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.

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Freedom, Censorship, and One Good Book Part 2

In the last part of this discussion of the theme of Fahrenheit 451, I observed what appeared to me to be Ray Bradbury’s subtle critique of freedom. I proposed that his critique rested in the fact that the people in Fahrenheit 451 freely choose to, in essence, let the government take over. It’s a dark take on freedom. Here’s the final part in this examination.

On the flip side of that rather morbid approach to the concept of freedom, there was an examination of the good that freedom can do. Or at least, there seemed to be a hint of hope. If you think about it, the pursuit of freedom in the novel doesn’t actually bring about any changes that we see. At the end, the city has been destroyed, millions of people are dead, and the country, in essence, is in ruins. That’s not a terribly happy or optimistic ending.

So where does the novel leave the concept of freedom? It leaves us with a ruined country and a people who are free from their government. They are free from those who enslaved them, but there’s no answer given to the question of “what happens next?” Is a free society set up?

The main character, Montag, has pursued freedom for most of the book, and at the end he gets it. But given what the free choices of the people did in the past, is that really a good thing? The question at the end is not so much “is there freedom,” but rather “what do people do with the freedom they have?”

Oddly enough, I’m almost tempted to take the novel as having a pessimistic view on freedom. When I think about it, characters in the book praise the value of freedom, but we don’t actually see it giving anyone anything.

But perhaps that gives us the theme of the novel. We don’t see people doing good things with their freedom. We do see them doing plenty of bad. At the same time, however, there’s hopes and dreams that characters have of a free society in which people use their freedom properly.

So perhaps the theme of the novel isn’t censorship, or even freedom as a concept. Perhaps the theme of the novel is simply that freedom isn’t perfect. Freedom can lead to a dangerous totalitarian system, but also a safe, tranquil world. People aren’t perfect, and so they misuse and abuse their freedom. They can make bad choices and good choices; both freely.

I’ll have to think about it some more, but it seems like that could very well be the theme of this novel.

As to what I think of that theme, and whether I agree with that message or not, I won’t say. I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed Fahrenheit 451, and am eager to discuss the book and the theme with others.

Developing Through Danger: A Review of Captain Phillips

I once read, in a book on writing, that one of the best ways to create emotional investment in a character was to put them in a serious situation. Make them undergo serious physical or mental duress, and the audience will likely sympathize with them. I don’t know if this always works, but it certainly did in Captain Phillips, the Oscar-nominated film starring Tom Hanks.

Captain Phillips kept the tension high throughout.The film follows its title character, Captain Phillips, the captain of a transport vessel traveling through waters off the coast of Somalia. The ship is taken by pirates, who hold the ship, and its captain, for ransom. Eventually, the crew is able to get the pirates off the ship, but they take Phillips with them. As the US Navy tries to buy time in order to get Phillips back, tensions aboard the small pirate vessel rise.

I’ll just say this before going any further: this movie is great. The actors do a fabulous job developing the characters in a script that doesn’t give much time to it. The vulnerability and fear that the crew feels is displayed perfectly. Even the pirates, and their slow recognition that they weren’t going to get their ransom was believable and worked. Tom Hanks gives a good arc to the captain, showing his desperation kick in and his hope for survival fading away.

The way the film does character development isn’t traditional, but it works. Instead of developing the characters primarily prior to them being put in danger, it is the danger that develops them. It’s an interesting approach that I’ve seen utilized before, but, to my remembrance, never better. It works, and it works well. The danger and peril are high, which is why I think it was effective.

If the Captain hadn’t been in quite so much danger, I doubt the development would have been as rounded. As a result, there is quite a bit of peril in this film, which contributes to the overall intensity and “dark” feel. Thankfully, however, the film doesn’t spend all its time emphasizing the darkness, and moves along quite well.

Another thing that struck me as a wise move was the decision to limit the action. By that, I mean that there was quite a bit of news coverage, etc. going on while Phillips was being held hostage. The film could have easily cut away to show some of the reactions of the outside world, but it didn’t. It kept the action, the emotion, and the audience focused on the specific events taking place aboard the pirate ship.

I will say that the shaky camera oftentimes frustrated me. While it worked in some scenes, I found it simply distracting in others. Given that the film was directed by the same person who directed the final Bourne movie (which was also quite liberal with its shaky camera), I wasn’t surprised. Nevertheless, it did frustrate me.

Even with that, though, the film was great. The pacing was good, the acting lent great believability to the entire film, and the script kept the plot focused. I highly recommend you see this film.

Note: This film is quite tense, and on occasion somewhat graphic. Take great care before allowing young children to see this film.

Why Disney Didn’t Save Mr. Banks: A Review of Saving Mr. Banks

It’s a little startling when a movie starts out with an extreme closeup of someone’s face. Saving Mr. Banks does just that–thankfully, though, it isn’t repeated. That being said, the extreme closeup did make for a good opening, and a good introduction, to the main character: P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins. In addition, the opening shot indicates what is to be the strength of this film: the characters.

movies-saving-mr-banks-poster

Saving Mr. Banks is, simply put, the story of the making of Mary Poppins. It revolves around Walt Disney and his employees, and their attempt to convince P.L Travers to sign away the rights of the book to them. Travers, though, doesn’t want to be compliant. She’s a perfectionist, picky, and demanding of everyone’s time and resources. In short, it’s not an easy experience for anyone involved.

The story follows Disney’s attempts to understand Travers’ connection to Mary Poppins, and what ensues is an oftentimes heartbreaking emotional roller-coaster.

I think that probably best describes this movie–it’s a roller-coaster. The movie plays out two plot lines simultaneously. The first is the story of Travers’ inspiration for Mary Poppins. This story takes place in Travers’ childhood. The second story is the story described above. Both stories influence each other.

By that I mean that it goes both ways; sometimes events in Travers’ childhood clarify or foreshadow events in Travers’ adventure getting the script written and the film made, and sometimes that’s reversed. Obviously there is a chronological order, but the way we perceive the film is with both plot lines playing out in conjunction, and affecting or foreshadowing each other.

That was a fascinating–and very effective–way of approaching this story. That’s not the greatest part of the movie, though. That’s just the set up for the best part of this film.

The characters in Saving Mr. Banks were absolutely stunning. Completely believable and rounded, each character was important. Instead of introducing secondary characters simply to push a plot point, each one was developed. Each one was a person.

Sometimes, when I’m writing, I find myself forgetting that I’m supposed to make the characters people. I think about “character development” and forget that all that is is a fancy way of saying “don’t leave the characters as characters; make them people.” These characters are people, and that is the strength of the film. The cinematography is good, the direction is as well. The acting, the score, everything is good–but ultimately this is a character story.

Sadly, though, the film didn’t finish as well as it could have. What do I mean by this? Let me explain.

There’s a line, somewhere near the middle of the film, where adult Travers says, in essence: “The movie you’re making is too whimsical. There’s too much silliness and absurdity. You aren’t giving children reality–you’re giving them an imaginative, but ultimately foolish, fantasy.”

The rest of the film is about Travers trying to come to grips with her past–to face reality. But at the end (and I won’t give details in order to avoid spoilers) she ends up living in a fantasy. I’ll leave it at that for those who haven’t seen it, but for those who have this will clarify a bit more: Disney saved Mr. Banks, which is supposed to be a symbol of, as you know, Travers’ father. And Travers’ loved it. She felt like Mr. Banks was saved. But given the events preceding this, we know that he wasn’t saved.

Travers ends up living in a fantasy–a story. Ultimately, her attempt to come to grips with reality only led to her fleeing from it. It seems an unintentional destruction of Travers’ earlier assertion, but it is a destruction nonetheless. The film makes it seem like Disney saved Travers. But really, Disney didn’t save anyone–Disney simply gave Travers an alternate reality in which to believe.

All in all, Saving Mr. Banks is an excellent film with a few drawbacks. The characters are superb. I highly suggest seeing it.

Note: This film includes many emotionally intense moments, as well as some complex themes (suicide, depression, alcoholism, etc.) that may not be appropriate for young children. It’s rated PG-13 for a reason. Take care in letting young children see it.

Answering All the Questions…Sort Of: A Review of Sherlock: His Last Vow

So, I really didn’t care for the first episode of Sherlock Series 3, if you remember. The second episode was better and far more enjoyable, but still flawed. It was flawed in that, while I loved the non-linear style the story was told in, it took too long to actually find a focus.

How did the third episode fare? Much better. From the start we actually have case–a direction and purpose for the rest of the episode. And then the plot starts getting more and more complex, layers being added that don’t feel superfluous to it, but rather essential. That’s probably what I liked best about this episode–it had the direction that the last two lacked, and still managed to be complex and different.

The plot centers around Sherlock’s attempts to take down Charles Augustus Magnussen, a blackmail artist. Magnussen has extensive files on everyone, and is able to coerce them into obeying his will using the information that he has. In essence, it’s not so much a mystery as it is Sherlock attempting to find a way to indict him.

From the start, the characters in this episode are great. As the plot progresses, there are some fascinating character revelations that really caught me off guard. Plot-lines are tied up, but not in the way I expected them to be. Yet through it all, the characters never act according to the plot, they always act according to who they are.

That’s a problem this series has consistently had. The characters, be it Sherlock, John, or anyone else would take the actions the plot needed them to take instead of the actions their characters would take. Situations felt contrived because of this, and the connection the audience had made was broken. In this episode there are few, if any, instances of that. Instead, the connection to the characters is strong, the characters are consistent with themselves, and the plot flows along smoothly.

If there’s any hiccup, it’s that one of the twists seemed to be building to something, and then it just ended. Now, here’s the interesting part. This particular twist was disappointing, but it was disappointing because a character acted consistently with himself. That means that there is a loose strand, but that we’re ultimately satisfied. It’s a weird feeling, and I’m not sure what I think about it. I do want to know how this twist would have payed off, but at the same time recognize that the character did act consistently, and don’t feel “let down” because of it.

But perhaps that’s just realistic. In reality, we don’t get all the answers all the time.

Maybe that’s also the best thing about this episode. Instead of trying to give us all the answers like the first episode did, this one is content to simply tell a story. Sure, there are loose ends, questions left unanswered, and motivations that aren’t entirely clear. But at the end of the day, it was a fun story and a good one. I for one am looking forward to next series.

Tonal Confusion: A Belated Review of Iron Man 3

So, I’m taking Iron Man 3’s Oscar nomination as an excuse to post a review on it. Seeing as this site wasn’t up when it came out, I wasn’t able to post a review then. Hopefully, though, some will still find this helpful, however belated it may be.

Iron Man 3, also known as the first “big” movie of the summer, didn’t have quite the hype that surrounded The Avengers, but it certainly was been marketed relentlessly. So, has it lived up to the expectations set by Marvel’s previous films, and specifically the first two Iron Man films?

The story follows Iron Man (big surprise) as he deals with the aftermath of the battle in New York that took place in the climax of Avengers. But to add to that, there’s a new threat in town in the form of The Mandarin. The Mandarin begins to hack television signals to send threatening messages, committing acts of violence on these broadcasts as well as coordinating bombings throughout America. Iron Man has to step up and defend the USA from this new threat without the help of his Avenger friends or even S.H.I.E.L.D. Why? Because they’ve mysteriously disappeared. For some unexplained reason. Even when *MINOR SPOILER* Iron Man is reported dead no one shows up or is even mentioned. *END MINOR SPOILER*

I’ve never been as much a fan of Marvel’s universe as some other people, preferring the Batman movies to Iron Man, Thor, and most certainly Captain America. But the previews sure made this new movie seem darker and more thoughtful than prior outings. But as the lights dimmed and the movie started, I realized that this wasn’t anything new. It wasn’t darker, or more serious. Instead, there were explosions and cool special effects, and every now and then Iron Man would have an anxiety attack that came across as annoying instead of introspective.

As the movie progressed and the plot unfolded it was clear that the tone wasn’t the only thing that had remained the same. Nearly every twist and turn could be predicted from a mile away. Only one thing caught me off guard, and that actually ended up being a head-scratching twist (as in, “Why would they do that? What purpose does that serve? How does that benefit the movie in any way whatsoever?”).

In other words, this is as standard as standard superhero fare gets.

But there was a bigger problem with this film. See, the script seemed to want the film to be darker. But if one is going to make a dark film, the darkness needs to be consistent and done well. The way Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man/Tony Stark) played Iron Man clashed with the darkness of the script. As a result any darkness or seriousness that was brought in was immediately destroyed by the snark of Iron Man. Now, if the script were to recognize this was going to happen and in some way adjust for it, the film might have still worked. The problem is that the script fails to do that. Instead it continues on as if there is a dark and brooding atmosphere over the entire story when that’s the exact opposite of what is actually taking place. As a result, a weird medium is achieved that succeeds in throwing the movie off-balance and leaving the audience wondering just what type of movie they’re watching.

It’s important for any film to decide what it wants to be and then do its best to be that. Iron Man 3 didn’t do either.

It’s not all bad, however. Even though the humor does destroy the tone, it’s still funny. The battles are decent, and even though the twist just led to more confusion on my part (as it added another tone to the film that contradicted the other two already set by the acting and the script) it is always enjoyable to be blindsided.

Despite all that, by the end you wish the film had been over 20 minutes ago. That’s what happens with mindless, un-engaging films that fail to transcend simple eye-candy. They can’t hold your attention for long and are forgotten as soon as the lights come back on and the credits roll.

If that sounds appealing to you, then Iron Man 3 should fit that ticket perfectly. Otherwise, if you haven’t seen it yet, lower your expectations tremendously. They just might be fulfilled.

The Power of Simplicity: A Review of So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger

I’m going to be completely honest here. I haven’t read many Westerns. In fact, I count, including this book, a total of two that I’ve read. This isn’t because I have anything against them, rather, I’ve very much enjoyed the ones that I have read. The only reason my count is so low, is because I’ve never found too many to read.

The point being, I read So Brave, Young, and Handsome as just another story, not necessarily as a Western.

The story follows a struggling writer named Monte Beckett. His first book was a runaway bestseller, prompting him to quit his job and turn entirely to writing (every aspiring writer’s dream). That was seven years before the story opens. When it does, we see him yet to publish another book, always unable to get very far into any attempted project. When he meets a man named Glendon who has his heart set on returning to New Mexico to see his former wife one last time, Monte can’t resist joining him.

The author of So Brave, Young, and Handsome, Leif Enger, had written a single book before this one. That book, Peace Like a River, was a bit of a mixed bag for me. While I enjoyed it, I felt it took too long to get where it was going, and dipped a bit into sentimentality near the end. Funny thing was, everyone liked Peace Like a River, while So Brave, Young, and Handsome got mixed reviews. I personally prefer the latter. Here’s why.

To begin, the story got moving far faster than did Peace Like a River. Because it started so fast, I was a little worried it would slow down around the middle. To my surprise, it kept up the pace for most of the book, while maintaining strong characters at the heart of it. Speaking of which, the characters were exceptionally well-drawn.

Never once did any of them go “over the top.” Meaning, the story never painted anything as black and white, including the characters. They all do good things, they all do bad things. Instead of stereotypical–and slightly easier to write–heroes and villains, we have legitimately flawed characters, all of which we sympathize with in some way or another.

But perhaps the aspect of this book that made me love it so much was the simplicity. It wasn’t simplistic, but it was simple. The entire book was understated, which made the moments where emotions ran high far more believable than if the entire book was written that way. In fact, the most emotional part of the book was simply the main character leaving another, wounded character (arguably the “bad guy,” though as I previously said it’s hard to define anyone that way).

In that scene where Monte Beckett leaves, there’s no long discussion. No speech. No overt emotion. Monte just leaves. And somehow, the way that was written, the subtlety with which the emotion was portrayed, affected me far more than many things I’ve read as of late.

So yes, this book is understated and simple. On occasion, this hurts it, especially near the end. At the end there is a section of about fifty pages that while significant, could have easily been cut back to thirty or twenty-five, without any real loss.

The climax might disappoint some because of how understated it is. For me, I thought it was perfect. Maybe you won’t, but I’d urge you to give this book a try anyway. I highly recommend it.