I’ve often thought that writers tend to approach their work predominantly in one of two ways—instinctually or academically, using the right or left brain. Reading Flannery O’Connor’s short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, I was struck by how important both aspects are in writing. Whether we compose from raw creativity or from some global template, we should reread the story again with the other view.
The story takes a family of six, a grandmother, her son, his wife, and three children on a car trip to Florida. En route they run into an escaped convict and his cronies with tragic consequences.
O’Connor wrote an essay about the story where she pointed out that the value in a work is that it cannot be paraphrased simply, as I’ve just tried to do, and that it stays with the reader for further contemplation. Her story succeeds, in my opinion, on both these counts. Obviously, I’m still thinking about it, and my summary stinks.
Not much happens, actually, as the family of insightless people discuss and undertake the road trip. Early on, the escaped con is set up, so there is a shadow in the dry humor of the interactions that intensifies at a stop along the way.
The seemingly empty-headed grandmother and the seemingly sociopathic “Misfit,” as the escaped con is called, are the interesting characters. She puts lots of stock in acting like a lady from a “good” family, and he does not remember his crimes, though he admits guilt. In a way the “Misfit” seems to be more self-aware than the grandmother.
O’Connor speaks of the claims of excessive violence in literature, bnut says she often uses violence to wake her characters up. She also says that her work often will have an action or gesture that surprises, even shocks, that is something external that touches the internal and gives the depth and complexity, even meaning to the story.
Facing her deepest fear in the violence of the situation, the grandmother seems to gain insight from her Christian faith. The action that the story turns on is her gesture—she touches the convict’s arm and says “You are my child.” He recoils and pulls away, employing his gun. But O’Connor hopes that her story isn’t read as simply murder en route to Florida. The grandmother’s gesture has touched the convict emotionally and spiritually and possibly provoked a change in him. So to use Vivien Gornick’s terms from her book The Situation and the Story, the situation is the plot of the road trip and the family’s demise at the hands of the escaped convicts. But the story, the message, the themes, turn on the Christian tenets of seeing all as our brothers, sisters, children, and of having faith even the size of a mustard seed. And I don’t think O’Connor wrote this short story on instinct alone, but on considerable planning and perspiration.