In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," it is twice noted that there is neither a cloud nor the sun in the sky: once aloud by The Misfit before he orders any of the family to be killed, and once silently by The Grandmother when she realizes that not only have Bailey and John Wesley been murdered, but that her daughter-in-law, June Star, and the baby are next. The idea of there being neither sun nor clouds in the sky at first signifies that the fate of the family has not yet been decided, but later it indicates The Grandmother's disorientation and feeling of being lost amid the woods and without hope.
In "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," weather is an important indicator of characters' moods and important moments. As Tom Shiftlet drives off with the younger Lucynell Crater in the car, supposedly to go on a honeymoon, "The early afternoon was clear and open and surrounded by pale blue sky;" he still has a chance to redeem himself. But after he abandons her at The Hot Spot, he has lost his chance at salvation; this moment is enforced by the weather: "Deep in the sky a storm was preparing very slowly and without thunder as if it meant to drain every drop of air from the earth before it broke." After the hitchhiking boy has thrown himself out the passenger door, all is really lost for Tom Shiftlet, and "there was a guffawing peal of thunder from behind and fantastic raindrops, like tin-can tops, crashed over the rear of Mr. Shiftlet's car." The intensity of the weather is increased by its personification throughout the story. When Tom Shiftlet approaches the house of the Lucynell Craters at the beginning of the story, he leans to the side "as if the breeze were pushing him," with his face turned toward the sun "which appeared to be balancing itself on the peak of a small mountain." As Tom Shiftlet drives along slowly after the boy in the overalls has leapt from his car, "A cloud, the exact color of the boy's hat and shaped like a turnip, had descended over the sun, and another, worse looking, crouched behind the car."
The sky represents an openness to faith in "The River." As Bevel preaches in the river, his eyes follow the paths of two birds. They eventually settle "in the top of the highest pine and sat hunch-shouldered as if they were supporting the sky." When Harry tells the preacher that his name is also Bevel, jokingly, the preacher's face is "rigid and his narrow gray eyes reflected the almost colorless sky," in this moment before Harry's baptism. But when he is displeased, after Harry tells him that his mother is in fact only suffering from a hangover, "the sky appeared to darken in his eyes." As Harry runs into the river to drown himself, "The sky was a clear pale blue, all in one piece - except for the hole the sun made - and fringed around the bottom with treetops." Here, the sky represents Harry's mentality: he is focused and determined, and the only thought in his mind is faith, represented by the sun.
The sun is a symbol of Catholic faith in "A Temple of the Holy Ghost," and its intensity mirrors the characters' embodiment of that faith. After Wendell sings to the girls, they use the Latin songs they have practiced at school to make him and Cory feel confused and embarrassed; accordingly, "The sun was going down and the sky was turning a bruised violet color." After the child has achieved Grace in the chapel of the convent school, during the drive home, "The sun was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood and when it sank out of sight, it left a line in the sky like a red clay road hanging over the trees." The Host, which Catholics like O'Connor believe is literally transformed into the body of Christ, is also linked to the hermaphrodite's body when the child thinks of the "freak" during the mass ceremony.
In "The Enduring Chill," when Asbury arrives at the train station as the story begins, “The sky was a chill gray and a startling white-gold sun, like some strange potentate from the east, was rising beyond the black woods that surrounded Timberboro.” His mood is like the sky, since he believes he is about to die. When he has discovered that he will not die, but will instead suffer his entire life from undulant fever, “A blinding red-gold sun moved serenely from under a purple cloud. Below it the treeline was black against the crimson sky. It formed a brittle wall, standing as if it were the frail defense he had set up in his mind to protect him from what was coming.” The treeline represent’s Asbury’s determination to culminate his life as a suffering artist in an early death; however, the sky, which represents his chance at life, overwhelms that opportunity.
Characters can receive Grace from God even when they deserve it the least. In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," The Grandmother and The Misfit, neither of whom is particularly deserving, receive Grace. As she realizes what is happening, The Grandmother begins to beg The Misfit to pray so that Jesus will help him. Right before The Misfit kills her, The Grandmother calls him one of her own children, recognizing him as a fellow human capable of being saved by God's Grace. Even though he murders her, the Misfit is implied to have achieved some level of Grace as well when he ends the story by saying, "It's no real pleasure in life." Earlier in the story, he claimed the only pleasure in life was meanness.
In "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," Tom Shiftlet has a chance to achieve Grace. He has been wandering and has no friends, and has found in this household a chance to work hard, watch a beautiful sunset every night, and live a quiet life. This opportunity is hinted at when he first approaches the two women sitting on the porch and turns his back to them to face the sunset: "He swung both his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross." That crooked cross embodied in his figure represents his chance at salvation. As he drives toward Mobile, having missed his chance, he prays, "Oh Lord! Break forth and wash the slime from this earth!"
The Grace of God is the most important theme in "The River." Grace is misinterpreted by Mr. Paradise and the young boy, Harry. Mr. Paradise has unrealistic expectations of Bevil the preacher, attacking him for not being able to perform any real miracles. Harry, having been brought up without religion, fails to understand Bevil's preachings and drowns himself in the River. However, he achieves Grace in death, since he chooses to strive for salvation rather than live in the atheistic household with his parents.
In "A Temple of the Holy Ghost," the child, who is on the surface ornery, suffers from a prideful disposition. She does not ask to go to the fair with the older children, and decides that even if they asked her she would not accompany them because she is too proud. But O'Connor gives the reader insight into the workings of the child's mind, and it is revealed that she strives for Grace, even considering a saintly death to be her calling. There is a tension in the child's mind between her "ugly thoughts" and the knowledge.
Rather than accepting Grace, Asbury has been worshiping Art as a god instead in "The Enduring Chill." He realizes this when he overhears Mary George say that he has decided to be an invalid because he cannot be an artist, thinking, “He had failed his god, Art, but he had been a faithful servant and Art was sending him Death.” When Father Finn instructs him to pray, he responds, “The artist prays by creating.” The stain on Asbury’s bedroom ceiling can be interpreted as representing the Holy Ghost. It appears to him as a “fierce bird with spread wings. It had an icicle crosswise in its beak.” Since he has closed himself off to faith, he finds it irritating and sometimes frightening. After Father Finn leaves, having instructed him about the Holy Ghost, Asbury “looked at the fierce bird with the icicle in its beak and felt that it was there for some purpose that he could not divine.” When he realizes that he is doomed to a long life suffering from undulant fever, “the fierce bird which through the years of his childhood and the days of his illness had been poised over his head, waiting mysteriously, appeared all at once to be in motion.” It descends toward him, since he is doomed to suffer for his refusal to open his mind to Grace.
Though he is a juvenile delinquent, Rufus achieves Grace in "The Lame Shall Enter First" because he believes in Jesus and tries to share the truths of the Bible with Norton. He resents Sheppard for trying to act like Jesus Christ while lacking all faith, and tells him, “Satan has you in his power, not only me. You too.” Sheppard tells him he is too intelligent to believe in the Bible, but Rufus eats a page of it and tells him that he will never eat earthly food again. Rufus declares himself to be controlled by Satan on the very first day he meets Sheppard. However, unlike Sheppard, he actually believes in God and begins to teach Norton about heaven and hell. But instead of identifying himself in terms of faith, he identifies himself by his handicap: his club foot: “Johnson was as touchy about the foot as if it were a sacred object.” Although Sheppard pays for him to have a special shoe that fixes his gait, he refuses to wear it. He needs to have his physical handicap to maintain his identity and perhaps to believes that he will get into heaven since, as he quotes the Bible, “the lame shall enter first.”
Racism is an extremely important theme in "The Displaced Person," and is quite explicit in dialogue and in the characters' judgments of each other. When Mrs. McIntyre asks Mrs. Shortley where her husband is during the Guizacs' arrival, she answers, "He don't have time to rest himself in the bushes like them niggers over there." Later, while she discusses the Guizacs' arrival with Astor and Sulk, O'Connor reveals that, "The illogic of Negro thinking always irked Mrs. Shortley." But Mrs. Shortley is also racist toward Europeans, and is suspicious of the Guizacs for this reason. In conversation with her husband, she reveals, "I'd rather have niggers than them Poles." Mrs. McIntyre decides to do away with Mr. Guizac because he is trying to organize a marriage between his white cousin and Sulk, a black farmhand, even though her financial success will be negatively affected by his departure. Her racism is clear toward the black farmhands as well: "The niggers don't leave - they stay and steal. A nigger thinks anybody is rich he can steal from." Even Mr. Guizac, whose point of view never dominates the story, has racist feelings toward the black farmhands: "The Negroes made him nervous."
Racism is important in "The Artificial Nigger;" though neither Mr. Head nor Nelson feels explicit hatred toward the black people they encounter, they certainly view them as Others and are nervous around them. When Mr. Head disrespects the black kitchen worker on the train, Nelson feels proud of him. He realizes that he is dependent on his grandfather to protect him from the unknown, including black people. When Nelson asks the black woman for directions to the train, he is overwhelmed by her presence because she is so different from anyone he has ever seen. Mr. Head later makes fun of him for gawking at her.
A level of racism is apparent in Asbury’s interactions with Randall and Morgan in "The Enduring Chill," although he doesn’t believe himself to be racist. The very idea that he would be writing a play about “The Negro” is, of course, racist. Last year when he was writing the play, he had spent time with them on the job, and they had bonded over breaking one of his mother’s rules by smoking in the barn. He saw this moment as “one of those moments of communion when the difference between black and white is absorbed into nothing.” However, he is dissatisfied with their visit because they simply insist that he looks well, which is obviously a lie, and end up bickering with each other.
In "Everything That Rises Must Converge," Julian’s mother is clearly racist. She is afraid of the black people who board the bus, and of black people in general. The fact that the black woman on the bus is wearing the same hideous green hat as Julian’s mother links the two women. Julian hopes it will teach his mother a lesson that she and the black woman are not so different, but instead she finds it amusing, as if the woman is a “monkey that had stolen her hat.” What Julian finds most infuriating about her is that she is not hatefully and openly racist, but rather racist in a pitying way, which is more insulting to the black woman who hits her. She thinks that black people were better off as slaves, and that, “They should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence.”
Disgust with the World
In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," disgust with the world is evident in Red Sammy Butts' conversation with The Grandmother. The Grandmother states that, "It isn't a soul in this green world of God's that you can trust." This belief contradicts her Christian faith, of course.
In "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," Tom Shiftlet is disenchanted with the state of the world. After the elder Lucynell Crater tells him that her car no longer runs, he says, "Nothing is like it used to be, lady... The world is almost rotten." Later, when he is fixing the car, he comments that "the trouble with the world was that nobody cared, or stopped and took any trouble." By the end of the story, after he has abandoned the younger Lucynell Crater and caused the hitchhiking boy to jump out of his car, he "felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him."
The title of the story “Good Country People” refers to Mrs. Hopewell’s judgments of people whom she believes she can trust. These people are distinct from the majority of the world, since “in this day and age, you get good country people, you had better hang onto them. She had had plenty of experience with trash.”
In "Everything That Rises Must Converge," Julian’s mother complains about the state of the world. Out of nowhere, while they are discussing her hat, she says, “With the world in the mess it’s in, it’s a wonder we can enjoy anything. I tell you, the bottom rail is on the top.” This is a reference to racial integration, which she sees as disempowering to white families like theirs. Aboard the bus, before any black people are on it, she says to another white woman about integration, “The world is in a mess everywhere. I don’t know how we’ve let it get in this fix.”
Glorification of the Past
The glorification of the past is prevalent in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" through the character of The Grandmother, who expresses nostalgia for the way things used to be in the South. Her mistake about the "old plantation that she had visited in this neighborhood once when she was a young lady" leads to the demise of the whole family when they get in a car accident while driving down the dirt driveway. Before she realizes that the plantation is actually not in Georgia but in Tennessee, she remembers "the times when there were no paved roads and thirty miles was a day's journey," imagining the beautiful scene she believes they will soon find.
In "Everything That Rises Must Converge," Julian’s mother’s disgust with the world is closely linked to her nostalgia for the past. As they walk to the bus stop, she reminisces about the huge mansion where her grandfather lived, and “the old darky” who was her nurse. The mansion rotted and fell apart, and it has since been sold. But Julian remembers visiting it once as a child, and he still dreams about it; although he pretends to hate it, he resents his mother for having been able to experience it.
In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," eyes indicate a character's mindset. The Grandmother's eyes are bright as she listens to "The Tennessee Waltz" on the jukebox at The Tower. As Bailey makes a single effort to argue with The Misfit before he is led into the woods to be killed, his eyes are described as "blue and intense." After they hear the gunshots that signal the deaths of Bailey and John Wesley, The Mother and June Stars' eyes are "glassy." After he kills The Grandmother and removes his glasses, "The Misfit's eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking."
Eyes are often violent in "The Displaced Person." When Mrs. McIntyre exclaims toward the beginning of the story that Mr. Guizac is her salvation, Mrs. Shortley looks straight ahead "as if her vision penetrated the cane and the hill and pierced through to the other side" before answering that she would be suspicious of "salvation got from the devil." Before her physical spasm in the car, Mrs. Shortley has "a peculiar lack of light in her icy blue eyes;" immediately following it, her eyes are "like blue-painted glass." They change as a result of her religious vision. Mr. Guizac's gaze is piercing when Mrs. McIntyre scolds him: "His eyes were like two bright nails behind his gold-rimmed spectacles."
In “Good Country People,” eyes are used to reveal that the people whom Mrs. Hopewell believes to be “good country people” are in fact nothing of the sort. In the opening of the story, Mrs. Freeman’s face is compared to a truck, specifically with regard to the action of her eyes: “Her eyes never swerved to left or right but turned as the story turned as if they followed a yellow line down the center of it.” This aggressive gaze is referenced again at the end of the story as she and Mrs. Hopewell watch Manley walk away after abandoning Hulga in the loft: her “gaze drove forward.” Manley, also believe by Mrs. Hopewell to come from “good country people,” has eyes that are described violently as he is distracted by Hulga’s disconnected wooden leg: “Every now and then the boy, his eyes like two steel spikes, would glance behind him where the leg stood.”
Eyes are often violent in "The Enduring Chill." When Mary George tells Asbury that if she looked as bad as he does she would go to the hospital, “Her mother cut her eyes sharply at her and she left.” As Doctor Block examines Asbury for the first time, his “drill-like gaze swung over [his mouth] and bore down.” When Father Finn chastises him for being ignorant of the Holy Ghost, Asbury “moved his arms and legs helplessly as if he were pinned to the bed by the terrible eye” through which the priest sees. Similarly, when Doctor Block has reported that he is suffering from undulant fever and will not die, “Block’s gaze seemed to reach down like a steel pin and hold whatever it was until the life was out of it.”
In "Everything That Rises Must Converge," eyes are an important indicator of the characters’ feelings toward each other. As Julian’s mother puts on her hat to leave the house, “her eyes, sky-blue, were as innocent and untouched by experience as they must have been when she was ten.” In contrast, when she is about to have a stroke after being pushed by the woman, “her eyes raked his face.” In contrast, Julian’s eyes are “glazed” as they walk to the bus stop, and after a black man boards the bus, Julian does not look at his mother and makes “his eyes the eyes of a stranger.”
Eyes are important in many of O'Connor's stories, and here they are often described as violent. As Sheppard talks to his son, he tries "to pierce the child's conscience with his gaze." Likewise, when Rufus encounters Norton for the first time, “his look went through the child like a pin and paralyzed him.” When he tells Norton about heaven, there is “a narrow gleam in his eyes now like a beam holding steady on its target.” However, eyes can also reveal the characters’ moods: when Rufus first tells Sheppard that Satan has him in his power, a "black sheen appeared in the boy's eyes," and as Sheppard believes himself to be making progress with the boy, "he watched his eyes and every week he saw something in them crumble." When Norton says he is going to be a space man when he grows up, clearly having decided to commit suicide, “there was a glitter of wild pleasure in the child’s eyes;” and when he tells Sheppard that he has found his mother through the telescope, “there was an unnatural brightness about his eyes.”
Language as Physical Violence
Language as a violent, animate entity is a recurring image in O'Connor's stories. In "The Displaced Person," Mrs. Shortley's fear of the Guizac family manifests as an imaginary battle between the Polish language and the English language: "She began to imagine a war of words, to see the Polish words and the English words coming at each other, stalking forward, not sentences, just words, gabble gabble gabble, flung out high and shrill and stalking forward and then grappling with each other." When Mrs. McIntyre yells at Father Flynn in Part III, "her voice fell across his brogue like a drill into a mechanical saw." As Father Flynn preaches to her, Mrs. McIntyre does not listen, but rather waits for "an opportunity to drive a wedge into his talk."
Language is similarly represented as a tool of violence in "The Enduring Chill." When Asbury asks for a Jesuit priest to visit and insists to his mother that he is going to die, “he tried to make each word like a hammer blow on top of her head.” When his mother eventually contradicts this statement with proof from Doctor Block that he in fact only has undulant fever and is not going to die, “Her voice broke in on him with the force of a gunshot.”
Deformities and Disabilities
Many of Flannery O'Connor's protagonists suffer from disabilities or have physical deformities. In "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," Mr. Shiftlet is missing an arm and the younger Lucynell Crater is mentally handicapped. Mr. Paradise, though not the main protagonist in "The River," is a significant character and suffers from cancer. In “Good Country People,” Hulga used to be insecure about her wooden leg, but she has come to value it and to keep it sacred. She almost worships it in place of God, since she has no faith. This ends up leading to her betrayal by Manley. Mrs. Freeman relishes hearing about deformities, and Hulga has heard Mrs. Hopewell relating to her the details of the hunting accident that cost Hulga her leg. In "The Enduring Chill," Asbury believes he is going to die, and part of him hopes that this is true, but in reality he has become an invalid with undulating fever. Rufus Johnson has a club foot in "The Lame Shall Enter First," and protects it much in the same way that Hulga protects her artificial leg.
Flannery O'Connor’s Stories Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Flannery O'Connor’s Stories is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.