Can You Prove That? An Analysis of The Barber by Flannery O’Connor

My family tells me I argue far too much. I ask them to prove it.

Well, sort of. I know they’re right, but I do find it difficult to hold back when there’s an argument taking place, or one begging to happen. As such, I seriously connected to the main character, Rayber, in Flannery O’Connor’s second published story entitled “The Barber.” Once more, I highly suggest you go read the story here before continuing on with this post. (Apologies for the low quality, I couldn’t find the story anywhere else.) Otherwise this post almost certainly isn’t going to make sense.

Interestingly enough, I find The Barber to have a similar overall theme to The Geranium. Where The Geranium seemed to deal with the control side of pride, this story seems to deal with an obsession with agreement. Well, an obsessive impulse for everyone to agree with you.

The Barber, like The Geranium, is a trite story, with an obvious theme.

The Barber, like The Geranium, is a trite story, with an obvious theme.

The main character is named Rayber, and the story takes place almost solely during three different visits to a barbershop. What develops is a not-so-subtle, but yet biting story of pride and its inevitable downfall. The story begins by introducing us to two candidates–Hawkson and Darmon. It’s significant to note Hawkson’s name, and we’ll see why in just a second. Rayber engages in an argument with the barber, and, because of his timid personality and easily flustered mind he completely loses.

The interesting thing is that he doesn’t recognize he’s like that. He views himself as perfectly capable of winning the argument with the Barber, and continually gets frustrated with himself when he gets flustered, instead of expecting it. I’ll go out on a limb for a second here–even though I couldn’t point you to too many lines, the way Rayber’s internal monologue is written gives the impression that he’s shocked anyone would even disagree with him to begin with. He seems to look down on the Barber and all who disagree with him. This appears to contribute to his inability to think on his feet. He can’t imagine that anyone would disagree with him, and thus doesn’t know what to say when they do.

Again, this goes back to the whole idea of control, to an extent. Both Rayber and Old Dudley, the main character of The Geranium, can’t imagine that people do anything else except what they want them to do. They think reality fits into little boxes they set up.

What ends up happening is that Rayber agrees to prepare an argument and come back to combat the Barber. He obsesses over this, formulating each word, and finally goes to his friend Jacobs, who never engages in arguments. There, this fascinating exchange occurs.

“I never argue,” Jacobs said.

“That’s because you don’t know this kind of ignorance,” Rayber explained. “You’ve never experienced it.”

Jacob snorted. “Oh yes I have,” he said.

“What happened?”

“I never argue.”

“But you know you’re right,” Rayber persisted.

“I never argue.”

It strikes Rayber as odd that someone wouldn’t defend their position and ensure that they were always shown to be in the right. He ignores the complacency of Jacobs, and firmly ventures on to the barbershop, certain that he will persuade everyone there. Even in this, he ignores the fact that he can’t think on his feet, and that he can never persuade anyone.

The crux of the story actually occurs, I believe, on his way to the barbershop. He sees in the window of the store an advertisement for a product said to help “Timid Persons…Kill Their Own Fowl.” Remember how I said Hawkson’s name is important? This is where it is.

Metaphorically speaking, Rayber is trying to “kill” Hawkson. Hawkson, hawk-son. See where I’m going with this? The advertisement tells us the truth about Rayber, but Rayber can’t see it. Rayber is a timid person, trying to kill the fowl, in this case, a hawk. He can’t see that though, and as a result the discussion goes horribly. He ends up making a fool of himself and storms out of the shop, humiliated. And all of this happens because he is a timid person trying to kill a fowl, and he can’t do it. He’s not strong enough, but he won’t recognize that.

In spite of his personality, Rayber is obsessed with being right, even though he can never prove his side. It’s, once more, a bit of a trite story. But it still tells us something valuable about accepting the truth about ourselves–and sometimes that truth isn’t comfortable. The bigger theme, though, is that of Rayber’s obsession with being recognized as right. And, needless to say, the result of this obsession isn’t good.

Which tells me, at least, that maybe I should stop arguing so much.

Deadly Viruses and Talking Apes: A Review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

So, this is a movie about talking apes. As such, one might expect that it would be difficult to have a serious discussion on the movie, much less a serious review. Interestingly enough, though, that’s one of the great strengths of the film–it allows for discussion and analysis, even with the fundamentally silly premise.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

To summarize the plot quickly, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place 10 years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The apes have developed even further, constructing their own society and culture. They have a home, a governmental structure, schools–they are a fully-functioning society. The only way they’re able to do this, though, is because humanity has by and large been wiped out by a virus (as suggested during the end of the last film). The Apes believe all the humans are dead, until they encounter several.

These humans have set up a colony in San Fransisco, and they need a nearby dam in order to restore power. The problem is that the dam is in the middle of the apes’ forest. What follows is a tense diplomatic period, as the apes struggle to decide what to do with these new humans.

Let me start off by saying this: I had really low expectations going into this. I didn’t expect much of anything from it, even though I enjoyed the first one. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that this was actually a really good film.

It’s slow at the beginning, which caught me off guard. Until the end, there really isn’t much action. Much of the screen time is devoted to developing the diplomacy between the apes and the humans, which frankly is the most interesting part of the film. Once the explosions start the film begins to cover familiar ground, even though it maintains a strong character base at its center.

That’s one of this film’s strengths: the characters are phenomenal. Cesar, the main ape, is played brilliantly by Andy Serkis (no surprise there), but multiple other apes are also developed. Even with the minimal dialog between them, these creatures still have emotional depth. The humans are, for the most part, just as good. While Gary Oldman’s character is actually quite minor (and thus not developed), the main humans are all built up well. The annihilation of the human race by the virus has affected all of them deeply–and you can tell. They go through all the standard emotions, but underneath it you get the sense of pure devastation that they feel.

The screenwriters did something interesting in that they didn’t much explain the back story of any of the main human characters. Instead, they let the actors make the characters three-dimensional, opting to focus all the character development in the present moment. It’s something out of the ordinary, but it works.

The other ingenious thing done here is that 2/3 of the film is basically drawn-out diplomatic proceedings between the two parties. It’s not what I expected, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was fascinating to see the humans overcome the communication barrier and begin to talk to the apes. The response of the ape community fit in well and added yet another layer to the plot.

Ultimately, though, the writers wrote themselves into a corner. The tension got so high, and there were so many different variables going on in the negotiations, that it simply had to devolve. Now, if they had let it devolve but then simply had a minor skirmish instead of all out war, the last 1/3 of the film could have been just as good as the first 2/3. But the problem is that once war started, there was no going back. The negotiations had been broken, and so from there on out it became a matter of simply beating the other side.

The climax was satisfying, but it was nothing new. Giving the innovation on display in the majority of the film, it was slightly disappointing. On the whole, though, I do recommend this movie. It has its flaws, but overall it’s a well-written, well-acted, and enjoyable film. There was a lot going against it (like, I don’t know, talking apes) but the screenwriters pulled it off. And for that I congratulate them.

Control and Geraniums: An Analysis of The Geranium by Flannery O’Connor

So today I’ll be starting a new series. I’ll be blogging through Flannery O’Connor’s short stories in chronological order, analyzing them, and trying to figure out what each one is saying. Her first published story is called “The Geranium.” It tells what appears at first glance to be a rather trite story.

I highly suggest that before you read the rest of this post, you jump over to this site, and read the story. It’s available for free, and the ensuing observations will (hopefully) make more sense if you do read it.The Geranium by Flannery O'Connor

So, let’s go ahead and start to dissect the story.

The main character, Old Dudley, is an interesting figure. From the first page we get the sense that he’s quite arrogant, full of his own opinions, certain that his views are the right ones. Even to things as trite as deciding that his neighbors shouldn’t have a geranium. “Those people across the alley had no business with [the geranium]…they had no business with it, no business with it,” he says near the beginning. It’s odd, isn’t it, how sure he is of his own opinions?

It goes on and on, too. “The geranium is late today,” he pronounces to himself, frustrated that his neighbors don’t abide by his schedule. He’s frustrated by the demands of his daughter, frustrated by the business of New York. He’s frustrated that he can’t understand it. He’s angry that he can’t control it.

And that’s one of the most important things–Dudley is searching, constantly, for control. When he came to New York he was immediately dissatisfied. Why? Because he can’t control it. He can’t fully comprehend it, and he is, frankly, intimidated by it. The hugeness of it, the constant movement, the millions of people each going about their own lives–in other words, reality–slams headfirst into his own version of reality in which he’s in control. In which he’s always right.

To me, this seems obvious in one section in particular. “Old Dudley would have liked to have explained New York to Rabie. If he could have showed it to Rabie, it wouldn’t have been so big–he wouldn’t have felt pressed down every time he went out in it.” If he could control New York, he wouldn’t be so intimidated.

In my opinion, as I read the story, Dudley’s constant grasping for control is crucial, and ultimately, his illusion of control being violated is what sets up the finale. It begins, after we’ve already gotten a good understanding of his racist beliefs, when a black person moves in next to them. Dudley is angry, and his daughter turns to him and says “You tend to your own business…don’t have anything to do with him.” She violates his control. She tells him what to do, what to be OK with.

She tells him to “mind his own business.” But the real climax is when he meets this same person one day on the way back up to his apartment. And, in direct defiance of the way that Dudley sees the world, his next-door-neighbor treats him as an equal. Dudley can’t stand it. Almost in a daze, he runs back to his apartment, getting inside as fast as he could. He’s angry, he’s confused, and he suddenly feels like he can’t control things. That’s not how people were supposed to act towards him, in his mind at least. The control is gone, and Dudley is, very simply, angry.

So what does he do the second he gets back in his apartment? He runs towards the one thing he thinks he can control–the geranium. But instead of the geranium a man is sitting there, watching him. The geranium is on the ground, several floors below, having fallen off the ledge.

The man looks at Dudley, and the following conversation occurs:

“Where is my geranium?” Old Dudley quavered. “It ought to be there. Not you.”

“This is my window,” the man said. “I got a right to set here if I want to.”

“Where is it?” Old Dudley shrilled…

“It fell off if it’s any of your business,” the man said…

“You shouldn’t have put it so near the ledge,” he murmured. “Why don’t you pick it up?”

“Why don’t you pop?”

Old Dudley stared at the man who was where the geranium should have been…

“I ain’t seen you pickin’ it up,” [the man] said. “I seen you before…I seen you settin’ in that old chair every day, starin’ out the window, looking in my apartment. What I do in my apartment is my business, see? I don’t like people looking at what I do.”

[The geranium] was at the bottom of the alley with its roots in the air.

“I only tell people once,” the man said and left the window.

Dudley first has his control broken by his neighbor treating him as an equal. His illusion of control was weakening every time he went out in New York, as he realized how big the city was, and how small he was in comparison. Then it was broken by his neighbor, and finally his illusion was shattered by the rebellion of the only thing he felt like he could control.

It seems that the story is, to some extent, about control. It’s about a man’s obsessive pursuit of it, and how ultimately he can’t achieve it. Like everything I’ve read by O’Connor so far, the story rings true. People do seem to seek after control, almost obsessively at times. Though the result in this story is simply a moment of embarrassment and anger, it certainly seems like the consequences could have been far more dire.

Control, the story seems to say, is elusive. And people who have illusions that they are in control are in for a rude awakening. The illusions will be shattered, and those who have them could very well be in worse shape than before.

Who Was Flannery O’Connor?

Flannery O’Connor, born March 25, 1925, is a fascinating figure. Well-known for her dark fiction and shocking stories, her life was short and eventful. She was born in Savannah, Georgia, with large and well-known Georgian families on both her father’Flannery O'Connors and her mother’s side. She lived in Savannah until she was fourteen when, in 1938, her family moved to Midgeville.

There, she continued her studies at Georgia College and State University. It wasn’t long before her talent as a writer and storyteller was recognized, and she became editor of the Corinthian, the college’s literary magazine. Even as editor she would regularly contribute fiction, cartoons, and even poems, showing her dynamic range. She began to increase the speed of her learning process, joining a track at the college that had her graduating in three years. She majored in social sciences, with multiple classes in English.

At the age of fifteen she suffered a blow with the death of her father. Her father died of the same disease (systemic lupus erythematosus) that she would eventually die from at age 39.

She eventually received a scholarship to study Journalism at the University of Iowa. Soon after arriving, however, she jumped ship and entered the Master’s program in Creative Writing. The course was taught by Paul Engle, who recalls the first time she asked to enter the program. When she entered his office, he was unable to understand her Southern accent. Engle eventually had to ask her to write down her message. She wrote, simply, “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist. Can I come to the Writer’s Workshop?”

O’Connor was shy, but obviously talented. Her classmates and Engle spoke of her willingness to take any criticism, constantly ready to rework her stories, even if it meant starting all over again.

Her first novel, Wise Blood, was confusing to critics. While some enjoyed it, others were completely stumped, unable to discern its meaning. Her later publication, in 1955, of a short-story collection entitled “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” seemed to clarify her intent to critics. Her dark themes, and constant conviction that humanity was lost and in need of a savior was evident in the stories.O'Connor's First Short Story Collection

While, of course, opinions differ on what each of her stories mean, what it seems most people can agree upon is that her works are dark. On occasion O’Connor would be attacked on this point–challenged as to why she made her stories so dark. Her response was brilliant: “To the hard of hearing, [Christian writers] shout, and for the… almost-blind [they] draw large and startling figures.”

Flannery O’Connor passed away at the age of 39 after a coma that spanned several days. She died after publishing another short story collection, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” and a second novel, “The Violent Bear It Away.” Her stories have lived on, recognized as important works of Southern Fiction. Despite their age, they ring true, perhaps because O’Connor’s drive to write was, at least in part, in order to tell people of their brokenness. Her stories are violent, shocking, and sometimes even offensive. But primarily, it seem she included all of that, not frivolously, but purposefully. It seems she tried to tell the truth about people. And, from what her stories tell us, she apparently didn’t think that truth was pretty.

Check back soon for the first post in my read through of all of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. We’ll be starting with “The Geranium.”

I’m Back

I know, I know, it’s been a while. I do apologize for that–hopefully post-less times like this will be infrequent, if not nonexistent, in the future. In my defense, I have been incredibly busy, finishing up (most) of my school (math and spanish just won’t The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connorgo away), and traveling a good bit as well.

So yes, for that I apologize. However, the good news is that I have some books coming my way that should be fun to review. I’m also excited for several of the films coming out this summer, so I’ll be able to do reviews on those. In the immediate future, though, I have something that will, hopefully, be enjoyable.

I received a collection of all of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories a few days ago, and I’ve begun reading them. Needless to say, they’re amazing. I intend to blog through them, trying to discern exactly what she’s saying in each of them–or at the very least, to speculate as to their meanings. Tomorrow I’ll post a short biography of her before jumping into the first story entitled “The Geranium.”

I’m particularly excited for this because the stories are arranged chronologically. It should be fascinating to see her writing develop thematically, structurally, and even technically. That’s what will be coming up continually, and in addition I will be posting individual reviews of various books and films, as well as thoughts regarding stories that occur to me.

To summarize, hopefully everything will go back to normal now. So, with that out of the way, let’s move on to the real posts. I’ll see you all tomorrow for the first one.

Driving At Night

“E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”
–Anne Lamott

Dangers Worth Taking

I promise, I’m not addicted to Orson Scott Card. Well, maybe his writing advice, but that’s because he seems to understand that he can’t provide universal rules that apply to every single situation. Storytelling is an art, and as such can’t be broken down into a science. Adding X plot device together with Y characters and Z ending doesn’t automatically equal a good story.

So, if I mention him a good bit that’s why. I think he says things well, and in the right way, and so why not mention him?

Anyway, my review of Captain Phillips mentioned the way that the film seemed to develop its characters. That is, the film developed the characters not in the standard way, that way being develop them first, then put them in danger later. Instead, the film developed the characters in the danger. In other words, it is because of the extreme amount of peril the characters are in that we care about them. That’s an interesting approach to character development, and at least in Captain Phillips it worked. Orson Scott Card has something to say about that form of character development.

His primary claim, from the book Characters and Viewpoint, is that this type of character development is, well, tricky. Sometimes it works well, and if it does then you’ve saved yourself some time in the story and can jump right into the action. Other times it doesn’t work and then you, generally, get two results.

Card's Book on characters is fabulous

Captain Phillips is able to do what Card tells us is possible, but difficult–developing the characters through the danger.

The first possible result is that the audience just doesn’t care about the characters. They’re disengaged and removed from the story, allowing them to guess twists and turns and judge the story in a cold and disconnected manner. That’s probably not a good idea. When the audience is constantly running a story through a checklist to make sure it’s checking all the boxes, it usually means that they’re not immersed in it. Instead of a story grabbing their attention and refusing to let go, it’s just a thing that’s happening.

That result puts the storyteller in a bit of a tough place.

The other result that Card lists is also probably not desirable. That result is that, in the pursuit of making us sympathize with the characters because of the huge amount of peril they’re in, the storyteller places the characters in so much peril that the audience can’t stand it. It’s so intense, so visceral, the audience has to walk away.

Card cites the example of him having to walk out of the films Alien and Aliens. The amount of peril the characters were in was too much for him. He had to leave and disconnect. So he did. Eventually he was able to make it through them, but not in the theaters.

The key is the amount of danger. How dark, how intense, how visceral, how dire is the character’s circumstance? There’s not a magic amount, or a formula that tells the storyteller when they’ve put enough, too little, or too much peril into the story.

Personally, I don’t think I will, at least for a while, try this type of development. I’d be preoccupied with the reaction of the audience so much that I wouldn’t be able to focus on the story itself. Nevertheless, I appreciate Captain Phillips’ success in the area. It seems like a hard thing to pull off, and Card certainly seems to think it is. However, for me, it just isn’t a danger worth taking.