Flannery O’Connor defines despair as the refusal to have any sort of experience, as the abandonment of hope and resignation to one’s environment without any sort of struggle against it, or, for that matter, any long consideration of it. In “Wildcat,” it is Gabriel’s emasculation and age that causes him to despair, resigned to the idea that the cat, wherever it is (and subsequently, whatever it stands for) will triumph over him.
This leads us, however, to a discussion of exactly what the wildcat represents. In Judeo-Christian mythology, Gabriel’s call will signify the coming of Judgement Day or, on an individual level, the coming of death. The wildcat, therefore, would, from a religious standpoint, represent Death, not the peaceful passage from one world into the next, but a violent seizing of a life, torn out of its time on earth. For the characters within this story, death is something to be feared, and they all do fear it, whether that fear is concealed with bravado (as with the young Gabriel and the men who go hunting the wildcat) or openly expressed in the form of despair (as with the older Gabriel and the women he stays with in his youth).
Gabriel has no short supply of pride, and this also leads to his heightened fear. He refuses, in his old age, to stay with the women, asserting his masculinity even though this leaves him completely alone against the wildcat. He states that there is “no nigger for fifty miles fitter to judge than him,” thereby tempting the wildcat to get him, as he is confident that he is religiously pure enough to ultimately transcend the encounter. His concept of religion remains a bit questionable, as he maintains the notion that his physical appearance is of any bearing whatsoever on his station in the afterlife, and he holds to his displeasure at the thought of being physically marred on his path to heaven. It seems that the majority of O’Connor characters can have their greatest fault tied down to one of the seven deadly sins, and in this case (as well as the two characters from last week’s stories), Gabriel’s downfall is his pride, his vanity, and ultimately, his despair.
From a post-colonial perspective, however, the wildcat would more likely represent death through white oppression, through the ritual hunting and murdering of the black. This reading would offer a new interpretation of the reason that the first old man dies (and we can assume that Gabriel will as well once Like and Mose leave again to try to catch the wildcat), as they represent the challenge of the hyper-sexualized black male, but remain emasculated enough (through age and aspects of their own culture) that they are viewed as ready targets by the oppressor. In this light, however, “The Wildcat” begins to look a lot like Sherman Alexie’s Ghost Killer, and the mystery remains, ultimately, exactly who the killer is.
I would state that Mrs. Willerton breaks every law of writing, but the so-called “laws of writing” are not so easily defined. She engages her writing (if it can even be called such) in the exact fashion that O’Connor condemns time and again. She tries to hard to find a story that will raise her status within her social circles, searches for the socially significant statement, first about sharecroppers (about which she knows nothing), and then the Irish (about which she is also likely to know nothing), sentimentalizes her characters and their lifestyles, and names her lead character after a Biblical figure with more than a little connotative baggage without contemplating the repercussions thereof. Willerton worries incessantly about the “sound” of what she writes, so much so that one would expect her to be writing poetry or drama (or something else that stems from and caters to the oral tradition) and not a novel.
She adds a dog to her story, completely unaware of what dogs are like (and the fact that one does not prick its ears and then slump anywhere, as the two are incongruous). Reading this short story, in fact, just made me cringe for its duration, not only for the perpetual othering of people on the basis of class, gender, and ethnicity, but also because of the wretched manner of composition being employed by Mrs. Willerton. This short story, then, is a good deal like a train wreck, in its gruesome construction, the scraggling remains of humanity splattered across the landscape and the overwhelming feeling that several innocent people are being brutally murdered by people attempting to take nature into their own hands.
I understand O’Connor’s point with the story (but then, I understood it before this undertaking), but understanding that point doesn’t make the character’s forays into sentimentalist, uninformed pseudo-writing any less painful to witness, least of all when she’s offered the chance for artistic redemption. Had she noticed the significance of writing about the world around her, whether in the grocery store, or in the version of Lot and his wife that she sees on her way home, then she would have understood the greater implications of her storytelling; however, she remains more committed to the idea of art than she does to the art itself.
It is a bad sign in a Flannery O’Connor short story when a character is under the impression that he or she has direct knowledge of the future (or over the outcome of a certain string of events). “Wildcat” showed Gabriel’s conviction as to what would happen (and the foreshadowing at the end of the story to his imminent demise the next night, “The Crop” presented Mrs. Willerton with her presumed knowledge about the significance of and goings-on in the lives of her characters (as she presumed that she could control them), and “A Stroke of Good Luck” follows this model with the presentation of Ruby, who is absolutely positive that she knows what good luck she is about to receive.
She presumes that her fortune lies in moving, and not in her brother’s return from the war, and she believes this to be true because she’s quite determined to believe poorly of Rufus, to condemn him and assume that he will never amount to much, because to believe otherwise would lessen her own ability to rise above her background. She does not consider the story of her neighbor, whose husband died and left her with nothing but her child, who she now calls “Good Fortune” (and this could be read that she’s either pregnant or going to die), because she believes herself to be above nature and above death, though she considers childbirth to be equivocable to death.
The theme in this week’s stories seems to carry over from last weeks stories, such that the presumption that one knows better, or more, than another, or that one knows the outcome of events before they occur, is a gravely serious character flaw.