May 9, 2005
I am looking at Flannery O’Connor's “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and Helena Viramontes’ “Cariboo Café.” Both of these stories involve a character who is less than upstanding. In the case of both authors, questions about morality and hypocrisy are raised. But the authors also try to make the reader comprehend the confusion that one or more characters experience. Viramontes paints an increasingly fragmented and confusing portrait to make the reader get a taste of hardships of the people she’s writing about. She also uses one of her narrators to show why the problem still exists—and how its resolution may come about. On the other hand, O’Connor shows us two people: an older woman, who believes herself Christian but is not insightful until the end, and an escaped killer who, tortured by good/evil and whether God exists, only believes in his own sense of justice. As dissimilar as the stories are, the technique of decentering through fragmentation is used to drive the reader to first feel the affliction and then to desire change.
In O’Connor’s story, part of the message is that a good person is hard to find if grace is denied. Grace allows one to love others and turn suffering into moral behavior. Grace augurs and facilitates morality, a nonviolent temperament and a love for others.
The Misfit, an escaped criminal, admits to the Grandmother that Jesus did raise the dead, so maybe he does buy Jesus’ claim to be the Savior. But he argues that Jesus shouldn’t have done it. If The Misfit just denied the resurrection, it would make things easier for him, but he has heard the Gospel’s message, and it troubles him. Jesus’ resurrection upsets his sense of self-created (human) justice.
The Grandmother’s faith is tested in the story. The stamp of “good” she tries to apply to The Misfit is just a silly, shallow social notion, one that judges “goodness” as being based on class, breeding and manners. The Grandmother thinks she is a good Christian woman. She thinks herself well-mannered, of proper disposition and a believer in Jesus. The Grandmother, prior to the end of the story, has been a hypocritical, even scheming character in a dysfunctional family.
The Misfit wants justification for his spiritual dilemma. He wants to make sense of the imbalance between his suffering/punishment and the wrongs he’s done. “I call myself The Misfit … because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.” He is a wrongdoer, but also a person who wants answers to the evil that he both feels within and sees in the world. He wants justice, knowledge and to be freed from his quandary.
Again, The Misfit says his name shows he’s aware of the inequality between his actions and the punishment. This confuses him, but he also uses it to claim his difference from the rest of society. His father said he was a “different breed of dog.” His father also said, “It’s some that can live their whole life without asking about it and it’s some has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He’s going to be into everything!” The Misfit claims his difference from people like the Grandmother and her family, who “address” / deal with questions of evil, morality and ethics by ignoring them or responding to them by quoting empty platitudes.
“I don’t want no hep,” The Misfit insists. “I’m doing all right by myself.” He rejects faith in Jesus, but he recognizes that an existence in which actions and consequences are disparate and indecipherable results in an existence wherein logical divisions between good and evil fall apart.
In his refusal, he believes himself an example of moral autonomy and isolation, seen in part by his self-given nickname of “The Misfit.” When the Grandmother calls him “one of my babies” and “one of my own children” and then touches him, her actions threaten his self-label as “The Misfit,” the name he chose to show his difference from regular humanity. He snubs the communal world; also, to him, “justice” is personal, not communal. He said earlier that “children make me nervous.” The Grandmother’s claim of familial association denies his solitary identity and puts him in the community as a child of man, like any other. We may ask if the Grandmother is actually suggesting that he is part of the body of Christ (the believers)? Either way, she has put him in a community as an offspring of others, like everyone else. Her touch is a threat he cannot accept. If he isn’t The Misfit, who is he? A normal, vulnerable, tormented individual—as every person sometimes is. To accept the Grandmother’s kind gesture would be to open himself to two admissions: that of his failure, and of the potential of good in people and society. So he chooses isolation and despair, instead.
The Misfit acts under the delusion that his actions are somehow good (for him). Since he cannot decipher or make sense of his spiritual state, he tries to turn the mystery of morality and good/evil into a pleasure-pain notion. He can’t admit the need of a force, beyond logic and human justice, that is stronger than that of evil.
The Misfit is struck by the grace that is manifested in the Grandmother when she recognizes him as a child of “hers” (so to speak). She has been touched by the grace that comes through The Misfit in his pain. After he has killed her and wiped off his glasses, that grace has affected him, and he says that she would have been a good woman if he had been there every moment of her life. In her act of love, the grandmother for once ‘puts into practice’ the religion she has previously only believed. The change such as the grandmother’s can require a forceful stimulus, hence The Misfit’s statement, “She would of been a good woman … if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” The Grandmother’s touch is the tool through which the grace of God comes and is made known. The Misfit shoots her because he has been affected by divine love, which he has constantly denied exists. But grace has worked in him, because he goes from saying that cruelty is his only pleasure to realizing, “It’s no real pleasure in life.”
By the end of the story, The Misfit and the Grandmother, whose “head cleared for an instant,” have both undergone a transformation. The Misfit’s resembles Saul/Paul’s conversion near Damascus, where Jesus confronted him. The Misfit’s cleaning his glasses is similar to Saul’s blinding and Paul’s regained eyesight and may suggest an improvement in spiritual vision.
Viramontes’ story opens with several images of fragmentation. Displaced people, scared kids, shattered glass, neighbors who talk to themselves, the threat of the immigration police. Images of fragmentation further arise in the first part of the story, told from the point of view of a girl named Sonya. She has lost her apartment key. Sonya and Macky’s sense of not being able to reach home (or Mrs. Avila’s, the other safe haven) makes for not only an external uncenteredness (the hustle-and-bustle of people), but an internal one: Sonya is lost and can’t rely on her memory to help.
Fragmentation in part two is now seen in the form of fragmented families. The son of the cook/owner was killed. The cook’s wife left him. The reader gets a fragmented feeling from the second voice (narrative, that is) and second storyline. Owner/cook: “You know, a cafe’s the kinda business that moves. You get some regulars but most of them are on the move, so I don’t pay much attention to them,” showing his sense of a lack of connection to those around him or of a sense of place. The customers embody fragmentation.
Then even the storyline becomes decentered. No unified storyline; it’s full of half-stories and incomplete descriptions. Flashes of ideas, memories, and disconnected thoughts are passing through the cook’s mind. The cook’s self-interrupting and tense-shifting increases the fragmented feel.
Viramontes brings the reader to the understanding that this reality speaks to and about an increasing audience, as the fragmentation grows as well. In adding that the cook’s son died in the Vietnam War, the scale of fragmentation further increases – now more families are included. The author has widened the scope with scenes of a labyrinthine city, with people separated from one another by individual destinations and/or separated from place and family due to deportation. A fragmented culture is developed in the second part with a café containing people with no place in society. The disjointed narration suggests that this fragmentation is not only extensive but deep.
The cook at the Cariboo Cafe self-righteously says that “children gotta be with their parents, family gotta be together.” At the same time he is about to call the police. He betrays the people and stimulates the fragmentation he complains of.
The third section has narration of a woman looking for her son. She becomes so confused by grief that she confuses a boy for her own missing son and kidnaps him and his sister. The narration begins to fall apart, and switches to third person: “He finally sleeps. So easily, she thinks.” The sudden shift and use of pronouns create a confusion for the reader, echoing the woman’s confusion. The reader wonders who the pronoun “she” refers to—the woman or the sister? The reader is given the answer, but never does the narrating woman find out. Internal fragmentation becomes irreversible and permanent. So does her external confusion at the end, and she is shot in the head by the police.
The female narrator, describing the place where kidnapped children like hers are kept and forced to work, says, “They take turns, sorting out the arms from the legs, heads and torsos. Is that one your mother? one guard asks, holding a mummified head with eyes shut tighter than coffins. But the children no longer cry. They just continue sorting as if they were salvaging cans from a heap of trash.” Disconnection has reached its lowest point, or perhaps its zenith, with children who have been removed from parents. The kids now sort bones that have been separated from each other and their owner’s identity.
But the question is not completely answered: What is really important about both of these texts? What is similar or dissimilar? Both of them have very different intentions, endings and messages. O’Connor’s story suggests that suffering is often a catalyst of grace; evil reveals and gives way to good. The story shows a dysfunctional, petty, downright obnoxious family. The Grandmother, a hypocritical and shallow character, is faced with the imminent threat of death at the hands of a criminal. She has an epiphany, and for the first time ever, realizes what it means to be a loving Christian, rather than just go through the motions of saying that one believes. The Misfit, whom she reaches out to and is subsequently killed by, has led a life governed only by his own distorted sense of justice and confusion about ‘greater truths.’ He has singled himself out from society and believes that, in the absence of anything else (such as religion), meanness is the only source of satisfaction. To him, there are too many mysteries about evil—within him and around him—to be able to believe in an equal or stronger force, such as Jesus and grace. He won’t believe in that which he has no tangible evidence of.
When the Grandmother is dead, she seems finally at peace; she seems to have accepted and received the grace of salvation. She was thrice shot by the criminal, a number that reminds of the Trinity. The Grandmother’s crossed legs remind of the cross; the cloudless sky seems to suggest that the sun now shines down in complete radiance. The Misfit seems to begin to realize that his way of life provides not even hollow satisfaction—grace is his for the taking. The family’s dysfunctional quality, and more importantly The Misfit’s confusion and detachment from society are all types of confusion, turmoil and misunderstanding, and together they form a fragmented image. What O’Connor sees is everyone’s common humanity—people hide behind masks, and are in fact ignorant, lost and prone to fail—and the one salvation, she says, is acceptance of Jesus. And from grandmothers to murderers, that grace is available to all.
By comparison, there is less to say about Viramontes’ story. She too gives a complicated, unsettling and confusing collage of fragments. This mosaic is not just made of the different stories, but of the different narrative voices and tones used. But unlike O’Connor’s story, the fragmentation is not just a quality of the writing but the focus of it. That is, the fact that everything about Viramontes’ story is disjointed is the whole point. And that fragmentation expands almost exponentially throughout the story. One of the two reasons for this use of fragmentation is to show the reader what life was like for the people experiencing it—for example, the immigrants. More importantly, the fragmentation exposes irony and hypocrisy. The cook, wronged when his son is taken from him, does the same to others as almost an “eye for an eye” attitude. He passes on the wrongdoing and breaks up families by betraying them to police. The one woman has been wronged by having her son Geraldo taken from her; she echoes this wrong by convincing herself that someone else’s child is hers and kidnapping him. All of this builds to what seems to be Viramontes’ point—fragmentation in both family and society will exist as long as people continue to vengefully echo the same actions they lament.
In both cases, the fragmentation, the de-centering, of both stories creates in the reader a desire for center. That is what will motivate him to seek truth, salvation and/or change.