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.

Tolkien and Reading Security

Randon Billings Noble, writing recently for the LA Review of Books, discussed the idea of Reading Security. This, if I understand it correctly, is basically another way of phrasing the issue of escapism in literature. In other words, what happens when books, when reading, becomes an escape from the real world?

Noble says this as she sets up the problem:

“But then I read Anna North’s New York Times essay “When Novels Were Bad for You,” and wondered if, in some ways, they still are. North uses Emma Bovary and Catherine Norland, (of Northanger Abbey) as examples of readers who are swept too far away by their reading, finding their actual lives either lacking or mistakenly fraught when compared to the romances and Gothic horrors in which they lose themselves. I’m older than they are, and living in a very different time and place, but even though I can indeed distinguish between fact and fiction, I feel the same sense of thrall when I read, and I relish it. But is this “bad” in the way 18th- and 19th century critics thought?”

This is a very interesting paragraph. A standard question is raised: what happens when we realize that the lives we live barely resemble the novels we read? What happens when books become an escape, and we begin to dislike the real world? We should confine ourselves to dealing with the real world, with sophisticated problems and mature ideas, and not try to escape from it, goes the anti-escapist reasoning. Why would escapism be a desirable thing?

J.R.R. TolkienThat’s not necessarily a new question: Lewis and Tolkien dealt with it a lot. In fact, a large part of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” is devoted to this very idea. And in answer to the question, “is escape bad?” Tolkien gave the same answer Noble does. The difference is in the reason for the answer. Here’s what Tolkien said:

“Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.”

Tolkien here was writing from a worldview that said that there was a world beyond our own, a world beyond the prison. This world was a world that fulfilled the longing we all have, a world where jailers and prison walls were no more. This world was a home, not a jail. Tolkien says there’s nothing wrong with escapism in this sense because we are trying to escape to where we really belong.

In other words, books provide us a glimpse of this real home, and so there’s nothing wrong with escaping to it.

Noble gives the same answer as Tolkien: no, escaping to another world in a book is not necessarily wrong. But Noble has a very different reason.

“…here’s the thing – I do indeed want to divorce myself (if only temporarily) from my everyday life. I want to be in a more sophisticated world than my three-year-olds’. I want complex characters and elaborate language and mature themes…”

I want to ask the question, is a three-year-olds’ world really so unsophisticated? Or if it is, why is that a bad thing? Why would we want to escape from that? As G.K. Chesterton points out, young children are fascinated with the mundane in life–they wonder at everything around them. They don’t walk outside at night and treat the moon and the stars nonchalantly. The moon and the stars are not just there, the moon and the stars are wonderful, intricate, stunning things. It is only when we get older, according to Chesterton, that we lose the wonder inherent in these things.

If one were to combine Tolkien and Chesterton, one might say this about escapism: those who have lost an ability to wonder at the mundane, to see the reflections of another world in our own, ought to escape. There is nothing wrong with wanting to go home, but home may look less like the “sophisticated” world Noble speaks of and more like a three-year-olds’ world.

Complex characters and elaborate language aren’t necessarily bad, but they may not actually be any better than the simple beauty of a child building a sand castle on the beach. The echoes of the home Tolkien speaks of are all around us but they become a bit harder to see, according to Chesterton, when everything is about unceasing analysis and complexity.

When we take things like the world we live in, and try to act “grown up” by dealing with so-called substantial issues and real problems, I think Chesterton would tell us to stop. Before we deal with “important” issues, let’s just step back for a minute and acknowledge the fact that we are tiny creatures, sitting on a large rock, with explosions at the center, hurtling through space at 66,000 miles per hour, around a giant ball of fire.

And we want to be sophisticated. Can we just stop for a moment and wonder at the fact that we even exist?

The real world may not be so different from a three-year-olds’ world.

A world where the sun rising every morning is a wondrous thing. A world where the joy of something simple, like a trampoline, leads to constant repetition of that thing.

The “grown up” world of constant analysis, the “grown up” world where sheer joy and wonder at simple things is shunned, may not be the real world. To use Chesterton’s example, the real world may look more like the world of a child, having just discovered a slide, who says over and over, “do it again!”

Stretching Our Characters

Last night, as I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was reminded yet again of one simple rule of storytelling: never let your characters get comfortable.

The episode took all of the show’s main characters and put them in situations where we would never imagine them, situations that seem antithetical to who they are. As a result, even though the plot was exceptionally weak, the episode was enjoyable.

This is a lesson I need to take to heart. Sometimes, as I write short stories or novels, or as I read short stories or novels, the authors will allow their characters to sit in their comfort zones. Perhaps a character’s comfort zone is fighting evil, like a James Bond. In that case, giving them more evil to fight doesn’t seem to do anything except let them stay where they’re comfortable. But if James Bond had to, say, let someone else fight evil instead–now he’s being pushed. Now he’s being stretched.

It’s when characters are stretched that I find myself most engaged in a story. Seeing them do what they’re best at is only interesting for so long.

The point being this: I need to remember to always stretch my characters in every way I can think of. I’ve seen a lot of stories suffer from underdeveloped characters due to comfortable scenarios, and I need to be careful to not make that mistake. If they’re comfortable, something’s wrong and the audience will probably lose interest very quickly. I need to heed that idea, and implement it in my own writing.

Realizing Where We’ve Fallen From

I was reading Blaise Pascal recently and I came across this quote:

“We want truth and find only uncertainty in ourselves. We search for happiness and find only wretchedness and death. We are unable not to want truth and happiness, and are incapable of either certainty or happiness. This desire has been left in us as much to punish us as to make us realize where we have fallen from.”

I found this exceptionally powerful, especially as it seems to echo Ecclesiastes 3:11: “Also, He has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” The concept that a desire for truth and happiness is inherent within us is nothing new, but Pascal puts it into beautiful terminology.

Blaise PascalInterestingly enough, a lot of stories seem to be haunted by this desire. The most recent one I blogged about would be my post on “How Eden Haunts Frankenstein.” In that post I argue that Frankenstein tells the story of the fall over, and over, and over again. At the core of Frankenstein is a desire on the part of many of the characters to get back to a place they’ve fallen from.

Pascal takes that idea, of the drive to return to perfection, a step further when he argues that a desire for truth and happiness exists to make us realize that the world once was perfect. Again, that plays out frequently in stories. It’s a theme I’ve been noticing a good bit lately, so expect to see more coming on this point.

In the meantime, I simply wanted to share that quote and comment a little on it. Expect to see some more O’Connor analysis fairly soon and potentially more Pascal–he’s highly quotable.

How Eden Haunts Frankenstein

On the first page of Frankenstein there’s a quote from Paradise Lost that’s omitted, sadly, from some editions. The quote is this:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay,
To mould me man, Did I solicit thee
From Darkness to promote me?

Ignoring this quote is, I think, a mistake. Not only does it set the tone for the story, and not only is the quote echoed throughout the book, but thinking of Frankenstein through the lens of Paradise Lost provides a perspective that emphasizes one very interesting aspect of the story. See, Paradise Lost is, as we all know, the story of, well, paradise being lost. It’s the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from paradise–from Eden.

Frankenstein Book CoverFrankenstein, I want to argue, tells this same story over, and over, and over again. The entire story of Frankenstein is, in one sense, the story of a fall from Eden and the violent, stark aftermath of that fall. I may be, in arguing this, stepping outside the bounds of authorial intent (though I wouldn’t be surprised if Shelley did intend this), but from a Christian perspective, looking through the lens of Milton’s classic, I think these observations aren’t that far out there.

So what are the paradises and falls that occur in Frankenstein?

The first paradise in Frankenstein, I think, isn’t Victor Frankenstein’s. We often forget that the story doesn’t even start with Victor–rather, it starts with “R. Walton” writing letters to his sister, Margaret Walton Saville. As an interesting sidenote, Allen Grove, a professor of English at Alfred University, notes:

“Shelley’s touch is subtle here, but through Walton’s sister, she has inserted herself into the story: Margaret Walton Saville–MWS–Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.”

Regardless, Walton is detailing his exploration of the uncharted Northern seas. He’s taken with the thrill of adventure and discovery as he fulfills his dream of sailing through unknown waters.

In other words, he’s living in the paradise of his dreams. He’s happy and excited regarding what is to come. The only problem is that he’s lonely. He’s living his dream–living in his paradise–and yet he’s lonely. Maybe this is pushing it, but that seems to recall Adam’s own dissatisfaction with Eden–Adam lived in paradise, but he was alone. And that, as God said, was not good.

Walton soon meets a friend in Victor Frankenstein, and Victor begins to tell Walton his story. Here we see the second paradise emerge.

Victor paints the picture of his childhood as idyllic. He’s given free reign to explore and learn, and he immerses himself in reading outdated scientific works. In this we see a subtle set-up of another paradise. Not only is Victor apparently perfectly happy, enjoying life with his friends, but he also is plunging himself into mastering the works of outdated and incorrect scientific theories. He does master these theories and thinks he has gained an immense amount of scientific knowledge.

And then comes his fall. It’s small, brief, but significant. The first fall, I believe, portrayed in Frankenstein occurs when Victor meets his first professor of science at the university. Victor tells him the books and authors he has learned by heart, proud of his achievement. The professor responds like this:

“Every minute,” continued M. Krempe with warmth, “every instant that you have wasted on those books is utterly and entirely lost. You have burdened your memory with exploded systems and useless names. Good God! In what desert land have you lived, where no one was kind enough to inform you that these fancies which you have so greedily imbibed are a thousand years old and as musty as they are ancient? I little expected, in this enlightened and scientific age, to find a disciple of Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus. My dear sir, you must begin your studies entirely anew.”

Victor is devastated. He’s lost the paradise of knowledge he thought he had.

But his fall isn’t to end there. Because, as quickly as he falls from one paradise he enters another. He applies himself to new studies, becoming skilled in modern science. He begins work on the creation of a new life–the creature. This work doesn’t last long, though.

His complete devotion to this project is, in a sense, a paradise. He is fulfilling a childhood dream as well, just like Walton. He is creating life. Visions of his creation worshiping him, honoring him as a god fill his mind. And then he brings the monster to life and is revolted.

He was in a place of, in a sense, perfection. He discerned nothing wrong or harmful with what he was doing–in his mind he was in paradise. Then when he finally completes his project, he sees what the creature really was and his supposed paradise is lost.

Mary ShelleyBut Victor’s fall isn’t complete. That happens when the monster kills his nephew William. Then, it seems, Victor’s innocence, Victor’s perfect childhood, is shattered by grief. It’s only expanded when someone else is blamed for William’s death and executed. Victor has fallen from paradise and finds himself lost in a world where he has unleashed destruction and evil.

But the creature has his own fall.

See, after Victor deserts him, the creature is angry and frustrated, but not murderous. He runs off, taking shelter in the woods until he comes upon a small hut in which lives the De Lacey family.

According to the monster, this family is, though they are poor, in paradise. They love each other, they get along, they care for each other. The monster, too, is in paradise, beginning to fancy these people as his friends. Although he doesn’t let them see him, he watches them all day and night. He chops firewood for them in secret, providing them with food and warmth.

The creature has a vision of coming into the hut and greeting the family, explaining all he has done for them, and becoming close friends with them.

The creature perceives no fault and no flaw. He is in paradise where he thinks he has friends, and he thinks the De Lacey family is also in paradise. And then, in what must be one of the most tragic moments of the book, the creature reveals himself to the family and they drive him off, revolted by his hideous appearance. The family is traumatized and so is the monster. He feels betrayed and alone–he’s run into reality and his paradise is lost.

And so is the family’s. Their trauma tears them apart, forcing them to move out for fear of the creature’s return. The creature watches as they pack up and leave, their perfection shattered by him. As they ride away he sees his innocence fade into the distance. In a moment of rage he burns their hut down, torching the last physical reminder of the paradise he lost.

Paradise LostNear the end of the story Walton also loses his paradise when his crew refuses to go on, forcing him to turn back under threat of mutiny.

Frankenstein is, it appears, the story of fall after fall. First Victor, then the creature, then the De Lacey family, and then Walton. In the rest of the story, after the fall of the creature, both Victor and the creature spend their time longing for what they’ve lost. The creature longs for the comfort of friends that he found in the De Lacey family. Victor longs for the return to the idyllic world of his youth through the destruction of the creature that destroyed it.

There’s a lot going in, thematically speaking, in Frankenstein. I personally wouldn’t dare to make the claim that the loss of Eden and the longing for its return is the main theme, but I think there’s enough evidence to support the conclusion that it is a theme.

Because even after all the characters have fallen from paradise they’re still haunted by Eden. Eden won’t let them go.

None of them search in the right way for this paradise, but all of them search. In some sense, it seems the story of Frankenstein is a retelling of the fall, and humanity’s subsequent striving to regain Eden. In some sense, it seems Frankenstein tells the story of us all, and that story is the story of longing for a land we lost.

Tolkien was right. All stories are about the fall. And they’re about the fall because our whole being is soaked in a visceral sense of exile from Eden. We long to return to that place.

Eden haunts us, and Eden haunts our stories.

On One-Star Amazon Reviews Of Classics

Whenever I need a good laugh, if I don’t have a funny book close at hand, I tend to go take a look at one-star reviews of classics on Amazon. And boy, are they funny. The most humorous are the dogmatic ones that apparently have discovered the true quality of any given classic, contrary to the majority of thought on the subject. But whenever I look at these I’m always left slightly sad, at the same time as being amused. The attitude taken by many reviewers, and sadly, on occasion, myself, is that the quality of a book is up to the reviewer.

On One-Star Amazon Reviews of ClassicsThey are the ultimate arbiters of all that is good in the world of fiction. They are the ones who have the experience and taste to discern the good from the bad. It makes me wonder why we don’t accept that, in all likelihood, classics probably have something that makes them worth reading.

I think it might be appropriate, here, to point out several of the most enjoyable examples of this dogmatism.

The Old Man and the Sea Amazon Reviews:

“I will admit that Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea has some compelling thoughts, but the only way I could accurately describe this book is “SnoozeFest 1952” or “That Awkward Moment When you are Holding a Book to Make it Appear Like you are Awake.” After reading this novel, I finally understand Pulitzer Prize criteria: not falling asleep during the most boring novel read within a certain year.”

“The only exciting thing in the whole book was when the sharks appeared. I cared so little for all the characters especially the old man I hoped they were going to eat the old man. But nope they ate his stupid marlin instead. When the reader is hoping for the “hero” to die your book sucks.”

“The book has no point except that humans keep fighting no matter what. The old man is catching a fish for about 80 of the 127 pages. It’s a very bad book that shouldn’t have ever been published.”

Beowulf Amazon Reviews:

“We spend the entire early years of education helping children love reading. They get to high school and we undo all the good with books like this.”

“Yes I suppose some would argue that this novel carries much culture and tradition with it, but give me a break! Jazz up the translation a bit and use language that REAL people can understand!!!!! Or don’t waste your time!!!! Unless you suffer from an extreme case of insomnia, suicidal depression, or sheer boredom, don’t come anywhere near this book!”

My Favorites are these, reviews of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories:

“An endless parade of moronic, seemingly sub-human characters. Four hours of torture, then I tossed it.”

“I read a couple of the short stories and found them to be a bit disturbing. Not at all what I expected. I do not need to have a “happy ever after” ending to stories but I read as an escape into anothter world. [sic] I did not enjoy visiting the world through Flannery O’Connor’s eyes. Sorry.”

There’s just a small sampling (and if you want more, this post provides a very nice collection of negative reviews of Fahrenheit 451) here, but enough to give you the picture. I find them amusing, but as I’ve already mentioned, also extremely sad. So again I ask, why do people refuse to accept that a classic may contain something that they just haven’t seen?

I should pause here, and point out that I am by no means completely excused from this fault. I have to remind myself constantly that the value and quality of a classic is not up to me. These types of posts are a way I remind myself, and hopefully get the thought out there.

I’ve written about this before, on why you should give a book a chance, but I want to elaborate on that. See, what I wrote about there had more to do with the approach one takes to a book, rather than what happens after one has finished that book. While I still do hold to what I wrote there–that it’s important to approach a story humbly–I want to say something else regarding our thinking about classics after we’ve read them.

And to write about this, I need the help of W.H. Auden.

Auden divided books up into five categories that my English teacher introduced me to, and I find incredibly helpful. Auden suggested that when we review books we divide them up into five categories: good books we don’t like, good books we like, books we neither like nor dislike, bad books we like, and bad books we don’t like.

The reason I’ve found this scale to be a helpful way to view books is because it allows for several things. First, it allows the reader to recognize that a book is good, but they simply did not enjoy it. This takes the humble approach to literature, and extends it to when we are reflecting on literature. Instead of judging our own personal tastes as the ultimate arbiter of everything good, it ensures that we view classics in what is probably a better light.

Sure, no one is demanding that you love every book ever considered a classic. I’m not a huge fan of Pride and Prejudice, and probably wouldn’t willingly choose to read it again. But that doesn’t mean that Pride and Prejudice isn’t a classic, or that it’s “less good,” if you will, than other classics.

All it means is that I don’t care for it.

The second thing Auden’s scale allows for is us to like bad stories. Sometimes, while we recognize that a book isn’t necessarily quality literature, we still enjoy it. And in and of itself, I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that. But instead of having to defend everything we like as a quality book, Auden’s scale allows us to say, “you know what, I know what I’m reading isn’t good, but it is enjoyable.”

W.H. AudenAnd perhaps this is what the one-star reviewers are missing. Because what Auden does, fundamentally, is separate the objective quality of a book with someone’s subjective experience of that book. Our experience of a book doesn’t determine it’s quality, and neither does the quality of a book necessarily determine our experience (though it often does). Ultimately, what Auden’s scale seems to do is allow a better conversation occur surrounding any given book. Instead of a battle over the quality of a classic, it might be more beneficial to have a discussion about a certain person’s taste, or why they didn’t enjoy the book.

And perhaps, along the way, someone will discover that they actually did really enjoy a classic. That’s happened to me several times, where I walked into a class either disliking or apathetic about a classic we had just read, and after the class, after discussing the book and what it means, I saw what the book had to offer and truly began to enjoy it.

But note, the book did not become a good book when I started to enjoy it. Classics don’t need my affirmation. Maybe that’s what it boils down to, then. Classics stand by themselves, it is our enjoyment of them that can change. So, to all the one-star Amazon reviewers, I’d like to request that next time you sit down to write a scathing review of a classic that contradicts the majority of thought on said subject, and provides fodder for posts like these, do one thing.

Take a step back. And give the book a chance.

A Guarantee Of Mystery

In the greatest fiction, the writer’s moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense, and I see no way for it to do this unless his moral judgment is part of the very act of seeing, and he is free to use it. I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the storyteller to observe. It is not a set of rules which fixes what he sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery. –Flannery O’Connor