The Devil Next Door: Evil in Literature, Research Paper Example
Words: 1475Research Paper
Mankind’s fascination with evil has been addressed in literature in a variety of ways, and dating back to the earliest works. It seems that evil is recognized as, if not necessarily an unstoppable force, an inevitable one, and fiction writers consistently seek to explore all the dimensions of it. In the stories, “Good Country People”, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, and “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”, Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates take courses both familiar and unique. They present evil, or Satan, in ordinary human form, and present his appearance as a random occurrence. At the same time, both writers reveal a larger canvas, in “innocent” characters who are, in their own ways, responsible for his coming to them. In these three stories, the face of evil is the face of the man next door, and it is no accident or unexpected misfortune when he comes to call.
A sense of inescapable destiny regarding the intrusion of evil is apparent in the three stories, despite the unique landscapes and styles of the two writers. O’Connor is predominantly Southern Gothic in approach, taking ordinary scenes of the South and infusing in them, in the shallowness of their people, something of a platform ready to take in actual evil. Oates goes in a more surreal direction; Arnold Friend is, unlike O’Connor’s Misfit and Bible salesman, a being from a different plane. He is a creation far more attuned to a common perception of Satan. He appears out of nowhere, slick, strangely appealing, and frighteningly confident. Most importantly, he knows far more about the world of Connie, the other chief character, and the people of the town than any stranger possibly could. Moreover, true to Christian concepts of satanic limitations, he cannot enter her home unless she asks him in (Kirszner, Mandell 571). It is also evidence of his traditional, demonic power that the reader sees his conquest as inevitable, despite the long period of Connie’s protests.
Nonetheless, Friend is human, or at least he is absolutely comfortable in taking on familiar shape and speech. This serves to create great confusion in Connie. After Friend declares that she will be most certainly with him, she is utterly lost: “She put her hands up against her ears as if she’d heard something terrible, something not meant for her” (Oates 36). This evil in the form of a man, then, achieves his aims through an implacable bravado, which contrasts and weakens her initial resistance. If Connie is suddenly in the midst of an other-worldly and dark arena, the reader perceives a willingness on her part, and can understand Friend’s persistence. He is simply there because he knows she is waiting for his evil, and because something in her requires it. Connie is not presented earlier as evil herself, but there is clearly a dangerous lack of center to her being. She thinks of the boys she has dated in the town, but they are not fully real to her: “But all the boys fell back and dissolved into a single face that was not even a face but an idea, a feeling” (Oates 29). In this story, then, Oates sets up something of a Biblical parable. Satan is most definitely at the door, but he knows which door to visit.
Flannery O’Connor’s evil men are far less agenda-driven and far more of the flesh, and these aspects present her villains in a more chilling way. The Misfit and the Bible salesman are all too human, and that in itself creates a greater sense of horror. There is no supernatural authority at play; this is mankind as truly evil, and the inability to point to arcane forces as responsible only adds to misery of the circumstances in the stories. In a sense, this aspect of evil as within humanity, or as the devil “down the street”, is taken up by Oates as well. In all the cases, circumstances bring on the nightmare, whether it is mortal or otherwise.
For example, in O’Connor, as with Oates, everyone involved is after something, and the figures of evil are as interactive in the processes as the other characters. This is evil that requires a connection to what it pursues. In “Good Country People”, the Bible salesman is what could be called needy, as he attempts to seduce Hulga: “’You ain’t said you loved me none’, he whispered…’You got to say that’” (O’Connor 201). Even the Misfit, while slowly orchestrating the murders of the family in “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, pauses to comfort the grandmother after her son has verbally abused her: “’Lady’, he said, ‘Don’t you get upset. Sometimes a man says things he don’t mean’” (O’Connor 14). These are not personifications of evil that swoop down and prey on the innocent; they need validation, as they interact, at least occasionally, in ordinary, human ways.
This aspects leads to a further, frightening element of the nature of O’Connor’s “devils”: they do not seem to comprehend what they are, and what they so maliciously do. The Misfit takes a good deal of time to try to convey to the grandmother the insoluble mystery of his own existence, wherein crime and punishment do not match one another. He asserts that he is bad, but he qualifies it, because he believes he cannot be so bad as to merit the punishing he has received. This is expressed even as he slaughters the family. Similarly, the Bible salesman is literally defiant in his cruelty. He exults in being less of a believer in Christianity than Hulga, who so proudly declares her atheism. He brags about other acts of evil he has done, in almost a taunting way, which serves to convey a kind of insecurity. If the Misfit goes about his evil business because, ultimately, he is convinced the world gets it wrong anyway, so too is the Bible salesman viciously testing the boundaries of what can be done. In these characters, unlike Oates’ Friend, the evil is all too humanly motivated.
Myth, Christianity, and Modernity
In O’Connor, there is a significant Christian component to each tale. Christ is evoked frequently, as it is a Bible itself that brings the evil to Hulga’s home. With the salesman and with the Misfit, there is a sense of the Christian aspect of the eternal marking both evil men. This is more subtle with the Bible salesman, yet his presence has traditional Christian colors to it. He is the devil who charms his way in, and even his act of evil, stealing Hulga’s wooden leg, is classically mischievous in the Christian manner of viewing the devil as an “imp”. The Misfit, on the other hand, is given evil stature in Christian terms by the uncanny fact of the grandmother’s somehow knowing him. She sees in the Misfit one who has been alive forever, and she recognizes him as in inevitable presence (Bloom 4). Oates’ Friend is a more overt representation of Satan in human guise.
Then, this factor of ancient Christianity as evident in the stories brings myth into play. This is apparent in the fatalistic quality of all three, as myth invariably exists to reveal the force of destiny. In virtually all classic myth, humanity confronts forces from beyond which both challenge its standing and reveal its darker components. In Homer’s Iliad, for example, men become, or do, evil as the action of the Trojan War unfolds, and in doing so become the men the Fates know them to be. If the Bible salesman or Arnold Friend are not quite so grandiose in their actions, they nonetheless follow mythic courses, in that they appear and act to fulfill roles in the human dramas perversely requiring them.
Through the device of the Southern Gothic, or in the more overtly supernatural setting of Oates, “Good Country People”, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, and “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” demonstrate that evil is not an isolated and typically removed force. It has, in fact, many faces: it can be cruel in a petty way, as in stealing a wooden leg; it can murder children in cold blood; and it can extort a horrible submission through smiling threats made through a screen door. Most importantly, it is something humanity itself generates. In these three stories by O’Connor and Oates, the face of evil is the face of the man down the road or next door, and it is no accident or unexpected misfortune when he comes visiting.
Bloom, H. Flannery O’Connor. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009. Print.
Kirszner, L. G. & Mandell, S. R. Fiction: Reading, Reacting, Writing. Orlando: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1994. Print.
O’Connor, F. A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1992 Print.
Oates, J. C. Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994. Print.
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