Flannery O’Connor, "A Stroke of Good Fortune"

April 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

Not every single story that Flannery O’Connor wrote was “serious literature,” the type that allows for extensive textual pulling and prodding to yield bumper crops full of symbolism and portentous commentary on the human condition(s).  She herself professed in her letters bemusement at how earnest some people were at deriving meanings from characters and situations that she loosely based on actual events that she had witnessed growing up in Georgia during the early-to-mid 20th century.  Yet there are some stories in A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955) that are lighter and perhaps slighter in nature and tone than the majority of her fictions.  “A Stroke of Good Fortune” (1953) is one of these works.  It is an amusing tale that does contain just enough overt references to symbolic foreshadowing to please those who look for these elements in a tale, but it is little more than just a diversionary tale, one that does not linger as much in the reader’s mind after reading it as do most of her other tales.

The steps were a thin black rent in the middle of the house, covered with a mole-colored carpet that looked as if it grew from the floor.  They stuck straight up like steeple steps, it seemed to her.  They reared up.  The minute she stood at the bottom of them, they reared up and got steeper for her benefit.  As she gazed up them, her mouth widened and turned down in a look of complete disgust.  She was in no condition to go up anything.  She was sick.  Madam Zoleeda had told her but not before she knew it herself.

Madam Zoleeda was the palmist on Highway 87.  She had said, “A long illness,” but she had added, whispering, with a very I-already-know-but-I-won’t-tell look, “it will bring you a stroke of good fortune!”  and then had sat back grinning, a stout woman with green eyes that moved in their sockets as if they had been oiled.  Ruby didn’t need to be told.  She had already figured out the good fortune.  Moving.  For months she had had a distinct feeling that they were going to move.  Bill Hall couldn’t hold off much longer. (p. 185)

This quote is the first of several allusionary passages in “A Stroke of Good Fortune” that give clues as to what ails thirty-four year-old Ruby.  Ruby has found herself these past few months to be increasingly ill, with sudden nauseous spells.  Married yet childless, she considers herself smarter and more fortunate than her mother and sisters because she is not burdened with squalling young children, as those would drain her of vitality even quicker than it did her mother.  She takes a vain pride in her youthful looks, remarking early in the tale that she is younger-looking than her youngest brother, Rufus, a just-returned veteran who is fourteen years younger than herself.  This pride, coupled with the confusions of the past few months as to the changes in her condition, serves to set up the series of amusing events throughout the story.

He looked old too.  He looked older than she did and he was fourteen years younger.  She was extremely young looking for her age.  Not that thirty-four is any age and anyway she was married.  She had to smile, thinking about that, because she had done so much better than her sisters – they had married from around.  “This breathlessness,” she muttered, stopping again.  She decided that she would have to sit down.

There were twenty-eight steps in each flight – twenty-eight. (pp. 186-187)

The step numbers here are an important clue, along with the fact that Ruby lives on the fifth floor of her apartment complex.  Yet while the reader by now might have figured out Ruby’s “malady,” what with the two quotes already provided and the early description of Ruby as becoming “urn-shaped,” the narrative sustains itself with the tension between Ruby’s puzzled, sometimes terrified thoughts about her “worsening” condition and what the reader might already know is the true “stroke of good fortune” that the palmist declared that Ruby would experience.

There are more references to this, such as this little passage:

The steps were going up and down like a seesaw with her in the middle of it.  She did not want to get nauseated.  Not that again.  Now no.  No.  She was not.  She sat tightly to the steps with her eyes shut until the dizziness stopped a little and the nausea subsided.  No, I’m not going to no doctor, she said.  No.  No.  She was not.  They would have to carry her there knocked out before she would go.  She had done all right doctoring herself all these years – no bad sick spells, no teeth out, no children, all that by herself.  She would have had five children right now if she hadn’t been careful.

She wondered more than once if this breathlessness could be heart trouble.  Once in a while, going up the steps, there’d be a pain in her chest along with it.  That was what she wanted it to be – heart trouble.  They couldn’t very well remove your heart.  They’d have to knock her in the head before they’d get her near a hospital, they’d have to – suppose she would die if they didn’t? (p. 187)

Stories such as this that rely on the main character to be clueless about what is actually transpiring around them can quickly grow wearisome if the writer doesn’t resolve their naivety in a timely fashion.  “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” which is thirteen pages in the Library of America edition, comes close to tedious repetition by story’s end.  The quotes provided here, taken from the first four pages of the story, should already give the reader all the clues necessary as to deciphering what truly ails Ruby.  Yet several of her self-doubts are repeated in the pages that follow to the point where the story can barely sustain its narrative force.  The narrative “twist,” presented as a combination of a joke and a commentary on how easily we can self-deceive ourselves, is too slight.  There is little else to the story other than Ruby’s self-delusion.  “A Stroke of Good Fortune” might bring out a brief smirk or even a quick chuckle from the reader when she solves the puzzle, but there is little else to the story that recommends itself to the reader.  The characterization is decent, but O’Connor does better in the majority of her fictions.  Sometimes, however, the slight, less resounding tales serve a purpose.  Within the greater collection of A Good Man is Hard to Find, “A Stroke of Good Fortune” provides a respite of sorts from the menacing atmosphere of the previous three stories, showing that O’Connor’s characters can be amusing in their mendacity as well as being afflicted by it.  It is not O’Connor at her best, but it does demonstrate that she is no one-note composer either.

Originally posted at Gogol’s Overcoat in February 2013.

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