I don’t know about you, but I loathed much of the reading we did in English classes. I know writers are supposed to revere Hemingway, but my exposure to him turned me off him forever. What was the point of that story? Man exhausts himself in an attempt to catch a fish, which gets eaten before he gets back to land. Point.Less. I remember finding To Kill A Mockingbird mildly interesting, but very depressing and again, ultimately without a clear development of the characters.
I did enjoy The Scarlet Letter, O Pioneers and The Great Gatsby. Shakespeare was a battle whether comic or tragic. To this day I can’t shake the mildly heretic suspicion that mostly people quote him because it makes them sound intellectual.
Because of this high school experience, I’ve been leery of literary fiction. As I’ve delved into the writing, I’ve tried to read some literary short stories, because that constitutes the bulk of the market for short fiction. But frequently I’ve ended up rolling my eyes, because–again–I couldn’t see the point. In too many of them, I don’t see characters evolving. They start in a depressing place, and they end in the same darned depressing place.
Lately, however, I’ve been reading Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, and I’ve realized that the point is sometimes larger, and the character’s very lack of growth illustrates it. In The Geranium, the POV character is an old man who is bitterly, inflexibly racist. His only joy is a geranium that sits on the windowsill of the apartment across the alley, and it’s a pretty unattractive joy, loaded down with bitterness and judgment. He never changes. At the end of the story a black man has kindly helped him up the stairs he can’t handle on his own, but the old man is unmoved. He’s still angry, bitter, loaded down with bitterness and racism. And the geranium is broken. The story seems pointless until you realize she’s trying to get at the ugliness of racism, the way it kills the soul.
There is a point, but I don’t think I would have gotten it in high school.
There are moments of heart-catching beauty in Flannery O’Connor’s writing, like this:
“He saw half of the moon five feet away in his shaving mirror, paused as if it were waiting for his permission to enter. It rolled forward and cast a dignifying light on everything. … the face on the moon was a grave one. It gazed on the room and out to the window where it floated over the horse stall and appeared to contemplate itself with the look of a young man who sees his old age before him.” (“The Artificial Nigger,” originally published1955. Now there’s a word I never, ever expected to type.)
Can you say personification? And it’s a foreshadowing, too, because throughout this story she paints the old man and his grandson as mirrors of each other. I don’t have room for an in-depth analysis, but this story was eye-opening for me. You should go read it.
See, I set out to read O’Connor because she was a devout Catholic and her faith defined her writing. I wanted to see how she accomplished that while still writing great literature. But it seemed puzzling, because religion makes so little appearance in these stories. This one, however, ends with a moment of truth in which the grandfather, having pulled a Peter-in-the-courtyard moment on his grandson, recognizes his own brokenness. Recognizes mercy, and reflects on it. And I realized: if you try to write characters who are good people and talk about faith, they’re almost guaranteed to come across as preachy. But write from the POV of really unsavory characters, characters who do and think things that are downright nasty, and those points you want to make seem to make themselves. (Well, probably not, but that’s the artistry at work there; blood sweat and tears made to look effortless.)
After all this, a look at a summary of The Old Man and the Sea makes me realize maybe Hemingway did have a point to make, after all–one about family and persistence and a more modest kind of heroism born of desperation. It made me think–gasp–maybe I need to go read Hemingway again, after all.