Flannery O'Connor Summer Reading Club Week 1: "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"

DirtRoad
DirtRoad

In introductory remarks she made before a public reading of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," Flannery O'Connor said, "Properly, you analyze to enjoy, but it's equally true that to analyze with any discrimination, you have to have enjoyed already." This, I believe, should be a foundational principle of the Flannery O'Connor Summer Reading Club. There is a kind of insight that is available only to those who have enjoyed a thing. And I do enjoy Flannery O'Connor's stories. Writing The Terrible Speed of Mercy, my forthcoming biography of O'Connor, was a pretty grueling two-year process (O'Connor herself described book-writing as "a terrible experience, in which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay"). Nevertheless, the day after I submitted the manuscript, I couldn't resist the urge to pick up the books I had inhabited for so long--The Complete Stories, The Habit of Being, Mystery and Manners--and flip through my favorite passages. Which is to say, any insights I might offer over the next few weeks grow out of my pleasure in the stories and will, I hope, increase your pleasure in them.

When it comes to "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," hardly anything could increase your enjoyment more than hearing O'Connor read it herself. I mentioned this yesterday, but if you have half an hour or so, do listen to it here. On that same page, you can find O'Connor reading a paper called "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction," which you can also read in Mystery and Manners.

Enough preliminaries. On to the story proper.

O'Connor has a reputation for unexpected endings. But in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," she telegraphs how the ending from the first paragraph, with the Grandmother rattling the newspaper at Bailey's head and announcing that it would be a bad idea to drive south, where the Misfit lurks: "I wouldn't take my children in any direction with a a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn't answer to my conscience if I did." On the next page, with reference to the Grandmother's carefully chosen traveling outfit, the narrator remarks, "In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady." From the conversation with Red Sammy and his wife to the fact that they get off the road near Toobmsboro (about twenty-five miles south of Milledgeville), the specter of sudden death haunts the story throughouth.

I don't remember what it was like to read this story for the first time. I'm hoping to hear from a reader who didn't come to the story already knowing that the Misfit was going to wipe the family out. I'd be curious to know what a first-time reader does with all that foreshadowing. Even as O'Connor puts prescient words in the grandmother's mouth, she gives us reason not to trust a word the old woman says. In the beginning of the story, her warnings about the Misfit appear to be manipulative nattering; when Bailey ignores her, I'm not thinking "Bailey, you fool! Listen to your mother's wisdom!" I'm thinking he probably has to do a lot of ignoring just to get by in that house. When the grandmother discusses the Misfit with Red Sammy, to me it feels like the kind of "hell in a hand basket" talk that one expects to hear from the elderly.

The grandmother speaks almost exclusively in cliches. Those cliches insulate her from the ultimate realities that surround her--sin, redemption, judgment, mercy, death, life--even when those cliches speak of those ultimate truths. She tells the Misfit, "If you would pray, Jesus would help you." Which is true enough, but in her mouth--at that point in the story, anyway--it is as much a cliche as "People are not as nice as they used to be," or "It's a beautiful day," or "You wouldn't shoot a lady, would you?"

A key moment for understanding the Grandmother comes immediately after the grandmother is left alone with the Misfit:

Alone with the Misfit, the grandmother found that she had lost her voice. There was not a cloud in the sky nor any sun. There was nothing around her but woods. She wanted to tell him that he must pray. She opened and closed her mouth several times before anything came out. Finally she found herself saying, "Jesus, Jesus," meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing.

A good Southern lady, the grandmother would never dream of taking the Lord's name in vain. But, as it turns out, she has been taking the Lord's name in vain all her life. Her telling the Misfit to pray, that Jesus would help him, was simply another way of manipulating to get her way. Here at this moment of extremity, she is about to come to terms with the ultimate truths that she has been mouthing about. "Jesus, Jesus," she says, in what might as well be a kind of profanity. And yet Jesus intervenes anyway. By invoking the name of Jesus, the grandmother elicits a speech from the Misfit in which, ironically, he tells the truth about Jesus: "He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw everything away 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."

And now, finally, the grandmother says the first honest thing she has said the whole story. She expresses an honest doubt:

"Maybe He didn't raise the dead," the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her.

That honest doubt cracks open the door for an honest acceptance of truths to which the grandmother had only given lip-service before. Just before her death, she finally realizes that she is a sinner herself, more kin to the Misfit than she would have ever been able to acknowledge. In an instant of clear-headedness she tells the Misfit, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" She has finally pushed through the cliches that have preserved her self-righteousness and is ready to meet her Maker--and not a second too soon.

I realize that it is not self-evident that this is a moment of grace for the grandmother. I speak so confidently about it only because of what O'Connor herself said about it: "...I am interested in the indication of Grace, the moment when you know that Grace has been offered and accepted--such as the moment when the Grandmother realizes the Misfit is one of her own children. These moments are prepared for (by me anyway) by the intensity of the evil circumstances" (Habit of Being, p. 367-8).

In remarks prefatory to a reading of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," O'Connor said

In my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. 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 (Mystery and Manners, p. 112).

Elsewhere O'Connor wrote, "There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment." The trick in reading O'Connor's fiction is to learn to recognize those moments; she was perfectly willing to leave them obscure, which troubles many Christian readers. But those of us who believe that grace intervenes in our real-world existence acknowledge that those interventions are often (perhaps usually) obscure, don't we?

My next post will be about that Satanic figure, the Misfit, and the ways in which he inadvertently "accomplishes a good deal of groundwork that seems to be necessary before grace is effective." Meanwhile, I would love to hear your thoughts on the grandmother and on the foreshadowing that seems so glaringly obvious once you know how the story ends. And I would especially like to hear from anyone who is coming to the story for the first time or who at least remembers the experience of reading it for the first time.