Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Cries of anguish in Orwell, Steinbeck, and Flannery O'Connor

In John Steinbeck's  Of Mice and Men, the mentally handicapped Lennie, a migrant farm worker, accidentally kills a young woman. Realizing what has done, he runs away to the natural pool by the Salinas River outside of the ranch.  His best friend George instructed him to do this if he ever got in trouble. At the pool, Lennie hallucinates seeing a giant rabbit who berates him and tells him he will be forever rejected by George for what he has done. In response, the tormented Lennie makes an anguished cry:

"Oh! George-George-George!"

In George Orwell's  1984, Winston falls in love with Julia, and this love helps him regain his humanity. After both are arrested and separated, Winston wakes in the middle of the night in his prison cell, crying out in his sleep:

‘Julia! Julia! Julia, my love! Julia!’

In Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man in Hard to Find," the grandmother realizes her son has been killed:

there were two more shots and the grandmother raised her head like a parched old turkey hen crying for water and called, "Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy!" as if her heart would break. 

Each of these cris-de-coeur pierces through the pages of the text and directly into the heart of the reader. In writers given to understatement, these anguished exclamations of a single repeated name arrest us. We already know that Julia is the center of Winston's universe and George the center of Lennie's. In her hollow, anguished cry, we learn who the grandmother loves before all others.

In all of these narratives, the situations are dire. Winston and Julia are being tortured by a despotic, sociopathic state, Lennie has committed a murder, and the grandmother is responsible for the death of her son and his family--and is facing her own demise. The cries reveal the rawness of emotion when everything is stripped away but the desire for the absent beloved.

In 1984, explanation follows this raw, anguished utterance:

For a moment he [Winston] had had an overwhelming hallucination of her presence. She had seemed to be not merely with him, but inside him. It was as though she had got into the texture of his skin. In that moment he had loved her far more than he had ever done when they were together and free. Also he knew that somewhere or other she was still alive and needed his help.

In Of Mice and Men, as if to relieve an unbearable loneliness and pain, George immediately appears:

George came quietly out the brush and the rabbit scuttled back into Lennie's brain. 

George comforts Lennie--before killing him to save him from a worse fate.

In "A Good Man," the Misfit, the sociopath whose gang is killing the grandmother's family as he speaks, keeps on calmly talking as if the grandmother has not spoken, oblivious to her broken heart.

All three scenes have a hallucinatory quality. In Steinbeck and Orwell it is made explicit, while in O'Connor it is implied when the grandmother mistakes the Misfit for her own son and reaches out to him in love.

It seems striking to me to see this same technique employed by three writers, in works published in a twenty-year period between 1939 and 1958. I tried to remember any other instance of such an anguished call out and could only come up with only two others:

In the first, David hears that his rebellious but beloved son Absalom has been killed. He cries:

O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son! 
This theme has apparently been with me for a long time, as I remember listening over and over to what I believe was Heinrich Schütz's "Fili Mi Absalon" (though in my memory the singing was much more anguished) as a college freshman for a music course and being so moved by David's suffering that I bought a Bible to look up the story. I still have the Bible.

Finally, I thought of another anguished soul in a dire situation:

My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me!

This cry shows that for all his love of his friends, Jesus' first love was God.

I am trying to think of such cry-outs in other pieces of literature. Can you think of any? I can't remember a point in Jane Austen when she breaks her cool demeanor, so admired by Virginia Woolf, to let a direct cry come through, though we feel Elinor's anguish when she thinks Edward has married Lucy and Fanny's as she awaits the letter telling her that Edmund is engaged to Mary. This anguish is no less intense but not given to us in the same form.

Who would we each call out to at the moment of rawest anguish?


  1. Diane,

    Here's a familiar one:

    Whip me, ye devils,
    From the possession of this heavenly sight!
    Blow me about in winds! roast me in sulphur!
    Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!
    O Desdemona! Desdemona! dead!
    Oh! Oh! Oh!

  2. Ah, yes, good! I was thinking about Shakespeare but couldn't conjure one!

  3. In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, there's the scene at the Inner Station when Marlow has Kurtz carried on board to take him back to Belgium. Kurtz's African lover leads a group of natives to the shore. "There was an eddy in the mass of human bodies, and the woman with the helmeted head and tawny cheeks rushed out to the very brink of the stream. She put out her hands, shouted something, and all that wild mob took up the shout in a roaring chorus of articulated, rapid, breathless utterance."

    I have been thinking about this scene for the past few days and wondered if it was mere coincidence that Othello, a moor, and this African woman are free to express their grief so overtly because they are not westerners, i.e., "civilized." Perhaps it says something about the repression of emotion in the west, something that the supposedly civilized were only permitted to express in the unbearable anguish of the 20th century.

  4. Elaine, this is very interesting. I had not put together Othello and Heart of Darkness, but what you say makes sense. I also wonder about western emotional repression--especially in that pre-1960s period when people were not supposed to let it "all hang out" --and how that probably adds extra power to these cries of anguish.