On Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
I reread Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and it was as good as every time I read it. That awful grandmother who thinks she is so good—she is so candy sweet and conniving, and so convinced of her own righteousness. She’s just like one of those awful children she sits with in the back seat of the car as they drive through Georgia; those children who openly insult her and harass their parents; the only difference between the awful children and the awful grandmother is that she is premeditated in her awfulness. At least the children have the excuse of being selfish and rude because they’re young and ignorant; the grandmother’s selfishness is willful and dangerous. This is why she’s a grotesque.
After I reread the story, I went back to the author’s essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” because I wondered, do I really know what she means by grotesque? I think that calling a character a grotesque means that the character has some sort of monstrous quality, or some aspect of that character has been embellished to be terrible or terrifying (in a physical or moral way). But when I read Flannery O’Connor, her characters are, above all, REAL. There is nothing unbelievable about the grandmother, and nothing unbelievable about the Misfit, this well-mannered murderer, this philosopher-executioner, right down to his strong, white teeth. It is, in fact, their contradictions and their strangenesses, the ways they behave unexpectedly, that somehow make these characters so real.
And this is actually what Flannery O’Connor says about characters in the realm of the grotesque—that though they’re in dangerous, unlikely situations, the characters themselves have “inner coherence.” Though on the surface they may seem jagged and contradictory people, we readers still identify this inner coherence and it makes them feel like real people; and how they proceed in the story—how they react to the situations they’re confronted with—is based on this realness of character.
In this story, so many pieces of the setup are tidily lined up for us—the first mention of the Misfit, the interior view of the grandmother’s good-natured scheming, the cat in the car (which, for Pete’s sake, sleeps through the family’s lunch at the diner!)—it should be too much for a reader to believe. And then it gets crazier—the made up story of the hidden passage, the grandmother’s taunt inciting the children to riot, the accident. And then even crazier—the Misfit and his minions show up, the dangling shoulder, the grandmother’s futile and ridiculous pleas. This is almost too much story, but what grounds it is the presence of these two characters, who, despite being in the very odd situations of this story, are fully themselves and behaving accordingly—in fact, doing the best they can, and in the process, showing us as readers the ways in which they can be terrible and human when put into these strange and unexpected situations.
Though the grandmother sees some kind of vision right before she dies, in which she imagines the Misfit as one of her own children, it has always been the last line of the story that has been most interesting to me, because the Misfit, the most complicated, intelligent character in the story, despite the backwoodsiness of his language and the violence of his actions, chastises his minion for finding joy in killing. The Misfit tells him, ambiguously, “’It’s no real pleasure in life,’” leaving us wondering if the Misfit thinks it’s wrong to like killing, or just impossible to be happy. The Misfit is certainly the most sympathetic character in this story, his complexity of character leading him through his dark life.
I love the magical and the surreal, but it’s not the weirdo things people put in their stories that make them resonate for me: it’s how those those weirdo objects, settings, and situations reflect and work upon the characters to illuminate human emotion. I read Amber Sparks’s story “All the Imaginary People Are Better at Life,” and feel Ruby’s real, crazy indignation that her imaginary friend is telling her to get her shit together; I read Sarah Carson’s “When You Leave,” and am shocked by the sorrow I feel at God’s casual dismissal of the narrator’s pain. I read and I want to feel the way a story wraps around a character and squeezes; how a character who feels like a real person will behave in unexpected and awful situations. This is the grotesque that Flannery O’Connor writes and writes about, and there’s nothing unreal about it.
Lena Bertone’s Origami Zoo chapbook, Behind This Mirror, will be released in fall 2014! Continue celebrating Short Story Month even more with Origami Zoo Press by reading these posts by BJ Hollars, Anne Valente and Ben Hoffman, and by checking out our sale–all chapbooks of fiction are $5!