A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: Who can know it?”  Jeremiah 17: 9, The King James Bible

I’m delving into Flannery O’Connor like mad, looking for violence. It all started with my stumbling upon this YouTube clip of Father Robert Barron’s movie review of Coen Brothers’ acclaimed movie “Fargo.”

I was bemused to hear him compare Joel and Ethan Coen’s films to Flannery O’Connor’s stories, for in them we can find violence juxtaposed closely with humor. It has been years since I read O’Connor’s stories. After watching “Fargo” again the other night, I thought, I must read more of Flannery O’Connor, this time in a different light. I want to experience how this is true. I’m curious to find out how and why a deeply religious female author would instil violence in her stories. A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories is a good source for my purpose.

Within the ten stories in this collection, I’ve encountered shocking and disturbing scenes that if being shown in cinematic light today could match what’s on screen, not only physical violence, but malicious deceits, verbal abuse, nasty and mean motives leading to disturbing actions.

Here are some of the scenes: Leading the pack is “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, where a family of six from baby to Grandma is killed by an escaped convict The Misfit and his men. In “Good Country People”, a deceitful young man posing as a Bible salesman outsmarts a woman aiming to seduce him, overpowering her and robbing her prosthetic leg.

Or how about these scenes: A grandfather denies knowing his young grandson in the face of danger in an unfamiliar city in “The Artificial Nigger”. A stranger gaining the trust of an old woman and later marrying her deaf-mute daughter but ends up abandoning her and driving off with her mother’s car and money after the wedding in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”. Children setting off a wild-fire and endangering a home and its occupants out of revenge, jealousy, or plain malice in “A Circle in the Fire”. Almost all the stories depict human depravity in a shocking way, albeit intermingled with humor. But often, for me, the humor does not compensate for the disturbing and grotesque. From what I’ve read in this collection, O’Connor could well have written the movie “No Country for Old Men”, except she would have sprinkled with a dash of sardonic fun.

But why? If for anything but to show the depravity and the hypocrisy among supposedly ‘good country folks’, and by extension, all humanity, O’Connor is most successful. Like the choir boys turned savages in The Lord of the Flies, what we are is largely circumstantial, the author seems to point out. O’Connor is very bold and direct in conveying this message. She does not cover up the dark side of human nature but exposes it. By so doing, she points to the need for redemptive grace.

In “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, we see at the moment of imminent death, the grumpy Grandma looks at The Misfit in a new light, realizing that her existential predicament is not much different from the criminal’s. She says to The Misfit:

Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children! She reached out and touched him on the shoulder.

But her epiphany comes too late for herself.

The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.

While we see the murder of a seemingly innocent old woman, albeit hypocritical, O’Connor delivers the verdict of our human condition ironically by the words of The Misfit:

She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.

I find too, that violence in O’Connor’s stories are not gratuitous. It’s a situation, an action that comes as unexpected, and with that, O’Connor deftly tips the balance. These shocking acts usually serves to shatter the status quo of her characters, challenge their world view and convictions. O’Connor does not go about describing the grotesque in gory images, rather, in a matter-of-fact way. We only hear gun shots from afar when the other members of the family are killed. And for the Grandma, The Misfit “shot her three times through the chest.” These mere seven words send out the eerie and shocking effect of cold-blooded murder without having to dwell on the explicit.

Likewise, in “A Circle in the Fire”, it’s a few sardonic words from the disgruntled kid Powell that send chill down our spine as he lights up a match to set fire to the dry wooded area outside Mrs. Cope’s farm home:

Do you know what I would do with this place if I had the chance?… I’d build a big parking lot on it…

Powell told his two companions. Seeing this, the slow-witted daughter of Mrs. Cope’s runs home excited, shouting:

Mama, Mama, they’re going to build a parking lot here!

Yes, a likely scene and dialogue from a Coen Brothers movie.

But it is O’Connor’s own words that is most revealing in pointing out the reasons behind the violence:

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.

And violence is never an end in itself:

We hear many complaints about the prevalence of violence in modern fiction, and it is always assumed that this violence is bad thing and meant to be an end in itself.  With the serious writer, violence is never an end in itself.  It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially…

In reading (and movie watching, for that matter) we need to find and catch that glimpse of grace. With this, O’Connor had also set a standard for a good screenplay:

Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them.

It is the “intrusion of grace” that the violent act is set up for. Without the Grandma’s final epiphany and the gesture of reaching out to The Misfit, O’Connor had said, “I would have no story.”

The writer sure knew a bit about the human heart.

***

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

10 thoughts on “A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor”

  1. Oh, don’t you know I love this entry! I love Flannery for all kinds of reasons – not least that her first fame came from teaching a chicken to walk backwards. The Pathé news people showed up and made a newsreel about it.

    Beyond that, she’s another Faulkner in her ability to open up a particular sort of Southern culture. We have a lot of redneck-bashing going on in this country now, not to mention some Texas-bashing and hillbilly bashing, but I always comfort myself with this, from her: “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.”

    Just another note or two. One of the fascinating things about her theology is that she doesn’t just offer up violence and grace as polar opposites. From her perspective, the incursions of grace often arrive violently, and are perfectly designed to blow worlds apart.

    And, she would have been a slow blogger. She certainly was a slow novelist and short story writer This pretty much tells the tale: “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. When he reads a novel, he wants either his sense tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.”

    There’s no “instant transport” in Flannery’s stories.

    And one more, about her view of the writing process itself. In a letter to Sally Fitzgerald about her novel Wise Blood, she said, “Enclosed is Opus Nauseous No. 1. I had to read it over after it came from the typist’s and that was like spending the day eating a horse blanket. It seems mighty sorry to me but better than it was before.”

    This is a woman after my own heart. 😉

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    1. LOL Linda,

      Just now there’s a tweet from The New Yorker @bookbench about Mary O’Connor’s feat of teaching a chicken to walk backward. And here’s the newsreel clip from British Pathé. Thanks for the in-depth comment. Yes, I had you in mind as I wrote this post… I’ve known all along she’s one of your favorite writers, now you’ve said it succinctly with that excellent last line. (Yes, unleash them… I’m all for allusions!)

      A slow blogger, eh? I’m glad. But what a loss for us all that she lived such a short life. The insightful passage you quoted is so ever more relevant today. All the graphic violence and explicit, gory depictions on screen and in video games are desensitizing us even more than in her age… her voice is prophetic indeed. I just love that idea: violence to set up for the “Intrusion of grace”, without which there is no story. I’ve yet to read or see the film adaptation of Wise Blood.

      I know a good writer is not hard to find in the South. Your quote of her remark about the North-South divide just shows she’s not only a perceptive writer but an incisive social commentator. Thanks for the informative addendum to my post! 😉

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  2. This is a beautiful review, Arti, sensitive and so insightful. But I would love to know… did you enjoy the experience of reading Flannery O’Connor? I struggle with stories like this, even though the redemptive reading is there. I’m not even sure myself why I dislike them so, unless it’s because in my own experience, people are kinder to me than I am to myself, and because all my jobs have been about finding and bringing out the best in people (and believe me, there is always so much good in there). I would like to get over my own resistance to reading stories in which random evil is portrayed! I’m sure it makes me miss out on a lot of good things.

    .
    litlove,

    I have genres that I avoid too: horror e.g., both books and movies. O’Connor is a writer of realism, and I have to marvel at her sharp observations and insights into the dark side of humanity. I’ve enjoyed the humour, the incisive depictions of characters’ motives in action and talk, the use of surprises and even shock to exaggerate and how she resolves (or not) such a turn of event. I agree there are things I feel disturbing and that’s why I’m most curious to know what O’Connor’s own intention was for her stories.

    Arti

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  3. An excellent review, Arti. I feel similar to what litlove said, that I resist stories with violence—books and films. I do admire the Coens, and that juxtaposition of violence and humor, and I thought No Country for Old Men was excellent. But it haunted me for weeks, and so I’ve come to realize that I can’t watch movies or read books with that violent intensity, no matter how well done. This has nothing to do with any kind of moralistic judgment against this sort of writing, but just a personal oversensitivity to it.

    I’m grateful you included O’Connor’s own words here, in light of this. What she said makes complete sense, and I can see that grace is revealed in the way she reveals the depravity of the characters in her stories.

    Just fascinating!

    .
    Ruth,

    My first line is meant to shock, O’Connor style. 😉 I admit I have eclectic interests in both books and films. A long way from “Miss Potter” definitely. As I wrote in my post, it was my stumbling upon Father Robert Barron’s review on YouTube (link in my post) that piqued my interest in Flannery O’Connor. I was most curious to know why a devout Catholic lady would want to use violence in her stories.

    As for “No Country for Old Men”, what you felt afterwards for days was likely the intended effect of the film. What it lacks could well be what O’Connor would say, an “Intrusion of grace”.

    Arti

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  4. How very intriguing. I know little of Flannery O’Connor. As Ruth mentioned, I, too, shy away from books or movies with violence — they so disturb me. And Ruth said it when she noted that her own words do make sense and explain a good deal. I can’t say I’m ready to rush out and delve into Flannery O’Connor, but I’m glad to know more about her and perhaps might give it a little more consideration — if only just to see for myself. Thanks for the introduction.

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    jeanie,

    I delve into her writings to find out how violence is compatible with her Catholic faith. From reading her, I’m more convinced that violence comes in many forms, and not limited to the physical. Some are so mild and common that they are unnoticed, accepted as a non-issue… a nasty word to put down & other forms of verbal abuse, racist comments, gestures (a form of attack to hurt emotionally) the competitive style of office politics to the combative ways corporations kill off rivalries, from our political arena to the world coliseum… O’Connor is a writer of realism, she narrows down and pierces through the human heart and motives to bring out the unsightly. The stories might be exaggerated scenarios, but they are beacons of warning.

    Arti

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  5. I think you find a very convincing answer as to why there is so much violence in O’Connor’s stories. I find rereading them again as I’m older (I teach a couple O’Connor stories now and then), that I appreciate the humor more than I used to. Some of these stories are just hilarious, especially “A Good Man.” O’Connor really has such a bizarre, oddly wonderful sense of humor.

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    Rebecca,

    I totally agree with you about the ‘bizarre, oddly wonderful sense of humor.” And it’s the most effective comic relief in an otherwise disturbing world depicted in O’Connor’s stories.

    Arti

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  6. My introduction to O’Connor came through Sally Fitzgerald’s compilation of her letters – “A Habit of Being”. It’s a big book, just filled with letters to friends, other writers, editors, spiritual advisors and so on.

    Since I read that first – about three times – it really gave me a solid foundation for reading her fiction. Otherwise, I understand completely how someone could be tempted to say, “Good grief!” and stop reading.
    One of the amazements to me is that, theologically, she’s a Thomist. Her fiction is grounded in her theology, which you wouldn’t -uh – necessarily assume.

    Another terrific book is “Mystery and Manners”, which is about the craft of writing. And Rebecca’s right – the woman is hilarious.

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    Linda,

    Just read this article about neuroscientists dismissing the term ‘evil’ and explaining it away with tangled neurons, a glitch in our brains. Our actions, good or evil, are but results of the wiring in a “hunk of matter.” How we need to read more Flannery O’Connors today. While we have learned to be tolerant and not be judgemental in our views towards others, the pendulum has swung too far the other side. The end of evil carries the chilling implication: the end of free choice.

    Thanks for your input and the resources.

    Arti

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  7. O’Connor was one of my mom’s favorites, but alas, I have not given her stories nearly enough attention. I did start reading her collection of nonfiction “Mysteries and Manners” and found her insights so profound that I could only absorb in small doses. I need to get back to her. Thanks for the inspiration to do so.

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    Andi,

    Absorbing in small doses … interesting thought. Guess I’m doing that now by slow reading her other stories in The Complete Stories collection. I admit my reactions vary from one to another.

    Arti

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  8. Just came back from a trip. I have been by Flannery O’Connor’s house in Savannah, Georgia. I photographed it and placed it in a post, but that is about all. I have not read her books and after reading your description, I am not sure I would enjoy them. I do not like violence or grotesque and disturbing people – there are too many in the news for my taste already. I have bought The Paris Wife several months ago and shall read that soon. While in Columbus I bought several second-hand books and some about Paris in the 20-30s, so I’ll read them after my current reading on Gertrude Stein.
    I also liked you beautiful pictures of autumn in your previous post. Thanks for your comments – I did not know you could read Chinese – were these books in the library in Chinese? I tried to learn Chinese once, but my teacher went to China and I stopped studying.

    .
    Vagabonde,

    LOL… it’s not that I particularly enjoy violence or the grotesque, neither was O’Connor I don’t think. That’s the realist backdrop for the message she wanted to convey. Anyway, they’re embedded with lots of humour too, so, you are entertained as well. Anyway, I so long to see her house, esp. after I’ve read her stories … to get a feel of her surroundings. So glad to hear you’ve got the chance to do that.

    As for Chinese, yes, I was born in the then British Colony of Hong Kong, educated there until I immigrated to Canada as a teenager with my family. So I’ve had 9 years of schooling there, still can speak and read Chinese. The books in your photo, except the lower right section is Japanese, all the rest are in Chinese. Glad I could be of help. If you need any more translations, just let me know. 😉

    Arti

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  9. Some of Flannery O’Connor’s stories were assigned in my high school literature class (many decades ago). I couldn’t get enough of them. They were a window into a fascinating world I didn’t know, and I must admit it’s not really a world I want to know in person…

    Like Vagabonde in the comment above, I recently visited Savannah, Georgia, and photographed Flannery O’Connor’s house, which is a very narrow building off of one of the city’s many gracious and lovely squares.

    .
    Cathy,

    I didn’t realize the FO House is such a popular tourist destination. I sure love to see photos of it. Reading sure has the power to transport us to worlds that we ordinarily would not enter, or, as you said, may not want to.
    That’s why I’d appreciate the writer even more… she’s painted her world in such an entertaining, yet inspiring way, lived the lives so that we don’t have to live to see… esp. the less desirable and darker sides of them.

    Arti

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