July 24, 2011
There is a dangerous tendency in the analysis of literature to bind writers together by a single shared characteristic. This resides especially in the realms of religion, race, social class, and gender. While these attributes do have the capacity to provide a lens for examining common threads among works of literature, they are certainly not the only and can even prove limiting by lessening the reader’s probability of exploring alternate, less immediate concurrencies. Two twentieth century writers, Flannery O’Connor and Stevie Smith, allow for easy comparisons on the surface: both were women, they died seven years apart, neither were affluent nor living in poverty, and both suffered from deadly diseases of their day (lupus and tuberculosis, respectively). Yet with careful consideration, these similarities hint at a different commonality between the two that goes deeper than gender, social class, or historical location. There exists one tie that is not nearly so superficial but is of great thematic importance: their mutual literary fascination with death. This manifests in noticeably singular ways relating to their respective lives, the differences between short story and poetry, the textual connections, and the authors’ personal religious beliefs, with O’Connor utilizing death as a motif for salvation in the short story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” and Smith applying it as a device for reflection on her own personal encounters with death in the poem “Not Waving But Drowning.” A proper analysis of these texts requires an introductory discussion of the lives and personal beliefs of the two authors. Stevie Smith was born in 1902 with the name Florence Margaret Smith. At a very young age her father abandoned her and her mother, and at age 7 Stevie contracted tuberculosis. This diagnosis required that she be sent to a sanatorium, a place she resided intermittently for years. This incident seemingly triggered her fascination with death. She died in 1971 of a brain tumor. Born in 1925, Flannery O’Connor’s life was considerably shorter. At 12 years old, her father died of lupus. Ten years after her father’s death, O’Connor was herself diagnosed with lupus, at which point she returned to her family farm where she resided until death. She was brought up a devout Catholic and held the faith in the highest esteem. O’Connor was also raised in the segregated southern United States, but her attitudes dissented from much of those around her. Both her religious beliefs and her disagreement with racial discrimination are very apparent in her writings. O’Connor died at age 39.
These differentiations in the lives of O’Connor and Smith aide in the revelation of thematic differences between “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “Not Waving But Drowning.” Smith’s understanding of death is based in a bitterness established in the sanitarium in which she spent the developmental years of her youth. This is palpable throughout the poem in her cold, medical description of the event (lines 7 and 8 read “It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way/They said”) in the poem, with only the occasional sentimental expression (“Poor chap, he always loved larking” in line 5), yet even these are contrasted by the distant descriptor lines (a detached “And now he’s dead” follows in line 6) and serve more to establish the wrongfulness of the death than to reflect positively on the life of the victim. Only on two occasions does she break this rule she has created: in line 10, which she has conveniently placed in parenthesis as if to say “this one does not count,” and the final two lines, in which she does a complete thematic reversal in making it known that the drowning was a metaphor for a problem of much larger, life-long scale. This is further emphasized by the alteration in the repetition of the last two lines of the first and third stanzas. In the first stanza, it reads “I was much further out than you thought/and...