Flannery’s Joy

A Bible salesman who is a non-believer, a confidence man, and a cad, outwits his most atheistic opponent in a twisted tryst game of leg up. The leg at risk is real, though symbolic of a self-image, the protuberance we can’t hide from others so we hide behind, that part of us we exaggerate in caricature fashion until it grows so large in our imagination it takes over our picture of ourselves completely. We are inseparable from our self-portrait, until the bible salesman comes along and steals it away, stripping us of our identity, that picture of ourselves probably no one else shares, anyway, or cares, in a flash of insight that does not blind but gives us vision, a gift, grace, what we need, not what we want, the lake in the distance green, the liturgical color of hope. And who better to present the gift from God than a Bible salesman? But it may not be the Bible we need, but no matter, for it’s not bibles he’s carrying in his case. The Bible salesman appears out of nowhere to resolve a theme of appearances.

We are deep in the heart of Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic story, an inversion of standard romantic ritual, “Good Country People.” Ironies pervade the atmosphere, taking the place of the usual Southern humidity. The intelligent but naïve Hulga (she’s changed her name from Joy to better suit her self-image) falls prey to the Bible salesman’s pitch, and figuratively loses the virginity of her self-image, that part of her that no one touches, rarely even herself. He takes it off and keeps it. He’s persuaded Hulga that he loves her, and slowly extracts a kind of commensurate affirmation of her love for him, then he throws down the trump card, and, in spite of all the foreshadowing, if we’re reading the story for the first time, we are just as shocked as she at his next request, for in the gender role switching going on in the good country hayloft, she must now “prove” her love, not by allowing him to take away her virginity (that becomes, in yet another twist, the figurative reading, exaggerated to cartoon dimensions), but allowing him to take off her leg, literally, and he gets the leg up.

Flannery encouraged us to read literally, and not to think of literature as a puzzle to solve. That’s because she’d already done the puzzle solving for us, bringing us Joy.

Related:

Flannery O’Connor and the Coen Brothers

Susan Sontag and a Valentine for Flannery O’Connor

Where Flannery O’Connor meets Julia Roberts on Late Night Talk Shows

Theodore Dreiser and Flannery O’Connor were Neuroscientists, too

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