Peacocks On Greasy Lake: Flannery O’Connor and T.C. Boyle

It would seem that Flannery O’Connor and T.C. Boyle have nothing in common. O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925 and spent all but five of her thirty nine years in Georgia. She wrote about the Deep South during the 1950s and ’60s and her stories are filled with complicated themes and messages that seemed to underscore these complicated and turbulent times. As a regional writer, she never sought to romanticize the South. O’Connor never wrote about beautiful southern belles waiting for handsome southern gentlemen to court them. The South she puts forth is gritty, dusty, bloody and real.

Though Boyle’s stories are also gritty, dusty, bloody and real, many of his stories take place either in New York, where he was born and raised, or California, where he lives now and teaches at a university. His stories range in setting from California to Iowa from the Brazilian rain forests to India, but he has said that he has a “hankering” to become a regional writer like O’Connor (Lamberti).

However, if one digs just below the surface of their stories, past the differences between the Deep South during the middle of the 20th century and the East and West coasts of today, O’Connor’s and Boyle’s stories, and their paths as writers, have more in common than one might think. O’Connor was a fiercely religious Catholic; she also had an Irish background. Boyle is also Irish, and although he does not seem as religious as O’Connor, has a Catholic background and uses many allusions to Catholicism in his stories. Both writers also left their native states to attend the Writers’ Workshop at The University of Iowa.

Iowa must have seemed like a different world for O’Connor. Paul Engle, one of her teachers at Iowa, recalls his first meeting with her in the introduction to The Complete Stories. He writes that the first time he met her; he could not understand a word she said. Embarrassed, he asked her to write down what she was trying to say and she gave him a note that said, “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist. Can I come to the Writer’s Workshop?” Engle asked her to give him some of his work to review. He was impressed and writes that she was like “Keats, who spoke Cockney but wrote the purest sounds in English.”

O’Connor was a good student during her years as an undergrad at the Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville, Georgia, and had earned a scholarship for her continuing studies at Iowa (HB 3). Boyle was not as industrious. He writes about his college days at SUNY Potsdam in his essay “This Monkey, My Back,” saying that he had “little talent and no discipline,” did not attend classes, hung out with “losers,” disappointed his mentors, and shot up heroin. But one day a friend of his overdosed and “scared the holy sweet literature” out of him. He went on to write a story about the experience which was published in The North American Review and opened the doors to the same workshop that O’Connor had attended decades earlier.

It could be argued that O’Connor had a lot to do with saving Boyle from himself. He writes in “This Monkey, My Back” that he had read O’Connor in a sophomore literature class and “felt a blast of recognition.” O’Connor once wrote that “my audience are the people who think God is dead” (HB 92). It seems fitting, in an ironic O’Connor kind of way, that the man she saved went on to kill God in his early short story “De Rerum Natura.” Boyle, maybe feeling guilty for this affront to one of his literary heroes, has the man who discovered and photographed the dead God burned to death in his house by an angry mob.

Irony is only one of the many themes O’Connor and Boyle share in their stories. Symbols of religion show up often in both of their stories. But neither one of them presents an overbearing evangelical message; it is more subtle with the images from religion showing up to drive home points. They are both satirical of their society-the two writers feel that the only way to wake up a sleeping society is to grab it by its shoulders and shake it, violently. This shaking of society often occurs towards the end of their stories with gruesome, tragic, and unexpected deaths. Whether it is a grandmother and her entire family being executed by the “Misfit” in O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” or a young man so enraged at a group of self-righteous abortion protesters that he goes out and starts shooting them point blank in the head in Boyle’s “Killing Babies,” these sudden, violent deaths are enough to suck the air out of a reader’s lungs. But this suffering is necessary for redemption, a prevalent theme in O’Connor stories, to occur. O’Connor believed that people must suffer for their redemption, that suffering “helps release the work of the original redemptive suffering of Jesus” (Edmondson 152).

Therefore, redemption becomes secondary, what is important is the path one must walk to be redeemed. O’Connor once wrote that “redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it,” because there needs to be a need to be redeemed (Edmondson 154). O’Connor once quoted St. Cyril of Jerusalem who wrote, “The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon” (Friedman 160). It is the path that matters. Will the protagonist be devoured by the dragon? Or will she go on to the Father of Souls? This path to redemption is a reoccurring theme to many Boyle and O’Connor stories and it is the central theme to Boyle’s “Friendly Skies” and O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger.”

O’Connor understood when she wrote “The Artificial Nigger” just how ugly and hateful that word is. One magazine editor implored her to change the title telling her that “it’s a tense situation” and “we don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings” (Magee 21). O’Connor, adamant that the title was not to be changed, wrote, “what I had in mind to suggest with the artificial nigger was the redemptive quality of the Negro’s suffering for us all” (HB 78). Henry Edmondson contents with this epithet in his book about O’Connor’s response to nihilism. Edmondson contends that “The Artificial Nigger” is an example of O’Connor’s willingness to put “a stumbling block in the path of the reader.” He goes on to say, “those who are put off by the title, and who may even err badly in calling O’Connor a ‘racist’ on the basis of this story, are guilty of the worst kind of knee-jerk reaction” (Edmondson 145). This dichotomy is what O’Connor may have been trying to achieve—if one can get past this vile word, if one can look beyond the title and into the story, they will find a powerful tale of redemption that O’Connor, always her own harsh critic, calls “probably the best thing I’ll ever write” (HB 209).

Mr. Head, the protagonist of “The Artificial Nigger,” is an arrogant old man who thinks that his old age alone makes him a “suitable guide to the young.” Mr. Head has planned to take a trip to Atlanta with his grandson Nelson. Nelson is an arrogant young man who thinks that he knows more than his grandfather. This will, after all, be Nelson’s second trip to Atlanta and he boasts to his grandfather, “I will’ve already been there twict and I ain’t but ten.” Nelson’s “first trip” to Atlanta began with his birth and lasted the first six months of his life until his mother moved them both back to her father’s house and died shortly after.

Mr. Head has it in his mind that he will show Nelson everything about the city and hopes that once he sees how ugly and dirty the city is will never want to leave home again. Mr. Head tells young Nelson, “You may not like it one bit. It’ll be full of niggers.” Mr. Head, in an obvious display of arrogance, thinks of himself as “Vergil summoned in the middle of the night to go to Dante” to lead him through hell. O’Connor’s reference to Dante’s “Inferno” underscores Mr. Head’s inflated sense of self since Virgil came from hell to guide Dante through hell and purgatory but could not go into heaven because he was “rebellious” (Alighieri 2). Mr. Head may be a “suitable guide” for Nelson through the underworld of Atlanta, but he cannot guide Nelson any further than that until his arrogance and pride are stripped away.

Ellen, the protagonist of Boyle’s “Friendly Skies,” is an ex grade school teacher who has no “suitable guide” as she tries to find her way in life. Boyle’s story opens with a scene that would make anyone’s blood chill; Ellen is on a flight from Los Angeles to New York when she looks out the small window next to her at an engine on fire. As is this is not bad enough, the man sitting next to her, Lercher, starts beating on the seat in front of him like a rebellious overgrown child upon hearing the news that the plane must return to LAX.

Ellen is walking, or more accurately, flying, along the path of redemption. She is fleeing Roy, her ex, who, in her school’s teacher’s lounge, made a scene by telling her that he was cheating on her. In front of her colleagues, and even her mother, he called her “shit-for-brains” and told her that he was in fact sleeping with someone else. Ellen has lost almost everything: she has thrown away all of her belongings, left her job, and is going back to New York to stay with her mom and try to get her life back together.

Back in Atlanta, Mr. Head is literally lost. His plan was to keep the large dome of the train station in sight so he could find it when they were ready to go home. But this plan has not worked out and Mr. Head and Nelson find themselves walking amongst the African-American neighborhoods of Atlanta. Nelson chides him to ask someone for directions, but Mr. Head’s arrogance will not allow him to ask any of the residents for directions.

After walking for a little while, the two men come back into the “white” part of town and Nelson, his feet burning from his shoes and the concrete lies down on the sidewalk and falls into a “fitful sleep.” Mr. Head sees an opportunity to teach Nelson a lesson and goes off to hide. When Nelson wakes up to find that his grandfather is not around he runs down the street in a panic and knocks over an old lady. Mr. Head comes upon a scene of great commotion, the woman is yelling about calling the police and that he will pay all of her medical bills for the damage his boy caused her. Mr. Head, much to his own surprise, denies that he even knows Nelson. “I never seen him before,” he says just before walking away from the women and Nelson.

Mr. Head’s denial of Nelson, something he thought himself incapable of, sets the stage for his redemption. Mr. Head up until this point thought that he did not need redemption, but after his denial of Nelson he sees “that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own.” The women, who were so animated just moments before, stare at Mr. Head with “horror” at his denial of his own flesh and they silently clear a path for him and he continues down the sidewalk with Nelson walking behind him at a distance of twenty feet. Mr. Head is deeply shamed by his denial of Nelson and can feel his eyes “piercing into his back like pitchfork prongs.”

The two men walk along the streets, Nelson trailing Mr. Head by twenty feet. Mr. Head makes several attempts to reconnect with Nelson; he first offers him a coke but “Nelson, with a dignity he had never shown before, turned and stood with his back to his grandfather.” After several more blocks, Mr. Head trips over a water spigot and offers the boy some water hoping that “they would both drink and be brought together” but Nelson walks past the spigot “disdaining to drink where his grandfather had.” Mr. Head is at his lowest point now and wants to drop into the sewers “and let himself be carried away.” When he sees a man out walking his dog, he calls out “[o]h Gawd I’m lost! Oh hep me Gawd I’m lost!” Mr. Head has finally abandoned his pride—he is crying out in the middle of the street that he is lost, and lost not only in the physical sense but also lost in sin. He is ready, finally, for redemption.

“We’re going to get home!” he yells out to Nelson. Nelson doesn’t care, he’s still hurt by his grandfather’s denial, “home was nothing to him.” Mr. Head starts walking toward the station, a man without “salvation.” He sees a “plaster figure of a Negro” sitting on a low wall. Mr. Nelson is transfixed by this statue and finally says “An artificial nigger!” Nelson has come up closer and repeats “An artificial nigger!” in Mr. Head’s “exact tone.” O’Connor describes the statue as “too miserable” looking to be either young or old and that its eyes “gave him a wild look of misery.” It is now that Mr. Head feels mercy. She narrates that the “monument to another’s victory brought them together in their common defeat. They could both feel it dissolving their differences like an action of mercy.”

Ellen, 40,000 feet in the “Friendly Skies,” is waiting for her “action of mercy” while sucking down scotch-and-sodas. She has a new neighbor named Michael who she connects with after offering him her in-flight meal. In this act of Communion, she has found her “anti-Roy” and she holds Michael’s “name on her tongue like the thinnest wafer.” Lercher, to her great relief, is seated several rows back from her.

Ellen describes Lercher to Michael as “the worst kind of trash.” She thinks of him as an overgrown third grader. The way he beat on the seat in front of him out of frustration upon hearing the flaming plane was going to have to go back to LAX to the way he barreled over anyone in his way at LAX, swinging his bag like a weapon.

The name Lercher sounds ugly and conjures up the image of Lucifer. Images of hell and the Devil are found sprinkled throughout both of these stories. Atlanta is Mr. Head’s hell, a dirty city filled with “niggers” and sewers that men fall into and are lost in the “endless pitch-black tunnels.” And after Mr. Head’s denial of Nelson, Nelson looks at him with eyes like “pitchfork prongs,” another reference to Satan and the tools he uses.

When Boyle describes LAX, images of a hell on earth prevail. Ellen travels through a dusty, unfinished building where the corridors narrowed to “cattle chutes” and Ellen looks “anxiously to the bottleneck ahead” presumably marching with all the other “cattle” to their waiting slaughter. And when Ellen finds herself sitting next to Michael on her second flight, she refers to him as her “archangel,” the man who will protect and save her.

Lercher finally loses it on the cramped airplane when he tries to get upgraded to first-class and is rebuffed by a flight attendant. As the flight attendant asks him to sit down, he grabs two metal coffee pots and attacks her. He then tries to kick open one of the doors, wishing death on all the passengers. He moves up the aisle past Ellen, Michael swings out his laptop computer to try and subdue him. Lercher picks up the computer and brings it down on Michael’s head and Ellen feels him “go limp beside her.” Her “archangel” is defeated and she goes after Lercher as if she’s been “launched” from her seat and attacks him with the only thing she has in her hand, a thin fork clamped in her hand like a “flaming sword.”

This should have been Ellen’s redemption; she has vanquished her demon with an angelic tool despite her instinct to run and hide. But instead of being saved, Ellen “sat, dazed, over yet another Scotch” as Michael, the man she hoped to be the “anti-Roy” is taken away on a stretcher, defeated. While Ellen has made some clear progress along her path, Boyle makes it clear that she has further to walk along her path to redemption. She has not had a moment of revelation, nothing has happened to make her think her life is about to get any better. She is still moving back home, moving in the opposite direction of independence and redemption.

Moving back home after having lived on your own may be difficult, but sometimes it is necessary pit-stop along the path of redemption. These moves are often made in desperation after a cold and cruel world has battered and defeated them, when all other options have failed and the grown child has no where else to go. Boyle and O’Connor both write about adult children returning home in their stories “Up Against the Wall” and “The Enduring Chill” respectively.

O’Connor’s “The Enduring Chill” is one of her most autobiographical stories. The protagonist, Asbury, is a struggling writer who is coming back home to his mother’s farm in Georgia after having lived in New York for several years. He is ill; convinced he is dying, and has come home to pass on. After receiving her master’s degree from Iowa she moved out to New York and lived there for a little while before moving in with some friends in Connecticut. She had to return home to her mother’s place after falling ill with Lupus, the disease that would eventually take her life.

There are many other references to O’Connor’s life in this story. While Asbury is home he over hears his sister, Mary George, telling their mother that Asbury is never going to publish anything. Mary George contends that if a writer is ever going to be published that they would be published by the age of 21. Seeing that Asbury is now 25 she says that he is “exactly four years overdue.” One may wonder where Mary George (or O’Connor) came up with such an arbitrary age until you learn that O’Connor had her first story, “The Geranium,” published in 1946 at the age of 21 (CS viii).

O’Connor seems to be addressing some of her critics in this story as well. One afternoon Asbury is sitting out on the porch to take in some sun when his mother tells him, “I think it would be nice if you wrote a book about down here. We need another good book like Gone With the Wind.” This suggestion makes Asbury’s stomach muscles tighten and he responds, “I am not going to write a book.” Nobody seemed to understand O’Connor when she was a young writer. She had a lot of trouble with her first publisher regarding her first novel Wise Blood and was worried that they would take it “and train it into a conventional novel” (HB 9). Indeed, when her novel first came out the critics did not seem enthralled with it. Robert Giroux writes in the introduction to her The Complete Stories that he was more disappointed by the reviews than she was and emphasizes that the reviews “all recognized her power but missed her point.”

Another autobiographical theme that occurs in this story, and many other O’Connor stories, is the absent father. Many of O’Connor’s stories feature the redemptive power of the matriarch with women running farms and raising kids after the man of the house has either died or run off. O’Connor’s mother was a very strong woman who held her family together after her husband died of Lupus when she was 15. This power of the matriarch is made clear in “The Enduring Chill” when Asbury, in an effort to stop his mother from bothering him, tells her that he has come home to die. Asbury’s mother asks him fiercely, “Do you think for one minute that I intend to sit here and let you die?” She is so sure of herself that Asbury has his first “stroke of doubt” about his imminent death.

The matriarch is also prominent in Boyle’s “Up Against the Wall” as well. John, the protagonist, has also just moved back home to live with his parents after college to teach at a local junior high school in an effort to avoid the Vietnam war. John’s father, while not dead, had long ago “gave up and withered away somewhere deep in the upright shell of himself” and now does nothing but watch TV and drink all day. “Up Against the Wall” is autobiographical in this way. Boyle once described his own father as sitting “in his Barcalounger cradling his drink as if it were about to explode” (Eleventh Draft 6).

“Up Against the Wall” is also autobiographical. John teaches English during the day and spends his nights in his room where he listens to music and “hammer[s] away at [his] saxophone,” the same instrument Boyle hoped to play as a music major in college. The war in Vietnam looms large for John; every night when he comes home from work he sees images of death and destruction on the news. Even the school where John teaches is a war zone with “rebellion” simmering and “riots” breaking out two to three times a day and every once in a while, John has to throw someone up against a wall, “tear his shirt and use the precise language of the streets to let him know in excruciating detail just who was the one with the most at stake here.” He is convinced that if he is drafted and sent to Vietnam he will die there.

After school one day, John sees Cole, an old friend from high school, in a local record store. He goes out with Cole that night and the next night they both go out to a cottage where they listen to music and smoke pot. John’s mother is worried about this and one night over dinner confronts John telling him that Cole has a record. John is defensive telling her that Cole was framed all the while know the truth, that he had tried to sell marijuana to an undercover officer. She looks at him and asks if he is doing drugs.

John is doing drugs, hard drugs. He has been shooting up heroin at the cottage every night and “the bite marks of the needle that crawled first up one arm and then the other” bore “testament” to his new life. John is being devoured by the “dragon” that sat along his path. One day at school while John is trying to keep the students out of the building during lunch, an eighth grader, Robert Rowe, who is in his homeroom walks up to him and asks him if he has ever read “The Man With the Golden Arm.” John tells him no, but that he has heard about it. Rowe tells him “he shoots up, too” and John looks down at his arms and the “bite marks” that are exposed by the short sleeve shirt he stupidly put on that morning.

Asbury has ingested a different kind of poison. A couple of months earlier, Asbury was back home on his mother’s farm in an attempt to understand the “Negroes” she employed because he was wanting to write a play about the African-American’s plight. He worked in the dairy for several days but was not making any kind of meaningful connection with his mother’s help. So in an effort to connect with them, he pours warm milk into a glass, drinks it all down, pours another glass and offers it to the two men who worked in the dairy. They would not touch it, telling Asbury that his mother does not allow them to drink the milk. Frustrated, Asbury returns back to New York.

Dr. Block has finally figured out what is wrong with Asbury. He excitedly tells Asbury and his mother that he is not dying, that he has “undulant fever” and that while he will never get well, he will not die. This pains Asbury even more than death and he thinks about the days to come as “frail, racked, but enduring.” Asbury looks up at the ceiling above his bed where water marks “had made a fierce bird with spread wings. It had an icicle crosswise in its beak and there were smaller icicles depending from its wings and tail.” And he watched this bird, the “Holy Ghost” as it began to descend on him “emblazoned in ice instead of fire.”

John’s world is descending on him. The night before, his mother had confronted him with a police audio tape made of phone conversations from the cottage where he went to escape from his life. She had received the tape from a friend of hers in the local police department and the ramifications of this were definite. There would be no more cottage. He had gone through the day in a daze, not noticing anything, including the fact that Robert Rowe, a fatherless boy who’s mother had asked John to look after him because he looked up to John, had developed slurred and slow speech and “his eyes drifted toward a point no one in this world could see but him.” His mother was not home yet and his father was inexplicably out in the pouring rain fixing something. John makes himself several drinks, sits down in his father’s chair, and turns on the TV just in time to watch the dragon’s mouth of Vietnam opens up and engulfs him “as the jets came in low and the village went up in flames.”

Boyle takes us from the jungles of Vietnam in “Up Against the Wall” to the dense rainforest of the Amazon for his story of an unlikely redemption, “Green Hell.” A plane has crashed, killing everyone on board except for the unnamed protagonist and narrator, a mime, a professor from Norway who does not speak English, a drunk that the narrator calls “Tanqueray,” the pilot, a man allergic to cats, a man who shows cats referred to simply as “cat man,” and a flight attendant named Andrea. “Green Hell” is written in the style of a journal that the narrator is keeping. The fact that the narrator assigns labels to his fellow survivors, instead of learning their names, illustrates his sense of detachment from them. Conversely, Andrea is named, she is important to him in some way. This importance is reinforced by the daily updates on the degradation of her clothing to the point of nakedness.

Names are also important in O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” they are used to convey what kind of person they are. The mother, Mrs. Hopewell, is a woman of eternal hope given to speaking in clichés such as “nothing is perfect” and “everybody is different” while her daughter, Hulga, the protagonist, sits across from her “hulking…with the look of someone who has achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it.” Mrs. Hopewell named her daughter Joy when she was born, but once Joy was out of the house, she went and changed her name to Hulga. Mrs. Hopewell hated the name and thought of the “blank hull of a battleship” every time she heard it and was convinced that Joy “had thought and thought until she had hit upon the ugliest name in any language.”

Hulga has a PhD in philosophy and sits around her mother’s house all day brooding. She would like to be teaching in a university somewhere far away from her country home, but she has a heart condition which keeps her at home. A bad heart is only one of her physical aliments. When she was a young girl, the lower part of her leg was blown off by a shotgun blast in a hunting accident. She has walked with a wooden leg for most of her life. These physical problems, a weak heart, a blown off leg, are meant to physically manifest Hulga’s spiritual affliction and “maimed soul” (Whitt 76).

A physical defect proves to be important in “Green Hell” as well. It is the morning after the crash and the narrator awakes to find cat man standing over him and for the first time notices a large purple birthmark on cat man’s face that takes up the lower half of his face. Cat man takes the narrator outside to show off his cats and as he calls out to them in a “primitive sort of recognition rite,” the narrator comes to the conclusion “that the cat man is an ass.” His attitude quickly changes, however, when cat man opens a tin of herring to feed his beloved pets. When cat man turns to feed the cats, the narrator swipes several tins of the food, fills his pockets, and later buries them in the forest for his own use.

Later in the day, the survivors of the crash have a meeting. The pilot is elected leader, the professor is assigned to fix the radio, the mime is to write a constitution, and the narrator and cat man are assigned to gather food and clear a landing zone. The meeting takes a turn for the worse when allergic man suggests that the cats be “spitted and roasted like hares.” Cat man, of course, reacts violently to this and is banished after he punches the allergic man in the eye for his offense. The narrator is not concerned over the banishment and eagerly tears into a “plump drumstick” of one of cat man’s cats. This kind of moral ambiguity would be disturbing for O’Connor. The narrator does not seem to have any kind of guide for right living. He steals food from cat man, acts like he is interested in cat man to get what he wants, turns away from cat man at his moment of need, and to add insult to injury, eats one of cat man’s sole reasons for being. But Boyle sees the world in grey; there are no moral absolutes—especially in survival situations like being stranded in the middle of the Amazon. The narrator’s strategy for survival is clear, he plans to “placate them, stay with the ship and the chance of rescue.”

There is no ambiguity in Hulga and she goes through her life being as offensive as she can be. She is highly educated, but this education turns to arrogance and she holds the simple, “good country people” that her mother adores in utter contempt. This contempt is illustrated one day when a bible salesman shows up at Mrs. Hopewell’s door. This salesman seems to be a simple boy who is selling bibles because he has devoted his life to “Chrustian service.” Mrs. Hopewell invites the young man to stay for dinner once she learns that he has a heart condition just like her Joy. Hulga did not speak to the boy once despite the fact that he had made several attempts at starting conversation. One cannot help but wonder what O’Connor has in store for this arrogant “intelektual.”

But Mrs. Hopewell is surprised when she sees Hulga and the young man walking out to the road together. She is worried about what Hulga may be saying to the boy, and rightfully so. Hulga is an atheist who sees the idea of god and religion as an idea of uneducated, simple, country people. But Hulga has a different motive; she does not care to argue the finer points of religion and theology. She sees this boy as a project, as a conquest, will take this “simpleton” and seduce him. She imagines that after this seduction, the boy will have to contend with his guilt and she will take this guilt and will him a “deeper understanding of life.” But this “simpleton” ends up seducing her. Hulga eventually tells him that she loves him and the boy asks her to prove her love by showing him how to take off her wooden leg. She was shocked by this and “her face instantly drained of color” because she “was as sensitive about the artificial leg as a peacock about his tail.” But when he threatens to leave she shows him where it joins at the knee and shows him how to remove it, which he does and “it was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his.” She feels redeemed, something has happened to her that has never happened before and she imagines running away with him and “that every night he would take the leg off and every morning put it back on again.”

But her arrogance has blinded her to the fact that she is not the smartest person around, that she does not, in fact, have all the answers to life. This is made abundantly clear when the boy reaches into his case and pulls out a flask, a deck of cards with naked women, and a condom. Hulga asks meekly, “aren’t you just good country people?” to which the boy responds, “curling his lip slightly,” that it has not held him back, “I’m as good as you any day in the week.” As the boy takes her leg and glasses she starts screaming at him “You’re a fine Christian.” But the boy is undeterred, lets her know that he does not believe in any of that stuff, and leaves her up in the hay loft without her leg of glasses. Hulga, the great intellectual, the woman who knows exactly how the world works and how people think, is left hopeless and helpless. She is going to be forced to call out to her mother for help. She is going to be seen in her current condition, sitting on the floor blind and immobile. Hulga has been humbled and because of this, is finally ready for her redemption.

Redemption in “Green Hell” comes in a very different way. The narrator reports one day to seeing movement in the dense rainforest. The next morning he reports the discovery of Tanqueray’s and allergic man’s heads dripping on two stakes. The decision to flee is made and the remaining members of the group set off into the thick forest to find civilization. They are quickly attacked by darts as “a sound like a hundred bums spitting in the gutter” comes from the vegetation surrounding them. The narrator has not been hit, but passes out anyway as Andrea fires bullets from a gun found on the plane into the forest.

When he wakes, he finds himself surrounded by a group of naked men gnawing at bones. Each of the men have “their lips distended with wooden disks” and just as he is about to take off running, he sees cat man eating among them. The “Txukahameis,” as the cat man calls them, saved his life. They were fascinated with the beauty of his face, the purple birthmark on his face and made him a “demichief” and exacted his revenge for him. Cat man has decided to save the narrator because “you were the only one who loved my little beauties.” This is not the truth, but it saves his life so he does not argue and one of the members of cat man’s new tribe leads him out of the forest back towards civilization.

“Good Country People” and “Green Hell” both speak to the fact that people are much to complex to be judged in an off-handed way. Hulga’s arrogance towards humanity made her ignorant to the fact that there is always someone smarter and better than you. The narrator was able to go on living because he never judged anyone very harshly. He went through his ordeal with a live and let live attitude and in the end, this attitude saved his life.

Redemption is important to both O’Connor and Boyle, but they approach the idea of redemption in slightly different ways. O’Connor believes that redemption can come only after a person recognizes their faults and asks for forgiveness. It is only after this confession that they can be redeemed and come closer to God.

Boyle differs from O’Connor in his view of redemption. Boyle seems to think, like O’Connor, that redemption can only come after a person recognizes that they need it. But God is not an important part for redemption; Boyle believes that we must find our redemption within ourselves, the environment that we live in, and from the people that live amongst us. Redemption can only come to us if we treat other people and the environment with respect.

Despite these differences, both writers seem to recognize the same things about the path one must walk to be redeemed. Sometimes the protagonist is saved outright, like Mr. Head in “The Artificial Nigger” or the narrator from “Green Hell.” Other times they are destroyed to be built back up later as is the case with O’Connor’s Hulga and Boyle’s Ellen. And there are stories where lessons have been learned, but bad choices made and the path must be walked further.

The message of O’Connor and Boyle, despite their separation in time and geography, is clear: Redemption is gritty, dusty, bloody and real, and while it may be necessary, it can never be assured.


Alighieri, Dante.
The Divine Comedy. Trans. Charles Eliot Norton. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1989.
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