I first read Flannery O’Connor in a college course on the modern short story. The course felt hit or miss up to that point, but her work caught my attention. I was a young rocker and liked its brutality (though apparently, she did not like that word as a descriptor). Later, I came across a quote where she stated she also didn’t like it when “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is treated as a horror story. The quote occurs in a letter to Betty Hester in July 1955:
“I am mighty tired of reading reviews that call A Good Man brutal and sarcastic. The stories are hard, but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported the progress of a few of them, and when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”
(The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor, Flannery (1979). Fitzgerald, Sally (ed.). Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Kindle edition, pg. 90)
What I find interesting is not her frustration with the reviewers but her claim that there is nothing less sentimental than Christian realism. I suspect that her annoyance with those who call Good Man a horror story is about over-emphasizing the violence. Many feel shocked about a short story in which an entire family gets shot by an escaped convict, as if wow, that’s just so scary. And yet, this is something every horror author has to deal with—what’s wrong with you that you would make art out of such things?
But the story’s violence must not efface the story’s real horror. The real horror lies in the torments the characters inflict on one another long before their judgment day comes at the end of a pistol. It lives in the grandmother’s incessant delusions, cruelty, and racism, her son Bailey’s fecklessness and apathy, and her daughter-in-law’s meek ignorance. It lives in Red Sammy Butts, a domineering husband and boss, as he behaves like a total asshole at his roadside grill.
The real horror exists in the ability of humans to believe their own fantasies and ignore the truth. And these fantasies tend to be selfish. When the narrative leads the family to a car full of escaped convicts led by an infamous criminal named the Misfit, any reader but the most sensitive is ready for them to be shot.
At the story’s climax, the grandmother touches the Misfit’s shoulder and calls him one of her children. The gesture tempts readers to decide whether this is an act of redemption. The Misfit himself gives a short speech on how he is tormented in wondering whether Christ is real, whether the resurrection is real, and how he cannot know because he was not there to witness Christ’s miracles.
Here it becomes useful to look at the story through a non-Christian lens. Whether O’Connor’s Christian realism has any relationship with a literal belief in the supernatural is beside the point. Redemption and salvation are at stake, and while it is important to look at the story in the context of these ideas, it is more important not to let the interpretation become stuck within these ideas.
An evaluation of Good Man’s ethics and its characters’ morals fails when examined as an all-or-nothing affair. To decide whether the grandmother’s gesture was one of sincerity and forgiveness (redemption and salvation) or a final attempt at deception (damnation) is so sentimental as to be inaccurate. While O’Connor herself calls her work “Christian realism,” I feel she asks for a great indulgence in asserting there is any work concerning itself with the possibility of salvation that is not significantly sentimental.
If we give “A Good Man is Hard to Find” an unsentimental reading, we discover that every action counts—every cruelty and every mercy, and one cannot cancel the other out. To read the story in the context of original sin (e.g., the Misfit’s original, forgotten crime), the truth is that there is no original sin, but there are inevitable mistakes. Acts of kindness might matter, but we cannot erase errors. Good works can pay the bill, but they cannot erase the charge.
June Star, the young girl who perpetually calls bullshit on the whole family from the story’s start, makes the real heroic gesture before the grandmother touches the Misfit’s shoulder. She refuses to hold her killer’s hand when the Misfit orders the thug to escort her to her execution. This gesture, unconcerned with the truth of salvation, is the real jab at sentimentality, and it has nothing to do with Christ.
Carl R. Moore is the author of Chains in the Sky (Seventh Star Press, 2020)