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Thursday, July 31, 2003

Mother-child relationships in Flannery O'Connor's Stories

The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor contain some of the most depressing, tragic, depictions of familial relations that I have ever read. O’Connor paints mothers in an unflattering light, not only from the eyes of their children, but also from the narrator’s point of view. To be fair, the children, both young and old, receive no mercy either; she displays their faults openly, leaving their selfishness and apathy out on a platter for us to digest.
The six stories selected for reading contain themes that suggest that the mothers are stubborn and willfully override the wishes of their children. They are full of pride in their own accomplishments, and most always believe that they are right and their children are wrong. The mothers tend to view their children as adolescents, rather than grown adults, they make excuses to the world about why their children are so indifferent and unable to make their own way. Some are mothers that sacrifice all for their children, so that they may better themselves. In return, the children view their mothers with disdain that goes far beyond the “know it all” stage. Indeed, some know too much to be of any use to anyone. Throughout these following stories, we see mothers that believe they are clever, put forth their own ideas and plans in both passive and overt forms. The children do the same. This lack of generosity and understanding, combined with their need to punish one another, leads to the downfall of all. The biblical sin of pride peppers each story and exposes it as a destructive force.
In “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, we glean that the grandmother apparently loves her son, but persistently uses her wits to get her own way. She is not interested in what Bailey wants, she turns each event into a situation where she knows better than he about what course to take. She does not blatantly say Bailey is wrong; the grandmother uses subtle, prideful, innuendo instead:
“ I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.”
“In my time…children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else.”
“There was a secret panel in the is house,” she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing that she were”… "It’s not far from here, I know… It wouldn’t take over twenty minutes.”
The grandmother knows exactly which buttons to push on her grandchildren; she realizes that her attempts to guide the trip will meet a challenge in Bailey, but that he is reachable through his children. After she realizes her mistake, rather than confess she hides her unintended crime and becomes the instrument of death for the whole family. She is unable to admit that she was wrong. When she recognizes the Misfit, she does not contain herself, but acts like the kid in school that always knows the answer. She must proclaim her knowledge of him and even preens before him with her “clean handkerchief” and the delusion that he “wouldn’t shoot a lady”.
The nature of a short story does not permit many details, so we receive the explanation of Bailey’s relationship with his mother, through the actions of his children. They feel free to mock her:
“If you don’t want to go to Florida, why doncha stay at home?”
“She wouldn’t stay at home to be queen for a day, June Star said without raising her yellow head. … Afraid she’s miss something.”
If Bailey had any respect for his mother, his children would have echoed that respect in their dealings with their grandmother. It is quite clear that they do not. Respect for mothers is not high on O’Connor’s list here. When the grandmother sees The Misfit about to cry, she likens him to one of her own children and that is his breaking point, he shoots her in response. This is the least likely action we expect at this moment for whom would shoot their own mother? In this group of short stories, it is not unthinkable at all. Another point that I found ironic was that the grandmother was ready for death on the highway because she was dressed properly, as if that was the most important preparation for death rather than having a peaceful relationship with her son.
The narrator shows the grandmother’s low opinion of Bailey’s wishes through her action of bringing the cat with her even though she knows her son will disapprove. She reveals her prideful nature. “She asked Bailey if he would like to dance but he only glared at her. He didn’t have a naturally sunny disposition like she did.” It may be just one line, but within the brief confines of a short story, every word is deliberate and takes on a more important meaning.
The old woman in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”, treats her thirty-something daughter as a young girl. We do not have a family backdrop in this story to learn how the mother and the daughter get along, but we do have the observations of Mr. Shiftlet, brief as they are.
“ Mr. Shiftlet said that the trouble with the world was that nobody cared, or stopped and took any trouble. He said he never would have been able to teach Lucynell to say a word if he hadn’t cared and stopped long enough.”
This statement exposes Lucynell capable of learning, but her own mother did not take the “trouble” and kept her mental level low to suit her own needs. Her needs are to have someone to take care of the things that she cannot handle.
“The old woman is “ravenous for a son-in-law”.
Her daughter is the “sweetest girl in the world” because “She can sweep the floor, cook, wash, feed the chickens, and hoe”. The old woman does not mind Mr. Shiftlet teaching her daughter because she is sure that she can lure him to stay and marry Lucynell and still come out the winner in the deal. “ Any man come after her,” the old woman said, “ll have to stay around the place.”
The story explores the theme of pride; the old woman is quite sure of her actions and believes she is shrewd.
“She could tell, even from a distance, that he was a tramp and no one to be afraid of.”
“Lemme tell you something: there ain’t any place in the world for a poor disabled friendless drifting man.”
The description Mr. Shiftlet gives of his life’s wanderings mirrors that of The Misfit in the previous story. Here we get a foreshadowing that tragedy will strike again but that the old woman is not privy to our knowledge. When we watch scary movies, we know where the killer is lurking, and the victim does not, so we feel like screaming, “don’t open that door!” Of course, they cannot hear us, and we look at them in disbelief that they could be so stupid about such transparent situations.
There are other mother-child relationships depicted in this story, that of the young boy who runs away from his mom and that of Mr. Shiftlet with his own mother. When Mr. Shiftlet starts speaking about how wonderful mothers are, it resembles a parody. Because we know him to be a criminal, we get the idea that his mother could not have actually taught him right from wrong. If he had enjoyed a mother’s love, he never could have destroyed the old woman’s life by throwing her only daughter away. The young boy, angry at this farce of a story, reveals the truth, as he knows it. “ My old woman is a flea bag and yours is a stinking pole cat!” His relationship with his own mother is so far gone that references to motherhood do not touch him but serve only to inflame his fury
Joy is the primary focus of O’Connor’s derision in “Good Country People”. A Disabled girl in her thirties who “slams” about the house, Joy is constantly trying to annoy her mother. Her name is ironically, the antitheses of her behavior. She received her PH.D. However, she was as useless as if she had never received any schooling at all. While her mother makes excuses for Joy’s consistently rude behavior, Joy does everything in her power to avoid her mother and put everyone around her down.
“Woman! Do you ever look inside and see what you are not?”
“She looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity.”
“One of her major triumphs was that her mother had not been able to turn her dust in Joy, but the greater one was that she had been able to turn it herself into Hulga.”
Joy reacts with complete contempt towards their Bible salesman, which admittedly, he deserves, but she does not act this way out of suspicion for his character, this is the way she treats everyone. In the end, she gets what she deserves, believing herself above “good country people, like her mother before her, she is shown how unenlightened she is herself. Her fantasy of seducing him becomes the nightmare of reality. He is much smarter than she will ever be and the loss of her leg is a metaphor for the greater loss of her pride. The phrase “good country people” means to keep people in their “place”. Mrs. Hopewell uses it to remind everyone that she is in power, while appearing to be extolling the virtues of her hired help. Joy uses it to try to shame Manly Pointer into giving her the leg back. Mrs. Hopewell, in her charity, or actually, her desire to point out how noble she could be to her daughter, invites the “salt of the earth” in to dine.
In “The Comforts of Home,” we read of yet another mother who unwisely invites a criminal into the home. She uses her charity as an example to her son, when challenged by Thomas about his mother’s ability to help this girl, his mother turns it back on him by proclaiming that she would want someone to help her son if he was in trouble. Thomas uses his mother’s “charity”, as a device to make her appear ridiculous. They both are so busy trying to make each other look wrong, that they allow tragedy to stalk them.
“ She proceeded always from the tritest of considerations-it was the nice thing to do- into the most foolhardy engagements with the devil, whom of course, she never recognized.”
This recurring theme of stubborn, vain, women is quite prominent in O’Connor’s stories, Julian’s mother in “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” is knocked down by the Black woman because she is trying to force her outdated view of benevolence on the little boy, just as she has always done with her own son. Determination to have her way over that of the “scrub-human” is what kills Mrs. May in “Greenleaf”, not the bull. Their smugness and self-importance blind them to reality. Julian’s mother has subjugated her life in favor of her son’s but he despises her anyway. He revels in her realization that a black woman has the same social status as his mother and can sit in the same place and wear the same clothing. O'Connor paints Julian with the same vain brush as his mother, he only attempts to make conversation with Blacks of social stature, and they see right through his pathetic attempts. He shows no concern for his mother after the other woman punches her; he relentlessly pursues teaching her a lesson that he himself has not learned. Mrs. May cannot expect her children to be helpful if she edifies their social position. She has taught them to be above those whom work for her and they cannot seek that level because they know she views the Greenleaf boys with disdain. She prefers to look askew at Mr. Greenleaf’s sons. No matter how successful and hardworking his sons are, Mrs. May will not forget where they came from. Her own boys, who are mostly apathetic and show no desire to help her, she views as superior. It is a warped view that she has perpetuated in her offspring.
O’Connor’s stories present mothers in such a vivid, negative light that it becomes quite hard to identify or sympathize with most of them. They remind us how our daily sins of pride can hurt our relationships with our children. Certain children, in an effort to be anything but what their parents were, go overboard and became the exactly opposite of what the mothers intended. Some of these women, who view themselves as superior to those less fortunate, wind up stuck with children who act the same way as they themselves do and like their children less for the experience. Most of the characters in these stories are unlikable and have few redeeming qualities. O’Connor appears to be showing us such bad examples of mothers and children in an effort to point out a better path for us to follow.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1962
Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989 (ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner), Additions 1993-7 (ed. John Simpson and Edmund Weiner; Michael Proffitt), and 3rd ed. (in progress) Mar. 2000- (ed. John Simpson). OED Online. Oxford University Press.
Hacker, Diane A Writers Reference. 5th ed. Boston & New York Bedford/ST. MARTIN’s 2003

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