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Jun042012

1956

A Good Man Is Hard to Find

By Flannery O’Connor

Original Publisher: Harcourt

Current Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Kirstin Allio writes: 

This would be a book to make an altar of, at the dark line of woods like the lip of the underworld. There would be spectacle, grotesquery, even human sacrifice: the burning of artifice and sin. The smoke would be sensual. The embroidery on the altar cloth would appear almost illuminated in the weird, lidded light: a border of suns and moons, time on earth, bracingly lucid. Like these startlingly poetic descriptions woven through the collection:

The sun had risen a little and was only a white hole like an opening for the wind to escape through in a sky a little darker than itself.

. . . he saw half of the moon five feet away in his shaving mirror, paused as if it were waiting for his permission to enter.

The air was so quiet he could hear the broken pieces of the sun knocking in the water.

. . . they faced a gray transparent moon, hardly stronger than a thumbprint and completely without light.

But an altar is too static, and staged, to describe Flannery O’Connor’s stories. (Although I remain worshipfully hyperbolic.) They are churning, menacing, encroaching. The voice is focused, almost domineering, yet also seems choral in the implication of many voices, which vibrate with the range and vigor of the universal in the specific. And those suns and moons—they’re actually revolving. 

What I really want to do is copy out the entire volume in calligraphy (and the celestial border), like a Medieval monk, or learn it by heart like a bard out of Homer.

But adulation is so uncritical, and I don’t think Flannery O’Connor would like it. I always get the sense of austere judgment in Flannery O’Connor, although her violence is lush, even gratuitous. Sometimes her stories are like her ubiquitous peacocks, many bluegreen eyes wide open, waving, quivering like antennae; other times they refer to an unforgiving, bedrock absolutism.

Since A Good Man Is Hard to Find was the first book I loved and identified with in an academic context, it seems relevant to say that I started out hopelessly intimidated by reading. I was a diffident and defensive student, and I felt threatened by the sense of an established interpretation. I resented the subtext: “What is Flannery O’Connor trying to say?” As if the truth of the story were some armature (like a bent coat hanger) the story had been built on, hidden deep in the story’s flesh, and the reader’s only job was to poke around and guess at authorial meaning, not luxuriate in other implications.

It seemed like everyone knew what Flannery O’Connor was really about, it was right there on the back cover as if she were a missionary of her own meaning. It also seemed to be common knowledge that we were supposed to read her without taking her religion personally, without taking offense, as we would have, relishingly, if she were some cracker out of one of her own stories. We were, I noticed, supposed to be converted not to Christianity, but to literature. And I was, which is the point of this diversion.

About a decade and a half after my Washington Square graduation I’m still squeamish about pinning down unitary meaning, but I find, after this most recent read, that I really do want to know how much Flannery O’Connor is moralizing.

If not moralizing, (with its decidedly non-liberal connotations), then she’s certainly trading hard in moral logic. Her currency is belief, mercy, pride, remorse, gratitude, corruption, innocence, for starters. Good, and evil, in exquisite equations.

The story “Good Country People,” for example, is flawlessly rolled out in service to moral logic—and cunningly foiled by the logic of humor. (Although I wish I could insert myself into Flannery O’Connor’s letters, collected in the astonishing Habits of Being, and ask her why she wastes nine pages on the Mrs. So-and-Sos before she pivots the story on its dancing heel . . . I’m sure she’d straighten me out right quick though.)

Mrs. Hopewell’s grown daughter has a PhD in philosophy and, to Mrs. Hopewell’s daily annoyance, if not grief, has shed her given name, Joy, and taken—if not invented!—the defiantly repellent name Hulga. If her daughter is capable of irony or self-loathing Mrs. Hopewell is not sophisticated enough to get it.

Joy-Hulga, bitter atheist, self-defined outcast with a wooden leg, is stuck living with her provincial, land-owning mother. Electively cynical, yet intellectually impotent, she entertains herself with a spontaneous plan to sort of dis-convert the simple country boy who comes around her mother’s place selling bibles.

She imagined . . . that she very easily seduced him and that then, of course, she had to reckon with his remorse. True genius can get an idea across even to an inferior mind. She imagined that she took his remorse in hand and changed it into a deeper understanding of life.

The two make it to the hayloft. However, the teenaged salesman is not who he says he is, and it’s Joy-Hulga who is exposed as the more innocent. Her pride in believing in nothing is her downfall, and it allows the boy to take calculating advantage. Pleading desperately for her to declare her love in the heat of the moment, he tricks her into separating herself from her wooden appendage.

She was as sensitive about the artificial leg as a peacock about his tail. No one had ever touched it but her. She took care of it almost as someone else would his soul, in private and almost with her own eyes turned away.

The wooden leg is like a false idol, and when the young bible salesman tucks it into his suitcase and drops down the ladder, Joy-Hulga is vanquished.

I’m more shocked this time than I’ve ever been before. Is Flannery O’Connor really giving Joy-Hulga the short end of the stick for being proud and spiteful? Really punishing her for not believing? What about the huckster who uses the holy book to ensnare her? Seduce her? At least it appears that Flannery O’Connor set it up this way, posing her two characters on either side of the scale.

But maybe there’s moralizing without final judgment, weighing without a scale. Indeed I end up with a new impression, that Flannery O’Connor’s moralizing is generous, and gestures toward deeper thought and feeling about human nature without burning any of it. I’d like to imagine that this book is, in the end, a very deep well rather than an altar. 

Kirstin Allio was selected for 5 Under 35 in 2007: many thanks to the National Book Foundation! She is the author of the novel, Garner, and numerous short stories, including one in The 2010 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. She lives in Seattle. (Photo: Michael K. Allio)

 

Matthew Eck writes: 

Whenever I read Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find I anticipate and look forward to that peacock at the end of the book. O’Connor was enamored with peacocks. Her peacocks remind me of Nabokov’s butterflies and, reach with me, Flaubert’s parrot.

Peacocks and butterflies are symbols of the soul and of immortality in some cultures. Parrots have been known to talk.

I once lived with a peacock. I was seven. The bird’s screech at night is a horror unto itself. Yet, it was beautiful despite itself.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find was Flannery O’Connor’s second book, after Wise Blood, which is a remarkable book about the secularization and branding of religion in America. A Good Man Is Hard to Find was her first short story collection, and the only short story collection published in her lifetime. It is a masterwork of blending message and meaning within the short story.

The collection opens with the modern classic and title story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” You would have to search hard for a collection that opens with as powerful a piece. It is full of violence and forgiveness. The Misfit always seems to me akin to Cormac McCarthy’s the judge in Blood Meridian. One is death and one is the devil.

But O’Connor said of the title story, “I don’t want to equate the Misfit with the devil. I prefer to think that, however unlikely this may seem, the old lady’s gesture, like the mustard-seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit’s heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become. But that’s another story.”

Saying the Misfit is a prophet is one of the more remarkable ways that I’ve ever seen a writer make an audience want to pick that story up again and give it another meaning.

I’ve always felt like the two real bookends of the collection are the title story and “Good Country People.” They’re both stories of redemption and salvation but achieved through completely different means. In one the old woman is shot and murdered violently, while in the other Manly Pointer steals Hulga/Joy’s wooden leg.

Here’s O’Connor on “Good Country People”: “In good fiction, certain of the details will tend to accumulate meaning from the action of the story itself, and when this happens they become symbolic in the way they work. I once wrote a story called “Good Country People,” in which a lady Ph.D. has her wooden leg stolen by a Bible salesman whom she has tried to seduce. Now I’ll admit that, paraphrased in this way, the situation is simply a low joke. The average reader is pleased to observe anybody’s wooden leg being stolen.”

Many of my students misread Manly Pointer as another type of Misfit. Of course this only comes about after they titter and chuckle at his name, Manly Pointer. I then remind them that many believe that Jesus points men and women toward salvation. Then I’ll ask, “Which works better as a name, Personable Pointer or Manly Pointer?” Either way Manly Pointer tells Hulga, “I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!” I almost always ask them to explain this line to me.

One meaning of “Good Country People” is that she guards her wooden leg like most people guard their souls, and that Manly Pointer is a representation of Christ and that he walks on water in the end.

You could argue, and probably rather well in the context of the story, that it is good for Joy/Hulga that Jesus is the one who happens along and steals her soul.

As an aside, the last two paragraphs in “Good Country People” were inserted after Robert Giroux suggested that O’Connor have the mother and Mrs. Freeman reappear at the end of the story.

Many of the stories are parables; that fact is hard to miss. But I often feel like many a reader might feel like they’re on the outside of the message now and then, which is a shame considering the ride that O’Connor can take a reader on. I like the word ride there because O’Connor creates some of the more memorable automotive moments in literature; think of the automobiles of Mr. Shiftlet and Hazel Motes. Parables are as contradictory as peacocks though, their messages meant to enlighten those on the inside of a faith, while confusing and condemning those on the outside.

Robert Frost conveys the ordeal of the outsider well in his poem “Directive”: “So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.”

O’Connor believed in her message and her meaning. “For I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in relation to that.” It’s the idea of the vague believer that really makes the stories tremble with meaning.

Like Flaubert’s Parrot I’m waiting for the day when someone writes a great book about O’Connor’s peacocks.

There are days I feel like I must embody some sense of the vague believer. My faith was shaken quickly after high school. For what it’s worth I attended Catholic schools until I joined the Army. Then I went off to Somalia with the 10th Mountain Division and I had a hard time rationalizing my faith with the wreckage all around me.

But that’s another story. 

Matthew Eck’s debut novel, The Farther Shore, was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 selection. Among other honors, the novel won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the Society of Midland Authors Award for fiction, and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection. Someone should make a film of that book. Eck received his MFA from the University of Montana. He currently lives in Kansas City. (Photo: Katie Cramer Eck)


Fiction Finalists That Year:

Fiction Winner That Year: John O’Hara for Ten North Frederick

Fiction Judges That Year: Carlos Baker, John Brooks, Granville Hicks, Saunders Redding, Mark Schorer

The Year in Literature:

  • Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
  • Juan Ramón Jiménez won the Nobel Prize for literature.

More Information: O’Connor won the National Book Award in 1972 for her Complete Stories.

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