“A Sense of Sorrow Filled Him”

I’m rereading Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings The Yearling, and I came across this passage about halfway through the book. For some reason, I found it quite powerful and thought I’d share it.

To set the scene, young Jody’s father, Penny, was just bitten by a rattlesnake and Jody doesn’t know if he’s going to make it. He falls asleep while the doctor watches Penny.

“Jody moved through a tortuous dream. With his father beside him, he fought a nest of rattlesnakes. They crawled across his feet, trailing their rattles, clacking lightly. The nest resolved itself into one snake, gigantic, moving toward him on a level with his face. It struck and he tried to scream but could not. He looked for his father. He lay under the rattler, with his eyes open to a dark sky. His body was swollen to the size of a bear. He was dead. Jody began to move backward away from the rattler, one agonized step at a time. His feet were glued to the ground. The snake suddenly vanished and he stood alone in a vast windy place, holding the fawn in his arms. Penny was gone. A sense of sorrow filled him so that he thought his heart would break.”

Penny recovers later in the chapter, but in one scene Rawlings has wonderfully reinforced Jody’s love for his father. At this point, we can’t stop reading. There’s a lot I can learn from this passage, and I thought you might find it as moving as I did.

Do Moralists Make Bad Novelists?

A few days ago, in the New York Times, Alice Gregory wrote a short piece on the question, “do moralists make bad novelists?” I commend the article to you, not because I necessarily agree with it, but because it’s a well-expressed and thoughtful answer to the question.

In short, she argued that there are two kinds of moralists: didactic moralists and ambivalent moralists. Didactic moralists are those who write pamphlets disguised as novels, while ambivalent moralists are those who deal with moral questions without forcing them into a novel. I find the distinction helpful, but I want to suggest an additional nuance.

Andrew Peterson, speaking a few years ago at a conference, talked about a particular way to read the Bible. Before searching for a lesson in a Biblical story, he argued, we should let the story be a story. Let the reality of what we just heard sink in. That God split a sea in two, that a blind man saw again, that a dead man came back to life. These are miraculous realities. They contain a lesson, but they are realities nonetheless.

I’m not certain, but I think Gregory expresses this same sentiment about fiction when she says:

“For [the ambivalent moralist], ethics are measured and expressed in nonliteral units: the sorts of people to whom she chooses to extend her theory of mind, the small details upon which her characters disagree, the extent to which they are willing to forsake integrity for social graces. She does not inject her fiction with moral content, but moral content is there nonetheless.”

If by this she means that moral lessons ought not be crammed into novels where they don’t fit, I agree. However, a bit later, Gregory throws a wrench in this understanding.

“We live in an era of constant online castigation and unequaled opportunity to judge and be judged. We are unceasingly exposed to our friends’ and enemies’ real-time (and seldom flattering) calibrations in self-presentation, and novels should offer a relief from that.”

This seems to imply that novels are supposed to be an escape from constant moral judgement. But how can a novel deal with moral content without making some sort of moral judgement? Gregory seems to suggest that it is through “moralism with the intent to question,” in contrast to “moralism with the intent to teach.”

If we take Flannery O’Connor’s advice, however, that distinction might run into some trouble. O’Connor says that, “for the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye.” If I understand her correctly, she means that the writer must first observe before he writes. He must write about real people, and real worlds. That’s not to say that a writer can’t write fantasy, but that fantasy must be believable. In some sense, it has to be real. Stories must begin by expressing something concrete, not abstract, like an idea.

This leads to Gregory’s point about “moral content.” If we’re writing about concrete things, like actions, we’re going to write about morality because many concrete things carry a moral value. Stealing a cookie from the cookie jar is an action, but it is not a mere action. It is a wrong action. Portraying it as a wrong action is a moral judgement, even though it’s a commonly accepted moral judgement.

This makes me wonder if writing about reality without making moral judgements is, in fact, not writing about reality. Gregory’s distinction may be helpful, but I’m not sure her assertion that novels are an escape from judgement is workable. If we are to have “moral content,” it seems we must make moral judgements. It would simply be dishonest to portray, say, an attempt to slander a friend as amoral simply because we don’t want to make a judgement.

Again, I’m not sure that Gregory is arguing against this–there are some comments in her article, however, that make me wonder if she is.

Perhaps this question–do moralists make bad novelists?–is best answered by O’Connor. O’Connor is all for a distinction between a novel and a sermon, but while she agrees that a story is not a mere statement, statements will inform our stories. Or, as she puts it:

“Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.

Off-Topic: The Contradiction of Man as Merely an Animal

“Those who most despise men and regard them as the equivalent of animals still want to be admired and believed by them, and contradict themselves by their own feelings, their nature, which is stronger than anything, convincing them more strongly of man’s greatness than reason convinces them of their vileness.”–Blaise Pascal

Don’t Forget to Tell a Story

I walked out of Tomorrowland thoroughly disappointed. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect coming in, but I hoped it would, at the very least, be enjoyable. I had enjoyed all of Brad Bird’s movies so far, and Damon Lindelof, the writer, has written several good movies.

Yet Tomorrowland was neither interesting nor enjoyable. And it wasn’t because of some super technical story error. It was because the movie, in my opinion, forgot something basic–movies need to be about something.

Tomorrowland had plenty of good ideas but what it didn’t have was a plot. It was honestly surprising because it isn’t like the director and writers don’t know how to tell a story. They’ve both done some great movies. Bird did Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatoullie, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. All of those were good. Lindelof wrote Star Trek Into Darkness and World War Z, both very enjoyable films.

Tomorrowland forgot to tell a storyWhy, then, did Tomorrowland not have one of the basic story telling elements? I don’t pretend to have the answer to that, but I was reminded of this: I can’t ever forget the basics. Even if a story has a cool structure and great ideas doesn’t mean it’s good.

I have to remember that I’m not telling stories to impress people with the originality of my ideas or the cleverness of my structure. I’m telling a story, and if it isn’t a good story no one will care. When I’m developing story ideas I often get caught up in constructing an interesting format, with refining complex systems in the world of my story, or with developing a miniscule aspect of one character.

In the midst of all that it’s very easy to forget to tell a story. Get the basics down. Then worry about the more complicated aspects. That’s a reminder I needed to have.

Why Interstellar Missed Its Own Big Picture

A few days ago I posted a quote from Blaise Pascal wherein he said this:

“True religion must therefore teach us to worship only him and love only him. But as we find it impossible to worship something we do not know, or to love something other than ourselves, the religion which teaches us these duties must also teach us about our inability. It must also instruct us about the remedies. It tells us that all was lost through a man, that the link between God and ourselves was broken, and that through a man the link was repaired.”

This idea, that true religion tells us about how the link between ourselves and God was broken by a man, and how a man restored that link is certainly fascinating. But what I want to do is use it as a framework for discussing the themes of the film Interstellar.

Pascal tells us that all was lost through a man, and all was restored through a man. Interstellar tell us something radically different, simply by removing the article “a.”

If you recall, the film opens on a drought-ridden planet a generation away from extinction. Agricultural blight is ravaging crops and the vague hints tell us that it’s all due humanity’s abuse of the environment. As a result, mankind makes a desperate attempt to save itself, and the plot of the movie begins.

Interstellar hinges on the audience accepting one thing. I highly encourage you to accept it, because the journey is so very worth it.Throughout Interstellar the theme that develops goes something like this: all was lost through mankind, and through mankind all will be restored. In fact, the theme couldn’t be more clear. The ending of the story, in which (spoiler alert) Cooper sends his daughter quantum information that helps her solve gravity, while at the same time creating the phenomena that led himself to this very spot, quite clearly places mankind in the role of savior.

Even the dialog at the end communicates this. At the beginning of the movie, all Cooper knows is that someone (nebulously referred to as “they” throughout most of the movie) created a wormhole to give humanity a chance at survival. “They” are some kind of higher power, it appears–people who can create wormholes. But at the end, Cooper declares “‘they’ are us. We brought ourselves here.” Mankind is the higher power.

I find this theme rather odd, actually, in light of several events that occur during the movie. For example, around two thirds of the way through, Cooper, the main character, and his crew land on an ice planet found by the leader of the previous mission through the wormhole, Dr. Mann. Everything seems promising until Mann takes Cooper for a walk and ends up trying to kill him.

The scene has been criticized quite a bit, the argument usually going something like this: “they’re halfway across the galaxy, on a mission to save humanity, and they get into a fistfight? Really?” During the film I actually loved the entire scene. Not only was it intense, but I also felt like it said something profound about the human condition. Mann was “the best of humanity,” to quote one of the main characters, and he was sent to save the species. But even he succumbed to selfishness. Two characters getting into a fistfight halfway across the galaxy on a mission to save humanity felt like Nolan’s way of summarizing human nature.

But then (Spoiler Alert) Mann is killed and the mission continues. At this point, however, we’ve sufficiently lost our hope in this team’s ability to save humanity. Yet somehow they still do. Mankind brings itself to the brink of extinction, tries to save itself, attacks itself in its attempt to save itself, and somehow still saves itself.

Interstellar was a good movie (see my review here), but I feel like it missed its own big picture. The overall sketch of mankind Interstellar gives us seems to say that it won’t be long before we’ll mess everything up again. But Interstellar has nowhere else to turn for rescue. According to Interstellar, we are the biggest threat to our survival, and at the same time our only hope for salvation.

This is why Pascal’s formulation, which is really just the Bible’s formulation, is so crucial. Through one man all was lost, and through another man, the Son of Man, all was regained. Without that understanding, we’re left in vicious circles, saving ourselves and endangering ourselves in the same moment.

All Was Lost Through A Man

“True religion must therefore teach us to worship only him and love only him. But as we find it impossible to worship something we do not know, or to love something other than ourselves, the religion which teaches us these duties must also teach us about our inability. It must also instruct us about the remedies. It tells us that all was lost through a man, that the link between God and ourselves was broken, and that through a man the link was repaired.”–Blaise Pascal

The Scandalous Dichotomy: Analyzing O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

There are more than a few humorous anecdotes of reader’s reactions to Flannery O’Connor’s stories. O’Connor recounts one instance in which a woman wrote to her, protesting her stories and claiming they left a bad taste in her mouth. O’Connor wrote back that the woman wasn’t supposed to eat them. On another occasion, as Jonathan Rogers describes,

“After publishing ‘A Temple of the Holy Ghost,’ she received a letter from a woman in Boston. ‘She said she was a Catholic and so she couldn’t understand how anybody could even HAVE such thoughts.'”

But sometimes the reactions, especially from reviewers, were not so funny. Time Magazine wrote, in a review of her collection of short stories titled “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” that her stories were “wittingly sarcastic” but contained “arty fumbling” in the thematic content. The Kenyon Review, writing about the same collection, called her stories, “profane, blasphemous, and outrageous.”

O'Connor's First Short Story CollectionIf one thing can be said about O’Connor’s stories it’s that they can’t be shrugged off without another thought. She wrote stories that shocked, scarred, and disturbed.

But why? One of her most popular stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is the story we’ve now come to in this comprehensive analysis. The story is exceptionally offensive, but I think it gives us one of the clearest pictures of exactly why her stories engendered such violent reactions.

I should say this as I dive into the analysis: plenty has been written about “Good Man,” and so I don’t purport to present the sum total of all that could possibly be seen or discussed concerning it. In this post, though, I want to look at “Good Man” from a rather odd perspective. Namely, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” in my opinion, pushes a scandalous dichotomy–the dichotomy of the person of Christ and the demand He makes on the world.

The basic story of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is of a grandmother and her family, six in total, on a vacation in Florida. On the drive down their car is overturned on a side road and, there, unable to escape, they are all murdered by a serial killer who calls himself the Misfit.

Since she wrote the story, I think it might be a good idea to let O’Connor have the first word as to the theme. Before she read the story to Hollins College in Virginia, in 1963, she said:

“This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.”

In O’Connor’s view, then, the thematic movement of “Good Man” is a move from deception to reality, a move from the grandmother’s rejection of who Christ is to a realization of the truth.

Since the grandmother is the thematic center of the story I want to focus on her and her evolution.

How does O’Connor paint the grandmother at the beginning? At the start of the story, the grandmother is entirely self-deceived. She has a self-image of herself as a lady, an upstanding and moral member of her community. And not only is she a good person but she’s always right. The story opens with a simple, absolute statement of her opinion: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee…”

She’s also violently self-righteous, obsessed with other people conforming to her standards of good behavior. Fundamentally, she’s unwilling to see herself as a sinner in need of grace, though she would almost certainly proclaim that truth about others.

Here we see the first problem. The Grandmother has an improper view of herself because she doesn’t understand the Gospel. Jesus is a comfort to her–a mere nicety. She views Him as a good man, but she doesn’t see Him as the Son of God, because if He were the Son of God He’d keep the law of God perfectly, which would reveal the Grandmother’s unrighteousness. If He were the Son of God, He would make demands on her life. O’Connor points out the fundamental problem with being unwilling to view oneself as a sinner.

“Redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.” (emphasis mine)

The Grandmother is a total embodiment of this belief that there is no cause for redemption. She doesn’t see a cause for redemption in her own life, though she almost certainly sees it in others. Jesus is for them. When the Misfit finally confronts her she urges him to pray because then Jesus will help him, but heaven forbid Jesus help her.

I think one of the primary ways O’Connor symbolizes the Grandmother’s delusion is in the way she dresses. O’Connor describes the Grandmother’s outfit in great detail near the beginning of the story. The outfit is perfect, prim, and proper. As O’Connor writes in a darkly comic moment of foreshadowing, “anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.” The clothes are connected with her self-image of being “a lady.”

After the first half of the story, though, O’Connor begins the slow process of stripping away the Grandmother’s pretensions. The car crashes as a result of the Grandmother’s lapse of memory, and the car crashes where it does because of the Grandmother’s insistence on her own way. But after the car crash the real beginning of the Grandmother’s confrontation with reality is mirrored by her clothes. O’Connor writes,

“The Grandmother limped out of the car, her hat still pinned to her head but the broken front brim standing up at a jaunty angle and the violet spray hanging off the side.”

The Grandmother’s clothes, indicating that she’s a lady, are tattered and torn.

But then The Misfit shows up, and the story really gets going. Who is this character the Misfit? He’s an odd person–violent, profane, and brutal. Yet he’s the one who brings the truth to the grandmother–he’s right where the grandmother is completely off. Meaning, the Misfit understands reality better than she does. The Misfit is more honest about the demands Jesus makes on people’s lives. As he says,

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead…and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can–by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”

Here is the scandalous dichotomy. Here is the thing O’Connor pushes home again and again in her stories. Jesus is not a sideshow. Either He’s everything, in which case the only honest thing to do is to follow Him to the end, or He’s nothing, in which case, as the Apostle Paul points out, Christians like us are of all men the most to be pitied.

Ralph C. Wood writes this about the Misfit’s declaration:

“Jesus’ power over physical death, [the Misfit] knows, is the mark of his power over spiritual death. Christ’s raising of the dead constitutes a command for the Misfit also to be transformed: to surrender his proud sufficiency for the love of God and neighbor…the Misfit knows that he must either gladly embrace or bitterly reject Jesus’ invitation. There is no safe middle way, no accommodating alternative to the drastic extremes of belief and unbelief, no bland neutrality between Jesus Christ and absolute nothingness.”

The Misfit understands what the grandmother does not, which makes the grandmother’s desperate attempts to help him all the more ironic. She still thinks that she has everything figured out. “You could be honest too if you’d only try,” the Grandmother tells the Misfit. “Think how wonderful it would be to…not have to have to think about somebody chasing you all the time.” This comment actually comes before the Misfit’s bold declaration of the dichotomy of the character of Christ. By the time the Misfit tells the Grandmother the truth she’s on her knees, terrified, crying, “Jesus! You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray!”

But when the Misfit tells her the truth, she can’t stand it, responding only with, “Maybe He didn’t raise the dead.”

An Illustration of A Good Man is Hard to FindThink about where the Grandmother is at this point. Her son and grandson have been shot, her daughter-in-law and two granddaughters, one an infant, have met the same fate. A serial killer is kneeling in front of her, pointing a gun at her, and she knows the end is near. But right here at the end, in the sovereignty of God, her killer tells her the truth.

Her only escape is to deny it completely, but even that can’t keep reality away for long. In a shocking moment of truth she realizes who she is. The psychopath in front of her could be one of her own children. It is at this moment that the Grandmother realizes there is a need–a cause–for redemption. She needs redemption, and she knows it because she recognizes, I think, for one split-second, who Jesus is.

The dichotomy has hit her full-force and it runs her over. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that she dies with her knees crumpled under her “like a child’s.” At the end she went back to the beginning and started all over again.

The story gives us a simple if-then statement: if Jesus is the Son of God then we need to be redeemed by him. If he isn’t, then, as the Misfit says, there’s “no pleasure but meanness.”

Flannery O’Connor is almost more like the Misfit than the Grandmother. Her stories proclaim the truth shamelessly and bluntly. O’Connor, like the Misfit, stands straight, telling the truth that either Jesus is everything, or He’s nothing. He either commands every aspect of our lives, or we ought to do whatever gives us pleasure for the horribly short time we have on this earth.

There is no compromise. There is only a dichotomy.