Light and Shadow: Religious Grace in Two Stories by Flannery O'Connor
© 2002, David Allen Cook
The literary works of Flannery O'Connor often contend that religious belief can only be consummated by direct confrontation with evil, and for those uncommitted and unprepared, tragedy seems inevitable. For O'Connor's religious "pretenders," a moment of religious grace--a revelation of Truth--often does come, but at a devastating price. In two stories by O'Connor, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and "The Lame Shall Enter First," we are presented with main characters that experience a deep epiphany after being spiritually challenged by the darker side of human nature.
The grandmother considers herself a "good Christian," but places more emphasis on appearance than substance. She is careful to wear her best clothes when traveling so that, "anyone seeing her dead [...] would know at once that she was a lady" (118). Sheppard, on the other hand, is an agnostic who rejects Christianity as outdated, reminding us that, "Nobody has given any reliable evidence there's a hell" (461). Thus, both characters live in a kind of spiritual void--the grandmother because she accepts without real commitment, and Sheppard because he cannot accept without proof. The grandmother constantly criticizes others as the source of problems and insists that, "In my time [...] people did right" (119). She also thinks that "little niggers in the country" (119) are cute in their desperate poverty--completely indifferent to their suffering. Likewise, Sheppard, even though he has given up on trying to help his own son, prides himself on his altruistic volunteer work in which his only reward is, "the satisfaction of knowing he [is] helping boys no one else [cares] about" (447). In a perfect world, the grandmother and Sheppard might never realize the hypocrisy of their ways, but when faced with stark reality, they will both learn a costly lesson.
Through her encounter with The Misfit, the grandmother learns the difference between what she wants to believe and the reality of things. She naively hopes that her insistence that he is a, "good man [who] must come from nice people" (127) will somehow change the fact that he is a cold-blooded murderer. The Misfit, tortured by his inability to know for sure if salvation is possible, is unable to accept compassion, thus committing himself to death and destruction. With the gradual realization that she must die, the grandmother suddenly understands and, seeing the universality of mankind, tells The Misfit, "Why you're one of my own babies. You're one of my own children" (132). The divisions that have dominated the grandmother's view of reality--good men and bad men, Europeans and Americans, country niggers and her family, the good old days and now--suddenly vanish and reveal the present moment. The Misfit and the grandmother are two human beings--a man and a woman, a bother and sister, a son and mother. If he represents the evil in society, then she represents the people who have let it happen. Thus, they are inseparable. In her final attempt to eliminate even the space between them, she reaches out and touches him. However, he recoils from her unconditional love, "as if a snake had bitten him" (132) and kills her. The Misfit, like a "sin eater" has salvaged another soul at the cost of his own. For in that one brief moment of grace, he has given the grandmother a deeper joy and satisfaction than she has ever known in her many years disconnected from the intimacy of life.
Rufus is another character who pushes others away because of his sincere belief that he is evil. Sheppard's great mistake is that he tries to explain away Rufus' words and actions as psychological ploys. Even though Rufus repeatedly tells him so, Sheppard is in denial that Rufus does not want or need his secular help. Although Norton defends his father as someone who is "good," Rufus retaliates with, "I don't care if he's good or not. He ain't right!" (454). Thus, the battle lines are drawn between the social definition of "good" and "bad," and the much deeper, absolute meanings of "right" and "wrong." Sheppard represents society's status quo and its good intentions, while Rufus represents the harsh realities of life. For Rufus, there is no greater sin than not having something to believe in--an absolute by which life can be assessed. Thus, Rufus knows that he will go to hell, but if he were to repent, he could do no less than to become a preacher, for in his mind, there is only black and white. Sheppard, however, prefers the murkiness of gray, and refuses to understand how people, especially intelligent ones, can have belief based on faith rather than hard evidence. He refers to the Bible as something, "to hide behind" and "for people who are afraid to stand on their own two feet and figure out things for themselves" (477). Sheppard forgets that no man stands alone--that everyone needs some standard by which to live. Rufus reminds him of the sanctity of mind telling him, "You don't know what I believe and what I don't [... and] even if I didn't believe it, it would still be true" (477). When Sheppard's compassion for Rufus finally dries up, he is suddenly struck by panic when he realizes he has forsaken his own son in his obsessive desire to "save" Rufus. In an instant he can see that he has gorged himself on self-pity and self-righteousness. Like Norton vomiting his unusual breakfast, the epiphany is so intense and its impact so deep that it cracks open Sheppard's stony heart and releases a painful flood of love, optimism, and resolution, "He groaned with joy. He would make everything up to [his son]. He would never let him suffer again. He would be mother and father. He would [...] kiss him [...] tell him that he loved him, [...and] would never fail him again" (482). But like the grandmother, Sheppard's realization comes too late. Norton has hung himself to be reunited with his dead mother in his desperate desire to know what has happened to her in death.
In her desire to control circumstances and people, the grandmother unwittingly leads her family to The Misfit, just as Sheppard is an accomplice in exposing his impressionable son to a religious fanatic and criminal. Thus, they are not just victims of tragic events, but in many ways, responsible for them as well. O'Connor seems to be telling us that we should be attuned to the realities of life and to accept that the world is not perfect. However, the fact that both characters are graced with an epiphany of their mistaken ways shows that there is hope for salvation. Everyone must make a stand in this imperfect world, but they must stand with conviction. Otherwise, the unpredictable currents of fate will sweep away those who do not have a firm footing--be it on the high ground or low.
O'Connor, Flannery. Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.