Salvific "Something" in Flannery O'Connor's "A Stroke of Good Fortune" and Edward Lewis Wallant's The Pawnbroker and Tenants of Moonbloom.
In the fiction of Flannery O'Connor and Edward Lewis Wallant we see two who indeed recognized the terms "power and wonde"; for these two "something"--the transcending avenue, the requisite means to an end that led man from this transitory life into life-eternal.
In O'Connor's "A Stroke of Good Fortune" "something" is associated with Mr. Jerger, a "seventy-eight year old [who] studied" (Flannery "Connor: The Complete Stories [NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980]: 99) and became involved with other beings, young and old. Jerger tells Ruby Hill, the story's protagonist, that he has found the secret to being young by going "into my heart" (101); he has in his age discovered that by loving all life, man stays perpetually young. He tries to convince Ruby that her pregnancy is a blessing, not something to be feared. Ruby, herself, is puzzled that her husband Bill, whom she idolizes, "was maybe more happy lately and didn't know why" (99).
Mr. Jerger, in his coy wisdom, then questions Ruby on the birth date of Ponce de Leon who is associated with Florida. He tells her, "You should know something about Florida.... Your husband is from Florida" (100). In saying this he is trying to make Ruby see that as a successful salesman who sold"miracle products" (96) Bill has had a change of heart regarding the idea of parenthood; he is trying ever so subtly to make Ruby understand the cause of Bill's now happy face which in turn will effect a similar change of heart in Ruby.
In this story "something" is equated with love. Mr. Jerger knew this, and in time Ruby may also. She is "waiting, with plenty of time" (107) for her beloved husband to sell her on his"miracle product" (96) of love and life.
In another of O'Connor's early stories, "The Turkey", "something" is again of significance. Suzanne Morrow Paulson has noted that at the end of the story the eleven year old protagonist Ruller McFarney has "a vague sense of being pursued by 'something Awful' ... behind him with its arms rigid and its fingers ready to clutch" (Flannery O'Connor:A Study of the Short Fiction [Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988]: 19). But in the beginning of the story the boy himself is the "ominous figure, [that] something awful" (Paulson 19).
In the story O'Connor is attacking young Ruller's over-weaning pride. Thinking God sees him as "a very unusual child" (48), his illusions of magnified self-worth are shattered at the conclusion by his fear of being pursued by "something Awful" (CS 53). Yet it is precisely this "something Awful"(53) that is the boy's salvation. God's insistent, saving grace prompts him to run in fear from the devil-driven pride that had preoccupied his mind and enervated his spirit. As Richard Giannone has remarked, "Jesus ... is the grace-giving revelation of God" (Flannery O'Connor and the Mystery of Love [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989]: 59).
Just as O'Connor's "something" refers to love and God's gift of redeeming grace, so too in the novels of Edward Lewis Wallant there may be found meaning congruent to O'onnor's spiritual intent. In The Pawnbroker as Jesus Ortiz lay dying after being mortally wounded by a bullet meant for Sol Nazerman, the pawnbroker, we read of Nazerman's anguish as he stares at Ortiz "What do you want from me, Ortiz? ... [then as Ortiz dies, his] lips shared some silent words at him, a curse or a blessing or 'something' else completely" (The Pawnbroker [San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1978 ]: 271). It seems credible to interpret this late scene in the novel as the epiphany of a mystical union of love, heretofore unexpressed. Why else would Ortiz sacrifice his life for his enigmatic teacher whom he had emulated in so many ways? Early in the novel we read of Ortiz's attitude toward the pawnbroker: "He was involved in a current of emotions, softened and burned and bound' (76). Thus, even at this early stage, Ortiz's feelings toward the pawnbroker are of a mixed alloy, including that of a softened heart, as he tries to fathom the mystery of Nazerman's being We then read of Nazerman's view of Ortiz's character: "Sol had the vague feeling that there were certain horrors this boy would not commit. In Sol Nazerman's eyes, this was a great deal; there were very few people to whom he attributed even that limitation of evil" (11). Nazerman admits that Ortiz is a mystery to him, "I have a strange assistant, my Jesus Ortiz. I understand him as little as he does me" (147). Only through Ortiz's sacrificial death do the two gain insight into each others'being. Nazerman was correct in calling Ortiz "My assistant" (147). By his sacrificial act Ortiz has imbued the pawnbroker with his life-saving spirit; "The something else completely" (271) is something very much akin to O'Connor's life-saving grace.
And in The Tenants of Moonbloom Wallant refers over and over to the mysterious "something" that effects a change of heart in the protagonist, Norman Moonbloom. In spiritual transformation we read of a "Mysterious Mysticism to which he was now subject" (The Tenants of Moonbloom. [NY: Popular Library, 1963]:1,138). What he does not yet comprehend is that this mysticism is invoked by the tenants' agonies that cry out for easement. "He sat in his formerly peaceful room and wondered anew at the presentations he was being offered with increasing frequency" (119). Realizing "something profound had changed in him ... he sought to recognize" (117) it.
Early in the novel, while immersed in himself, Moonbloom "walked lightly and his face showed no awareness of all the thousands of people around hi" (9), an, late, "the distance between him and the nearest passer-by was infinite" (49). It is only when he interacts with others in sharing their pain that he is able to transform theirs and his into joy. Even the hate-filled Use Moeller can't help "staring at him ... fascinated by something just below his hairline" (90). When he interacts with the tenants rather than rejects them, "His face seemingly sparkled as at the idea of a holy war" (117). And as the tenants begin to recognize his transformation, they see him as seeming "eminently trustworthy as ideal for confidence as a religious image" (130).
Both Wallant and O'Connor remind us that there are others who have pain equal to ours. In The Tenants of Moonbloom and in The Pawnbroker and in O'Connor's novels and short stories "something" within us compels us to change. This precious "something" as, Thomas Merton has said, "can obliterate all obstacles and limitations, whether of sin, of selfishness, of fear and even of death [and] when this unseen, spiritual force makes its presence felt, it shows its possessor has reached a state of perfect and total reconciliation ... with one's true self, one's neighbor and with God" ("The Other Side of Despair," Critic 24 :22).
For Flannery O'Connor and Edward Lewis Wallant "something" is never "ambiguous [or] uncertain" (Dyer 7); salvific in nature, it is the hand we must grasp and cling to without reservation.
John V. McDermott, Suffolk Community College
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|Author:||McDermott, John V.|
|Publication:||Notes on Contemporary Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2007|
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