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Life-Death Contrast in Flannery O’Connor’s Stories


The present paper is a review of two stories written by Flannery O’Connor – A Good Man Is Hard to Find and The River – regarding their depiction of the concept of death. The two readings incorporate the concept of death in very different ways, and it is apparent that A Good Man Is Hard to Find has a clearer presentation of death than The River. To discuss how death as a concept is portrayed in the two stories, it is necessary to examine such aspects as the level of contrast between life and death in each story, the number of deaths involved, how the deaths occur, and the qualities of those deaths as depicted by the author.

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The major difference between the two texts emerges from a different vision that underlies each story. To be more precise, in The River, O’Connor wanted to portray death as an escape from unmerciful and painful reality and a way to reunite with the Creator. At the same time, in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, the author’s goal was to show the unmerciful reality itself and the way death can serve as a tool used by one person to obtain what they want. In both stories, the death of the main characters happens rather unexpectedly; in this way, the author managed to communicate the reality of death and its dire nature.

The issue is that in The River, death is used philosophically as a symbol of a newly found hope and a way for a lost soul to move on. In A Good Man Is Hard to Find, the concept of death is presented using a much more straightforward approach, while the major philosophical question of this story is focused on its title and the notion of goodness in people. A straightforward perspective on death as an imminent, sudden, and unsentimental event is more important from the practical point of view, as it does not romanticize death, making it all the more attractive as a concept.

Contrasts in the Two Storylines

One of the most important aspects that allow the readers to develop a proper perception of the concept of death in the two stories is the level of contrast between the presence of death in the plotline and the overall tone of the text. In particular, the tone of The River is quite gloomy and dull. This is noticeable in the descriptions of scenes where the main characters interact with one another. Specifically, the story begins at six o’clock in the morning in a “dark living room” where Mrs. Connin, the nanny, is picking up the boy whom she will look after for the rest of the day (O’Connor, The River 157).

When they go outside, they see “the gray morning blocked off on either side by the unlit empty buildings” (O’Connor, The River 158). This dark and gray color scheme stretches throughout the entire course of the story and is present both outside and in the characters’ homes. Even the characters in the story look and feel miserable – Harry is unhappy with his life, his parents are too busy hosting parties and suffering from hangovers, and the children at Mrs. Connin’s house say that they are dead inside. As a result, the fact that the story ends with death is not entirely surprising to the reader prepared to encounter something dire.

At the same time, the scenes in A Good Man Is Hard to Find are beautiful and colorful from the very beginning. The characters are portrayed as happy and innocent, living a quiet, safe, and comfortable life filled with smiles and light-hearted jokes, and planning a trip to Florida for three days. The character who is described most thoroughly is the grandmother, who is kind, caring, very attached to her family, and often naïve and irrational when she worries about the well-being of her loved ones.

At the beginning of the journey, the car with the entire family passes “Stone Mountain; the blue granite that in some places came up to both sides of the highway, the brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple; and the various crops that made rows of green lace-work on the ground” (O’Connor, A Good Man Is Hard to Find 119). Descriptions similar to this one seem to be used by the author to make her story similar to a lovely fairy tale with a happy family, wonderful places, and a perfect trip. In this way, when the story takes a sudden turn, transforming into a horrible mass murder scene perpetrated by a group of cold-blooded killers, the readers become truly shocked by such an unexpended ending.

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Consequently, it is possible to conclude that regarding the unexpectedness of death, as well as its imminent nature, A Good Man Is Hard to Find presents the concept in a more striking manner than The River, where the entire tone of the story gradually prepares the readers for a dire ending.

The Number of Deaths

To Review the significance of the concept of death in each of the selected stories, it is possible to take a quantitative approach and evaluate the number of deaths in each reading. A Good Man Is Hard to Find is a clear leader in this regard because the entire family is killed one by one at the end of the story, whereas in The River the only victim who dies is the little boy. Neither of the stories has clear descriptions of the deaths.

In A Good Man Is Hard to Find, the family members are taken to the forest and shot without the reader witnessing the killings directly; and in The River, Harry’s death is presented in a very philosophical manner as a calm experience in which Harry has confidence that “he was getting somewhere” (O’Connor, The River 174). In addition to the number of deaths in the story, the passages dedicated to the events of death differ in size as well.

To put it in other words, in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, the description of the killings and a conversation about death takes place over several pages, with the main protagonist, the grandmother, in terrifying agony as she is torn apart by fear for her family and her own life. At the same time, Harry’s death in The River is described in just one sentence. One may argue that the brief and vague hint at the boy’s death can be more shocking than the lengthy murders one after another in A Good Man Is Hard to Find.

However, the emotional impact of the presentation of death in the latter is strengthened by the cold-blooded attitudes of the murderers, the twisted worldview of their leader, and the torturous wait of the grandmother for her death, which occurs like that of Harry – unexpected and fast. To sum up, the thoroughness of the discussion of death in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, as well as its length, and the presence of multiple deaths in the story contribute to a more forceful presentation of the concept of death than in The River.

The Quality of Death

In discussing the concept of death as shown in two different literary works of Flannery O’Connor, it is important to pay attention to the quality of deaths in these stories. To be more precise, even though both stories end in the death of the main protagonists, O’Connor seemed to pursue very different goals in creating her stories and thus gave the concept of death two different meanings in the two readings. In particular, in The River, the death of Harry happens as a result of his fascination with the Kingdom of Christ soon after he is baptized by a priest.

O’Connor, who was a highly religious writer devoted to her Roman Catholic faith, created a child character who was very unhappy with his life. At the beginning of the story, he is described as resembling “an old sheep, waiting to be let out” (O’Connor, The River 158).

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It is possible that the analogy with a sheep was supposed to tell the reader that the boy was lost and required a shepherd, someone to lead him. In this way, having received guidance and having been given to God via an act of baptism, the boy begins to be driven towards the divine and comes to the river where he was baptized to search for the Kingdom of Christ. In this way, it seems that in this story, O’Connor was determined to present a “good death” as the boy, tired of and disappointed by his life on earth, died trying to reach God. Since he was younger than the age of 7, he had not reached the age of accountability which, in the Catholic faith, means that after his death Harry went to heaven.

The concept of death as presented in A Good Man Is Hard to Find does not cast death as any kind of escape for the victims murdered by a group of criminals. Instead, the deaths of all the family members seem sudden and extremely unexpected. Moreover, these deaths seem pointless, as if an entirely happy and innocent family of six was murdered for a group of criminals to take over their possessions. The view on death as an event that takes someone from this world in the most merciless manner is a much more common perception. Even though quite commonly the living who have lost a dear close person attempt to develop a more positive outlook on the tragic event, saying that the dead people go “to a better world,” death is still perceived as extremely unwanted.


The concept of death in A Good Man Is Hard to Find aligns with the traditional perception of death as an awful tragedy, an imminent and unexpected loss, and an unfair turn of events. In this story, the concept of death is the focus of the plotline, as its discussion takes several pages and its presence is rather shocking when contrasted with the story’s overall light and happy tone. In this way, it is possible to conclude that the concept of death presented in A Good Man Is Hard to Find is much clearer, more traditional, and distinct and thus is more powerful than that found in The River.

Works Cited

O’Connor, Flannery. A Good Man Is Hard to Find.

—. The River.

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