A Good Epiphany Is Hard To Find

When I sat down this afternoon to think about what post I could write, I had so far that day a) been to the dentist and b) had to listen to my son in tears over skype because his ex-girlfriend is moving in with her new man. In short, not much fun had been had. So I thought, I know what I’ll do, I’ll read a famous short story, something that will take up my thoughts for a while and jolt me into a critical analysis and thus lift my spirits. And casting about my books, I decided to read Flannery O’Connor’s classic, ‘A Good Man Is Hard To Find’. Sigh. Well, my mother told me there’d be days like these.

a good manIf you haven’t read it already, I’m here to tell you that ‘A Good Man Is Hard To Find’ is not on first acquaintance a story that is going to cheer a person up. It is one of the finest examples I’ve come across of a writer treating her reader with casual but rigorous sadism. What it reminded me of most forcibly was Shirley Jackson’s story ‘The Lottery’; same innocuous opening, same fascination with small town folk going about their ordinary selfish, half-comical business, same ending of brutal and unexpected violence that takes your breath away. Now why should it be that these two stories hold such sway over the American imagination?

Flannery O’Connor’s tale concerns a manipulative old biddy who is trying to pursue her desires exactly as they rise up in her without much thought to the consequences, clearly a lifelong strategy that is about to end in disaster. She lives with her son and his family, who are tired of her conniving ways but have chosen endurance above all else. The family is setting off on a trip to Florida but the grandmother has decided she’d rather go to Tennessee and is doing her best to gain this outcome, essentially by pointing out to her relatives that a killer named The Misfit is on the loose in Florida: ‘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.’ Given her strategies have gained her zero credence in the household, this is dismissed as a piece of nonsense.

So the family sets off in the morning, grandmother first to get in the car and smuggling along her cat who she knows does not have permission to come. There’s plenty of back seat comedy with the children and the grandmother that ends with her deciding there’s a house she’d like to visit en route and telling the children (untruthfully) that it has a secret panel. The kids kick up enough fuss that their father changes direction, but as the grandmother realises to her chagrin that the house she’s thinking of is in a different state entirely, she lets the cat loose and they crash the car in the subsequent confusion.

Pootling over the hill, witness to their accident, comes another car. The family flags it down and out steps none other than The Misfit and his henchman, who the grandmother identifies out loud, alas. So up until now the grandmother has been like a small child herself, prodding and poking in the vain attempt to get some attention and to have things her way. And now, she’s managed to tweak the tail of a tiger and there is no going back. Now, in this too-late stage, the grandmother does her best to appease the Misfit, telling him over and over that she can see he’s a good man, and that if he prays, his life will be better. The Misfit has his own twisted tale to tell, of being punished for something he knows he did, but can’t recall what. This seems to offer enough of a flaw in the workings of justice to let him feel hard done by, and to kill without remorse. He picks off the family one by one and, when the grandmother reaches out to him and tells him he could be her son, he kills her, too.

My first impressions? I’ve never read a short story before that attempts to combine a serial killer with an obscure religious sermon. Jo Nesbo meets C. S. Lewis in the deep South. I can see that this is the kind of story to stick in the literary craw because the events are so horrific they demand that some sort of interpretation is made in the name of redeeming the material. And yet not enough information is provided actually to make an interpretation. Apparently, a great deal hinges on what the reader thinks is happening to the grandmother when she touches the Misfit and calls him her own child. Are we witnessing some sort of epiphany on her part? Or is this another attempt at a self-serving manipulation? Or is it simply that, now that the killer has put on her dead son’s shirt, she is confused by terror? The ambiguity is continued by the Misfit’s pronouncement over her body that she would have been a good woman ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.’ Does this mean, as some suggest, that only extreme circumstances could jolt the grandmother into goodness, or does it mean that she would have needed a gun against her head on a daily basis to keep her good?

flannery o connorFlannery O’Connor was a star in the writer’s workshop she attended at the University of Iowa, though she liked to say that when she first went, ‘she didn’t know a short story from an ad in a newspaper.’ Pretty self-deprecating for a student who ‘scared the boys to death with her irony,’ as one teacher put it. Elizabeth Hardwick described her as both ‘whiny’ and ‘immensely gifted’. O’Connor thought that her audience was ‘hostile’ and that ‘a writer with Christian concerns needed to take ever more violent means to get her vision across to them.’ My gut instinct is that here is someone wielding a pickaxe to open a letter. Perhaps it’s the sheer force of excess that has kept this story so infamous. Or maybe, as with Shirley Jackson’s story, there’s nothing like a viciously brutal portrait of humanity to get readers searching for meaning and epiphany. Perhaps there’s satisfaction in seeing the grandmother’s manipulative behaviour get more than the comeuppance it deserves, or perhaps the story appeals to the instinct that drives people to horror movies, where they can identify with the victim and feel the fear then walk away, safe in the knowledge that their life is different and elsewhere. Or perhaps it’s simply that jarring juxtaposition between the goodness and Christianity that the story manipulates (just like the grandmother, to make a seemingly empty point) and the unflinching violence with which it is met – the sheer audacity of that collision – that proves hypnotic.

It’s certainly true that once you’ve read this story, you’ll never forget it. For shock value, Flannery O’Connor could have taught Quentin Tarantino a thing or two. But is there more artistry in it than there is horror? I’m not entirely convinced. My experience, though, was that the horror made me shift my thinking about the story onto an abstract plane, and so I engaged with it as a piece of complex and obscure art, rather than a nasty and upsetting tale. So I suppose it did get my mind off my own troubles. Credit where it’s due!




43 thoughts on “A Good Epiphany Is Hard To Find

  1. I’ve never read O’Connor – and if I’m honest, I’m now not sure if I want to….. I somehow think I would want to strangle the grandmother and then be horrified by the killing of them all. It’s certainly not how I imagined her work was!

    • Me neither! I was very surprised by how… unredeemed this all was. I would be very interested to know whether there was any coherence in a British reaction to her, whether there are cultural differences at work that made this story so hard to fathom (in terms of its appeal!).

      • Yes – maybe it is a British thing. Cultural differences can make a difference, but I just found myself thinking as I read your review that I really wouldn’t get anything out of this story!!

  2. Flannery O’Connor takes a little getting used to, but once you do, you find she mesmerizes you(just like Shirley Jackson).

    • I would like to understand why I don’t feel a sense of merit in her work the way I do with Shirley Jackson. Jackson I love, but she feels so much more subtle to me. Perhaps it is a question of getting used to what O’Connor is doing – or perhaps I need a better religious grounding.

  3. Of course, living in Savannah, GA Flannery O’Connor is considered one of our literary jewels. She is very very powerful…not for the faint of heart. I find that the only place and time to read her stuff is outside on a gloriously lovely and sunny day with the birds signing. Otherwise, the reader might find her/himself in a dark and scary place…full of foreboding. A Good Man Is Hard To Find is perhaps the most shocking and disturbing thing I ever read. She’ll knock you off your feet, for sure.

    • See if you had asked me whether you should read this story or not, I would have said NO WAY, stay far away from it… And here you are liking something I would not have expected you to like. Perhaps it’s cultural knowledge of the South (which I do not have) that makes this more accessible? I don’t mind being knocked off my feet, but my feeling with this story was that I wanted more takeaway from it in that case. But this is doubtless my own failings as a reader and I’m curious as to why I’m so resistant to her.

  4. Sometimes I feel vaguely religious. But it’s something that I find difficult to reconcile with the feeling that the organised religion I’ve experienced has sought to repress my individuality. I’d like to see more fiction that explores well the uplifting, mysterious side of religion.

    This is clearly not it 🙂 but glad it got your mind off your troubles.

    • Lol! No, this does not seem to be it, on first reading. I’d be very interested to know what you make of this. I am wondering whether a more British sensibility struggles with it? But I am probably clutching at straws! 🙂 Oh and you might like Madeleine St John’s A Pure, Clear Light – one of the more intriguing novels I’ve read with a religious perspective.

  5. Thank you for writing about this O’Connor story. I haven’t read it, nor have I read much else by her, but your post has made me curious! (The best kind of post.)
    May you find short stories very, very soon that will lift you above your current travail!

    • I would be very interested to know what you make of this one, Judith! It’s definitely a story to test your own gut response against. Next time I’ll try someone quite different – Somerset Maugham or Borges, someone a little more cerebral! 🙂

  6. I took a class that was focused on her and Faulkner. I wish that enabled me to add some insightful comment on the story, but alas the course was ten years ago. However, I found a paper where I selected some quotes from one of her essays called “Catholic Novelists and their Readers”:
    “The demand for positive literature, which we hear so frequently from Catholics, comes about possibly from weak faith and possibly also from this general inability to read.”
    “Many Catholic readers are overconscious of what they consider to be obscenity in modern fiction for the very simple reason that in reading a book, they have nothing else to look for. They are not equipped to find anything else.”
    So yeah, what you said about her finding her audience hostile . . .
    I remember that a lot of her stories ended in startling violence. She was definitely an author that liked to shock, and, if I recall correctly, she liked to show characters who believed themselves to be good people, expecting to live in a good world. I wasn’t really a fan of hers at the time – I preferred Faulkner – and haven’t really returned to her work since, but I haven’t forgotten the experience of reading her work.

    • Christy that is such a helpful comment, thank you. I wonder whether it’s necessary to have knowledge from beyond the story to make something out of Flannery O’Connor – knowledge of the South or of Catholicism. What you say about characters who are forced to lose the illusion of being good people definitely makes a lot of sense in relation to this story, and gives me a very useful perspective on it.

  7. All I keep thinking of is the short story “Where Are You Going? Where have you been?” Creepy all the way through, but filled with intentional clever.
    O’Connor’s been on my radar for a while now. Definitely adding her to the must read list.

    • Raymond Carver is on my list as a short story writer I must get to – I did read ‘Cathedrals’ years ago and found it very intriguing. I’d be most interested to know what you make of this story. I can’t quite overcome the belief that if at the the end the grandmother and the Misfit had fallen in love and had sex, it would not be acceptable or interesting to an American audience the way that the mass violence is. Well, and the story would have been written by a French woman instead of Flannery O’Connor, heh.

      • Haha true! But I dunno, we haven’t yet banned Nabakov (but we’ve tried to ban To Kill a Mockingbird; wth is that about?)

  8. Flannery O’Connor is probably my favorite short story writer. Part of what I love about her is the juxtaposition of goodness and horror that you describe and how by tying it in with religion, she puts it all on a more cosmic plane. It’s startling.

    The other thing I love about her is that she gets a lot right about the Southern U.S. in a way that few writers do, as long as you recognize that the situations she describes are comic and exaggerated. Her use of dialect is particularly good and hard for writers to do well.

    • Yes, the dialogue is very good that’s for sure. I wonder whether your knowledge of religion makes O’Connor a more intriguing author? I felt like I must be missing a lot of absorbed cultural information when I read this story, and that was what made it feel thin to me. It’s a clever author who can do comic and exaggerated without falling into stereotype.

  9. As you’ve noted, FO was a master of irony. I feel the title could well be “A Good Woman is Hard to Find”. Only at the brink of death does the obnoxious Grandma melt and become a kinder and gentler soul. FO is not for the faint of heart, nor for those seeking a calm read before bed. If you’re interested, here’s my post on this book… and oh, I just noticed, your comment in there too, 3 years ago. 🙂

    • How funny – I’d forgotten all about that comment, but the experience I had of the story was exactly as I’d feared it might be. The thing is, I don’t know that I believe an author’s intentions have anything much to do with the story when it’s out there in the world. For me, the moment of epiphany is too ambiguous to balance out the rest of the story, and even if the grandmother does become kinder and better, she has about thirty seconds to experience that. Maybe in the Catholic context, the sinner’s genuine repentence is all that counts, and living in a state of repentence is less important than the change of heart? I think I just don’t have the right cultural information to really get the best out of this story.

  10. Going to read it soon. Poor son. Others’ tears are so much harder than our own.

    My daughter read Penelope on holiday in Greece last week and loved it – thanks for the recommendation.

    • I am so glad your daughter enjoyed Penelope! I thought it was hilarious, and it’s always a pleasure to know one’s sense of humour is shared. As for my poor son, you are quite right – it’s awful to have to be the witness!

      • As, I forget to say did I! She has a friend about to embark on a business masters there. She, Alex’s friend is already in two minds so perhaps not the best read for her this summer.

  11. I must admit I absolutely love this story. One of the bets examples of Southern Gothic and so sly. I’ve read some others and they are not as cruel but just as amazing. I didn’t even find all that horrific. But then again Poe was my favourite author at 12. 🙂

    • See, I really like Edgar Allen Poe – he’s subtle and symbolic in a way this was not. I wish I could get more out of it than I have and I’m not quite sure why I’m stuck. I don’t like authors who are cruel to their readers (Susan Hill always strikes me as one of those) so perhaps it just boils down to that.

  12. Is this you first encounter with Flannery O’Connor? If so, what a way to begin! Every story of hers I have read has something brutal in it. This one is one of the more shocking ones but none of them leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, more like beaten about and punched in the stomach. But she’s good stuff! And she did succeed in making you forget your troubles 🙂

    • I would dearly love to know why she is good stuff – I’m struggling to see it here. I do wonder whether I’ve finally reached an internal cultural limit and this story is ‘too American’ for me, but naturally I don’t like that interpretation. It’s like looking at a maths equation when you can’t see how it works? That’s the experience I’m having. Most frustrating!

      • Consider that she is often labeled “southern gothic” and was devoutly Catholic which is often reflected in her stories, and she was interested in issues of morality and ethics. She also had lupus and died of it when she was 39 and didn’t believe in anything that could possibly come close to the sentimental. Her stories are often shocking but there are also moments of grace as you noted in this one as well as humor. She is very American and very southern but don’t let that deter you! Read a few more of her stories and she will start to make more sense 🙂

  13. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is read disappointingly often in American schools, and my dislike of it is characteristic of my dislike of “Southern Gothic” and honestly most 20th century American lit.Yes, O’Connor is talented, and yes, she has a point, but as y0u say, I’m not reading to make myself more depressed.

  14. Right, I have just re-adjusted my idea of Flannery O’Connor. I thought she was an Irish man who wrote gentle comic tales. Heh, just as well I am finding out the truth now or I should have had a very big surprise!

    By coincidence I have just been to the dentist’s too! First time since 1999. I think the poor dentist nearly fainted when she saw my teeth, but as it was my daughter’s first ever dental appointment and we were all trying to be cheery, she was strong. (But my daughter wasn’t fooled.)

    • Oh Helen, you are hilarious! And yes, there was a time when I thought exactly the same thing about Flannery O’Connor!! Though to be honest, knowing differently did not manage to deaden the surprise factor. My heart goes out to you for accompanying your daughter to the dentist and submitting, too. You can at least congratulate yourself on your immense and selfless courage. Children are so resistent to comforting fantasies – even rewards make them suspicious. Mind you, they’d be even crosser if we took the pretence and the rewards away! 🙂

  15. Honestly, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is not my favorite of O’Connor’s short stories — I think people talk about it, in particular, because it’s everything O’Connor is turned up to eleven. Good if you are trying to exemplify O’Connor; maybe not as good if you are experiencing her for the first time. I like “Good Country People.” More of the black humor in that one, and slightly less brutality.

    • I am very glad that you have given me another suggestion! It would be good to try Flannery O’Connor again, and hopefully do better the next time. I like your explanation of A Good Man very much.

  16. Recently I have been to the dentist too. So all my sympathy. Dental pain and associated fears are pretty awful and fill your life at the time so that everything else seems secondary.

    I have been thinking about short stories lately, especially older short stories written by H E Bates and Irwin Shaw who are amongst my two favourite writers in this genre. (Isn’t it interesting how writers move in and out of favour?)

    I am interested in your review of Flannery O’Connor’s stories and will try to find them at my library.

    So sorry your son is unhappy, it’s hard to know what to do to help. My grandson is feeling very flat at present and I long to say this will pass, but I know I wouldn’t have believed it at his age. It’s so damn hard to be young.


    • Sue, you leave such lovely comments, thank you. As for dental sympathy, right back atcha! as the kids say. I completely agree that fear of the dentist’s drill does dwarf pretty much everything else. You remind me that I have never read anything by H E Bates… hmm, which is an intriguing thought. I should definitely give him and Irwin Shaw a whirl. And I send huge solidarity to you with your grandson. It really IS awful to be young, and not much better to be reminded of what youth and its uncertainties was like. My neighbour down the road told me yesterday that she thought it wasn’t a ‘word situation’ and that the better answer lay in handing him to my husband so they could sit side by side on the sofa and watch football. Not that my men would ever do exactly that, but I see her point!

  17. My favorite Flannery O’Connor story is “The Displaced Person.” It’s rather long, but it’s the one that stays with me.
    I don’t think “A Good Man is Hard to Find” has much to do with Catholicism. I see it as about the grandmother from the outside–I picture her as Baptist or Methodist, the kind of old woman who has dominated and terrorized her family with “family values” for their entire lives and thinks she’s staunch and morally upright and everything she hasn’t been able to instill in her children and grandchildren.
    I can’t imagine that she’s actually had an epiphany at the end of the story. What I love about it is the humor–she’s gotten so bad, from years of being catered to, that even a serial killer has her number. “She would of been a good woman” if someone had called her on every selfish, miserable thing she inflicted on others in the name of ersatz “Christianity” her whole life.
    In terms of how American it is, I see her as very much like the mother in August, Osage County.

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