A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (reread)

Whenever I think of short stories, I think of Flannery O’Connor. Her dark southern Gothic stories are perfect examples of the form. I first read this collection in college and have since read her collection Everything That Rises Must Converge, as well as her novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away. Although I liked the novels, it’s her stories that I love, and the stories in this collection are among her best.

O’Connor’s stories are set in the Jim Crow–era South, and all the flaws of the period are on full display. Her mostly white characters are deeply flawed—often racist, sometimes hypocritical, usually self-absorbed, and otherwise generally unpleasant. I suppose they could seem to some like caricatures, but to me they feel utterly real because they reflect the flaws that we all carry with us. And many of them receive grace in spite of—and more often because of—those flaws.

Grace is a running theme throughout the stories. O’Connor was a Roman Catholic, and her Catholicism is inescapable in many of her stories. But she also makes wonderful use of charismatic and evangelical imagery and ideas. In one of my favorite stories, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” a character has what could almost be described as a born-again moment, but that experience comes not through preaching and an altar call but through the Eucharist. The closest thing to a sermon are the words of a “freak” her cousins told her about after a night at the fair:

The child knelt down between her mother and the nun and they were well into the “Tantum Ergo” before her ugly thoughts stopped and she began to realize that she was in the presence of God. Hep me not to be so mean, she began mechanically. Hep me not to give her so much sass. Hep me not to talk like I do. Her mind began to get quiet and then empty but when the priest raised the monstrance with the Host shining ivory-colored in the center of it, she was thinking of the tent at the fair that had the freak in it. The freak was saying, “I don’t dispute hit. This is the way He wanted me to be.”

Also notable in this passage is O’Connor’s use of dialect. Her characters are clearly Southern, but their speech isn’t exaggerated in any way. The day after I started rereading this collection, I also happened to start listening to the audiobook of Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, and in that book, Prose talks about how O’Connor peppers characters’ speeches with hints of dialect. This technique has the benefit of placing her characters geographically without making their speech either incomprehensible or so different from standard English as to seem totally “other.”

More difficult for me to sort out is O’Connor’s handling of race. As I mentioned earlier, many of her characters are racist. Some of them, like the grandfather in “The Artifical Nigger,” are outright nasty in their racism, while the racism of others seems to be more about condescension (the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”) or a desire to feel superior to someone (Mrs McIntyre in “The Displaced Person”). And there is, of course, the matter-of-fact use of racist words.

In most cases, the racism of O’Connor’s characters is depicted as a negative thing—part of those characters’ packages of flaws. But there is a sense that the black characters are present merely to reveal something about the white characters. Only in “The Displaced Person” are they given much of a chance to speak for themselves, and even then the white characters remain the focus. But remembering that O’Connor was writing in the 1950s, I have to wonder how much intimate contact O’Connor had with the black people around her and whether she could have adequately charted their emotional and spiritual lives. With that in mind, I cannot really fault her for focusing on the slice of Southern life that she knew best. But I do wish things had been different, not just for O’Connor but for so many others who, like the characters in her stories, were taught to fear or despise their African-American neighbors.

Besides “The Temple of the Holy Ghost,” other favorite stories included “The Artificial Nigger,” in which a grandfather tries to teach his son humility by taking him to the big city, only to discover that he himself does not know as much as he thinks. In this story, O’Connor shows her mastery of symbol and image with the train that glides like a snake, taking them out of Eden and into hell. And “The Displaced Person,” which depicts how a white woman who works as hired help on a farm, reacts when a hard-working European refugee is also given a place on the farm, leaving her to worry that the displaced person might end up displacing her.

And then there’s “Good Country People,” a story about who and what people choose to believe. And “The River,” which shows a child’s desperate need for God but his inability to articulate that need and adults’ inability to speak in words he can understand. Both of these stories have deeply ambiguous endings whose meaning depends as much on the reader’s point of view as on any clear signals from O’Connor. I certainly can’t sort out what O’Connor makes of the dark ending of “The River,” which according to any rational understanding is obviously tragic. However, the imagery and supernatural awareness make me wonder if we aren’t meant to see hope. And what are we to make of our final glimpse of the fate of the intellectual skeptic Hulda at the end of “Good Country People”? I could read these stories over and over without coming to any clear conclusion. It is clear to me, however, that the reader’s understanding of and feelings about Catholic theology will color that reader’s impression of each story.

I haven’t yet mentioned the humor in the stories, but some of them are quite funny. It’s an uncomfortable and dark humor, often built of characters’ foolishness, but it’s still comical. Particularly noteworthy in this respect is “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a story of a vacation gone horribly wrong, partly through the perverse selfishness of the family grandmother who never wanted to go to Florida in the first place. More straightforwardly funny is “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” in which a living historical monument to the old South doesn’t remember his true history and doesn’t care about the mythical history being built around him, although he does enjoy the attention.

As with any collection, not every story made a strong impression on me, but those that did were stunners. Many of them have been anthologized elsewhere—in fact, I’m not sure I’ve seen any stories from her other collections in anthologies—so if you’re looking for a way to get a good strong dose of O’Connor, I’d recommend this as the place to start.

Other Reviews: Evening All Afternoon and Caravana de recuerdos.

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22 Responses to A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (reread)

  1. I’ve never read Flannery O’Connor- I ran across “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in high school, and it spooked me off of her. I ought to rectify that.

    • Teresa says:

      She has much more alarming stories than “A Good Man,” but not all of them are that dark. (I actually find “A Good Man” kind of hilarious!)

  2. Steph says:

    Have you read any Dorothy Parker? On reading this review, I felt like so much of what you said about O’Connor could describe Parker, especially the dark humor that reveals the foolishness of characters, and the casual/flippant racism. I haven’t read any O’Connor, but naturally she’s on my list! I don’t generally jump for joy when it comes for short fiction, but I do enjoy Parker’s short fiction, so if they’re at all alike, I’ll probably be a fan of O’Connor as well.

    • Teresa says:

      I have read Dorothy Parker, but only a few of her stories. I would never have thought to compare the two, but that might just be because of the particular Parker stories I’ve read.

      I don’t generally read a lot of short stories either, but I make an exception for O’Connor (and I’m taking more interest in the form in general these days).

  3. It’s funny that you mention Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, Teresa, because it is through that book that I came to Flannery O’Connor (I read and reread chapters from the book often). When I think of short story writers I immediately think of Flannery O’Connor -especially American short story writers- but I haven’t yet read many of her stories; “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is the story that stands out in my memory (and the racist grandmother) and I have her Complete Stories.

    • Teresa says:

      If you have her complete stories, you’re in for some good reading!

      And I’m enjoying the Prose quite a bit, although I’m wishing I had a hard copy because it seems like a book I’d be marking up.

  4. Iris says:

    This sounds like a collection I will have to try!

    • Teresa says:

      I think you’d enjoy it because of all the spiritual themes. And if you’ve never read O’Connor at all, I bet you could find some of her stories online to get a taste before committing to a whole collection.

  5. Emily says:

    This is such a great, uncomfortable collection, I agree. I suspect that I disagree very strongly with O’Connor’s general worldview (I find “The River,” with its hints that the little boy is better off “with God” than with his drunk parents, particularly hard to stomach, although as you say she makes it hard to fully pin her down about her own position), but I love her tight style, beautifully constructed sentences/paragraphs/stories, and her dark humor.

    • Teresa says:

      Her writing is so, so gorgeous—well-constructed, as you say.

      And yes, that ending to “The River” is a head-scratcher. When I first read it in college, I was totally on board with the idea that the boy was in a better place, but I find the idea of how it comes about much, much more troubling now. And I also don’t think that such a reading would square with official RC teachings, but who knows what O’Connor herself was taught or personally believed? Personally, I read it as a depiction of how crappy the world sometimes is that it could make such an appalling act appealing, but 10 years from now, I could have a totally different take on it!

  6. Jenny says:

    I should read more Flannery O’Connor. We read several of her short stories in my high school American Lit class, and I cracked up in the middle of discussing “Good Country People,” and everyone (except the teacher) looked at me askance and didn’t think it was one bit funny. It still makes me laugh to think of the scene in the hayloft.

    • Teresa says:

      I totally get the humor there! It’s dark and uncomfortable, especially insofar as I am Hulda, but it’s also thoroughly chortle-worthy.

  7. Eva says:

    I *really* need to read more of her! I’ve read “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” but a couple years ago I read his whoooole letter collection (over 500 pgs, I think) and it kind of burned me out. Now that I’ve recovered a bit, I should get back to her: maybe I’ll keep an eye out to see if she turns up at my fave thrift shop!

    • Teresa says:

      I would love to read her letters or a good bio, especially since I have now read most of her fiction. Maybe I could get a clearer idea of her own views on her characters and themes.

  8. Deb says:

    Coincidently, I just finished Brad Gooch’s biography of Flannery O’Connor and one of the problems I had with the book was Gooch’s failure (or perhaps his reluctance) to address the casual racism present in O’Connor’s life. Based on her letters and statements and the way she lived her life, O’Connor was no more racially enlightened than most other white people in Jim Crow-era Georgia. She’s a fantastic writer, but her attitudes toward race were sadly less than progressive.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s so interesting, Deb. I can see why a biographer would want to avoid the topic, but it would feel like a giant elephant in the room. This collection did, I think, show some enlightenment–at least enough to believe that outright hostile racism is bad, which is a step in the right direction. But it is also true that O’Connor doesn’t demonstrate much interest in serious integration here.

  9. Word Lily says:

    I need to try O’Connor again; I definitely remember the dark uncomfortableness of her stories.

    • Teresa says:

      It took me years to give her another try after reading this collection in college, but she’s certainly worth exploring in depth if you can handle the discomfort.

  10. Kathleen says:

    It is hard to believe but I have never read any Flannery O’Connor!

  11. Jeanne says:

    I agree with you about the ending of The River; I mentally compare it to the death of the little boy in Blake’s poem about the chimney sweep, in which the irony is that the boy has dreamed of death and it’s much better than his life.

    Also “The Displaced Person” seems to be to be the most Catholic of her stories in this collection, what with the priest coming to visit and pontificating. Since I first read the stories when I was 18, I like to think of them in that New Critical way as being about how people are, not the particular production of one RC writer, and when I can feel myself getting obnoxious about something I often think to myself “she would have been a good woman if there’d been someone to shoot her every minute of her life.”

    • Teresa says:

      I like that comparison to the Blake poem!

      “The Displaced Person” certainly has a lot of Catholicism in it, but I found the view of it there more ambiguous than in “The Temple of the Holy Ghost,” where the imagery of the Eucharist is so significant. The priest in “The Displaced Person” seems like a good guy, with his heart in the right place, but ineffective at actually changing people’s hearts.

      And I do agree that although O’Connor’s Catholicism is evident in her stories, they’re really about people and all the nasty ways in which we think and act.

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