Using two short stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor and “Gimpel the Fool” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, alongside Taylor’s text and the application of his concepts, one can examine if the central characters function as true individuals who act for themselves, or act to fulfill a historically desirable niche in human nature. Flannery O’Connor’s 1953 short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” illustrates the story of a husband and wife, along with the grandmother and two children, who embark on a family road trip from Tennessee to Florida.
Plot and character both unravel with the path of the family’s travel, revealing the archetypal characteristics of a traditional American family— annoying quirks and behaviors, back seat arguments between siblings; and the elderly, nitpicky, and proper grandmother. Following the greater part of the journey from Tennessee to Florida, the story ends with a final encounter with an escaped convicted murderer, The Misfit.
The most prominent and perhaps easily scrutinized character from “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is the grandmother. Being the central protagonist in O’Connor’s short story, she unfolds to be manipulative and self-involved, yet a prim and proper elderly woman. Throughout the text, the grandmother is continuously caught up in comparing her polished southern past to her disappointments of the present. She is entangled in her roots, appearing as a harmless chatterbox, aloof and amusing within her own progression.
It is easy to forgive her for so much, including her innate racism— pointing at a “cute little pickaninny” from the car window as well as entertaining the children with a tale of “a nigger boy” (187) who scoffs a watermelon— and her overly sound opinions that she states matter-of-factly. Upon departure for Florida, she dresses herself in her Sunday’s best: dress, hat, and white cotton gloves all for the trip, so “in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (186). She is filled with the prejudices and traditions of her class and time.
The grandmother, even when faced with the foreshadowed confrontation with The Misfit, continues to present her historical and deeply rooted “lady-like” facade. Her talk with the Misfit begins as a manipulative attempt to save her own life, employing her refined techniques to persuade her killer. (Certainly, in her world, no decent man would “shoot a lady” (O’Connor 194). ) Her desperate attempts continue, trying further to charm The Misfit. “I know you’re a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people! (O’Connor 192). The grandmother seems confident enough that her southern allure will win over the man as she has with all others; there is no resignation to the death she will soon face. Following the execution of the whole family, it is apparent to both the reader and the grandmother herself that death is imminent. Upon this realization, the woman experiences a revelation and attains the first unselfish sensibility displayed in the story. She finally ignores her idea of proper southern values in the face of death and reaches out to The Misfit.
In an act of true sincerity, she simultaneously denounced her high moral standing and proclaimed acceptance of his character. In this state of disclosure “she murmured ‘Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children! ’” The woman “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” (O’Connor 195). The Misfit ends the powerful story by commenting on the grandmother’s unauthentic character: “She would have been a good woman…if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” (O’Connor 195)
The assessment of individuality of Flannery O’Connor’s character according to Charles Taylor’s text results with a misleading outcome. In The Ethics of Authenticity, Taylor states, “we live in a world where people have a right to choose for themselves their own pattern of life…to determine the shape of their lives in a whole host of ways that their ancestors couldn’t control” (Taylor 2). The character of the grandmother is developed along a permanent historical linear path of ancestral beliefs and ideals; she was never provided an opportunity to be self-aware and take shape of her own life.
In Taylor’s terms, the woman has always been locked into her “great chain of Being,” adhering to her born role of a southern bourgeois woman that gives sense and meaning to life (Taylor 3). Never questioning her “natural” values and qualities, the grandmother conformed to the ideals of, but not limited to, race, class, religion, and society, that are inherit to her aristocracy. Up until this point, it is possible to say that the grandmother is an unauthentic individual. When faced with the grave situation involving death and her ultimate existence, the grandmother abruptly diverges from the consistent track of her character development.
This divergence from the typical character in the face of death allowed the grandmother to have an authentic experience in her last seconds with her killer. “…The grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own… ‘Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children! ’” she admitted (O’Connor 195). This moment of true acceptance, sensitivity, and acknowledgement to others of different moral horizons reveals a brief moment of authentic individualism in the grandmother.
In comparison to her overall persona for the entire plot, a glimpse of wholehearted moral relativism, or, according to Taylor, a mutual respect to morals and values apart from your own, can be read in the last few lines of the grandmother’s existence. In the fleeting moments of her life, she shed her “natural” identity, claiming true freedom from her inherited moral horizon. It is possible to say that in the last seconds of her life there was a transformative sense of character, the grandmother passed with the qualities of a true individual.
Similar to O’Connor’s character, the character of Gimpel from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s 1953 short story “Gimpel the Fool” can be equally examined for traits and characteristics of an authentic individual. The ironic story tells the life account of Gimpel: narrator, Yiddish baker, an inhabitant of Eastern Europe, and the one who gets the last laugh (although that comes later). Gimpel, seemingly naive and gullible, is the subject of many tricks and insults from his village for taking everything at face value, but was he really a fool, or an authentic individual? I am Gimpel the fool. ” is how he opens his story (Singer 300). He gives his own reason when he says, “What did my foolishness consist of? I was easy to take in” (Singer 301). His promiscuous wife is disloyal to their marriage throughout his lifetime, resulting in illegitimate children that Gimpel wanted to believe he fathered; his neighbors take unfair advantage of him, subjecting him to endless pranks and fallacies for cruel entertainment; and even the village rabbi conspires against Gimpel, placing him at the receiving end of everyone’s jokes.
Gimpel is ultimately surrounded by lies and cynicism to his approach to life. The “foolish” qualities that are expressed through Gimpel on the exterior are not all that meets the eye. Aware of his surroundings and how his neighbors treat him, Gimpel chooses to keep an open mind, to see the good in the world, and not waste his time with the bad spirits of those who make fun with him. Although constantly deceived by his contemporaries, Gimpel is always willing to give the benefit of the doubt. If he “ever dared to say, ‘Ah, you’re kidding! there was trouble. People got angry” (301). He says, “to tell the truth, I knew very well that nothing of the sort had happened, but all the same, as folks were talking…Maybe something had happened. What did I stand to lose by looking? ” (301). His open approach and acceptance of a possible truth to endless false claims and jokes show Gimpel to be not gullible and simple, but holds a prominent moral relativism; he is accepting and sincere to other’s qualities and values, however deceitful they may be.
Ironically, it is the whole village that victimizes Gimpel that are the fools, and Gimpel who is the only non-fool. Gimpel didn’t believe more than half the things the people told him, yet he still went along with the deceits. Gimpel exemplifies a character that lacks an understanding of unnecessary anger, hatred, and bad tempers, and acts with a perceptive sense that belief is not a matter of proof but of will. From this perspective, Gimpel doesn’t appear to be so simple and foolish, on the contrary, instead man that fears missing an opportunity of believing something that may be true. Those who abuse Gimpel are the true fools them self, lacking the capacity to believe with Gimpel that everything is possible. This does not make him a fool because he believed the people, he knew for himself that none of the things said were anywhere near the truth. He believed because he wanted to believe. In conjunction with Charles Taylor, Gimpel maintains a heightened sense of awareness of his past to inform his present.
The constant ridicule has shaped his view on life and despite the negative actions directed towards him, Gimpel is accepting to believe what others share with him. Its possible to say that he is still involved in a “great chain of Being,” but in context to the setting of the story these philosophies cannot fully apply. As a devout Jewish man, Gimpel lives his life with authentic and sincere individualism, while respecting the historic beliefs his society is based on that have not yet been shattered.
In conclusion, the assessment of individuals with Charles Taylor’s text, whether fictional or physical, can result in a broad variety of assumptions based on the moral and historical background of a character. As seen with Flannery O’Connor’s character, the grandmother did not appear to be an authentic individual until the final moments of her life; however, the character of Gimpel maintained a strong individualist approach to his life throughout the majority of the text. The characters, as Taylor wrote, “…are called upon to be true to themselves and to seek their own self-fulfillment.
What this consists of, each must, in the last instance, determine for him- or herself” (14). Without the author’s literary devices and plot structure to develop character, or a person’s absolute sense of being, the underlying individual cannot be accessed to live entirely for his or herself. Works Cited O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find. ” Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. Robert DiYanni. Compact Edition. New York: Mc- Graw-Hill, 2000. 185-95. Print. Singer, Isaac Bashevis. “Gimpel the Fool. ” Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, and Drama.
Ed. Robert DiYanni. Compact Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000. 300-09. Print. Taylor, Charles. “Inescapable Horizons. ” The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2002. 31-41. Print. ---, “The Inarticulate Debate. ” The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2002. 13-23. ---, “The Sources of Authenticity. ” The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2002. 25-9. ---. “Three Malaises. ” The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2002. 1-12.