Transformative Moments of Communion: Exploring Theological Significance in O'Connor and Carver's Fic
Presented at the NW Undergraduate Conference on Literature (2019)
Rising above their limited space, short stories contain rich tapestries of meaning, even if they lack the space of a novel to develop them. Novels often center around a noble and valiant effort – “a quest,” so-to-speak– of the main character(s) looking to make a mark on the larger world. Short stories, on the other hand, offer narrower looks into the inner lives of individuals and their struggles with identity, and in the case of Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find and Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, theological implications in regards to one’s view of their identity, be that individually or communally with others.
Paul Lakeland in his commentary piece titled, “The Habit of Seeing: Revelation and Convergence ~ Flannery O’Connor and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition” quotes O’Connor who says on matters of theological significance: “The only access to the supernatural is through the natural. You have to write what you see, not what you want to see or think you ought to see” (1). In other words, theological honesty is about writing what is around oneself and acknowledging that the world, or even oneself, is far from the ideal. Nonetheless, in examining Carver’s Cathedral and O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, I argue that the characters of the blind man and The Misfit bring about the following: a turning away from individualism to fellowship, the letting go of control, and the transformative power of touch, into the lives of unnamed protagonists: the narrator and the grandmother, allowing them to move closer to the theological ideal of communion with another human being.
Raymond Carver’s Cathedral begins with a nameless narrator bent on preventing the visitation of his wife’s long-time friend, Robert, (aka the blind man); I argue this namelessness defines the narrator’s isolation, and thus his individualism throughout the majority of the text. In his Literary Criticism, “Fleeing the Wasteland of Alcoholism: Alienation, Recovery, and Hope in Raymond Carver's Cathedral”, Collin Messer writes: “More significantly, his [the narrator’s] namelessness reflects a deficiency—an anonymity—that makes him less of a person, and thus distances him from other people” (4). We see this anonymity of the narrator reflected in his struggle to relate to other people, particularly in the narrator’s skepticism toward things to which he has not been predisposed: “I wasn’t enthusiastic about his [Robert’s] visit…A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to” (202) he says. The narrator also struggles to communicate with his wife, which often results in her casting him disapproving looks, calling him crazy, or asking if he is drunk (204); On the one occasion that the narrator does try to explain something meaningful (the cathedral on the T.V.) to the blind man, the narrator ends up unable to, and in frustration admits: “I wasn’t getting through to him, I could see that” (210).
In another instance, the blind man attempts to make a joke about color T.V.’s asking the narrator if he thinks that it is funny, to which the narrator responds: “I didn’t know what to say to that. I had absolutely nothing to say to that. No opinion. So I watched the news program” (207). In other words, the narrator is unable to share his feelings on something, so he turns to materiel distractions like television, instead of trying to form personal bonds with those around him. The narrator relies on the sharing of alcohol and cannabis as a way to “bond” with Robert and his wife who sit together on the couch and “pass the number around” (208). Even as they do so, they “turn their attention to the T.V.” not to one another. The narrator flips channels largely in silence. The blind man is beside him, but for how little they say to one-another, the narrator might as well be alone.
This difficulty to understand and to be understand reveals how the narrator lacks a sense of identity, especially in matters of faith. After the three (narrator, his wife, and Robert) had sat down to a meal, the narrator says: “Now let us pray,” to which his wife “looked at [him], her mouth agape” (206). Later, the narrator talks rather favorably about faith saying: “In those olden days, when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God. In those olden days, God was an important part of everyone’s life” (210). It is not until later that we understand the narrator’s wife’s initial surprise at his pronouncement to pray when the blind man asks: “You’re my host. But let me ask if you are in any way religious?” The narrator responds rather casually and with little sense of thought to the topic in replying: “I guess I don’t believe in it. In anything.” (211). This final line: “In anything” is revealing in the sense that the narrator has not only lost belief in faith, but belief in all things: which I’d argue that for this story, are both himself and his ability to understand and be understood, ultimately culminating in his fragmented sense of identity.
In A Good Man is Hard to Find, the main character, referred to only by her family-role as “the grandmother”, like the narrator in Cathedral, is unnamed, expressing a gap in her identity. And also like the narrator in Cathedral, she begins by expressing her displeasure at the happenings around her. The very first line of the story reads: “The Grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida…and she was seizing every chance to change Bailey [her son’s] mind” (1160). In order to express her displeasure, she frequently interjects her opinions throughout the text, as shown through the following comments: “She cautioned Bailey…” and “She pointed out…” (1161).
It is clear through her actions: “When she told a story, she rolled her eyes and waved her head and was very dramatic” (1162) that the grandmother desires to be the center of attention. While the narrator in Cathedral is less talkative than the grandmother, they both share a desire for attention and recognition from others. The narrator in Cathedral admits: “I waited in vain to hear my name on my wife’s sweet lips: “And then my dear husband came into my life” – something like that. But I heard nothing of the sort” (207). And while the narrator in Cathedral turns to dulling past-times of beer, cannabis, and T.V. to cope with his underdeveloped sense of self, I argue that the grandmother, largely ignored by her immediate family, turns to vanity as a means of her identity.
The grandmother’s vanity is demonstrated through a story of romance from her youth during the car ride through the country side. The grandmother demonstrates her more cultured and self-important nature when she explains how: “She would have done well to marry Mr. Teagarden because he was a gentleman…and a very wealthy man” (1163). Furthermore, as she steps into the car, her extravagant appearance of fancy collar, cuffs, lace, and violet cloths are described all in an effort that: “In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (1161). The grandmother relies on her words and her clothes as the markers of the sort of woman she is when she can’t seem to find any meaningful connection with the people around.
For the narrator in Cathedral, his “meaningful connection” is his wife often “look[ing] at [him] with irritation” or giving him “a savage look” (208) as they seem to argue more than they get along. Likewise, the seemingly closest person to the grandmother, her son Bailey, treats her with equal amounts of skepticism, the greatest example being at the arrival of The Misfit when Bailey “turned his head sharply and said something to his mother that shocked even the children. The old lady began to cry” (1167). Bailey is irritable during the family drive telling everyone to “shut up!” when he hears bickering. And when the grandmother tries to talk to him at the beginning of the text he “didn’t’ look up from his reading” (1160). In other words, both the narrator and the grandmother are largely looked upon with little expectation or fondness by their respective family members. Thus, the primary markers of their identities become self-focused: pointed toward worldly things like food, drink, T.V., or fashion which make up the primary substance of these protagonist’s identities.
While the first half of these narratives looks at the strained relationships and individualistic identities the protagonists have built up for themselves, the letting go of these identities is evident for both characters by the middle of their stories. This “letting go,” I argue is brought about by their respective “unexpected vehicles of grace” (The blind man, and The Misfit) in different ways, but both of which enable the protagonists to enter into community with someone beyond themselves. Even as the narrator in Cathedral appears largely isolated and unable to connect with others, he desires to, in his own way, saying to the blind man as they flip through channels: “I’m glad for the company. And I guess I was. Every night I smoked dope and stayed up as long as I could before I feel asleep” (209). It is in this admittance that the narrator shows readers his hesitant, yet honest desire for companionship, even if he doesn’t know how to experience it. Interestingly, a few lines later, regarding what channel to watch, the blind man foreshadows the change that is to come in the narrator by saying: “I’m always learning something. Learning never ends. It won’t hurt me to learn something tonight” (209). I would argue that it is the narrator who learns something, specifically that a transcendent and vulnerable encounter with another human being is possible.
For the narrator in Cathedral, his process of letting go of individuality and embracing the potential for a transcendent experience is to first admit his limitations in being able to describe with depth and meaning what he sees before him. “I’m sorry. But it looks like that’s the best I can do for you. I’m just no good at it” (210) the narrator says in attempting to describe the cathedral on the television to the blind man. As well, the narrator’s earlier admittance as to his lack of faith saying: “I guess I don’t believe in it. In anything. Sometimes it’s hard” (211) is an admittance of his giving up on any possibility of a transcendent experience. In other words, not only can the narrator not describe the physicality or emotional aesthetic of something meaningful, he does not even believe he can experience it as well. Once he has admitted both of these things, however, he opens up the floodgates for change to come.
In contrast, while the narrator in Cathedral openly admits his limitation and disbelief in faith, in A Good Man is Hard to Find, the grandmother never once mentions her own sense of faith or belief in God until she is faced with a crisis. She never admits to having a limited sense of faith but only holds up religion as a means of negotiation or attempt at safety when faced with potential injury. At The Tower, an eatery the family visits earlier in the text, she confidently asserts that: “People are certainly not nice like they used to be” (1163). However, when confronted by The Misfit (clearly far from a “nice person”) the grandmother praises him saying: “I know you’re a good man,” (1168) and “I know you come from nice people!” (1170). Given this earlier statement of her distrust of people, her sentiments regarding The Misfit seem contradictory and false. Since the grandmother has proven to be inconsistent with her statements regarding the goodness or badness of people, readers may also call into question her claims to rely on Christ as well. For she tells The Misfit, “You could be honest and true if you’d only try” and “Do you ever pray?” (1168) as if she herself does these things. I argue these questions reflected at The Misfit could really be asked of The Grandmother.
In fact, when it comes to theological matters, we get more contemplation of Christ from The Mistfit than we ever do from the grandmother. He asks questions, raises concerns, and shares openly about his struggles with the transcendent. “Jesus throws everything off balance” he says, “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead” (1170). The Misfit presses further, noting that if Jesus really did what he said he did then: “It’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow him” (1170). Otherwise, as dark and demented as his next words are, there wouldn’t really be a reason why people couldn’t act as they wanted. The Misfit recognizes this saying, “And if he didn’t then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can” (1170).
However, as the protagonists of these two texts engage with matters of faith either as a means of expressing a lack of belief (the narrator), or of struggling to maintain control of a situation through supposed belief (the grandmother), I argue that what sparks real transformation in both of these characters is through physical touch. In Cathedral, after the narrator expresses his inability both to connect with and even believe in the transcendent, the blind man tells the narrator: “Hey, listen to me. Will you do me a favor? I got an idea. Why don’t you find us some heavy paper? And a pen. We’ll do something. We’ll draw one together. Get us a pen and some heavy paper. Go on, bub, get the stuff” (211). The two then begin a shared experience as their two worlds collide – the seeing and the non-seeing. Suddenly, the narrator is not separate from the blind man, but they are working together on something: “We’ll do something. We’ll draw one”, the blind man says, guiding the narrator, arguably out from his isolation.
This release from isolation into community with another person is evident as the narrator begins working on the drawing with the blind man who “found my hand, the hand with the pen. He closed his hand over my hand” (211). Robert touches the narrator and suddenly they are connected. “Go ahead, bub, draw,” he said. “Draw. You’ll see” (211).” The narrator keeps working and as he does: “His [Robert’s] fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper” (211). The narrator focuses on this touch –a moment of intimacy that contrasts so strongly with his earlier disgust at the thought of the blind man touching his wife’s face. At that point in the text we learn: “On her last day in the office, the blind man asked if he could touch her face. She agreed to this…She never forgot it” (203). However, the narrator is perplexed at the idea of a blind man touching his wife’s face, which is evident in him failing to understand or think much about the poem she composes about the experience. However, sitting on the floor with Robert’s hand on his, guiding him, the narrator undergoes a complete reversal on the idea of the blind man’s touch as the narrator admits: “It was like nothing else in my life up to now” (212).
On the other hand, the grandmother in A Good Man is Hard to Find who was lively and talkative, monopolizing conversation with her many stories in the first half of the story, folds in on herself after The Misfit begins talking about Jesus. Her confidence crumbles and she only manages to mutter “Maybe he didn’t raise the dead” (1170). Her initial confidence of faith being able to solve The Misfit’s problems fades away as, “Alone with The Misfit, the grandmother found that she had lost her voice” (1170). Any control she may have had diminishes and she cries out: “Jesus, Jesus,” meaning Jesus will help you but “the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing” (1170). While the narrator relinquishes control under the blind man’s hand, so too does the grandmother experience a lack of certainty in the presence of The Misfit.
During these beginning moments of transcendence, materialistic markers of identity that once isolated the protagonists, fall away. As the narrator moves his fingers across the page, drawing in arches, doors, and flying buttresses, “the TV station goes off the air” (211). Likewise, as the grandmother stands before The Misfit who is considering the authenticity of Christ’s ultimate work in the world, she “reached up to adjust her hat brim…but it came off in her hand…after a second she let if fall on the ground” (1168). In other words, as each of the protagonists enter into their respective encounters with their “vehicles of grace,” pieces of their old identities that once isolated them from others, fade away.
In A Good Man is Hard to Find, The Misfit continues on about Christ, confessing: “I wisht I had been there…It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had been there I would of known,” (1170) in reference to Christ raising the dead. The grandmother looks at him and listens as he speaks what he feels to be the honest truth: “If I had of been there,” he finishes, “I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now” (1170). In The Catholic Answer, the TCA writes in promotion for O’Connor’s book Uncommon Grace: “The eccentric characters of [O’Connor’s] work often serve as moral case studies of what it’s like to be split between worldliness and the search for truth” (36). I argue this couldn’t be more the case than The Misfit’s internal struggle with Christ and his saving work. The line: “If I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now” (1170) is, I argue, the ultimate torment of The Misfit – having to live in uncertainty when all that he desires is clarity. This is the greatest moment of suffering The Misfit ever shows – the pain of faith being something that someone must believe without seeing.
The theological idea of believing without seeing is exactly what the narrator experiences in his own transcendent moment drawing the cathedral with the blind man. After their work is finished, Robert turns to the narrator and says: “Take a look. What do you think?” The narrator explains: “But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do” (211). But Robert asks again: “Well? Are you looking?” (211). In response, the same man who once admitted: “The truth is, cathedrals don’t mean anything to special to me. Nothing. Cathedrals. They’re something to look at on late-night T.V. That’s all they all” (210) “sees”. While “[his] eyes were still closed,” he says “It’s really something” (212). I argue this admission is the narrator seeing the cathedral on an intangible level as well as experiencing the feeling of connection that’s always been there, just out of reach for him until this moment. “It’s really something” (212) he says, which to me, is the narrator finally seeing the transcendent depth of beauty and communion with another human being.
The narrator’s response to this moment of transcendent communion is reminiscent to the response of the grandmother to The Misfit’s statement of vuernability. After he admits that: “If I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now,” (1170) the grandmother’s “head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” (1171). In this brief moment, the grandmother looks at The Misfit not as a case-study or as someone to be pitied, instructed, or even feared, but as one of her own. Perhaps, some might argue that she recognizes the shirt The Misfit is wearing as her son’s, but I argue that even if she does, what she speaks to is something much different. I argue that in the grandmother saying, “You’re one of my own children!” (1171) she is alluding to an acknowledgment of the connection that all of us as people share as children of Christ. As the grandmother utters this claims, the power of touch in human connection is established when: “She reached out and touched him on the shoulder” (1171). She, who surely knows at this point that The Misfit – this sad, tormented creature – has been the instrument in murdering her family only moments before, still touches him. She looks at him with grace, and her touch is one of gentle intimacy.
In the moment of The Misfit’s weakness, the grandmother feels a sense of attachment and compassion. This, I argue, is the one, singular transcendent moment of understanding another’s pain within this otherwise individualistic-minded story-world. However, in keeping with the earlier quote that writers must be honest in their portrayal of the world as something far from ideal, this moment of compassion is abruptly broken when The Misfit “sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest” (1171). He recoils at her, I argue, because he is unable to process this feeling of being touched, just as the narrator in Cathedral is first surprised when Robert touches his hand. Ultimately, however, whatever The Misfit was feeling in that moment when he springs back and pulls the trigger can never truly be known, and arguably shouldn’t be. Paul Lakeland writes, “Her [O’Connor’s] stories show this profound theological truth without ever actually stating it; intent on letting her readers learn through the narrative, she shrouds the thought in the action, lest she end up preaching a sermon instead of telling a story” (3). In other words, it is enough for readers to experience this transcendent moment between the grandmother and The Misfit, even if it ends in brokenness. This is the same with the narrator in Cathedral, who doesn’t have to physically see the drawing he has created in order to be changed; it is enough to have had this moment between himself and Robert in order to demonstrate to readers that there was a moment – a change taking place within him.
In conclusion, both Agnostic author Raymond Carver and Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor provide a space in which moments of transcendence are possible, regardless of the ultimately bitter-sweet or uncertain outcomes that follow after these moments end. Eileen Markey writes appropriately then in her book review titled “Haunted by the Incarnation” regarding O’Connor’s work stating: “[O’Connor’s] fiction lingers on the grotesque and strange. Her stories are populated by misfits and castoffs, ugly people acting badly whose marginality elucidates the broken, beautiful nature of God (2). Nonetheless, I argue that through the inclusion of the “ugly,” readers come to see how powerful small moments of grace and honesty can be within a larger world of struggle: struggle that manifests itself in drinking bouts, car crashes, and men who take families to be shot out in the forest. For within all of that struggle, a hand settling over another hand to guide it or reaching up to the shoulder of a tormented soul reveal small, transformative moments of communion – of connected encounters between individuals so unlike ourselves.
Carver, Raymond. “Cathedral.” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction: 8th edition. Ed. Bausch, Richard and Cassill R.V.: New York: Norton, 2015. 202-212. Print.
Lakeland, Paul. “The Habit of Seeing: Revelation and Convergence ~ Flannery O’Connor and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.” Commonweal, vol. 145, Issue 4, 23 Feb. 2018. Academic Search Complete.
Markey, Eileen. “Haunted by the Incarnation.” America, vol. 213, Issue 16, 13 Nov. 2015. Academic Search Complete.
Messer, H. Collin. “Fleeing the Wasteland of Alcoholism: Alienation, Recovery, and Hope in Raymond Carver's Cathedral” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 37, Issue 1, 2012. Academic Search Complete.
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction: 8th edition. Ed. Bausch, Richard and Cassill R.V.: New York: Norton, 2015. 202-212. Print.
“The Catholic Answer.” TCA Reviews, vol. 30, Issue 5, 2016. Academic Search Complete.