Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, May 23, 2010

"A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Conner

"A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Conner (8 pages, 1955)

Flannery O'Conner (1925 to 1964-Savannah, Georgia, USA-southern region) is best known for her 32 short stories and her two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away.   In a recent posting I asked readers to suggest short stories I might like that I could probably read on line.   DS of Third Story Window (whose blog I have happily followed for a long time) suggested I look at Flannery O'Conner.   I had heard of her and knew she was from the American South and was highly regarded as a short story writer as I have seen her work on a number of "Best Short Stories" type lists but I have never read any of her work.       I did find one of her more famous, according to the interesting Wikipedia article on her, on line, "A Good Man is Hard to Find".   In fact I learned from Wikipedia that the story title comes from a well known song first recorded by Bessie Smith in 1928.

As the story opens a family is debating where to go on a little trip.

The grandmother didn't want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennes- see and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey's mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. "Now look here, Bailey," she said, "see here, read this," and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. "Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn't take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn't answer to my conscience if I did."

In the phrase "seizing at every change" we at once see the family structure if we look a bit.  Some of her stylistic devices and charm can be seen in this passage:

"A good man is hard to find," Red Sammy said. "Everything is getting terrible. I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more."
He and the grandmother discussed better times. The old lady said that in her opinion Europe was entirely to blame for the way things were now. She said the way Europe acted you would think we were made of money and Red Sam said it was no use talking about it, she was exactly right. 

Somehow this suggests intelligence wasted and the universal  yearning of the old for the good old days.   We also wonder why the grandmother sees Europe as to blame for everything.    It also seems like a conversation that they have had many times!    The road trip begins very badly with an accident when the cat the grandmother did not want to leave behind gets out of his box and sinks his claws into the driver's neck.   I could for sure visualize the wreck through the marvelous prose of the 3rd person narrator:

Then he got out of the car and started looking for the children's mother. She was sitting against the side of the red gutted ditch, holding the screaming baby, but she only had a cut down her face and a broken shoulder. "We've had an ACCIDENT!" the children screamed in a frenzy of delight.
"But nobody's killed," June Star said with disappointment as the grandmother limped out of the car, her hat still pinned to her head but the broken front brim standing up at a jaunty angle and the violet spray hanging off the side. They all sat down in the ditch, except the children, to recover from the shock
After reading this we come to realize there is something grotesquely wrong with the family when we ponder why the children are screaming in delight and why the daughter is disappointed that no one has been killed.   The prose has a kind of disconnected feel and now we are starting to learn why.   The family then encounters The Misfit as the escapee from the Federal Prison is called.   At first the family is terrified of him so the grandmother tries to engage him in a conversation in the hopes he will not kill them (he has two confederates with him):

"Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead," The Misfit continued, "and He shouldn't have done it. He shown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness," he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.
"Maybe He didn't raise the dead," the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her.

There is a theology lesson in this.  From a biographical stand point it may be useful to know O'Conner was a devout Catholic living in a very Protestant area.   This story can be read in just a few minutes.   I do not want to give away the ending but it was very savage.   O'Conner had far to short a life.   She graduated from The Iowa Writers Workshop.   Her father died young also of Lupus which also took her life.   She never married and as far as I could find in several on line biographies I read of her, never had any known romantic relationships.   Her life may have been sheltered and tragically short, but if "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is any proof, she knew a lot about life.   She was  very much into the reading life and supported herself it appears from the sales of her books, grants, speaking fees and fees for book reviews.

It appears there are a few more of her stories on line (If anyone knows where or if all her stories are on line please leave a comment) and I will read some more soon.    Maybe she is not on the level of Katherine Mansfield (I mean not everyone can intimidate Virginia Woolf) but I really liked this story.   In a few pages she not only brought the lead characters to life but recreates a culture, the rural American South of the early 1950s.   Maybe we would not  have wanted to live there but it is enjoyable to read about it.   She also avoids making  the characters seem like buffoons which a less talented writer would have done.
Here is the link to the story


Laura Kozy Lanik said...

O'Conner's stories pack a powerful punch! She is my favorite short story writer.

Mel u said...

Booksnob-thanks for stopping by-I would love to hear your suggestions as to other short stories I might read-either O'Conner (not a lot of her work seems to be on line) or otherwise

bibliophiliac said...

My favorite line in this story is (paraphrased from memory): She would've been a good woman if there'd been someone there to shoot her every day of her life.

You might be interested in O'Connor's letters, which are published.

Bethany said...

O'Connor is an absolute genius. The more of her stories I read the more amazed I am at her immense talent. So clever, and such an incredible way of writing.

TheGalvestonChronicles said...

Somehow I think you would love this story: