3 Category 3: ENGL 2020/2030
Elisabeth Johnson; Rachel Booher; and Carissa Culpepper
Delusions, Extremism, and the South
Awarded to Elisabeth Johnson for work submitted in 2020 to Amy Fant in ENGL 2020: Themes in Literature and Culture
Although the short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’ Connor and the film The Night of the Hunter by James Agee both center on a serial killer, the motive behind these murderous characters remains vastly different. The works offer us two contrasting perspectives of religion in the South. While both represent different aspects of reality, they clash so obviously that it is not hard to imagine where the Southern gothic genre got its inspiration for the tumultuous and deplorable stories it brings to life. Each ideology brings its own set of disturbing theories to the table, with neither resulting in a desirable ending. Just as it is unfathomable that such differing ideologies could exist in such close quarters, it is perplexing to think that two vastly different sets of beliefs could lead down the same path of murder and destruction.
The Misfit in O’ Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” has lost faith in the world. He is a nihilist and does not believe that religion would allow him to be saved from his own turmoil. His pessimism about society becomes evident when he states, “Yes’m [sic], somebody is always after you,” indicating that he does not entirely feel in control of his own life’s path (O’ Connor 43). He implies that even if he were to change his ways, the world would still find a way to bring him down. This reflects his nihilistic point of view because he demonstrates that even his own behavior has no significant impact on his life. Later on, the Misfit expands on this theory by conveying a prior revelation that “the crime don’t matter […] because sooner or later you’re going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it” (O’ Connor 44). This disturbing take that actions and consequences do not hold a linear relationship explains at a surface level why he acts with such reckless abandon. The Misfit moves on to more direct dissent from religion by clarifying, “Jesus thown [sic] everything off balance” (O’ Connor 45). He compares himself and his punishment to Jesus, decrying religion for causing societal issues but implying that Jesus himself was a victim of religion as well. To the Misfit, Jesus’s death is evidence that one’s own actions do not necessarily reflect the punishments he will suffer throughout his lifetime.
The Night of the Hunter features a vastly more religious leading character with an even more relentless mentality. Harry Powell, a self-described preacher, is the epitome of Christianity gone wrong in the South. Burdened with the task of ridding the world of its grittier characters, allegedly on command from the Lord himself, Powell hones in on “perfume-smellin’ [sic] things, lacy things” and “things with curly hair” (Night). Throughout his almost constant dialogue with the Lord throughout the film, we can ascertain that he truly believes himself to be “a Man of God” and that he feels that God has a very strong hand in the direction of his life (Night). This is further evident when he explicitly states, “Lord You sure knowed [sic] what You was doin’ [sic] when You brung [sic] me to this very cell at this very time” (Night). Powell deeply believes that it is the Lord who has tasked him with committing these heinous crimes and that God doesn’t “mind the killin’s [sic]” (Night). The violent and grotesque nature of the religion that he and “the Almighty … worked out betwixt [them]” is hidden behind his façade of charm and Godliness (Night).
Both of these murderers conclude that they were meant to spend their lives as serial killers; however, the ideology that leads them to this conclusion lies on two different ends of the spectrum of Christianity. While the Misfit kills because he does not value the lives of others or even his own, Harry Powell murders because he values himself above the lives of others. Their views of their own character traits reflect this difference as well, as the Misfit admits that he is not a good man but does not see the point of reaching for improvement, while Powell views himself as “a Man of God” who believes that “The Lord God Jehovah will guide [his] hand in vengeance” on his quest to cleanse the world of those he deems lesser than himself (Night).
One could argue that despite the obvious violence and treachery, the Misfit can at least be deemed an honest man, if not a good one. Throughout his entire interaction with the Grandmother, he admits to all of his moral flaws and wrongdoings. The only support he gives for his actions is that they have no significant weight. The delusion, in this case, is that the Misfit almost sees his acts of violence as surreal, meaning that he is so nihilistic that he does not view the death of others as a weighted consequence of his actions but as a meaningless occurrence. On the other hand, Powell spends his time in great realms of delusion. In a state of almost hallucination, he believes that the Lord is directly speaking to him and physically guiding money and vulnerable women into his hands. He lives so deeply within these delusions that he somehow sees himself on the moral high ground, with those below him simply acting as pawns for him to play with. Powell lies not only to the people in his community to get what he wants but also to himself. The lies to himself help him to sustain his delusions, as he convinces himself that he is a worthy and good man doing God’s work.
In regard to religion, the discussion centers on nihilism and religious extremism, two very opposite perspectives. Both of these tropes are heavily portrayed in the literary genre of Southern Gothic, as they remain very relevant in the South to this day. In a region commonly referred to as “The Bible Belt,” it is not at all surprising that religious beliefs would have a heavy hand in shaping the South and the literary works that reference it. While religion can be an excellent tool for people to gain hope and faith in humanity and the world around us, when taken to massive extremes, the results can be quite undesirable.
A nihilist with a complete lack of faith and hope can be just as destructive as an extremist who twists the backbone of religion until it supports their personal agenda and purpose. In the example of these two works, the most gothic aspect lies deeper than the surface-level atrocity of murder. The grotesqueness rather lies in the idea that religion, something intended to bring a sense of joy, hope, and community, can be broken and disfigured in such a manner that it brings destruction and violence. This plotline of religion gone wrong is seen in many Southern Gothic works but is also evident in the fabric of reality. Shootings and acts of violence in places of worship are all too common in today’s society, and many times here in the South, we discover that the terrorist was acting on the perceived word of God. On the other end of that spectrum, those with a complete lack of faith, who do not believe in the dire consequences of their actions, are just as dangerous.
There seems to be a sweet spot when it comes to faith, and if people push too far in either direction, morality often gets lost and confused. Although these kinds of extremist acts of violence occur everywhere in the country, they are most evident in Southern Gothic literature simply because of the density of religion here. There are churches on every corner and too many varieties of practiced religion to count. While these stories may seem to convey a tale that is more focused on religion than the South, we have to remember that in the eyes of many, the South is synonymous with religion. If one of these disturbing stories were to occur anywhere in the country, it is not hard to believe that it would occur in a place with such prominent religious undertones and history. This is why Southern Gothic writers focus on this trope when writing about the South, as religion is something that has remained constantly woven into Southern culture. The sheer effect that religion has on people, politics, and everyday life in the South is something to look at with awe, and it opens itself up quite readily to being written about in such a disturbing manner.
There are two main traits that Harry Powell and the Misfit have in common: the title of serial killer and an extremist ideology. Other than these, differences abound. From their belief system to their view of themselves, these two murderers are as unalike as can be. But the benefit of comparing these two works is more so in the comparison of their depiction of extremism. While grotesque and at times hard to swallow, these works expose religious fanaticism that has made its home in the South throughout history. It would appear as though religious beliefs that lie at such opposite extremes would lead their subscribers in very opposite directions, but it is evident that both paths lead to a grotesque and disturbing place of darkness.
The Night of the Hunter. Directed by Charles Laughton, performances by Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish, Billy Chapin, and Shelley Winters, United Artists, 1955.
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1955, pp. 34-46.
Subtle Empathy in Hardboiled Detective Fiction
Awarded to Rachel Booher for work submitted in 2020 to Dr. Maria Bachman in ENGL 2020: Themes in Literature and Culture
Detectives are expected to be rational, using their innate deductive abilities to uncover the dark and dirty secrets of a corrupt underworld of criminal minds. Emotions, gender, relationships, and family are unnecessary distractions. Crime is not discriminatory to age, race, gender, or social class; therefore, private detectives attempt to erase parts of their humanity as a defense mechanism. Many hard-boiled heroes, both male and female, are characterized by their crude humor, jaded worldviews, and a nosiness that often gets them into trouble. Other common traits of a hard-boiled detective can also include qualities like insubordination, sarcasm, and a taste of the darker side of life. Most of these traits are formed throughout the complicated histories of hard-boiled detectives. When one of these private detectives delves into a case, whether it be homicide, theft, or fraud, he or she must be shrewd, open-minded, and calculating, skills that many gumshoes have acquired in their earlier careers. This generally includes working for the authorities at one time or another. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler and B is for Burglar by Sue Grafton contain two such people. Philip Marlowe and Kinsey Millhone are introduced as tough and cynical characters, and as good readers, we assume that their apparent lack of empathy means that they cannot be influenced by strong emotions. On the surface, they appear to be so hardened by their past that nothing can hurt them. While they may seem to function as dispassionate spectators searching for truth at the end of the crime, upon closer observation, we can see how emotions tend to act as important, yet unacknowledged key roles for these hardened detectives. Readers tend to support the appearance of a ruthless crime and a no-nonsense detective on the trail. However, human beings are born with emotions, and no human is privy to the ability to erase their emotional state of mind. We are all born with this part of our humanity. Philip Marlowe and Kinsey Millhone are not as dispassionate or unemotional as they appear, and the evidence lies within their sleuthing methods.
Marlowe is a different type of character, an original hardened private dick who was “everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be” (Chandler). Appearing on the scene as a dutiful investigator referred to a rich client, we are introduced immediately to his sarcasm and faux gender bias. We do not get many details about his past, other than he used to work for a law office, was fired for insubordination, and his manners are terrible. Appearances can be deceiving, and as the case progresses, glimpses of empathy surface. Beginning with a case of blackmail, we meet General Sternwood, an elderly millionaire with two wild daughters, both entitled and beautiful brats. One married an ex-bootlegger named Rusty Regan, who disappeared before the story began and is of great focus throughout the whole case. Despite the many hints that Rusty Regan meant a great deal to General Sternwood, Marlowe is assigned to search out the source of the blackmail instead of Rusty’s disappearance. Marlowe held his breath when the Buick was discovered underwater and seemed to breathe a resigned sigh when told there was no body. Later, he also requested to “leave the old man out of it…he’s sick” (Chandler). These simple actions, coupled with the constant question of whether he is looking for Regan, led me to believe that he has some underlying sympathy, specifically for the General who is old, decrepit, and dying, and has two wild and entitled daughters and no legacy besides money. Two murders later, the blackmail is resolved, one murderer is dead, the other is arrested, and the job seems to end. His routine report of the murders makes him appear elusive and indifferent. Future actions will prove this first assumption to be false. He does not close the case file as expected and continues to search for answers about Regan, despite his constant denials about searching for the missing man.
At this point in the story, the reader finds herself puzzled but excited for more mystery and crude behavior. It is in the latter half that Marlowe’s empathy really shows. He did not have to continue the case. He had been paid for his services, and he even states to Norris that the case is closed “tight as a vault with a busted time lock” (Chandler). Yet, his actions contradict his words. He logically knows that he should just “take another drink and forget the whole mess.” He pursued the truth, and his first step was calling Eddie Mars, sarcastically labeling it as being “smart” (Chandler). There is even a brief scene where Marlowe feels violated personally, kicking Carmen out of his home coldly. We already knew he did not own much, but he valued what he had as the only memories and replacements for family. He states, “In it was everything that was mine, that had any association for me, my past, anything that took the place of a family. Not much … as they were they had all my memories” (Chandler). He insinuates that he needs to replace a family. This one glimpse into the emotions of Marlowe makes me suspect he secretly craved human connections and became angry out of jealousy and envy of Carmen. She had a father who cared about her enough to hire him, yet she disgraced herself and took advantage of her status and feminism. This is one passage that reveals an inner sadness and loss that jades his outlook on life because he feels alone in the world.
Millhone was at one time a police officer herself. She is now twice divorced with no children and works as a private detective. Just this simple analysis of personal history leads me to believe that emotions run her life more than they ought. Millhone had firsthand experiences of how cruel justice could be and how the criminal often got the better end of the deal. She admitted herself that she had “idealistic notions of law and order, good guys versus bad guys.” She also states that she could not “deal with all that grief, so I got out” (Grafton). Grief can only exist within a person if sympathy coexists, and unlike common beliefs, the opposite of empathy is not apathy. It is indifference. She is hired to search for Elaine Boldt, the missing sister of Beverly Danziger, a wealthy and entitled woman used to getting her way. What begins as the need for a signature becomes much more riddled with greed, murder, and arson. And while Millhone dutifully investigates the disappearance of Elaine Boldt with an objective viewpoint, her actions subtly speak of compassion.
Her interactions with Mrs. Oschner, an elderly woman living next door to Elaine’s Florida residence, are very telling. Millhone secretly meets her for information, and we may have expected a drive with an interrogative conversation, a twist, or a simple dead end. However, her actions reveal a young woman respectful and gentle with her elders as she helped her into the car. Immediately, she is given a request to run several errands, and Millhone does so without complaint while still asking her questions. This surprising show of empathy for elders carries over to her future interactions and ponderings. As she continues to search for the missing woman, her investigation leads her to the police station. Lieutenant Dolan is one of those types that is crabby and rude, feigning dislike of private detectives and snoops like Kinsey. He has underlying concern, and her conversation with Lieutenant Dolan reveals the fact she had killed someone, very recently, in self-defense. She admits that she cares about her past actions, that she had not “sorted through it” and had “always believed [she] was a good person” (Grafton). This past trauma is something she is burying and fighting and serves as further proof of her empathy. Her snooping into the murder of Marty Grice is originally portrayed as a coincidence as well. It is cleverly linked in her conversation with Dolan that Elaine never showed up for an interview about the case, which seems strange. Millhone continues following the breadcrumbs to Leonard Grice. Showing up at his sister’s home, where he currently resided, it is surprising how easily Millhone lies about her presence. She does not even seem to feel guilty for the deception itself. Instead, she claims to hate intruding “into somebody else’s pain and grief,” despite suspecting him of murdering his wife (Grafton). Brooding over these emotions, she feels even worse for her suspicions at the appearance of Leonard with how pitiful and sedated he looked. It is interesting that throughout the case, she emotionally distances when she ought to react and vice versa. When Beverly blows into her office, Millhone does not bat an eye when the woman breaks down with grief. She says, “I’m sorry to report myself unmoved. I can be a coldhearted little thing.” Yet, when Lily Howe’s life was in danger, she jumped to the rescue, “playing guardian angel” (Grafton).
These two characters are not much different from the average human being. Their inherent nature is based in pain, sadness, loneliness, and an inner moral code of conduct. They react with anger when their privacy or personal space is violated. At the same time, they violate basic right and wrong with methods resorting to blatant deception or withholding evidence. They react with unexpected callousness to others’ grief and coldly pursue a still-warm corpse while saving strangers from certain death. As G. K. Chesterton writes, “The inconsistencies of human nature are indeed terrible and heart-shaking things.” Hard-boiled detectives are one of these “inconsistencies,” and the reader tends to categorize them as people that are not people. This is not true. They care enough about justice, human life, and truth to be a detective in the first place. As originally stated, they started in law enforcement. Instead of abandoning this field and searching for something tamer, they seek another path to resolve crime in their own way. In a sense, they are stronger and more empathetic towards the human race simply because their cynicism does not drive them away from crime-solving.
G. K. Chesterton also mentions that “there is no reason why the hero who turns out to be a villain, or the villain who turns out to be a hero, should not be a study in the living subtleties and complexities of human character.” Human character is complex, and even more so with the hard-boiled detective. Empathy weaves its way throughout their actions, and we see the “living subtleties,” typically resulting in closure through a life-threatening situation. It takes a special person to put their lives on the line for strangers. Millhone and Marlowe are rough around the edges but also are raw diamonds. Empathy must exist first in order for other hard-boiled characteristics to develop, for the pursuance of truth must pair with the detectives caring to discover it.
Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1939.
Chesterton, G. K. “The Ideal Detective Story.” The Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 1930.
Grafton, Sue. B is for Burglar. New York: St. Martin’s, 1985.
Awarded to Carissa Culpepper for work submitted in 2020 to Amie Whittemore in ENGL 2020: Themes in Literature and Culture
In “The Women Men Don’t See” by James Tiptree Jr., the main character Don has complex feelings towards the women in the story, Ruth and Althea, that change and develop as the story goes on. He starts with indifferent opinions towards them, which develop into irritation over their situation, and then Don objectifies them and starts analyzing their actions. By the end of the story, Don is left confused over the events he witnessed, unable to understand the women. Through a first-person view, Don’s thoughts and all his feelings are conveyed to the reader.
Don’s perception of the women starts out as indifferent and dismissive. In the opening paragraph, he says, “I come out of the can and lurch into her seat, saying ‘Sorry,’ at a double female blur. The near blur nods quietly… I continue down the aisle, registering nothing. Zero. I would never have looked at them or thought of them again” (Tiptree). He calls them a “blur” and outright says he does not register the women being there and admits that he would not have thought of them again. The use of past tense, the only paragraph in past tense, I think is to show that Don’s feelings do change. He is reflecting here after the events of the story and is saying that he would not have ever thought of them again, but he does think about them again because of how they leave. This also calls to Ruth’s point that women are like opossums and are never seen and often ignored.
After the plane crash, Don starts to take more notice of the women, but he is, above all, irritated by them. He says, “But something is irritating me. The damn women haven’t complained once, you understand. Not a peep, not a quaver, no personal manifestations whatever. They’re like something out of a manual” (Tiptree). Don gets angry at the women for not having a more “womanly” or emotional reaction to their stranded situation. He describes it like a “manual,” as if they’re not acting how they should be, but how they’ve been told to react. I think that was an interesting choice of words and an interesting observation he made as just earlier he was paying them no mind, but is now watching and analyzing how they’re acting, almost as if he is paranoid or threatened. Don does seem to have a somewhat fragile male ego, so he could be feeling threatened by the women, as they don’t seem to need a man. When they are discussing sleeping arrangements and the women take the hammock, Don says, “Well, okay, ladies. We dangerous males retire inside the damp cabin. Through the wind I hear the women laugh softly now and then, apparently cozy in their chilly ibis roost. A private insanity, I decide. I know myself for the least threatening of men …” (Tiptree). Don is offended by the fact that the women want to be alone and aren’t worried about not having him or Esteban around but also offended because he thinks the reason they don’t want him around is because they think he’s a threatening male that might hurt them, while he sees himself as quite the opposite. Don thinks the women constantly think of men as a threat, so much so that he is appalled when Mrs. Parsons says she will go with him to get water. He says, “I simply stare at her. What new madness has got into Mother Hen? Does she imagine Esteban is too battered to be functional?” (Tiptree). Don can’t imagine Ruth being comfortable or trusting enough to leave her daughter with Esteban.
After Don and Ruth make their trek across the swamp, Don sheds his irritation and starts revealing some of his more explicit thoughts about the women. When he and Ruth are going to sleep, Don thinks to himself,
The woman doesn’t mean one thing to me, but the obtrusive recessiveness of her, the defiance of her little rump eight inches from my fly—for two pesos I’d have those shorts down and introduce myself. If I were twenty years younger … it comes to me wryly that Mrs. Ruth Parsons has judged things to a nicety. If I were twenty years younger, she wouldn’t be here. Like the butterfish that float around a sated barracuda, only to vanish away the instant his intent changes, Mrs. Parsons knows her little shorts are safe. (Tiptree)
Don objectifies Ruth, saying he would have his way with her if he wanted, but that if he was younger, she would have sensed his intentions and not come with him. This is very self-centered of Don to think about and goes back to his thoughts that women only see men as threats. He thinks he has deduced that Ruth feels safe around him, and that is the only reason she agreed to go with him. He even compares himself to a “sated barracuda” meaning he was once the person he described that would have his way with a woman but can’t now because of his age. Don continues his thoughts on sex when he and Ruth talk about Althea and Esteban. Don talks about it in terms of breeding, as if Althea having sex with Esteban is all about having a child. He says, “Type. As in breeding, bloodline, sire. Am I supposed to have certified Esteban not only as a stud but as a genetic donor?” (Tiptree). He only thinks of Althea as carrying the Maya genes and continues with this fantasy of her being pregnant as the story continues. Don’s thoughts on sex are very sudden and creepy. He thinks of the women in terms of objects for sex or just for carrying children.
At the end of the story, Don’s feelings towards the women shift to being confused and maybe a little sad. After the women depart and he and Esteban are rescued, Don thinks to himself,
Not only that but to hope, to plan? If I could only go away … That’s what she was doing, all day. Waiting, hoping, figuring out how to get Althea … With the third margarita I try to joke about alienated women, but my heart’s not in it … I brood: do all Mrs. Parson’s friends hold themselves in readiness for any eventuality, including leaving Earth? … We survive by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine … I’m used to aliens … She’d meant every word. Insane. How could a woman choose to live among unknown monsters, to say goodbye to her home, her world? … Two of our opossums are missing. (Tiptree)
Don doesn’t understand the women’s motives behind leaving. He, as a man, doesn’t understand how the women feel about being overlooked and therefore can’t understand leaving his world. He is comfortable in his when they weren’t comfortable in theirs. He says, “unknown monsters,” but to the women of the world, they probably already are living in a world of “unknown monsters.” Don doesn’t understand wanting to leave his world, so he can’t imagine why anyone else would want to leave. Don does seem to be a little sad about them leaving because he says he tries to make a joke, but his heart isn’t in it. He is now aware of how the women thought, so he can’t make the joke at their expense. When the women were leaving with the aliens, he wanted to save them. He even told Esteban, “Don’t let her go” (Tiptree). He doesn’t say “them,” he says “her,” meaning he might have gotten attached to Ruth on their outing. He also references what Ruth compares women to: opossums. He could have used any word; he could have said two women are missing, but he chose to use opossum, which suggests that he now recognizes that the world will never notice them missing. Just like Ruth said, their disappearance will go on completely unnoticed.
I interpreted the story the way I did because of my identity as a woman and because what Ruth said about women is true and relatable. There have been many times that I have felt like my opinions or thoughts were shut down just because I was a female. Ruth said that the world wouldn’t notice women gone, and I feel the same way sometimes, that if I just disappeared, no one would notice, or there would be no impact on the world. I interpreted Don’s behavior the way I did because I don’t think men understand what women do or why just because it doesn’t fit their own views. Some men are so caught up in their world that they don’t stop to think that the world is different for women even though it seems like we have equal rights. Don doesn’t understand the way Ruth and Althea feel about their world, so he is confused by them wanting to leave. Men don’t understand that women live in a different world than theirs, and they think women can do the same things they can, but it might be harder for a woman. There is a wage gap between male and female coworkers in the same field and position. It’s harder for women to find jobs. Men don’t understand being scared to walk alone at night or taking precautions to protect themselves in case something happens. Women even have a harder time getting medical help because male doctors don’t believe them when they talk about their symptoms. I personally can recall times in school when I’ve had to ask a male friend to ask for something for me because a teacher or another student wouldn’t listen to me, or I had to have a male friend speak my ideas for me because when I said them no one would listen. I have been shut down or cut off by males more times than I can count, and I can recall myself saying the words “They wouldn’t listen to me” countless times. I understand Ruth when she says she isn’t memorable because I too don’t feel memorable sometimes. I have been taught from a young age to be quiet and not bother anyone, not bring attention to myself, and just blend into the background. I think most women can relate to not speaking up because they know they won’t be heard or think “Why bother?” because no one ever listens to us. Therefore, I read the story the way I did, and I believe Don is a perfect representation of a male who doesn’t understand the struggles of women.
Tiptree Jr., James. “The Women Men Don’t See.” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Mercury Press Inc, 1973.