The short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor could be viewed as a comic strip about massacre and martyrdom. What stops it from becoming a solemn story is its intensity, ambition, and unfamiliarity. O’Connor blends the line between humor and terror.
She introduces her audience to the horror of self-love. The grandmother is thought of by the community as agood person and appears to be so on the surface, but she is also mean and narcissistic. She forces her family to abide by her wishes; she sees them as an extension of herself; and she seizes every opportunity to get what she wants. By manipulating her grandchildren, she gets her son to go back to thehouse with the “secret panel”, causing them to meet The Misfit, and ultimately sealing the entire family’s death.
O’Connor makes the trite seem sweet, the humdrum seem tragic, and the ridiculous seem righteous. The reader can no longer use their textbook ways of interpreting fiction and human behavior because O’Connor is constantly throwing our assumptions back at us. Through out “A good man is hard to find” O’Connor reinforces the horror of self-love through her images. She contrasts the two houses, The Tower: the restaurant owned by Red Sammy, and the plantation house. The restaurant is a “broken-down place”- “a long dark room” with a tiny place to dance.
At one time Red Sammy found pleasure from the restaurant but now he is afraid to leave the door unlatched. He has given in to the “meanness” of the world. In contrast to the horrible Tower is the grandmother’s peaceful memories of the plantation house that is filled with wonderful treasures. However, the family never reach this house because this house does not even exist on the this dirt road or even in the same state. Because of the grandmother’s pride she cannot admit that she has made a mistake. “‘It’s not much farther,’ the grandmother said and justas she said it, a horrible thought came to her.
The thought was so embarrassing that she turned red in the face and her eyes dilated and her feet jumped up. . . .
” (144). The grandmother’s pride and self-centered wish to see the house causes the Misfit to discover and murder the family. Both houses are, in effect, ruins of the spirit. It is a comic view of the family that the reader receives in the first half of the story.
The comedy is in the way O’Connor has very matter of factly and nonchalantly reported the characters outlandish actions and appearances. O’Connor has made this even more funny by not appearing to tell it in a funny way. The grandmother is the funniest and most colorful of the characters in the story; she is pushy, annoying, and at times an endearing grandmother. O’Connor makes the grandmother a target for her satire right from the beginning by exposing her absurd wardrobe and old-fashioned mannerisms.
“. . . The grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of whiteviolets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once thatshewas a lady.
” (138)The last line becomes ironically funny because ultimately this is where the grandmother ends up- in a ditch dead. As a reader one must then question the seriousness of the author towards her characters and should the reader have a sympathetic view towards these characters when they are being presented to an audience as comical figures and an elaborate joke. If more attention is paid to the story’s self-conscious technique, then the reader can adjust their sympathies in a way that would coincide with the story’s style. The first words uttered in the first pages of “A good man is hard to find” are directed to the reader almost as much as they are directed to Bailey: “Now look here, . . .
see here, read this. ” (137). The reader themselves are rustling the pages of the story almost simultaneously as the grandmother is shaking the newspaper at Bailey. Cleverly, O’Connor has made her reader self-conscious of her printed medium and undoubtedly made the reader aware of the similarities between them and her characters. Once the reader can understand the satirical overtone of the story, the absurdities become less important. For example, the writing is monotone but has a dramatic quality to it which O’Connor later uses to describe the family massacre.
This mimics the newspaper the grandmother is rattling at her son’s bald head. The grandmother’s family will be killed by a man that views murder as a sport, he can look at a pile of bodies as nonchalantly as Bailey skimming over the weather report. The irony is absurd. This family is doomed by news stories and columnists. Nothing could be more horribly ridiculous. O’Connor is re-enforcing her stylistic approach to the literature by having the children read comic books in the beginning of the short story, all the way through their fateful journey.
This story, in many ways, is a verbal comic strip. It mimics that of the frames of a comic strip with small self-contained scenes. Their are no smooth transitions in the narrative but rather abrupt juxtapositions. One could almost imagine a bubble overthe characters head saying “We’ve had an ACCIDENT!” (145). Even the names of the characters elude to comic book figures: June Star and Red Sammy.
The story could even be said to read like that of a comic book and imitate its layout. For example, the sign advertising Red Sammy’s Restaurant. “TRY RED SAMMY’S FAMOUS BARBECUE. NONE LIKE FAMOUS RED SAMMY’S! RED SAM! THE FAT BOY WITH THEHAPPY LAUGH. A VETERAN! RED SAMMY’S YOUR MAN!” (140). But then the narrative continues in a comic book like fashion describing the odd and bizarre scene asthe family pulls up to the Tower.
“Red Sammy was lying on the bareground outside The Tower with his head under a truck while a gray monkey about a foot high, chained to a small chinaberry tree, chattered nearby,” (140). O’Connor’s satirical irony is apparent in the scene with the little “Negro child. ” While the grandmother tries to beautify this poor pant-less black child living in a shack, O’Connor does not allow the reader to see the beautiful picture that the grandmother wants to paint. “.
. . ‘Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!’ she said pointing to a Negro childstanding in the door of a shack. ‘Wouldn’t that make a picture, now?’ she askedand they all turned and looked at the little Negro out of the back window. Hewaved.
‘He didn’t have any britches on,’ June Star said. ‘He probably didn’t have any,’ the grandmother explained. ‘Little niggers in the country don’t have things like we do. If I could paint that picture,’ she said.
” (139)Anthony Di Renzo, author of American Gargoyles, suggests that the “grotesqueness of the passage above is also pleasing as a whole, in the delightful interaction of its mismatched parts. O’Connor’s real achievement here is one of composition, or rather, de- composition- since she dismantles the artistic rules that say that something is beautiful if, and only if, it conforms to certain rigid categories of dimension, proportion, and propriety,” (140). If the grandmother were to have painted this scene, she would have concentrated on the greatness of the landscape, therefore romanticizing a picture that is far from deserving of that title. O’Connor, on the other hand, includes the dirty andwretched shack and the pant-less child.
Of course, the effect is satirical. Thegrandmother’s pretty picture is ruined when the little boy shows his bum to her. The old women’s attempt to look beyond a blatant reality and make it pretty is being mocked by O’Connor. The author has blended the line between the satirical and the lyrical to form a beauty that would not be considered a standard “pretty picture. “The same blending of the satirical and the lyrical occurs later in the story with the children playing with Red Sammy’s monkey: “The children ran outside into the white sunlight and looked at the monkey in the lacy chinaberry tree.
He was busy catching fleas on himself and biting each one carefully between his teeth as if it were a delicacy,” (142). O’Connor practically compares the chattering children to the chattering pet. She also subtly mocks the grandmother’s concern for manners: Red Sammy’s monkey eats his fleas as though he were eating a gourmet meal. The “white sunlight” and the “lacy chinaberry tree” becomethe monkey’s intelligence and mannerisms. O’Connor’s writing is so clear in this passage,and her entire work for that matter, because she will not separate what pleases her from what disgusts her. In her world, lacy chinaberry trees and chattering monkeys form a single image and are perfect for one another.
This helps the reader become more aware to O’Connor’s complex cartoon martyrs. Di Renzo says in his book American Gargoyles that many critics have objections to “A good man is hard to find” because of O’Connor’s elaborate comic depiction of the grandmother and her family. He goes on to say that because the family is so ludicrous, “so irredeemably gauche and petty,” that it would be impossible for the reader to sympathize with them, even when they are being massacred by the misfit. (141) Di Renzo later talks about the Misfit as a complicated and non-cartoon like character. “O’Connor’s comic technique disparages the victims of violence and ironicallymakes their killer, the Misfit, the most attractive character in the story.
He may be a cold-blooded, homicidal maniac, but he is at least complicated and dignified. Self-conscious and articulate, the Misfit appears to be a man, not a cartoon, a creature capable of passion, reflection, and existential suffering. ” (Di Renzo 142)O’Connor incorporates into her writing tenderness and compassion but these caring qualities are intertwined with caricature and satire to avoid superficiality and insincerity. For example, when the family is traveling through Georgia, the grandmother’s ability to nurture is demonstrated but still eluding to her triteness. “The grandmother offered to hold the baby and the children’s mother passed himover the front seat to her. She set him on her knee and bounced him and told him about the things they were passing.
She rolled her eyes and screwed up her mouth and stuck her leathery thin face into his smooth bland one. Occasionally he gave her a faraway smile. They passed a large cotton field with five or six graves fenced in the middle of it, like a small island. ‘Look at the graveyard!’ the grandmother said, pointing it out. ‘That was the old family burying ground.
That belonged to the plantation. ‘ ‘Where’s the plantation?’ John Wesley asked. ‘Gone With the Wind,’ said the grandmother. ‘Ha.
Ha. ‘ ” (139)The contrast between the angelic baby and the old grandmother is apparent, however the feeling the reader gets here is not disgust but rather a warm and intimate feeling. Rather abruptly this gentle exchange is interrupted by the passing of the graveyard. The five or six gravestones are foreshadowing the family’s fate with the Misfit. The emotional exchange between the baby and the grandmother is a reminder to the reader of the family’s mortality. The tone of the scene is lighten by the grandmother’s joking and light- heartedness.
This scene marks an incredible emotional accomplishment for the family. The story never breaks its comic book format, even as the family is dragged off a few at a time to be put to death. The deaths are framed in a series of comic book squares. Irony again sets in when the only survivor is the cat, which the grandmother would not leave home by its self for fear it would “brush against one of the gas burners and accidentally asphyxiate himself,” (138).
Even the massacre of the family is comically written. The line between tragedy and comedy has become completely blurred by the time the family has gotten into the accident. The Misfit is as much a cartoon as the grandmother. Di Renzo says that many critics complain that the grandmother and her family do not behave nobly enough during their execution. (155) He quotes Martha Stephens in his book American Gargoyles expressing the opinion that “The family isshown in death to be as ordinary and ridiculous as before,” (155). Nothing changes aboutthe characters, even in death, they are seen to be “flat,” never losing their cartoon-like quality.
For example, when Bailey is dragged off to be executed he says: “I’ll be back in a minute, Mamma, wait on me!” (148). Bailey’s final words are a turning point for then family. He is expressing fear and love, not just anger anymore. The change is subtle in all of the characters but it is there. O’Connor saves her most subtle writing for the grandmother. She combines every contradiction that seem to make up the grandmother’s personality into one sentence.
Di Renzo says that “the grandmother’s strategies of dissuading the Misfit include proselytism, etiquette, hysteria, and bribery: ‘Jesus!’ the old lady cried. ‘You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady! I’ll give you all the money I’ve got!'” (AG 156) The grandmother experiences for the first time in her life a moment of clarity. When shereaches out to touch the Misfit, this is truly an unselfish act. She knows that her fate is sealed and she too will end up dead like the rest of her family. She is waiting for the inevitable to happen.
She has nothing to gain by reaching out to the Misfit, and that makes her gesture all the more amazing. She is not thinking of herself but of the pain and heart-ache that the Misfit has gone through. After the Misfit shoots the grandmother three times in the chest, the reader is able to see the Misfit’s eyes when he takes off his glasses they are “red-rimmed and pale and defenseless looking” (153); this is what provokes the grandmother’s selflessness. The point in which O’Connor brings her two extremes together is at the very end with one sentence.
The Misfit says “She would have been a good women if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” (153). The satirical and the saintly have completely blended together in this one sentence. Basically, the only way the grandmother could have been good and sustain that goodness was if someone were to threaten her with death daily. Di Renzo feels that “the misfit is not merely being clever.
He is trying to express his own mixed and semicoherent feelings. He has been affectedby the grandmother,” (AG 159). There is something about the grandmother that hasmade the Misfit uncomfortable. The old women’s behavior is a mystery that confronts not only the Misfit but also the reader’s traditional ideas about goodness. The comic book format that is used by O’Connor is successful in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.
” She has blended the line between the satirical and the lyrical. For a reader to look at this story in any other way than a comic strip about massacre and martyrdom would do an injustice to Flannery O’Connor’s intentional satirical writing. Works CitedDi Renzo, Anthony. American Gargoyles: Flannery O’Connor and the MedievalGrotesque. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UniversityPress,1993. O’Connor, Flannery.
Collected Works. New York: Library Classics of the UnitedStates,Inc. 1988.