A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O'Connor

I'm just going to talk about this one story, though I am working my way through a collection of all of O'Connor's stories. One of my book clubs reads short stories, and this was one of the two for July. I hadn't read it since my schooldays, so it was interesting to go back and take another look.

It opens with the grandmother trying to persuade her son, Bailey, to take their vacation in East Tennessee instead of Florida. She summons arguments such as the children's previous visits to Florida and the reports of an escaped criminal called the Misfit who is said to be headed there. Bailey has little to say for himself, but the family does leave for Florida the following day.

First published in 1953, the story presents the family—Bailey, his mother, his wife and two children—as country bumpkins. The grandmother chatters incessantly about this and that, a habit which probably contributes to Bailey's gruff silence. His wife, whose name we never learn, has a face like a cabbage and barely speaks. Two of the children, John Wesley and June Star, don't seem to have ever been disciplined and are rude to everyone, while the third is just a baby. I bristled a bit at this stereotyping of rural southerners as dull and drifting through life, though I recognise the difficulty of shading characters with complexity in a short story. And, as one member of my book club pointed out, further detail about them is unnecessary to the story.

Only the grandmother is fleshed out. She considers herself a lady and makes a point of dressing properly for the drive in a navy suit and matching straw hat, trimmed with violets. After their lunch of barbecued sandwiches at The Tower, she ends up causing an accident, and the family does indeed meet up with the Misfit and his two cohorts. The Misfit is the other character who is presented in full. He is a brutal yet thoughtful man, who even as a child constantly asked about life and why things were the way they were. The grandmother deploys every argument she can think of to prevent the Misfit from killing her silent family. Most of the arguments have to do with religion and trying to persuade the Misfit that he is a good man and a good Christian. It is only at the very end that she sees him as a person, recognises the humanity in him, and responds to it.

One member of my book club thought the story was about which of the two was the better Christian and more deserving of Heaven. Certainly the two are held up as contrasting ways of being in the world, but I thought the story concentrated more on which was the better person. It asks how you recognise a good man or woman. One may be a Christian and one a criminal, but that superficial distinction is not enough. The real differentiator is the questioning. Only such deep thinking can open your mind and lead you to question the authority of those handing down the rules. Only critical thinking can enable you to recognise the humanity of The Other and to see beyond the facile friend/enemy divide that makes states build walls to keep The Other out, whether that Other is a Mexican immigrant, a Palestinian laborer, or a convict.

But those who run our society don't want that. They want obedient drones who think what they are told to think. The title comes up in a discussion the grandmother has with the proprietor of The Tower about how much better things were in the old days. Nostalgia is easily manipulated, as our politicians have shown us by getting us to believe in some mythical past when everything was better. I've often wondered if the American ideal of liberty and democracy ever really existed, even limited to a select group as it was in the past. I wonder if people in the agrarian past were more likely to think critically and question what they were told, a skill that was lost when Ford's assembly lines and associated control by the clock took over. Coincidentally, I'm reading a novel set in a small English village prior to the Industrial Revolution. I'll write about that next week.

Of course the danger is that such a person, a person who actually thinks and questions, might choose to ignore the rule of law and become a criminal, a murderer, a Misfit. That is the ambiguity that we are left with, as we try to sort out what makes a good man.

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