Flannery O’ Connor’s works were paradoxical in the sense that element of religion, humor and horror appear at the same time. She has become famous especially as a short story writer and had an impressive collection in her short life of just 39 years. She died in 1964 from a disease called disseminated lupus, apparently passed on from her father. Conner’s childhood was among a deeply religious society in Georgia, which reflected in most of her writings as an adult. “Along with authors like Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor belonged to the Southern Gothic tradition that focused on the decaying South and its damned people”. (Flannery O. Connor (1925 – 1964), Books and Writers). The short story ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’ is considered by many as her finest work and appeared in a short story collection having the same name. Other notable works include Wise Blood, The Violent Bear it Away and Mystery and Manners (a prose collection). This paper is a critique of her best work ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’.
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A person who is unfamiliar with the works of O’ Conner might be shocked at how the story ends. There is no indication of what will happen in the end throughout the story except when the family meets with the villain of the piece. The story starts off with a family starting on a vacation trip by road to Florida. The main protagonist of the story is the unnamed grandmother, her son, wife and two obnoxious children. The morning papers were full of news about an escaped convict referred as the Misfit. The grandmother who is not too keen to go to Florida attempts to change the destination by pointing out her son (and other family members) that they should not visit a place where a dangerous criminal is on the loose. But no one takes her seriously. The grandmother had secretly taken her cat along for the trip (packed into a bag) and by the end of the day jumps out of it on to the unsuspecting son who was driving. The car crashes even though no one is seriously hurt. While waiting for help (the place was on a deserted stretch) the Misfit along with two assistants comes along. The grandmother recognizes the man and it becomes necessary for the criminal to kill the whole family. He shoots them one by one including the grandmother who keeps waiting till the last. The reader is quite literally misled into believing that the plot will move sedately along even though an encounter with the Misfit is a possibility.
The story does not contain any real positive (not necessarily evil) characters except for the Red Sammy who runs a restaurant where the family has lunch during their trip. The family is also shown to have deep rooted Southern values and is concerned with those who fit in the society based on values and color. The instance where the grandmother refers to a black boy as nigger is evidence for this. The grandmother comes across to the reader as selfish, arrogant and manipulative. The son named Bailey is quite inefficient in handling things, but thinks of himself as otherwise. Bailey’s wife is shown to be a bit dull and the two children John Wesley and June Star are obnoxious and badly behaved. They also complain a lot about things in general. The Misfit who is evil personified “looks ‘educated,’ and apparently killed his own father. He is gray-haired, smart and chillingly exact. He is also polite, and can kill without much remorse.” (The Misfit, Character Guide, Free Study Guide: A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’Connor – BookNotes). The most ‘interesting’ part of the story is at the very end namely the verbal encounter between the grandmother and the Misfit. The woman’s naivety is clearly shown by her belief that all good men are rich, polite and well-dressed. The Misfit actually fits in with her image of a good man and she tries to reason with him not to kill her. In that moment, she even thinks of the Misfit as a long lost son. The man on the other hand is totally remorseless. He also seems to have grasped the character of the grandmother in such a short time because his words soon after killing her were that she “would have been a good woman… if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life”.
It is difficult to understand why such a deeply religious author should create characters that are hypocritical, dull, rude or evil without too many redeeming features in any of them. A typical reader will find it difficult to understand the reason why the plot moves towards its sickening climax. This would be applicable to people with normal sensibilities and maybe those readers who enjoy reading about shocking violence may be appealed by it. Beverly Lyon Clark, a contributing editor with Georgetown University has clearly endorsed this when she wrote that “My students have trouble dealing with the horror that O’Connor evokes–often they want to dismiss the story out of hand….”. (Classroom Issues and Strategies, Beverly Lyon Clark, Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964)). A typical reader will totally agree with this sentiment about the horror that the story evokes. Literary critic and author Alfred Castle has his own views which is quite similar to what has been said above. He writes that “The alarming story of an entire family’s ruthless extermination is easily summarized, if not easily understood.” (Flannery O Conner, Alfred Castle, a Good Man is Hard to Find, Literary Encyclopedia).
But the plus point here is that this horror and violence can enable a serious student of the work to think more deeply about human values or more specifically the lack of it. The thought that can come up in the mind of the student could be that all people have in them a basic tendency towards hypocrisy, racism and even evil. Clark goes on to say that the author tries to shock people into sensibility and awareness of religion through her writings. Castle also has similar views on her style of writing. According to him, people do not have the ability to choose the right action from the wrong ones. He adds that O’ Conner intends to tell her readers that this inability can only be corrected with God’s grace. But my personal feeling here is that there is nothing in the short story that indicates this reasoning. It is up to the reader to deduce all these from his or her own personal values and thoughts.
O’ Conner in her general writings agree that what she writes will shock people. But she adds that whatever comes from the South is generally considered to be ‘grotesque’ by Northern readers. She also caustically adds that anything really grotesque in Southern writing will be called normal by the same readers. Hence there is no use in writing a normal story. This cannot be a justification to write in the way that O’Conner does in most of her works.
Even though the story is laced with humor, the end result is that a person feels depressed at the end. The bleakness or negativity of the characters and the violence at the end is the reason for this feeling. There are plenty of authors who write more shocking stuff than what is seen in O’Conner’s works. Personally I feel that O’ Conner will only be an addition to that list. Of course the positive points that have been mentioned earlier (about making people think) still stand. There are other horror writers who write just to shock people (who like to be shocked) without any intention whatsoever to make people think. They do it just because there is a market for such writing. In that angle, ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’ does have the ability to make people think about good and evil and also about the grace of God. But that only happens if the reader also reads a well crafted criticism of the story. This is unlikely unless the reader is a serious student of literature or takes up the subject as a serious hobby. Otherwise the work my end up as being “dismissed offhand” or termed as “difficult to understand” by most readers. If not O’ Conner might be considered just as another writer who writes horror fiction (as mentioned earlier in this section). The person who enjoys her work will be a fan of horror fiction who like being shocked by such stories of evil.
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