To be a woman extends past the anatomical description. Social expectations hinder a woman’s self expression from the moment she, as a newborn, is strangled by a pale pink blanket. In her short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Joyce Carol Oates writes of teenage girl, Connie, who ventures out of the home to understand her true identity. However, exerting a more mature but falsified version of herself in public results in the arrival of Arnold Friend, a symbolic character who reflects Connie’s true subconscious desires. Similarly, in Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Yellow Woman” a nameless protagonist finds herself in the mountains accompanied by a seemingly inhuman male figure as she struggles to distinguish between myth and reality in understanding her identity. Both stories follow young women journeying to ease tension between their subconscious desires and social expectations who, by way of male influence, ultimately recognize a woman’s compulsion is to sacrifice self on behalf of family.
In Oates’ short story, Connie, a fifteen year old girl, struggles to align with the model of a perfect daughter her older sister has set. Twenty-four year old June is described as Connie’s antithesis: “Connie had to hear her [June] praised all the time[...]June did this, June did that, she saved money and helped clean the house and cooked and Connie couldn’t do a thing, her mind was all filled with trashy daydreams” (339). This contrast portrays Connie as a more immature and naive version of a woman, with desires unsupported by her family. Unlike her sister, regarded as a respectable young woman, Connie is vain with her priorities centered around social interaction and her outward appearance. In an effort to ease tension between her own desires and her family’s expectations, Connie develops two identities. Oates describes, “Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home[…]her laugh, which was cynical and drawling at home[…]but high pitched and nervous everywhere else…”(340). Connie’s internal struggle of exploring her maturity in public versus aligning with her family’s ideals at home leads to cognitive dissonance. Her inner conflict between desires of sexual expression and becoming a proper woman is exposed upon the arrival of Arnold Friend.
Similarly, Silko’s “Yellow Woman” follows a nameless protagonist on her quest to self discovery. Silko blurs the lines between myth and reality to highlight the challenges a young woman experiences in expressing her inner desires. The woman begins her mysterious journey by the river, away from her home in the city. There, she is accompanied by a unknown man who suggests she is the Yellow Woman and he is ka’tsina from the myths her grandfather told. Unsure of her identity she pleads, “...and I will be sure I am not the Yellow Woman. Because she is from out of time past and I live now and I’ve been to school and there are highways and pickup trucks that Yellow Woman never saw” (452). This excerpt displays discrepancy between her understanding of myth and reality, as well as a disconnect between the past and the present. This inner disorientation prompts her journey to self discovery. The myth’s connection to both her new identity and her family history forces her to consider the role her family plays in forming her personhood. She fights the notion of being the Yellow Woman in an effort to discover her true self, separate from the family. This idea is also highlighted as she rationalizes leaving home stating, “There are enough of them to handle things. My mother and grandmother will raise the baby like they raised me. Al will find someone else…”(455). As the woman ventures farther away from the city, she becomes more unsure of reality and disinterested in venturing home. Her detachment from the family and specifically her child—always referring to him as “the baby”—reveals her discontent with her current life and explains why she is so drawn to the mystery of the man in the mountains.
On the other hand, the female protagonist in Oates’ story is anything but drawn to the mysterious male figure who, like ka’tsina, attempts to guide her in her journey. Arnold Friend arrives when Connie is home alone. His ability to visualize exactly what her family is doing and the inhuman nature of his description, including pale hole-like eyes , hoof-like feet and a “slippery smile”, points to his personification of the devil (345, 347). When Connie asks of the purpose of his visit, he explains he is her lover and that although she is yet to understand what that means, she soon will (349). This encounter symbolizes Connie facing her subconscious desires for sexual expression. In exerting a maturity publically, she is now forced to recognize the falseness of her portrayal and accept her sexual inexperience. Oates writes, “She put her hands up against her ears as if she’d heard something terrible, something not meant for her”, further proving Connie’s immaturity by describing her childlike reaction to Friend’s proposal (350). Furthermore, Connie’s familiarity with Arnold Friend as shown through the music he plays, the sing-song way he talks, and his symbolic mirrored sunglasses prove he is not simply a representation of the devil, but he is Connie’s own devilish desire in flesh. Friend’s vehicle features the numbers 39, 19, and 17 painted on the side, which point to a biblical verse including the phrase, “Where are you going, and where have you come from?” similar to the title of Oates’ work “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” This allusion fuels the devil connection and is echoed when Connie considers who Arnold Friend is and where he has come from. Oates writes, “...she had the idea that he had driven up the driveway all right but had come from nowhere before that and belonged nowhere and that everything about him and even about the music was so familiar to her that it was only half real” (349). Connie recognizes her similarity to Friend; he hasn’t come from anywhere because he is within her. Representing her desires and belonging nowhere, Connie’s description of Friend points to the absence of complete self expression for women in society as they are too often defined by the male gaze.
Comparatively, the mysterious mountain man aligns himself with the mythical figure ka’tsina who lures woman from the city to the mountains. Silko uses indirect characterization to yield a dreamlike portrayal of the man stating, “I stared past him at the shallow moving water and tried to remember the night, but I could only see the moon in the water and remember his warmth around me” (451). The warmth the protagonist feels reveals her sexual connection and attraction to the strength and control of this inexplicable being. However, lack of his physical description and repetition of his disappearances and reappearances contributes to a spirit-like characterization as opposed to an actual human being. Struggling to discover her own identity, the woman ponders her relationship with the man. Her repressed subconscious desires are exposed in her decision to stay with the man, engaging in an inappropriate affair. She describes her inner discord by stating, “I walked beside him, breathing hard because he walked fast, his hand around my wrist. I had stopped trying to pull away from him, because his hand felt cool…”(452). In exerting control over the woman, the spirit leads her along her journey, and she chooses to follow. She is entranced by his presence, ironically experiencing more freedom than her family obligations allowed at home. His hold on her points to a woman’s role in society. She must be guided by a man to come to discovery; discovery that is not her own.
In both stories, symbolism contributes to the character’s understanding. Music accompanies Connie throughout her journey evolving as she faces her subconscious desires in the form of Arnold Friend. Music contributes to the overall mood throughout the text. Prior to the arrival of Arnold Friend the music is dependable (340) but when he arrives playing the same station she was listening to, the mood shifts as the music intensifies. This intensity allows Connie to realize that the sexual expression she sought was not what she truly wanted to receive. In the end of Oates’ short story, Connie must decide whether to leave with Arnold Friend, saving her family member’s lives, or wait for their return.
Similarly, in “Yellow Woman” the river symbolizes the woman’s journey to self discovery. Rivers are archetypal for cleansing and bringing new life. Thus, beginning and ending her journey using the river as a guiding force symbolizes the woman’s spiritual renewal upon leaving the city and enlightenment on her way home. Arriving home, she finds her family performing their typical tasks: making dinner and tending to the child. There is a sense of confinement in the cyclical nature of these practices that the narrator is unsatisfied with, but she enters anyway.
Both women venture out from entrapment in the home to an outer world of experience and freedom in an effort to understand their identity and unobstructed desires. By interacting with inhuman male forces, they come to a realization about what it means to become a woman. Connie and the “yellow woman” encounter their sinful desires, leading them to abandon their true identities in an effort to become socially acceptable women. Although they are unsatisfied with the social expectations that bind them to the female condition, like staying in the home or being a proper young woman, they recognize womanhood is rooted in sacrifice. To become a woman is to sacrifice self.
Oates, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Seagull Reader: Stories. 4th ed., edited by Joseph Kelly, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 338-355.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. “Yellow Woman.” Seagull Reader: Stories. 4th ed., edited by Joseph Kelly, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 450-459.
Up the stairs, tucked in the corner, and buried beneath past memories printed on paper and old phone bills is my family’s treasure chest. Contrasted against the hallways eggshell walls, the chest proudly stands adorning it’s chipped, cartoon puke paint which may be an eye sore to anyone else but my family who only sees a priceless family heirloom. Because what is beneath those ugly walls are hundreds of photos, drawings, baby clothes, and souvenoirs that all weave together to tell a tale of who my family is, even if I wasn’t there to see it. And when I open this treasure chest, and am greeted by an assault of cigarettes only my great grandmother could have smoked I am reminded of who I am today because of where I come from. In the stories, Everyday Use and What You Pawn I Will Redeem, the authors Alice Walker and Sherman Alexie both effectively warn readers of the dangers of ignorance and the significance of heritage by using stark characterization, vivid symbols, and powerful epiphanies to illustrate harmful social constructs rooted within each character and more importantly ourselves.
In Everyday Use, the nameless narrator invites us to step into her shoes as a mother and see how different her two daughters have grown from the humble beginnings they have originated. While Dee is beautiful, well-educated, confident, bold, and condescending, Maggie is the exact opposite. Juxtaposed against her sister’s brazen personality and clothes, Maggie is young, timid, ugly, scarred, barely literate, and discouraged by life. By comprising Maggie of undesirable qualities, the author intentionally makes our protagonist someone who invokes empathy as we are able to easily root for Maggie. And when she is described as a “lame… dog… run over by some careless person rich enough to own a car,”(482) we are forced to contemplate how a young woman like Maggie, whose literacy proves her potential, could already be beaten down by life. The author intentionally does not reveal where Maggie’s scars come from as they symbolize past trauma suffered by African Americans. While Dee urges Maggie to forget about the past and make something of herself she is blind to the lasting effects of these scars which persist through generations. When our bodies are hurt beyond repair we grow scars. Scars are violent, heartbreaking, ugly and most importantly beg to be seen and acknowledged. But just like her name, Dee denies Maggie of the recognition her trauma deserves and thus Maggie nor anyone can truly move on as scars may be covered but can never heal.
Just as Maggie bears her scars, Jackson Jackson in “What You Pawn I Will Redeem’ bears his own which traces farther than his own origins in Spokane, Washington. In the beginning of the story, Jackson belittles himself as simply an alchoholic and a homeless man. Although the author later reveals the many positive qualities the protagonist has, such as education and wit, we are forced to see that all of these traits are futile to a society that just like Jackson will only see a homeless alchoholic. In parallel to Walker, Alexie abstains from giving a cause for these imperfections, as the reader is again prompted to examine if these problems run deeper than just Jackson’s individual story. The author even goes as far to conspicuosly state that Jackson is the “After Columbus Arrived Indian... living proof of the horrible damage that colonialism has done to us Skins,”(10). Just as Maggie is stagnant due to existing societal constructs, Jackson is stuck living his life as a symbol of the consequences of America’s pillaging and more importantly the dangers of unawareness. His alchoholism and homelessness represent his own scars which condemn him to a “terrible fate of a noble savage (9). A fate destined through racism and greed that has caused horrendous events such as the Trail of Tears and continues to harm and oppress generations to come by a society that blinds itself to the lasting scars that have endured through their own ignorance.
In “Everyday Use” the main conflict is driven by which sister deserves the quilt that has been forged from their past ancestors and their clothes. By placing each sister at opposite ends of the fighting ring, we are presented with two possible paths and more importantly two opposite views of heritage. Dee asserts that the quilt should be placed in a musuem where it can be displayed and looked at but never used or really acknowledged. But while Dee sees the quilt as a work of art that’s purpose is to be displayed for the elitist of society, Maggie is able to recognize that her family’s quilt represents far more than a pretty object. She sees her grandmother and grandmother’s grandmother and not only their clothes but the lives they fought to live in those garments and the life she has because of it. And although Maggie understands these quilts and her heritage are made to be used and appreciated each and every day she also posseses the knowledge that she doesn’t need those quilts at all to understand the meaning of heritage. To know that we cannot shield ourselves from the triumphs and massacres of our history but rather must embrace our past despite it’s ugliness.The author presents the reader with two paths: a life guided by blindness leaving you in the dark or one where everyday you are brought back into the light.
When Jackson stumbles upon his grandmother’s lost regalia in the pawn shop, this call to action sets in motion a quest that will unknowingly change the narrator forever. As Jackson meets new people and shares his stories while listening to others, the author shows us the importance of storytelling but also listening. By hearing these joyous, heartbreaking, triumphant, and hilarious stories from people of all different backgrounds we are not only reminded of the shared humanity that lives in all of us but the beautifully unique details about ourselves that make our stories vital to tell. The yellow bead on the regalia represents an ugly truth that mars each story we tell. But yet just like each tragedy that marks our history, this yellow bead cannot be ignored or shunned as it’s place on the regalia is what redeems Jackson in the end. Through each story that is recited and consumed, Jackson is able to claim a part of his heritage he never knew he lost. In the end, what has more importantly been gained from this noble quest was not his grandmother’s regalia but the community that was built from just one man who gave a little bit of himself to everyone whom he met, even if there was nothing left to give, while trying to reclaim a small part of himself that maybe each Native American had also lost. Once Jackson has learned the value of the community that has always existed in Seattle and America, Jackson is able to finally redeem what had been stolen from him. But just as Maggie does not need her family’s quilt to feel her ancestor’s will coarsing through her blood, Jackson finally doesn’t need the regalia to feel the presence of his heritage that lives within himself and the people and stories he has gained along the way.
However what is more importantly learned through the readers shared jubilation of our protagonist’s victories and realizations is what we take away from our own lives from these timeless and sacred texts. Although it is easy to distance ourselves from these obvious evils pointed out in these tales, each author asks of us to contemplate our role in history and more significantly, what action we can take to correct the athe wrongs our society has ignored. In Everyday Use”, the author gives our protagonist and narrator a happy ending as both are give a peace from the epiphanies that have been learned. But as Dee slides her sunglasses on and embarks back into the darkness to find an identity she may never know, we are asked to question our own blindness. Are we recognizing our heritage, scars or all, or attempting to cover a history that cannot be shunned? In contrast, the ending of “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” begs us to invest in just a little kindness and maybe hope in a humanity that our protagonists have both lost hope in. To lend an ear to a few strangers you see on the docks or to break bread and feast even when you have nothing left to give. In the end, both stories gives us their own twisted versions of hope, of a world that may still have tragedy, scars, rags, and misplaced orange beads but ultimately leaves you with a breathtaking piece of history that above all else shows truth and honor.
In the age of “Time’s Up” and the “Me, Too” movement, where women are no longer speaking idly from the sides but shouting from the front lines of the long ongoing battle against inequality, we often find ourselves caught up in the importance of “the now.” Focusing on the current climate of our surroundings is dire, especially in a society where devastating political moves and heart-breaking tragedies can develop within the span of minutes, if not less. That being said, too often do we neglect reflecting on the past and the perspectives it offers to us present day, and how these opinions might aide us in making further strides forward. In looking towards pieces of literature that precede us, we can often find messages that ring true even in today’s society, all the while offering us the ability to grasp the value said piece had in changing the narrative during the time in which it was published. In the contexts of their time, two such short stories do just that; “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and “A Rose for Emily,” by William Faulkner. Despite their very different approaches, these two stories, through their dual uses of point of view and characterization, expose the dangers of patriarchal oppression that women face as a result of the male gaze (what is more modernly known as “mansplaining”).
First published in 1892, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, shares a tale that is deeply rooted in the real-life experiences of the author herself. In this short story, we follow the often-questionable perspective of the Narrator as she spends three months in what she initially believes is a summer home, but eventually comes to realize, that it is in fact, an asylum. The way in which the Narrator is characterized, and often views herself, is based solely on the perspectives those closest to her outwardly project. Her husband, the one responsible for her “diagnosis” and further hospitalization, is the prime example of such outward characterization. He regards her in a fatherly, if not condescending, manner, often depicted laughing at her, managing all of the decisions surrounding her “condition,” and referring to her with names such as “little girl” and “blessed little goose” (171, 180,175). Initially, the Narrator views her husband’s micromanaging and dismissiveness as the manifestation of his love and concern as both husband and doctor. She believes that his opinions about her health are based in sound reasoning, and that leads her to adopt the view of weakness and instability projected by him. However, as the story progresses and her surroundings bring on a further loss of conscious awareness, this seeming deterioration comes to serve as a catalyst for her epiphany. As she recedes further into her mind, she begins to voice discontent with the way in which John treats her, as well as the conditions in which she is held. At the peak of her insanity, which just so happens to be her last day in “treatment,” she fights back against her husband and the patriarchal tones he has come to represent. After throwing out the key in an unsuccessful attempt to keep her husband away, she boasts to him about being able to “[get] out at last” (187). In spite of her instability, the last interaction we as readers view between the Narrator and John, speaks a large deal to the change in self-image that she came to adopt in response to her loss of reality. Where once she was characterized as a weak woman in needed of a man’s coddling and “expert” opinions, the Narrator comes to experience a full metamorphosis into a woman aware of the patriarchal expectations that not only plague her marriage, but society as a whole.
Unlike most other stories where we tend to put our wholehearted faith into the narrator’s ability to accurately tell their story, the Narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” presents a challenge to the typical method in which we read. Due to the instability that the Narrator faces as a result of her lackluster conditions and neglectful treatment, we as the audience are met with the choice of whether or not to trust the credibility of her writings, and furthermore, the point of view presented. Despite this, we find ourselves rooting for the character to overcome. As we follow the character through her stay at this “mansion,” we begin to realize that although her point of view is shrouded in faulty foundations, not giving her the benefit of the doubt only furthers the same patriarchal tendencies seen in John and those assisting him in her caretaking. The point of view in and of itself has come to represent an unfortunate trend many women today are all too familiar with; a tendency to be dismissed and deemed un-credible by their peers both male and female. By putting our faith in the Narrator and following along as she comes to realize the misogyny and mansplaining that has come to define her, as well as how her realization has come to represent her release, we are able to come to an epiphany ourselves, one that allows us to grow and be more aware of the judgements and deductions we are often quick to make, especially in regards to believing the stories of the abused.
In William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily,” we see a very different take on the way in which characterization is utilized. Unlike that of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the characterization of our main character Emily Grierson is not interpreted by her own internal monologue, but rather that of those who also occupy her town. To the people around her, Emily represents something of an outsider. Her age and reclusive behavior make her an enigmatic entity, and this causes those around her to be wary. Despite their wariness, the townspeople view Emily with an air of pity that has come from the unorthodox relationship between her and her father, depicted in the form of a tableau; in said “piece”, her father is depicted as an overpowering black silhouette figure in the forefront of the image, horsewhip in hand, his back towards his daughter of white who occupies the background (158). His need to have control over her and keep her bound to him and him alone, alludes to the patriarchy that has come to deteriorate and create an unstable foundation to Emily, a fact becomes more prominent as time continues to roll forward, and she represents as much the house she has become prisoner to, as its outward appearance has come to characterize her. As the conditions of the house continue to worsen, from the rot and “dust and disuse” (155) that has come just as much from earth bound means as the patriarchal society that bound Emily to its floorboards, the townspeople begin to express an irritation towards Emily’s inability to “do what a woman should do.” Although this isn’t an outwardly voiced thought, their assumptions are apparent in the continued meddling in her personal life, and the irritation that is voiced in response to her house’s condition (157). This fear of “other” that the people around her experience directly stems from the patriarchal practice of filling in the blanks of someone else’s story and dismissing them to the outside; a practice that directly diminishes Emily to the near apparition she has become (158).
Although the points of view of these two stories are completely different, with “A Rose for Emily” using the uncommon form of first-person plural, both stories’ methods of narration carry a lack of trust in the narrator(s) itself. Whereas the Narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” faces an assumption of unreliability as a result of the patriarchy that has put her into such a state of instability, the narrator in “A Rose for Emily” poses itself as an untrustworthy narrator not because of an oppression it experiences, but because it represents the monologue and thoughts that come as a result of a society crippled by the patriarchy. The townspeople that make up this point of view project their opinions and thoughts onto Emily so thoroughly, that she comes to represent a medium from which their stigmas can be cast upon and thrive. The ability of our narrator to reduce Emily down to just the pity and suspicion that surrounds her perceived “otherness,” is ironically the system in which the author is able to critique the institution of patriarchy. By creating a narrator that views Emily through the eyes of the male gaze and speaks through the art of mansplaining, Faulkner is able to evoke a feeling of empathy towards Emily that causes the audience to turn against the narrator. We root for her to overcome the patriarchal limits that bind, yet we find that like the Narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the means at which she takes back this power is not truly sound, and in this case, quite morbid, playing towards the substantial damage that prolonged patriarchal practices can create.
In a world where teenagers are able to have conversations within the confines of their cellphones, and movements can make real change overnight, the importance of referring to the perspectives and literature from the past is critical. The critiques of misogyny brought on by the authors of both “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “A Rose for Emily” carry messages that still hold significance today and can be used to push for further progress in the fight for equality.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily” Seagull Reader: Stories. 4th ed., edited
by Joseph Kelly, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 154-163.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper” Seagull Reader: Stories. 4th ed., edited
by Joseph Kelly, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 171-187.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” a tortured nobleman fails to recognize his own guilt in the aftermath of the gruesome murder he has committed. Similarly, a haughty Grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor possesses an inflated sense of pride that prevents her from seeing the bitter truth about herself. However, only one of these achingly human characters are prepared for redemption at the denouement of the tales. Both “The Cask of Amontillado” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” examine flawed characters who journey toward redemption. Poe’s miserable Montresor struggles to rationalize away his sins and ends up suffering wretchedly. In contrast, O’Connor’s vain Grandmother recognizes her own shortcomings, and, consequently, navigates to grace.
O’Connor defines grace in the context of Catholicism: we are all sinners and in need of the grace of God in order to receive forgiveness. In other words, grace is to give someone something they may not deserve on the basis of forgiveness. But first, the person must admit to making human mistakes. Montresor, the first person narrator of “The Cask of Amontillado,” most definitely fulfills the first part of O’Connor’s definition of grace: he has sinned terribly. At the beginning of his tale, Montresor reveals his tendency to exaggerate by claiming that he has been inflicted by “The thousand of injuries of Fortunato” (402). Montresor rationalizes he has been harmed an innumerable amount of times by a man “to be respected and even feared” that he ironically calls his “friend” (402). The reader can identify how his jealousy toward Fortunato is a subset of his own pride. Montresor’s confession is suspicious even as it spills out. Moreover, he is lying to himself about the severity of his actions. Montresor’s nervous chatter reveals his attempts to rationalize or even escape the situation: “Come, we will go back ere it is too late. Your cough—” (405). These revealing words evoke a feeling of unease. Montresor is battling his conscience as he carefully manipulates Fortunato into a state of vulnerable drunkenness. Will he continue to carry out his plan or turn back? Waving away his uncertainty, Montresor praises Fortunato: “You are rich, respected, admired, beloved [...]” and continues to shower Fortunato with empty flattery as he leads him to his inevitable death (404). At this point, Montresor is not a worthy candidate for grace as defined by O’Connor. He spins lies to lure Fortunato toward his death, and is in fierce denial of how what he is doing and what he has done are wrong.
In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the reader is placed in Grandmother’s shoes as she leads her family astray on a road trip gone bad. Like Montresor, she is in dire need of grace but maintains fatal flaws centered around hubris. She is obsessed with being a “lady” and wears “a navy blue straw sailor hat” to prove it (375). In addition, the not-so-innocent Grandmother spins lies and manipulates her family into getting her way: “‘There was a secret panel in this house,’ she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing she were” (380). This seemingly harmless attempt at getting them off track snowballs into the eventual death of the Grandmother and the five passengers. In other words, Grandmother initiates the chaos that ensues. Throughout the tale, Grandmother uses both flattery and exaggeration to distort the truth. Her deceptive techniques are similar to Montresor’s; Grandmother lies to herself. Moreover, she promotes herself as a lady, though a lady does not deceive small children to get her way. For instance, she promises the family “‘It would be very educational for them [the children]’” when trying to convince the family to go off route (381). In reality, she simply wants to revisit an old house. In addition, Grandmother lies to the Misfit after the shocking accident which left their truck in a ditch, claiming, “‘We turned over twice!’” when they had turned only once (383). The Grandmother embellishes her account of the accident before the Misfit while hiding her role in causing the crash. She flatters the Misfit relentlessly, attempting to convince herself and him that “‘You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?’” (384). The Grandmother creates a disaster—her family has been murdered and she begs that the Misfit not shoot her simply on account that she is a lady. Her flawed thinking and obsession with class has not prepared her for grace quite yet.
This kind of misguided thinking leads to Montresor's ultimate downfall as well. As Montresor lures Fortunato deeper into the ominous catacombs, Poe provides a possible motive for Montresor’s revenge. When Fortunato makes a “gesticulation I [Montresor] did not understand,” Fortunato replies “‘Then you are not of the brotherhood’” (405). Fortunato is of the secret society of Freemasons, while Montresor pridefully claims he is a stonemason (a person who builds using stones). He uses this title ironically, as a retort for Fortunato’s skepticism of him being a mason at all. Perhaps the “Thousand injuries” Fortunato is guilty of inflicting relate to him not inviting Montresor into the Freemason society. This would certainly hurt Montresor’s pride, and may even make him jealous enough to seek revenge! In addition, Poe inserts symbolic action in his story as ironic foreshadowing after Fortunato exclaims “‘You? Impossible! A [free] mason?’” (405). Montresor responds indignantly by “producing a trowel from beneath the folds of my roquelaire ” (406). Montresor’s trowel will soon gain great significance as the weapon used to kill Fortunato. Ironically, he is using the trowel to identify himself as a mason when it will also mark him as a killer. Though Montresor carried out his petty revenge, building his victim into a wall and leaving him to die, Montresor did not ultimately triumph. In fact, he had a brief moment of clarity during which his “heart grew sick—” (408). With this small admission, Montresor reveals his own self-hatred and guilt over Fortunato’s murder. He is finally acknowledging that his actions were extreme, and he is overcome with regret. However, he denies his own remorse, indicated by a “—”, by blaming his sick-feeling heart “on account of the dampness of the catacombs” (408). If Montresor had admitted his guilt, he may have achieved a different reality, one in which his suffering is replaced with forgiveness. Montresor fails to accept his sins—his deep jealousy, lying, and killing—and therefore is not looked upon kindly by the heavens. Though Montresor claims to “punish with impunity,” he receives personal punishment for his actions (402). Montresor has agonized over the murder for 50 years, the ironic opposite of a killer who claims to have impunity.
While Montresor was punished by his repressed conscience, the Grandmother in O’Connor’s story still has a chance at redemption. O’Connor urges the reader to look further than the bloody result of Grandmother’s mistake by revealing her humanity. Furthermore, O’Connor describes grace as being given to “the imperfect, purely human and even hypocritical” (374). Is Grandmother not a perfect example of a flawed human being? She exaggerates, she’s deceitful, and she is stuck in her own arrogance. After they encounter the Misfit, “The grandmother reached up to adjust her hat brim [...] but it came off in her hand” (385). This symbolic action indicates that her idea of her being a lady is shattered. Her ego, represented by her hat, begins to fall apart as she pleads for mercy before the Misfit. Moreover, moments before she is shot by the Misfit, the Grandmother has an epiphany: her “head cleared for an instant [...] “‘Why, you’re [the Misfit) one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’” (389). The reader has felt antagonistic toward Grandmother this whole time, mainly because she thinks she is a saint. However, when she names the Misfit as one of her own children, she recognizes that she may be on the same level as he is, a known murderer. Finally, she sees herself truthfully, and in her death, “her face is smiling up at the cloudless sky” (390). The cloudless sky is symbolic of a clear path for her to heaven, indicating that she is redeemable through acknowledging that she is not a impeccable lady. While Montresor pushes away this realization and exists in his own personal hell, the Grandmother is worthy of grace in the end.
In these two short stories, the main characters have deep flaws that prevent them from reaching personal redemption. Montresor of “The Cask of Amontillado” rationalizes away his sins and faces 50 years of punishment. In contrast, the Grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” recognizes that she is not the lady she claims to be, and is therefore redeemable and a candidate for grace. Both tales explain how the difference between accepting and denying one’s flaws can determine whether a person is destined for heaven or for hell. As a contemporary reader, we notice how each story emphasizes the importance of being honest rather than jealous or prideful. Both authors leave us with a sense of urgency: in life, aim for self-redemption rather than revenge. The fates of these two characters present cautionary guidance on being truthful in our daily lives as grace only comes to those who admit their faults.
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Seagull Reader: Stories. 4th ed., edited by Joseph Kelly, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 374-390.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Cask of Amontillado.” Seagull Reader: Stories. 4th ed., edited by Joseph Kelly, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 401-408.