A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor, 1955

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by Flannery O'Connor, 1955

Flannery O'Connor claimed always to center her fiction on the extraordinary moments of God's grace, when it touches even the most maimed, deformed, or unregenerate of people—or perhaps especially those. Proper Christian literature, she remarked, is always "an invitation to deeper and stranger visions." Yet however willingly the most devoted reader might listen to such remarks, precisely those extraordinary moments when God's grace is meant to enter the lives of her characters have been the most troubling, even for such an admirer as Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk for whom she sustained the highest respect. Speaking once of another of her stories, "The Lame Shall Enter First," he noted that her good characters are bad and her bad people finally not so bad as they first seem, while her crazy people turn out to have a kind of sanity.

There are reasons for this difficulty. Throughout O'Connor's short stories and novels, God seems to spend his grace on the unlikeliest of people. Usually they do not appear to deserve his blessing; almost as often they appear to learn nothing from it. Nor is grace dramatized as a dazzling joy or a sweep of awareness. Rather, it can come in an act of random violence, a forceful accident, a blinding pain. It can be unexpected, intrusive, unwanted, ignored, baffling, misidentified, forgotten. It can bring suffering, wretchedness, even annihilation. Walter Sullivan has counted its cost. He points out that in the 19 stories published in O'Connor's lifetime, nine end in one or more violent deaths, three others end in physical assaults and bodily injury, and, of the remaining seven, one ends in arson and another two in theft. This problem has left the author's apologist, Frederick Asals, to note that her fiction is meant to catch the reader unawares, concentrating more on people than on God despite her concern with grace.

Yet throughout her life O'Connor was an ardent Catholic. She grew up in Savannah, Georgia, living in the shadow of the great spire of the cathedral and attending its convent school. When she later moved to Milledgeville, in central Georgia, her family contributed to the building of a Catholic parish church that she regularly attended until her death. Her own library, now at Georgia College, has a large collection of books on theology, Catholic history and dogma, and Christian apologetics. Her letters, collected as The Habit of Being, display everywhere a concern with her faith in terms even more passionate than her concern with her fiction. In a letter of 4 May 1963, she writes that the gospels give testimony that "it was the devils who first recognized Christ and the evangelists didn't censor this information. They apparently thought it was pretty good witness. It scandalizes us when we see the same thing in modern dress only because we have this defensive attitude toward the faith." Her literary focus, she claimed, may have seemed odd to readers from their perspective but would not have been odd to God from a divine perspective. Nor should a reader think her lacking in sympathy for those invalided by handicap or disease: from the age of 25 until her death at 39, she was herself increasingly debilitated by the rare and progressive lupus erythematosus, an autoimmune disease that caused her bones to decay, forced her onto crutches, and finally ate its pain into her hands so that she found it agonizing to continuing writing. Still, she persisted in working on her fiction until the end of her life.

Looking for grace was her aim, her vocation, and her necessity. The same was true, for her, of understanding evil. In a Hollins College lecture O'Connor mused on the mysteriousness of grace: "To insure our sense of mystery, we need a sense of evil which sees the devil as a real spirit who must be made to name himself, and not simply to name himself as vague evil, but to name himself with his specific personality for every occasion." Thus the function of O'Connor's fiction is to recognize sin for what it is and to get the reader to recognize and condemn it. But the subject of her fiction, she persistently said, was the action of grace, and the manifestation of that was conversion, however fleeting.

"A Good Man Is Hard to Find," which became the title story of O'Connor's first collection of short fiction, is among her most difficult, and most popular, short stories. It centers on Bailey's mother and a criminal called "The Misfit" (which the author based on a real person and incident). At the start Bailey's mother, the grandmother of the story, is exactingly described as sneaky (she deliberately deceives Bailey about smuggling the family cat, which will cause the deaths of the entire family, on vacation) and she is proud (everything she does is centered on her own satisfaction, such as protecting the cat, or her own future pleasure, such as recording mileage so as to center later conversation on her special knowledge). Following a brief nap she awakes to recall a plantation house she once visited, a house which her own son has never provided her and his family. She forces this loss by seducing the children to insist on visiting the ruins: she tells them the house has a secret panel and some lost silver. Their curiosity and the family's greed thus provoke the fatal error of going there. Her own selfish desire corrupts them.

Next to these repeated acts of pride and wrongdoing, The Misfit appears suddenly as a former gospel singer and one who, hounded by thoughts of Christ, is theologically alert and religiously wise, though mentally disturbed. He has been imprisoned for killing his father without premeditation or awareness—or so it is claimed by "a head-doctor at the penitentiary." Although the reader is never certain of The Misfit's comprehension of his crime as a sin, the character does sense that "something" is wrong and that he is trapped in a life that he sees as a narrow room with walls right and left. His own feelings are both abstract and urgently real. He is able to see the grandmother's manners as selfish, superficial, and condescending, and he condemns her greed by noting his lack of it. But the grandmother, free and with no criminal past by legal standards, fails to see this. In their lack of communication, O'Connor inscribes her sense of religion.

"Jesus, Jesus," the grandmother says, "meaning Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing." For The Misfit, Jesus as loving savior had "thrown everything off balance" because he responded to injustice (his crucifixion) with mercy. This torments The Misfit: he will seek revenge on Christ's mercy by killing God's children as they deserve to be killed. "No pleasure but meanness," he tells the grandmother. Her reply is even more shocking, "Maybe He didn't raise the dead." Given the opportunity to confess her sins before he kills her, she denies the divinity of Christ. By contrast, The Misfit, a sinner, is not unregenerate; he is agonizing about the state of his (and humanity's) condition, and he asks for some kind of revelation. And when the grandmother reaches out to him, dressed in her son's shirt, in a vision of him as her son, The Misfit gets the love he wants and denies. He is doubly shocked. He cannot accept an act of grace because he is too aware of his own sins; nor can he accept the stupid and shallow grandmother as God's agent of revelation and grace, of love and faith.

Yet that is just what this is. In reaching out with honest, if dazed, compassion, the grandmother who once denied Christ states, "You're one of my own children." Thus she not only brings The Misfit face to face with the occasion of grace he wants desperately to avoid but she makes him into the agent of her own occasion of grace. She saves them both in spite of them both. So does he. By instinct, she throws off manner and convention and finds love. At this moment of sobering responsibility, he recoils from her help and shoots her. "I don't want no hep," he says, the responsibility of redemption being too much for him to bear. He has characterized life as meanness, as no real pleasure. But the selfish grandmother overcame meanness in a blind, overpowering moment, as with Paul on the road to Damascus. She dies, but at the moment of love and so grace; and The Misfit is left confronted with his own shortcomings—the kind of anguishing challenge that can lead him, too, to the sense of insignificance that is so often the first stage of redemption. For the Catholic O'Connor, this is her most powerful, a quintessential, story.

—Arthur F. Kinney