Flannery O'Connor and " A Good Man Is Hard To Find"
"A Good Man Is Hard To Find" is a deceptively easily read story which makes us laugh and laugh, for O'Connor captures a certain essence of southern life as few people have. But in the midst of the laughter, if we read carefully, we also realize that the story invites debate about the meaning of "a good man," about the meaning of the events with which it concludes, and about the meaning of our existence in the universe. Notice the repetition of the word, "meaning."
If you wish, please see a Links page on Flannery O'Connor, especially the biographical notes. Of particular help to you would be some of the material in the bulletin that has essays on O'Connor in it.
Modernism and Meaning in O'Connor
O'Connor's work provides an excellent transition from the modernistic period to the multiple perspectives of postmodernism. Like Faulkner, she trained her eye on a small area of the real world and so heightened it by her imagination as to transform it forever. Typically, modernists can create or capture a deep pattern of meaning from a plethora of realistic details.
1. What is meant by using details to "make" meaning?
As the story begins, note the extremely realistic detail which sets us in a definite time and place::
we know what the speedometer reads,
we know at what time the family drives out of Atlanta,
specific geographical references are plentiful,
Examples of Various Meanings from Details
2. The entire story is tied together by a journey. Is that of special significance?
This story is a travel narrative, but neither east Tennessee nor Florida is the destination toward which this family rides. There are foreshadowing and symbolic suggestions of other levels of meaning than the literal ones from early on in the story.
See the references to the possibility of the grandmother's cat dying if she leaves it at home, dressing up for a drive lest she die in a highway accident, noticing the five or six graves in a field.
Then, the family stops at the infernal RED SAMMY'S, near Toombsboro(Wow! A perfect Halloween town!), where horrors, both real and suggested, abound: the "burnt brown" owner's wife, the flea-catching monkey, and the animal guard all are reminders of a Dante-Inferno landscape. Finally, of course, the family dies when they meet a group who emerges from "a big black battered hearse-like automobile"(p. 1889).
3. So, if Toomsboro is a suggestive name, are there other names that have suggested levels of meaning?
O'Connors appropriation of external realities to suggest other levels of meaning extend to the names in the story: Toomsboro is a town in central Georgia; John Wesley, founder of Methodism (1703-1791), is in this story a bespectacled child with a lively, argumentative mind; June Star is possibly a tribute to all the Junes who got last billing in second-feature films of the 1930s and '40s; Bailey seems to confer upon the father a kind of Southern Everyman status. Then there are characters with, significantly, no name: the grandmother's domination on the family is larger than her individuality; the children's mother seems more vegetable than human with her "broad and innocent" face like a "cabbage and was tied around with a green handkerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit's ears.
4. The grandmother throws the name of Jesus around a lot and there are other references to religion. What does all that add up to?
O'Connor presents the reader with a theology lesson: at the beginning of the story the grandmother is totally preoccupied with what she "wants." Other events show us go on to show us these shallow travelers, people who are the embodiments of the self-interested, materialistic society that arose in the wake of World War II. O'Connor seems to be teaching that in the midst of life we are in death (none of us, to speak of, know it.). But toward the end of the story, the grandmother's moment of death so clarifies the meaning of life that the grandmother forgets what she "wants" and reaches out to include "The Misfit" as one of her children.
5. The Misfit is such an important and strange character, he's bound to "mean something. What is it? "The Misfit" suggests many levels of interpretation, some of them suggesting a parallel with John Wesley, the child, some of them suggesting spiritual levels of meaning, and others stemming from The Misfit's need for literal proof.
First,The grandmother makes a gesture of inclusion toward The Misfit, calling him her son which compels him to shoot an old woman. Why does this inclusion into a family upset him so much?
The prison psychoanalyst had tried to explain the Oedipus complex to The Misfit, who took him literally and rejected the diagnosis. Remember the story of the son who killed his own father? But the hostility that he does not acknowledge feeling toward his own parents is enacted here as he destroys a family, horrified at the grandmother's claim that he is one of her children.
Secondly, why is he called a misfit?
O'Connor shows that The Misfit's tendency to take things literally is the theological heart of the problem. Growing up in the Bible Belt, where children are named after John Wesley and the Bible is taken literally, The Misfit cut his ties to his family by asking too many questions.
Now, he is defined by his adversarial stance toward the world and its wisdom. Like the child, John Wesley, who is desperate to open the secret panel in the fireplace of the grandmother's mythical white mansion ("not telling the truth but wishing that she were," as we are told on p. 1887), The Misfit want to make experience intelligible. He wants to actually see, hear, taste, touch; he needs literal proof of things and ideas.
The grandmother keeps throwing the name of Jesus at The Misfit, not understanding that his profound alienation stems from his inability to subscribe to the shallow beliefs to which the grandmother has paid lip service all her life. His need for verification traps him in an inadequate "rational" view of the world. He does not know about what O'Connor speaks of as "the mystery of faith that allows one to know the truth that has never been seen." He is one of what is called O'Connor's "flawed prophets."
He has a depth of experience as shown in his listing of occupations--gospel singing, undertaking, plowing "Mother Earth," being in a tornado, seeing a man burnt and a woman flogged--that goes far beyond the banal experience of his victims. Sensitive and psychotic, he has the spiritual insight to recognize that true belief throws "everything off balance" (p. 1894), just as we, the readers, are thrown off balance by what we see happen. First, we see this family drive out of a settled human environment which brings them face to face with the beauty and strangeness of God's created world, where the meanest of the trees sparkle (p. 1885). Yet in this Edenic natural environment, a gesture of inclusion registers like the touch of a snake and compels The Misfit to shoot an old woman. O'Connor lets the children reiterate their own delight in having had an ACCIDENT precisely because, one suspects, she would have us understand that there are no accidents in God's plan.
6. Is the murder of the grandmother and her family a prelude to The Misfit's eventual salvation, as O'Connor may hint, or is the story a vision of a world without redemptive possibilities?
Perhaps O'Connor would agree that the "silver stallion embossed on the front of" the red sweatshirt worn by one of The Misfit's henchmen (p. 1889) is a mass-marketed replica of the pale horse on which Death sits in the book of Revelation (6.8), the Christian's ultimate source of mystical symbols open to multiple and mutually contradictory interpretations. O'Connor's story, like the Bible itself, like all religious experience, defies pat analysis and for today's readers (consciously post-modern or not) remains open to interpretation. Great art, like the post-modernist's reality, "is not easily organized into coherent systems" (p. 1899). and neither are the "varieties of religious experience" that the philosopher William James described.
O'Connor's storytelling makes us savor asking questions like the #6 above, whether or not we can--or want to--find definitive answers to them.
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