SOURCE: "A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable," in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969, pp. 107-14.
[In the following lecture given at Hollins College, Virginia, on October 14, 1963, O'Connor discusses the function of violence in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find. "]
Last fall I received a letter from a student who said she would be "graciously appreciative" if I would tell her "just what enlightenment" I expected her to get from each of my stories. I suspect she had a paper to write. I wrote her back to forget about the enlightenment and just try to enjoy them. I knew that was the most unsatisfactory answer I could have given because, of course, she didn't want to enjoy them, she just wanted to figure them out.
In most English classes the short story has become a kind of literary specimen to be dissected. Every time a story of mine appears in a Freshman anthology, I have a vision of it, with its little organs laid open, like a frog in a bottle.
I realize that a certain amount of this what-is-the-significance has to go on, but I think something has gone wrong in the process when, for so many students, the story becomes simply a problem to be solved, something which you evaporate to get Instant Enlightenment.
A story really isn't any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind. Properly, you analyze to enjoy, but it's equally true that to analyze with any discrimination, you have to have enjoyed already, and I think that the best reason to hear a story read is that it should stimulate that primary enjoyment.
I don't have any pretensions to being an Aeschylus or Sophocles and providing you in this story with a cathartic experience out of your mythic background, though this story I'm going to read certainly calls up a good deal of the South's mythic background, and it should elicit from you a degree of pity and terror, even though its way of being serious is a comic one. I do think, though, that like the Greeks you should know what is going to happen in this story so that any element of suspense in it will be transferred from its surface to its interior.
I would be most happy if you had already read it, happier still if you knew it well, but since experience has taught me to keep my expectations along these lines modest, I'll tell you that this is the story of a family of six which, on its way driving to Florida, gets wiped out by an escaped convict who calls himself the Misfit. The family is made up of the Grandmother and her son, Bailey, and his children, John Wesley and June Star and the baby, and there is also the cat and the children's mother. The cat is named Pitty Sing, and the Grandmother is taking him with them, hidden in a basket.
Now I think it behooves me to try to establish with you the basis on which reason operates in this story. Much of my fiction takes its character from a reasonable use of the unreasonable, though the reasonableness of my use of it may not always be apparent. The assumptions that underlie this use of it, however, are those of the central Christian mysteries. These are assumptions to which a large part of the modern audience takes exception. About this I can only say that there are perhaps other ways than my own in which this story could be read, but none other by which it could have been written. Belief, in my own case anyway, is the engine that makes perception operate.
The heroine of this story, the Grandmother, is in the most significant position life offers the Christian. She is facing death. And to all appearances she, like the rest of us, is not too well prepared for it. She would like to see the event postponed. Indefinitely.
I've talked to a number of teachers who use this story in class and who tell their students that the Grandmother is evil, that in fact, she's a witch, even down to the cat. One of these teachers told me that his students, and particularly his Southern students, resisted this interpretation with a certain bemused vigor, and he didn't understand why. I had to tell him that they...
Flannery O’Connor is one of the names most closely associated with the southern gothic style of fiction and very often, the American south is one of the main characters in her stories, even if it has no lines and does not play a direct role. Throughout “A Good Man is Hard to Find” images of the south are frequent and interestingly, while we hear the grandmother pining for the good old days of the plantation south, back when she was a belle and could smile at the “cute” negroes, we cannot help but recoil. This sickening adherence to just about every stereotype of the old South that the grandmother represents is part of what makes her a grotesque character. In fact, every member of the family is grotesque in some way; the children by their over-the-top rudeness and lack of manners, the father by his intense, simmering anger paired with a bright, happy-looking parrot shirt, the mother by her lack of personality or character—and, of course, the Misfit by his complete lack of regard for anything or anyone. This is not a delightful portrait of the south or a southern family—it is a critique.
The use of foreshadowing is one of the most-used literary devices in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and instances of foreshadowing range from very direct (constant mentioning of the Misfit and how dangerous he is even though no one has any idea where he is) and smaller uses. Everything in this story works together to create a mood and part of this mood, this tone in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is very much based on foreshadowing, especially after the family crashes. Notice that the car approaches slowly to “help” them and that it looks like a hearse. Notice as well that just about everything that happens once the family leaves is clouded with a certain darkness; the trip to Red Sammy’s, which is touted as being like a tourist attraction, is actually a lot like hell—for a great explanation of this see the web source on the next page that provides important quotes matched with main themes in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”Performing a character analysis of characters in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” would be rather difficult unless you choose the only character who really stands out—the grandmother. Notice that she is never named directly, she is simply referred to by her status in the family and, of course, her age. The mother, who barely speaks, is not named. If you are writing an essay on “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and are looking for a short topic to write about, consider the conference of names and meaning. Those characters who are named, are done so in interesting ways. For example, the young boy, John Wesley, is named after the founder of the Methodist religious movement whereas his sister, June Star, has a very modern name.
The meaning of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor is difficult to untangle, if only because the death of the family is so meaningless and all of their petty business getting to Florida, stopping to eat, having little family squabbles all results in nothing but a swift end. In some ways then, the meaning of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is about the lack of meaning itself when confronted with the dull hate of crime. All of the things that we occupy ourselves with, that we find important in the moment, are really nothing. I’m not trying to depress you here or anything (although if you read the story you’re probably already feeling a little depressed) but in many ways it seems that O’Connor goes through such great lengths to detail the journey so that she can build character profiles and also so that she can show just how grimly meaningless many of the small things we concern ourselves with are in the grand scheme of things. After all, it is not until she is confronted with death that the grandmother shows any sign of depth and even this has been, in countless analysis efforts by scholars, also seen as a final act of manipulation.
Look at the sources on the next page for “A Good Man is Hard to Find” for far more explanation of the meaning of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in terms of salvation and religion. This is one of the main themes in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” but there are so many scholarly opinions about the notions of grace, divinity, and the salvation of the Misfit and the grandmother alike that it’s best to let you wander through and see what you think. There is no right or wrong answer here; that’s part of what makes this story so engaging, even so many years after it was written.