There be dragons!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Good Man is in the Tarot

Just had a fascinating insight into Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find." O'Connor was intrigued by what she called "the conversion moment" - that is, the moment of grace given to a person by God in which, through pain, sorrow, or loss, they have the opportunity to accept or reject salvation. Only through that intense moment, O'Connor suggested, could a person could come to see the world as sacramental.

In "Good Man" the protagonist, grandmother, and her family stop for lunch at a restaurant called "The Tower". This seems a very odd name for a restaurant unless O'Connor was intending some greater symbolism. Certainly the tower of Babel comes to mind, but since Red Sammy Butts doesn't seem quite as grandiose as Nimrod the giant there must be some other symbolism occurring.

In the Rider-Waite Tarot deck there appears this image:

The major arcana of the tarot deck represent attitudes toward the world, some good, some evil which all serve to give language to our experience as humans. This one the XVI one in the major arcana shows two men plummetting toward merciless rocks after their fortress is riven with a thunderbolt from the heavens. It is night and murky clouds surround the tower while fire spews from the windows and a giant crown topples off the top of the edifice. The tower (like Babel) represents the extreme of pride in us when we think our little world is secure and we try to make ourselves rulers over our dominion rivalling God. The lightning bolt is the actus Dei which shatters our world and makes us realize our own helplessness. The fire is the passionate destruction that accompanies this cataclysm. The two figures, man and woman, mimic both the emperor & empress of III & IV (she still wears her crown), the high priestess & heirophant of II & V, and the lovers of VI while their position of falling helplessness mimics the position of the hanged man in Arcana XII. Thus they represent the pride of all these accomplishments dashed from its lofty hubris by life's cataclysmic violence.

Though not an identity to the Tarot, O'Connor's story bears striking resemblances; Bailey and the Mrs. seem to be like the High Priestess (with "cabbage face" and "rabbit ears" just like the Rider Waite drawing) and the Heirophant while June Star seems to resemble the imperiousness of the Empress and John Wesley is similar to the Emperor (the famous painting of the founder of the Arminian Methodist Movement being himself seated on a throne). Red Sammy Butts and his brown-skin wife are parodies of the Lovers and the car is the Chariot (arcana VII) which revolves after Pitty-Sing, the cat (a creature closely associated in Egyptian mythology with Thoth, magic, and mischevious change), jumps on Bailey's head, thus evoking arcana X "the Wheel of Fortune". Even the MisFit himself is described as 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.

... which closely resembles the image of the Devil in arcana XV, while Hiram, which means "exalted brother" in Jewish, can be likened to arcana VIII, Strength, and Bobby Lee can be likened to arcana IX, the Hermit, whose white beard, grey clothing
and venerable demeanor are similar to Robert E. Lee whose name is parodied in this destructive character. Grandmother's appearance when she first sets off on the trip bears remarkable similarity to the picture of the fool in arcana 0:

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.

So did O'Connor actually use the Tarot for the basis of this story? I don't think she was trying to make an identity here, certainly, but some of the same message as the Tarot does appear in Good

1 comment:

  1. I suppose it would be important to find out if O'Connor had a Rider-Waite deck or one of the similar decks. In the old Lombardy-Zeroth deck, or the Sola Busca deck, the images are quite different, though their names are the same. She might have had the tarot images in mind as a kind of symbolism, but it would have required her to be familiar with this particular deck. Was she?