Flannery O’Connor: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

Flannery O’Connor may be an acquired taste. After all, the first time you read a short story like “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” you may find yourself so shocked by the turn of events that it will be nearly impossible to find the humor. In my favorite O’Connor short story, “Good Country People,” the humor may be a little more evident – but again, the turn of events is so macabre that you don’t know whether to hide your eyes in horror or bust a gut laughing.

I vote for laughing out loud every time I read O’Connor – and I once struggled (gaily) through a classroom lecture on “Good Country People.” As I read the world’s funniest lines, I didn’t even bother to restrain my mirth. The students simply stared at me dumbfounded. They’d already been horrified once, when they’d read the story’s ending. Now here was proof that their professor was a sociopathic nut just like O’Connor. Horrified again.

But there’s more to O’Connor than precociously cute girls dancing like Shirley Temple or Bible salesmen named Manley Pointer (really, how can you not laugh at that?!). And there’s more to her than psychopaths shooting grandmothers and virginal 32-year-olds having their artificial legs stolen.

No, what O’Connor was ultimately after wasn’t simply humor (though she seemed to revel in her wit). Nor was she after gore for the sake of gore. No, what she was after was finding and then showing the reader “moments of grace.” A devout Roman Catholic, O’Connor was dismayed, even distresed, by what seemed to her the rather casual Christianity of her fellow southerners. “While the South is hardly Christ-centered,” she once said, “it is most certainly Christ-haunted.”

Again and again, she puts her characters in situations where they have to face their own mortality, their own existential hell, where they can either step up to the plate for a moment of spiritual grace or fail utterly in their quest for humanity.

Let me put it to you this way. Read O’Connor’s famous short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” – or reread it if it’s been years since you’ve encountered it. When you get to the end, think about the Misfit and the grandmother – and see if her statement, “Why you’re one of my babies! You’re one of my own children,” doesn’t show the grandmother growing and expanding spiritually in the moment just before the Misfit shoots her. She achieves a kind of grace, a kind of salvation, despite herself.

Still not convinced? Read several of O’Connor’s short stories – “Good Country People” and “Revelation” are the ones I’d recommend – and see if you can’t spot the moment of grace in those stories as well.

O’Connor died when she was 39 from lupus. In her short life, she wrote two novels (Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away), two short story collections (A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge), and hundreds of letters, marvelously collected in The Habit of Being (a book I highly recommend). In addition to her writing, she is known for her flock of peacocks, kept at her family farm, Andalusia, in Milledgeville, Georgia. She also raised ducks, ostrich, emus, toucans, and any sort of exotic bird she could obtain.

If you want to acquire the Flannery O’Connor taste, there are so many different ways to get started. First is the Library of America edition of O’Connor’s work. In fact, O’Connor was only the second twentieth-century writer (after William Faulkner) to have her work collected for the Library of America, the definitive edition of American authors. You’ll also want to visit the New York Times page on O’Connor, with links to tons of great resources about the southern author, and “Comforts of Home: The Flannery O’Connor Repository,” a fantastic website that highlights all things O’Connor. And check this out: the U.S. Postal Service just released a Flannery O’Connor postage stamp! When you’ve finally acquired a taste for Flannery O’Connor, you can show off your love for the southern author by sporting this Flannery O’Connor T-shirt.

Join me this week on Pinterest as I pin images and resources related to Flannery O’Connor. Take a look around at all my boards – or go straight to “My Favorite Short Stories” board for Flannery O’Connor treats.

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Listen:Listen to Flannery O’Connor read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The 38-minute recording is from her 1959 appearance at Vanderbilt University. Follow along with the text of the story here.

Image: Flannery O’Connor in 1947, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flannery-O%27Connor_1947.jpg.