29 March 2016

Conflicts That Engage Us

Happy Endings vs. A Good Man is Hard to Find

Margaret Atwood’s scenario B in “Happy Endings” tells an all-too-familiar story: a woman falls in love with a man who does not love her back; moreover, she does not recognize the abusive pattern in her relationship and continues to be her man’s doormat and eventually kills herself. Comparing this to Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, a story about a family of six being wiped out by an escaped convict called Misfit on their way to Florida, I find the latter a much more engaging reading. The female protagonist dies and the male protagonist lives on in the end in both stories, but my reaction after reading is a sigh and “ok, time to move on” to the first one, but a “wow! Wait! What?! Holy Jesus” to the latter. While “Happy Endings” scenario B depicts a universal conflict in a romantic relationship, it lacks details about its characters and environment. We do not know how old Mary and John are, what they look like, where they live, what they do, how their relationship started and evolved, etc. The story mainly consists of statements; there are no scenes or dialogues or other rhetorical devices for showing. Characters are flat and only in conflict with each other and we do not see much of their inner struggles. There are no character transformations in the end.

In “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, the details of the actions characters take reveal to the reader that this is not a common murder case story, but a story of spiritual revelation and salvation. The opening scene begins with stock characters from a family vacation, focusing on the manipulative and controlling nature of the matriarch of the family, the grandmother. “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida” and “she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind”. She dresses unnecessarily proper for the trip by car, wearing “a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print”; and “her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet.” She later exclaims when she see a black child from the car: “Oh look at the little pickaninny!”, “Wouldn’t that make picture, now?”, and “Little niggers in the country don’t have things like we do”, “If I could paint, I’d paint that picture”. Then she goes on telling a story to her grandchildren of a black child giving into the temptation of a watermelon. At this point, we can see the grandmother’s lack of perceptions. She is self-absorbed and filled with the prejudices of her class and her time. These scenes and dialogues, along with  the Tower scene, lay the foundation for the dreadful turn in the story’s plot. When the grandmother is finally facing the Misfit, she continues to be more concerned about sounding like a good Christian than being a good Christian. She continues her superfluous babbling in an attempt to save herself: “I know you’re a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood.” She starts to talk about Jesus while her family is shot dead one by one by the Misfit’s gang. Once again we perceive the grandmother represents something she does not fully grasp: “Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing”. Only in the final scene when the grandmother is facing her own death and when the Misfit continues to talk about his bewilderment and crisis of lack of faith, the grandmother has an epiphany and sees the Misfit’s twisted face and recognizes him in a different light. She sees the humanity within him beyond her own religious platitudes. She gains redemption right before the Misfit kills her: “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one my own children!”, and “she reached out and touched him on the shoulder”. Not only does the grandmother’s final action save her own soul, but it also bears profound impact on the Misfit: now he realizes “She would have been a good woman” and shuts off his gang and says at the end of the story: “It’s no real pleasure in life”, which hints that down the road he will regret the killings and that he will no longer takes pleasure in doing this. Both main characters undergo a transformation. Without fleshing out these scenes with vivid details and actions between the beginning and ending, there would have not that much of a story in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, or, as in O’Connor’s words, “What was left would not be worth your attention”. Even though the ending is similar to many other crime stories, we get “a lustful brawling saga of passionate involvement, a chronicle of our times” as in Atwood’s comment in “Happy Endings” scenario F.