MAY / JUNE 2016: BY VICTORIA WILLIAMS
All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal,” wrote Flannery O’Connor. It’s a good thing that O’Connor wrote non-fiction as well as fiction. If I had encountered her first through her fiction rather than through a quote about her convictions, I don’t know what would’ve happened. I might never have noticed the wisdom of her words, might never have trusted her into my mind again!
Her stories—including Judgement Day—often do appear unrelentingly hopeless and brutal. In Judgement Day, Flannery O’Connor unflinchingly portrays a wicked, foolish old man, T.C. Tanner. We even are favored with a “mind’s-eye-view” of the crochety old fellow’s selfish internal monologue! He is cynical in his assessments. He scarcely retains a scrap of affection for his grown daughter. He is unrepentantly racist in his ways of speaking and in most of his ways of thinking. He is growing senile. The only thing he holds on to is the one hope which he is planning for. But “morbid” is the most appropriate word to describe the crackpot scheme in which Tanner places his hope.
The world inside Tanner’s mind is pretty bad in many ways. On the other hand, the cold, hard world outside of him is even worse! His world has recently contracted from the bright Georgia landscape of woods and fields he was familiar with. He now sees the world through the window of a New York apartment. (“a pigeon-hutch of a building,” he says.) Tanner’s window looks out —not upon sky —but on the window of another apartment. Tanner is lonely. He has just been violently beaten by a stranger and suffered a stroke. He is constantly humiliated by his dependence on his prideful daughter. This elderly father has slowly, steadily been losing everything that once made him “a somebody.”
Worse yet, Tanner’s mortality is catching up to him. His death is in the air. His daughter knows it. She argues with her husband, “My daddy is here to stay. He ain’t going to last long…” Tanner himself knows it: before, he was ready to fight with his daughter to return home to the South to live out his days. Now, after his hospitalization, the question shifts to where he will be buried.
Tanner has memories of the place in which he lived out most of his life. When his mind moves backward in time, Tanner remembers the shack he inhabited in Corinth, Georgia. “After he lost the place, his daughter came down in person to offer him a home with her.” That daughter of his takes one look in the shack and sees an old black man, Coleman, lying on a pallet on the floor. She then derides her father as being the kind of person “that likes to settle in with n*****s.” Coleman rises up and slips away from this family squabble. So Tanner makes sure to shout so both his daughter and Coleman can hear: “Who you think cooks? Who you think cuts my firewood and empties my slops…?” From that scene, Tanner’s thoughts wander first forward to the day he was evicted from the shack, but then back in time over thirty years: He recalls the fateful day when he first met Coleman. On that day, they approached each-other with all the violence of two men who might as well kill each other.
So it’s such a strange thing that the only consolation Tanner has in his present life is communication with Coleman and their friend Hooten. A week after Tanner moved, he received a postcard from Coleman and Hooten. They asked how he was, and he sent one back. In fact, the only benefit Tanner can imagine from having lived in New York is this: he could show Coleman around—the expert city-dweller explaining how people are in a huge, bustling city. “I come here to show you it was no kind of place. Now you know you were well off where you were,” Tanner would say. And Coleman would say, “I knowed it before. Was you didn’t know it.”
The only hope that Tanner has left for his future is also linked to Coleman. Tanner has no hope left for this life—his life will end in a way that is brutal and wretched even beyond what I have described. His scheme to get his body back home to Corinth is reminiscent of something from the Old Testament, though. It is Jacob charging his son to carry him out of Egypt and bury his body in the land of Canaan so that he can rest with his own people. Tanner’s hope of resurrection is deeply distorted. But it is at least concrete. The prankster-ish scheme he imagines executing when he meets Coleman and Hooten again on the Day of Judgement is ludicrous. But in that future time, so many “rules” will change. In this life, I don’t think Tanner could handle using the word “friend” to describe Coleman or Hooten, simply because they are black. But they are the people who know him. Tanner wants to go fishing with them. He actually craves their attention. And he so longs to see their faces in the Age to Come. ♥
Victoria Williams is a Christian woman who loves reading, teaching math, and watching people grow. Her obsessions include the Gospel, loving the weak, peacemaking, cross-cultural ministry, storytelling, nerdy conversations with friends, and coffee. She also blogs.