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A Good Man Is Hard to Find

by Flannery O’Connor

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Critical Essay

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It is sometimes difficult for readers to view O’Connor as a religious writer since none of her characters seem “good.” Her tightly crafted narratives seem to bring readers to the moment where a “bad” character is ready to change, but one never sees the results. O’Connor considered herself a writer with “Christian concerns” and illustrated through her stories her vision of a world where what is normally thought of as progress is actually the opposite. She demonstrates humankind’s need for the mysterious grace of God, a gift that is offered suddenly in ordinary settings. Violence is a means to wake up characters to their own moral deficiency, to burn away their virtues so that there is nothing left but a humbled self standing in perfect readiness to accept redemption.

O’Connor had a gift for being able to capture the natural speech patterns of the inhabitants of her South, and her ironic humor is unmatched. The stories in A Good Man Is Hard to Find also demonstrate her superior use of symbolism. The peacocks mentioned in “Good Country People,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” and “The Displaced Person” are symbolic of God’s presence; Father Flynn makes direct comparisons between the mysterious beauty of the peacock’s tail and Christ’s transfiguration. Descriptions of setting in O’Connor’s stories are nearly always symbolic as well. The moon appears symbolically twice in “The Artificial Nigger,” signifying the unknown aspects of himself that Mr. Head is about to discover and then the illuminating light of God’s mercy.

The titles of the stories are nearly always ironic, as are the names of many characters. Mrs. Hopewell is annoyingly optimistic in “Good Country People,” and her daughter is anything but filled with “joy.” Bevel, the name that Harry Ashfield chooses for himself in “The River,” can mean a device for adjusting slants, just as Harry is trying desperately to integrate the confusion and depression in his young life. Mr. Shiftlet certainly proves himself to be shiftless, or shifty.

For African American writer Alice Walker, O’Connor became “the first great modern writer from the South.” Ironic humor, a rich use of symbolism and religious allegory, and characters that may falter but are always human are perhaps what continue to make O’Connor a favorite among readers and cause many to agree with A. L. Rowse’s assessment that O’Connor was “probably the greatest short story writer of our time.”

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A Good Man Is Hard to Find