O’Connor Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A Roman Catholic with an unerring eye for pretense and self-deception, Flannery O’Connor wrote darkly comic stories with a wicked grotesquery that unsettled her characters’ and readers’ complacencies.

Summary of Event

A Roman Catholic from Milledgeville, Georgia, who was plagued most of her adult life with the disease of lupus (which caused her death at the age of thirty-nine), Flannery O’Connor was well on her way to becoming a successful writer by the time her collection of ten stories entitled A Good Man Is Hard to Find was published in 1955. Good Man Is Hard to Find, A (O’Connor) Literary movements;Southern fiction [kw]O’Connor Publishes A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955)[OConnor Publishes A Good Man Is Hard to Find] [kw]Good Man Is Hard to Find, O’Connor Publishes A (1955) Good Man Is Hard to Find, A (O’Connor) Literary movements;Southern fiction [g]North America;1955: O’Connor Publishes A Good Man Is Hard to Find[04710] [g]United States;1955: O’Connor Publishes A Good Man Is Hard to Find[04710] [c]Literature;1955: O’Connor Publishes A Good Man Is Hard to Find[04710] O’Connor, Flannery Fitzgerald, Robert Giroux, Robert Lowell, Robert McKee, Elizabeth

Flannery O’Connor.

(Joe McTyre)

Having graduated with a master’s degree from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1947, O’Connor had already published several stories. In 1947 and 1948, she resided at the Yaddo writer’s colony in upstate New York, where she met Robert and Sally Fitzgerald Fitzgerald, Sally , Robert Lowell, and other writers and intellectuals who helped the young author to develop her craft as well as her unique vision, which combined an orthodox Catholic faith with a modern existential sense of things. In June, 1948, she took the important step of securing a literary agent, Elizabeth McKee, who helped O’Connor to publish her first novel, Wise Blood Wise Blood (O’Connor) (1952). With the support of Robert Giroux of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Harcourt Brace Jovanovich , O’Connor published her first collection of stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find.

The recurrent theme of the stories in A Good Man Is Hard to Find involves the characters’ discovery of the mystery of actuality, whether that mystery be described spiritually or existentially. In often bizarre and violent events, O’Connor’s characters are shocked out of their placid, taken-for-granted worlds and into a discovery of the truth of things that often destroys forever, both spiritually and physically, their formerly secure havens of existence. The characters’ prideful, rationalistic frameworks of certainty and explanation are shattered, and often, too, are their lives, as they are pushed into the harsh light of what for O’Connor was the ultimate mystery of being.

This experience is often brought about by the penetration of a grotesque, violent outsider into the smug, predictable lives of O’Connor’s self-righteous characters. The invader (who often carries with him a strange aura of the religious, the holy), with his irrational perversity, challenges and calls into question their rationally organized worlds. In so doing, he undercuts their self-righteous values and forces the naïve characters to deal with him.

Nowhere is O’Connor’s formula of penetration, shock, and discovery more apparent than in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the title story of the volume. In the opening passages, readers can well see the characteristics of the closed, self-satisfied mind. A typical Georgia family is going on vacation to Florida, and the family’s grandmother sets the tone with her endless, vapid chatter. As they drive along, she babbles on monotonously, noting the sights, recalling events of her youth, and entertaining the children. In typical O’Connor fashion, this is all comically entertaining, but the grandmother and her family are ultimately portrayed as self-centered fools who are somehow asleep in their existence. They follow accepted patterns of behavior and avoid anything that calls accepted ways of living and seeing into question.

Like so many O’Connor characters in this collection of stories, however, they must lose themselves if they are ever to find themselves. When the family heads off the main road into the deep woods, the car overturns in the middle of nowhere. Upon them almost immediately is a murderous escapee from the state penitentiary. While his companions methodically and grotesquely lead the other members of the family off into the dark woods to be shot, the eerily calm, maniacally thoughtful killer begins to challenge the grandmother’s heretofore safe and predictable world.

Like Jesus—also a social misfit, who attacked the complacent money changers at the temple and shocked the rational Pharisees by irrationally suggesting that they should love their enemies—O’Connor’s killer (who ruminates on how Jesus had “thrown everything off balance”) causes the grandmother to enter a moment of spiritual and existential crisis. Her vapid mentality is arrested for a moment as she faces the cruel possibility of her own death. Suddenly, she is forced to vacate her private world and to see the killer as one of her own children. The moment she reaches out to touch him—the moment her shotgun death is delivered by the murderer—she perhaps sees into the mystery of being that had always been covered over by the dull tameness of her day-to-day existence. The quality and meaning of that experience are left unexplained and for the reader’s speculation by O’Connor.

“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is typical of the stories in the collection in that the discovery of something beyond the mundane comes in the experience of violence. The presentation is made all the more powerful by O’Connor’s characteristic yoking of this radical (and cruel) event with the comic. This formula is again apparent in another story from the collection, “Good Country People.” "Good Country People" (O’Connor)[Good Country People (Oconnor)] Rather than a silly, simpleminded grandmother, the protagonist who gets the shock of reality in this story is a brooding, arrogant young lady named Hulga who has a heart condition, an artificial leg, and a Ph.D. in philosophy. She has nothing but disdain for her mother and other “good country people” she finds too stupid and thoughtless to be tolerated.

Into Hulga’s intellectually superior (and rather sterile) feminine world of order and certainty comes a traveling Bible salesman, aptly named Manly Pointer. Though she considers him a stupid bumpkin, she agrees to accompany him on a picnic with the intention of seducing him (sexually and intellectually) out of his innocence and into what she feels is her own honest knowledge of the nature of things. Ironically, and in typical O’Connor fashion, it is Hulga who is seduced by the young man. While in a hayloft, he gets her to remove her artificial leg, which he promptly appropriates. At that moment, like the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Hulga is left in a state of startled discovery. The loss of the leg is a loss of the crutch of artificiality that had supported the pretense and arrogance that kept her from truly seeing. She is no longer in control and is painfully freed to experience pristine actuality, no matter how agonizing or destructive the experience may be.

The dramatic pattern of a violent outsider shocking a closed-minded protagonist into a discovery—all in a comic mode—characterizes every story in O’Connor’s first collection. The pattern would continue to appear in almost all the fiction she subsequently produced.

Significance

In explaining her style and purpose as a writer, Flannery O’Connor once stated that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” She also noted that “it is what is left over after everything explainable has been explained that makes a story worth writing and reading.” Such remarks suggest that the violent alterations of perspective her characters experience in A Good Man Is Hard to Find are similar to what she expected her readers to experience when they are drawn into her comic world and its unexpected, and often illogical, violence and grotesquery. Readers, too, are to be drawn out of their taken-for-granted perspectives and thrust into an awareness of the “realm of mystery which is the concern of the prophets.”

While most serious readers of O’Connor’s fiction today perceive this intent, initial reaction to the publication of A Good Man Is Hard to Find revealed a tentativeness, a perplexity in the face of such strangely violent yet comic stories populated by misfits, displaced persons, and other lurid grotesques that seemed anything but realist. Early reviews often merely focused on the surface of the tales, failing to address “the realm of mystery” that each story finally insists the characters and readers confront. One reviewer, for example, simply noted that “Miss O’Connor, with a direct, detached style, manages to preserve the complexity of the lives she takes up.” Another cautiously observed that the author had “an unerring eye in the selection of detail” and an “exquisite ear . . . for the cadences of everyday speech.” While these remarks are sound, they do not go near to delineating the unique qualities of the stories.

Those reviewers who did attempt to comment on the grotesque, violent, and comic eccentricities of the tales were sometimes critical that the stories did not fit expected realist fictional conventions. Said The New Yorker:

There is a brutality in these stories, but since the brutes are as mindless as their victims, all we have, in the end, is a series of tales about creatures who collide and drown, or survive to float passively in the isolated sea of the author’s compassion, which accepts them without reflecting anything.

Louis Rubin, on the other hand, saw in the stories what later readers would come to celebrate. Unlike realist writers who were out “to make a social point” with their characters’ lives, Rubin wrote, O’Connor’s people “confront spiritual and moral problems, not economics.” She is “in essence a religious writer,” and “Knowledge of good and evil is at the heart of her stories.”

By 1962, sensitive readers such as Robert Fitzgerald were noting, for example, that a story such as “The Displaced Person” was about the modern “human Person displaced.” “Almost all her people are displaced and some are either aware of it or become so,” Fitzgerald observed. This “displacement” is the condition of contemporary humanity, lost because of its estrangement from the mystery that, for O’Connor, underpins all life. It is the burden of her stories to bring that mystery to light in the lives of her characters and readers; it is that mystery that is, finally, the essence of all of her fiction.

Modern writers who have been influenced directly by O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find are few, yet her work, in its steadfast refusal to be merely realistic, its insistence on respect for a dimension of mystery (even religious mystery) in a secular age, and its biting and grotesquely comic satire of human arrogance and self-certainty, has cleared the way for other writers with similar concerns, both thematic and stylistic. As different as they are from O’Connor, such writers as Walker Percy, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Walker, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, and Saul Bellow come to mind.

Moreover, such contemporary writers surely admire, and in their own ways seek to emulate, the artistic qualities of her fiction so aptly noted by Frederick Crews: “her extravagant yet piercingly apt imagery, her subtle wit, her eye for the maliciously revealing detail, her infallible sense of pace and timing, [and] her knack of sliding seamlessly between the petty and the sinister.” Good Man Is Hard to Find, A (O’Connor) Literary movements;Southern fiction

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Asals, Frederick. Flannery O’Connor: The Imagination of Extremity. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982. One of the best books on O’Connor’s work. Asals admires her ability to balance terror and laughter, the grotesque and the understated commonplace. He sees a progression in O’Connor’s work, from her early disdain for everything physical to a more ironic control of that disdain in her later fiction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brinkmeyer, Robert H. The Art and Vision of Flannery O’Connor. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989. Brinkmeyer argues that O’Connor’s artistic vision entertained two radically different Christian visions: fundamentalism and Catholicism. Her fictions are a constant dialogue between the two perspectives, with neither taking total control. The tension between these two forces creates the power of her writing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Browning, Preston M. Flannery O’Connor. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974. A fine reading of O’Connor’s fiction, with Søren Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich’s existential notions of Christianity as a base.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edmonson, Henry T., III. Return to Good and Evil: Flannery O’Connor’s Response to Nihilism. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2002. Study of O’Connor’s attitudes toward faith and nihilism, the two forces that most decisively shaped her work. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Orvell, Miles. Invisible Parade: The Fiction of Flannery O’Connor. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1972. Orvell discusses the fiction as an example of tragicomedy and notes O’Connor’s debt to Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, and Nathanael West. Argues that O’Connor is at her best when she is not being religiously didactic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robillard, Douglas, Jr., ed. The Critical Response to Flannery O’Connor. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. Compilation of reviews of and scholarly essays about O’Connor’s work, from the 1950’s through the early twenty-first century. Illustrates the author’s evolving reputation and prestige. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walters, Dorothy. Flannery O’Connor. New York: Twayne, 1973. Walters sees the fiction as falling in the broad category of “Christian tragicomedy.” A good overview of O’Connor’s career and work.

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