The Subtleties of Violence
As in the movies, there are in literature certain kinds of violence that themselves seem to do harm, that seem be acts of violence committed upon the reader as well as upon characters, that seem to be engenderers of violence rather than literary or moral formulations on the difficulties entailed in violence. Were I to attempt to formulate some characteristics of these violent episodes of literature, I would want to speak to how character is depicted in these works. That is, if literature intends to permit or even facilitate violence, it has only to dispense with the construction of complex character, which is so essential to the mission of literature in general. If we know nothing of a character, if we know nothing of his or her tastes or ambition, then how can we care if she or he is beaten, tortured, or murdered? Work that avoids characterizing victims of violence makes violence easy because it dispenses with the cost implicit in force: human potential, human associations. Such work, then, tolerates and even appreciates the callousness and menace of violent behavior. If a certain lassitude is sometimes evident in the construction of victims of violence, there’s also a danger in a shorthand with respect to its perpetrators. That is, it’s too easy to portray the thieves, rapists, murderers, and warmongers of our literature as simple villains or miscreants. This abbreviated characterization overlooks the potential for violence that is immanent in each of us. The lessons of modernism make clear that the old heroism is no longer enough, will no longer completely illustrate humankind, and the same is true for the modern villain. He can be just as sympathetic, just as flawed, just as human as his victim; indeed, he ought to be, if we are to understand how he came to be where he is, with his pistols and knives, free to act while knowing better.
So: if it is to be depicted properly in contemporary literature, in such a way that we know precisely its harrowing cost and inexplicability, violence must take place between fully imagined people, between complete, genuine lives.
On to the case at hand. For a middle-class woman of education and relatively serene circumstances, Flannery O’Connor seems to have known a lot about violence. It is there in the margins of many of her stories, it is there in the very center of a great many of them, but my hypothesis tonight is that it’s always there in two antipodal guises, namely in a grotesque form, or, contrarily, in a restrained form.
In interviews, O’Connor has referred to the method of her stories as both comic and grotesque, and there’s obviously plenty of evidence to support these points of view. When the mortal violence in O’Connor stories brushes up against her comic and grotesque methodologies, we get such moments as the grandmother (in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”) hailing her eventual murderer with the words, “You’re The Misfit! I recognized you at once!” As if she were greeting a baseball star or celebrity crooner. The Misfit’s pronouncements of murderous intention are likewise faintly comic in their punctiliousness: “The boys want to ast you something. Would you mind stepping back in them woods there with them?” Later, after considerable bloodshed has already transpired, the Misfit apologizes for appearing before the grandmother without a shirt.
He shoots her without mercy, just the same: “The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.”
Much has been made of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” as a Christian or theological allegory, but it’s not mine here to attempt to interpret the Misfit so much as to say that perhaps the conjunction of these allegorical interpretations with grotesque and slightly comic violence is fitting. Because we don’t exactly believe the realism of this story, in the fact that a family driving in the southern part of the United States and taking a wrong turn would run into a hardened killer they have been discussing only hours before. Thus, we are ourselves lofted into a register of interpretation that is fabulistic or oneiric or theological. Since the Misfit’s savagery doesn’t feel exactly realistic, he must stand for something else.
The problem of emblematic or symbolic violence is apparent elsewhere in the work. In “Greenleaf,” for example, a story largely about relations between a widowed farm owner and her employees. The story’s specific concern is the bull belonging to the sons of Mr. Greenleaf, an incompetent caretaker, which bull has busted out of his containment and wandered adrift in Mrs. May’s herd of cows. Mr. Greenleaf’s stylized method of address with respect to the bull is again hilarious: “They was just going to beef him, but he got loose and run his head into their pickup truck. He don’t like cars and trucks. They had a hard time getting his horn out of the fender and when they finally got him loose, he took off.” In fact, throughout the story, Mr. Greenleaf is more likely to refer to the bull with honorifics: “This gentleman is a sport,” or “That gentleman tore out of there last night.”
The bull, of course, is going to gore someone, just as surely as the handgun that turns up in a movie is going to be discharged. However, this is not the bull’s only responsibility. Even a foggy acquaintance with O’Connor’s Catholic armature of emblems will suggest that the omnipotent bull in the story stands for grace, stands for the mystery at the heart of Mrs. Greenleaf’s evangelical and pentecostal fervency, such that the reader is doubly prepared for the moment when the bull will erupt in all his inscrutable glory. Accordingly, the end of the story, as in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” is grossly violent and hyperbolic: “She stared at the violent black streak bounding toward her as if she had no sense of distance, as if she could not decide at once what his intention was, and the bull had buried his head in her lap, like a wild tormented lover, before her expression changed.” For me, though the language here is a tiny bit ethereal, even murky, the moment is brutal, in an Old Testament way, though O’Connor herself might resist the word. This is from one of her interviews: “People keep referring to the brutality in the stories, but even ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’ is, in a way, a comic, stylized thing. It is not naturalistic writing and so you can’t really call it brutal.”
I’m more drawn to the Flannery O’Connor who finds violence in potential, violence in the world of Southern manners, violence barely suppressed between people in a constant, repetitious way. As O’Connor says, “The South has survived in the past because its manners, however lopsided or inadequate they may have been, provided enough social discipline to hold us together and give us an identity.” For all the grotesquerie and comic hyperbole in O’Connor’s work there is an equal and opposite realistic force which finds its most compelling example in the observance among O’Connor’s characters of rigorous social norms and regulations for politeness and conduct. These tendencies crop up even amid the more heavily allegorical constructions in “Greenleaf.”
Yet carefully wrought examples of O’Connor’s perfect ear for social relations are more apparent in stories like “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” and one of my favorites, “Good Country People.”
In the former story, mainly about relations between a mother and son, a liberal college-educated young man is forced to ride on the bus with his unnamed mother during the early period of desegregation. The mother’s behavior, of course, is appalling. But before we even get to O’Connor’s astute illustration of politics during early desegregation, “Everything That Rises” gives almost a quarter of its length to a discussion of the hat that the mother intends to wear to her weight-reducing class that night. This hat passage, which is of course a set-up for the moment when an African-American woman gets on the bus later wearing the very same hat, is noteworthy for what a splendid job it does conveying the expanse of the mother character, her hopes and social ambitions, her insecurities. Julian, her son, is meanwhile revealed in opposition to the hat, which he loathes, even though the passage concludes with him saying, “You are not going to take it back, I like it.” This is the first example in the story of the social acuity concealed beneath O’Connor’s symbolic and theological intentions, but this picture of Southern manners and habits is even more breathtakingly revealed on the bus itself, where Julian’s mother is as venal about the black Americans now sitting throughout the cab as she is smitten with a certain young black boy of whom she observes, to the boy’s mother, “Isn’t he cute?”
Having completed her unflattering display of the very class and social pretensions that Julian hates so much about her, the mother now embarks on a plan to give the young boy some change money, as they are disembarking from the bus. This is where the trouble starts. When she tries to present the boy with a penny (she has no nickels), the boy’s mother turns on Julian’s poor unnamed progenetrix: “All at once she seemed to explode like a piece of machinery that had been given one ounce of pressure too much. Julian saw the black fist swing out with the red pocketbook. He shut his eyes and cringed as he heard the woman shout, ‘He don’t take nobody’s pennies!’”
The African-American woman’s apoplexy is markedly like the explosion of The Misfit, upon being touched by the grandmother in that story, at least in terms of its language. And yet here the act of violence, such as it is, is of a more human scale. Julian’s mother is simply knocked onto her behind. Yet the bruising of her ego is so immense that her character is wholly changed, wholly altered, in the last paragraphs of “Everything Rises.” If the violence in this story is so demure, why does it still feel so violent? Is it not because the equal and opposite pride of the two mothers is so genuine, so demonstrable, and so perfectly calibrated against the backdrop of Southern manners?
The same is true in “Good Country People.” It’s almost the same situation as “Everything Rises,” featuring the same confused yet socially ambitious mother, and the same intellectually astute but miserable child, in this case a philosopher daughter, called Hulga—certainly among the best names ever for a philosopher in modern fiction. Hulga, among other things, has an artificial leg (and the description of it counts as one of O’Connor’s most brutal imaginings: “the leg had been literally blasted off,” and “she never lost consciousness”), but it is her disdain for the safe harbor of marriage and children that is most disappointing to her mother.
All this changes with the arrival of a charming, persuasive, and lively Bible salesman. A Bible salesman! her mother seems to think. His talk, of course, when invited that night to dinner, is full of balderdash—“I got this heart condition. I may not live long”—but it is precisely his Christian fervency, which Hulga disdains, that makes him attractive. She is far from persuaded by his seductions: “I like girls that wear glasses.” She wants to force him to submit. Hulga boasts that she doesn’t believe in God, when she is at last sequestered with this Bible salesman: “In my economy, I’m saved and you are damned.”
The best part of this sequestration, for me, is how, despite its theological and philosophical undercarriage, the story observes all the peaks and troughs of a traditional romantic scene. The kisses, when they begin, are just as you would find them in almost any fictional account: “The girl at first did not return any of the kisses but presently she began to and after she had put several on his cheek, she reached his lips and remained there, kissing him again and again as if she were trying to draw all the breath out of him.”
You know how this is going to end, correct? The Bible salesman, exhibiting a profound sensitivity to Hulga’s disability, first talks her into showing him her stump, and then he steals the wooden leg. Why? Because he can. Or perhaps because Hulga’s intellectual boasts (“We are all damned, but some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there’s nothing to see”) are just too much. Once he talked a woman out of a glass eye the same way. He uses a different name in every town.
For me, this is among the most violent moments in all of O’Connor, and yet, strictly speaking, nobody is hurt. The description is painless, and yet harrowing in the extreme: “She saw him grab the leg and then she saw it for an instant slanted forlornly across the inside of the suitcase with a Bible at either side of its opposite ends.”
Do we know the Bible salesman, beyond his pack of lies? Perhaps we do. I’d suggest that, at the dinner table, when he says that he is the “seventh child of twelve and that his father had been crushed under a tree,” he’s telling some variety of the truth. For me, he is not an emblem of evil, an actual devil, as O’Connor sometimes called them, but a particular guy on a particular bad streak. Just as flawed as Hulga, just as human. And because the seduction proceeds according to such a rigorous social code, it’s hard to see them any other way.
The Bible salesman’s theft, therefore, is a violence of restraint and repression, rather than a violence of gore and spilt blood. While it has some of the heavy symbolic freight of The Misfit and the bull, it is more genuine, more believable, and much more morally rich.
Sometimes, the best way to suggest a thing is through glancing contact, rather than by direct means, through objective correlative, through withholding. If O’Connor wasn’t intending to write directly about violence, she nonetheless occasionally demonstrates startling insight into both its human origins and its costs. Anything more would be the province of an essayist, not a writer of imaginative literature, and as O’Connor remarked of fiction writers, “We don’t solve problems, we tell stories.”