Friday, May 6, 2011

A Good Man is Hard to Find ~ Flannery O'Connor

"It isn't a soul in this green world of God's that you can trust" (678).

"I found out the crime don't matter.  You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you're going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it" (687).

The above quotes come from "A Good Man in Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor, which is also the title of one of O'Connor's collections of short stories.  Like most short stories that I read, it's hard to say what this one is about.  On the surface, it's about a family (mom, dad, three kids, and "the grandmother") going on a vacation to Florida.  However, there's much less about their vacation than there is about their family dynamic, the shortage of good men in the world, and the nature of punishment.  For the first 95% of the story, the narrative follows the grandmother the most closely, though without quite getting into her head.  This is a lady who has things to say and by God, she's going to say them, no matter how little her family wants to listen.  Her family is a source of much disgust for me, as they are a bunch of ungrateful little snots with horrific car-riding habits (they pass a baby around while driving and there's not a seatbelt to be seen).  Though you can see why the family doesn't want to hear from Grandma, it's even more obvious why she feels the need to say everything she does: there is an obvious breakdown in the traditional family structure: the children wield more power than anybody and the matriarch commands the least respect.  The narrative is satisfying stark and straightforward, doing away with superfluous description to get to the heart of the matter.

From here on out, there are going to be some spoilers, so I recommend you go read the thing and then come back for the discussion.  Unless you're lazy and don't care about being spoiled, in which case, read on.

The story held few surprises for me.  From the moment that the car flipped over, or maybe even from when the cat escaped his basket, I knew that the Misfit would show up.  With such a simple, straightforward style, it's unlikely that O'Connor would include even the slightest mention of such a character without that mention either being there to further the story or having him actually appear.  The Misfit does both.  His decision to murder the family, including the grandmother, came as no surprise either.  This seems obvious, as he was initially introduced as a murderer, but there are moments when it seems like he will spare the family, like the grandmother will talk him out of killing them or at least herself.  Just the fact of his murdering every character we've gotten to know up until now seems unlikely, but the knowledge of it settled over me even before the Misfit's henchmen lead Bailey and John Wesley into the woods.

The more I reread the Misfit's words, the more I recognize the underlying religious rhetoric.  This is also unsurprising, as O'Connor herself was devoutly Roman Catholic.  It doesn't stare you in the face though, and could probably be overlooked (as I initially overlooked it), despite the brief mention of Jesus raising the dead and the capital H's peppering his speech.  It can get a little lost in the way the Misfit speaks: never seeming to respond directly to what is said and seemingly wandering with his words.  However, I find an implication that behavior should be directly correlated to punishment, and it's the Misfit lack of concrete knowledge of God's existence that allows him to behave as he does:
"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" (688).
The punishment (God's rather than man's) informs the behavior, and it is only a constant knowledge and fear of God that lets there be any good people in the world at all.  Perhaps then (and this is taking it a little beyond the text, though still what I think O'Connor is saying, not myself) it's because there is no God or we have forgotten God that good men are so hard to find.

I might be turning this into a bit more of a religious lesson than was intended or than I generally like, but it doesn't really bother me and seems to grow out of O'Connor's own words.  What do you think?  I'd love to hear your thoughts on this story.  I have yet to decide if I really like it, but it's been following me around since I read it.

*I read the story in and drew the page number for the quotes from The Art of the Short Story, edited by Dana Gioia.  You can read it here.

1 comment:

  1. I've read very little Flannery O'Connor, and haven't read this one, so I jumped past most of your review so as not to spoil anything. But now I want to read it just to be able to compare notes with you!