Archive | August, 2012

A Divine Comedy: Violence and Salvation in Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find

21 Aug
Flannery O'Connor

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In a 1955 letter to Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor describes a Connecticut dinner party at which she read the title story from her collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find. After her performance, a guest opined that “it was a shame someone with so much talent should look upon life as a horror story.” (1). Indeed, reduced to its barest plot points, A Good Man Is Hard to Find does read like the synopsis of a pulpy horror film: a trio of murderous freaks, led by an escaped convict called The Misfit, slaughter a helpless family of six on a Georgia farm road.

But Flannery O’Connor’s writing transcends simple horror, instead spinning a tale of miraculous redemption framed by dark slapstick comedy. The violence O’Connor sets into motion is brutal, but meant to shock us into spiritual awakening, much like the punch line of a joke is meant to shock us into laughter; indeed, if O’Connor’s is a horrific epiphany, it’s because it cannot be otherwise. As she states in her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction:”

There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. (819)

O’Connor must reacquaint us with evil if she is to show us the price of a soul’s redemption. In A Good Man Is Hard to Find, she uses satire to illustrate the active evil of murderers, the passive evil of grandmothers, and the alienation from the Divine that all evil holds in common. The terrifying moment of redemption she offers us is all the more precious for being both traumatically earned, and, in seeming contrast to the rigorously unsentimental satiric tone, profoundly compassionate. A Good Man Is Hard to Find is a blazing satirical attack on disbelief, but  with a fiercely empathetic heart.

A chief weapon in O’Connor’s satiric arsenal is the character of the unnamed grandmother. She is a stock archetype in Flannery O’Connor’s oeuvre; a fussy, manipulative, ridiculously old-fashioned Southern matron. Like Mrs. Turpin in Revelation or Julian’s Mother in Everything That Rises Must Converge, the grandmother in A Good Man Is Hard to Find is a living fossil of calcified Southern womanhood. The grandmother is obsessed with the outward appurtenances of a niceness the opposite of which isn’t cruelty, but commonness:

Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady. (138)

Not only is the old woman appearance-obsessed, but her worldview is so absurdly limited that she assumes everyone is equally superficial; “anyone” would infer her exalted status from the fake flowers pinned on her, even if she were a corpse. It’s an absurd image, as well as an efficiently ominous one, given what befalls her.

As with O’Connor’s other ridiculous matrons, the grandmother’s offspring often reject or ridicule her pretensions. Her family’s disdain prompts the grandmother to continually invoke a vanished age of better manners and, not coincidentally, entrenched Jim Crow-era Southern attitudes:

“In my time,” said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, “children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then. Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!” she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack. (139)

O’Connor immediately juxtaposes the grandmother’s pre-lapsarian “people did right back then” with a grossly reductive racial slur; manners may have mattered greatly “in [her] time,” but the dignity of fellow human beings of presumed lesser status clearly did not.

So intent is this woman on pursuing her romanticized sense of heritage that she succeeds in hijacking a planned family vacation to Florida. She had wanted instead “to visit some of her connections in East Tennessee.”(137) What these “connections” are we do not discover, but O’Connor’s use of “connections” rather than, say, “relatives,” suggests that the grandmother is drawn merely to her own relationship with Tennessee, rather than to any human loved ones there. Her Tennessee connections remain abstract, and her actual family couldn’t care less about them. Her eight-year-old grandson even dismisses the state as “just a hillbilly dumping ground.”(139)

Nevertheless, the old woman holds fast to her illusions, set to the tune of The Tennessee Waltz, replete with a gentleman suitor of her youth who owned Coca-Cola shares, and played against a backdrop of a dimly-remembered six-columned plantation house she visited once. On the family’s car trip through Georgia, the grandmother decides that this very plantation house is a crucial “educational” digression, and manipulates her family into trying to find it on a desolate rural back road. She even fabricates a wholly fictitious secret panel in the house which hides Confederate treasure, “not telling the truth but wishing she were” (143) in order to heighten the scabrous allure of the past. She is monomaniacal in dragging her offspring into a counterfeit plantation past along with her.

It is at this moment that O’Connor ratchets up both the character’s slapstick, and the story’s larger narrative irony. En route to her architectural delusion of grandeur, the mythologizing old woman suddenly experiences the “horrible thought” that the house is not on this Georgia road (which runs just past the darkly-named “Toombsville”) after all, but in Tennessee (if, the reader wonders, it ever existed). The old woman’s convulsive reactive twitch is a sharp burlesque of secret embarrassment. Its violence startles the cat she’s hidden in her valise, which attacks her son, causing him to drive off the road and crash. This visceral catastrophe is at once absurdly funny and decidedly fatal, as it renders the family helpless and exposed to the inevitable onslaught of The Misfit. Deepening the irony is the fact that had the family driven straight to Florida without the grandmother’s interference, they may have avoided the Misfit altogether.

The Misfit and his two accomplices arrive on the scene with preternatural efficiency in a “big black battered hearse-like automobile” (145), and the ensuing description of the men gives the reader little hope that they are genteel Southern gentlemen bent on chivalry. We meet Hiram, a spectre-like figure whose hat ominously obscures his face, and Bobby Lee, a grinning “fat boy” wearing a sweatshirt “with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” (146) Bobby Lee may be read as a perverse ironic reference to the Confederate heritage the grandmother so idolizes; another Robert Lee, the Civil War General, famously rode a silver gelding named Traveller throughout the war. It is as though the grandmother’s dream of the South has transformed into a grinning sweatshirt-clad nightmare.

As for The Misfit himself, he is described as gray-haired, bespectacled, and scholarly, as well as apologetically polite about his half-dressed appearance. This unassuming shabbiness somewhat recalls Dostoevsky’s down-at-heels Devil of The Brothers Karamazov. But the similarity ends there. Unlike Dostoevsky’s retiring, rather passively sardonic Devil figure, The Misfit exudes a commanding menace. We never see the Devil of Karamazov up to any sin of commission, whereas The Misfit efficiently dispatches the old woman’s family to their death in the woods at the hands of his henchmen.

Faced even with the murder of her entire family, O’Connor’s old woman still clings to her characteristic comical snobbishness, attempting to flatter The Misfit’s vanity by exclaiming “’I know you’re a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!’”(147) She thus subjects The Misfit to the same absurd superficial duality of niceness vs. commonness to which she has always held everyone.

She further entreats him to pray to Jesus, even calling Jesus’ name. This recitation is more like conventional superstitious piety than like prayer, however, another facet of her manipulation rather than a plea arising from faith, “almost sound[ing] as if she might be cursing” (151). And in any case, this facile evocation of Christianity renders The Misfit only more dangerous:

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” the Misfit continued, “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 thow 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…if I had been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” (152)

The Misfit has made a choice arising out of the sin of despair; he refuses to make the leap of faith in Christ’s divinity and has consigned himself to “no pleasure but meanness.” It’s the tragedy of free will, the decision of a profoundly alienated human soul.

And with the story’s most transcendent touch of irony, it is The Misfit’s very despair that causes the grandmother’s sudden arrival at a state of Divine Grace. Grace isn’t visited upon her by the love of her family or her previous religious training, (which is likely Protestant, given that her grandson’s name is John Wesley (137), a seeming allusion to Methodism). It is The Misfit’s “face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry” (152) that moves her, suddenly, murmuringly, to truly empathize with him. She is no longer angling to survive her encounter, but has simply arrived, with the swift ineluctable mystery of a miracle, at a state where love and soulful connection transcend all obstacles, even that fatal distance between murderer and victim. She is simply dazzled by its truth, exclaiming “’Why, you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’She reached out and touched him on the shoulder.” (152)

The Misfit seems to experience this outreach as a mortal assault, recoiling “as if a snake had bitten him and [shooting] her three times through the chest.”(152) Te still-unnamed grandmother dies with a smile on her face, gazing into heaven. At the cost of her life, her soul has been redeemed. And the Misfit has witnessed her Grace, firsthand. He acknowledges that had she faced the great cost of her soul before her final confrontation, she “would have been a good woman.” Afterwards, wiping his spectacles, The Misfit is pale and “defenseless-looking.” To the idiotic Bobby Lee, he amends his statement that there’s no pleasure in life but meanness, stating instead that there’s no pleasure in life at all.

I think this tiny shift in his apprehension of pleasure, bleak as it seems, leaves room for hope of The Misfit’s salvation. His last and only solace in the absence of the Divine, that of doing people harm, has been robbed of him by the grandmother’s final, transcendent empathy. A Good Man Is Hard to Find remains a comedy, not a tragedy, precisely because of The Misfit’s newly shaken state of despair, in which, perhaps, all is not lost.

Works Cited

O’Connor, Mary Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” Flannery O’Connor Collected Works New York: The Library of America, 1988.

O’Connor, Mary Flannery. A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Flannery O’Connor Collected Works New York: The Library of America, 1988.

O’Connor, Flannery. “Letter to Sally and Robert Fitzgerald,January 1955” Flannery O’Connor Collected Works New York: The Library of America, 1988.