Reader Response to “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
I once heard Flannery O’Connor’s work introduced as a project to describe a world denied God’s grace. This critic of O’Connor’s work meant the Christian idea that a person’s misdeeds, mistakes, and sins could be sponged away by the power of Jesus’ sacrifice at Crucifixion. The setting of her stories often seem to be monstrous distortions of the real world. These are stories where con men steal prosthetic limbs, hired labor abandons mute brides in rest stops, and bizarre, often disastrous advice is imparted.
O’Connor herself said of this reputation for writing ‘grotesque’ stories that ‘anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.’ This is both a witty observation and a piece of advice while reading O’Connor’s work. These are stories about pain and lies and ugliness. The brutality that happens to characters in this fiction or that they themselves perform is part of the meaning of the story.
After a previous read of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” I found it impenetrable. While I liked some of her work very much (Good Country People in particular) I found I didn’t get the ‘joke,’ in this story. Is the story suggesting that the mean and small-spirited people of the story deserve, in some respect, their murders? I don’t think so. The Misfit is carefully presented in almost garish detail as a true monster. And really, the mistakes of the grandmother are very small in proportion to their consequences. Finally we have the mystery of the grandmother’s execution after pronouncing The Misfit, “one of my babies...one of my own children!” It took until this second reading for me to understand the point of this exercise - not a detailing of one vain and self-important individual’s comeuppance but rather the recapitulation of something more valuable. The grandmother is aware, horribly aware of the fate of her children and herself. She is brought to death’s door and allowed to see for one moment the bleakness that lies beyond. We can say the grandmother is able to understand the tragedy of someone's life besides herself. O’Connor has her accepting The Misfit, accepting his tragedy as worth comment and lament. It is not a joyous realization but then, as The Misfit says, “It’s no real pleasure in life.”
The story drives this point home with its choice of imagery and foreshadowing. O’Connor devotes the first third of the story to the small details of the family’s clothing and mannerisms, trivial details like the mileage meter’s tally or the advertisements for road-side restaurants. This creates a comfortable solidity to the story. When the narrative literally careens off of the road, these images weigh down what might quickly turn lurid and ethereal. An example of foreshadowing appears after one of the descriptions of the grandmother: ‘in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.’ Well, the readers will encounter her dead body by the end of the story. Whether she is everyone's definition of a lady is up for debate, but she certainly surprises us with her magnanimous statement before her death.
In terms of what I’d like to learn from this story I’d say that the more ordinary of O’Connor’s techniques are very important: her use of imagery and naturalistic dialogue grounds the story. I think a reader gets a picture of the family in all of its cranky dysfunction and we want them to be shaken out of their complacency. In “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” the outlandishness of the narrator propelled the story. The wide gap between Merricat and conventional reality provides and interesting tension. In “A Good Man,” the conventionality of the characters draws us in. As a writer, O’Connor is able to generate outsized tragedies from collisions of the mundane and the grotesque. Each is applied in just the right proportion.