Character studies in Flannery O'Connor's short fiction
[Note: This entry is intended primarily as a guide for a formal discussion of O'Connor's works in my American Literature course at Seton Hill University.]
When I first proposed a literary research paper examining the theme of redemption and archetypal character relations in "Good Country People," I had no idea what I'd find. But upon completing my research and actually writing the paper, I realized that I had stumbled upon an unconventional interpretation of the text that proved enlightening for me as a reader.
Before explaining the development of my paper's thesis and launching a discussion about the topics I studied, it would probably be best to briefly define several key terms I became quite familiar with throughout the course of my research.
- Trickster - The Trickster is a Jungian archetype derived from the mythological concept of a character "who plays pranks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and norms of behavior" (Wikipedia). The Trickster has been recognized in most modern literary theory as a stock character. He uses trickery as an approach to life, as a means of survival; that is, he uses his wits to overcome obstacles rather than raw physical power. He is, ironically enough, both "creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others and who is always duped himself" (Schaum). Hulga and Manley Pointer are both examples of Trickster characters.
- Shadow - The Shadow is another Jungian archetype derived from the mythological concept of a shadow-self; that is, the darkness within every human being. The Shadow represents the "instinctual appetites" of some other character's unconscious, and although he may often appear evil, he is not necessarily so. The Shadow is not immoral, he is amoral. He serves to help his host character cope with the darker side of his or her own personality and attitudes. According to Carl Jung's psychological theory, the "process of human growth and development leading to wholeness and integration ... only begins when the Shadow has been confronted" (Bingaman). Manley Pointer is an example of a Shadow character.
- Trickster-Shadow - This is a key term that I developed myself in my literary research paper. Manley Pointer, the Bible-selling boy in O'Connor's "Good Country People," exhibits a wide array of characteristics which make him fit the archetypal constructions of both the Trickster and the Shadow, thus I dubbed him a Trickster-Shadow: a Shadow who uses Trickster tactics in order to enlighten his host character, Hulga.
So how do these key terms relate to my thesis? What, exactly, have I argued in my paper? To put it as simply as I can manage:
Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” blends two types of stock characters—the Trickster and the Shadow, Jungian archetypes—in order to suggest an intrinsic relationship between the two and construct a new archetypal hybrid: the Trickster-Shadow. The Bible-selling boy in “Good Country People,” who acts on one level as a Trickster, also represents the Shadow aspect of Trickster Hulga’s personality and forces her to recognize and begin to come to terms with her own inherent human flaws. Hulga, whose personality is riddled with narcissism, is placed in a direct confrontation with her Trickster-Shadow that ultimately teaches her the lesson of humility; she achieves salvation primarily because of this confrontation with the dark side of her own soul.
Throughout my paper, I develop this argument with quotes from both O'Connor's text and scholarly sources. Here are a few of the most revealing passages from my paper thus far (which I will mention and summarize only briefly in class in order to facilitate a comprehensive and active discussion, rather than a lecture):
One of the Trickster’s primary functions is “to lure his victims into the ‘traveler’s space’ of ‘uncanny territory’ … in which they lose their bearings and find themselves between or on the outside of situations and certainties that conventionally orient them” (Schaum). This function is discrete from Hulga’s point of view: she draws the boy into an unusual encounter with a girl who is an atheist, which leaves him “astonished” (187). But from Manley Pointer’s perspective, his function in this respect is almost blatantly obvious: he forces Hulga into a situation in which she is utterly helpless and in a position to recognize her own sinful nature.
It is worth clarifying the fact that the Shadow is not inherently possessed only of humanity’s darker qualities and thus providing examples of its good side. The Shadow, finding its roots in human nature as it does, typically “’displays a number of good qualities, such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses, etc.’” (Bingaman). These traits are apparent throughout the story in Manley Pointer’s behavior. For instance, consider his reaction when Hulga tries to use her powers of seduction to maneuver him into a desire for sex. He doesn’t act mindlessly in order to satisfy his human lust, but instead shows moral strength when he asks Hulga to say that she loves him. Another such example can be found in the scene where he asks to see where Hulga’s artificial leg joins onto her real body. Although Hulga is at first mortified by his request, the boy actually surprises her by revealing his insight that she “ain’t like anybody else” (191). She’s deeply moved by his observation, and develops a new sense of kinship with him, which brings her closer to accepting her Trickster-Shadow as a normal part of her human soul. It could perhaps be argued that he’s only interested in the leg because he wants to steal it; but if this were true, why would he go to the trouble of tricking her into trusting him and allowing him to take it off for her? His goal is not merely to steal the leg, but to coax Hulga to accept him in a certain degree of intimacy, which will help her cope with the weaknesses of her personality.
Hulga’s arrogant ignorance is established early in the story, setting the stage for her later enlightenment. She is described as “someone who has achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it,” implying that as a character she is blind to her own faults and deformities by choice and hopes to remain that way (170). Hulga can see all of the little obvious details, all the purely physical facts of human existence, but she fails to comprehend the grand scheme of things, the spiritual ties that bind it all together. Despite her brilliant mind, “she didn’t have a grain of sense” (174). She has no wisdom with which to interpret the world, thus she can’t sense God’s presence within it.
Some might argue that the boy’s trickery and betrayal of Hulga’s trust serve not to save her soul or enlighten her, but rather only to satisfy his own greed. But if that were true, why would he show her mercy and simply leave her alone after he removes her leg and renders her helpless? If he were truly, inherently evil, he would have gone even further and raped her or killed her. Instead, his actions—like those of any appropriate Shadow—are amoral, not immoral, and also fit logically with his Trickster side. Both Trickster and Shadow are two-sided, balanced on the border between light and darkness, good and evil, right and wrong; thus the mixture of malice and mercy visible in his actions at the end of the story fit perfectly with the notion of a Trickster-Shadow, one who both destroys Hulga’s old self-image and consciousness and assists her in creating new ones.
Some might also argue that there is not sufficient evidence to prove that Hulga undergoes a significant change as a result of her confrontation with her Trickster-Shadow. But O’Connor chose to omit the details of the change that would occur because they were not critical to this understanding. As any good writer of fiction knows, readers don’t like to have all the answers handed to them on a proverbial silver platter; no, they prefer to puzzle things out for themselves. Instead of bringing the story to a more rigid and instructive conclusion, O’Connor allows the personality she’s created for Hulga to combine with readers’ intuition and speak for itself; after all, it’s rather obvious that Hulga could never be the same after such a life-altering confrontation as this. Jung himself argued that human beings are invariably changed forever by any sort of contact with their Shadows (Bingaman).
I feel that the first three passages have a profound connection to all of O'Connor's short fiction, though some fit more appropriately than others.
What connections do you see? I see a connection between the Trickster's role as a guide into unfamiliar territory and the way in which Mr. Head leads Nelson into such a place in "The Artificial Nigger"; a connection between the Shadow's dualistic nature and the character of Mr. Shiftlet in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"; a connection between the concept of ignorant narcissism and the character of the child in "A Temple of the Holy Ghost"; and much more.
I hope we can discuss some of these connections in class during my presentation, because I have considered adding simultaneous analysis of a second text to my paper, a text which I can relate to my thesis. I've reached the general conclusion that "The Artificial Nigger" would probably serve this function particularly well.
I would also like to invite your feedback about the last two passages, which present my antithesis arguments and refute them. I have had trouble finding scholarly sources to quote within these passages, and I'm not sure precisely what kind of or how many such sources I should use. What are your suggestions?
Finally, I would like to offer an excerpt from my conclusion as food for thought:
... this seems to be the underlying theme and message at the core of every O’Connor tale: humanity must not mistakenly believe that it is inherently good, for that leads to pride and arrogance much like Hulga’s. Instead, humanity must come to terms with the fact that it has a very real Shadow, one which can only be overcome after it is confronted directly and recognized for both its good and bad qualities. Maybe what O’Connor’s “Good Country People” suggests is that this confrontation is inevitable, and that humanity can only be guided towards salvation by a Trickster-Shadow because human beings are too proud and narcissistic to seek out and confront the pure Shadow of their own free will.
In closing, I'd like to thank my classmates and Dr. Jerz for their continued support and contributions. I'd also like to offer a list of possible study questions for the final exam which relate to my topic in a general sense. I'd love to discuss the answers with everyone in class during my presentation, if time permits; if not, then I invite everyone to comment here after class, instead.
~Christopher T. Ulicne
1. How does O'Connor use flawed characters to teach her readers moral lessons?
2. O'Connor's short fiction has several coherent religious themes. What is one such theme? Provide some evidence from two or more of her stories.
3. O'Connor's short fiction also has other themes: growth and maturity, ignorance, prejudice, ownership, narcissism, etc. Choose some of these themes and illustrate their presence in her stories with some supportive evidence.
4. What role did Manley Pointer play in helping Hulga learn more about herself in "Good Country People"?
5. Many of O'Connor's stories share similar themes, structures, characters, plots, or other literary elements. Why do you think O'Connor recycled these elements over and over again in her short fiction? How effective was she in accomplishing whatever goal she had in doing so?
Bingaman, Kirk A. "Christianity and the Shadow Side of Human Experience." Pastoral Psychology 49.3. Academic Search Elite, EBSCOhost, Reeves Memorial Library, Greensburg, PA. 13 pp. 15 Apr 2006.
O'Connor, Flannery. “Good Country People.” A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories. Comp. Flannery O'Connor. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, [2006?]. 167-195.
Schaum, Melita. "’Erasing Angel’: The Lucifer-Trickster Figure in Flannery O’Connor’s Short Fiction." Southern Literary Journal 33.1. Academic Search Elite, EBSCOhost, Reeves Memorial Library, Greensburg, PA. 26 pp. 15 Apr 2006.
Scheurich, Neil and Vincent Mullen II. "Narcissism and Spirituality in Flannery O’Connor’s Stories." American Journal of Psychotherapy 57.4. Academic Search Elite, EBSCOhost, Reeves Memorial Library, Greensburg, PA. 14 pp. 3 Apr 2006.