Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 673

"A Good Man Is Hard to Find," the title selection of O'Connor's 1955 collection, has received a great deal of critical attention. The story serves as an excellent introduction to O'Connor's fiction because it contains all the elements that typify O'Connor's work: a combination of humor and horror, grotesque characters,...

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"A Good Man Is Hard to Find," the title selection of O'Connor's 1955 collection, has received a great deal of critical attention. The story serves as an excellent introduction to O'Connor's fiction because it contains all the elements that typify O'Connor's work: a combination of humor and horror, grotesque characters, and an opportunity for characters to accept God's grace. Critics were initially intrigued with O'Connor's use of violence in her stories, uncommon for a writer—not to mention a woman—in the 1950s and 1960s, yet they recognized her ability to draw characters with clarity and detachment. These traits caused critics to categorize O'Connor as a Southern Grotesque writer, similar to William Faulkner, who also wrote critically of his Southern heritage. However, these same critics were confused by her staunch Roman Catholic perspective, which was unusual for a writer in a region that was predominantly Baptist. O'Connor thought of herself as more of an outsider: not a Southern writer because of her Catholicism, and not a Catholic writer because of her Southern roots. Because her point of view is often theological, and because she fails to present a clear, straightforward moral, the message in her stories has often been misinterpreted.

Initial reaction to "A Good Man Is Hard to Find'' was positive. Caroline Gordon wrote in The New York Times Book Review that the story was "characterized by precision, density and an almost alarming circumscription." Louis D. Rubin, Jr., in an essay entitled "Two Ladies of the South'' recognized that O'Connor "is in essence a religious writer. Knowledge of good and evil is at the heart of her stories." In an essay published in Mystery and Manners, O'Connor wrote that the Grandmother had been interpreted as being a witch and the Misfit a fallen prophet. She says that "there are perhaps other ways than my own in which [ "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"] could be read, but none other by which it could have been written." More recently, Russell Kirk wrote in an essay for The World that the Misfit is "the most forlorn and terrifying desperado in all Flannery's tales."

Miles Orvell's Flannery O'Connor: An Introduction, written in 1972, is an early introduction and commentary on her fiction. Josephine Hendin, in another work about the author, The World of Flannery O'Connor, says that there are two O'Connors: "the perfect daughter who lives in her mother's memory, the uncompromising Catholic O'Connor ... and the more enigmatic writer of those strange and violent tales." Although some early reviewers were confused by O'Connor's fiction—she seemed to be making fun of religion—the large body of criticism on her work in the past three decades has converged on an accepted interpretation of her work. The New Critics, writers like Cleanth Brooks and John Crowe Ransom who dominated literary criticism in the 1950s promoted O'Connor's fiction, admiring the "intentionality" of her words: every element of the story worked to promote her desired effect.

After O'Connor's death, the publication of her many letters in Mystery and Manners gave readers added insight through the author's own explanations of her work. In the book, O'Connor emphasizes the form of her stories: writes that the "form of a story gives it a meaning which any other form would change, and unless the student is able, in some degree, to apprehend the form, he will never apprehend anything else about the work."

Today O'Connor's place in the literary world is well established. She is appreciated for her complexity and her contradictions. Anthony DiRenzo's American Gargoyles: Flannery O'Connor and the Medieval Grotesque tries to explain some of those contradictions. DiRenzo compares O'Connor's fiction to the medieval cathedrals that were adorned with the grotesque figures of the gargoyle. He says that if one wants to understand O'Connor, one must understand her mixing of the serious and sacred with the comic and the common. The humor in O'Connor keeps readers from crying. Many other studies are available, and the thirty or more years since O'Connor's death have given readers time to appreciate her powerful fiction.

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