There are only three short stories that I distinctly remember reading in high school:
“The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter
“A Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
I have found, in conversations with friends, that at least two of these are very frequently remembered by others as well. The last two. But sometimes the first as well.
High school English teachers often use Porter’s “Weatherall” story to teach “stream of consciousness” when they’re covering a modernism unit. I don’t remember what my junior English teacher told me about any of that, but I do remember being transfixed by the story itself. I was borne through the wandering and failing mind of the protagonist as she shoos away her concerned children at her deathbed. She is an old woman who is dying and remembering fragments of her life–in particular the “jilting” she experienced as a young woman. Ironically, at the end of her life, she realizes she is being “jilted” by another Bridegroom, God. In astonishment at the nothingness that awaits her, she blows out the candle of her life.
Porter wrote this story long before she converted to Catholicism, so it’s treatment of death is particularly arresting. I was haunted by it for years, and still am.
Oddly, though, it’s one of my very favorite stories.
“A Most Dangerous Game” involves a young man trapped by a hunter of big game. The hunter is bored with animals, and eventually settles upon Man as the truly worthy prey. It’s creepy and really suspenseful. Even kids who don’t like to read usually like this story.
I mention these other two stories, despite the subject of my post, because somehow I feel as though they appropriately contextualize what I am about to say even though I could not clearly explain to you exactly why that is.
For, of course, then there is Flannery.
If you read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in high school, you probably remember it with unease and distaste.
If you haven’t: Go read it. There’s no use reading what I say here unless you have read it.
Or if you prefer, you could listen to Flannery reading it to you. You may be startled by her voice – I was, at first. Quite the experience:
What bothers people about this story isn’t so much as the violence (we are certainly used to that) as the purposelessness of it. Most readers just don’t “get it.” What the heck is O’Connor trying to say? What’s the message? What’s the theme? And what does she mean by “A Good Man,” anyway?
The feeling often is — why did she put us through all of this?
My answer is: I don’t know. I don’t pretend to know.
I think that if you think you know, you are probably wrong or deluding yourself.
And that is precisely what I have come to love about this story.
When I was in high school, I was pretty ticked off by the whole thing — much like my own students. It puts you through so much humor (if you read it right) and so much suspense (if you read it at all) and then it shoots you in the face.
If you’re Catholic, and you’ve heard of Flannery’s Catholicism, you’re probably thinking you might get it. If you’re an English major, and you’ve read a lot of literary criticism, you’re probably pretty confident you can get something out of this story. I am both of these things, and I have realized the error of my ways.
I would venture to say that if a reader is honest with herself, she will admit to her utter perplexity.
Flannery accomplishes in this story a profound gesture at human nature and its mystery. That’s why it bugs us. It won’t fall into conventional Christian or literary categories. It’s like she saw something and she wrote what she saw, and that was that. It was true and nothing else.
If you read it and think you’re reading propaganda or proselytism of some kind, you are sorely mistaken. You are reading literature on par with Sophocles and The Iliad — literature that does not attempt to explain life and death, but simply to show it.
The Gospel of Mark has a similar feeling, especially if you stop at 16:8, where most scholars think the original fragment ends. In that reading, the Gospel ends the empty tomb and with fear: ἐφοβοῦντο γὰρ, “for they were afraid.”
O’Connor’s story of the family’s miserably comic road trip should ring true to anyone who has been in the car for more than six hours with their parents or siblings:
When the children finished all the comic books they had brought, they opened the lunch and ate it. The grandmother ate a peanut butter sandwich and an olive and would not let the children throw the box and the paper napkins out the window. When there was nothing else to do they played a game by choosing a cloud and making the other two guess what shape it suggested. John Wesley took one the shape of a cow and June Star guessed a cow and John Wesley said, no, an automobile, and June Star said he didn’t play fair, and they began to slap each other over the grandmother. (O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”)
I was reading the Gospel of Mark today and was struck by its similarly matter-of-fact tone. He tells you about the Transfiguration like you would mention what happened to you at work today.
Later, Flannery relates the death of the grandmother in much the same way:
She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them. (Ibid)
She touches the man who has murdered her son, her daughter-in-law and her three grandchildren because she recognizes him as her lost son. This recognition is too much for The Misfit, and he reacts in the only way he knows how.
If you want to hear O’Connor’s own remarks on this work, go listen to her speak about it before she gives a reading of this very story:
Many critics have realized, since reading Flannery’s letters in The Habit of Being, that Flannery O’Connor is writing about the violence of grace– that grace is not the stuff of fuzzy Christian consolation, but the terrifying love of God that seeks after what was lost no matter what cost to Himself–or the sheep in question:
I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world. (O’Connor, “On Her Own Work”)
I have found, in short, from the reading of my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil. (Ibid)
Perhaps that is all that can really be said about a story like this.
Sufjan Stevens wrote a song called “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” On this album, he also includes a track entitled “In the Devil’s Territory.” Both are nods to O’Connor.
Perhaps, sometimes, only art can explain art.
Indeed, his whole album, entitled “Seven Swans” provides a very O’Connor-esque perspective on life and faith.
So go check out Sufjan’s response to O’Connor’s story: