Finding Flannery O'Connor's "Good Man" in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Home

By Petit, Susan | Christianity and Literature, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Finding Flannery O'Connor's "Good Man" in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Home


Petit, Susan, Christianity and Literature


Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead is a rich study of the need for forgiveness and the power of grace. It can also be called, in Rebecca M. Painter's words, a "novelized treatise on the difficulty of lived virtue" (95). (1) "ibis novel--in itself but especially as seen in the light of Home--gradually reveals how the elderly John Ames, who appears at first to be simply a devout and kindly Congregationalist minister, has sinned against his namesake, John Ames Boughton, known as Jack. (2) In the course of the novel Ames confronts his decades-long rejection of Jack and finally forgives, accepts, and even comes to love him.

One way to understand Ames' spiritual journey and Jack's existential questioning is through the lens of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" It seems natural to associate these two writers whose work reflects their Christian faiths. Robinson is a permanent faculty member of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, of which O'Connor is probably the most famous alumna, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux publishes both authors. Yet the serious but sympathetic approach of Robinson, a northerner and a Congregationalist, to her subject is very different from O'Connor's, which relies on caricature and satire. Robinson even claims that "the influence of Flannery O'Connor has been particularly destructive" by leading readers not to expect "serious fiction to treat religious thought respectfully" ("A World of Beautiful Souls"). O'Connor communicated her Catholic vision by using "the grotesque as a primary way to reach the unbelieving reader" (Hawkins 28); in contrast, in these two novels Robinson shows thoughtful people in ordinary situations working their way to greater receptivity to grace through following both Calvin's teachings and their own charitable inclinations. As Robinson says, Ames' faith is "not dogmatic but a process" (Interview Part II with Silverblatt). (3)

Regardless of whether Robinson intended Gilead as a response to "A Good Man" it acts as one by using a similar structure and parallel characters, while showing them in a more sympathetic, warmer way. The conventionally good characters, the grandmother and Ames, dominate the first half of each and control the information--the grandmother is the viewpoint character for most of O'Connor's story, which is written in indirect free discourse, and Ames is the novel's narrator--so that readers distrust the Misfit and Jack before they appear. These two new characters then engage in debate about Christianity with the initial characters. The resemblance between the works is brought out by strong echoes of O'Connor's story in the passage in which Ames calls Jack a good man. In the story, the grandmother tells the Misfit, "I just know you're a good man," and he replies, "Nome, I ain't a good man ... but I ain't the worst in the world neither" (139). Near the end of Gilead Ames writes that he told Jack, "...You are a good man,' and he gave me a look, purely appraising, and laughed and said, 'You can take my word for it, Reverend, there are worse'" (231). Similarly, when lack tells Glory what Ames has said, she responds, "Well, I could have told you you are a good man. I've said it in so many words, surely" and he replies self-deprecatingly, "You're a miserable judge of character. Mine, especially. No objectivity at all" (Home 308-09). Gilead climaxes in Ames' acceptance of lack much as O'Connor's "A Good Man" exists for the moment when the grandmother realizes her connection to the Misfit.

Both O'Connor and Robinson want readers to sympathize with their miscreants and to believe in the possibility of their salvation. O'Connor wrote that she hoped that the grandmother's gesture would grow "like the mustard-seed" in the Misfit's heart and turn him into "the prophet he was meant to become" ("On Her Own Work" 113). Robinson, similarly, wants her readers to see Jack's goodness, "the greatest goodness [being] perhaps the awareness of one's own failure to be good" (Interview Part II with Silverblatt), a failure which is inevitable because of man's fallen condition. …

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