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“A Rose for Emily” by Faulkner and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by O’Connor

Introduction

Moral corruption is one of the central themes of Southern Gothic. This literary genre frequently features characters that are not merely flawed but thoroughly debased to the point of being grotesque. In their pursuit of intensely personal obsessions and vices, they persistently violate both social norms and conventional human morality (Street and Crow 28). Moral corruption in Southern Gothic can be reflected in the physical deterioration of the characters and their environment (Street and Crow 65). In other cases, it can be contrasted with a deceptively attractive appearance (Street and Crow 92). The theme of personal moral degradation often serves as a vehicle for social critique by shedding light on how injustice and corruption in society can produce broken individuals (Street and Crow 310). In turn, those same individuals exhibit the mindsets that contribute to the perpetuation of societal injustice. Two of the most celebrated short stories in this genre, William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily and Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, contain striking examples of this theme. They explore moral corruption both through their protagonists and through secondary characters and environments.

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Moral Corruption in A Rose for Emily

A Rose for Emily is set in the archetypical Southern town of Jefferson and examines the strange relationship between the town’s citizens and Emily Grierson. The last survivor of an aristocratic family, she is regarded by the town as “a tradition, a duty, and a care” (Faulkner 765). After her autocratic father’s death, Emily becomes almost wholly isolated, with a black servant as her only source of regular human contact. The town overlooks her foibles, allowing her to refrain from paying taxes. The authorities do not confront her over an unpleasant smell coming from her house, while the chemist permits her to purchase poison with no explanation. After her death, the townsfolk learn that she murdered her fiancé and slept with his corpse. Apparently, Emily’s isolation and stubbornness had led her to kill the man she loved to keep him from leaving. Some of the blame may be placed on her family neglecting Emily’s interests: her father did not let her marry, and her cousins largely ignored her. Yet the townsfolk are likewise complicit, ignoring or abetting her suspicious activities rather than trying to intervene.

The personal deterioration of the protagonist is reinforced visually throughout the story. Emily is persistently described in corpse-like terms: “bloated” and“pallid” (Faulkner 766), “tragic and serene” (Faulkner 767). Her house is a decaying relic of a bygone age. She is thus inextricably connected with death, and it is no coincidence that the deaths of her father, her fiancé, and Emily are central to the plot. She is characterized as stubborn, seldom compromising or giving way, but also unable to meaningfully interact with others. Her direct speech is curt and abrupt, brooking no disagreement, while other characters come across as too timid and obsessed with propriety to contradict her. Faulkner relays the story from the perspective of the citizens, recalling the theatrical device of the Greek chorus. While the townsfolk pity Emily when she experiences misfortune, they also judge her for apparent pride. When they think she intends to commit suicide, they conclude that “it would be the best thing” (Faulkner 768). They do not treat her as a person, but as a monument or a fictional character. Their callousness is as grotesque as her self-isolation and possessiveness.

Moral Corruption in A Good Man is Hard to Find

A Good Man is Hard to Find chronicles a family’s abruptly terminated road trip from Georgia to Florida. After a car crash, they are captured and killed by criminals led by the Misfit. The family seems flawed in an ordinary way, with disrespectful children and complacent, incurious parents. The main protagonist, the grandmother, acts in a prim and proper fashion but also has an undercurrent of petty selfishness. At the outset of the story, she tries to manipulate the family into going to Tennessee, ostensibly because it would be safer and more educational, but really because she wants to visit her relatives. She inadvertently causes the events that lead to the family’s demise by secretly bringing along her cat, suggesting the wrong route, and openly recognizing the Misfit. Though usually quick to judge others and assuage her pride, she desperately tries to appeal to the Misfit’s supposed good nature to survive. The grandmother’s seeming attempts at self-preservation appear increasingly grotesque as her family is murdered. In the end, the Misfit, who places himself outside the morality she tries to use, kills her too.

The grandmother’s pettiness is underlined by her preoccupation with appearances. She dresses extravagantly so that “anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (O’Connor 450). However, the accident damages her hat, undermining the effect, and adumbrating the clash between her preconceptions and reality. Likewise, her speech is dignified except towards the end, when her appeals to Jesus start to sound like cursing. Her pretense of dignity and virtue clashes with her petty and self-serving behavior, reinforcing the appearance of inauthenticity. Other family members are characterized by the indifference or bravado that allows them to cling to an appearance of normalcy despite the sense of decay invoked in conversations throughout the story. Interestingly, the Misfit’s appearance and speech also seem to contrast his actions. He is a ruthless murderer, but his eyes are described as “defenseless-looking” (O’Connor 460). Likewise, his speech, though unpolished and colloquial, is oddly thoughtful as he explains his nihilistic worldview. The Misfit serves as the family’s antithesis; where they try to deny the world’s chaotic nature, he appears to embody it.

Two Models of Corruption in Southern Gothic

The two stories are united by their Southern settings and aging female protagonists. The South is typified by the complacency and apathy of its populace and an inexorable sense of decay. The family’s attitudes can be reminiscent of Jefferson’s citizens, not taking troubling signs seriously until it is too late. Emily and the grandmother are superficially similar due to their status as prim affluent women, at once protected and restrained by Southern notions of femininity. This contradiction contributes to their moral corruption by undermining their ability to act as fully competent individuals. On a deeper level, they also share pride, stubbornness, and a tendency to live in the past. Those characteristics seep into their interactions with others, serving as a source of alienation and strength. Both are supremely selfish, causing them to disregard the feelings, interests, and personalities of others. The same may be said about the Misfit, who acts amorally out of personal existential angst, finding “no pleasure but meanness” (O’Connor 459). Both stories prominently feature deaths that could have been prevented by more considerate behavior.

Though moral corruption arises from similar causes, it manifests very differently in the two stories. While Faulkner’s story concerns a town’s moral failure over a long time, O’Connor depicts complacent individuals briefly and fatally adrift in a broader and emptier world. Emily’s oddness, though not her depravity, is much more drastic and overt than the grandmother’s. She exists in nearly total and literal isolation from society, whereas the grandmother only isolates herself through her pride. While the grandmother looking backward takes the form of nostalgic reminiscing and complaints about decay, Emily resists the passage of time more strongly by refusing to acknowledge others’ deaths. She partly resembles the Misfit in her total estrangement from society and contravention of its norms. By contrast, the grandmother desperately clings to those norms to the point of absurdity. Paradoxically, it is Emily who dies with the dignity due to the protection offered by Southern propriety, while the grandmother’s desperate attempts to invoke that protection fall short.

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Conclusion

A Rose for Emily and A Good Man is Hard to Find both represent the personal moral corruption that can appear in an unjust and troubled society. Their main characters are affluent Southern women who are at once protected and restricted by their gender. Unable to fully control their lives, they both become obsessed with the past and with getting their way, though those tendencies manifest differently in each one. Emily withdraws from society as much as she could and murders the man she loves. Her corruption lies in a desire to maintain control at all costs and an inability to interact with others. The grandmother in O’Connor’s story seems better adjusted, but she continually attempts to manipulate others, contributing to the tragic outcome. Her self-serving invocations of social mores might be just as twisted and unhealthy as Emily’s subversion of them. The character of the Misfit serves to expose the fragility and unreliability of social conventions. However, the subtler aspect of moral complacency shown by most characters in both stories may be more insidious than the selfishness of their protagonists.

References

Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 9th ed., Vol. D., edited by Robert S. Levine et al., W. W. Norton, 2017, pp. 765-771.

O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 9th ed., Vol. E., edited by Robert S. Levine et al., W. W. Norton, 2017, pp. 449-460.

Street, Susan Castillo, and Charles L. Crow, eds. The Palgrave Handbook of the Southern Gothic. Springer, 2016.

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StudyCorgi. (2022, January 10). “A Rose for Emily” by Faulkner and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by O’Connor. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/a-rose-for-emily-by-faulkner-and-a-good-man-is-hard-to-find-by-oconnor/

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StudyCorgi. (2022, January 10). “A Rose for Emily” by Faulkner and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by O’Connor. https://studycorgi.com/a-rose-for-emily-by-faulkner-and-a-good-man-is-hard-to-find-by-oconnor/

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"“A Rose for Emily” by Faulkner and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by O’Connor." StudyCorgi, 10 Jan. 2022, studycorgi.com/a-rose-for-emily-by-faulkner-and-a-good-man-is-hard-to-find-by-oconnor/.

1. StudyCorgi. "“A Rose for Emily” by Faulkner and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by O’Connor." January 10, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/a-rose-for-emily-by-faulkner-and-a-good-man-is-hard-to-find-by-oconnor/.


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StudyCorgi. "“A Rose for Emily” by Faulkner and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by O’Connor." January 10, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/a-rose-for-emily-by-faulkner-and-a-good-man-is-hard-to-find-by-oconnor/.

References

StudyCorgi. 2022. "“A Rose for Emily” by Faulkner and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by O’Connor." January 10, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/a-rose-for-emily-by-faulkner-and-a-good-man-is-hard-to-find-by-oconnor/.

References

StudyCorgi. (2022) '“A Rose for Emily” by Faulkner and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by O’Connor'. 10 January.

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