Remembering Mary Flannery O’Connor: A True Portrait of Southern Christian Realism Fused with an Unapologetic Portrayal of Moral Hypocrisy
Flannery O’Connor was an American writer and essayist of 2 novels, 32 short stories, and numerous reviews & commentaries. She was the winner of 1972 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction for The Complete Stories, and she was the first 20th century writer to have her works collected & published in the Library of America in NYC.
Born: March 25th, 1925 in Savannah, GA
Died: August 3rd, 1964 in Milledgeville, GA (at 39 years of age)
For Part I of this tribute, I would like to briefly discuss O’Connor’s most popular short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1953). If you have not read this classic, feel free to download the full-length version here: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~drbr/goodman.html
“The old lady settled herself comfortably, removing her white cotton gloves and putting them up with her purse on the shelf in front of the back window […] In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”
In this excerpt, drawn from the story’s opening, O’Connor provides details about the grandmother’s outfit while her children and grandchildren pile into the car to head southbound for Florida. Most of her clothing is white in color, traditionally a color of purity, but the reader soon learns the grandmother’s characteristics are clearly the opposite of pure. During the road trip, she is self-serving and tries to manipulate her son, Bailey, to change his mind about traveling to Florida. She also sneaks the pet cat on the family trip, despite Bailey’s wishes to leave him at home. Even worse, the family’s death may be perceived as the grandmother’s fault because she tricks them into driving off course to visit an old plantation home, and the pet cat causes Bailey to lose control of the car. The grandmother is completely self-absorbed with her past memories of a so-called better life, and her main concern is that her physical appearance at death will define her as a “lady.”
This entire short story is a commentary on how a past life was a better life. The grandmother gets nostalgic about the old plantation home, an old lover, better manners, good men, and dirt roads, all of which existed in a previous life, a better time. Why does everything always seem better once it is gone? Only past moments are savored. The present is taken for granted. Perhaps this savory splendor is not so hard to find…
This code of Southern-belle manners that the grandmother yearns to live by is trumped by her selfish disposition, producing a theme of hypocrisy covered by religiosity. After the car accident, the grandmother feigns an internal injury to gain sympathy and fails to mention that she made a mistake about the location of the plantation.
“I believe I have injured an organ, said the grandmother, pressing her side, but no one answered her. Bailey’s teeth were clattering. He had on a yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed in it and his face was as yellow as the shirt. The grandmother decided that she would not mention that the house was in Tennessee.”
Also, after the car accident, the children’s response is quite ironic and foreshadowing. The relentless use of foreshadowing in this story alludes to the sardonic nature of O’Connor’s style, and speaks to her tendency to emphasize the truth regardless of how horrifying it might be.
“We’ve had an ACCIDENT!’ the children screamed in a frenzy of delight. ‘But nobody’s killed,’ June Star said with disappointment as the grandmother limped out of the car.”
The use of the words “delight” and “disappointment” in this passage is odd, yet revealing of the events to follow. The infamous Misfit whom escaped from prison is on-the-loose nearby and conveniently encounters the family after their spill. He proceeds to take each member of the family into the woods, shooting and killing them one-by-one, leaving only the dreadful grandmother alive to discourage him from taking her life. She pleads with the Misfit to pray, calling him a “good man,” and urges him to reconsider his plan to kill her.
“Jesus!” the old lady cried. “You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady. I’ll give you all the money I’ve got!”
Evidently, the grandmother is not concerned with the safety of her family. She does not try to save her family members, and her initial belief is that her moral code as a “lady” will save her from being shot. However, she soon discovers that the Misfit does not adhere to the same beliefs, and she too will be killed. The grandmother can thus be interpreted as a character that represents the duality of the Misfit. The killer explains why he calls himself the Misfit – “because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.”
Like the Misfit not having a place in society, the grandmother does not fit in with her family. She is not really welcome on the family trip and views herself as belonging to a past life. She is isolated in her self-righteousness. Just before the Misfit shoots and kills the grandmother, she cries, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!”
Perhaps, this finale signifies the grandmother’s transformation from a phony Christian to a humble woman. In this closing scene, the Misfit is now wearing Bailey’s shirt, symbolizing his replacement of the grandmother’s son. The Misfit is her metaphorical baby, and perhaps, she finally realizes that she is no better than he is. After killing the grandmother, the Misfit comments, “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
This controversial ending reveals the Misfit’s perspective of the old woman. Her preaching about salvation and her efforts to be a good Christian “lady” were not genuine; rather, this act was a mere endeavor to save her own life.
What do you think?…
Does the grandmother actually transform and earn redemption?
Does she finally see her own flaws instead of focusing on the flaws of others?
Or, are her words just another cheap attempt to save her own life?
Please stay tuned for Part II of this tribute… where I will unveil a glimpse into Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home in Savannah, GA.