Flannery Teaches Writing, Part IV.
The first hero was a type from the ancient Greek playwright, Aeschylus. He had written a drama about Prometheus, who gave fire to man. Giving fire to man (rather like atomic energy today, I suppose) was forbidden by the gods because they believed fire would get mankind in too much trouble and immeasurably widen the human scope for mischief.
However, Prometheus, the hero of Aeschylus' Greek mythological drama, felt sorry for mankind living in a cold and fireless world. He stole fire from the gods to give it to mankind. This act bettered mankind enormously.
Prometheus was apprehended by the gods for stealing from them, and was sentenced to be chained to an enormous rock forever and, if this were not enough, was condemned to have his liver eaten out everyday by an eagle. His liver renewed itself in time for the next day's suffering.
This punishment sounds like an overreaction by the gods, but it established the first and most basic kind of hero: the compassionate person who is punished for doing good. After all, it is a maxim that "no good deed goes unpunished." Prometheus's good deed upset the balance of the universe and disruption ensued. One step forward, two steps back.
Jesus, of course, falls into this category. He came to earth to spread the divine gospel of the compassionate, to encourage man to recognize the grace of God. But the love of Jesus mortified and embarrassed people. Guilty feelings that people were unable to live with ensued, and Jesus was promptly crucified. In crucifying Him, mankind turned down its greatest moment of grace.
The insight here is that while not everyone who performs good deeds is punished, many who do good deeds, like Prometheus or Jesus, can and should expect punishment. Therefore, those contemplating doing good deeds should be aware of the possibility of punishment as reward for their action.
Flannery felt a writer should know exactly what kind of main character is to be in a story the author wants to create. If you are drawing up a Promethean main character, think deeply about the results of the character's actions. Also, the reader, seeing a Promethean hero suffer, should be made to think about the questionable consequences that may be involved in doing good. Flannery was not trying to stop people from doing good for others, but she wanted to make them aware of the human condition--she wanted them not to be naive about life.
She said this was "adult" thinking and was the opposite of Disneyworld thinking, which was too sentimental because the good is easily done, is rewarded and everything goes on happily ever after. No, Flannery would warn, Disneyworld thinking is not the real world. It is a widespread fantasy and is a departure from reality. America wallows in this sort of thinking. Serious writers, she said, do not do Disney.
Doing good is dangerous, Flannery said, and people should he warned about it. However, not doing good is probably more dangerous, and people should be cautioned about that, too. She believed that in all stories, you must "sink the theme" so that the true and honest insight arises naturally out of the circumstances of the story.
The second type of hero is that of the Greek playwright, Sophocles, who wrote Oedipus Rex. His type of hero is a superior person who falls because of a defect in his character. Oedipus was a king who killed his father in anger. Killing his father, of course, brought him down because he had violated a "natural law of the world." Oedipus was blinded by the actions of fate and wandered the world as a pathetic example for all to see.
The important thing to understand about Sophoclean drama is that superior people are brought down by "hubris" or defects in their character, such as lack of forethought. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, called Flannery's work "Sophoclean," meaning her main characters often brought themselves down through poor choices. They are monumentally self-destructive people.
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is Sophoclean. Romeo and Juliet are doing rather well as lovers until Juliet's cousin kills Romeo's best friend. In a rage over the death of his friend, Romeo kills Juliet's kinsman. From then on the fat is in the fire. No reconciliation of the two families is possible.
When Romeo comes to his senses and sees the implication of his behavior, he shouts, "Oh, I am fortune's fool," meaning he has reacted blindly and emotionally, without thinking of the consequences of his actions.
Is yours to be a Sophoclean hero? Flannery might ask. If so, what brings him/her down?
Of course, we discussed the corollary of the Sophoclean hero: one who, through an action, brings himself up. I named that a Class B Sophoclean hero. I would say, "Well, my main character may not be one going down but going up through a wise decision."
"Good luck," she says, "I hope he makes it, only he's not a Sophoclean hero but just a superior man."
The third type of hero was a person or people reduced from no fault of their own to pitiful circumstances. This type of character came from the Greek playwright, Euripides, who wrote The Trojan Women. In this play, the women of Troy were taken captive when the city fell to the Greeks and made into slaves. The real question posed in this type of play is how people run over by life, a war, a hurricane--by anything not directly their fault--respond to it.
Flannery liked for me to be able to discuss just what type of main character or hero I might be thinking up: Promethean, Aeschylean or Euripidean. She said it made a big difference, and it did.
What seemed unusual to me in some of O'Connor's work was that, as in "A Good Man is Hard to Find," she mixed all three types of Greek of heroes together in one story. This was not an uncommon practice for her.
First there was the innocent family going to Florida in "A Good Man. ..." They accidentally run off the road and encounter a killer, the Misfit, and were shot. They were Euripidean characters: innocent wanderers caught up in a bad meeting they were in no way responsible for. Then there was the Misfit, whom Flannery drew in a Sophoclean manner. He had a serious defect in his character, but he was superior in that he was the leader of the gang and he discussed theology with the grandmother before he shot her. "Jesus thrown everything off balance," he says. But the Misfit chose to shoot people anyway.
The grandmother is an Aeschylean figure because she tries to do good to the Misfit and gets punished for it. She has a moment of compassionate grace as she talks to the Misfit and reaches out to him saying, "You're one of my babies." Her good deed--the "moment of grace"--is rejected. Embarrassed by the old lady's compassion, mortified by her show of accepting grace, made to suddenly feel a momentary guilt sweeping over him by her compassion, the Misfit responds by shooting her dead.
"Good grief, Flannery," I commented, "It looks like the whole world's a big tragedy, and people are just playing different tragic roles in it." Flannery looked at me over her glasses. "I think you may be catching on to a lot of things," she said.
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|Title Annotation:||60th Anniversary - Flannery O'Connor Issue|
|Author:||MacLeod, James L.|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2010|
|Previous Article:||Flannery Teaches Writing, Part I.|
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