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Flannery O'Connor and the Theology of Discontent
© 18 April 2000, Stephen Sparrow

In 1959 Flannery O’Connor wrote to a friend who was struggling to understand the nature of Faith.  In the letter Flannery said, ‘And remember the Mercy of God…hard to believe it, but try believing the opposite and you will find it too easy.  Life has no meaning that way.’  In those few words lay the heart and the secret of O’Connor’s fiction. In other words, it is often easier to understand Christianity by trying to imagine a world where it does not exist. The fishhook of Christianity lies hidden inside most of O’Connor’s fiction and throws light, often in an oblique way on a world where the message of Christ is all but forgotten. Her characters should know better but in varying degrees of the spectacular, turn their lives into hash, just like so many of us do.  A common theme is violence and yet in her story ‘A Stroke of Good Fortune’ the closest encounter with violence is the child Hartley Gilfleet’s imaginary world of villains and heroes and gunfights using toy pistols and all described in one piercing yell as the child thunders up the stairs near the end of the story. The real violence is implied; the violence we do to ourselves through inward looking and inward living, the violence that shapes our attitude giving us a distorted view of the world.

"A Stroke of Good Fortune" centres on a series of "let downs" starting with the three flights of stairs Ruby Hill must climb each time she returns from shopping to reach where she and her husband Bill live.   Ruby’s recurring dream is a new home in ‘one of those new sub divisions’ and no stairs. This particular day Ruby is not feeling well and on her way up the stairs she rests often and at one stage sits down painfully on the Gilfleet child’s pistol which with absence of mind she picks up and carries.   Her slow tiring ascent allows her to be waylaid by an eccentric retired schoolteacher whose sole passion seems to lie in questioning people to find out how little they know.   Mr. Jerder asks Ruby whose birthday it is.   Ruby neither knows nor cares but being out of breath has to endure the interrogation.   Each question and its answer lead to further questions. The birthday is the State of Florida’s.   Who discovered Florida? A Spaniard called Ponce de Leon.  What was he searching for?   The Fountain of Youth.   And did he find it? Asks Ruby wearily. Of course not screams Jerder.   Would not every person in the world have drunk from it if he had, but Jerder has found it.   Where? Asks Ruby.   Here in my heart replies Jerder. Ruby inwardly groans and heads further up the stairs.   Is Flannery telling us something here? Ponce de Leon searching for the Fountain of Youth discovers a patch of coastal swamp jungle infested with mosquitoes and alligators – what a let down.

Ruby’s next stop is on the landing where her friend Laverne Watts, a flighty man mad spinster lives.   Ruby is feeling groggy and knocks on Laverne’s door with the toy pistol and as the door opens Laverne almost collapses in laughter at the sight of her plump friend staggering into the room waving a gun.    Laverne listens to Ruby’s complaints and then sows the seed that she is probably pregnant, an assertion, which Ruby stoutly denies.  At the beginning of the story Ruby talks of her mother, having child after child and getting deader and deader with each one and ending up in her thirties looking like a dried up sour apple.  "And all of it for what.  Because she hadn’t known any better.  Pure ignorance."

That was the problem. No way was Ruby going to fall into that trap. No way was there going to be any room for babies and children in her life.   Laverne keeps up the baby banter and then shifts to the subject of Ruby’s little brother Rufus, twenty years old and just out of the army and moving in for a while with Ruby and Bill. "He’s cute." Declares Laverne. "He aint but a baby."  Retorts Ruby.  Laverne takes off one of her size nine shoes and holding it out asks Ruby if she thought Rufus might be interested in the foot that went with it.   Ruby is very protective of Rufus.  She might not want any babies cluttering up her life but she hates the thought of her baby brother becoming entangled with someone like Laverne who is at least ten years older than him.

Are Laverne’s shoes a play on Cinderella’s glass slipper?   A fairy story where the young couple live happily ever after?  Yes we can all relate to that; something unattainable; a fairy story; something we reluctantly let go of when we leave childhood, a let down for all who fail to grow up.

Ruby starts journeying up the stairs again and we switch back to the beginning of the story as she remembers Madam Zoleeda and recalls the knowing smirk as the Palmist tells her what lies ahead.  The illness would last for a while but would end in a stroke of good fortune.  Ruby knew herself she was unwell.  She had not needed Madam Zoleeda to tell her that, but then the Palmist was a very perceptive lady. She never missed much.

Ruby had nearly reached the top of the stairs and the idea of a pregnancy was now well in place; a real ‘let down’ in her eyes, but in reality as most mothers know, the most satisfying experience many women ever have.  There is a paradox here in Ruby’s feeling of discontent and that same paradox is endemic to all discontent. This longing and hope for something or somewhere better is almost universal in mankind and is accepted by reason as pointing strongly toward the existence of God and yet Ruby is caught in her own trap.  She is her own God.  Ruby wants to stay where she is without growing up and moving on. She has rejected the reality of life and with it the chance to understand some small part of the Mercy of God.  The arrival of the baby would probably help to change all of that, but this story does not go that far, it ends near the top of the stairs.

Without faith in the Mercy of God, life becomes a drudge; discontent covers everything like dust and suffering becomes unbearable.  We can see Flannery O’Connor nodding in agreement as she undoubtedly read these words of Simone Weil’s written some time in the late 1930s.1 "The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural cure for suffering, but a supernatural use of it."

Flannery O’Connor had an intimate awareness of physical suffering.  From the age of twenty-six years she lived with the knowledge that her life would be short.  She used her prodigious talent, to tell stories that brought discontent and suffering into its true perspective inside Christian redemption [the Mercy of God] the only place it makes any sense.   She told her stories from the other side, the dark side where people who shun the ‘light’ try to work out their lives on their own.  Characters who illuminate Christianity by trying to run away from it.  Flannery summed it all up in one line of a letter she wrote to her friend Betty Hester in 1955; "God rescues us from ourselves if we want Him to."

 

1. Simone Weil [1909-1943] French Philosopher. Background Jewish and agnostic. Made her own way to Christianity but was never baptized.

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