Sunday, May 31, 2015

"A Good Man Is Hard to Find"

Anything by Flannery O’Connor, including this short story published in 1953, should come with a warning label: “Proceed with Caution,” or something to that effect.  Especially if you are inclined to see the best in people and to view life with a more sunny than grim outlook, you might want to gird your loins before entering into her world, which has been variously described as “gothic,” “cynical,” and downright “grotesque.”  That this world is represented in a rather matter-of-fact manner makes it all the more hair-raising.

The title of this story actually comes from a popular blues song, performed by the likes of Bessie Smith, lamenting her no-good, cheating, abusive man and urging those who are lucky enough to have a “good man” to “Hug him every morning, kiss him ev’ry night…Cause a good man nowadays sure is hard to find.” 

In Flannery O’Connor’s story, the line is stated by Red Sammy, the owner of a barbecue spot, who laments that “These days you don’t know who to trust”:  “Everything is getting terrible.  I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more.”

An ordinary family, husband and wife, three children, and a grandmother, are on a road trip to Florida.  When they stop for lunch, the grandmother and Red Sammy commiserate together about the sad state of the world.  Earlier, when the family vacation is being planned, the grandmother warns against heading to Florida.  A escaped convict, called The Misfit, is “aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida.”  Overruled by the rest of the family, the grandmother, dressed in her best clothes, takes her seat in the back seat of the car.  “In case of an accident anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”  At Red Sammy’s the grandmother once again brings up The Misfit.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t attact this place right here,” says Sammy’s wife.  Everyone seems to agree, “A good man is hard to find.”

Except for a sideways glance at her husband when Sammy’s wife states, “It isn’t a soul in this green world of God’s that you can trust…And I don’t count nobody out of that, not nobody,” everyone seems to agree that the law-abiding, upstanding, respectable family vacationers and roadside business owners are among the “good” people on God’s green earth.

Yet, throughout the story, the family members are disrespectful, rude, and downright mean to each other.  The children talk back to their grandmother and the parents do not scold or correct them; the parents ignore the grandmother, who is herself a shallow, petty, and vain woman; Sammy interrupts his wife and bosses her around.

What does it mean to be “good”? 

Later, after a series of mishaps the family has a car accident and crosses paths with The Misfit.  Murder and mayhem ensue accompanied by a bizarre conversation between the grandmother and The Misfit, in which the grandmother tries to convince him that he truly is a “good” man from “good” family.  (He is not even wearing a shirt.)  “Nome, I ain’t a good man,” The Misfit tells her politely and begins to relate his history.

“I was a gospel singer for a while,” The Misfit said.  “I been most everything.  Been in the arm service, both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twict married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive onct…I even seen a woman flogged….”

He begins to emerge as a kind of Everyman.  Grandmother tells him to pray.  He says he was imprisoned for killing his father, but claims he did not do it, or, at least, does not remember doing it.  Having lost all faith in justice, he has decided it doesn’t matter what he does or how he lives.  The grandmother begins to murmur “Jesus, Jesus,” but it’s not clear if she is praying or cursing.  Such is the ambiguity of the story.  Is the Misfit truly an innocent man who has been twisted into evil by an unjust system of justice?  Is the grandmother truly a faithful Christian woman trying to save a sinner or is she using religion to manipulate a murderer in order to save her life?

In a sudden moment when The Misfit seems close to tears as he claims if only he had known the truth about Jesus, “I wouldn’t be like I am now,” the grandmother reaches out to him, exclaiming, “Why, you’re one of my babies…You’re one of my own children!”  The Misfit recoils “as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.” 

We know from O’Connor’s own testimony that her work is a representation of her Catholic theology; as such, this scene is interpreted as a moment of divine grace when The Misfit appears to show remorse and the grandmother, recognizing his capacity for salvation, expresses compassion for his soul.  In this interpretation, the grandmother, despite the foolishness and superficiality of her life, reveals her own capacity for salvation.  The image of the grandmother “in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at a cloudless sky” is taken as evidence of her final deliverance into the arms of God.  The Misfit, on the other hand, has rejected the offer of grace, reacting to the grandmother as if she were an evil “snake” and reverting to his own evil, murderous ways.

So, why does O’Connor present this message with such ambiguity?  From another perspective, The Misfit is merely toying with an old woman’s desperate religious appeals and the grandmother’s supposed moment of compassion is yet another attempt to use religion to manipulate The Misfit into sparing her life.  Her image in death could just as well be seen as evidence that she is just as ridiculous dead as she was alive.

“She would have been a good woman…if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” the Misfit says.  Is this his recognition that it takes the shock of extreme circumstances to open a shallow person to divine grace or is it just evidence of his own perversion? 

When his companion Bobbie Lee says, “Some fun!” and The Misfit replies, “Shut up, Bobbie Lee…It’s no real pleasure in life,” is that evidence that he now renounces an earlier statement that there is “No pleasure but meanness” or is it a nihilistic rejection of any form of value in life, even the value of “fun.”

The one thing Flannery O’Connor is not ambiguous about is the sad state of the world and human nature.  It is a fallen world, a perversely fallen world in which there is not only the obvious evil of violence and murder but the everyday evil of foolish pride, petty meanness, and shallow faith. 

Why is she so ambiguous about the possibility of redemption?  If we take her at her word, then perhaps her fiction is intended to provide a shock of extreme circumstances designed to test our own capacity to recognize the potential for divine grace available to even the worst of us.

Another possibility is that underlying her own Catholic faith is the doubt and fear that there is no hope of redemption for this truly fallen world.

In any case, Flannery O’Connor uses dark humor and grotesque comedy to make this fallen world, redeemable or not, highly entertaining.   A few years ago there was an ad for fitness equipment that used the slogan, “A Hard Man Is Good to Find.”  That’s what happens when English majors go to work for advertising companies.  One imagines that O’Connor would have enjoyed that ad immensely.