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Repentance – the feeling of deep regret and remorse – is unarguably a reoccurring theme within the multiple short stories belonging to Flannery O’Connor’s book ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’. Feelings of repentance are often the consequence of spiritual epiphanies, usually brought on by feelings of guilt or shame. Two stories that share this apparent theme are ‘A Temple of the Holy Ghost’ and ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’. Throughout these two stories, we witness two characters – the Child of ‘A Temple of the Holy Ghost’ and Mr. Shiftlet of ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’ – turn to God upon realizing their sinful ways, giving us hope that maybe they’ll work towards being a better version of themselves in the future. Throughout this essay, we will explore the series of events that lead to our main characters’ spiritual awakenings.

There’s no doubt that religion plays a key role in the stories of ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’. When imagining characters whose lives revolve around religion, we imagine them to be kind, good-hearted civilians. Now, when imagining an author who chooses to revolve her books around religion, we imagine the plots of said books to be of strong morals, kind words, and pure thoughts. When looking at both aspects of the plots and characters in O’Connor’s short stories, we soon realize that this is not the case. In her stories, we witness characters who easily judge and deceit others and lack proper Christian and/or Catholic morals. One story which follows this style is ‘A Temple of the Holy Ghost’. The title itself alludes to the fact that some aspect of religion will play out within the story, yet the characters themselves are far from your average picture-perfect Christian girls. We first get a taste of the Child’s poor attitude when she pokes fun at her school teacher Miss Kirby’s friend, Mr. Cheatam, suggesting he should be the one to entertain her two cousins for the weekend. “‘There’s Cheat! Get Cheat to come!’” (86), she exclaims, and “nearly choked on the food she had in her mouth” (86), from laughing so hard. When they reject this idea, she exclaims “‘Well there’s Alonzo…Get Alonzo to show em around!’” (88). Knowing that the girls would not be thrilled by this either, as Alonzo the driver has a poor reputation for bad hygiene and not being so easy on the eyes. From these two quotes, we can already tell the Child tends to harshly judge those around her, proving her lack of Christian structure. Further into the story, we catch the Child lying to her cousins about two young men, Wendell and Cory, who will be taking the two young girls to the fair. She tells them, “‘You’ll like these boys… Wendell is six feet tall and got red hair. Cory is six feet six inches tall and got black hair and wears a sports jacket…’” (90). When the boys eventually arrive, we learn the boys “…were short thin boys with red faces and high cheekbones and pale seed-like eyes” (90). This is another prime example of the Child’s crude judgments of those around her. Throughout the story, we get several tastes of the Child’s superego. Even the cook tries to put her in her place, telling her “‘God could strike you deaf dumb and blind, and then you wouldn’t be as smart as you are’” (93). To no avail, the Child replies, “‘I would still be smarter than some’” (93). Her God complex continues throughout the novel. Eventually, we witness her opening up to religion. When entering the convent, the Child prays, “Help me not to be so mean…to not give so much sass…not to talk like I do” (101). We witness her repenting, feeling remorse for the way she thinks and treats others. This is a major turning point for the main character, the Child, in this short story. At the end of the story, O’Connor, within the mind of the Child, compares the sun to the body of Christ, referring to it as “…an elevated Host drenched in blood…” (102). This allows us as the readers to understand that the Child is now in the presence of God, turning from her old, corrupt ways, allowing herself to be a child of Christ.

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Another main character who faces a similar spiritual epiphany is Mr. Shiftlet of ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’. From the get-go of the story, we quickly learn Mr. Shiftlet is a man with a gypsy soul. He has no home or family to call his own. He doesn’t have much to lose, and this shows through his actions. When stumbling upon Ms. Lucynell Crater’s farm, he notices she has a Ford in her shed. After questioning her on it, he realizes that it’s in no use and soon tries to get closer to Ms. Crater so that he can eventually take the car for her. This is an obvious act of deceit and manipulation, characteristics of a man who would be very far from God’s faith. In an effort to win the car, he does Ms. Crater a handful of favors, such as fixing the car, teaching her deaf, mute daughter Lucynell to speak, and more. He tells Ms. Crater, “‘There ain’t a broken thing on this plantation that I couldn’t fix for you, one-arm jackleg or not. I’m a man” (57). What he doesn’t know though is that this is a two-sided game. While he tries to win over Ms. Crater for her car, she tries to win him over for her daughter. It’s no secret that she is desperate to marry off her daughter, and she feels that homeless Mr. Shiftlet is the perfect victim. She goes as far as lying to him, telling her Lucynell is only around the age of sixteen, although she was closer to thirty, again displaying the characters’ strong lack of morals. Shiftlet suggests that with a dowry, he’ll be able to marry Lucynell, and when Ms. Crater baits him in with her car, his “…smile stretched like a weary snaking waking up by a fire” (61). This itself is a very symbolic description of Shiftlet’s expression because in the Bible serpents symbolize evil power. It’s as if Shiftlet gets the idea to abandon Lucynell is this exact moment. When Shiftlet takes her to the diner to abandon her, a waiter refers to Lucynell as an “‘…angel of Gawd’” (64), the first hint towards religion in the story. This is a phrase that stays with Shiftlet through the end of the story. While driving away without Lucynell, we truly can feel his guilt. He begins to cry to God and pray. He prays, “‘Oh Lord… Break forth and wash the slime from this Earth!’” (66) and, ironically enough, it begins to rain onto Mr. Shiftlet’s car. With this scene, we understand O’Connor’s ironic humor surrounding religion.

In the two stories, ‘A Temple of the Holy Ghost’ and ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’, we watch two main characters, the Child and Mr. Shiftlet, cry out to God. These characters have many similarities in their moral compass. They knowingly judge others, hold themselves very high, and have a tendency of lying to those around them. Eventually, they realize their wrongdoings and cry out for God’s mercy. It seems as though O’Connor sympathizes more with the Child than she does with Mr. Shiftlet though. Through the weather, we feel the presence of God in these stories. When the Child cries out to God, the sun shines in the air, like a bloodied host, symbolizing God’s presence with the Child. On the other hand, when Mr. Shiftlet cries out to God, asking him to wash away the slime of the Earth, it begins to rain on his car, symbolizing that God has no mercy on him, and is washing him away. This alludes to the feeling as though O’Connor allows spiritual redemption to some of her characters, while others are not as lucky.

Works Cited

  1. O’Connor, Flannery. “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”. A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Harvest. 1955.
  2. O’Connor, Flannery. “The Live You Save May Be Your Own”. A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Harvest. 1955.

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