A Good Man is Hard to Find

First of all, if you haven’t read the Hobgoblin’s post on his father and on what’s happening to war vets, do go check it out.

I taught Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in my classes yesterday and had such a fun time doing it; I’m not sure I got the students to like the story as much as I do, but that might be because it’s a story that grows on you with every reading. For me, the story gets funnier and funnier each time (and I’ve re-read it quite a few times now).

The story describes a family on a trip from Georgia to Florida; they get side-tracked down a dirt road and run into an escaped convict called the Misfit and violence ensues. Now that doesn’t sound like funny material at all; in fact, when I talked about how funny I think the story is, a number of my students were shocked. But that’s the genius of O’Connor, and what makes her so strange: that she can write a funny story about violence that also has a profound and beautiful religious element. This paragraph will give you a taste of O’Connor’s style:

The children’s mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief, but the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.

This last line just kills me; it captures the grandmother perfectly, with her primness and properness and her failure to recognize that if she’s dead on the highway, she’s not going to care what she looks like. And the bratty children crack me up:

“Let’s go through Georgia fast so we won’t have to look at it much,” John Wesley said.

“If I were a little boy,” said the grandmother, “I wouldn’t talk about my native state that way. Tennessee has the mountains and Georgia has the hills.”

“Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground,” John Wesley said, “and Georgia is a lousy state too.”

“You said it,” June Star said.

What sends the family down the dirt road is that the grandmother remembers a nearby plantation she visited as a young woman and she gets the children excited about stopping there. They set off down the side road, and it’s then that she has a terrible thought. This terrible thought makes her jump, which lets the cat out of the basket where she’s been hiding it, which then jumps up onto the father’s shoulder startling him and causing them to veer off into a ditch. This is the grandmother’s response:

As soon as the children saw they could move their arms and legs, they scrambled out of the car, shouting, “We’ve had an ACCIDENT!” The grandmother was curled up under the dashboard, hoping she was injured so that Bailey’s wrath would not come down on her all at once. The horrible thought she had had before the accident was that the house she had remembered so vividly was not in Georgia but in Tennessee.

The grandmother is just such an awful person. She’s self-centered and irritating, and not so different from her bratty grandchildren, and this is what makes her such a great character — O’Connor gets her perfectly. And yet, in spite of being so awful, she has a wonderful moment at the end of the story, a moment when she manages to be someone different from who she’s been up until that point. There’s something wonderful about the extremity of this story, the violence and the humor and the suddenness of the grandmother’s moment of insight at the end. O’Connor isn’t interested in the subtle shifts in thinking we often see in short story characters; she gives us drama and lots of action and the possibility of sudden transformation.

I’ve read all of O’Connor’s fiction, I’m pretty sure, unless I missed a story or two. But it was quite a while ago I read it, and I think it would be fun to read her again — she’s someone whose work it wouldn’t be hard to read in its entirety, as she has only two short novels and a couple short story collections. She’s someone I might read differently now that I’m a bit older; I feel like with a little age I can better appreciate her sense of humor.

I found myself reminding my students that this is fiction we’re talking about; yes, there’s violence in the story, and yes, it’s gruesome, but that’s not really the point. It’s not as though it’s the kind of gratuitous violence you frequently see in the movies; it’s violence that gets you to think about God and grace and what the point of trying to be good is. And since it’s a truly horrible person who leads us into all of these serious thoughts, why not make that horrible person and her family as funny as you can? You can get a sense of O’Connor’s rather wicked sense of humor from the story’s closing lines:

“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

“Some fun!” Bobby Lee said.

“Shut up, Bobby Lee,” The Misfit said. “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

13 Comments

Filed under Books, Short stories

13 responses to “A Good Man is Hard to Find

  1. The first time I read this story I was shocked and horrified, O’Connor is very good at shock and surprise and horror. But, as you so wonderfully point out, she is great at humor too. And I’m with you on this one, the more you read this story the funnier it gets.

  2. I think I’m sold on Flannery O’Connor. I’ll probably check out the library, see what’s available. But what do you recommend for someone who’s reading her for the first time?

  3. Flannery O’Connor fell off the bottom of the list in my American reading challenge last summer. You have just given me the perfect reason to put her right back near the top again!

  4. I think I’m going to have a Flannery O’Connor month over the summer. I’ve read several of her stories and Wise Blood and Mystery and Manners, but I’d like to work my way through everything over a short period of time.

  5. I never would have thought to say that O’Connor’s stories are characterized by “drama and lots of action,” but I suppose that’s the inevitable conclusion, once you allow that fiction can be about what happens in thought and spirit.

    I’m glad you’re getting those students to pay attention to her style. How else will they learn to distinguish her practice of the Grotesque from our contemporary practice of squalor?

  6. Del

    I love Flannery O’Connor’s work too and once read all of her stories and novels. Recently I read “Greenleaf” in an anthology (Best American Short Stories of the Century) I’m slowly working through. But I’ve never understood the supposed references to God or O’Connors Catholic background which everyone says are in her work. In “Greenleaf”, for instance, a woman is gored by a bull after being neglected and belittled by her two grown sons. Her lot seems pathetic and tragic to me and her end absurd – just like real life in many ways, but I wonder what this has to do with a religion of hope and optimism, if anything. This always bothers me when I read O’Connor because I wonder why I cannot see what seems to be obvious to everyone else.

  7. I hate to say I have never read any of Flannery O’Connor’s work–thanks for this introduction. I’m going to have to search out some of her short stories!

  8. Stefanie, I don’t remember what I thought about O’Connor the first time I read her — I wish I did! It’s hard to imagine what my students might think as they encounter it for the first time.

    Dark Orpheus — I’d pick up one of the short story collections, either A Good Man is Hard to Find or Everything that Rises Must Converge. Both are great. I’d love to know what you think!

    Litlove — I do hope you read her. I’d love to read your response!

    Susan — that sounds like a very intense way to experience O’Connor. I’m curious how you’ll feel at the end of it.

    Amos — my two favorite stories (the title stories of her collections) are full of violence and she wrote about violence so interestingly, I tend to think of her stories as dramatic, but you’re right — the drama is often spiritual.

    Del, if you’re interested, I’d suggest checking out O’Connor’s essay collection Mystery and Manners where she talks about her faith and how it plays out in her stories. But just because O’Connor is a devoted Catholic doesn’t mean that that’s how you have to read her, of course.

    Danielle — do check her out, she’s well worth it!

  9. O’Connor is such a master and I love this particular story. Thanks for an insightful post on such a wonderful writer.

  10. If my vote counts, Flannery O’Connor will be remembered as the Nathaniel Hawthorne of the 20th century.

  11. Eva

    I’m so glad you linked me to this post! :) I loved the quote about the grandma making sure she looks like a lady in case of an accident too.

    I also completely agree that O’Connor has a wicked sense of humour, which really makes the story. I think part of why I was so shocked by the violence is all of the humour that came before it.

    Since I’ve read all of her letters, I know that God and grace played a major role in her thinking. But, after a first reading, I couldn’t really find that much grace in the story. I’ll have to reread it. Now that I expect the violence, hopefully I’ll be able to focus on other aspects of the ending; first time through, I became really naseous when they led the first two into the woods, and it didn’t really stop.

  12. Thanks for the comment! For me, the grace comes when the grandmother is able to have a moment of understanding with the misfit, when she calls him one of her babies. It’s just a moment, just before she dies, but she seems to get beyond her selfishness.

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