In the Short Stories of "Good Country People" and "The Lame Shall Enter First"
The objective of this article is to discuss Flannery (Mary) O'Connor's (1925-1964) use of the para-rational perspective element of luminosity focusing on her short stories Good Country People and The Lame Shall Enter First. We will use two of O'Connor's short stories that include her trademark luminosity. However, a better term to describe this experience is what Michael Mahon calls "black luminosity" (HUX 24). This black luminosity is a dark descriptive twist on the traditional vision of luminosity. In O'Connor's stories, this takes the form of the character's unwelcome sudden awareness of a personal failure, ignorance, or character flaw.
In Good Country People, the focus of O'Connor's effort is an unhappy, highly educated woman named Hulga (her birth name was Joy) who has a wooden-legged. She professes to be an atheist and a staunch believer in the philosophy of nothingness and the meaninglessness of life. She has a mean disposition and a propensity to draw attention to both her negative attitude, as well as her false leg. The wooden leg is often used in the story as a symbol of Hulga's own stiff conviction. She changed her name from Joy to Hulga because she felt that it fit her better as a person and her outlook on life, something large and ugly. She has a Ph.D. and believes that her intelligence, belief in a philosophy of nothingness and the meaninglessness of life, justifies her anti-religious position and her generally antisocial behavior.
Hulga meets a Bible salesman named Pointer, one of the good country people and convinces herself that he is the stereotypical country Bible-pushing salesman. She thinks she is seducing him when in fact he was seducing her into a compromising position allowing him to run off with her wooden leg (the support of her belief system). He tells her he's done this many times before, conning people out of their dearest possessions. She asks him how you could do this, "you're Christian . . . and good country people" (O'Connor 290). He responds back to her that, just because he's in the country and he sells Bibles, it doesn't mean he believes any of it (O'Connor 291). Manley, further responds as he leaves the loft, "she ain't so smart . . . I been believing in nothing since I was born" (O'Connor 291). This is her moment of black luminosity, the walls Hulga built of a belief in nothingness and her own intelligence and superiority came crashing down as she foolishly participated in the loss of her own wooden leg. She quickly loses her faith in her doctrine of nothingness and realizes her own naïveté. With her belief system swept away with her wooden leg, she is forced to support herself with something more than her failed doctrine.
In the story The Lame Shall Enter First, the target of O'Connor's life's lesson is Sheppard, a man widowed for more than a year, and left to raise his ten year old son, Norton. Sheppard is a volunteer counselor at the local reformatory and prides himself on "helping boys no one else cared about" (O'Connor 447). Sheppard struggles to prove that he is the model of virtue, patience and selflessness while he fails to see his son's attempt to cope with the grief of the loss of his mother. Instead he focuses his attention and efforts on a boy from the reformatory: Rufus Johnson, an impoverished, fatherless teenager born with a club foot, and whose mother was in prison and brought up roughly by a fanatically religious grandfather. Sheppard was convinced that Rufus could be salvaged because he has a high I.Q.
Sheppard fails to recognize his son's unending grief over his mother's death. Sheppard comments about how bad it was for Johnson because his mother was in jail, Norton responds, if it was his mother, "At least I could go and seeeee her" (O'Connor 447). Sheppard bought a telescope with the intent of encouraging an interest in Johnson. Johnson however uses it to persuade Norton that he may find his mother in the heavens. In a conversation between Sheppard's son and their new houseguest, Norton asking about his mother to Johnson, inquires, "Where is she at"? Johnson tells him that if his mother was good then she is "on high" in the sky somewhere, "but you got to be dead to get there . . . right now (if you die) you'll go where she is, . . . but if you live long enough, you'll go to hell" (O'Connor 462). This conversation sets the stage for the tragic finale of the story.
Sheppard eventually realizes that Johnson has used him as protection from the police as well as for food, a roof, and a bed. Prior to this discovery, Sheppard could not conceive and understand how an "intelligent" person could be bad or believe in religious ideas. Sheppard realizing how foolish he had been found that, "A chill of hatred shook him. He hated the shoe, hated the foot, and hated the boy. Sheppard realized that, "I did more for him than I did for my own child . . . He had stuffed his own emptiness with good works like a glutton. He had ignored his own child to feed his vision of himself" (O'Connor 481). Within the very final paragraph of the story the final blow is issued to Sheppard. Sheppard rushes to Norton hoping to make-up for his inattention to his son's needs only to find that his son has hung himself in the attic close to the telescope that Sheppard first used to encourage Johnson. The same telescope that Norton believed allowed him to see his mother somewhere out in space waving back to him (O'Connor 482).
And so as it goes for the self-assured philosopher Hulga, of Good Country People and the self-proclaimed savior of intelligence Sheppard, of The Lame Shall Enter First, each confused schooling with being smart, intellect with having common sense and both had a personal blindness to what O'Connor saw as the truth. Hulga and Sheppard were blinded by self-interest in their efforts to deal with the world each of them lived in. Hulga's blindness was due to her belief in the philosophy of nothingness and meaninglessness of life and sanctioned by her Ph.D. Sheppard's blindness was in hiding behind the idea that intelligence equated to goodness. Both of these characters believed that intelligence or intellect equated to a rejection of religion.
Mahon, Michael. Humanities 542, Para-Rational Perspectives. CSUDH 1998, 24
O'Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. The Noonday Press Press. New York, 1946, 1948, 1956, 1958, 1969, 1961, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1970, 1971. 291, 447, 462, 480-2