Adapted from a letter to a friend
I tired of hearing or reading how great a writer Flannery O’Connor is,
so I borrowed her Collected Works
from the library.
First I read “All that rises must converge”,
which was an interesting story even if I don’t understand the title.
I then read The Violent Bear It Away
a very well-told and imaginative tale with some horrifying twists along the way,
and the title makes perfect sense.
I just finished “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, which is…
yeah. Oh, my.
One difficulty reading literature is that I never find myself among the heroes.
Instead I often to see myself reflected among of the villains.
It’s not that I share the villains’ general villainy, but that
I find aspects of myself reflected in their own characters.
I always knew I was a horrible human being, but to be a villain!
People reckon as their worst enemy
the one who tells them the truth.
I look back on my life and find myself wondering, “if not for my faith,
would I not have turned out like this person?”
Perhaps this is why no one else reads literature anymore;
mirrors are horrible devices, and the best literature acts as a mirror.
Herewith I present a few examples,
leaving to the reader’s imagination what exactly
I see mirrored in the character.
I’ll front-load this with Flannery O’Connor;
after all, she’s fresh in my mind:
- Rayber from O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away,
a schoolteacher who insists that everything
must be explainable and rationally understood, who resists passion and emotion,
resists even affection for his son,✝It might seem from what I write here
that Francis is Rayber’s son, but in fact he is Rayber’s nephew.
A key fulcrum of the plot is that Rayber’s son is intellectually disabled,
and probably suffering from Down Syndrome.
Everyone from his father to the self-described prophets despises the poor child.
Throughout the entire novel, I only remember one woman
showing the child any kindness.
because he finds these things irrational in a cruel world.
As the story plays out, Rayber absolutely lives down
to the uncle’s description.
Not a bad insight for a backwoods, fundamentalist, self-anointed prophet!
“Why didn’t [Rayber] bring the law out here and get me back?”
[Francis] had asked.
“You want to know why?” his uncle said.
“Well, I’ll tell you why. I’ll tell you exactly why.
It was because he found you a heap of trouble.
He wanted it all in his head.
You can’t change a child’s pants in your head.”
The Violent Bear It Away,
- Julian of O’Connor’s All that rises must converge,
a more or less useless, overeducated ingrate who considers his mother
nothing more than a backwards racist with delusions of grandeur
on account of her family’s having once been powerful.
He’s not entirely wrong!
But that makes him no less a villain in the story on account
of his ugly, ungrateful attitude.
O’Connor really nailed here the overeducated,
ill-mannered college graduate.
A couple of Italian adjectives come to mind; I hope I don’t misuse them:
colto ma maleducato. “Cultured but bereft of class.”
- Jason Compton of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury,
the youngest son whose inheritance the rest of his family wastes and squanders.
Unable to follow one brother to college
and thus deprived for something he hungers
— the staus of an education, if not perhaps the actual education —
he is forced to take a menial job to support his hypochondriac mother,
his mentally disabled brother, his illegitimate niece,
and two servants.
He doesn’t bear the responsibility well at all,
and his mother doesn’t exactly help with her constant complaining
and laying a guilt trip on him.
A deceiver and a thief, Jason has misappropriated
into his personal savings the child support
that he tricked his sister into sending him to support her daughter,
and tricked his mother into thinking that he isn’t receiving it.
He nevertheless complains about how hard he has to work to support everyone.
He uses racist, misogynist, profane language to demean
everyone he perceives, correctly or not, as having slighted him.
Despite all these defects, he seems to be the only one
with any kind of work ethic at all, as well as a sense that
you can’t just have money; you have to work for it.
Even his boss begrudges him praise on this point,
while otherwise disparaging him for other aspects of his — well,
“character” would seem the wrong word —
“lack of character”.
Intriguingly, an appendix describes Jason as the first sane Compton
in several generations, in part because he found it within himself
to sell off what was left of the family’s former once formidable property.
- Javert from Hugo’sLes Miserables, an idolater of the law
and of the establishment.
Born to a woman in a jail, he learns criminals’ ways
and this contributes to his effectiveness as a detective.
Javert is upright and incorruptible from without,
but suffers from a poisonous pride for having lifted himself
from his origins as a criminal to an agent of the law —
which, again, he idolizes.
He cannot conceive of repentance or mercy, let alone believe in it,
which leads to his undoing.
- Ganya from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot,
a mediocrity who craves to rise above his humble origins,
and is not really aware of said mediocrity.
Like Jason Compton, he has the unfortunate responsibility
of supporting a family that has wasted its opportunity
by taking a menial job, and just like Jason
he does not bear that responsibility nobly.