Alongside the book of stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman I have also been reading 'Complete Stories' by Flannery O'Connor. I am not sure how I feel about these stories. I read about half the book and then returned it to the library in favour of other reading. I enjoyed them for the picture they gave of a past time; they felt as if she had managed to bottle the essence of the time and place in which she wrote, but in some ways the picture felt the same in each story. I like to be given an insight into lives that are foreign; she does write like an insider, someone who really knew and understood, rather than someone looking in from the outside and the stories are very non-judgmental. But at the same time their very alien-ness made me struggle to find any connection with the characters and their lives, made me very aware of the vast divides that exist within society, even today. Set in the segregated South the black characters in the stories are marginalised and somewhat clichéd; there is regular use of the N-word and the attitudes expressed by the white characters are what you would expect to have encountered during that time. The poverty she portrays is quite graphic, squalid was often the only word for the atmosphere, and they are populated with a variety of odd and mostly ugly people, 'grotesque' is a word apparently regularly applied to her characters:
"He peered at her coming down the hall. 'Good morning!' he said, bowing the upper part of his body out the door. 'Good morning to you!' He looked like a goat. He had little raisin eyes and a string beard and his jacket was a green that was almost black or a black that was almost green.
'Morning,' she said. 'Hower you?'
'Well!' he screamed. 'Well indeed on this glorious day!' He was seventy-eight years old and his face looked as if it had mildew on it. In the mornings he studied and in the afternoons he walked up and down the sidewalks, stopping children and asking them questions. Whenever he heard anyone in the hall, he opened his door and looked out." (p.99 A Stroke of Good Fortune)
The other quote comes from a story entitled 'The Displaced Person' and sets the scene on a farm where the owner, Mrs McIntyre, has accepted a Polish family to come and live and work for her. They are refugees from the Second World War, speak a strange language and are treated with suspicion by the current 'help', Mrs Shortley. The story is about the insular nature of such people and their way of life, their mistrust of anyone who does not share their view of the world. Compared to the feckless Mr Shortley, Mr Guizac works hard, he knows how to fix machinery and he begins to have a positive impact on the farm. But this will not save him, because under the influence of Mrs Shortley Mrs McIntyre too begins to fear him, for no reason other than his mere 'difference'. She plans to give him notice, but is reluctant to face up to or even acknowledge her own distrust of the man. Eventually a tragic accident saves her from the situation and there is a palpable feeling of relief. The moral of the tale however has her fortunes go into steep decline until she is alone, friendless and isolated.
"The priest came frequently to see the Guizacs and he would always stop in and visit Mrs McIntyre too and they would walk around the place and she would point out her improvements and listen to his rattling talk. It suddenly came to Mrs Shortley that he was trying to persuade her to bring another Polish family onto the place. With two of them here, there would be almost nothing spoken but Polish. The Negroes would be gone and there would be two families against Mr Shortley and herself! She began to imagine a war of words, to see the Polish words and the English words coming at each other, stalking forward, not sentences, just words, gabble gabble gabble, flung out high and shrill and stalking forward and then grappling with each other. She saw the Polish words, dirty and all-knowing and unreformed, flinging mud on the clean English words until everything was equally dirty. She saw them all piled up in a room, all the dead dirty words, theirs and hers too, piled up like the naked bodies in the newsreel. God save me, she cried silently, from the stinking power of Satan! And she started from that day to read her Bible with a new attention." (p.209 The Displaced Person)
So, another book that I borrowed because the writer is respected and admired but which did not appeal as much as I anticipated. Perhaps it would be better to buy a copy and read occasional stories spread out over a longer period than trying to ingest the book in one go.