This collection of ten short stories demonstrates O’Connor’s skill at using irony, violence, and the grotesque to create opportunities for redemption in the lives of characters who are often comical and always spiritually adrift in a realistic, yet highly symbolic world. At least one character in each story is somehow deluded and in need of an awakening by the Divine to reveal the true self and offer an opportunity for change.
Five of the stories include strong Southern women whose “sins” range from simple smugness to pride in one’s physical and material attributes as virtues. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a meddlesome but good-hearted grandmother inadvertently leads her entire family to their violent deaths at the hands of a criminal known as the Misfit. After the rest of the family has been killed, the grandmother experiences a profound spiritual change while talking to the Misfit as she accepts her connection to all living things. The Misfit acknowledges that she would have been a good woman if there had been “somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” In “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” Ruby Hill is a plump, judgmental woman returning from a visit to Madam Zoleeda, a fortune teller who informed Ruby that she is on the brink of a long illness followed by good fortune. The story ends with a stunned Ruby accepting the fact that she is pregnant, a condition she has carefully avoided and finds disgusting in others. In “A Circle in the Fire,” Mrs. Cope is the proud owner of the best-kept farm in the county, but her worst fears come true when three boys, envious of her possessions, set fire to her farm. She watches, stunned, as a column of smoke rises over her woods, and she listens to their “shrieks of joy as if the prophets were dancing in the fiery furnace, in the circle the angel had cleared for them.”
Mrs. Hopewell is a landowner in the story “Good Country People.” She lives with her grown daughter, Joy, who has changed her name to Hulga because she believes it better suits her disposition, her physical ailments, and the fact that she has no illusions about life. Hulga finds out that she is not as smart as she thought when Bible salesman Manley Pointer tricks her into handing over her wooden leg as she tries to seduce him. The story ends with poor Hulga stranded in a hay loft while Pointer happily absconds with her leg. In “The Displaced Person,” the parish priest, Father Flynn, persuades the wealthy Mrs. McIntyre to hire Mr. Guizac, a Polish war refugee or “displaced person,” to assist the African American workers and Mr. Shortley, a hired white man, in running the farm. Mrs. Shortley, afraid that Guizac will take her husband’s job, soon begins to undermine Mrs. McIntyre’s impression of Guizac. Mrs. Shortley packs her family’s belongings and, as they leave early the next morning, is overcome with a stroke and dies. Mrs. McIntyre decides that she must fire Mr. Guizac, but cannot seem to do it. When a brake mysteriously slips on a tractor, Mrs. McIntyre, Mr. Shortley, and a young African American boy freeze, in a moment of collusion deciding not to help the displaced person as the tractor runs over him.
The other five stories in this collection seem to center around the theme of spiritual initiation. In “The River,” Harry Ashfield is a young boy who changes his name to Bevel after his babysitter takes him to see a preacher by that name. Young Bevel’s baptism in the river seems an appealing alternative to his neglected life with his parents. He returns to the river alone to baptize himself and to keep going until he finds the Kingdom of Christ. The story ends with the current pulling Bevel down and swiftly forward, “like a long gentle hand.”
A precocious twelve-year-old girl receives her first intimations of sexuality in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” as her two older cousins relay the story of a hermaphrodite they have seen in a freak show. After returning the cousins to their convent, the girl sees the sun as a blood-drenched Host. In “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” one-hundred-and-four-year-old General Sash (who was never really a general) attends his sixty-two-year-old granddaughter’s graduation. Sally Poker Sash’s grandfather is brought to the stage by wheelchair in a general’s uniform with a sword across his lap, but the old man can recall nearly nothing of his own past. The final image of the story is of young John Wesley, a nephew in charge of pushing the general around for the day, lined up at the Coca-Cola machine outside with a wheelchair that now contains the corpse of General Sash.
“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” begins with Mr. Shiftlet, a drifter who wanders onto the farm of Lucynell Crater and her deaf and retarded daughter, who is also named Lucynell. Mrs. Crater slyly offers Shiftlet the late Mr. Crater’s car, some money, and a home if he will marry Lucynell. After the ceremony, Shiftlet leaves Lucynell at a roadside eating place after she falls asleep waiting for her food. Shiftlet, ironically seeing himself as an honorable man, instructs the boy behind the counter to give her the food when she wakes up. Shiftlet picks up a young male hitchhiker so that he can carry on a dramatic monologue about mothers—especially his own, who was an “angel of Gawd.” The young man suddenly tells Shiftlet to “go to the devil” and jumps out of the car.
Some of the most beautiful language in this collection is found in “The Artificial Nigger,” the story that O’Connor said was her favorite. It is the story of a literal journey into the city of Atlanta, representing young Nelson’s initiation into the real world, and a spiritual journey for the boy’s grandfather, Mr. Head, who is forced to face the fact that he requires the mercy of God to be redeemed. Mr. Head is disdainful of Nelson’s positive reaction to the city and to African Americans there. Determined to break the boy’s independent spirit, Head sets up little tricks, culminating in his denial of his grandson at a moment when the boy needs him most. The day climaxes in a wealthy neighborhood with the sighting of “an artificial nigger,” a chipped statue of a boy sitting on a wall, miserable, and nearly falling off. The two come to a mysterious understanding and head home together, the boy realizing that the grandfather is his mentor in the world and the grandfather recognizing his moral deficiency.