Devil in the Details: Consumerism in Southern Gothic

Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” operates under the genre of Southern Gothic. While traditional gory Gothic themes are understated in her work, Gothic elements such as architecture and the sublime remain ever present and pervasive. Set during a time after the Civil War, the role of consumerism and old Southern values have a large influence on the plot and demise of the characters and the rise of consumerism in O’Connor’s short story are primarily developed through the children, architecture, and the Gothic color red. O’Connor employs these traditional Gothic elements in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to depict the rise of a consumer culture and the shift in Southern values towards wealth and away from gentility to define what a “good man” is.

The sub-genre Southern Gothic differs from Gothic fiction most significantly due to its specific Southern United States setting, a difference that gives O’Connor’s short story relevance to the historical rise of American consumerism. Both genres share Gothic elements including violence, Gothic architecture, and the sublime, but Rodney Stenning Edgecombe describes Southern Gothic’s attempts to “avoid the melodramatic extravagance associated with [Gothic fiction]” by embedding “statutory horrors in a matrix of ordinariness” (Edgecombe 56). While the Gothic elements present in O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” are more subtle than those present in other works of Gothic fiction like “The Castle of Otranto” or “Dracula”, O’Connor’s short story contains significant extraordinary aspects that Edgecombe’s definition of Southern Gothic does not account for.

For instance, The Tower the family stops at in Georgia provides several details in the text alluding to the rise of consumerism, much to the grandmother’s dismay. Although described as “part stucco and part wood”, The Tower alludes to typical Gothic architecture with its name reminiscent of a medieval castle tower, and its description as “long dark room” furthers the Gothic imagery (6). Red Sam’s monkey, which the children find fascinating, eats fleas “as if it were a delicacy” (9). Not only are monkeys not common and an extraordinary pet to own in post-war Georgia, but through the fleas’ likeness to a delicacy, the monkey literally consumes a luxury and thus develops a parallel to consumerism. It is fitting that the children, who are growing up with the rise of consumerism, are the ones captivated by Red Sam’s monkey. Much like the monkey, the children are not able to fully participate in capitalistic society due to their age, but unlike the monkey, their gusto for consumerist ideas and materialism contrast the grandmother’s link to old Southern values; they are metaphorically tied to their grandmother’s Southern values despite their excitement at consumerism.

The grandmother’s attempts to correct and control the children portray her dislike of growing commercialism and anchor in her old Southern values. Like the instance with the monkey, the children’s presence in the story often represent consumerist ideas and develop Gothic elements that illustrate the grandmother’s distaste for consumerism. During their time in The Tower, June Star tells Red Sam “I wouldn’t live in a broken-down place like this for a million bucks!” to which the grandmother immediately “hisses” “aren’t you ashamed?” (7). June Star’s fixation on the financial situation of Red Sam embarrasses the grandmother who believes that a “good man’s” worth lies beyond the fiscal. The manner in which she “hisses” at the children is an aforementioned attempt to control their materialistic tendencies. The children’s excitement at visiting the house the grandmother told them about causes the detour that leads to their accident, and this house’s alleged “secret panel” exemplifies Gothic architecture once more (9). Besides dramatic silhouettes, an element of Gothic architecture is the concealment of secrets and the “secret panel” embodies this trope. The grandmother admits she was “not telling the truth” to the children so that her story might be all the more captivating to them by adding a Gothic twist (9). The grandmother’s fixation on the historic Gothic house as a means to control the children’s fascination with materialism once more illustrates her distaste for consumerism.

The last, and possibly most iconic, element of Gothic fiction the children bring to the story is the development of the sublime through a contrast with the grandmother in which the generational gap is characterized by consumerism. The sublime is seen in the moments after the car accident, the moment of pure chaos and violence. After the family gathers their bearings and accounts for each other, “they all sat down in the ditch, except the children, to recover from the shock” while the children prance around and scream “we’ve had an accident!” (12). The sublime exists on the edge of reason just out of reach from total understanding as something that can barely be described. While the adults grapple to absorb the accident they just endured, the children bring a level of acceptance that they use to understand the violence. Neither party can fully comprehend the accident and they are justifying their reason in completely different manners that contrast against each other. Due to the sublime accident the family endures, each member meets their untimely ends at the hands of the Misfit and the grandmother’s eventual shift and abandonment of her old values truly comes to light. The children’s marvel at the accident contrast the grandmother’s desire for the safety of her family. The grandmother’s emphasis on family is a Southern value while the children’s amazement at the accident is purely material; the sublime presents the family’s priorities in a way that emphasizes materialism through the younger generation.

O’Connor illustrates the shift away from the grandmother’s traditional values throughout the story through the many uses of the color red, a color gothically linked to hellfire, and is most prominent through the appearance of Red Sam. His presence in The Tower in tandem with his “red” description illicit the image of a Faustian devil aiding in the grandmother’s shift towards consumerism. In Charles Gounod’s opera, Mephistopheles is always costumed head to toe in red to represent the flames of Hell. He reminisces with the grandmother about the good old days when people “were nice” and she proceeds to call him a “good man” (8). His mix of nostalgia for the old South in conjunction with his hospitality towards her family earns him a favorable light in the grandmother’s eyes. However, it is in The Tower where Red Sam resides that the grandmother’s values begin to shift towards consumerism, and where the grandmother’s established distaste for consumerism is emphasized by the hellish connotation of the color red.

Mitchell Owens describes this “cash – oriented culture” as the “ascendancy of the mercantile”, however, the concept that the rise of this culture is demonstrated most clearly through June Star is overstated since it is in juxtaposition with the grandmother that the rise of consumerism is most noted (Owens 103). As the family arrives at The Tower, the grandmother tells the children the story of Mr. Teagarden. At first, the grandmother regards him as a “gentleman”, but in the end she praises him for being a “very wealthy man” once he invested in Coca-Cola (6). Although the story is directed towards June Star, the grandmother’s emphasis on values is what changes the most. Her respect for Mr. Teagarden’s gentility in the end is overshadowed by the wealth he earned through his investments. In her eyes, Mr. Teagarden worked hard for his money at the start, but once he invested in Coca-Cola – the epitome of a commercial industry whose logo happens to be gothically red – she no longer refers to him as a “gentleman”. Although June Star does characterize consumer culture, Owens fails to address the grandmother as a major example of cultural shift. Through calling Red Sam, a profit earning business owner, a “good man” on account of his nostalgia for the olden days, a dramatic irony becomes apparent through what the grandmother admires in a “good man”.

The later encounter with the “fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt” after the family’s accident depicts another Mephistopheles character and the final shift of the grandmother’s values towards consumerism (13). Besides being a harbinger of death, another Gothic element, the presence of the Misfit and his goons see to the grandmother’s total shift away from her old values of gentility. Her shift in values led by a Mephistopheles character represents the immorality that comes with the loss of traditional Southern values  She continuously reasserts “’you’re a good man’” and “’you’re not a bit common!’” (17). The grandmother holds gentlemen to be “good men”, so by calling the Misfit “not common” she is likening him to a gentleman in an attempt to convince him to have mercy on her family. Unfortunately, as her family disappears into the woods the grandmother faces the fact that her family isn’t safe, which is a valued priority as seen in through the car accident. Ultimately she tells the Misfit “I’ll give you all the money I’ve got!” as her final plea for her life (20). As the grandmother is seconds away from death she resorts to consumerist bargaining because her call to the Misfit’s character did not work. In her final moments she partakes in the cultural shift from values of gentility to consumerism and wealth. If the Misfit’s character as a gentleman did not make him a “good man” then maybe his wealth would, like how Mr. Teagarden earned his eventual worth from his fortune. As she dies in the presence of the boy in the “red sweat shirt”, the grandmother compromises her Southern values of gentility and succumbs to the rise in consumer culture, this developed by the Gothic red fully parallels the historical rise of American consumerism.

The grandmother represents values from a time long passed in which she believes gentility reigned supreme. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” contrasts her with the children to illustrate the rise of a consumer culture. The Gothic elements that developed this short story into a work of Southern Gothic manifest in three forms: through the children, through architecture, and through devilish images produced by the color red. Although the grandmother held true to her definition of a “good man” as best as she could, the course of the family’s journey and the fatal conclusion caused her to shift her values to a more consumer based view. It is through these Gothic elements that O’Connor employs the Southern Gothic to illustrate the rise in consumer culture in America. Her timely topic ultimately parallel the grandmother’s shift away from traditional values and society’s growth into a mercantile culture.

 

Flannery O’Connor. A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Mariner, 1992.

Owens, Mitchell. “The Function of Signature in `A Good Man Is Hard to Find’.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 33, no. 1, Winter 1996, p. 101.

Rodney Stenning Edgecombe “O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find”, The Explicator, 64:1, 2005, 56-58

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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