Literature, Reviews.

A good man cannot be found

Book Book Review, Title A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Author Flannery O'Connor, Rating 3.0,

A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories

Flannery O'Connor

Book Review

Within Flannery O'Conner's short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, a good man is not just difficult to find, but impossibly so. Thank God I am not Flannery O'Connor. I would not trade her ability to tell a story, and she was uncommonly good in some ways, for her brutal and dismissive view of the world. Harshness, of circumstance and character, formed her viewpoint; what is also redeeming found little place in her stories. It appears in O'Connor one can only find redemption outside of humanity, and that is dispensed grudgingly, with the great violence of the Old Testament God.

What I like best in her writing is her imagery and description of the natural world her characters inhabit. For example, she often wrote in poetic or painterly images of rivers. In the passage at left, she provided a vivid image of sunlight playing on choppy water, which she used to simultaneously describe the deep focus of her character. Another: "The woods opened suddenly onto a pasture dotted here and there with black and white cows and sloping down, tier after tier, to a broad orange stream where the reflection of the sun was set like a diamond."(page 35)   From this economic description it is easy to picture the stream alit with the fading light of an evening sky.

Yet the rivers and fields are treated with more care than are her characters. She was adept at drawing rather one-sided portraits, adroitly using characterization through action and word. Unfortunately, her characters were not just flawed human beings, but too often villains from a morality tale.

In the title story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, none of the characters are likeable, save one or maybe two at the last gasp. And this was in fact the plan of Flannery O’Connor: Nobody is worthy, almost every even apparent effort at being kind or good is revealed to be self-serving, indifferent, harsh, unfriendly, bilious, suspicious, fearful, mean-spirited, narrow and judgmental, grasping, manipulative, and so on. Her none-too-gentle humor was generally at the expense of her backward characters, and those characters were broken, as was the world they inhabited.

Dave Griffith recently suggested in The Paris Review (The Displaced Person, 12/10/2015) that O’Connor’s misanthropy can overwhelm a reader, so that they might miss her underlying condemnation of the lack of Christian charity evinced by her characters, and describes her characters as "displaced, if not literally, then figuratively. They’re either morally rudderless, existentially lost, or both; they cannot accept that the world has changed and passed them by. These displaced persons are dark agents of change. Their pitifulness causes them, and the reader, to confront the radical command to love our neighbor as ourselves, to be like the Good Samaritan who sets aside deeply engrained bigotry to minister to the needy." I think this is a fair characterization, and it is certainly part of the power of her writing, and of her appeal. And yet.

The Catholic writer O’Connor spoke much about the centrality of grace in her stories, and she felt that many of her readers missed that emphasis within the mean society of her characters. But is it her reader’s fault? Aren’t in fact these stories mostly hopeless and graceless? Certainly the characters show no grace, which is reserved by the the author for God, and in her stories, even God’s grace is hard to find. The quote at left is one of the few places in these stories where the author was explicit about the grace of God.

Sickness and dismemberment, ugliness and mental defectiveness, aging and its inevitable companion death, were front and center in O’Connor’s Southern discomfort, in her view of what constitutes humanness. Good works or intentions played no role in these stories. (note 1) She left out too much of the human condition: Grace can be found in both small and large doses in the human experience, even if one wants to reserve ultimate grace to God.

Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women, by Ricky Jay

I love how, for example, Ricky Jay describes with much more compassion and celebration the world of circus freaks, many with physical and mental defects, in his Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women; he does not duck some of the harsher realities of the human condition, but shows how to see in it also some good.

An Anthropologist on Mars, by Oliver Sacks

The same could be said of Oliver Sacks’ many essays on the strange behaviors of those with neurological disorders, found in such books as An Anthropologist from Mars. He does not describe them as inhuman, but embraces their abnormal, that is to say extra-ordinary, behaviors and perspectives as part of the human family. Acts of compassion in whatever circumstances are acts of grace.

The power of the writing is considerable in her first story, A Good Man is Hard to Find. The grandmother’s realization that she and her family, out for a Sunday drive, had stumbled upon an escaped murderer, something she had read about in the paper and was seemingly paranoid about, was a foreshadowing of the now obvious impending doom of she and her family. The author was unrelenting in depicting the increasingly desperate pleading of the grandmother to be spared, as she is finally the only one left of her now murdered family. O’Connor used this last scene to spell out her application of God’s grace, which appears to be a short-lived compassionate awakening within the grandmother for her murderer that transcended her manipulative pleading for her life.

Unfortunately, many of the remaining stories in O’Connor’s collection had a similar and predictable structure, where a seemingly benign situation turns malevolent, so much so that it took little insight to figure out what was going to happen: the meanest possible outcome, no matter how far-fetched. (For the most obvious, see The Displaced Person, The River, and The Life You Save May Be Your Own.)

Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman

Contrast the world of O’Connor with, say, that of Vasily Grossman’s chapter 48 of his masterwork Life and Fate, wherein Grossman followed Holocaust victims from their journey to the camp to their final moments inside the gas chambers, "trading the viewpoint to and fro between a frightened child and the brisk doctor who finds herself holding his hand; passing with them through the gas-chamber doors, staying with them into death, never flinching, never looking away, until the last beat of their hearts."(Spufford's review in the Guardian)  Grossman’s treatment was similar to O’Connor’s, although at novel length, but the emphasis is quite different. Grossman saw some of the worst of 20th century humanity in Poland and the Soviet Union, and did not shrink from describing its evil, but he did not shrink either from the “everyday human kindness” that he thought survived despite the bestiality.

People are capable of the most terrible acts and of the most wonderful kindnesses: these represent the limits of the spectrum of human behavior. It seems to me that the best literature includes a more full portrait of humanity than is found in this collection of short stories. There are many examples of such literature, produced by writers as Grossman, Steinbeck, Tolstoy, Dickens, Twain, Solzhenitsyn, and others among my favorite writers.

The genre of short stories seems a perfect fit for the author’s sensibilities, with its tradition of the sharply drawn vignette, the requirement for a vivid portrait. Modern short stories often emphasize the darker side of human nature, perhaps because this draws a strong response from readers. O’Connor’s was a particularly Southern example of the tradition of post-Enlightenment Romanticism, which emphasized those kinds of emotion, the more intense the better, as an "authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe".

The author seemed to view humanity with little more than contempt, in some ways judging harshly as if herself a god on high suffering from perpetual agita. Her view of people, with its obsessive focus on the Christian concept of sin nature, included no Christian charity, nor joy, nor kindness, nor compassion nor love, filial or erotic. Hers was a pale and incomplete portrait of humanity. It is as if the author belonged to a reclusive and self-flagellating religious order, one with little exposure to ordinary everyday human interaction.

For all of her story-telling skills, I found O’Connor’s tales bitter and stunted, and less than what they could have been.

A gift from my brother-in-law Scottie.



1. Odd, but this seems more Calvinistic than Catholic, and even Calvinism is wrought with the impulse to behave with kindness and good intentions.

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