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“Jesus’ Son” and “The Lame Shall Enter First” Comparison

Jesus’ Son, a related collection of short stories named after the lyrics of The Velvet Underground’s song, is often described as one of the most important literary works of Johnson’s generation. It was even included in The New York Times’ Top 25 Best Writings 2006 – a list of the most influencing books from the past 25 years. The story follows the alcohol and drug-fueled exploits of the anonymous storyteller and is written in a surreal, electric, and blissful style with powerful line-by-line prose. Johnson’s writing style is religious, full of mysteries and personal experiences, and it dares the reader to explore their own spirituality without offering any guidance on the way – only reflections on other people’s stories. Everything in Jesus’ Son is interconnected, jumbled together to create a connection to the narrator who offers his own story of addiction and redemption.

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Flannery O’Connor’s The Lame Shall Enter First is also an exploration of religious motifs and undertones, tied tightly with the heroes’ experiences. However, unlike Johnson, O’Connor is considered to be the most prominent representative of the “southern gothic” style. What kind of style it is, one can understand by opening any of her stories. Dust, heat, stuffiness, and pre-storm electrification are in every line of her writing, not condemned to only a description of nature. O’Connor’s prose induces in the reader a general feeling of a bad, disturbing dream that never quite leaves, instead, lingering at the edge of one’s consciousness. There are violence and darkness that only a man can possess in her story, and this is what distinguishes O’Connor’s writing from Johnson’s completely.

In Jesus’ Son, the narrator’s desperation is mingled heavily with religious zealotry that intercepts every aspect of his experience but does not make him suffer – on the contrary, it gives him some kind of elation. The mentions of angels and skies fill the story with hope and lightness that mixes dramatically with the grim atmosphere of the narrator’s unhappy life. His failures are reflected in the people around him – just like the narrator, this side of America that not many would like to acknowledge, is drunk, alone, and struggling to see the light. Even that same narrator claims that “I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us” (Johnson 2018). However, Johnson does not draw on the horrors of such life too much – he rather strives to reflect on the trauma and tragedy in a way that makes them relatable and vivid.

As opposed to this approach, O’Connor dives into the much darker part of human nature, filling her story with malice, violence, and oppressive feeling of doom. True to the gothic style, her prose is macabre, and grotesque, lingering on the side of outright black humor of a hanged man. She literally compares her heroes to animals, pointing at the feral undertone of their actions. The message is simple: worse than hypocrites, liars, and even murderers are those who tolerate and accept them. All of The Lame Shall Enter First characters are not who they seem – so unlike the bitter, sharp honesty of Jesus’ Son.

O’Connor paints her heroes with her words in one light, but their actions point to an opposite one, and this dissonance roars to life with the author’s metaphors. “If you stop thinking about yourself and think what you can do for somebody else, then you’ll stop missing your mother” (O’Connor 1965), says Sheppard to his son Norton, accusing him of egoism and ignorance. With these words, Sheppard reveals the utter hypocrisy of his nature – in his pursuit of the image of a perfect Christian, he pays no attention to the struggles of his son. Where in Jesus’ Son, the narrator sees comfort in his faith, Sheppard from The Lame Shall Enter First projects the image of Jesus on himself in an attempt to assure himself of his own importance. Piggford (2017) adds that “hell is for O’Connor always a human choice, although a choice that is difficult to resist owing to the pervasive effects of original sin” (239). O’Connor writes out her narrative in a diabolical manner, emphasizing just how far her heroes are from Christ.

However, despite the obvious differences both in style and the approach, Johnson and O’Connor’s stories bear a resemblance one should acknowledge. Both books present an exploration of human nature – specifically, its spiritual aspect, envisioned through religious motifs. Each story speaks of addictions, but in a different way: in Jesus’ Son, the narrator suffers from literal drug addiction; in The Lame Shall Enter First, Sheppard is addicted to helping others. These two kinds of addiction seem absolutely unrelated, but they are both used to explain human nature and how it bends and breaks against life’s obstacles and traumas. Using religion as the main tool for dissecting the heroes’ intentions and experiences, the authors carefully interconnect faith with despair and determination, creating a powerful impact on the reader. Their stories are full of memories and personal experiences, and that is what makes both of their narratives so livid and tangible, relatable in many different ways. In the end, the authors do not offer their readers happy endings – but still, their stories leave a flowing, gentle sense of understanding to reflect deeply on.

Works Cited

Johnson, Denis. Jesus’ Son. Einaudi, 2018.

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O’Connor, Flannery. The Lame Shall Enter First. Everything That Rises Must Converge, 1965.

Piggford C.S.C, George. “Visions of Hell in Flannery O’Connor.” The Hermeneutics of Hell, 2017, pp. 239–252., doi:10.1007/978-3-319-52198-5_12

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