Jan 7, 2010

On Oedipus the King

The Three Theban Plays (Penguin Classics)Origins of Greek Drama
Drama starts with the Ancient Greeks around 550 B.C. It emerges in Athens when plays were produced for an annual festival to celebrate the god Dionysus. We don’t know precisely how it all got started, but the historical sources suggest probable religious origins. Devotees of Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine, would compose dithyrambs, wild, ecstatic hymns sung and danced by a chorus of 50 men. Choruses from competing cities would sing their dithyrambs, vying for top honors at the festival. These dithyrambs lost some their religious/hymnal qualities and become more narrative in nature, evolving ultimately into drama as we know it. Tradition holds that Thespis (from whom we get the word thespian) was the first man to speak lines in character instead of narrating them as a member of the chorus. Ever since, he has been honored as the first actor. The playwright Aeschylus was the first dramatist to add a second actor to the performance.

Sophocles lived from 495 BC to 406 BC. He wrote 123 plays. Only seven complete plays survive. Oedipus the King was probably produced for the first time in 428 BC. Ironically, although this is widely thought to be perhaps the greatest tragedy ever written, it did not win the year it was performed! The winning playright that year was Philocles, a nephew of Aeschylus. Tradition holds that Sophocles never came in lower than second place.

The fifth century BC is known as the Golden Age of Greek drama in Athens and the major playwrights of this error include the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and the comic playwright Aristophanes. Plays were written and performed at the theater of Dionysus in Athens, in contests between three playwrights. Each wrote three tragedies and a lighter, more comic satyr play. The outdoor amphitheater could seat 17,000 people, and the audience would vote on the winner. The festival called the Dionysus was held in early spring, around late March, early April.

The word tragedy means “goat song” in Greek, and it stood for plays about serious themes, frequently with sad outcomes. Through the ages, tragedy has come to mean a serious play with unfortunate outcomes, usually centered on a tragic hero, a person who encounters a serious reversal of fortune (often partially by his own doing) and suffers for it.  


534. First tragic performance in Athens by Thespis (father of acting) at the Festival of Dionysus during the reign of Peisistratus.
510-507. Founding of Athenian democracy under Cleisthenes, after the expulsion of Peisistratus.
497/96. Sophocles born at Colonus, just outside Athens.
494. Birth of Pericles.
490. Persian invasion of Greece under King Dareius. Athenians victorious at Marathon.
480-478. Persian invasion of Greece under Kin Xerxes. Persians are defeated at the battle of Salamis by the Athenian navy and at Plataea by the Greeks on land.
477. Athenians found the Delian League, a naval alliance.
472. The Persians by Aeschylus is performed. It is the first extant Greek tragedy.
470/69. Socrates born.
468. Sophocles wins the first of many victories in the dramatic competition at Athens.
467. Aeschylus presents a trilogy based on the house of Laius, including an Oedipus play. Only the Seven Against Thebes survives.
460. Thucydides is born.
458. Aeschylus presents his great trilogy the Oresteia.
456/57. Aeschylus dies.
454. Athens solidies its naval empire.
449. Euripides wins his first victory at the dramatic competition.
447. Massive building projects begun in Athens under Pericles, including the new temple to Athena and the Parthenon.
442-41. Sophocles presents Antigone. It wins first prize.
441-40. Sophocles is elected on of ten generals to suppress the revolt on the island of Samos.
431. Beginning of the Peloponnesian War with Sparta. Will continue (with a peaceful interlude from 421-18) until 404.
430. A great plague breaks out in Athens.
429. Pericles dies in the plague.
429-25. Oedipus Tyrannus probably performed.
428/27. Plato is born.
427. Aristophanes presents his first comedy on stage. Sophocles at this time is probably serving in the Peloponnesian War.
416. Athens conquers the island of Melos, executes all its adult men, and enslave everyone else.
413. Spartans establish a foothold in Athenian territory at Decelea.
411. A coup d'etat at Athens by an oligarchy. Sophocles chosen as one of the then commissioners. Democracy is suspended temporarily, a few months.
407/6. Euripides dies. Sophocles is said to have dressed his chorus in black that year.
406. Death of Sophocles.
404-3. Athens surrenders to Sparta. Rule of the Thirty Tyrants, supported by Sparta.
403. Democracy restored in Athens.
401. Posthumous presentation of Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles's grandson.
399. Socrates put on trial, convicted and sentenced to death.

Sources of the Oedipus myth

The Greeks drew on ancient stories as source material for their plays. These stories had religious, ethical, and pedagogic value for Greek culture. We call them myths. The particular myth cycle we are concerned with is the story of Oedipus, king of Thebes, son of Laius and Jocasta, a man cursed with the cruel fate of patricide (murder of the father) and incest (fornication with his mother). As is always the case with myth and legend, variations of the story of Oedipus abound, yet some of the recurring story elements involve the abandonment of baby Oedipus by his parents, his unwitting murder of the father, the confrontation and defeat of the monster known as the Sphinx (a flying lion with the head and breast of a woman), which was terrorizing the city of Thebes. Oedipus is awarded with the spoils of victory (the kingdom and the widowed bride Jocasta). Upon the discovery of his sins, Oedipus, in Sophocles' version, blinds himself.

Plot guide to Oedipus the King

Prologue. The prologue is the exposition phase of the plot. It establishes the scene of action and the problem facing Oedipus: namely, that a plague infests the city of Thebes. The citizens are pleading for his help. Oedipus, showing himself to be a sympathetic yet proud ruler, takes responsibility for ridding the city of pestilence. He has dispatched Creon to Delphi. Creon returns with the message that the god commands them to expel from Thebes the defilement they are sheltering. King Laius's murder must be avenged, the murderer identified and either exiled or put to death. If we didn't know who Oedipus was, we might think we were in for an entertaining murder/mystery with Oedipus as chief inspector. The plot in the scenes to come will use this as an organizing principle: Oedipus interviews, interrogates, and accuses several persons: the blind prophet Tiresias, his brother-in-law Creon, his wife Queen Jocasta, the Messenger from Corinth, and an old Shepherd. Since the audience was likely to be well acquainted with the Oedipus myth, we already know that he is the defilement he seeks, and the play is already oozing with situational and dramatic irony: the chief inspector and the perpetrator are the same man, and Oedipus doesn’t realize it.

Parados. The song accompanying the entrance of the chorus. The poem is a series of alternating sections called Strophe and Antistrophe, which probably relates to the movements of the chorus back and forth across the stage. The chorus acts as the voice of the community, the citizenry. They appeal to the gods and offer wise commentary on the action. Sometimes the chorus (or a representative from the chorus) will play a role in the action; often, they stand back and observe the drama, stepping in to bridge between episodes (which I will call scenes).

Scene I. The main action in this scene is the verbal battle between Oedipus and Tiresias, the blind prophet. Tiresias knows the truth of Oedipus's true identity, but is reluctant to tell it. Oedipus is enraged by the prophet's stubborn refusals and lashes out, mocking his prophetic abilities and then when he succeeds in getting Tiresias to identify the murderer, he can't handle the truth and accuses him of being in league with Creon to overthrow him. The scene reveals much about Oedipus's character -- he is constantly thinking through problems and consequences and possibilities, distrustful of oracles, more confident in his own powers, yet at the same time he feels threatened by the prophecies and is paranoid over the prophet. He resorts to conspiracy theory because the thought that he would be the murderer is preposterous to him; it defies reason.

Ode I. A short choral ode bridges scene 1 and scene 2. At this point, the chorus seems to be siding with Oedipus. The blind old man's "evil words are lies."

Scene II. The conflict of Oedipus and Creon. Oedipus grills Creon, accuses him of plotting against him, while Creon puts up a solid defense. The conflict heightens, Oedipus rages. Jocasta intercedes to diffuse the argument. And here we have a masterful plot twist. In order to allay Oedipus's concerns, she tells him not to put his trust in soothsayers and proceeds to introduce the story of her baby, the oracle, and the abandonment of the baby. How could Oedipus be the murderer, when the son died in the wilderness, and the father was murdered by a gang where three highways meet. That small detail stuns Oedipus, who questions Jocasta for more details of the crime, and each detail confirms his memory of the incident where three roads meet. It's important to point out that at this point in the play, there's no need to think that Oedipus suspects he is the son of Jocasta and Laius; he is only afraid that he is Laius's murderer. If so, he must exile himself. The sole witness of the murder must be found and brought in for questioning. Oedipus take this opportunity to relate his side of the story -- being raised in Corinth as son of Polybos and Merope, the prophecy relating to his fate, and how he never returned to Corinth, and how he killed a small band of travelers where three roads meet. We see the stories converging. Rising action indeed. The tension is building. Situational irony abounds.

It may be worth noting at this point that the story is operating on two tracks. First, we have what critics call the story or fabula: this is the larger storyline, the chronological time line of events that the audience would reconstruct in their imagination. In Oedipus Rex, it would stretch all the way back to the birth of Oedipus, the oracle’s prophecy to Laius and Jocasta, the abandonment of Oedipus on Mt. Cithairon, the compassionate shepherd’s delivery of baby Oedipus to the shepherd from Corinth, who delivers it to his adopted parents, King Polybos and Queen Merope of Corinth. We see the young man Oedipus learning of his questionable parentage, his journey to Delphi to consult with the oracle, the prophecy that he will commit patricide and incest, his flight from Delphi away from Corinth, his encounter with Laius at the place where three roads meet, the murder of Laius, Oedipus’s arrival at Thebes, his defeat of the Sphinx (by answering her riddle), his assumption of the throne at Thebes and the taking of Jocasta as his wife, who bears children by him, and finally the arrival of plague in Thebes, which brings us to the critical juncture: the most dramatic day in Oedipus’s life, when he discovers the murderer, his own true identity, and he blinds himself, and heads away from Thebes forever. That, in sum, is the fabula.

The second aspect of the narrative is what we call the plot, or the syuzhet. This is the arrangement and sequence of events as they unfold in the drama itself: what happens in each scene of the play. As the play steamrolls towards its powerful climax, we are also stepping back in time to Oedipus’s birth.

Ode II.The chorus weighs in with more color commentary.

Scene III. Jocasta, showing her inconstancy, who of late had flouted the oracles and their talk of fate and destiny, now appeals to the gods for help. Instead of the eyewitness coming in right away, we have a new plot twist: a messenger from Corinth arrives with good news. Oedipus's father Polybos is dead. It looks like Oedipus is off the hook. Oedipus is pleased, but he's still worried about the other half of the prophecy -- what of Merope, the mother? The messenger at this point reveals the crushing information that Polybos indeed was not his father, nor was Merope his mother, and he can vouch for it, because he was the very man who received the baby Oedipus from another shepherd. Jocasta has by now figured out the puzzle and is desperate for Oedipus to forestall his quest for truth. Oedipus completely misunderstands her motives, thinking she will be ashamed to have married a slave's son (i.e. the son of a shepherd). For all of Oedipus's intellectual ability, he is stunningly blind, but to be fair, who on earth would think the worst about oneself? He is very human in his refusal to accept the verdict of truth. Jocasta exits for the last time.

Ode III. The next choral ode is a prayer to Dionysus.

Scene IV. The shepherd is escorted on stage. Oedipus and the Messenger engage him in dialogue. Oedipus relentlessly interrogates the man, who is forced to admit that the child he pitied and handed over to the messenger was Laius's child. This is the climax of the play; Oedipus realizes for the first time his true identity. He rushes into the palace. He is the answer to the "who done it" riddle.

Ode IV. A longer choral ode pours out in pity and tears for Oedipus.

Exodos. The exodus is the final scene, where we come to resolution and see Oedipus's tragic recognition. First, a messenger tells the story of Jocasta's suicide and Oedipus's self-imposed eye gouging. The blind king is led back on stage, a broken, suffering man filled with shame. He bemoans his fate, asks to be reunited with his daughters one last time. Creon who is now in charge, sends him from the city. The choral speaker issues a stern warning to the people of Thebes about fate and fortune.

Sophocles’s dramatic technique

Sophocles demonstrates a formidable artistic mastery over his material in this play.

Let’s start with the myth of Oedipus. We have a story that his audience would have already been familiar with: the story of the “swollen-foot” (the etymological meaning of Oedipus) who saved  the city Thebes by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, and   inadvertently killed his father and married his mother. The back story of Oedipus’s life is certainly revealed within the play, but the action of the drama is acutely focused on one day in Oedipus’s life. The most dramatic day in his life, the day when he will discover who he really is. It is the day on which his fortunes will instantly reverse from one of the man of wisdom, insight, and intelligence, the hero of the day, the king of Thebes to the most defiled, ashamed, and beleaguered man alive, the sort of man you would least want to be.

This is what Aristotle called the dramatic unities of action, place, and time. The play follows one main action or plot line, it represents action in one place (the palace at Thebes), takes place in the course of 24 hours.

Sophoclean irony

Oedipus the King offers us one of the greatest examples in literature of a technique used by writers called “irony.” Irony is a literary or rhetorical device in which there is a discrepancy, an incongruity, between what is said and what is understood by the audience. There are three types of irony to be introduced here:

Verbal irony. The speaker knowingly uses ironic language. Tiresias uses verbal irony in his verbal battle with Oedipus.

Situational irony. When a situation results in an outcome at odds with the expected outcome. The result is dissappointing, unfair, and often a surprise. In our play, the fact that Oedipus is the chief detective in search of the culprit, who turns out to be himself, is situational irony. Although this outcome is not a surprise, it does strike us as somehow unfair. Kenneth Burke’s definition of irony is “what goes out as A, returns as non-A.”

Dramatic irony. The words and actions of characters belie the real situation without their knowledge. The audience knows something the character doesn’t. Almost every line Oedipus utters in the play is rich with dramatic irony.
There are many instances of ironic reversals in the play. Oedipus’s curse early in the play comes back to haunt him by the end of the play (he must be banished from the city forever). Jocasta intends to calm Oedipus’s fears, and in telling her story, lets an important detail slip out (which is dramatic irony, not verbal irony: she doesn’t know any better), which ironically makes Oedipus all the more fearful for his guilt. The messenger comes from Corinth with “good news” (Oedipus’s father is dead), but this quickly inverts into bad news (Polybos wasn’t actually his father).

Oedipal guilt

Is Oedipus guilty or innocent? It is a question that has been debated for a long time, and as is the case with most questions of intepretation, it depends on how you look at the problem. Did he kill Laius (his father) and marry Jocasta (his mother): obviously the answer is yes. He has not been framed for these crimes. But did he do these horrible deeds knowingly? No. Does he accept responsibility for his actions anyway? Yes. This is partly what makes him a tragic hero. He feels the full force of what he has done, and the savage irony that it was his will that led him into the trap of destiny. We sense that Oedipus has paradoxically brought this on himself and has stubbornly pursued the truth of identity despite all warnings to back off the quest, while simultaneously we feel that something terribly unfair has befallen Oedipus, who never wanted any of this to happen. He has been ensnared by forces beyond his control.

Oedipus and the quest for self knowledge

Was Oedipus wise or foolish in his determined quest after the truth? He surely has his reasons for pursuing the murderer: he wants to release Thebes from the throes of plague, and he is looking to protect his own kingship (after all the murderer might come after him). And there is something noble in his determination to pursue the truth, even when it is clear that the truth will hurt him. He does not shy away from the task at hand. He is both wise and foolish. Not as wise as he thinks he is at the beginning of the play (which makes him seem foolish - hence all the dramatic irony), and a lot wiser by the end (even though he is now blind and beleaguered).

Oedipus as tragic hero

Some critics assert that Oedipus’s pride (in Greek, hamartia), is what does him in. Perhaps, but I don’t think this entirely explains the tragic logic of the play. He has many flaws: pride, stubbornness, paranoia, a wrathful temper. Do any of these adequately justify his horrible destiny?

Oedipus and destiny/free will

A great paradox haunts Oedipus Rex. How is it that a man could fulfill his destiny by consciously willing the precise opposite. The last thing Oedipus wants to do is kill his father and marry his mother, and yet his very actions put him in that very position. How are we to reconcile this?

This begs the question: to what extent are the Gods in control of human affairs? Are we mere puppets acting out a script, the strings being pulled by forces beyond our control? Is Sophocles suggesting that human beings should not think of themselves as being free to determine their own destiny, the gods be damned? Is the play a cautionary tale for those would assume too much about the quest for human knowledge and human aspirations to be self-made human beings, to define ourselves?
Oedipus is the ultimate self-made man, so it seems. He takes charge of his destiny. He attempts to outflank the oracle. He leaves his homeland (Corinth) and overcomes the monstrous force of nature in the Sphinx  through his human reason, his mind. In doing so, he gains power and prestige. It makes him king. But the play undercuts the notion that we are in control of our destiny, that we are who we say we are, we are known by the way we make in the world. Oedipus thinks he knows who he is, but he doesn’t really know; however, a distinguishing characteristic he possesses is the desire to know. He does not want to be blind. He wants to know his true identity. As the play unfolds, this in fact supersedes the original pretext for the quest. This becomes an investigation not so much into who killed Laius (this matter is pretty well wrapped up midway through the plot), but who Oedipus actually is. But I do not think the play is saying we have no control over our actions, that we are mere puppets or playthings of the gods. The oracles stand back and tell you what is going to happen; they don’t tell you how. It is up to the human beings to act out their affairs on the stage of life, hoping they don’t meet the same fate as Oedipus.

Apollonian and Dionysian influences in Oedipus Rex

There is a kind of duel going on at a thematic level between the dark forces of nature and the light forces of reason and intellect. Oedipus thinks he is the man of Apollo, the champion of reason, logic, insight. He is after all the solver of riddles. This side of him has no need for oracles. Opposed to him are the Sphinx (an animal/female force, ravenously sexual and bestial), Tiresias, the blind prophet, and hidden aspects of Oedipus’s nature, namely his murderous, wrathful angry side and his blind desire for Jocasta. While he is smart and compassionate, he also has violent instincts. He has an anger management problem. He is irrationally paranoid about his parentage. And he is after all attracted to an older woman who turns out to be his  mother. He cannot control these desires as much as he assumes.

Dionysus, the god of wine, is the god of wildness, frenzied ecstasy, the lost of rational control, the wellspring of creative inspiration and blind desire. Oedipus is blind to the Dionysian in himself.

One might notice a hint of this blindness in his reaction to the oracle. When Oedipus turns from Delphi and resolves to flee from Corinth, never to return because he doesn’t want to kill or commit incest, in a convoluted way he has subconsciously confirmed his guilt. His attempt to run away betrays himself. A person who truly believe in the power of free will would have no fear of fulfilling the prophecy. Yet there are seeds of doubt. Subconsciously there is a realization that he is capable of violating the taboos. Why run if one is so certain that the impulses could never arise?

Critical perspectives

Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic Here are some observations on Oedipus from Terry Eagleton's Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic:

The classical scholar E.R. Dodds finds the value of Sophocles's King Oedipus in the fact that Oedipus, despite being 'subjectively innocent,' accepts responsibility for all his actions, including those which are 'objectively most horrible'.... As Hegel comments in his lectures on aesthetics, they did not divorce their purely subjective self-consciousness from what was objectively the case. It is also true, and bemusing to a modern, that Oedipus...never once summons his subjective lack of guilt in his self-defense. It would not occur to him to imagine that an incestuous parricide could be spared from pollution simply on account of his ignorance (33).

Oedipus doesn't try to weasel out of his fate; he doesn't whine 'it wasn't my fault, you should let me off the hook because I did everything I could do to avoid this outcome.' Instead he stands there like a man and suffers the outrage and shame of having violated two major taboos. Eagleton sees Oedipus as a 'sacrificial scapegoat, who will finally come to assume the burden of the community's sins.' And perhaps we as witnesses will flinch to see the heavy price paid for lifting this curse from the city of Thebes.
Eagleton later connects the Sphinx (the lion-bird-woman monster) to the forces of Nature; it is Oedipus the man of knowledge who overcomes Nature through his understanding and reason, but it is the same man who also violates Nature's sexual laws in committing incest with his mother. Oedipus overcomes Nature/Sphinx with his conscious mind, while his unconscious desire for Jocasta leads him to violate Nature's ways, the laws of kinship. The tragic question incest raises is, why was Oedipus attracted to his mother? To him, she's just the queen of Thebes, the reward for earning the throne of Thebes by outwitting the Sphinx. Yet at a unconscious level (anything below consciousness being by definition blind) his desire for this woman is blind, as is her desire for him. Neither one knowingly violates the law of nature, yet they still commit the sin and must bear the consequences. The fearful symbolism of this unfortunate, incestuous couple is that it could happen to anyone, conceivably. As creatures of sub-conscious desire, we are all capable of being led astray. "To merge with the parent is to come too near to the tabooed sources of one's own identity, and like Oedipus to be blinded by this excess of light. Only by establishing a distance from yourself, as in any act of knowledge, can you know yourself for what you are; but this risks a different kind of estrangement." (162). There is something to be feared in desire itself. What is it I am desiring? Is it another individual, or some part of myself that I am blind to? The uncertain ground beneath desire as personified by Oedipus is something to be feared, respected, and pitied. Why pity? Because none of us is free from desire's uncertain claims on the self.

None of this can stand, of course, as the plague on Thebes makes plain. A social abomination, Oedipus must be made an example of. He must follow his own orders. He must play the role of the pharmakos, a human being (or figure of a human) cast away and reviled as a scapegoat for society, who must bear their sins and be sacrificed for the good of all, and who then attains a sacred status. "[I]n very ancient times in some Greek cities, on the occasion of crises such as plague or famine or drought, to purify the city they would stone to death either the perpetrator of a sacrilegious act which was regarded as the cause of the disaster, or scapegoat(s), if it was of unknown origin. Such practice was gradually established as an annual event with the purpose of averting calamity, and consequently the expulsion of scapegoat(s) from the community became the essential element of the ritual and stoning changed into a symbolical, ceremonial act performed in casting out the scapegoat(s)." (Hirayama, Journal of Classical Studies XLIX(2001)

 Humanity is a riddle, definable only by paradox and aporia. It is open like the Sphinx's conundrum to conflicting readings, a question which is its own solution since it can be defined only in terms of itself. Oedipus the decipherer of enigmas is himself an enigma he cannot decipher. The unknowable, the Kantian noumenon, is humanity itself, constituted as it is by something which is centrally missing. And this enigma in Sophocles's drama is also the riddling or garbling of incest, which scrambles or telescopes the various stages of life (youth/age, parent/child) which the sphinx's riddle lays out in sequence. Incest erases boundaries, as does Oedipus's answer to the sphinx's query. The human confounds categories, just like the sphinx itself, composite of bird, lion, and woman. (Eagleton 281)

According to Sigmund Freud (as interpreted by Eagleton),

Oedipus is all of us, not because we are all potential parricides or aspiring mother-lovers. As with the rest of us, there is a gap between his objective location in the symbolic order and his imaginary idea of himself.... He is what he is - king, husband, father - only by virtue of this separation.... Oedipus will never be more estranged from himself than when these two registers merge in the terrible light of recognition. To come to selfhood is to acknowledge your self-alienation, the fact that subjectivity just is the process whereby the self constantly gives itself the slip.... In being too intimate with the are blinded to your own being, since it depends on distance and otherness for its constitution. Too much probing into the poisoned sources of your identity will put out your eyes. (281-282)

Oedipus's tragedy raises fundamental questions about identity and destiny. Are we really in control of who we are, what drives us, what impels us to make decisions? Is free will an illusion? Can we ever really "know ourselves"? And if we can, do we want to know what we'll find? Life is unpredictable, and yet we go about our business, making plans, scheming, tempting fate, living in denial, crafting identities for ourselves. We're a proud species, quick to learn when it's to our advantage, slow when it comes to shameful truths. We think we're in control, but are we ever? And yet, how else can we live? You can't will yourself not to will. You can't erase who you are, even if you don't realize what you are. That, maybe, is how Oedipus epitomizes the human predicament -- identity is not something you can take for granted.


Eagleton, Terry. Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic

Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of KnowledgeSegal, Charles. Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. [the best sourcebook on the myth and interpretations of the play] [amz link]

Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays trans. Robert Fagles. Penguin Classics. [amz link]

A Good Man is Hard to Find

by Flannery O'Connor

The Complete StoriesThe grandmother didn't want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennes- see and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey's mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. "Now look here, Bailey," she said, "see here, read this," and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. "Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn't take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn't answer to my conscience if I did."

Bailey didn't look up from his reading so she wheeled around then and faced the children's mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit's ears. She was sitting on the sofa, feeding the baby his apricots out of a jar. "The children have been to Florida before," the old lady said. "You all ought to take them somewhere else for a change so they would see different parts of the world and be broad. They never have been to east Tennessee."

The children's mother didn't seem to hear her but the eight-year-old boy, John Wesley, a stocky child with glasses, said, "If you don't want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?" He and the little girl, June Star, were reading the funny papers on the floor.

"She wouldn't stay at home to be queen for a day," June Star said without raising her yellow head.

"Yes and what would you do if this fellow, The Misfit, caught you?" the grandmother asked.

"I'd smack his face," John Wesley said.

"She wouldn't stay at home for a million bucks," June Star said. "Afraid she'd miss something. She has to go everywhere we go."

"All right, Miss," the grandmother said. "Just re- member that the next time you want me to curl your hair."

June Star said her hair was naturally curly.

The next morning the grandmother was the first one in the car, ready to go. She had her big black valise that looked like the head of a hippopotamus in one corner, and underneath it she was hiding a basket with Pitty Sing, the cat, in it. She didn't intend for the cat to be left alone in the house for three days because he would miss her too much and she was afraid he might brush against one of her gas burners and accidentally asphyxiate himself. Her son, Bailey, didn't like to arrive at a motel with a cat.

She sat in the middle of the back seat with John Wesley and June Star on either side of her. Bailey and the children's mother and the baby sat in front and they left Atlanta at eight forty-five with the mileage on the car at 55890. The grandmother wrote this down because she thought it would be interesting to say how many miles they had been when they got back. It took them twenty minutes to reach the outskirts of the city.

The old lady settled herself comfortably, removing her white cotton gloves and putting them up with her purse on the shelf in front of the back window. The children's mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief, but the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.

She said she thought it was going to be a good day for driving, neither too hot nor too cold, and she cautioned Bailey that the speed limit was fifty-five miles an hour and that the patrolmen hid themselves behind billboards and small clumps of trees and sped out after you before you had a chance to slow down. She pointed out interesting details of the scenery: Stone Mountain; the blue granite that in some places came up to both sides of the highway; the brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple; and the various crops that made rows of green lace-work on the ground. The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled. The children were reading comic magazines and their mother and gone back to sleep.

"Let's go through Georgia fast so we won't have to look at it much," John Wesley said.

"If I were a little boy," said the grandmother, "I wouldn't talk about my native state that way. Tennessee has the mountains and Georgia has the hills."

"Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground," John Wesley said, "and Georgia is a lousy state too."

"You said it," June Star said.

"In my time," said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, "children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then. Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!" she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack. "Wouldn't that make a picture, now?" she asked and they all turned and looked at the little Negro out of the back window. He waved

"He didn't have any britches on," June Star said.

"He probably didn't have any," the grandmother explained. "Little riggers in the country don't have things like we do. If I could paint, I'd paint that picture," she said.

The children exchanged comic books.

The grandmother offered to hold the baby and the children's mother passed him over the front seat to her. She set him on her knee and bounced him and told him about the things they were passing. She rolled her eyes and screwed up her mouth and stuck her leathery thin face into his smooth bland one. Occasionally he gave her a faraway smile. They passed a large cotton field with five or fix graves fenced in the middle of it, like a small island. "Look at the graveyard!" the grandmother said, pointing it out. "That was the old family burying ground. That belonged to the plantation."

"Where's the plantation?" John Wesley asked.

"Gone With the Wind" said the grandmother. "Ha. Ha."

When the children finished all the comic books they had brought, they opened the lunch and ate it. The grandmother ate a peanut butter sandwich and an olive and would not let the children throw the box and the paper napkins out the window. When there was nothing else to do they played a game by choosing a cloud and making the other two guess what shape it suggested. John Wesley took one the shape of a cow and June Star guessed a cow and John Wesley said, no, an automobile, and June Star said he didn't play fair, and they began to slap each other over the grandmother.

The grandmother said she would tell them a story if they would keep quiet. When she told a story, she rolled her eyes and waved her head and was very dramatic. She said once when she was a maiden lady she had been courted by a Mr. Edgar Atkins Teagarden from Jasper, Georgia. She said he was a very good-looking man and a gentleman and that he brought her a watermelon every Saturday afternoon with his initials cut in it, E. A. T. Well, one Saturday, she said, Mr. Teagarden brought the watermelon and there was nobody at home and he left it on the front porch and returned in his buggy to Jasper, but she never got the watermelon, she said, because a nigger boy ate it when he saw the initials, E. A. T. ! This story tickled John Wesley's funny bone and he giggled and giggled but June Star didn't think it was any good. She said she wouldn't marry a man that just brought her a watermelon on Saturday. The grandmother said she would have done well to marry Mr. Teagarden because he was a gentle man and had bought Coca-Cola stock when it first came out and that he had died only a few years ago, a very wealthy man.

They stopped at The Tower for barbecued sand- wiches. The Tower was a part stucco and part wood filling station and dance hall set in a clearing outside of Timothy. A fat man named Red Sammy Butts ran it and there were signs stuck here and there on the building and for miles up and down the highway saying, TRY RED SAMMY'S FAMOUS BARBECUE. NONE LIKE FAMOUS RED SAMMY'S! RED SAM! THE FAT BOY WITH THE HAPPY LAUGH. A VETERAN! RED SAMMY'S YOUR MAN!

Red Sammy was lying on the bare ground outside The Tower with his head under a truck while a gray monkey about a foot high, chained to a small chinaberry tree, chattered nearby. The monkey sprang back into the tree and got on the highest limb as soon as he saw the children jump out of the car and run toward him.

Inside, The Tower was a long dark room with a counter at one end and tables at the other and dancing space in the middle. They all sat down at a board table next to the nickelodeon and Red Sam's wife, a tall burnt-brown woman with hair and eyes lighter than her skin, came and took their order. The children's mother put a dime in the machine and played "The Tennessee Waltz," and the grandmother said that tune always made her want to dance. She asked Bailey if he would like to dance but he only glared at her. He didn't have a naturally sunny disposition like she did and trips made him nervous. The grandmother's brown eyes were very bright. She swayed her head from side to side and pretended she was dancing in her chair. June Star said play something she could tap to so the children's mother put in another dime and played a fast number and June Star stepped out onto the dance floor and did her tap routine.

"Ain't she cute?" Red Sam's wife said, leaning over the counter. "Would you like to come be my little girl?"

"No I certainly wouldn't," June Star said. "I wouldn't live in a broken-down place like this for a million bucks!" and she ran back to the table.

"Ain't she cute?" the woman repeated, stretching her mouth politely.

"Arn't you ashamed?" hissed the grandmother.

Red Sam came in and told his wife to quit lounging on the counter and hurry up with these people's order. His khaki trousers reached just to his hip bones and his stomach hung over them like a sack of meal swaying under his shirt. He came over and sat down at a table nearby and let out a combination sigh and yodel. "You can't win," he said. "You can't win," and he wiped his sweating red face off with a gray handkerchief. "These days you don't know who to trust," he said. "Ain't that the truth?"

"People are certainly not nice like they used to be," said the grandmother.

"Two fellers come in here last week," Red Sammy said, "driving a Chrysler. It was a old beat-up car but it was a good one and these boys looked all right to me. Said they worked at the mill and you know I let them fellers charge the gas they bought? Now why did I do that?"

"Because you're a good man!" the grandmother said at once.

"Yes'm, I suppose so," Red Sam said as if he were struck with this answer.

His wife brought the orders, carrying the five plates all at once without a tray, two in each hand and one balanced on her arm. "It isn't a soul in this green world of God's that you can trust," she said. "And I don't count nobody out of that, not nobody," she repeated, looking at Red Sammy.

"Did you read about that criminal, The Misfit, that's escaped?" asked the grandmother.

"I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he didn't attack this place right here," said the woman. "If he hears about it being here, I wouldn't be none surprised to see him. If he hears it's two cent in the cash register, I wouldn't be a tall surprised if he . . ."

"That'll do," Red Sam said. "Go bring these people their Co'-Colas," and the woman went off to get the rest of the order.

"A good man is hard to find," Red Sammy said. "Everything is getting terrible. I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more."

He and the grandmother discussed better times. The old lady said that in her opinion Europe was entirely to blame for the way things were now. She said the way Europe acted you would think we were made of money and Red Sam said it was no use talking about it, she was exactly right. The children ran outside into the white sunlight and looked at the monkey in the lacy chinaberry tree. He was busy catching fleas on himself and biting each one carefully between his teeth as if it were a delicacy.

They drove off again into the hot afternoon. The grandmother took cat naps and woke up every few minutes with her own snoring. Outside of Toombsboro she woke up and recalled an old plantation that she had visited in this neighborhood once when she was a young lady. She said the house had six white columns across the front and that there was an avenue of oaks leading up to it and two little wooden trellis arbors on either side in front where you sat down with your suitor after a stroll in the garden. She recalled exactly which road to turn off to get to it. She knew that Bailey would not be willing to lose any time looking at an old house, but the more she talked about it, the more she wanted to see it once again and find out if the little twin arbors were still standing. "There was a secret:-panel in this house," she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing that she were, "and the story went that all the family silver was hidden in it when Sherman came through but it was never found . . ."

"Hey!" John Wesley said. "Let's go see it! We'll find it! We'll poke all the woodwork and find it! Who lives there? Where do you turn off at? Hey Pop, can't we turn off there?"

"We never have seen a house with a secret panel!" June Star shrieked. "Let's go to the house with the secret panel! Hey Pop, can't we go see the house with the secret panel!"

"It's not far from here, I know," the grandmother said. "It wouldn't take over twenty minutes."

Bailey was looking straight ahead. His jaw was as rigid as a horseshoe. "No," he said.

The children began to yell and scream that they wanted to see the house with the secret panel. John Wesley kicked the back of the front seat and June Star hung over her mother's shoulder and whined desperately into her ear that they never had any fun even on their vacation, that they could never do what THEY wanted to do. The baby began to scream and John Wesley kicked the back of the seat so hard that his father could feel the blows in his kidney.

"All right!" he shouted and drew the car to a stop at the side of the road. "Will you all shut up? Will you all just shut up for one second? If you don't shut up, we won't go anywhere."

"It would be very educational for them," the grandmother murmured.

"All right," Bailey said, "but get this: this is the only time we're going to stop for anything like this. This is the one and only time."

"The dirt road that you have to turn down is about a mile back," the grandmother directed. "I marked it when we passed."

"A dirt road," Bailey groaned.

After they had turned around and were headed toward the dirt road, the grandmother recalled other points about the house, the beautiful glass over the front doorway and the candle-lamp in the hall. John Wesley said that the secret panel was probably in the fireplace.

"You can't go inside this house," Bailey said. "You don't know who lives there."

"While you all talk to the people in front, I'll run around behind and get in a window," John Wesley suggested.

"We'll all stay in the car," his mother said.

They turned onto the dirt road and the car raced roughly along in a swirl of pink dust. The grandmother recalled the times when there were no paved roads and thirty miles was a day's journey. The dirt road was hilly and there were sudden washes in it and sharp curves on dangerous embankments. All at once they would be on a hill, looking down over the blue tops of trees for miles around, then the next minute, they would be in a red depression with the dust-coated trees looking down on them.

"This place had better turn up in a minute," Bailey said, "or I'm going to turn around."

The road looked as if no one had traveled on it in months.

"It's not much farther," the grandmother said and just as she said it, a horrible thought came to her. The thought was so embarrassing that she turned red in the face and her eyes dilated and her feet jumped up, upsetting her valise in the corner. The instant the valise moved, the newspaper top she had over the basket under it rose with a snarl and Pitty Sing, the cat, sprang onto Bailey's shoulder.

The children were thrown to the floor and their mother, clutching the baby, was thrown out the door onto the ground; the old lady was thrown into the front seat. The car turned over once and landed right-side-up in a gulch off the side of the road. Bailey remained in the driver's seat with the cat gray-striped with a broad white face and an orange nose clinging to his neck like a caterpillar.

As soon as the children saw they could move their arms and legs, they scrambled out of the car, shouting, "We've had an ACCIDENT!" The grandmother was curled up under the dashboard, hoping she was injured so that Bailey's wrath would not come down on her all at once. The horrible thought she had had before the accident was that the house she had remembered so vividly was not in Georgia but in Tennessee.

Bailey removed the cat from his neck with both hands and flung it out the window against the side of a pine tree. Then he got out of the car and started looking for the children's mother. She was sitting against the side of the red gutted ditch, holding the screaming baby, but she only had a cut down her face and a broken shoulder. "We've had an ACCIDENT!" the children screamed in a frenzy of delight.

"But nobody's killed," June Star said with disappointment as the grandmother limped out of the car, her hat still pinned to her head but the broken front brim standing up at a jaunty angle and the violet spray hanging off the side. They all sat down in the ditch, except the children, to recover from the shock. They were all shaking.

"Maybe a car will come along," said the children's mother hoarsely.

"I believe I have injured an organ," said the grandmother, pressing her side, but no one answered her. Bailey's teeth were clattering. He had on a yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed in it and his face was as yellow as the shirt. The grandmother decided that she would not mention that the house was in Tennessee.

The road was about ten feet above and they could see only the tops of the trees on the other side of it. Behind the ditch they were sitting in there were more woods, tall and dark and deep. In a few minutes they saw a car some distance away on top of a hill, coming slowly as if the occupants were watching them. The grandmother stood up and waved both arms dramatically to attract their attention. The car continued to come on slowly, disappeared around a bend and appeared again, moving even slower, on top of the hill they had gone over. It was a big black battered hearselike automobile. There were three men in it.

It came to a stop just over them and for some minutes, the driver looked down with a steady expressionless gaze to where they were sitting, and didn't speak. Then he turned his head and muttered something to the other two and they got out. One was a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it. He moved around on the right side of them and stood staring, his mouth partly open in a kind of loose grin. The other had on khaki pants and a blue striped coat and a gray hat pulled down very low, hiding most of his face. He came around slowly on the left side. Neither spoke.

The driver got out of the car and stood by the side of it, looking down at them. He was an older man than the other two. His hair was just beginning to gray and he wore silver-rimmed spectacles that gave him a scholarly look. He had a long creased face and didn't have on any shirt or undershirt. He had on blue jeans that were too tight for him and was holding a black hat and a gun. The two boys also had guns.

"We've had an ACCIDENT!" the children screamed.

The grandmother had the peculiar feeling that the bespectacled man was someone she knew. His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but she could not recall who he was. He moved away from the car and began to come down the embankment, placing his feet carefully so that he wouldn't slip. He had on tan and white shoes and no socks, and his ankles were red and thin. "Good afternoon," he said. "I see you all had you a little spill."

"We turned over twice!" said the grandmother.

"Once", he corrected. "We seen it happen. Try their car and see will it run, Hiram," he said quietly to the boy with the gray hat.

"What you got that gun for?" John Wesley asked. "Whatcha gonna do with that gun?"

"Lady," the man said to the children's mother, "would you mind calling them children to sit down by you? Children make me nervous. I want all you all to sit down right together there where you're at."

"What are you telling US what to do for?" June Star asked.

Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth. "Come here," said their mother.

"Look here now," Bailey began suddenly, "we're in a predicament! We're in . . ."

The grandmother shrieked. She scrambled to her feet and stood staring. "You're The Misfit!" she said. "I recognized you at once!"

"Yes'm," the man said, smiling slightly as if he were pleased in spite of himself to be known, "but it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn't of reckernized me."

Bailey turned his head sharply and said something to his mother that shocked even the children. The old lady began to cry and The Misfit reddened.

"Lady," he said, "don't you get upset. Sometimes a man says things he don't mean. I don't reckon he meant to talk to you thataway."

"You wouldn't shoot a lady, would you?" the grandmother said and removed a clean handkerchief from her cuff and began to slap at her eyes with it.

The Misfit pointed the toe of his shoe into the ground and made a little hole and then covered it up again. "I would hate to have to," he said.

"Listen," the grandmother almost screamed, "I know you're a good man. You don't look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!"

"Yes mam," he said, "finest people in the world." When he smiled he showed a row of strong white teeth. "God never made a finer woman than my mother and my daddy's heart was pure gold," he said. The boy with the red sweat shirt had come around behind them and was standing with his gun at his hip. The Misfit squatted down on the ground. "Watch them children, Bobby Lee," he said. "You know they make me nervous." He looked at the six of them huddled together in front of him and he seemed to be embarrassed as if he couldn't think of anything to say. "Ain't a cloud in the sky," he remarked, looking up at it. "Don't see no sun but don't see no cloud neither."

"Yes, it's a beautiful day," said the grandmother. "Listen," she said, "you shouldn't call yourself The Misfit because I know you're a good man at heart. I can just look at you and tell."

"Hush!" Bailey yelled. "Hush! Everybody shut up and let me handle this!" He was squatting in the position of a runner about to sprint forward but he didn't move.

"I pre-chate that, lady," The Misfit said and drew a little circle in the ground with the butt of his gun.

"It'll take a half a hour to fix this here car," Hiram called, looking over the raised hood of it.

"Well, first you and Bobby Lee get him and that little boy to step over yonder with you," The Misfit said, pointing to Bailey and John Wesley. "The boys want to ast you something," he said to Bailey. "Would you mind stepping back in them woods there with them?"

"Listen," Bailey began, "we're in a terrible predicament! Nobody realizes what this is," and his voice cracked. His eyes were as blue and intense as the parrots in his shirt and he remained perfectly still.

The grandmother reached up to adjust her hat brim as if she were going to the woods with him but it came off in her hand. She stood staring at it and after a second she let it fall on the ground. Hiram pulled Bailey up by the arm as if he were assisting an old man. John Wesley caught hold of his father's hand and Bobby I,ee followed. They went off toward the woods and just as they reached the dark edge, Bailey turned and supporting himself against a gray naked pine trunk, he shouted, "I'll be back in a minute, Mamma, wait on me!"

"Come back this instant!" his mother shrilled but they all disappeared into the woods.

"Bailey Boy!" the grandmother called in a tragic voice but she found she was looking at The Misfit squatting on the ground in front of her. "I just know you're a good man," she said desperately. "You're not a bit common!"

"Nome, I ain't a good man," The Misfit said after a second ah if he had considered her statement carefully, "but I ain't the worst in the world neither. My daddy said I was a different breed of dog from my brothers and sisters. 'You know,' Daddy said, 'it's some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it's others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He's going to be into everything!"' He put on his black hat and looked up suddenly and then away deep into the woods as if he were embarrassed again. "I'm sorry I don't have on a shirt before you ladies," he said, hunching his shoulders slightly. "We buried our clothes that we had on when we escaped and we're just making do until we can get better. We borrowed these from some folks we met," he explained.

"That's perfectly all right," the grandmother said. "Maybe Bailey has an extra shirt in his suitcase."

"I'll look and see terrectly," The Misfit said.

"Where are they taking him?" the children's mother screamed.

"Daddy was a card himself," The Misfit said. "You couldn't put anything over on him. He never got in trouble with the Authorities though. Just had the knack of handling them."

"You could be honest too if you'd only try," said the grandmother. "Think how wonderful it would be to settle down and live a comfortable life and not have to think about somebody chasing you all the time."

The Misfit kept scratching in the ground with the butt of his gun as if he were thinking about it. "Yestm, somebody is always after you," he murmured.

The grandmother noticed how thin his shoulder blades were just behind his hat because she was standing up looking down on him. "Do you every pray?" she asked.

He shook his head. All she saw was the black hat wiggle between his shoulder blades. "Nome," he said.

There was a pistol shot from the woods, followed closely by another. Then silence. The old lady's head jerked around. She could hear the wind move through the tree tops like a long satisfied insuck of breath. "Bailey Boy!" she called.

"I was a gospel singer for a while," The Misfit said. "I been most everything. Been in the arm service both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twict married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive oncet," and he looked up at the children's mother and the little girl who were sitting close together, their faces white and their eyes glassy; "I even seen a woman flogged," he said.

"Pray, pray," the grandmother began, "pray, pray . . ."

I never was a bad boy that I remember of," The Misfit said in an almost dreamy voice, "but somewheres along the line I done something wrong and got sent to the penitentiary. I was buried alive," and he looked up and held her attention to him by a steady stare.

"That's when you should have started to pray," she said. "What did you do to get sent to the penitentiary that first time?"

"Turn to the right, it was a wall," The Misfit said, looking up again at the cloudless sky. "Turn to the left, it was a wall. Look up it was a ceiling, look down it was a floor. I forget what I done, lady. I set there and set there, trying to remember what it was I done and I ain't recalled it to this day. Oncet in a while, I would think it was coming to me, but it never come."

"Maybe they put you in by mistake," the old lady said vaguely.

"Nome," he said. "It wasn't no mistake. They had the papers on me."

"You must have stolen something," she said.

The Misfit sneered slightly. "Nobody had nothing I wanted," he said. "It was a head-doctor at the penitentiary said what I had done was kill my daddy but I known that for a lie. My daddy died in nineteen ought nineteen of the epidemic flu and I never had a thing to do with it. He was buried in the Mount Hopewell Baptist churchyard and you can go there and see for yourself."

"If you would pray," the old lady said, "Jesus would help you."

"That's right," The Misfit said.

"Well then, why don't you pray?" she asked trembling with delight suddenly.

"I don't want no hep," he said. "I'm doing all right by myself."

Bobby Lee and Hiram came ambling back from the woods. Bobby Lee was dragging a yellow shirt with bright blue parrots in it.

"Thow me that shirt, Bobby Lee," The Misfit said. The shirt came flying at him and landed on his shoulder and he put it on. The grandmother couldn't name what the shirt reminded her of. "No, lady," The Misfit said while he was buttoning it up, "I found out the crime don't matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you're going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it."

The children's mother had begun to make heaving noises as if she couldn't get her breath. "Lady," he asked, "would you and that little girl like to step off yonder with Bobby Lee and Hiram and join your husband?"

"Yes, thank you," the mother said faintly. Her left arm dangled helplessly and she was holding the baby, who had gone to sleep, in the other. "Hep that lady up, Hiram," The Misfit said as she struggled to climb out of the ditch, "and Bobby Lee, you hold onto that little girl's hand."

"I don't want to hold hands with him," June Star said. "He reminds me of a pig."

The fat boy blushed and laughed and caught her by the arm and pulled her off into the woods after Hiram and her mother.

Alone with The Misfit, the grandmother found that she had lost her voice. There was not a cloud in the sky nor any sun. There was nothing around her but woods. She wanted to tell him that he must pray. She opened and closed her mouth several times before anything came out. Finally she found herself saying, "Jesus. Jesus," meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing.

"Yes'm, The Misfit said as if he agreed. "Jesus shown everything off balance. It was the same case with Him as with me except He hadn't committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me. Of course," he said, "they never shown me my papers. That's why I sign myself now. I said long ago, you get you a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it. Then you'll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you'll have something to prove you ain't been treated right. I call myself The Misfit," he said, "because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment."

There was a piercing scream from the woods, followed closely by a pistol report. "Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain't punished at all?"

"Jesus!" the old lady cried. "You've got good blood! I know you wouldn't shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady. I'll give you all the money I've got!"

"Lady," The Misfit said, looking beyond her far into the woods, "there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip."

There were two more pistol reports and the grandmother raised her head like a parched old turkey hen crying for water and called, "Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy!" as if her heart would break.

"Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead," The Misfit continued, "and He shouldn't have done it. He shown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness," he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.

"Maybe He didn't raise the dead," the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her.

"I wasn't there so I can't say He didn't," The Misfit said. "I wisht I had of been there," he said, hitting the ground with his fist. "It ain't right I wasn't there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady," he said in a high voice, "if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn't be like I am now." His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother's head cleared for an instant. She saw the man's face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children !" She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.

Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child's and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.

Without his glasses, The Misfit's eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking. "Take her off and thow her where you thown the others," he said, picking up the cat that was rubbing itself against his leg.

"She was a talker, wasn't she?" Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.

"She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

"Some fun!" Bobby Lee said.

"Shut up, Bobby Lee," The Misfit said. "It's no real pleasure in life."

A Good Man is Hard to Find (The Harcourt Brace Casebook Series in Literature)Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find": A Study Guide from Gale's "Short Stories for Students" (Volume 02, Chapter 7)

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]


JamaicaImage by MHBaker via Flickr
At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid

Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don't walk barehead in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak your little cloths right after you take them off; when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn't have gum on it, because that way it won't hold up well after a wash; soak salt fish overnight before you cook it; is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school?; always eat your food in such a way that it won't turn someone else's stomach; on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming; don't sing benna in Sunday school; you mustn't speak to wharbfflies will follow you; but I don't sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school; this is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a button-hole for the button you have just sewed on; this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming; this is how you iron your father's khaki shirt so that it doesn't have a crease; this is how you iron your father's khaki pants so that they don't have a crease; this is how you grow okrbafar from the house, because okra tree harbors red ants; when you are growing dasheen, make sure it gets plenty of water or else it makes your throat itch when you are eating it; this is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard; this is how you smile to someone you don't like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don't like at all; this is how you smile to someone you like completely; this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast; this is how to behave in the presence of men who don't know you very well, and this way they won't recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming; be sure to wash every day, even if it is with your own spit; don't squat down to play marblebsyou are not a boy, you know; don't pick people's flowerbsyou might catch something; don't throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all; this is how to make a bread pudding; this is how to make doukona; this is how to make pepper pot; this is how to make a good medicine for a cold; this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child; this is how to catch a fish; this is how to throw back a fish you don't like, and that way something bad won't fall on you; this is how to bully a man; this is how a man bullies you; this is how to love a man; and if this doesn't work there are other ways, and if they don't work don't feel too bad about giving up; this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it, and this is how to move quick so that it doesn't fall on you; this is how to make ends meet; always squeeze bread to make sure it's fresh; but what if the baker won't let me feel the bread?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won't let near the bread?

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Jan 4, 2010

Notes on Innovative Fiction

(These notes reference four short stories: "How To Tell a True War Story" by Tim O'Brien, "Girl" by Jamaica Kinkaid, "Popular Mechanics" by Raymond Carver, and "Young Man on Sixth Avenue" by Mark Halliday. Page references are to The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature, Michael Meyers, Ed.)

First, remember we defined the art of the short story very broadly, saying it was a "…a relatively brief fictional narrative in prose, anywhere from 500-15,000 words in length. Distinct from the "sketch" or the "tale" in that it has a definite formal development, finding its unity in more than plot — in character, effect, theme, tone, mood, and style." There are other more open-ended kinds of definitions, like the student who wrote "A short story is an asterisk in time." This definition emphasizes the one quality essential to the form, which we haven't entirely emphasized yet: brevity. Edgar Allen Poe emphasizes that quality, too.

In the notes I've presented and in our class discussions, our approach has been a mixture of reader-response, formalist analysis, and a little bit of historical/cultural research and criticism when that was interesting, as in the case of Melville. We haven't had time to dip into every approach that's possible. They're all enriching in their way. If you kept studying literature, you'd find that each piece you read seems to require a kind of unique, nuanced critical approach, because each work is different and unique in some way. That is especially true of the next set of stories we're about to look at, Tim O'Brien's "How to Tell a True War Story," "Jamaica Kinkaid's "Girl," and Raymond Carver's "Popular Mechanics."

My name for the type of short fiction we're about to discuss is "innovative." Sometimes I interchange the term "experimental." Innovative, experimental short fiction plays around with the conventional forms of the short story we described last week — elements like plot, character, point of view, and setting. It approaches form in a new way. Each of these stories extends the possibilities for the way a story can be told. So you think a story has to have a plot? Read "Girl," and think again.


The innovative feature of this story is, once again, its narrator. In this case we have a very "intrusive" narrator (that's a formalist term), who's constantly telling us what to think about what we're reading. Once clear reason this story is different lies in the way the narrator keeps popping in, struggling, it turns out, to define what he means by a "true war story." O'Brien is giving us, then, a story about telling a story and it also tells a story. If it was just a story about telling a story, I think it would have really limited appeal. Maybe a few writers would take interest. But it also tells an interesting story about the experience of being a soldier in a horrifying war. It's an example of what might be called "metafiction." But I don't care a whole lot about that term. What's more important is whether you note the power O'Brien derives from telling the story this way.

Besides the narrator who keeps popping in and out, playing with narrative point of view is embedded in the story in other ways, too. Look at the layers of storytellers we have to wade through to get the story of the soldiers doing recon on the mountainside. Our narrator gets it from his buddy who got it from someone else, and then his buddy (Mitch) confesses he changed a few details to make it "true"…. "God's truth…" he begins the story… (423) But later, we feel sorry for Mitch as we see him groping for meaning just like the rest of us (425). It's still ambiguous what it's all supposed to mean, even what it means to Mitch. We can take our best guess, that's all.

Right from the first line, the story introduces a paradox, and in fact, the story is one long expression of the discomforting sense of paradox that accompanies the narrator's experience of war. (And if credibility is an issue for you, you should note that Tim O'Brien was a Vietnam vet.)

Throughout the story, irony and paradox accompany his presentation of the characters and events that took place "twenty years ago."

From the first line of the story, we're faced with a paradox, and the challenge is laid out. "This is true" (420). In what sense is this story "true"? We already know it's not true; it's a work of fiction. How is it "true"? If it isn't true in its surface details—these are fictional characters in a fictional setting—what exactly is true about it? If you can answer that, you've understood what literature as an important endeavor has to offer humanity. (That deeper inner truth; the inside scoop—the truth about consciousness and emotion, about the very things we think of as "human.")

The paradox continues at the bottom of the page: "A true war story is never moral…if a story seems moral do not believe it" (421). Why? If story has a nice, neatly wrapped moral, then it is probably contrived, the worst kind of falseness, a bigger LIE than fiction, which paradoxically is true. A real understanding of war is an understanding of war's obscenity, its evil, the "larger waste." It's Rat Kiley and Curt Lemon, two barely grown boys who insist on having an dangerously innocent game of catch and one getting blown to bits, the other forced to grow up in a hurry. It's Rat Kiley absorbing the vile, violent, demonize-the-enemy code, internalizing it. It's the tragic loss of respect for life, including one's own. It's the scene with the baby water buffalo. "There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue." Believing in the "virtue" of war is a grand lie.

Here's another great paradox: "In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way….The picture gets jumbled ; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed" (422). Is the narrator just totally confused, or is he trying to express a paradoxical truth here? I think a little of both! What makes the memory so hard to capture, and even harder to convey?

Skip ahead to p. 427. The narrator (and O'Brien behind him) sums up the paradox at the heart of his experience of the war. Although "Nam" is, as Mitchell Sanders puts it, "The Garden of Evil" where "every sin's real fresh and original" it isn't that easy for the narrator, who keeps trying to tell the story in a way that will communicate what war really means. "War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead."

In the next paragraph:

"The truths are contradictory. It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can't help but gape at the awful majesty of combat. You stare out at tracer rounds unwinding through the dark like brilliant red ribbons. You crouch in ambush as a cool, impassive moon rises over the nighttime paddies. You admire the fluid symmetries of troops on the move, the harmonies of sound and shape and proportion, the great sheets of metal-fire streaming down from a gunship, the illumination rounds, the white phosphorus, the purply black glow of napalm, the rocket's red glare. It's not pretty, exactly. It's astonishing. It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not. Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope, any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference-a powerful, implacable beauty-and a true war story will tell the truth about this, though the truth is ugly" (427).

And on p. 428:

"Mitchell Sanders was right. For the common sldier, at least, war has the feel-the spiritual texture-of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity. Everything swirls. The old rules are no longer binding, the old truths no longer true. Right spills over into wrong. Order blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty, law into anarchy, civility into savagery. The vapors suck you in. You can't tell where you are, or why you're there, and the only certainty is absolute ambiguity."

SYMBOL plays a large role in this as in other stories. Here is deepens the meaning of war in a concrete, visceral way. One major symbol in O'Brien's story is the baby water buffalo that Rat Kiley brutally murders. Not only does this anecdote make the stomach believe, but the narrator is still having nightmares about it 20 years later. It is the moment when it becomes vividly clear how Rat Kiley has lost his humanity. We see it as clear as day watching him brutalize that poor innocent creature. In a way the baby buffalo is he himself, brutalized by the terror he's been forced to experience in Vietnam. The torturous way this passage is described…I think O'Brien is here trying to vividly make your stomach believe in the obscenity, the evil of war. This is one perspective from someone who's been there, in this "Garden of Evil" where "every sin's real fresh and original."

We've said a lot about the anti-moralizing at the heart of the art of the short story, and I want you to notice how Rat's buddies react to the horror they witness in that scene with the baby buffalo. How might you expect them to act? How does their response defy your expectations? What makes sense about it? They can relate to his feelings, possibly, in a way we readers can't. But remember, 20 years later, the horror of that moment keeps returning to haunt our narrator. Although it isn't easy to say what the "moral of the story is," do you think the story, by the way it conveys experience, projects a kind of moral force anyway?

GIRL by Jamaica Kincaid

Here's a story in which the conventional use of plot, character development, point of view, dialogue, setting — you name it — all the elements of form fly out the window! The story has an especially innovative point of view. It seems like a monologue, the mother's voice filtered through the daughters consciousness, and we're hearing her thoughts; but it's actually a dialogue, because the daughter does answer here and there.

At the heart of this "plotless" narrative there is still a very clear conflict: mother vs. daughter. There's "Mother" who wants to indoctrinate her offspring, prepare her to live an adult life according to the cultural mores of her place and time. And there's Daughter, who, feeling nagged and oppressed, responds by rebelling. She has her own sense of herself and resists this indoctrination. How does it all work out? That's ambiguous.

This story is a great example of literature's ability to leap across cultural boundaries. Kincaid is from Antigua (in the Caribbean) and it seems the story is set there. But it's a timeless, universal story about the generation gap. Parents will always try desperately to pass their own values on to their children — their lifetime's worth of learning and wisdom — and children will also try desperately to discover their own values and gain their own wisdom.

There's a little bit extra here, too. This daughter seems oppressed, not only by her nagging mother, but also by the role being offered her. It seems very confining and limited, and perhaps that's what leads the girl to reject it. Kincaid herself left Antigua at age 17 at least partly to escape her mother, and that makes this story seems especially biographical, though of course it is still fiction.


Here's a fact about Raymond Carver: he thinks a short story should have a sense of "threat" or "menace":

[There should be] a tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often, there simply won't be a story. What creates tension in a piece of fiction is partly the way the concrete words are linked together to make up the visible action of the story. But it's also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface of things. (Raymond Carver)

Do you sense a tension, a threat or menace, lurking throughout "Popular Mechanics"?

"Popular Mechanics," while it may seem strange and somewhat innovative (in length, tone, plot) is actually just the epitome of what Anton Chekov and Joseph Conrad are saying when they maintain that the art of fiction is to "make you hear, make you feel—it is, above all to make you see"… Still, there's an experimental quality here. The first thing that jumps out at me is the artfulness of the point of view — the narrative voice that tells the story. It's a great example of that point of view described as "neutral omniscient" (or "camera eye" in my own lingo); that is, it's completely objective, completely lacking in "subjectivity" — it's wholly an observation brought vividly before you without any narrative intrusion whatsoever. It couldn't be more opposite the style of "How to Tell a True War Story," right? There's no one in this story to tell you what to think about these two individuals. You have to form that judgment yourself. All you get to go on is the picture that Carver puts before you. Does he give you enough detail to form an idea of what's going on?

Here's what Hemingway said about the art of fiction (we'll also revisit this on Friday):

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing….

Carver greatly admired Hemingway and derives a lot from him stylistically. In this story, do you get a sense of the size of the iceberg beneath the surface, seeing just this tip? Do you get a feeling for the hidden forces lurking just below this ruffled surface of things?

Although it seems very objective, the narrator begins the story with small, telling details that actually convey a lot. Even a very objective point of view is selective in the details it chooses. Although a camera doesn't provide commentary, there's still a consciousness there — someone is holding the camera, choosing a certain shot. The details in the first few sentences of the story convey a certain atmosphere, a specific mood; they set the tone for the "dark" events that follow. Remember, this is the writer who said he likes the feeling of "threat" or "menace" in a story. Do you get that right away here? What about details like the "dirty water" and the cars "slushing" by on the street, the gathering darkness outside, and the quiet comment that "it was getting dark inside too"? All of these details set a certain tone. Carver is using the setting to communicate something. The snow and the winter and the twilight could have become a warm, fuzzy scene, but he's not choosing details that paint the picture of a warm fuzzy winter twilight; there's no cozy fire in a fireplace. There's nothing toasty or warm here — the dominant impression created by the small details he uses create a cold, dingy, soggy darkness that overrides how the "weather turned" warm, melting the snow.

What follows this description is a scene between a parting couple. What kinds of things do you infer about these two adults based on the way you see them interact? Remember, Carver isn't going to moralize; he isn't going to tell you want to think, how to interpret their behavior. He's just going to show them to you, as vividly, as compactly as he can.

Here's one reading of the scene: these people are selfish and pigheaded, with only their own needs in mind, not one another's or the baby's. They destroy the baby. Not much good can be said about them. They both want their own way at any cost. You get the feeling, too, that their marriage has been one long power struggle, that the issue they've never been able to decide is how to work out their differences. Throughout this brief story, they constantly try to one-up one another. When he tries to physically rip the baby away from her, she fights him, but then accuses him of hurting the baby. She can't see her own part in hurting the baby, and he just as blindly tries to overpower her at any cost.

Is the baby symbolic? Is it the symbol of the way they've resolved differences all along, and the reason they're splitting up? Does it represent children in a divorce, pulled this way and that, used and forgotten in the grown-up power struggle that surrounds them, and they're innocently ripped and torn both ways by uncaring parents?

Surely this couldn't happen to a real baby….real parents would never act this way…. You may think so. In that case, is the story a complete waste of time, or does it express, paradoxically, a deeper truth, by being itself a lie? Tim O'Brien explores that same paradox, as we just saw, in "How to Tell a True War Story."

From your text, comes the question: What's the "issue" these two are trying to decide?

How does this story recall the King Solomon story in the Bible (1 Kings, Chapter 3)? In what ways does this story provide a complete contrast to that one? Does being aware of that contrast help shed any light on the meaning of the story? (These people are not wise like King Solomon! What does the true mother in the bible story have that neither of these parents have?)


The innovative feature here is the way the narrator zooms in on one particular moment, portrays a vivid character in that moment and then, like a telescope pulling back, gives us the larger picture, the crushing longer view. The story provides the dizzying experience of time passing so quickly we don't know where it went. Major life events are swept aside in a single sentence; fifty years pass in single paragraph. As in a fable, there's summary, but also vivid, specific detail — we know we're reading a modern story. The form reinforces the story's meaning: how fast an entire life can go by! One moment everything makes sense; we're young and on top of the world, a force to be reckoned with. In the next (relative) moment, that present is vanished, our force hopelessly diminished. We're in a "pseudo-present" that seems to engulf us in our own obscurity. The pseudo-present will never seem as real as that other absolute one that was "obviously and totally the present," a present in which we commanded all our faculties, and walked with "fistfuls of futures that could happen" in all [our] pockets."

Carpe diem? Seize the day? Live and enjoy every single moment you have, because you have a finite number even though it may not seem like that when you're twenty-five. Maybe the point is that people have an internal age that they feel they are no matter how old they may get. This man is eternally twenty-five. Maybe the point is that it's great to be young and hip, and well read, with your whole life ahead of you. Better to be a vibrant young man on Sixth Avenue than an invisible old one who's about to get hit by a passing taxi cab.