Welcome back! This week for our new short story series, we turn to Flannery O’Connor’s popular and much-anthologized “A Good Man is Hard to Find” – the story of a family vacation gone awry. You can read along by clicking here.
Have you heard the one about the family driving to Florida? Grandmother’s vanity leads to a car accident in South Georgia, they run into an outlaw called the Misfit, and he kills them all. Flannery O’Connor found stories like this deeply comical, and at the same time as serious as anything in the world.
It’s safe to say she was the great writer of human infirmity – physical, moral, and everything in between. She thought that the Southern Renaissance, from Faulkner to Walker Percy to Allen Tate and herself, could be credited to the defeat in the Civil War, something which allowed Southern intellectuals to come into the twentieth century with an inburnt sense of human limitation and weakness, to paraphrase from her one of her essays. Flannery went a step further: as a deeply Augustinian Catholic, she had a theological framework for exploring human sinfulness and the action of grace through fallenness. Perhaps even more importantly, she had lupus, which at the time was a debilitating and eventually terminal disease. She wrote with her own infirmity and mortality in the forefront of her mind, and there are scenes in her work (Hazel blinding himself in Wise Blood, a meticulous and grotesque inventory of an artificial limb shop in The Lame Shall Enter First, and a lifelong disease contracted from a cow as the agent of redemption in The Enduring Chill) where this fascination borders on obsession. Her characters, therefore, are often physically and always morally deformed, and we see original sin etched into their every action.
She regarded the circumscription of her life as a necessary aspect of of her vocation as a writer and as an individual”
-Sally Fitzgerald, friend and correspondent
A Good Man is Hard to Find takes a rather codger-y approach to the modern world. Flannery found it disheartening that Evangelical culture was on the rise (“John Wesley”) and that the celebrity world was becoming an obsession (“June Star”). In the story’s family portrait, the mother and father are disengaged, the children are brattish, and the family is abandoning their community ties in Tennessee to search out leisure and pleasure in Florida. Into this impasse steps the grandmother, a good woman who cares about tradition, about community, about manners and propriety and the mythic old south. But O’Connor judges her more harshly than all but a few of her characters – the grandmother secretly brings a cat, makes the family pull off-road, startles the cat into jumping on the driver’s shoulder and wrecking the car, and then tells the Misfit she recognizes him, obliging him to kill them all.
None of this, furthermore, is accidental: at every stage, Grandma’s self-justification is sabotaging both herself and the people around her. From a writing perspective, the plantation house is more than just a device to get the family into the woods – O’Connor is a better storyteller than that, and her themes are perfectly integrated into her plot. The grandmother, foremost, is someone who denies original sin. She thinks that she’s a good person, and others are, too. With other authors, it might be a stretch to call the grandmother a Pelagian…but O’Connor read Aquinas’s Summa every night before bed, so she knows, theologically, exactly what she’s doing. The grandmother thinks that things were better back then – a perennial temptation of the post-war South – and thus sin is something confined to the modern era. To shore up this line of thought, there’s a great scene when the grandmother tells the Misfit he’s a good person:
‘You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!’
‘Yes ma’am,’ he said, ‘finest people in the world…God never made a finer woman than my mother and my daddy’s heart was pure gold.’
We don’t sin because we have good or bad parents; Grandmother is being confronted by the arbitrary, unpredictable, innate nature of human sinfulness. We also have to appreciate O’Connor’s writing in the phrase “common blood”, which works on two levels. The grandmother means it socioeconomically but, of course, the socioeconomic use of the word “common” comes from the fact that the social elite want to believe they’re exceptions. And human blood, of course, is traditionally identified with original sin. In a stroke, O’Connor’s shown the grandmother’s vanity at thinking she’s different than everyone else and her innate knowledge that humanity’s ‘common’ blood is our sinful blood. It’s a small example of the combination of brilliant writing and extreme earthiness that makes O’Connor so good.
The grandmother doesn’t really believe in universal sinfulness, so she wants to retreat from the real world into a fantasy. She admirably wants to feel at home in a changing world, but she tries to draw the world into herself by viewing it through her self-asserting lens. She makes the family pull off to see the plantation house because she’s showing off for them, trying to claim her place as one of the last denizens of a glorious but dying culture. Things were better then, and she wants to identify herself with the world of Southern belles when everything was ideal. It’s an attempt to get back to Eden which, for the grandmother, means being a young, desirable single and living a romanticized life. For many Southerners of O’Connor’s day, Eden was conceived as the antebellum South. So skeptical of this idealism is Flannery that she derides both forms of nostalgia by taking it to its natural conclusion.
The most destructive sin often occurs when humans are at their most self-justifying, their most utopic. The European political horrors of the nineteenth and twenties centuries, for example, were utopian projects, characterized not by outright vice so much as by misguided and self-righteous attempts at human perfection. In the same way, the grandmother’s pursuit of perfection is her death. She has the horrible thought that she’s wrong and the plantation house she wanted to see is really in Tennessee; so offended is her vanity and so guilty and embarrassed does she feel that she suddenly jerks up her legs, flinging the cat onto her son’s shoulder and wrecking the family car. Vanity wreaks destruction precisely through denial of guilt and indeed, for Flannery, self-righteousness was the only truly odious vice.
At a more symbolic level, it’s the grandmother’s search for a mythic, old-South community through being right (in not admitting she was wrong about the plantation) that actually drives her out into the woods, away from community, the world of appearances, Society, and the trappings of the superego which so enamor her – and into the wild woods, outside the bounds of society, where the reality of human nature roams untrammeled. Her self-justification leads her out of the world of allegedly ‘good’ people and straight into a figure who perfectly combines the Christian ideas of original sin and the judgment of God…her natural nemesis, the Misfit.
The story is a duel of sorts between the Grandmother and her superficial beliefs and the Misfit’s more profoundly felt involvement with Christ’s action which sets the world off balance for him.
The characters are a perfect foil. In the natural and the supernatural sense, self-justification invites judgment, deconstruction. She meets a force of literal, physical judgment in the Misfit’s propensity for murder, and she meets the judgment of all human pretensions in the Misfit’s bare, fully actualized acknowledgement of human fallenness. The truth about human nature violently confronts her, and this does, indeed, lead to grace.
The Misfit is a man preoccupied with judgment. He’s suffered immensely, and he feels like he’s ‘more sinned against than sinning’, in the words of Shakespeare’s prideful King Lear. He feels like things don’t add up in that he’s suffered more than he deserves. His killing spree is philosophically motivated: he’s trying to prove God’s justice in committing crimes up until the point when he feels like his crimes match his punishment.
The grandmother is fascinated by evil: even as her family is being murdered in the woods, she can’t take her eyes or her attention off of the Misfit. She’s enthralled by evil because she doesn’t believe that true evil exists, even though we as readers can see sin’s imprint etched so clearly into her. Just as the Misfit commits injustice on a search for true justice, so too the grandmother seeks out evil in order to disprove it–which is precisely what she attempts when she keeps telling the Misfit that he’s a good man underneath all the crime. She, in contrast, is a sinner underneath all that passes for her virtue.
In the same way that there was a certain moral logic in the grandmother’s vanity leading to the car crash, her recognition of the Misfit, which forces him (as a fleeing convict) to kill the whole family, both derives from her vanity and invites judgment upon it:
The grandmother had the peculiar feeling that the bespectacled man was someone she knew. His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but could not recall who he was…The grandmother shrieked. She scrambled to her feet and stood staring. ‘You’re the Misfit!’ she said.
Her initial recognition was typical for the grandmother – she always wants to have connections, community, to belong to the world and be an important person in it. She thinks she knows him for the same reason she thinks they’re near the plantation house she remembers: she wants to be the center of her world, to belong everywhere because she is a lady and she knows people (at the time an important identity marker in the South). But the irony is that she doesn’t know him from her strength, but from her weakness: it is the face of ‘common’ (again, note the double-meaning) humanity, to which there are no exceptions. She’s gazing upon the face of a fellow member of the human race, created in the image of God, originally fallen, subjected to futility.
The Misfit is touched by the Grace that comes through the old lady when she recognizes him as her child, as she has been touched by the Grace that comes through him in his particular suffering.
As the Misfit’s story unfolds, the grandmother sees a fully-expressed, grotesque figure of human sinfulness. In both his suffering and his doubts, she identifies with him more and more, even expressing her own doubts about Jesus being raised from the dead, which was unthinkable for the well-put-together ‘lady’ we met at the story’s beginning. She empathizes with his doubt and, in the story’s climax, she sees through to the core of his honesty and his desperate self-delusion:
‘Listen lady,’ he said in a high voice, ‘if I had of been there [when Jesus raised the dead] I would of known. Listen lady,’ he said in a high voice, ‘if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.’
The idea that simply knowing something allows someone to act virtuously was first developed by Plato’s Socrates in the Meno, and it wasn’t systematically challenged until St. Paul’s description of the ethically divided man in Romans 7. The Misfit’s naïve desire to know makes him almost pitiful to the grandmother who, of course, recognizes the same naïveté, idealism, and denial in herself. On the basis of her sympathy for their shared human brokenness, the grandmother has a breakthrough and releases a muted, defeated but loving gesture of gracious affinity:
She saw the man’s twisted face close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, ‘Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’
The woman has finally found a place in the world not of idealized, old-South romance but of shared weakness as sinners. The word “children” is primarily a gesture of family and human affinity, but it refers also to the old doctrine of original sin being passed from parent to child. She has found community in real life and finally had a small flash of the truth about herself, but this is too much for the Misfit to handle and he kills her in shock.
Though the grandmother dies, this is the beginning of repentance for the Misfit – not ‘repentance’ in the common parlance of immediately changing one’s behavior, but in the sense of the ‘godly sorrow’ that precedes true, natural change. He immediately starts cleaning his glasses, a sign that he sees the world in a different way (as an avid reader of Dante and Aquinas, vision as a theological idea was central for Flannery – her boorish protagonist Hulga also cleans her glasses at the end of “Good Country People”). He had originally thought there was no pleasure in a anything but meanness, but now the Misfit decides “It’s no real pleasure in life.” He had wanted to see Jesus raise the dead more than anything, and the Misfit at last got his wish: the grandmother had a last-minute release from her debilitating self-righteousness and then died, presumably redeemed. And the Misfit himself, dead in his trespass, finds a glimpse of human affinity and compassion from the last woman we would’ve expected to be its source.
The Misfit was a man who “has to know why [life] is”, an intellectual whose glasses make him look “scholarly”, a killer who is philosophically motivated by a sense of injustice. He’s obsessed with making the crimes match the punishment, both with paying for his sin and with deserving his suffering. In taking off the glasses and cleaning them, we see the Misfit’s “red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking” eyes, the eyes of the ‘child inside‘ (Ted Hughes) devoid of the protections of intellect, scorekeeping, justice, and Law. It’s in this new vulnerability that, from now on, he will en counter the world. The Misfit has been raised from his deathly obsession with justice into a world filled with the gratuity of love and the impossibility of earning. After all the talk of Jesus, the action of redemption is finally taking place. ‘Violent grace’, indeed.
Next week, we’ll be going a little off-grid with a fantastic, out-of-print sci-fi story from Philip Wylie’s Opus 21, available below: