Sally Fitzgerald - originally published in Image magazine,
reprinted January 2010 with permission of the author
One of the complaints about Flannery O'Connor's stories is that so many
of them seem to end badly for her characters.
Terrible things happen, most often leaving those characters
either dead or crushed, and the reader a little stunned. One of
Flannery's aunts had a milder objection:
"No one gets married."
Of course O. E.
Parker and Sarah Ruth Cates get married, in "Parker's Back", but this wedding hardly constitutes an improvement, from the
romantic point of view, and the ending of that story has to be looked
at from a special perspective if it is to be called happy.
The same is true of most of the rest of Flannery O'Connor's stories and
novels --or parable's as they have been called in all seriousness.
The perspective from which they must be seen if they are to be
properly understood is that of her Christian faith.
Whether or not one shares that faith, its tenets must be
understood by readers when they reflect on the fiction of this writer
who so effectively dramatized them, for in her case those tenets were
the groundwork of her concrete and sacramental sense of life.
Both the prayers of her specifically Catholic credo and her own
circumstances reminded her daily of our mortality. She might have,
like most of the rest of us, glided rather casually over the reference
to "the hour of our death" in a prayer which she like most
Catholics of her time, and for centuries before, had said daily since
childhood. It might have
seemed only abstractly applicable to herself in her youth, had not her
experience made the reality of immediacy of that hour all too strongly
felt. Most of us are
allowed to forget death's inevitability for long periods of time, and
we tend to order our priorities accordingly.
She was never allowed to forget.
As most of her readers probably know by now, she was an invalid who died
at the age of thirty-nine, having lived only 13 years after the onset
of a crippling disease for which was no cure; and she had been
orphaned of her father -- after his long illness of the same malady --
when she was hardly more than a child.
That is to say, in Robert Frost's words, she became
"acquainted with the night" early on.
Moreover, when the Lupus struck her down, Her own life had not
only been cut off in many ways, but even what was left to her of it
was lived in constant danger. This can only have made her more aware than most of us that
all life we know must ultimately be defined in the context of death.
Her faith taught her, and continued to sustain her in the belief,
however, that it must be understood in the even larger context of
ongoing life, both in eternity, and in space and time for the rest of
surviving humanity, including those whose lives are deeply touched by
the deaths of other individuals.
And her faith further taught her that both death and life must
be understood in the context of divine love.
John Cheever puts the question: "How can a people who do
not understand love hope to understand death, and who will sound the
alarm?" Flannery O'Connor sounded it and also turned the question around to ask:
"How can a people who do not understand death hope to understand
When we have understood the answers to these questions, she seems to be
telling us, we will find more happy endings in her stories than we
have previously recognized.
A story about six people, including three children, coldly murdered on a
vacation trip to Florida may seem an unlikely place to look for happy
endings, but I would like to re-examine that story, one of her most
widely read: "A Good Man Is Hard To Find."
For here, interestingly enough, is precisely where such a
hopeful outcome is unmistakably suggested, and this story before all
others should serve to open one's eyes to Flannery O'Connor's
intentions and methods.
The germ of the story, like a number of others, came from the newspapers
close to home -- in this instance from several newspaper accounts of
unrelated matters shortly before she wrote the story, in 1953.
The title she found in a local item -- with photograph --
concerning a prize-winning performance by a hideously painted up
little girl still in kitten teeth, decked out in ribbons and tutu and
sausage curls, singing, "A Good Man is Hard To Find."
Beyond the title, there is no connection between the photograph
and the events of the short story, but possibly this child served to
inspire the awful little granddaughter, June Star, who sasses her way
through the action, and does her tap routine at the barbecue stand of
Red Sammy Butts, the fat veteran "with the happy laugh," who
is so thoroughly nasty to his wife.
Flannery thought well enough of this newspaper photograph and
caption to pass them along for my delectation, together with various
ads and testimonials of patent medicines and inspirational columns
from the local press, and I remember the clipping very clearly.
So did she, and she took the nectar from it to make her
About the same time, an article appeared in the Atlanta paper about a
small-time robber who called himself "The Misfit," in a
self-pitying explanation or excuse for his crimes. A clipping about
him and his honorary title turned up among her papers.
Obviously, the name he gave himself was the only thing about
this man that much interested the author, and certainly he was no
match for the towering figure she turned him into.
Incidentally, his excuse for his peccadilloes was taken rather
literally in the judicial system: he was judged to be of unsound mind
and committed to the lunatic asylum--Milledgeville, the town in
which Flannery lived. This
news cannot have escaped her notice.
By the way, the mental hospital there was once the largest in
the world under one roof. Flannery
once described Milledgeville as a town of 8000, of whom 4000 were
There was a third element in the inspirational mix for the story and
this was also to be found in the newspapers, in a series of accounts
of another criminal "aloose" in the region.
The subject was the person of Mr. James Francis ("Three
Gun") Hill, who amassed a record of 26 kidnappings in four States,
an equal number of robberies, 10 car thefts, and a daring rescue of
four Florida convicts from a prison gang--all brought off in two fun
filled weeks. The papers
at the time were full of these accounts, and the lurid headlines of
the day might well have excited a grandmother like the one who is
shaking a newspaper at Bailey Boy's bald head and lecturing him on
the dangers to be feared on the road to Florida, when the O'Connor
Mr. Hill was a far more formidable figure than the original self-styled
Misfit, and a more vivid one. Newspaper
photographs show him to have looked almost exactly as she described
the character in her story, complete with metal rimmed spectacles.
There were other details evidently appropriated by Flannery
from life, or life as strained through the Atlanta Journal and the
Atlantic Constitution: Mr. Hill was proud of his courtly manners, and in one press account called
himself a "gentle man bandit," explaining that he never cussed
before ladies. (Readers will remember that Flannery's mass murderer
blushes when Bailey curses his mother for her incautious tongue.) In
some accounts "Three Gun" Hill had two accomplices, although the
fictional Hiram and Bobby Lee seem entirely imagined by O'Connor in
their physical aspects and rather subhuman personalities.
The Misfit in O'Connor's story recounts a brush with a "head
doctor," which accords with the fate of both these actual criminals
who initially inspired her. "Three
Gun" Hill, too, was committed to an insane asylum in the end, when
he pled guilty to the charges against him.
He was sent to a hospital in Tennessee, however, and not to
Milledgeville, but the author no doubt read about the sentencing, and
maybe that the eventual guilty plea suggested to her the beginnings of
capitulation, the stirring of life in the Misfit, whom she conceived
as a spoiled prophet, on which note her story ends.
Such a movement of the spirit seems faintly signified by the
character's comment after the murders, when he indicates that he recognizes
the real feeling behind the grandmother's words and
gesture, by remarking that "she would have been a good woman if it
had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
The Misfit then drops his ill-suited politeness and tells the
odious Bobby Lee to "shut up" his heartless peasantries; and
finally implicitly repudiates his own stated view of the unique value
and satisfactions of "meanness" by adding, "it's no real
pleasure in life."
Not much, as a movement of the spirit, but to my reading the author can
only have meant to posit in him the first glimmer of recognition, and
acknowledgement, of the guilt and sorrow that must be the first step
toward the only happy ending possible for such a man.
As Flannery told an audience once when she read the story
aloud: "it is to be hoped that the grandmother's gesture will be
planted like a mustard seed in the heart of the Misfit and grow there
into a great crow filled tree, turning him into the prophet he was
meant to be." Serious and thoughtful as he was, even in his evil, an
eventually penitent Misfit would almost certainly be the equivalent of
a prophet by O'Connor's definition, i.e., what she called "a
seer of distances." In
the case of the Misfit, at the end of the story he wipes his
spectacles, and we see him with his glasses--a metaphor for his
insight or spiritual vision--clean at last, and his eyes red rimmed
But what of the others, the five who lie shot lead in the woods, and the
murdered grandmother, who had caused all the trouble by her mindless
subterfuges and artist tongue, and who is now described as lying "in
a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child's and
her face smiling up at the cloudless sky," about to be thrown into
the woods with the rest of her family?
How can this dreadful scene be called in any sense a happy or
even a hopeful ending?
For one thing, the old lady's smile shows us beyond any doubt what the
author wishes us to see. O'Connor
wants us to understand that, as with the drowning child in "The
River," the old woman's "fear and fury" have left her
and she has, it is very pointedly suggested by her described posture,
"become as a little child," echoing the requisite for
entering the cloudless kingdom of heaven, which was for Flannery O'Connor the only happy ending to be sought, or for that matter to be
hoped for, by any of us. The
grandmother has accepted the grace offered to her; she has passed the
test of real charity and been transformed by her realization.
She has recognized the human ties that bind her to the
criminal, and has assumed the responsibility and sorrow of one
generation for the next.
Indeed, anyone with a penchant for the mythical might even see her as a
figure for Eve, old and worn and suffering, touched with pity for her
wicked and suffering son, Cain, and seeking to comfort him even as she
mourns the brother he has murdered.
With or without mythical undertones, however, the grandmother in this
story is, like every O'Connor character, still very much an individual
-- not untypical, but irreducibly herself: a garrulous old Southern
woman, shabby genteel, once courted with monogrammed watermelons by Mr
E. A. Teagarden who had "bought Coca-Cola stock when it first
came out... and died a
very wealthy man." Shallow,
silly, absurdly determined to live -- or at least to dress -- up to
her view of herself as a "lady," she comes to recognizable life in the story. By all
accounts in Flannery's family, she was closely modeled on the
writer's great Aunt Julia Cline: a speaking likeness, according to
Aunt Julia's son-in-law. In
the story, she is also imprudently and, even stupidly, concerned for
her cat, Pitty Sing: but she is also inexplicably fond of her sullen
son, Bailey, his inert wife, and their horrible children.
Flannery was always puzzled by the harsh judgment passed on the
grandmother by readers. Andrew
Lytle, regarded her as a witch, complete with cat; John Hawkes
couldn't understand why his students insisted that she wasn't so
bad; critics used such extreme words as "vile hypocrite," "liar," "manipulative," and
"craven" (pointing to her
frantic attempt to save her life by momentarily denying the
Resurrection she has been prattling on about earlier).
Flannery (who no doubt remembered that Peter had likewise
denied his Lord out of fear) defended the old woman, however, as not
having a bad heart, and I can certainly find nothing in the story to
suggest that she is an evil figure.
She isn't particularly truthful, but she is more an impulsive
fancifier than a deliberate liar, and there is no real malice in her.
Even when she unwittingly sets in motion the events leading to
the family's murder, she has only been trying to amuse John Wesley
and June Star and, and keep them quiet and peaceful.
I feel that her own unsinkable cheerfulness must be accounted
virtue in her, and amounts to almost a kind of courage in that bleak
household, and on that trip. Nor does she lack courage in extremis, as
when she faces the awful figures who appear on the road above the
ditch where Pitty Sing has landed the travelers.
The old woman tries hard to dissuade the Misfit and save the
situation. When she fails
in this effort and sees her family demolished and her own death at
hand, she rises to the occasion in another, more important, way: she
is able to feel pity for the monstrous man squatting on the ground in
front of her and, we may certainly assume, to forgive him.
In the face of his pain, which she recognizes as real, she
openly claims him as another son, one of her own children (even one of
her own babies--perhaps implicitly suggesting that he may one day be
returned to spiritual infancy by a rebirth).
It is perfectly true that the gun pointed at her ear has turned
her into "a good woman," or rather, it has bought out the goodness
and grace that are already in her.
As I believe Pascal said, "If I had not known you, I would
not have found you." Her
gesture is as, O'Connor said it had to be, both in and beyond
character, made at a moment when time and eternity meet.
Nor is she the only one to show grace under pressure: Bailey not only
goes off to meet his fate with some courage, reassuringly holding his
little boy's hand, but he tacitly apologizes to his mother for the
curse he had flung at her a few minutes before. "Wait on me, Mamma," he calls,
"I'll be back in a
minute." His wife, her face still presumably as broad and innocent as
a cabbage, but white now and glassy-eyed with fear, nevertheless
politely thanks the Misfit for inviting her to join her husband and,
trailing a broken arm, follows the executioner into the woods with her
baby on her other arm, and June Star being dragged along beside her.
The little girl has to be dragged, not so much out of fear as
out of disdain for help from the gross Bobby Lee.
There are no shrieks or recriminations or abject pleas to the
murderers for mercy; all the family members die with commendable
dignity, revealing themselves as they are essentially, in their
fullest humanity. God,
one feels, is with them.
Any reading of this story beyond the first will reveal O'Connor's
terrible irony and the means by which she intimates that something
unspeakable is about to happen, long before it does.
On a first reading, however, there is no reason to think much
about the grandmother's opening tirade about the newspaper stories
of a criminal at large in the region.
This might well have been only the means of setting the scene,
introducing the family, and the prospective trip, and characterizing in particular the old lady, by the rattle of her talk.
In a second reading, however, we know better, and we feel our
first chill on the first page --at the words, "you read here what
it says he did to those people."
At first, then, we are likely only to laugh at the description
of the grandmother's traveling costume, assembled so that "anybody seeing her dead on the highway would know that she was a
lady." On the second
reading, we hear an unmistakable knell behind the words.
Out of town and on the highway a little later, the travelers pass a cotton field with
"five or six graves" in it, and the third
knell sounds. "The
family burying ground...that belonged to the plantation," the
grandmother explains, and the children want to know where the
plantation is. "Gone
with the wind," she tells them, "Ha ha."
And two more bells toll. When
they stop at the barbecue stand, we learn from Red Sammy Butts that
three men who might answer the criminals' description have cheated
him out of some gasoline. But
this news is so obscured by lunchtime chatter, by unspoken tension
between the, "the happy veteran" and his dour wife, by the jukebox
and of the grandmother's solo dance in her chair to a record of "The Tennessee Waltz," and by June Star's tap-dancing
performance and her outrageous rudeness to Mrs. Butts, that it hardly
sinks in that we are again being ominously warned of the Misfit's
nearness. Then, back on the road, after John Wesley and his sister have
bawled and kicked their way to obtaining their fathers consent to seek
out the nonexistent house their grandmother says she remembers, Bailey
tells them that "this is the one and only time... we're going to
stop." The bell tolls
again for so indeed it is, the last, the one and only stop.
They turn off onto a red dirt road to Toomsboro.
As it happens, Toomsboro is a real town in Wilkinson County,
Georgia, not far from Milledgeville, so the play on words may at first
go unnoticed. Not,
however, on a second reading. When
the grandmother first sees the Misfit, she "had the peculiar feeling
that the bespectacled man was someone she knew.
His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her
life but she could not recall who he was."
She has of course known--or known about him --all her life,
because his face is the face of Death itself, incarnate before her.
A few paragraphs later, as the family members are surrounded by
the three men who will murder them, the author describes the line of
woods behind the scene as gaping "like a dark open mouth" --suggesting an open grave. And
so it goes.
In our first encounter with the story, we may laugh right up to the
first invitation to Bailey to "step over yonder in them woods."
In a second reading, we know more, and a tension is built up in
the course of the drama that becomes almost unbearable.
Even Flannery found it to be the only one of her stories that
she could read aloud without laughing so hard that she would have to
stop and compose herself.
Nevertheless, in her terms, the ending of the story is altogether
promising. The death of
the grandmother is unquestionably "a happy death," something the
author, like all Catholics, had been taught to pray for every day of
her life. And the "terrible mercy" O'Connor perceived and so
often made the subject of her fiction, seems certain to have been
extended to the other victims here, as well.
We are not told this, of course, or even shown it directly, as
we are in the case of the grandmother.
We must infer it from the demeanor of the rest of the family,
for loose ends are never tied up neatly in these stories.
No more are we told what portends for the Misfit, except as it is
suggested in the slight change of position evidenced by his final
comment. But we know that
he, as well as the doomed family, is a target of grace.
During his discussion of large matters with the grandmother, he
remarked, "Yes'm, somebody is always after you."
In passing, this seems only a banal response to one of the old
ladies inanities, but if we are familiar with O'Connor's works,
and some other works of literary art, our minds go instantly to "the
wild ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of [Hazel
Mote's] mind" in her novel Wise Blood. We are likely to remember too, Francis Thompson's The Hound
of Heaven, and the mysterious personage in the T. S. Eliot's The
Wasteland, of whom it is said, "There is always another one walking
beside you." Or we may
think of Aeschylus, whose Orestes says of his Furies: "You don't
see them, you don't --but I see them; they are hunting me down; I
must move on."
In this connection, we should perhaps note what we might call
O'Connor's use of the "economy of grace," explicit in the
working out of this story, and implicit in most of her other stories: that is, the mode in which the lives
--and deaths --of
these people interact and affect each of the others, in the noumenal
as well as the sensible realm. It
is only through the appearance of the deathly Misfit that the petty
and insignificant members of Bailey's family are pushed to the
extremes of their various natures and come to accept and act upon the
grace offered them in their desperate situation, and to live up to the
dignity of their humanity as they die. By the same token, it is only through their death at his
hands and, most of all, through his encounter with the grandmother, as
a medium for grace, that the murderer is brought to question his own
religious doubts and ensuing conclusions, that have made him, as he
says, "like I am now." So
grace is shown to cut both ways, to affect both sides, becoming
accessible to both victim and the victimizer.
Flannery O'Connor said in one of her letters that Wise Blood is a very
hopeful book. So far as I
know, she didn't actually say that "A Good Man Is Hard To Find"
is a very hopeful story, but she might well have, because in her terms
it is. And it is a hopeful story with a happy ending, if we remember
the line spoken in a Fulke Greville work, by the character Eternity,
who says: "I am the measure of Felicity."