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A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

November 29, 2014

flannery

Many thanks to my good friend Leslie, again (she recommended The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), for giving me this book of Flannery O’Connor short stories. This collection established O’Connor as one of the great modern short story writers and the queen of southern gothic or, more pejoratively, “grotesque,” even “the school of southern degeneracy.” O’Connor took these labels in stride, saying, “I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic…If you have once got rid of a label like ‘the school of southern degeneracy,’ you accept the label ‘grotesque’ with better grace.”

Whatever the label for her genre or particular stylistic quirks, this collection of short stories is considered a classic, and O’Connor a master of the form. Her subjects tend to be rural, her central conflict a collision of the self-righteous and the unfathomable. Social outcasts, or “freaks,” are often central to her stories. But what I find most pervasive is the fear of the other—the self-righteous and self-certain encountering the unknown—either in the context of the outsider invading the space of the common person (“Good Country People,” “A Circle in the Fire,” “The Displaced Person”) or vice versa (“A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “The Artificial Nigger”). Wherever the conflict takes place, there is comeuppance, and it is often savage and weird and, from a reader’s perspective, wickedly enjoyable.

flannery-oconnorwise-blood

O’Connor was an outsider herself: a devout Roman Catholic living in a post-WWII South. In her writing and her essays, she gave considerable thought to faith and spirituality. When she was fifteen, her father died of lupus, leaving her devastated. She would succumb to the same disease in 1964, at only 39. It is perhaps simplistic, but in this short biography I see three themes manifested in O’Connor’s fiction: an empathy with outsiders, a constant search for religious truth, and tragedy (often predestined).

In one of her essays, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” O’Connor gives more insight into her mix of the deviant and the divine:

Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological…I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.

“The freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement” nails the sense that I get from her stories. The world is a strange, strange place, and thus within it we are all strangers.

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