The Path Back to Self

By: Yardena Pressner

Both the story of “ The Dead” by James Joyce and the story of “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor famously end in carefully calculated moments of epiphany, a transformation of character through a table-turning encounter. Joyce forms this epiphany through his character Gabriel’s reaction to his wife’s confession, while O’Connor arranges the epiphany through her handicapped character’s loss of independence. Though these two stories hold the epiphany moment in common, the encounters discussed in each story are rather distinct from one another. Joyce’s story depends on an intimate encounter with a spouse, while O’Connor’s depends on an intimate encounter with a stranger. Not only are the individuals depicted as dissimilar from one another, but the affect thrown on the reader as a result of the epiphanous moment also differs from one story to the next in the form of “noise” or lack there of. Following the shocking epiphany in “The Dead”, the reader is left with a sense of quiet that both allows for reflection and takes his breath away. In contrast, the reader of “Good Country People” is left after the epiphanous moment with a sense of loud bang by virtue of the degree of shock formed through building up to this last moment of the story. The “quiet” versus “loud” styles of epiphanous moment are not only found in the stories to be discussed, but are revealed respectively in a number of each author’s stories. An examination of the epiphanous styles of both James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor reveals the differing views of each author as to the most effective process of effecting change upon the reader.

Intimacy requires a state of vulnerability. In order for an intimate moment to transpire, the two parties must have insight into the core of one another, which in itself brings exposure to both parties. Hulga and Manley (“Good Country People”) discuss their personal philosophies before delving into any physical intimacy with one another. Moreover, Gretta and Gabriel (“The Dead”), as a married couple with children, must have conversed about their most inner thoughts about life and about themselves, discussions requiring exposure of self. A person may desire a connection with the world, but fear of weakness may be cause for hesitation. Until protective walls and arrogance are taken away through the state of vulnerability, no intimacy or mindset change can occur. Without this humble vulnerability, the moment of epiphany cannot come about and the person in need of stark realization about his or her way of life is not aware of the active change that must be made. Although epiphany, as defined by Google, is a moment of sudden revelation or insight, it can be further said that epiphany is a naked state for the character undergoing this process. The character in an epiphanous state is exposed to himself and must face the person standing across from him in the mirror. To be discussed more in detail, Gabriel’s epiphany is quiet because of its emotional (below the surface) quality of his wife sleeping beside him and of the snow softly falling within him, while Hulga’s epiphany is loud because of its physicality (stolen wooden leg, above the surface).

The moment of epiphany for the character of Gabriel in “The Dead” is based on a realization that his wife Gretta’s love for him has never been in his possession. Joyce begins this short story at a party thrown by Gabriel’s aunts. At the party, Gretta hears a song playing on the piano and is immersed in thought. Following the party, Gabriel plans to take his wife to a hotel to spend the romantic night alone with her. In Gabriel’s mind, he and his wife are on the verge of an intimate moment, but Gretta, his wife, is thinking of another man. Gretta’s true love, Michael Furey, died prematurely many years prior by risking his own health to spend his last moments with her. After the leaving his aunts’ party (the setting of the opening scene of the story) to spend a romantic night alone with his wife, Gabriel inquires of Gretta, “What about the song? Why does that make you cry? …I supposed you were in love with this Michael Furey” (Joyce). Although his wife never approves of or denies his accusations, Gabriel’s beliefs are confirmed by his wife’s desire to sleep rather than to spend her time with her husband. He comprehends that “while he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another” (Joyce). Gabriel “saw himself as a ludicrous figure…idealizing his own clownish lusts” (Joyce). The character has come to a realization that he has not been living his life and that he is the living dead. He has finally understood that he and those who surround him are deeper in the ground than Michael Furey who died long ago and sees that he has never loved his wife in the way that her former love had. Gabriel and those who surround him live their lives completely on the surface. When he describes his wife, though he thinks he truly loves her until this moment, he sees her as a picture and focuses solely on her outer beauty. In his moment of long overdue self-reflection, Gabriel becomes one with the living and the dead, as he imagines himself standing before Michael’s grave with snow falling overhead. This moment is both quiet for the character and quiet for the reader. Although the state of emotional epiphany would seem like a moment of shock, this moment of epiphany seeps in slowly as the snow seeps into the ground.

While Gabriel’s moment of epiphany follows an intimate moment with his wife, Hulga’s epiphanous moment tails an intimate encounter with a stranger, the Bible salesman, Manley Pointer. After trying to sell her mother a Bible, Manley asks Hulga on a date. These two characters retreat to a barn behind the house and discuss their philosophies on life. For the first time, Hulga allows herself vulnerability when Pointer kisses her and she immerses herself in their intimate moment, “surrendering to him completely. It was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his” (O’Connor). As they become closely acquainted with one another, Manley asks Hulga to show him her wooden leg, a replacement for the leg she lost in a farm accident. Hulga’s leg represents her safe place, her option to opt out of beauty and hold onto her intellectuality, and in showing it to Manley and removing it for him to examine, she presents her vulnerability. The young woman’s moment of truth is brought on by the bible salesman’s betrayal of her faith in him and the damage that he brings to her belief that with her high intellect, she is impenetrable. Although the reader is left in suspense of Hulga’s future, as she is left lying alone on the barn loft, the salesman’s betrayal of her trust is necessary for her to reflect upon her life’s experiences and to stop hiding behind her intellect. This young woman must for the first time look at herself with a naked eye and see that she has made mistakes and assumptions and that she is human and not a genius robot. Though Manley Pointer breaks Hulga’s trust, he also allows her to reveal her true identity and realize that she does not have to hide behind the ugliness of her wooden leg and of her self-given name Hugla. If she chooses, she may be Joy, her birth name.

Whereas both authors employ self-reflection, intimacy, and vulnerability in their revelations of epiphany, they do not share views of most effectively portraying that life-altering moment to the reader. Each author employs his or her own method of inspiring self-reflection in the reader through the epiphanous moments thrust upon his or her character. Joyce’s method of portraying the most effective epiphany begins with the loud party where he begins Gabriel’s story and slowly quiets his scene, as the party guests leave, Gretta and Gabriel advance to their hotel, Gretta falls asleep, and Gabriel is left only with his own thoughts of falling snow over Ireland. He describes the snow at great detail:

…falling softly…softly falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried…His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

By implementing the repetitive sounds of the letters f and s (“falling softly”, “softly falling”, “falling faintly”, and “faintly falling”), the author forms an almost silent scene where the only sound to be heard is that of the snow falling. As Gabriel falls into a deep slumber with these thoughts, the reader is left to contemplate the path to a life free of distortion of truth.

Contrastingly, O’Connor takes her reader on a different path to epiphany of soft, comfortable living, igniting a revelation where the character is left completely vulnerable and where it is not possible for life to regress to its former intellectually and spiritually closed state. The scene may be quiet in reality, but the explosion of the character’s new reality rings in the ears of the reader. Before Manley lets himself down from the loft, taking with him Hulga’s wooden leg, the two characters yell out their last words to one another. In their last moments of conversation, Manley reveals his true identity to Hulga: “‘I many sell bibles but I know which end is up and I wasn’t born yesterday and I know where I’m going…I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!’” (O’Connor). On the other hand, Hulga does not wish to release herself from her seemingly safe past to remove her mask of strength, as she screams, “‘Give me my leg!’” (O’Connor). Each statement is highlighted by an exclamation. These exclamations echo in the mind of the reader as Manley Porter runs to his next victim. Unbeknownst to the world outside of the barn, including Hulga’s mother (Mrs. Freeman) and her employer (Mrs. Hopewell), Hulga’s world and all that she has forced herself to view as truth has been shattered by Manley’s betrayal of her trust by leaving her alone and vulnerable in the barn. The sounds of the last scene of Hulga’s demise and possible rebirth are formed, for the most part, in the mind of the reader in response to the shock of Manley Porter’s actions and revelation of his true identity (imposter).

As examined, the method epiphany exposure in both “Good Country People” and “The Dead”, discloses the authors’ views of the most effective path to inspire self-reflection in both character and reader. Both authors recognize the importance of a character’s vulnerable and humble state in forming a proper setting for introspection. While each method of epiphany formation is effective in arousing response from character and reader, one author, Joyce, implements a quiet building of snow and self-awareness, while the other, O’Connor, does not allow her epiphany to penetrate her character or her reader until the last moment, when it falls upon both with a bang. Epiphany, as defined by Google, a moment of sudden revelation or insight, can be achieved effectively from a number of paths, but only the truly successful transcend the text to touch the reader.

Bibliography

Joyce, James. “The Dead.” The Story and Its Writers: An Introduction to Short Film. 8th ed. Bedford, 2010. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. “Good Country People.” The Story and Its Writers: An Introduction to Short Film. 8th ed. Bedford, 2010. Print.

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