African Americans in a state of subservience – economically, socially, educationally and politically. This inspired the title of this paper: without the historical legacy of slavery and the segregated society that replaced it, before the eventual triumph of the Civil Rights movement, then there would not be a painful past which shapes attitudes and opinions now when the stories are set. In addition, as we shall see, the past of individual characters and their families are often focused on in the stories, and, therefore, the pain of the past is a reference to an entire region of the United States and to some of the individual family stories that we learn about in some of O’Connor’s stories.

Her stories also have other common elements, as will be demonstrated by this paper. Each story has a tendency to concentrate on an individual at a moment of crisis or momentous tension in their lives and, although O’Connor always writes as an omniscient narrator, she does write very closely from the point of view of the person who is undergoing the moment of crisis in their life. Most of the stories feature an individual who is in some way excluded or feels him or herself to be isolated, for different reasons, in the society or hone that they are living in. The stories all deal with the issue of race and, in particular, racial prejudice: this is central to the four stories examined in this paper. But it is not the only form of prejudice O’Connor confronts: she also deals with what we might think of as class prejudice or prejudice based on family background – and what is family back ground without a knowledge or a faith in the past of one’s family? Most of her stories also involve some sort of tension or dysfunction within families – especially between parents and their children. O’Connor’s stories tend to present family life as filled with unspoken (and sometimes spoken) tensions and difficulties – and in this way the past of a particular family, for example, becomes in the story woven onto the wider past of the South. Most of her stories also begin with something apparently trivial and every day with no hint of how the story will widen out in its concerns to be an attack on racial prejudice – and we should be clear about that from the very beginning – O’Connor presents racial prejudice as evil and narrow-minded, as an unjustified mindset of superiority which only blights society and is used by the ignorant to justify oppression and injustice.

‘ The Geranium’ centres on Old Dudley who has recently moved to New York to live with his daughter – the story is told from Dudley’s point of view. The story is significant because it is the only story of O’Connor’s which is set outside the South and was re-written just before her death as ‘ Judgment Day’ (Whitt p. 204). He is old and disorientated in the city, having been used to a more rural way of life in the South. He is also getting older, so he is physically weaker than he once was and at times seems mentally confused as well. If he is en tot the shops he gets lost on the alien city streets; even finding his way round the apartment building they live in presents him with challenges. O’Connor manages to convey his mental confusion very well, because she mixes memories of his old life in the South with perceptions of what is happening now in New York. He bickers with his daughter and they do not seem especially close – even though she has offered him a place to live in his old age. So far these elements are typical of an O’Connor story: Old Dudley is isolated in New York because he feels out of place; there is tension within the family – his daughter is worried that he will act inappropriately or offend the neighbours in some way, and as the story unfolds he has his moment of crisis. As Orvell puts it Dudley is rather unhappy in New York:

His only tangible consolation in the city is the geranium plant that sits in the window opposite his own, and he spends much time contemplating it – for it has to come to mean for Old Dudley, the complex of associations that compose for him ‘ the South’. (p 181)

Old Dudley’s moment of crisis comes about because an African American man views the adjacent apartment and Dudley cannot believe that his daughter, his family could sink so low as to have African Americans as neighbours. He is used to the segregation in the South and the attitudes of deference and docility that African Americans had there for white people. Indeed, initially he assumes that the people in the next-door apartment had got themselves an African- American servant. He remarks to his daughter: “ I say they got em a servant next door – a nigger – all dressed up in a Sunday suit.” (O’Connor p. 8). His daughter is embarrassed and appalled by his attitude, showing generational conflict within the family.

The situation worsens when he is sent by his daughter on an errand to another apartment to borrow a pattern. On his return he is overcome with emotion about a memory from the South, a hunting expedition, is found re-acting the action by a young, well-dressed man who realizes that Dudley is having some sort of mental crisis and kindly helps him up the stairs and to the door of the apartment. The only problem is that the young man is African American and Dudley is struck dumb by his treatment at the hands of the young man. It is as though the habits of thought of a lifetime cannot allow Dudley to be seen as inferior or at least in need of help by an African American and to be treated with kindness and equality by one overthrows his whole sense of the world:
His throat was going to pop. His throat was going to pop on account of a nigger – a damn nigger that patted him on the back and called him ‘ old-timer.’ Him that knew such as that couldn’t be. Him that had come from a good place. (O’Connor p. 13)

But the ‘ good place’ that Dudley means is the segregated south and it is only ‘ good’ from his bigoted viewpoint. When he sits down in his chair by the window he bursts into tears from the sheer shock of what has happened to him and then notices that the geranium is no longer there. According to the man in the window opposite it has fallen to the ground and it is tempting to see the flower as Dudley’s vision of the South or how life should be lived – because now it is lying broken in the alley way between the apartment blocks. Dudley is determined to go and retrieve the geranium, but the story ends with the man who owns the geranium confronting Dudley and warning him to mind his own business and stop staring into his apartment. His final words contain a hint of threat and menace: “ I only tell people once.” Dudley’s humiliation is complete; the past is lost forever.

‘ The Barber’ deals with racism very differently. The outsider in the story is Rayber. He is an outsider because he makes it clear in his weekly visits to the barber’s that he is opposed to the pro-segregation candidate in the upcoming Democratic Primary elections, whereas the barber and the men who frequent his shop cannot understand why Rayber is a liberal and supports the anti-segregationist candidate, Darmon. Rayber is also isolated because he is educated and is a lecturer at the local college. What he cannot stand about the men at the barber’s is their casual racism, their inability to construct logical arguments and their being tied to old habits of bigotry and racism. We are told little about Rayber’s home life, but he and his wife do not seem very close: he is not sure how she will vote in the Primary and when he practises his speech on her it is evident that she is not listening to it, because when he pauses for effect, she thinks he has finished and merely says, “ That was very nice.” (O’Connor p. 23). Rayber prepares a speech to deliver at the barber’s which must be an anti-segregation speech. But it has no effect on the listeners at all: they are merely laughing at his liberal attitudes and his speech has been totally ineffectual. In a very different way from Dudley the liberal Rayber is humiliated at the end of the story. O’Connor seems to be showing that racial bigotry and prejudice (because they are illogical) cannot be overcome by the well-meaning arguments of liberal Mr Rayber.

In ‘ Greenleaf’ racism is present, but it is treated as a side issue compared to class which O’Connor chooses to focus on in her story. The story is told from the point of view of Mrs May who is the outsider in the story. She lives on her own farm, but is an outsider because of her situation and attitude. She has a awful relationship with her two grown up sons, but insists in public that they are very successful; she looks down upon Mr Greenleaf (who helps around the farm) and his family because they are uneducated and from a lower social class – and yet Mr Greenleaf’s sons are more successful than her own; and she has an over-weaning pride in her class and superiority. However, her relationship with her sons is overtly hostile. Wesley says to her at one point in the story: “ I wouldn’t milk a cow to save your soul from hell.” (O’Connor p. 321). Mrs May calls herself a Christian but exhibits no Christian qualities at all. At one point, O’Connor writes of Mrs May: “ She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.” (O’Connor p. 316). Gilbert has said of the collection from which ‘ Greenleaf’ comes

In the tales… sulky young men live with and depend upon their mothers well beyond their adolescent years. The widowed mothers in these tales set no clear restraints on their adult children. Inexplicably, their offspring feel victimized and trapped by them nonetheless. These sons resent their positions but seem powerless to change. (Gilbert p. 119).

What propels the plot in ‘ Greenleaf’, apart from Mrs May’s distrust of Greenleaf and her jealousy and snobbery about the success of his sons, is the bull that is on her farm and which Greenleag fails to deal with effectively. Mrs May sees conspiracy everywhere, especially as the bull belongs to Greenleaf’s sons. After several days, she finally forces Greenleaf to kill the bull, but he does so at the moment the bull gores and kills Mrs May. Like the geranium, it is tempting to interpret the bull in a symbolic way and some readers have suggested sexual symbolism hinting at Mrs May’s real frustrations. As Raiger puts it:

The bull… is a symbol of the destructive force of Mrs May’s own mind – the two Greenleaf boys’ success underscores her deep dissatisfaction with her own two boys, and the comparison between the pairs is a constant source of misery that, like the bull, tears constantly at the edges of her mind. (Raiger p. 248).

In this sense, then, Mrs May is killed by her own obsessive unhappiness.

Finally, I want to deal with ‘ Everything that Rises Must Converge’. It has elements that we have seen in the other stories, but does, at the end, show an important development. The story is interesting too because it is set after segregation had formally ended. Julian is angered by almost everything his mother says and does, but in particular by her old-fashioned bigotry over race. She is from a good family who were once very wealthy and enjoyed high social status, but Julian’s mother is living in the past and has not really adapted well to her changes in circumstance or changes in society. He is with her in the story because once a week she demands that he escort her into the town center to attend a weight-loss class. Because she has to travel by bus and because the buses are now desegregated his mother needs Julian’s protection. Her attitudes are old-fashioned and when they are on the bus Julian does not sit with her and, in fact, does everything he can to tease her, upset her and satirize her bigoted attitudes. The story reaches a climax when they leave the bus at the same time as an African American woman (who is wearing the same awful hat that Julian’s mother is wearing!) and her small child. Julian knows that his mother in an old-fashioned, superior manner will offer the child a nickel.

Oh my God, he thought. He had the terrible intuition that when they got off the bus together, his mother would open her purse and give the boy a nickel. The gesture would be as natural to her as breathing. (O’Connor p. 417)

Natural, kind, well-intentioned, but also we might say patronizing, condescending and indicative of out-of-date social attitudes. Julian tries to stop his mother from doing this, but she ignores him and is knocked to the ground by the black woman. What happens then is the most moving part of the story. Something has changed within Julian’s mother. She wants to go straight home and walk if necessary. Julian gives her a long lecture, as they walk, telling her “ the whole black race will no longer take your condescending pennies…. from now on you’ve got to live in a new world and face a few realities for a change. Buck up… it won’t kill you.” (O’Connor p. 419). But it does seem to kill her: mentally she returns to her childhood, asking for Grandpa and Caroline (her African American childhood nurse) and she collapses on the floor, leaving Julian to runoff in search of medical help. In many ways, this story is like ‘ The Geranium’ – a person’s life collapses around them. But the key difference in this later story is Julian’s presence. The final sentence of the story reads:

The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow. (O’Connor p. 420).

This adds another dimension to the story which ‘ The Geranium’ lacked. Dudley’s breakdown was not witnessed by anyone, but Julian witnesses his mother’s, and , although she is still bigoted and condescending and old-fashioned, the ending seems to suggest that she has not fully deserved the way Julian has treated her and that there may have been a kinder, gentler way to change her attitudes.

So what makes O’Connor stories so good? They deal with important and challenging themes – racism and prejudice which still affect the society we live in; they are well-written; she has a particular knack for imitating the speech patterns of ordinary people which gives an added sense of reality to her work. But for me the real strength of her work is this: she is writing at a period of enormous social change about a society which is undergoing huge sociological changes and the pain of the past affects those characters who are least able to cope with or adjust to change. Her characters’ bigotry and prejudice is revealed and condemned, but she manages to retain some empathy for her characters, despite their faults and flaws. The attitudes of Old Dudley, the men in the barber’s shop, Mrs May and Julian’s mother are not endorsed by O’Connor, but they are understood and, despite their wrongheadedness, attract a little sympathy (with the exception probably of the men in the barber’s). I think this is shown clearly in the ending of ‘ Everything That Rises Must Converge’ as I have argued above – that Julian’s moment of guilt does not atone for his mother’s archaic prejudices, but it does put those prejudices in a very human context.

Works Cited

Gilbert, Susanna. “ Blood Don’t Lie: the Diseased Family in Flannery O’Connor’s ‘ Everything that Rises Must Converge’”. Pages 114-131 in Literature and Medicine, No 1, Spring 1999.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Completed Stories. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York. 1971. Print.

McFarland, Dorothy Tuck. Flannery O’Connor. Ungar Publishing: New York. 1984. Print.

Orvell, Miles. Flannery O’Connor. University of Mississippi Press. 1991. Print.

Raiger, Michael. ‘ Large and Startling Figures: the Grotesque and the Sublime in the Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor’, In Seeing into the Life of Things: Essays on Literature and Religious Experience. Edited by John L Mahoney. Fordham University Press: New York. 1998.

Whitt, Margaret Earley: Understanding Flannery O’Connor: University of South Carolina, 1955. Print.