My friend, DW, asked me to write about a Flannery O’Conner short story and I agreed. He made this request some time ago.
Obviously I haven’t forgotten.
Anyway, DW didn’t make stipulations, i.e., he didn’t specify short story, but, since that’s what O’Connor is known for, that’s what I’m writing about.
And since I brought that up, I have a confession to make: I had never read Flannery O’Conner before though I recall seeing her short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, in one of my Literature books back in the day. We didn’t study it. And it didn’t jump out to me as something that I wanted to delve into independently.
Still, I remembered reading that she was a Catholic writer and that piqued my interest a bit. Intelligentsia rarely admires authors of faith, so she had to be good.
O’Conner is dead, of course. Most of the great ones are.
A Good Man is Hard to Find–featuring a clueless all American family, a circumspect serial killer and his demonic henchmen, with elements of the supernatural and lessons in original sin–is Flannery O’Conner’s best known work.
It is Southern Gothic at its best–scholarly prose with a pulse, written instinctively.
Truman Capote liked it a lot.
One can approach A Good Man is Hard to Find without some knowledge of the Catholic faith, but I wouldn’t recommend it. In other words you don’t have to be a Catholic to understand it, but some familiarity with the parabolic teachings of Jesus Christ viewed through the lens of Catholicism, will go a long way.
The story, steeped in a mixture of doctrine and civil rights, tells of a smug, entitled, self righteous old biddy who, through the unrelenting imposition of her will, brings about the destruction of her family. Throughout the story she is referred to simply as the grandmother.
The grandmother lives with her son, Bailey, his wife and their children, John Wesley and June Star. And the baby. The names of the cast of characters–or lack thereof–are symbolic.
Take “Bailey” for instance; a somewhat unusual name, circa 1953, when A Good Man is Hard to Find was published. Bailey is a surname used in place of a given name. Though such names are fashionable today, as they were in antebellum south, the practice was considered too stuffy by 50s Americana standards.
Although his surname signifies entitlement, Bailey is less than enthusiastic about the implications and expectations of his birthright; he accepts them nonetheless. He is WASP. Moreover, he is Old South WASP. It is his blessing and his curse.
The grandmother, on the other hand, indulges in privileges that she has done nothing to earn. She thinks of herself as a beacon and belle of the right, polite, patriarchal society when she is its stubborn residue instead.
The boy, John Weasly, represents the recklessness of the Methodist reformer of the same name who O’Conner views as catalyst of the splintering Protestant movement. The girl, June Star, represents the devolution of the fragmented church into spectacle.
And the mother?
She depicts the lack of distinction or–more precisely–the utter lack of feminine influence on the Old South patriarchal society. Consequently, O’Conner banishes the mother to the purgatory of incubator and robotic caretaker of the baby.
The baby is devoid of all human characteristics exempting the most base. He cries. He consumes. He eliminates.
Flannery O’Conner never had children. Obviously.
I used to think babies were like that.
The unsuspecting family embarks on a weekend getaway, ostensibly from their home in Georgia to sunny Florida, but the grandmother has other plans. Regaling John Weasley and June Star with tall tales of a secret passage in the ancestral mansion of an old boyfriend, the grandmother pressures her son to veer off course via Tennessee.
Bailey doesn’t want to, but he can’t bare his whining children. He steers them into a dark and forbearing forest just to shut them up. The mother barely utters a word.
Along the way they pass a black child standing in abject poverty with no pants. The grandmother is delighted by the child’s cuteness, even as every billboard warns of an escaped serial killer called The Misfit; even as a shady entrepreneur–a bar owner, actually and a Jimmy Swagart like preacher symbolically– warns them about him too.
The grandmother just can’t help talking about The Misfit. She’s terrified of him. He fascinates her too.
The Misfit is obviously the Devil a.k.a., Satan. No need to stretch it out and turn it into a big mystery. And the Devil and the grandmother are on a collision course.
Here’s where some first hand experience in religious fundamentalism is preferred but not mandatory.
Yet, even with fanfare and warning, the grandmother is distracted by truckloads of pettiness. Nitpicking. Technospeak. Call it what you may. She steers her family into a forest so dense–yes, let’s all say it together–she can’t see it for all the trees. This is the realm of The Misfit.
Moreover, the road that they are navigating is much too narrow for their family sized car. Bailey runs them off into a ditch.
Now the family are at the mercy of the merciless. But he is interesting. The Misfit, that is.
And he’s been watching them. Stalking them, really. The automobile accident is his opportunity to swoop in.
Whereas Bailey had trouble maneuvering his less than agile family automobile, The Misfit knows these roads like the back of his hand. He rolls right up to them in an enormous black hearse with his hillbilly henchmen.
Here’s the thing about The Misfit though–even though he’s despicable, there’s something about him. He’s mysterious. How did Kris Kristofferson put it?
He’s a walking contradiction
Partly truth and partly fiction
The Misfit is very sensual. He’s a rough around the edges professor with an accent straight out of Appalachia. His hair is startlingly white and on the longish side. He wears suspenders and tight pants with no shirt. He’s not necessarily handsome and he’s not necessarily not handsome.
Trust me, women like that kind of thing.
He carries a sawed off shotgun. The grandmother is mesmerized.
See. Even Flannery O’Conner thinks so. And she’s practically a nun.
One by one, The Misfit instructs his henchmen to lead the grandmother’s family into the woods. Shots ring out. Again. And again…
Yes, even the baby. That’s the whole original sin thing…And the purgatory thing, too.
Finally it’s just the grandmother and The Misfit.
Now I could go on and dissect the ending….Since this is an analysis, that’s exactly what I should do…But, if I did that, I’d ruin the ending and I suspect there’s a lot of you who–like me–haven’t read Flannery O’Connor before. I don’t want to spoil it for you.
Plus, A Good Man is Hard to Find is sooo symbolic, it would take me forever to explain it.
But, here’s the main thing–I don’t think I have the right to dictate a particular interpretation of her text. I mean who really can know with absolute certainty the meaning of it except for the Lord and Flannery O’Connor?
So you’re just going to have to read it for yourself.
That’s the Protestant side of A Good Man is Hard to Find. In a nutshell, of course.