“We’re trying to be faithful,
but we’re cheatin’, cheatin’, cheatin’,”
sings Regina Spektor in a song that I have come to think of as the theme track for The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, which I completed a few days ago.
O’Connor is a legendary American literary figure, known primarily for her wry and often grotesque short stories. A Roman Catholic and native of Georgia, her style has been termed “Southern Gothic.” O’Connor found herself frequently amused by the things that others said about her writing. “The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism,” she wrote. “When I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”
O’Connor’s stories are horrible, but the one great horror that she struggles constantly to portray for the reader is the horror of the central figure in Regina Spektor’s song.
“I’m the hero of the story,
don’t need to be saved,”
lilts Regina to fluid piano accompaniment. It is this self-sufficient character that O’Connor’s stories rail against. She seeks him out in every setting and under every costume, and wherever she finds him she throws him up against the hard wall of original sin.
It’s easy for a casual reader to be thrown off by her depictions of Southern coarseness and to come under the impression that she is an enemy of the South. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Indeed, O’Connor finds redemption for her characters in this very coarseness and although she is determined to unveil hypocrisy wherever she finds it, she is not as troubled by the grotesque cripple that sees his inadequacy as by the smug and cultured intellectual that does not. Her stories are built around a deep understanding of the Southern psyche, but they are not about the South. They are about sin, and the sickness in the hearts of men and women.
The Lame Shall Enter First, published in 1965, is undoubtedly my favorite of her stories, and one which I feel is particularly representative of many of her recurring themes. In this story we are introduced to the atheist Sheppard, a social worker who has been widowed for a little over a year. He has a ten-year-old son, Norton, whom he is raising alone. Sheppard loathes Norton for his self-centeredness and thinks he is dull, but is too caught up in the lives of the boys he counsels at the reformatory to see his son for the pitiful, unloved, motherless child that he is. In fact, Norton just irritates Sheppard.
Sheppard’s real concern is for fourteen-year-old Rufus Johnson, a cripple from the reformatory who has staggered Sheppard with his high IQ and filled the counselor’s head with dreams of seeing the underprivileged boy succeed. Rufus has been raised by an alcoholic grandfather in a culture saturated with fundamentalist Christian doctrines, and although the “progressive” Sheppard is convinced that he can counsel the boy out of his superstition, his optimism is sorely tried by the sullen cripple’s stony resistance. Rufus persists in spouting things like, “when I die I’m going to hell!” and when Sheppard sits him down for a talk and begins with, “There are a lot of things about yourself that I think I can explain to you,” the boy proclaims, “I ain’t asked for no explanation. I already know why I do what I do. Satan. He has me in his power.”
Sheppard gives Rufus a key to his home and invites him to come in at any time. He knows Rufus is starving and wants to feed him. He also becomes obsessed with a plan to buy Rufus a custom-made shoe for his awkward clubfoot. Because Rufus shows a slight interest in space, he purchases a telescope for the boy, hoping to give him an incentive to break out of the mold of poverty, ignorance and crime that he has been born into. He is convinced that his persistence and his good intentions will win out. He will be stronger than Rufus.
Rufus, however, is disgusted with Sheppard from the beginning. While he harbors no illusions as to his own condition and is vehement about his future in hell, Sheppard’s atheistic self-congratulation grates on him. “God, kid,” Rufus says to Norton venomously, “He thinks he’s Jesus Christ.”
Norton tries to protest that his father is good. “He helps people,” Norton explains.
“I don’t care if he’s good or not,” Rufus hisses. “He ain’t right!”
Things come to a head in a poignant scene near the end of the story, when Sheppard confronts Rufus and makes his final stand. “I’m stronger than you are,” he says. “I’m stronger than you are and I’m going to save you. The good will triumph.”
“Not when it ain’t true,” Rufus replies. “Not when it ain’t right.”
Sheppard continues to insist, “I’m going to save you.”
“Save yourself,” says Rufus. “Nobody can save me but Jesus.”
Sheppard’s arrogance is in for a serious take-down. As he works harder to draw Rufus in to his vision, he finds that the deeper he probes, the more evil he uncovers. Rufus is a crook and a heartless criminal and continues to betray Sheppard’s tremulous trust in him. Purely for the purpose of annoying Sheppard, he begins to speak with Norton about Norton’s mother, telling the child that she is in heaven and that if he dies as a child, he will go to be with her in heaven, but that if he grows to be an adult, he will become corrupted and go to hell instead. Norton, whose life is one great ache, hangs on every word that the older boy says and the two of them come down to breakfast one morning reading the Bible together, much to Sheppard’s chagrin.
By the end of the story, Rufus’ trouble-making and hatred has worn Sheppard out completely and he is forced to concede. Entirely disgusted with the young criminal, and leaving him to the police, Sheppard’s thoughts turn to his son and he is stricken with remorse over the way he has neglected Norton. He rushes upstairs to talk to his son and is horrified to find that the child has hanged himself on the rafters in the attic.
This is a story as loaded with irony as any of Flannery O’Connor’s gritty tales. First there is the sad fact of Sheppard, the self-proclaimed savior who has nothing to save anybody to. He considers himself to be the most educated and most well-endowed one of the lot, but in all of his education he has missed the central point of everything and the only thing that makes anything worth saving in the first place: God. He cannot see that he is pitiable and wretched and worse-off than even the ignorant and vicious hooligan Rufus. Indeed, Rufus turns out to be the only one with the answers. When he proclaims these answers, albeit in a rather muddled manner at times, they come across to educated people like Sheppard as grotesque and as ugly. To the child Norton who has not yet stilled the grasping void of the God-sized hole in his being, they are splendid.
The central theme of this story is the theme of most of O’Connor’s writing, and it is the title of the story: The Lame Shall Enter First. The crippled and the broken-down and the utterly inadequate, the children and the beggars, the meek, shall inherit the earth. The lame shall come first through the gates of the kingdom of heaven.
Like Golding in The Lord of the Flies, O’Connor paints a vivid picture of the evil ingrained in all of us. More importantly, though, she shows that it is only those who recognize the evil in themselves that can open themselves to remaking; that the way to redemption leads right through the place of nauseated self-loathing. Regina Spektor urges it too:
Hey, open wide, here comes original sin
it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright.