dotted outline of a black cat sitting within a basket in front of an older woman wearing a sundress

A Good Man Is Hard to Find

by Flannery O’Connor

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How does Flannery O'Connor's sentence structure affect the pacing of "A Good Man Is Hard To Find"?

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O'Connor keeps the pacing slow, and thus keeps the reader in the moment by using complex sentences in which two or more independent clauses are linked, such as

Bailley didn't look up from his reading so she wheeled around then and faced the children's mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit's ears.

Another example would be:

She had her big black valise that looked like the head of a hippopotamus in one corner, and underneath it she was hiding a basket with Pitty Sing, the cat, in it.

And she uses compound, complex sentences that include more than one independent clause and a dependent clause:

She didn't intend for the cat to be left alone in the house for three days because he would miss her too much and she was afraid he might brush against one of the gas burners and accidentally asphyxiate himself.

This slows us down, and in these examples, captures the cadence of the grandmother's thoughts. Later, O'Connor will similarly capture the more abrupt cadence of Big Sammy's speech without putting what he says in quotations.

Not only does this technique slow the reader down and keep her concentrating on whatever part of the story she is in, when O'Connor, now and then breaks up the threatened monotony of too many long sentences with a short one, it arrests us and catches our attention:

The two boys also had guns.

That short sentence slams us with its pointed ominousness.

This technique of long sentences is effective because, although there is foreshadowing, the first-time reader is caught by surprise when the story turns suddenly from a seemingly comic 1950s all-American family vacation tale to something much darker. We are kept fixed in the moment.

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In this short story, Flannery O'Connor uses the simple or compound sentence with subject-verb-object construction almost exclusively. (Compound sentences join two simple sentences together with a conjunction such as "and" or "but.") Many of her sentences start with the word "he" or "she." This gives the story a trudging pace that feels like one is soldiering on with each sentence. Very little lyrical quality adorns the sentence structure. Most sentences are short and to the point. They do not meander, weave, or explore the intricacies of ideas. Rather, they state actions, thoughts, and ideas in a straightforward, businesslike fashion. Since the story is written primarily from the grandmother's point of view, the pacing reinforces the type of woman she is. She is one who does not overthink things; indeed, she acts on impulse and seems to think about consequences later, and even then she is reluctant to admit a mistake. So the pace of the sentence structure that keeps forging ahead without slowing down reflects the grandmother's personality that unfortunately keeps propelling herself and her family to its inevitable doom.

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In the short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor, what type of sentences does she use to influence the story's pacing?

Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find," as does most of her writing, employs simple sentences that offset the colorful speech of the characters and highlight the climactic end. This writing allows for the story's smooth pace in the beginning and dramatic crescendo at the end.

The writing in this short story contains as few elements as possible–subject, predicate, a modifier or two. The simplicity of her writing therefore allows character's dialogue to shine with their regional variances. Consider this paragraph:

"Red Sam came in and told his wife to quit lounging on the counter and hurry up with these people's order... He came over and sat down at a table nearby and let out a combination sigh and yodel. "You can't win," he said. "You can't win," and he wiped his sweating red face off with a gray handkerchief. "These days you don't know who to trust," he said. "Ain't that the truth?" (O'Connor).

The change in writing to include colorful dialogue is especially apparent when the family encounters The Misfit. At this point, the story has progressed in a steady pace, but the sudden encounter pits O'Connor's simplistic writing with The Misfit's rough speech:

"I wasn't there so I can't say He didn't," The Misfit said. "I wisht I had of been there," he said, hitting the ground with his fist... His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother's head cleared for an instant. She saw the man's face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them" (O'Connor).

These two types of sentences, simple descriptions and colorful dialogue, work together to create a predictable flow of the story's buildup that ends in a dramatic close.

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