The Roma and the Misfit


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The requirement for this English 102 paper was that it be a comparison/contrast using three different literary elements. I had the instructor take a look at it before I inserted the citations & added the bibliography. He told me as far as he was concerned it was an A paper.

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The Roma and the Misfit

  1. 1. 1Louis WischnewskyEnglish 102Prof. Smith3 Oct 2011 The Roma and the Misfit In order to grasp stories on a more involved, deeper level and, in some cases, have themmake sense, readers need to know the cultural context of the authors and their lives. Two shortstories that exemplify this case are Mary Flannery OConnors work, “A Good Man is Hard toFind” and “The Third and Final Continent” by Jhumpa Lahiri. Without knowing OConnorsbackground, “A Good Man” is nothing more than entertainment, albeit darkly so. Conversely,Lahiris work comes across as dry and, frankly, boring because the story seems so stereotypicalof immigrant culture. Taking a closer look at the main characters in each story, symbolism inboth, and comparing the major conflicts demonstrates a real need for readers to be active andhave a deeper knowledge of the cultural context in which the stories are written. It is difficult to imagine Lahiris Mrs. Croft and OConnors Grandma living at the sametime yet, they did. Mrs. Crofts independence makes understanding Grandma difficult. Grandmais an empty nester at the dusk of an American era and, for that reason, it is totally understandablethat she is afraid of being alone. Prior to the 1960s women were still deemed unable to fend forthemselves, especially in the South where the story takes place. Baileys father is nevermentioned so it is assumed he has passed away. It is obvious, too, that she is ever fearful of beingalone and if the reader is not certain, June Star, her granddaughter says so bluntly: "She wouldntstay at home to be queen for a day," and, "She wouldnt stay at home for a million bucks" (“AGood Man” 447). In a culture where women have little say in their lives, Grandma thrives forattention; she particularly likes to tell stories of her “glorious” youth. Those stories eventually
  2. 2. 2come across as a vivid imagination at work due to two clues. To begin with, readers discover thatGrandma is not beyond fairy tales: “[S]he had been courted by a Mr. Edgar Atkins Teagarden … She said … that he [gave] her a watermelon … with his initials cut in it, E. A. T. [He] brought the watermelon … but she never got the watermelon … because a … boy ate it when he saw the initials, E.A.T.!” (“A Good Man” 449)Grandma goes on to add some spice to a tale about a plantation she visited as a youth. It is this liethat leads the family onto a path which will cost them their lives (“A Good Man” 451-452).Without the cultural context of the era and the region during that era readers fail to understandwhy women, particularly elderly women, like Grandma come across as so desparate for attentionand, at the same time, so forgiving of insults wielded by her obnoxious grandchildren. Grandma is elderly, but she is not as old as Mrs. Croft. Not only do the two charactersdiverge with their ages, but Grandma is never given a name; Lahiris character is Mrs. Croft: shehas a name (Lahiri 293). Mrs. Croft throws a wrench into the culture works. How is that she is socontent living alone while Grandma was so paranoid? It cannot be argued that Mrs. Croft is theproduct of a different generation because not only had they lived at the same time; Mrs. Croft isolder than Grandma. Lahiri wanted to draw readers toward re-evaluating stereotypical cultures. Itis easy to follow the narrators experiences with different cultures, including his own. Yet, that isnot the point of the story. Eventually the reader can see why Mrs. Croft is arguably the maincharacter. For, without Mrs. Croft, the story is insignificant and the narrator as much says so inthe closing paragraph: “I know that my achievement is quite ordinary[,]” (302). The culturalcontext of Lahiri is acutely important to the story. As Lahiri sees it through the narrators point ofview, even marriage is a duty, mind-numbingly repetitious and having no meaning. Mrs. Croft,
  3. 3. 3however, has lived for over a century witnessing the Reconstruction Era, two World Wars, therise of the automobile, and the Civil Rights Movement; she lived through half the Cold War and… witnessed a man landing on the moon (293; 302). The narrator comes from an undevelopedcountry to the most advanced nation on earth, where people do not “expect an Enlish cup of tea,”yet, what is “Splendid!” is Mrs. Crofts history (290; 293). This is reflective of Lahiris view ofwhat is to her a new and different culture. What the reader gets from the story is the authorsvision of another culture, further expounding the necessitiy to know the cultural context in whichthe story is written. As a result, while readers feel some sympathy for Grandma even if they arefrustrated with her; with Mrs. Croft, at whose demise readers should feel sad, they marvel and,well, feel good. Without the cultural context, those sentiments are exactly opposite. Perhaps the greatest need to grasp the cultural context of the author in “A Good Man” isthe symbolism of the Misfit. Reading the story for pure entertainment, one might wonder whyOConnor went through the long, almost tiresome explanation by the Misfit as to why he is theway he is when, after all, he is going to kill Grandma - making his effort futile anyway (“A GoodMan” 453-457). OConnor was a devout Catholic, though, and that tells the reader everything(Kirszner and Mandell 446). The Misfit is the devil incarnate and as much states so: [A]nd if He didnt, then its nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness (“A Good Man” 457).Knowing OConnors religious beliefs brings meaning and purpose to the story. Indeed, she oncewrote, “The universe of the Catholic fiction writer is one that is founded on the theological truthsof the Faith, but particularly on three of them which are basic - the Fall, the Redemption, and theJudgement[,]” (Mystery and Manners 185) Thus, the Misfit respresents Satans fall from grace, a
  4. 4. 4chance at Redemption that he does not take, and acceptance of his final Judgment. Unlike OConnors story, symbolism in “The Third” can be difficult to recognize withoutknowing the authors cultural context. Immediately in “The Third” there is symbolism that pointsto a specific culture. The S.S. Roma is given a generic ship designation (290). Lahiri could haveeasily placed H.M.S. or H.M.I.S. in front of the ships name. Does the ship belong to England orIndia? Perhaps a better question is this: does the narrator, as the Romas passenger, belong toIndia or the United States? The Roma part of the ships name is the symbolism. Roma refers to asect of wandering people, a subculture of Gypsies: social outcasts. Even if a reader is keenenough to catch this quick use of cultural symbolism, something critical might be missed. Are thewanderers the narrator and his wife Mala, or does Lahiri want the reader to see someone else?Mrs. Croft is the wanderer. However, her wandering was not across the globe or even within herown nation (Grandma claimed to have been to several states). Indeed, shes lived in the samehouse for well over forty years, as her daughter Helen explains, “She used to give piano lessons.For forty years. It was how she raised us after my father died[,]” (297). No, Mrs. Croft haswandered through time. Thus, Lahiri, having lived on three continents herself, uses symbolism topoint out to her audience the importance of knowing different cultures in order to understand hertale (289). As different as these two stories seem on the surface, underneath the characters andsymbolism are two similar struggles. Throughout “A Good Man” readers are wondering if thispart of the story is going to be the climax. One might argue that Grandmas inability to keep herthoughts to herself is the big conflict. That is not the case though. During the final scene of thestory, Grandma not once gives physical or mental regret in recognizing the Misfit. Her attemptsto talk him out of murdering her are strictly self-serving. She never says, “You wouldnt kill aninfant, would you?” Instead, she says, "You wouldnt shoot a lady (emphasis added), would
  5. 5. 5you?" (“A Good Man” 454). So what is the conflict in OConnors story? To begin with, it would have to be describedas man versus self. A major struggle has already happened before the story is told. The Misfit hasalready given a half a lifetime worth of thought to why he is the way he is (“A Good Man 455-457). As much as readers are drawn to believe that his struggle with his personality is the majorconflict in the story, reading closer reveals that everything he says, Grandma is doing as shestands right there before the Misfit. The fall, almost literally, ocurred when Grandma realized herlie was an error for which she would be scolded by Bailey. Her plummet is furthered when sheannounces that she recognizes the Misfit (“A Good Man” 453). Having countless opportunities atRedemption, Grandma ignores them, not once offering to never tell anyone she saw him. Sherefuses to make this offer for one simple reason: like the Misfit, she knows she will never “dogood” and honor such a promise. Thus, upon Grandma is fired her final Judgment. Whats more,like the Misfit, she does not know why. Thus, the conflict is exactly what OConnor says willreveal itself in the universe, or culture, of the Catholic writer. It is equally difficult to recognize the greatest conflict in Lahiris story. Is the story aboutthe struggles of an immigrant to the United States? No, the narrator not once describesdiscriminations or difficulty finding a job – in fact, he already has a job promised to him. Heeasily finds residence at Mrs. Crofts (291). What, then, is the conflict from whose outcome thereader gains a new knowledge? As different as these stories come across, the conflict is wherethey are quite similar. Lahiri, as the author, easily confuses the reader to think she is writingabout someone elses cultural struggles (Kirszner and Mandell 289). That is not the case thoughand it is not a huge leap of the imagination to say Lahiri probably saw herself as Mala, arelatively minor character. Mala helps readers recognize the true conflict of the story. Again, it isman versus self because it is the narrator that has to struggle with the fact that, while his globe
  6. 6. 6trekking is remarkable, it is insignificant compared to Mrs. Crofts journey through time(remember his opinion of his “achievement”) (302). Lahiris story is a lesson in the thesis of thisargument: in order to appreciate a story, the reader has to know the cultural context in which itwas written, particularly the authors culture. Both “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “The Third and Final Continent” are charmingstories, sans the tragedies, but can be a labor to read. That labor evaporates, however, when onebecomes an active reader and learns the cultural context of the authors. The main characters ineach story provide readers rich fodder. Symbolism is deep in both requiring the reader to graspthe cultural context of those symbols. Both stories have conflict that is relative to specificcultures, even if “The Third and Final Continent” is more universal. The influence of the culturalcontext of the authors in the main characters, symbolism, and the conflicts of the stories isoverwhelming and requires readers to be more deeply inolved.
  7. 7. 7 Works CitedKirszner, Laurie G., and Stephen R. Mandell. Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. Boston: Wadsworth, 2011. Print.Lahiri, Jhumpa. “The Third and Final Continent.” Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. Eds. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. 7th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2011. 290-302. Print.OConnor, Mary Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. Eds. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. 7th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2011. 447-457.---. Mystery and Manners. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1969. Print.