|Flannery O'Connor and "A Good Man Is Hard To Find"
"A Good Man Is Hard To Find" is a deceptively easily read story which makes us laugh and laugh, for O'Connor captures a certain essence of southern life as few people have. But in the midst of the laughter, if we read carefully, we also realize that the story invites debate about the meaning of "a good man," about the meaning of the events with which it concludes, and about the meaning of our existence in the universe. Notice the repetition of the word, "meaning."
If you wish, please see a Links page on Flannery O'Connor, especially the biographical notes. Of particular help to you would be some of the material in the bulletin that has essays on O'Connor in it.
Modernism and Meaning in O'Connor
O'Connor's work provides an excellent transition from the modernistic period to the multiple perspectives of postmodernism. Like Faulkner, she trained her eye on a small area of the real world and so heightened it by her imagination as to transform it forever. Typically, modernists can create or capture a deep pattern of meaning from a plethora of realistic details.
1. What is meant by using details to "make" meaning?
As the story begins, note the extremely realistic detail which sets us in a definite time and place::
we know what the speedometer reads,
we know at what time the family drives out of Atlanta,
specific geographical references are plentiful,
popular culture references are also plentiful: the "children's mother" plays the perennially popular "Tennessee Waltz" on the jukebox, and on and on.
Examples of Various Meanings from Details
2. The entire story is tied together by a journey. Is that of special significance?
This story is a travel narrative, but neither east Tennessee nor Florida is the destination toward which this family rides. There are foreshadowing and symbolic suggestions of other levels of meaning than the literal ones from early on in the story.
See the references to the possibility of the grandmother's cat dying if she leaves it at home, dressing up for a drive lest she die in a highway accident, noticing the five or six graves in a field.
Then, the family stops at the infernal RED SAMMY'S, near Toombsboro(Wow! A perfect Halloween town!), where horrors, both real and suggested, abound: the "burnt brown" owner's wife, the flea-catching monkey, and the animal guard all are reminders of a Dante-Inferno landscape. Finally, of course, the family dies when they meet a group who emerges from "a big black battered hearse-like automobile"(p. 1889).
3. So, if Toomsboro is a suggestive name, are there other names that have suggested levels of meaning?
O'Connors appropriation of external realities to suggest other levels of meaning extend to the names in the story: Toomsboro is a town in central Georgia; John Wesley, founder of Methodism (1703-1791), is in this story a bespectacled child with a lively, argumentative mind; June Star is possibly a tribute to all the Junes who got last billing in second-feature films of the 1930s and '40s; Bailey seems to confer upon the father a kind of Southern Everyman status. Then there are characters with, significantly, no name: the grandmother's domination on the family is larger than her individuality; the children's mother seems more vegetable than human with her "broad and innocent" face like a "cabbage and was tied around with a green handkerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit's ears.
4. The grandmother throws the name of Jesus around a lot and there are other references to religion. What does all that add up to?
O'Connor presents the reader with a theology lesson: at the beginning of the story the grandmother is totally preoccupied with what she "wants." Other events show us go on to show us these shallow travelers, people who are the embodiments of the self-interested, materialistic society that arose in the wake of World War II. O'Connor seems to be teaching that in the midst of life we are in death (none of us, to speak of, know it.). But toward the end of the story, the grandmother's moment of death so clarifies the meaning of life that the grandmother forgets what she "wants" and reaches out to include "The Misfit" as one of her children.
5. The Misfit is such an important and strange character, he's bound to "mean something. What is it? "The Misfit" suggests many levels of interpretation, some of them suggesting a parallel with John Wesley, the child, some of them suggesting spiritual levels of meaning, and others stemming from The Misfit's need for literal proof.
First,The grandmother makes a gesture of inclusion toward The Misfit, calling him her son which compels him to shoot an old woman. Why does this inclusion into a family upset him so much?
At the beginning of the story, we learn about the grandmother that "Bailey was the son she lived with,"suggesting the possibility of another son. Later she stand over her son's balding head with "one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper" (p. 1884) and warns him about The Misfit. At the end of the story, these postural details recur. "The Misfit squatted down on the ground" (p. 1981), after the grandmother has made her fatal pronouncement of his identity. Two paragraphs later we read that Bailey was "squatting in the position of a runner about to spring forward" before he was taken off into the woods and shot, as the grandmother addresses her son but looks down at "The Misfit squatting on the ground in front of her." Within minutes The Misfit is wearing her son's "yellow shirt with bright blue parrots in it."
When The Misfit, wearing "silver-rimmed spectacles that gave him a scholarly look" and carrying a gun, emerges from his hearse-like car, he tells about making his own father nervous: "You know," Daddy said, "it's some that can live their whole life without asking about it and it's others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He's going to be into everything." And the father didn't like it. The boy wasn't supposed to bother people by being curious or asking questions.
The prison psychoanalyst had tried to explain the Oedipus complex to The Misfit, who took him literally and rejected the diagnosis. Remember the story of the son who killed his own father? But the hostility that he does not acknowledge feeling toward his own parents is enacted here as he destroys a family, horrified at the grandmother's claim that he is one of her children.
Secondly, why is he called a misfit?
O'Connor shows that The Misfit's tendency to take things literally is the theological heart of the problem. Growing up in the Bible Belt, where children are named after John Wesley and the Bible is taken literally, The Misfit cut his ties to his family by asking too many questions.
Now, he is defined by his adversarial stance toward the world and its wisdom. Like the child, John Wesley, who is desperate to open the secret panel in the fireplace of the grandmother's mythical white mansion ("not telling the truth but wishing that she were," as we are told on p. 1887), The Misfit want to make experience intelligible. He wants to actually see, hear, taste, touch; he needs literal proof of things and ideas.
The grandmother keeps throwing the name of Jesus at The Misfit, not understanding that his profound alienation stems from his inability to subscribe to the shallow beliefs to which the grandmother has paid lip service all her life. His need for verification traps him in an inadequate "rational" view of the world. He does not know about what O'Connor speaks of as "the mystery of faith that allows one to know the truth that has never been seen." He is one of what is called O'Connor's "flawed prophets."
He has a depth of experience as shown in his listing of occupations--gospel singing, undertaking, plowing "Mother Earth," being in a tornado, seeing a man burnt and a woman flogged--that goes far beyond the banal experience of his victims. Sensitive and psychotic, he has the spiritual insight to recognize that true belief throws "everything off balance" (p. 1894), just as we, the readers, are thrown off balance by what we see happen. First, we see this family drive out of a settled human environment which brings them face to face with the beauty and strangeness of God's created world, where the meanest of the trees sparkle (p. 1885). Yet in this Edenic natural environment, a gesture of inclusion registers like the touch of a snake and compels The Misfit to shoot an old woman. O'Connor lets the children reiterate their own delight in having had an ACCIDENT precisely because, one suspects, she would have us understand that there are no accidents in God's plan.
6. Is the murder of the grandmother and her family a prelude to The Misfit's eventual salvation, as O'Connor may hint, or is the story a vision of a world without redemptive possibilities?
Perhaps O'Connor would agree that the "silver stallion embossed on the front of" the red sweatshirt worn by one of The Misfit's henchmen (p. 1889) is a mass-marketed replica of the pale horse on which Death sits in the book of Revelation (6.8), the Christian's ultimate source of mystical symbols open to multiple and mutually contradictory interpretations. O'Connor's story, like the Bible itself, like all religious experience, defies pat analysis and for today's readers (consciously post-modern or not) remains open to interpretation. Great art, like the post-modernist's reality, "is not easily organized into coherent systems" (p. 1899). and neither are the "varieties of religious experience" that the philosopher William James described.
O'Connor's storytelling makes us savor asking questions like the #6 above, whether or not we can--or want to--find definitive answers to them.
Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964)
Contributing Editor: Beverly Lyon Clark
With thanks to LynnAnn Mastaj and her classmates for comments on these questions.
Classroom Issues and Strategies
My students have trouble dealing with the horror that O'Connor evokes--often they want to dismiss the story out of hand, while I want to use it to raise questions. Another problem pertains to religious belief: Either students lack any such belief (which might make a kind of sense of O'Connor's violence) or else, possessing it, they latch onto O'Connor's religious explications at the expense of any other approach.
I like to start with students' gut responses--to start with where they already are and to make sure I address the affective as well as the cognitive. In particular, I break the class into groups of five and ask students to try to build consensus in answering study questions.
In general, the elusiveness of O'Connor's best stories makes them eminently teachable--pushing students to sustain ambiguity, to withhold final judgments. It also pushes me to teach better--to empower students more effectively, since I don't have all the answers at my fingertips. My responses to O'Connor are always tentative, exploratory. I start, as do most of my students, with a gut response that is negative. For O'Connor defies my humanistic values--she distances the characters and thwarts compassion. Above all, O'Connor's work raises tantalizing questions. Is she, as John Hawkes suggests, "happily on the side of the devil"? Or, on the contrary, does the diabolical Misfit function, paradoxically, as an agent of grace? We know what O'Connor wants us to believe. But should we?
One important context that I need to provide for my students is background on O'Connor's Christianity. The most useful source here is O'Connor's own essays and lectures, which often explain how to read her works as she would have them read. Certainly O'Connor's pronouncements have guided much of the criticism of her work. I'll summarize some of her main points:
She states that the subject of her work is "the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil" (Mystery and Manners 118). She tries to portray in each story "an action that is totally unexpected, yet totally believable" (118), often an act of violence, violence being "the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially" (113). Through violence she wants to evoke Christian mystery, though she doesn't exclude other approaches to her fiction: she states that she could not have written "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" in any other way but "there are perhaps other ways than my own in which this story could be read" (109).
In general O'Connor explains that she is not so much a realist of the social fabric as a "realist of distances" (44), portraying both concrete everyday manners and something more, something beyond the ordinary: "It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners . . ." (124). She admits too that her fiction might be called grotesque, though she cautions that "anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic" (40). And she connects her religious concerns with being southern, for, she says, "while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted" (44).
I also find it important to address the question of racism in the story. Is the story racist? I ask. Is the grandmother racist, in her comments on cute little pickaninnies and her use of "nigger"? Does the narrator endorse the grandmother's attitude? And what do we make of her naming a cat Pitty Sing--a pseudo-Japanese name that sounds less like Japanese than like a babytalk version of "pretty thing"? Is O'Connor simply presenting characteristically racist attitudes of not particularly admirable characters? I find Alice Walker's comments helpful here, on O'Connor's respectful reluctance to enter the minds of black characters and pretend to know what they're thinking.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
O'Connor is usually compared to writers who are southern or gothic or Catholic or some combination thereof: e.g., William Faulkner, Nathanael West, Graham Greene. Louise Westling (in Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor [University of Georgia Press, 1985]) has made fruitful comparisons with Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, though most critics seem to find it difficult to discover points of comparison with other women writers.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
The following questions can be given to students in advance or used to guide discussion during class:
1. What qualities of the grandmother do you like? What qualities do you dislike? How did you feel when The Misfit killed her? Why?
2. How would you characterize the other members of the family? What is the function of images like the following: the mother's "face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like a rabbit's ears" and the grandmother's "big black valise looked like the head of a hippopotamus"?
3. How does O'Connor foreshadow the encounter with The Misfit?
4. What does the grandmother mean by a "good man"? Whom does she consider good people? What are other possible meanings of "good"? Why does she tell The Misfit that he's a good man? Is there any sense in which he is?
5. What is the significance of the discussion of Jesus? Was he a good man?
6. What is the significance of the grandmother's saying, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children"?
7. What is the significance of The Misfit's saying, "She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life"?
There are, of course, no absolute answers to these questions; the story resists easy solutions, violates the reader's expectations.
Other O'Connor stories well worth reading and teaching include "The Displaced Person," "The Artificial Nigger," "Good Country People," "Everything That Rises Must Converge," "Revelation," and "Parker's Back" (all in The Complete Stories [Farrar, 1971]). O'Connor's essays have been collected in Mystery and Manners (Farrar, 1969). The fullest collection of works by O'Connor is the Collected Works (Library of America, 1988).
As for secondary sources, the fullest biography so far, at least until O'Connor's long-time friend Sally Fitzgerald completes hers, is Lorine M. Getz's Flannery O'Connor: Her Life, Library and Book Reviews (Mellen, 1980).
For discussion of O'Connor's social, religious, and intellectual milieux see Robert Coles's Flannery O'Connor's South (Louisiana State University Press, 1980). A fine companion piece is Barbara McKenzie's photographic essay, Flannery 0'Connor's Georgia (University of Georgia Press, 1980).
Four collections of essays provide a good range of criticism on O'Connor:
1. The Added Dimension: The Art and Mind of Flannery O'Connor, edited by Melvin J. Friedman and Lewis A. Lawson (1966; rpt. Fordham University Press, 1977).
2. Critical Essays on Flannery O'Connor, edited by Melvin J. Friedman and Beverly Lyon Clark (Hall, 1985).
3. Flannery O'Connor, edited by Harold Bloom (Chelsea House, 1986).
4. Realist of Distances: Flannery O'Connor Revisited, edited by Karl-Heinz Westarp and Jan Nordby Gretlund (Aarhus, 1987).
The Friedman and Clark collection, for instance, includes the Walker and Hawkes essays alluded to above: John Hawkes, "Flannery O'Connor's Devil," Sewanee Review 70 (1962): 395-407; Alice Walker, "Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O'Connor," In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. Harcourt, 1983.
Overall, criticism of O'Connor has appeared in more than forty book-length studies and hundreds of articles (including those published annually in the Flannery O'Connor Bulletin). Most criticism continues to be either religious or formalist. But for a discussion that situates O'Connor's work historically, in the postwar era, addressing its intersections with liberal discourse, see Thomas Hill Schaub's chapter on O'Connor in American Fiction in the Cold War (Wisconsin, 1991).