Monday, October 1, 2007

The kindness of strangers

"The geranium" - Flannery O'Connor

Old Dudley, the fish out of water, the displaced southern soul, has seen everything in his life fall away. Would his diminished life have remained sturdy had his daughter not opened her home to him? She had seized on an opportunity when he wished, fleetingly, to see New York City, and he could not forgive her for her generosity.

O'Connor is brilliant in her portrayal of a stolid southern man whose ego and sense of manliness (are they different?) have been undermined by the move. In the south, Dudley had done the things he considered manly - utilitarian things, like catching fish, not womanish things, like appreciating the nuances of the river. He had been a personage, useful and dominant in his little boarding-house world of silly women and subservient black people.

Anna wonders why he was crying. I wish I thought that something in the sympathy and assistance he received on the stairs had awakened an emotion that might grow into something less toxic than the impotence and rage of an old tyrant. Perhaps I'm the one who is trapped, but I have no sympathy for a man so lacking in simple gratitude.

So we have Dudley, failing to be grateful for the kindness of his daughter, or for the kindness of a stranger, and attributing base underpinnings to their behaviours. Is it any wonder that the owner of the pale geranium he had watched and enjoyed from across the alley is a white alpha male whose baseness is expressed by sneering disrespect for both Dudley and the fragile flower?

Everything in Dudley's life has fallen, and fallen away, from his own physical strength and sense of manly purpose to the lovely geranium that lies "at the bottom of the alley with its roots in the air." Dudley, too, has no further purpose, but neither he, nor the culture he embodies, will receive or deserve a reprieve.

This is a merciless story, probably based on people O'Connor had observed closely. As Anna said, it is "penetrating."

I haven't read any other of O'Connor's stories. I'd love to know what we all think of her, and why we think she isn't better-read. (This might be my northern bias - perhaps she is well-read elsewhere in the country.)


Anna said...

I haven't read much O'connor, and none of it recently, so it's a rediscovery for me. I keep wondering how to think about race in her stories -- I'll have to read more of them to get a grip on it.

It makes sense to assume that the man at the end is white - in the context of the story only black characters are given a racial identification -- but I found that the story packs a lot more punch if I allow myself to consider the final character's race ambiguous.

I also like the bit of inversion at the end - Dudley wanting to do something that at the beginning of the story he was thinking of as a 'black thing' (nurturing a plant).

teabird said...

Funny thing - I never even questioned my assumption that the man across the alley was white. Maybe I thought that Dudley would have registered the man's race had he not been white. But you're right, it's not clear.

I'm going to take a look through O'Connor's letters to see how she wrote about race to her friends and colleagues.

By the way: after I posted last night, I received a clipping from a friend in Georgia about
a newly-released cache of O'Connor's letters

Anna said...

Hrm - that link doesn't go anywhere for me :( maybe you can email it to me?