Pride Cometh before the Fall
FLANNERY O’CONNOR AND ZZ PACKER
“Pride cometh before the fall.”
So many of Flannery O’Connor’s classic short stories illustrate this precept, one that, in our present age, can seem to some readers outmoded and overly moralistic, though obviously not to many. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a grandmother accompanies her son’s family on a vacation. She’s a prattling fool, judgmental, willful, and full of herself, and she clearly gets on the nerves of her son and his family. As the story opens, she argues with her son, Bailey, about his decision to take the family to Florida; she wants to visit “some of her connections in east Tennessee.” To dissuade him, she tells her son that she’s read in the paper that a convict called the Misfit “is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida,” but Bailey simply ignores her. Her grandson says, “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” and her granddaughter adds, “She wouldn’t stay at home to be queen for a day. . . . Afraid she’d miss something. She has to go everywhere we go.”
At a certain stretch in the trip, the grandmother mentions an old nearby plantation that she once visited as a young lady. She alludes to a secret panel in a wall there, and this excites her grandson, who joins her in urging the annoyed Bailey to turn off the main highway to go see the plantation.
With a biblical sense of the preordained, by taking this side trip, the family runs into the Misfit and his fellow escaped convicts. The convicts take the family prisoner. In a long interchange with the Misfit, the grandmother keeps urging him to pray and turn to Jesus. Eventually, after the Misfit’s companions haul the rest of the family off into the woods, the talk turns into a debate about whether Jesus could raise the dead. There are a series of pistol reports, and the grandmother cries out, “Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy!” But this does not stop the Misfit’s theological ramblings:
“I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t,” The Misfit said. “I wisht I had of been there,” he said, hitting the ground with his fist. “It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady,” he said in a high voice, “if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.
At the end of the story, when the Misfit’s companion remarks that the grandmother was a talker, the Misfit replies, “She would have been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
For O’Connor the Lord’s judgment and mercy are always available, but in our pride and stubbornness, we humans refuse this reality. In her stories, her protagonists are trapped within their own vanity, certain of their take on the world, their evaluation of others, and their own place within the world. In these evaluations, their own place is set atop a hierarchy of values to which they fiercely hold fast.
Eventually, though, the events of the story, the conflicts they encounter, various frustrations of their will and desire come to challenge their certainties. But still they persist. It is often only in the presence of great violence or death that O’Connor’s protagonists are forced to confront a reality and truth greater than themselves. Thus her characters eventually come to an epiphany, a reckoning for and a recognition of their sins. But this illumination almost always comes at a great price. This price often involves great violence, as in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” but its essence is the destruction of self-delusion and the illusions of pride.
The epiphanies in ZZ Packer’s stories may not possess the violence of O’Connor’s, but the stories in Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere can also be read through the palimpsest of “pride cometh before the fall.” Most often Packer’s protagonists are fueled by religious or moral certainties, but even when they are not, they cling to a sense of their own superiority over others, a pride that comes not so much from who they are but from not being “that”—“that” being some other character or characters or group in the story whom the protagonist judges harshly. O’Connor’s stories often embody an almost Old Testament sense of judgment, as if her protagonists cannot be confounded and brought to the light by anything other than great violence, disaster, and death. In contrast, Packer tends to approach her protagonists with a series of ironical jibes and jabs, undercutting them with comic turns of events or another character’s withering or bewildering retort.
Packer’s protagonists are all black, but that tells us only so much about her work. What is more revealing is that Packer often chooses as protagonists characters who might be expected to display less pride or sense of importance than others in their world. Sometimes this is because of their youth and the fact that they exist in a world where others clearly possess more power than they do (“Brownies,” “The Ant of the Self”). Sometimes the protagonist has entered a world—Yale, Japan—that is unfamiliar to her, where she possesses no ready-made place—the so-called fish out of water (“Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” “Geese”). Sometimes it is because of their humble position in an organization such as the church (“Every Tongue Shall Confess”).
In “The Ant of the Self,” Packer starts with a son bailing his father out of jail for a DUI in Louisville. The son’s stated goal: “I just try to get my father, Ray Bivens Jr., back across the river to his place in Indiana.”
From the start, it’s clear that the son, Spurgeon, wants as little to do with his father as possible. He mocks his father’s dated and rhetorical political language (“He’s the only person I know who still calls cops ‘pigs’”) and dismisses his father’s talk on “investments” as another attempt to wring money from his son; he reminds his father the he, Spurgeon, is the one who has paid the father’s bail with the money Spurgeon has won from school debates. When Spurgeon ignores one of his father’s questions, his father gets angry and insists he respond: “You answer me when I ask you something. . . . Do you know who this is? . . . Do you know who you’re talking to?”
Now the father has, in many ways, failed his son, just as the father’s insistence on being respected has clearly failed. Given these failings, one could imagine a story from the father’s viewpoint, examining his doomed attempts to resuscitate his pride and to achieve respect from his son. Indeed, elements of all this are in the story, but they are not the story’s focus.
Instead, Packer chooses to make the son the protagonist; this choice forces the reader to see a complexity in the son’s character that might not otherwise be discernible. The reader must look beyond a view of the son simply as a victim of a father who drinks too much, who borrows money from him, and whose shortcomings have led him to be divorced from the boy’s mother and estranged from his son. The story accomplishes this in part by using its events to reveal the son’s own faults and failings.
As the story unfolds, it’s clear that Spurgeon’s attempts to get his father home and be rid of him are not going to succeed. At first the father manages to force Spurgeon to take him to the father’s girlfriend’s house. Previously, the father has bought a number of birds with the hopes of selling them, but failing to do so, he has been forced to keep the birds with his girlfriend.
Spurgeon then learns that his father intends to pay him back for the bail by having them both travel to the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., to sell the birds. Spurgeon thinks this is, at best, a dubious idea, but he goes along with it, in part because he still feels an obligation to obey his father and in part because he wants his bail money back. But he also wants to make things difficult for one of his school’s debate team members, a black basketball player who will have to take Spurgeon’s place if Spurgeon is absent (just as Spurgeon condescendingly appraises his father, so he looks down on his fellow debater, who lacks Spurgeon’s verbal and logical skills and his disciplined sense of hard work).
At one point, after Spurgeon criticizes the father’s treatment of his girlfriend, the father insults him, and Spurgeon kicks his father out of the car (it’s his mother’s car). But Spurgeon can’t get rid of his father so easily (otherwise there wouldn’t be a story); instead, feeling guilty about leaving his father, he turns back and retrieves him.
At the Million Man March, Spurgeon is able to separate from his father, but when one of the marchers tries to get Spurgeon to respond to the march and its proceedings, Spurgeon blurts out, “I’m just here because my father made me come.” Almost instantly Spurgeon is surrounded by older black men who chastise him for not supporting the spirit of the march and forging a bond with his fellow black men. When he tells them his father’s “whole damn life is as slack as a pantsuit from JCPenney!” one marcher replies, almost as if acting as a stand-in for the father, “You need to learn that responsibility is a two-way street!”
Later Spurgeon, again against his wishes, ends up in a bar with his father. He becomes even more frustrated when his father actually manages to sell his birds and come up with six hundred dollars. When Spurgeon tells the people at the bar that he’s glad to be out of school, where he’s the only black kid in his class, they chastise him for not appreciating the opportunity to go to school: “We the ones fought for you to be in school with the white folks.”
Wherever Spurgeon turns, either his father or someone else is telling him to stop thinking he’s so special and to stop denying his connections to other black men, especially those who came before him—like his father. And though Spurgeon prides himself on his skills as a debater, he finds himself again and again overwhelmed, outnumbered, stumbling out weak responses or simply retreating into silence.
Then, too, Spurgeon’s own feelings sometimes betray him. When his father accuses Spurgeon of not loving or understanding him, he replies, “You don’t understand you.” But then feeling guilty for his remark, Spurgeon relents a bit:
I grip my father’s elbow and try to speak with him one on one. “I’m sorry about what I said at the March.”
“No you ain’t.”
“Yes,” I say, “I am. But you’ve got to tell me how to understand you.” I feel silly saying it, but he’s drunk, and so is everybody else but me.
He lurches back then leans in forward again. “Tell you? I can’t tell you.” He drums each word out on the counter. “That’s. Not. What. It’s. A-bout. I can tell you about Paris, but you won’t know ’less you been there. You simply under-stand. Or you don’t. . . . You either take me, or you don’t.”
Once again Spurgeon refuses what the father is trying to tell him. Spurgeon’s anger at his father and his judgmental streak keep him at a distance, even as his guilt and desire for connection keep drawing him back (all this constitutes an example of irreconcilable desires—I want contact and closeness with my father versus I’m angry at my father for all his failings and being with him only frustrates me).
By the story’s end, it’s unclear whether Spurgeon is ever going to understand his father. But he can’t escape him, even though his father has left him, forcing Spurgeon to take a train alone to get home. The last image of the story is of a father and a son whom Spurgeon happens upon at the train station. The boy’s happiness while riding on his father’s back so unsettles Spurgeon that he feels a wave of emotion he still wants to deny: “And though the urge to weep comes over me, I wait—holding my head in my hands—and it passes.”
The reader understands that for Spurgeon to actually weep, he must acknowledge his connection to his father. But, of course, that connection is filled with a pain he wishes to deny; that connection is denied by his sense of pride in what he’s done and who he is away from his father—a champion debater, a good student, someone extremely disciplined who doesn’t make mistakes. And so Spurgeon remains aloof, not just from his father or even the other men at the bar or the Million Man March, but also from himself. Despite all the blows he has received, all the signs that he cannot ever separate from his father, his pride rests both on his difference from and his indifference to his father—that is, in his isolation, in what sets him apart. Yet the reader senses there is a reckoning to come; eventually bearing his burden of pride, Spurgeon will either fall weeping or he will fall from the weight of his years of numbness, but he will surely fall.