What Can We Steal From Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”?

Title of Work and its Form: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” short story
Author: Flannery O’Connor
Date of Work: 1953
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story first appeared in an anthology of new works in 1953, but can easily be found in countless collections.  Why not pick up Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories?

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View

Discussion:
“The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.  She wanted to go visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind.”  If only Bailey had listened to Grandma.  The family goes on their trip, with Grandma’s running commentary serving as a backdrop.  During a stop at The Tower for some “barbecued sandwiches,” the Grandmother starts a brief discussion about The Misfit, an escaped convict whose specter has been scaring people.  The family gets back on the road and later have an accident.  Who should stop by but The Misfit?  In short order, the young people are killed by The Misfit’s gang and the grandmother is begging for her life.  When she actually touches The Misfit, he shoots her dead.  The gang briefly discusses the incident as the story comes to a close.

When I first read the story, I wasn’t struck most by the violence.  I wondered how the heck Flannery O’Connor was going to end the story.  The grandmother is such a fun character and Ms. O’Connor allowed us to live with her for sixteen pages.  The story is in the third-person and most of the internal details are about her or from her perspective.  What do you do after your focal character, your font of insight, is dead?

What did Flannery O’Connor do?  First of all, she kept things short and sweet.  There’s about half a page of text after the grandmother is shot.  (The climax.)  O’Connor restricts herself to only dialogue and factual reporting; there’s no more insight into characters’ thoughts.  (“Then he put his gun down…”  “Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the ditch…”  “The Misfit’s eyes were red-rimmed and pale…”)

What could these choices mean?

  1. From what I understand, many victims of gunshot wounds don’t die immediately.  Depending on where in the chest she was hit, the grandmother could have lived until there was no longer any blood in her brain.  (Or whatever…feel free to ask a doctor.)  The point is that the very brief post-grandmother period of the story could represent the last things that she hears before she finally breathes her last.
  2. O’Connor could be suggesting that the time for philosophy in the story is over and her intent is to allow the reader to focus on the actual action and dialogue in the piece.  Without her guidance, O’Connor empowers you to figure things out for yourself.  The Misfit’s last two lines are extremely meaningful with respect to the story’s theme.
  3. O’Connor could have wanted to reinforce the way the narrator has changed.  In the beginning of the story, the narrator seems very conversational.  By the end, the narrator is merely a reporter.

The religious imagery and parallels in the story are inescapable.  In a strange way, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” reads like a parable or is reminiscent of a sermon or homily.  The narrator strips everything else away, allowing the lesson to shine through on its own.

What Should We Steal?

  • Change your narrator and point of view when necessary.  Sure, you have to change the focal character if you are switching, for example, from a chapter about James Bond to one about the bad guy.  (Unless they’re in the same room.)  But don’t overlook the effect you can have on a reader if your narrator changes in a less obvious manner.
  • Think of some of your stories in terms of classic forms.  Are you really writing a myth?  A Biblical parable?  An epic poem?  If you are, you may want to consciously draw inspiration from the originals.
  • Allow your reader to decipher the subtext of your piece.  Yeah, so this story is chock-full of Catholic/Christian imagery.  O’Connor doesn’t beat you over the head with it, though, making the connections to the New Testament more organic.

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