There are more than a few humorous anecdotes of reader’s reactions to Flannery O’Connor’s stories. O’Connor recounts one instance in which a woman wrote to her, protesting her stories and claiming they left a bad taste in her mouth. O’Connor wrote back that the woman wasn’t supposed to eat them. On another occasion, as Jonathan Rogers describes,
“After publishing ‘A Temple of the Holy Ghost,’ she received a letter from a woman in Boston. ‘She said she was a Catholic and so she couldn’t understand how anybody could even HAVE such thoughts.'”
But sometimes the reactions, especially from reviewers, were not so funny. Time Magazine wrote, in a review of her collection of short stories titled “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” that her stories were “wittingly sarcastic” but contained “arty fumbling” in the thematic content. The Kenyon Review, writing about the same collection, called her stories, “profane, blasphemous, and outrageous.”
But why? One of her most popular stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is the story we’ve now come to in this comprehensive analysis. The story is exceptionally offensive, but I think it gives us one of the clearest pictures of exactly why her stories engendered such violent reactions.
I should say this as I dive into the analysis: plenty has been written about “Good Man,” and so I don’t purport to present the sum total of all that could possibly be seen or discussed concerning it. In this post, though, I want to look at “Good Man” from a rather odd perspective. Namely, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” in my opinion, pushes a scandalous dichotomy–the dichotomy of the person of Christ and the demand He makes on the world.
The basic story of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is of a grandmother and her family, six in total, on a vacation in Florida. On the drive down their car is overturned on a side road and, there, unable to escape, they are all murdered by a serial killer who calls himself the Misfit.
Since she wrote the story, I think it might be a good idea to let O’Connor have the first word as to the theme. Before she read the story to Hollins College in Virginia, in 1963, she said:
“This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.”
In O’Connor’s view, then, the thematic movement of “Good Man” is a move from deception to reality, a move from the grandmother’s rejection of who Christ is to a realization of the truth.
Since the grandmother is the thematic center of the story I want to focus on her and her evolution.
How does O’Connor paint the grandmother at the beginning? At the start of the story, the grandmother is entirely self-deceived. She has a self-image of herself as a lady, an upstanding and moral member of her community. And not only is she a good person but she’s always right. The story opens with a simple, absolute statement of her opinion: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee…”
She’s also violently self-righteous, obsessed with other people conforming to her standards of good behavior. Fundamentally, she’s unwilling to see herself as a sinner in need of grace, though she would almost certainly proclaim that truth about others.
Here we see the first problem. The Grandmother has an improper view of herself because she doesn’t understand the Gospel. Jesus is a comfort to her–a mere nicety. She views Him as a good man, but she doesn’t see Him as the Son of God, because if He were the Son of God He’d keep the law of God perfectly, which would reveal the Grandmother’s unrighteousness. If He were the Son of God, He would make demands on her life. O’Connor points out the fundamental problem with being unwilling to view oneself as a sinner.
“Redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.” (emphasis mine)
The Grandmother is a total embodiment of this belief that there is no cause for redemption. She doesn’t see a cause for redemption in her own life, though she almost certainly sees it in others. Jesus is for them. When the Misfit finally confronts her she urges him to pray because then Jesus will help him, but heaven forbid Jesus help her.
I think one of the primary ways O’Connor symbolizes the Grandmother’s delusion is in the way she dresses. O’Connor describes the Grandmother’s outfit in great detail near the beginning of the story. The outfit is perfect, prim, and proper. As O’Connor writes in a darkly comic moment of foreshadowing, “anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.” The clothes are connected with her self-image of being “a lady.”
After the first half of the story, though, O’Connor begins the slow process of stripping away the Grandmother’s pretensions. The car crashes as a result of the Grandmother’s lapse of memory, and the car crashes where it does because of the Grandmother’s insistence on her own way. But after the car crash the real beginning of the Grandmother’s confrontation with reality is mirrored by her clothes. O’Connor writes,
“The Grandmother limped out of the car, her hat still pinned to her head but the broken front brim standing up at a jaunty angle and the violet spray hanging off the side.”
The Grandmother’s clothes, indicating that she’s a lady, are tattered and torn.
But then The Misfit shows up, and the story really gets going. Who is this character the Misfit? He’s an odd person–violent, profane, and brutal. Yet he’s the one who brings the truth to the grandmother–he’s right where the grandmother is completely off. Meaning, the Misfit understands reality better than she does. The Misfit is more honest about the demands Jesus makes on people’s lives. As he says,
“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead…and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can–by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”
Here is the scandalous dichotomy. Here is the thing O’Connor pushes home again and again in her stories. Jesus is not a sideshow. Either He’s everything, in which case the only honest thing to do is to follow Him to the end, or He’s nothing, in which case, as the Apostle Paul points out, Christians like us are of all men the most to be pitied.
Ralph C. Wood writes this about the Misfit’s declaration:
“Jesus’ power over physical death, [the Misfit] knows, is the mark of his power over spiritual death. Christ’s raising of the dead constitutes a command for the Misfit also to be transformed: to surrender his proud sufficiency for the love of God and neighbor…the Misfit knows that he must either gladly embrace or bitterly reject Jesus’ invitation. There is no safe middle way, no accommodating alternative to the drastic extremes of belief and unbelief, no bland neutrality between Jesus Christ and absolute nothingness.”
The Misfit understands what the grandmother does not, which makes the grandmother’s desperate attempts to help him all the more ironic. She still thinks that she has everything figured out. “You could be honest too if you’d only try,” the Grandmother tells the Misfit. “Think how wonderful it would be to…not have to have to think about somebody chasing you all the time.” This comment actually comes before the Misfit’s bold declaration of the dichotomy of the character of Christ. By the time the Misfit tells the Grandmother the truth she’s on her knees, terrified, crying, “Jesus! You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray!”
But when the Misfit tells her the truth, she can’t stand it, responding only with, “Maybe He didn’t raise the dead.”
Think about where the Grandmother is at this point. Her son and grandson have been shot, her daughter-in-law and two granddaughters, one an infant, have met the same fate. A serial killer is kneeling in front of her, pointing a gun at her, and she knows the end is near. But right here at the end, in the sovereignty of God, her killer tells her the truth.
Her only escape is to deny it completely, but even that can’t keep reality away for long. In a shocking moment of truth she realizes who she is. The psychopath in front of her could be one of her own children. It is at this moment that the Grandmother realizes there is a need–a cause–for redemption. She needs redemption, and she knows it because she recognizes, I think, for one split-second, who Jesus is.
The dichotomy has hit her full-force and it runs her over. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that she dies with her knees crumpled under her “like a child’s.” At the end she went back to the beginning and started all over again.
The story gives us a simple if-then statement: if Jesus is the Son of God then we need to be redeemed by him. If he isn’t, then, as the Misfit says, there’s “no pleasure but meanness.”
Flannery O’Connor is almost more like the Misfit than the Grandmother. Her stories proclaim the truth shamelessly and bluntly. O’Connor, like the Misfit, stands straight, telling the truth that either Jesus is everything, or He’s nothing. He either commands every aspect of our lives, or we ought to do whatever gives us pleasure for the horribly short time we have on this earth.
There is no compromise. There is only a dichotomy.