Monday, January 21, 2008

Reader's Diary #324- Flannery O'Connor: A Good Man Is Hard To Find

Short Story Monday

(Cross posted at The Short Story Reading Challenge)

A couple Short Story Mondays ago, Nessie commented that she hadn't read many short stories and asked if I had a top ten essentials lists. I was flattered to have been asked. She then went on to say that she had read Flannery O'Connor and I think the assumption was that someone of O'Connor's stature was a given. I was deflated. I can't be much of a short story aficionado without having read any Flannery O'Connor, right? But we've had such discussions around these parts before and I think we can all agree, it's better to just fill such gaping holes than to whine about our ever-growing TBR piles.

All this, of course, leads me to this week's story "A Good Man Is Hard To Find." I had no idea what to expect going into it, but I'm somewhat glad I didn't. If you're as in the dark about O'Connor as I was, perhaps you should go read the story now and return here afterwards.

I really appreciated O'Connor's camaraderie as a story teller. She seemed to acknowledge my expectations and delivered them, yet almost miraculously I wouldn't say it's a predictable story. People behave almost like cliches: the meddling grandmother, the bratty kids, troubled villain, etc. Foreshadowing leads exactly where it told you it would. And it would all be quite annoying if not for feeling like a parable, in which case such formalities are almost necessary.

Like all parables, there's something to consider at the end. My impression was that it was meant to be a Christian message of forgiveness. As I went through the story forgiving the grandmother for her flaws, it pales in comparison to the forgiveness implicit in the grandmother's final statement. Yes, I saw a bit of a supernatural element in the ending, but thankfully it's open to a lot of interpretation. I had to go online and see what others had to say.

Plenty. Whereas I was thankful for the multiple possibilities, the ending has been quite troublesome for many scholars and rife with debate. It turns out that even despite O'Connor's declaration that it was indeed a parable (not that different from the message I read) people still argue about it. One of those in disagreement with the author herself was Stephen C. Bandy who calls upon an adage of D.H. Lawrence to "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale." I enjoyed his article but when he concludes that "to insist at this moment of mutual revelation [referring to the grandmother's last words] that [she] is transformed into the agent of God's grace is to do serious violence to the story" I am not convinced. The bulk of Bandy's argument seems to tear down the character of the grandmother in an attempt to prove she does not provide an adequate balance to the evil of "the misfit" to allow O'Connor's intentions be taken seriously. In fact, he pushes it further by saying that the grandmother is more like the villain than O'Connor would ever admit. Bandy does seem to enjoy the story (writing off those final words as further proof of the grandmother's selfishness), but not the author's own interpretation.

Without having read O'Connor's full essay I can't say fully whether I agree with her or not. I can certainly relate to Bandy finding meaning in writing (especially poetry) that was not intended, but I don't think I'd ever be as bold as to say the author was wrong. I've always had the view that reading is far too personal for a single explanation. In this case, I don't necessarily see the grandmother as having redeemed herself spiritually. In fact I'm not convinced she was even herself at the end. I agree that she wasn't a polar opposite of the villain, but I think that was the point. As a sliding scale, O'Connor asks how far we can push our forgiveness. I think the "good man" to which the title refers is Jesus, who O'Connor suggests, forgives all. So what if I can, as a reader, forgive the trespasses of the grandmother. If I really wanted to test myself, I should try forgiving the Misfit. And did the grandmother really forgive him or was it Jesus speaking through her? This is my reading: not that she was the agent of God's grace, but the channel.

Regardless of your religious orientation, this is a great story. You may not agree with O'Connor, Bandy, or me (gasp!), but I'm sure it'll make you think.

The soundtrack:
1. A Good Man Is Hard To Find- Tom Waits
2. The Good In Everyone- Sloan
3. Shines Right Through- Great Big Sea
4. Forgive Them Father- Lauryn Hill
5. Jesus Christ Pose- Soundgarden

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Stephanie said...

I actually haven't read any O'Connor at all. Man...I feel so empty!! She is an author I've always meant to read. Guess I should pick up this short story!! (Especially now...that I've completely run out of Gaiman short stories!!)

Rob Hardy said...

I'm glad you've discovered Flannery O'Connor. My favorite of hers is called "Everything That Rises Must Converge." Great story. You're right about the religious connotations. She was a devout Catholic. And a great artist.

Another good soundtrack would be anything by Kate Campbell, who acknowledges a profound debt to O'Connor. I love the CD Rosaryville, which has a beautiful O'Connoresque song about the South called "Look Away." Brings tears to my eyes every time.

Remi said...

"I don't care if it rains or freezes / Long as I got my plastic Jesus. . . "

Plastic Jesus would be my choice for a soundtrack.

Odd story. Think I'll be heading to work early tomorrow so I can pop by a used bookstore and get some more of her work.

Jodie Robson said...

I haven't read O'Connor either. From your review, she sounds interesting - I'll read the story and come back and re-read your comments, I think.