BLS 320 – Contemporary Short Stories
April 29, 2010
Finding Meaning in the Unreasonable
Most readers have experienced a story in which there is a moral. Aesop’s Fables, for instance, are filled with them, as are the Bible’s Parables. It’s very easy to determine the meaning of those types of stories, and to express that meaning to someone else without their having to read the story as well. Flannery O’Connor says in her essay Writing Short Stories, meaning in fiction – specifically short fiction – is not “abstract” but “experienced” (968). That is to say the reader should not expect a neatly described theme from a work of fiction, especially a short story; unlike a fable, contemporary short fiction does not necessarily set out a defined moral. Instead the meaning is something the reader experiences through the process of reading the story, through their own reactions and interpretations. O’Connor uses seemingly unreasonable elements in her short stories which she herself likens to parables (Charters 622) to bring into focus the meaning she writes into them, meaning which is so knitted into the story that it cannot be described.
One of the most vivid examples of her use of the unreasonable is found in her short story A Good Man is Hard to Find. There is a great deal of unreasonableness in this story, from the manner in which Bailey’s mother behaves to the sudden and shocking murders of her entire family. Perhaps the most shocking and therefore most meaningful example of the unreasonable is found in the strange conversation the Misfit and she have before he finally kills her as well. What makes this moment so shocking isn’t that the Misfit kills her; by this point in the story it is understood that he and his cronies had no intention of letting any of them live. What makes the moment shocking is the sudden clarity of thought we see in the Grandmother, and the rattled reaction of the Misfit. She exclaims “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” (O’Connor 659) and touches the Misfit, prompting him to shoot her not once, in the cold manner the rest of her family are killed, but three times, indicating an emotional response. Her realization in that moment, when she is faced with her own certain death, is certainly an unreasonable thought but it prompts the reader to see the meaning within the story, that in the Christian belief every person is connected through “bonds of kinship” (O’Connor 974).
What is interesting and wonderful about the way O’Connor uses the disconcerting elements in this story is how they serve only to frame the single moment in which the Grandmother finds that perfect clarity in which she seems to understand her true place in the world. The violence, while it is shocking, is needed to provide contrast to the peaceful gesture of touching the Misfit’s shoulder, to draw it out in the reader’s mind. Only that contrast can draw the reader to the conclusion O’Connor wants them to understand, therefore only that unreasonable action – the violence – could bring the meaning to life.
Most readers will also consider Julian’s behavior in O’Connor’s story Everything That Rises Must Converge, including his fantasies about befriending well-to-do Negroes, having his mother cared for by a Negro doctor, and bringing home a Negroid woman as his intended wife, all with the intention of shocking his elderly and quite prejudiced mother somewhat unreasonable. Wayne C. Booth, in his essay A Rhetorical Reading of O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge”, rightly describes Julian’s behavior as “nasty” and “malevolent” despite his apparent desire to improve the world he lives in (986). It is clear that while Julian believes himself to be a good, honest and reasonable person, his intentions are less-than-good, less-than-honorable and certainly unreasonable for any normal person. O’Connor’s own words call him “savage” and “irritated” (624); she depicts him aggressively throughout the story, though Julian in his own mind believes himself above the rest of humanity, hissing to his mother that “[t]rue culture is in the mind” (626). He believes that because he is educated, he is cultured and refined, despite O’Connor portraying him as anything but.
Many readers would certainly consider his mother’s behaviors and attitudes unreasonable, especially her bigotry and her hypocrisy as it is seen in the interaction with the Negro woman and her son on the bus ride, at least readers of this day and age. But Booth describes Julian’s mother as “innocent” (985). Certainly, the reader could imagine her as simply too old and stuck in her ways to see the change in the world around her, which would in fact evoke a sort of innocence in the character of the mother. She believes, contrary to Julian’s insistence, that culture is “in the heart .. and in how you do things” (O’Connor 626). This dissonance between Julian’s image of his mother and the way she looks at herself allows the reader to examine the story as more than a plot. Because the characters are so different in their minds than in ‘reality’, the reader must begin to consider their thoughts and actions for themselves.
When Julian witnesses his mother’s stroke, the reader likely imagines he feels remorse and grief, believing that he caused it, even when it is equally as likely that the confrontation with the Negro mother knocking her down is the cause. Contrasted with the prior evidence however this horrific event – horrific on a lesser scale perhaps than the murders in A Good Man is Hard to Find but horrific nonetheless – reflects the terrible “cost” needed to return Julian to “reality” (O’Connor 974). Without it, Julian would not learn the lessons he needs to learn to become the person he wants to be, the person he deludes himself into believing he is, and neither can the reader find those lessons which form the interwoven meaning in the story.
The unreasonable elements of Everything That Rises Must Converge – Julian’s treatment of his mother, her bigotry and hypocrisy, the absurdity of their views of the world around them, the death of Julian’s mother and his sudden realization of her loss – guide the reader to realize the meaning O’Connor wove into the story, expressing the sinfulness of mankind as it retreats into the secular world. This is done by again framing those elements of the story which highlight that condition, creating a story which is a parable, with a moral meaning but not one that is neatly encapsulated in a single statement.
In both stories, the reader is guided to understanding the author’s meaning written into the work, not by direct means but rather by providing a framework by which they are able to come to that meaning naturally. O’Connor uses some very shocking details which might to the casual reader seem unnecessary but which are in fact critical to the stories they are a part of. Without the violence in A Good Man is Hard to Find or the viciousness and bigotry in Everything That Rises Must Converge, the details that form the single thread which spells out the author’s intended meaning are lost in the plot, and do not seem to have any particular purpose. Without the use of the unreasonable in her stories, Flannery O’Connor could not have expressed the meaning in the parables she wrote, because the details which provide that meaning would be without contrast and would not carry the importance they should carry.
Booth, Wayne C. “A Rhetorical Reading of O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge”.” Charters 984-987
Charters, Ann, Ed. The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Boston. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.
O’Connor, Flannery. “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” Charters 623-634. Print.
—. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Charters 648-659. Print.
—. “A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable.” Charters 972-975. Print.
—. “Writing Short Stories.” Charters 967-972. Print.
“parable.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2010. Merriam-Webster Online. 4 May 2010