Martha Stephens's critique of Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" begins in the opening chapter of her book The Question of Flannery O'Connor , which is titled "Belief and the Tonal Dimension." In this chapter, Stephens argues that, to O'Connor, her characters represent, "even...
Martha Stephens's critique of Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" begins in the opening chapter of her book The Question of Flannery O'Connor, which is titled "Belief and the Tonal Dimension." In this chapter, Stephens argues that, to O'Connor, her characters represent, "even at their comic worst, the norm of modern society." Stephens finds O'Connor's tone (and her biting point of view) cruel and "repugnant."
This "norm of modern society" criticism seems inapt, as O'Connor is not describing Southern reality. Instead, O'Connor is using the literary device called Southern grotesque to shock and stun the reader through brutal irony and witty, gimlet-eyed characterizations. O'Connor's techniques are deliberately meant to disorient the reader to cause a numinous or uncanny effect. Through these efforts O'Connor is trying to demonstrate the supernatural working of grace intruding into the natural world. O'Connor uses Southern grotesque to explain from a Catholic point of view how the operation of grace can work in the life of the most abject, seemingly unredeemable sinner (grace meaning salvation, not survival). Scholar Paul Nisley notes that "Stephens speaks for those humanists who find a basic goodness in human nature and who are naturally distressed by O'Connor's 'calculated affronts to humanistic thought.'" But O'Connor does not have a secular humanistic point of view; she is probably the foremost Catholic fiction writer of the twentieth century.
As other teachers have noted here, Stephens attacks "A Good Man is Hard to Find" structurally by arguing that the comic first part of the story does not seamlessly lead into the tragic and shocking ending of the story. Instead, Stephens argues there is a jarring and unsuccessful break between the two parts of the story. However, close reading reveals not only foreshadowing of the appearance of the Misfit in the first part of the story, but also tiny hints of the potentially redeemable in the annoying Grandmother are found throughout the first part as well. There are no such softening hints to be found in O'Connor's descriptions of her family.
Stephens's real argument is with O'Connor's Catholic worldview, but her unfamiliarity or distaste for that worldview apparently leads her to criticize O'Connor on structural grounds. This critique is feeble, since "A Good Man is Hard To Find" is one of the most highly praised stories in the Western literary canon and is taught to millions of students a year for a reason. To get everything out of the story, however, one must become somewhat familiar with O'Connor's worldview, even if they do not necessarily share it.