A Georgia native and devout Roman Catholic, Flannery O’Connor was first viewed somewhat narrowly as an important regional writer identified with the Southern gothic style. However, she is increasingly seen by twenty-first century critics as one of the most significant American fiction writers of the last century and a master of short fiction. Her writing is distinguished by a striking mix of humor, violence, and religious themes. The humor often results from the unexpected context of the violence, the violence shocks the characters into self-awareness, and the religious themes center on the grace offered through self-awareness. O’Connor’s stories often end with either the death or the humiliation of her protagonists, so it may seem ironic that her theme is one of optimism and hope. For O’Connor, however, the highest value is the acceptance of grace, and her characters often do not recognize grace, much less feel the need of it, until their lives are threatened.
The collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Other Stories contains ten stories, three of which—“Good Country People,” “The Displaced Person,” and “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”—are often anthologized and are among O’Connor’s best.
“Good Country People” is typical of O’Connor’s fiction in several ways. All the characters are flawed and generally unappealing. Mrs. Hopewell speaks in clichés and, as her name implies, maintains a shallowly optimistic view of life, believing that the innocence and simplicity of good country people is the height of virtue. Her daughter stands in sharp contrast. Joy—or, as she prefers to be called, Hulga—is cynical and condescending and believes that her atheism is proof of her intellectual superiority. She is, in addition, one of O’Connor’s grotesques, having lost her leg in a shooting accident as a child.
The change agents in O’Connor’s fiction often appear from nowhere, have evil motivations, and disappear as quickly as they appeared. This story is no different. Manly Pointer is a traveling Bible salesman whom Mrs. Hopewell lauds as the epitome of country virtue and whom Joy/Hulga decides to seduce to prove her mother wrong. However, when Pointer turns the tables by seducing Joy/Hulga instead and stealing her wooden leg, Hulga is humiliated. Her assumed superiority is shattered when Pointer laughs at her atheism, telling her he has believed in nothing all his life. Such self-knowledge is a prerequisite to grace in O’Connor’s fiction and, as here, often occurs at the climactic ending. What use the character makes of it is often ambiguous. In “Good Country People,” Hulga is left in the hay loft in a pool of light. All that is certain is that her self-image has been seriously altered.
“The Displaced Person” is O’Connor’s longest short story and one of her most complex. A priest brings the Polish Mr. Guizac and his family, displaced by World War II, to Mrs. McIntyre’s farm, where Guizac becomes the best farmhand she has ever hired. In fact, Mrs. McIntyre claims that Mr. Guizac is her salvation. However, this displaced person’s prowess upsets the comfortable order of the farm. The surreptitious moonshine operation of the dairy man, Mr. Shortley, and the occasional thefts of the African American hands, Sulk and Astor, are no longer the order of the day. However, Mr. Guizac’s plan to bring his white sixteen-year-old niece to America to marry the African American...
(The entire section is 1418 words.)