Friday’s Flannery is a series of posts on Flannery O’Connor’s short stories.
A Stroke of Good Fortune is a masterful little story. By no means Flannery’s most popular, it strikes at the heart of post War American aspirations and the spiritual challenges that accompany them. Ruby Hill is another of Flannery’s tortured souls. As with most of her sorry characters, Ruby’s miseries are produced by a bad interaction between her state in life and her refusal to understand and accept it gracefully. Her ambitions are patently American and modern rather than specifically Southern. Ruby is caught up in self pity over her daily routine of walking eight blocks each way for groceries and having to carry them up four flights. In her head spin aspirations of one-storied suburban life, a novelty in 1949. She pines for the “good life,” desperately seeking to avoid the miseries of her mother who bore eight children and lost several along the way. She is proud of having mastered her fertility which in her mind is both wise and progressive.
Progress and Sin
Many of Flannery’s stories address the idea of progress and contrast it with eternal verities. In A View of the Woods, she contrasts the pursuit of money and power represented by progress with the values of family and the beauty of nature. Some of her characters dismiss Catholicism as medieval and backward. Flannery almost always presents the modern and the progressive as instances of certain deadly sins including Greed, Jealousy, Gluttony and Pride. In A Stroke of Good Fortune, we see again that it is a most venial character that has the most affinity with modern life.
Fertility and Children
Ruby Hill has been apparently scarred by her mother’s life which she views as tragic. We have no knowledge of how her mother viewed her own life—and her mother’s understanding of her own life doesn’t seem to concern Ruby. Ruby paints her mother not so much as a full person but as a victim of the mere facts of her life—children. And that is how Ruby views herself as well. It never occurs to her that whatever her daily burdens like carrying groceries eight blocks and up flights may be, they are shared by her neighbors whose joys in life she seems unable to gain access to. While Ruby attributes her misery to living in a remote walk up apartment, it does not occur to her that these facts have not similarly broken her neighbors. It does not occur to her that her neighbors with children are not nearly so miserable as she without them.
Ruby meets three people on her ascent of the stairs. Each is vivid, lighthearted, joyful. Their joy serves to make Ruby’s existential unhappiness all the more pronounced. She finds each of them an annoyance which throws off her precarious emotional balance. With each her desperation grows.
He’s a six year old neighbor boy. Ruby holds him in contempt and cannot see the joy he is to his mother. To his mother, a widow with nothing to show for her marriage but the boy, sees in him only good fortune and calls him her “Little Mr. Good Fortune”—a foreshadowing of Ruby’s own good fortune to come.
Mr. Jerger and the Fountain of Youth
This man is indeed a frustration for Ruby and perhaps for anybody. But at 78 years he is amazingly spry, mentally acute and takes a delight in life. Whereas Ruby dreads her walks to the store, he happily takes daily walks, greets children and has a playful spirit with those around him. More than twice Ruby’s age he indeed seems to have found, at least relative to her, the fountain of youth.
Mr. Jerger an apparent history buff springs on Ruby a history question neither she nor the average person would know the answer to. He goads her for the nearly impossible answer. To him it appears something light hearted and fun, but she dreads such an encounter–her mind closed to everything but her obsessive dreams of an easier life and her present discomforts. Intellectual curiosity and fascination, and the isolation it likely caused an educated Flannery amid the very practically minded farmer folk of rural Georgia, is a recurring theme in her stories. Often her intellectuals are themselves miserable people such as the sons in Everything that Rises Must Converge and the Enduring Chill, and the daughters in Good Country People and Revelation. However, in this story, the intellectually interested Mr. Jerger has something those characters lacked—a spiritually rooted joy indicated by his wise remark that he had found the fountain of youth in his heart. An intellect without the spiritual wisdom of the heart is prone to make one cynical, she appears to assert. Flannery once confided that without her faith, she would have likely been a bitter and mean person like Good Country People’s Joy who called herself Hulga.
The Fountain of Youth reference might also call to mind the Gospel story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in John 4. He says to the Samaritan woman in vs. 14, “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Ruby is momentarily interested in the fountain of youth until she learns it is something spiritual. Then she moves on, illustrating that her problems and disillusions are essentially spiritual in nature.
Ruby’s friend seems to have little compassion for her ailments and seems to be having fun a Ruby’s expense throughout their exchange. Laverne, like Mr. Jerger and Hartley has a playful spirit and Ruby’s is anything but playful this day. Laverne is the one who finally says to Ruby what probably everyone else already sees—that Ruby is pregnant. Ruby of course fights this insight almost as if she would prefer to be ill than a mother.
Rufus never actually appears in the story, though we learn more of him than any other single character. Ruby’s baby brother is the object of her scorn for having shown no ambition, nor any cultural sophistication after serving in the European Theater (as if he’d spent the war on stage). One thinks he might being suffering what was then called shell-shock or post traumatic stress. She judges him harshly without a whit of comprehension or compassion for his predicament. Her estimation of him seems to be utterly self serving as her concern is less for him than how he might reflect badly on her in the eyes of others. She appears to have no insight into the sacrifices he has made for his country, for her. Sacrifice and service are a dimension of life to which she appears completely blind.
The Stairs and the Mystical Journey.
Until the end of the story, Ruby’s principle antagonist is not a person, but the stairway. She had four flights to climb and twenty-eight steps in each flight. Her steps represented to her a backward way of life, quite un-modern, onerous and unavoidable. That the stairway may have some religious significance is hinted when it occurs to Ruby that they reminded her of a steeple staircase. A stairway as a religious symbol represents the effort and discipline necessary for one to make spiritual progress. Two images in particular come to mind, Jacob ’s Ladder and the Ascent of Mount Carmel. Jacob’s Ladder is a common Negro Spiritual, the kind of song that helped form the religious consciousness of Flannery’s “Christ haunted” South. It depicts the progress of the company of saints ascending to heaven by way of Jacob’s Ladder, each one a “soldier of the cross.” The discipline, submission and self sacrifice implied by both soldiering and the cross are the very spiritual qualities that Ruby Hill has dedicated her life to avoiding. She seeks comfort while the circumstances of her life demand exactly the virtues she detests and which are necessary for progress in the spiritual life.
Ruby Hill’s very name, which points to Calvary, suggests that a painful ascent is central to her fate. Flannery herself was forced by the circumstances of her own life to bear physical suffering and isolation. Her Catholic faith taught her to see, though with difficulty, the hidden blessing in her travails which formed her own particular path toward holiness and the divine. In short, Flannery’s faith taught her to become rather grudgingly a kind of modern day mystic. St. John of the Cross’s spiritual writings are defined by the paradoxes of Christ’s death and resurrection and expressed by him throughout the gospels. “The one who would lose his life would save it.” “No greater love is there than to lay down ones life for his friends.”
The Saint is famous for his mystical teaching that to gain everything, one must seek to possess nothing. That is, to be happy, to have a full rich and meaningful life one must sacrifice themselves in love for others and for God. Ruby is an excellent depiction of a person whose self absorption is stifling her spiritual growth and ultimately her own happiness. While standing for progress, she strives for a self contained contentment which glories in itself while disparaging all others. From a Christian perspective she is spiritually dead.
Cancer, Death, Childbearing, Life
Ruby’s second greatest fear is that she is dying of cancer. She is too young to die, she thinks. The thought of the possibility of a grave illness fills her with dread. But, it does not fill her with so much dread as the possibility that she might be pregnant. She cannot bring herself to conceive of this possibility. For to conceive a child was to her a failure to be progressive and a plunge into her mother’s misery, which she prided herself on having avoided. Little does Ruby know that death and life are inextricably intertwined. For, to give one’s life is not to die but to live more fully. Dying to sin and to self is the Christian’s path to eternal life. The sacrifices that motherhood will require of her are the very painful “stroke of good fortune” which awaits poor Ruby.
Flannery published this story for the first time in 1949. Viewing it from a post sexual revolution perspective, we might guess that her allusions to birth control were prescient. But, they were not. While such a topic was not brought up in polite company in this era, several social factors which made it an important moral question at the time (including the return of soldiers from the war) and one on which Protestants and Catholics differed impressively both in moral doctrine and in practice.
Margaret Sanger, the early proponent of family planning and later abortion and racially motivated eugenics and a former Catholic herself, was haunted by her interpretation of her mother’s life as one weighed down by a large brood of demanding children. She regarded her mother’s condition as ultimately demeaning, though there is no evidence that her mother in fact shared this opinion of her own life. Ruby and her mother in the story are quite likely patterned after Sanger and her mother. Sanger’s progressivism had great impact on the moral thinking of the era most notably in the Anglican Church’s blessing of the practice of birth control within marriage at the Lambeth Conference in 1930 followed by all other mainline Protestant denominations soon thereafter. By 1949, the difference in family size between practicing Catholics and their Protestant counterparts was remarkable and already much commented upon. Fortified by the effectiveness of the pill in the mid-60’s, the sexual revolution and women’s liberation from domesticity flourished not only among Protestants but then also for the first time among the great majority of Catholics. Thus, only after Flannery’s death did the visible discrepancy between Protestant and Catholic family size begin to diminish. Thus, Flannery is writing at the height of this critical difference in the family lives of Catholics and Protestants.
This story can be understood as a kind of Catholic judgment on the self centered life implied by the contraceptive mentality. This judgment remains implicit in the Catholic Church’s teaching today but is mostly not discussed by American Catholics in the post sexual revolution period as it demands the very virtue of self sacrifice, laying down ones life for ones children and for family, which most young professional urban Catholics today eschew.
As one who was intellectually absorbed with Catholic moral reasoning and who read broadly in the field, Flannery was no doubt well versed in the Church’s teachings on sexuality and its implications for the spiritual life.
A Stroke of Good Fortune, 60 years after it was first published, still reads fresh for it addresses the as yet unresolved contradictions in modern life such as the meaning of children. Are they a plague in a world besought with overpopulation or a blessing from God? Are they more joy or burden? Is the meaning of life the pursuit of material comforts and status or is satisfaction ultimately to be found in self sacrificing love? Can our sufferings in life be more than curses or means to draw us out of ourselves and toward an all embracing God? Is our ultimate goal in life self satisfaction or the satisfaction of Divine desire that is holiness? As always Flannery’s Catholic imagination sees the sacred acting through the profane and drawing us back toward God.