“A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’Connor, is a difficult story to talk about.
On the one hand it is full of everything that good literature students love to chew on. There’s small-town America, class boundaries, racism, facades, and an underlying question of just what it means to be good. In fact, this question of being good is often discussed right out in the open by the characters in the story. The subject matter at hand is being inspected by the author on multiple levels! How can this not be a literary gem?
But unlike most “literary” short stories out there, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” has heart. There are some artists out there who strive to write literary fiction. They write with an overall theme in mind. They use facades. They have foils for their characters. They discuss potent topics and have meaningful settings. But they wind up creating paint-by-numbers fiction, hitting all the right literary notes, but missing the point entirely. They have no heart.
But I don’t think for a second that Flannery O’Connor got excited while writing this imaging students discussing it. She wrote it because it needed writing. She wrote it the way it is because that’s the way it needed to be written.
This story has heart. And more importantly, this story has guts. There’s grit here, an invasive mood of dread that builds until the ending, all of which never fails to creep me out and fill me with genuine disgust.
The story, like most of my favorite stories, is simple. A family is on a road trip, they have an accident, they meet a stranger, the end. It’s a pretty simple story. The meatiness, the joy for me is in the language and the details. It’s in the family that is painted so perfectly that I always get sad because within four sentences I know how drab their lives are. It’s in the kids who are captured so well they always make me smile, because after a few words with them I know that they don’t know that they’re not happy.
And, ultimately, it is in the the spot-on characterization of what has to be the single most annoying old lady in all of literature, the grandmother of the family.
Right away, in the opening of the story, as they are all eating breakfast in their house before their trip, she comes across as aloof and prideful, a busybody who simply has to have her opinion on everything heard, because she is right about everything.
And it’s through her eyes that we mostly see the story. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” isn’t written in the first person, we’re not literally in the old lady’s head, but the voice of the story is strongly tied to her and it’s her actions and thoughts we are privy to. Her secrets are known to us. It is her point of view that flavors the descriptions, and it is her nagging that drives the story forward, quite literally.
It is also through her eyes that we begin to contemplate the question of what exactly a “good man” even means. To her it definitely means status. It means money and a sense of class. It means you wear your finest outfit when you are out for a drive so that if you are in an accident and found dead, people will know that you are a lady. Yet dressed like a proper lady she acts like a terrible person.
We stop for lunch with the family and during a conversation with a restaurant owner we dive a little more of what being good means. The restaurant owner was swindled earlier on by some people because he trusted them to pay him back for gas. And why did he do such a thing? Well it’s because he’s a good man, the grandmother insists.
It starts to sink in that “good” is whatever grandmother says is good, she is allowed to bandy that word about as she wishes and bestow it like a knighthood wherever she pleases, but always in superficial forms. She doesn’t get to know this restaurant owner; she hears one story and decides that he embodies the “good” notion of trust. Yet we can tell that if she spent ten minutes talking to the guy, she’d despise him.
Because familiarity with a person does not seem to produce fond emotions in her. Her own family? According to the grandmother the children have no respect, the husband, her own son, has no joy or brains in him, her views on the daughter in law are almost cliche.
She does, however, eventually meet someone who she fervently believes is good. And it is the veracity, and the source, of that belief that holds the entire secret of the story. This final notion of whether someone is good is the part that everyone debates and talks about. And it may seem strange to not discuss it here, but as I’ve mentioned, in my mind the guts of this story have always outweighed its thoughts, so I don’t want to spoil the ending.
I’ll just say that death enters the tale, and that the old woman somehow manages to become an even bigger pain in the ass than before.
But she also leads us to that final contemplation of good, both its appearance and its essence, set in some of the most jarring prose I know. The finale makes me sick every time I read it, but the entirety of the tale is told with beautiful understatement and complete confidence in craft. O’Connor exhibits something close to glee as she sits back and simply allows the words to do their job without jamming anything in our faces.
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” is creepy as hell, confusing to ponder, and I always come away a little disturbed that I like the character we meet in the end more than I like the plain family from the beginning. It’s a story that I never finish and just put aside, I always dwell on it and chew on it. Sometimes for days.
It’s a literary masterpiece, but it doesn’t spare on the meat.