The Price of Distortion
© 2003 Brenda Brandon
Mary Flannery O'Connor utilizes the literary devices of irony (dramatic, situational, and verbal) and foreshadowing in her short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" to convey and emphasize the concepts that we each experience reality, however skewed, through the unique, sometimes morally-distorted lens of individual perception. And occasionally we find salvation from such blindness, though we often pay the ultimate price for such clarity -- life itself. This story may seem like nonsensical violence or it may appear to be heavily laden with obtuse symbols. The violence, as we shall see in a moment, may serve as this author's means to further her message regarding salvation, and the symbolism, because it is so crass -- almost certainly intentional -- it falls just short of allegory, lends more credence to its ironic significance.
One stark example of O'Connor's use of dramatic irony can be observed through her character name choices in this story. The most obvious ironies in names are those of the children's names. June Star is the little girl who, for all intents and purposes, is no shining star. We readers realize immediately that this girl fancies herself a little princess, but we also see how her perceptions about herself are way off target. She's vain, spoiled, stuck-up, and hasn't an ounce of compassion for others; the precise image the media often perpetuates for the stereotypical personage of some Hollywood stars. The name O'Connor chose for the boy, John Wesley, happens to be the name of a missionary preacher who came to Georgia from England in the early eighteenth century and fell from grace when he fell in love with a southern woman. Yet, this John Wesley is minimally treated by the author, and is surely not reminiscent of a legend. Whether or not the boy is aware of this incongruity is left a mystery, but perhaps this indicates the degree to which other characters and the narrator perceive him as a living, breathing person, versus a place-holder. Similarly, the author's decision to leave the mother and the grandmother without names affects the way we see them, and their views of one another, and since we are discussing perception through skewed lenses, this is pertinent information. Are we to see them simply as any-woman? Or is O'Connor making a more complex statement about the roles of southern women, and the deterioration of society, when she contrasts the image of the "…the children's mother [who] still had on slacks…and her head tied up in a green kerchief…" with that of the grandmother's near obsession with her own meticulous appearance? Neither is the ideal picture of womanhood. The Misfit, a serial killer and the story's villain, is also appropriately named to invoke a sense of ironic justice. O'Connor could easily have named him something more sinister but chose to stop short of allegory. She does not call him Satan's Messenger. Misfit. It is ambiguous, just as the character himself is, and, in the end, the reader is perhaps compelled to perceive and interpret this name a bit differently than the narrator intended.
Ambiguity is closely related to perception, as we each interpret life's idiosyncrasies a little differently, depending upon our own experiences. O'Connor uses this subterfuge to create verbal ironies that lead to the idea that what we think we perceive may not always be so, and these misinterpretations are bound to get us in trouble. The grandmother's perception of life, of herself, her family, and her society are all dramatically distorted. She views herself as the most righteous person in the family, as is illustrated by her repeated and negative observations of the others, as well as her comments about respect in her time. "Children were more respectful of their native states, and their parents…People did right then," she tells the children. She seems to consider herself the only sensible person as well, in spite of the fact that we readers observe with intrigue her use of lies and trickery to get her own way, as in sneaking the cat into the car. This manipulative characteristic is further illustrated throughout the story, such as when she embellishes her recollection of the old plantation with falsehoods, telling the children there is a hidden treasure in the house "…craftily, not telling the truth…." All this she does only to get what she wants. In terms of situational irony, she is unaware of the dress tucked into her pantyhose. If not for her deceit and trickery, the family would never have ended up meeting with the Misfit.
O'Connor drives home the point that this family and their grandmother are completely out of touch with reality, by showing us the grandmother's condescending manner, as is evinced by her observation of the children's mother's attire, her attitudes toward the children, and her comment that the visit to the plantation house "…would be very educational for [the children]…." This comment serves only as justification for doing what she wishes to do. But her fatalistic and demoralizing attitudes about life create for her a reality in which she is safe and superior. The grandmother, ironically, (and perhaps O'Connor herself) seems to perceive that evil comes in pretty packages, as is seen by the narrator's observation of the "…trees [that] were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled." It is intriguing to note that ugly packages, such as the Misfit, may offer the impetus needed to adjust this skewed perception.
One of the most pronounced verbal and situational ironies O'Connor employs is in the grandmother's statement that "In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady," for surely the grandmother does not actually expect to be found dead by the road. And, in fact, we readers do expect this event to come to pass, given the phlegmatic tone of narration. As such, this dialog serves double-duty in the capacity of both situational irony and foreshadowing.
In fact, this distant tone of the narrator is one of the first features a reader may notice about this story. The author chooses to use an omniscient point of view, with an aloof tone, thereby nearly guaranteeing that her readers will form no emotional bonds with these characters. In this way the author prepares us for the events to come but, unless we read this story closely, we may fail to see this significant point. The narrator's voice is a monotone, bland, at times even comical, as in the metaphor used to describe the mother's face as "cabbage-like." Clearly, O'Connor wanted her readers to know more about the situation than her characters did. The irony in the author's use of foreshadowing in this story is obvious or perhaps even exaggerated. When she tells us that the grandmother "wouldn't take [her] children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it," we suspect immediately that this family will, in fact, come into contact with this killer. Apparently, she did not want her readers to miss the cue: Bad things are in store for this bad family if they don't open their eyes, and soon. Even so, O'Connor surprises us, shocks us even, with her means of culminating these harbingers.
More warnings abound when the family stops at Red Sammy's for barbecue. This adds to the ironic tension of the story, because the grandmother seems to think she has found a like mind in Sammy when, in reality, we know as Sammy tells his wife to "…hurry up with these people's order" that he is anxious to get these people fed and on their way. This is especially true after June Star does her little jig, and responds to Sammy's wife's compliment by saying "I wouldn't live in a broken down place like this for a million bucks." A bratty child may not compare to a serial killer, but one has to wonder what kind of woman this child will grow into and what her moral values will consist of. Will she fare better than her grandmother and find her own truth before it is too late?
We see the author at work again foreshadowing events to come, when the grandmother and Sammy and his wife discuss the Misfit, and the likelihood of the criminal making an appearance at Sammy's place. Still, this family goes about their lives, seemingly oblivious to their fatalistic shortcomings; their inability to live life on anything other than a surface level, without regard for moral or religious standards.
This foreboding stays with the reader as Bailey navigates the treacherous dirt road in search of the old plantation and increases as the grandmother is stricken with the realization that they are not only on the wrong road, but in the wrong state. The plantation is in Tennessee, not Georgia. It is ironic that her sneakery in bringing along her cat--named Pitty Sing--causes the car crash, and the family's subsequent pitty-ful circumstances. That this wrong road they've taken is a product of their distorted perceptions about life is clearly symbolic of the fact that they have been traveling toward destruction through their skewed value systems for quite a long while. This road is simply the physical culmination of the vacuity of their lives. When the grandmother decides to keep the bit of reality about the location of the house to herself, she is, in essence, perpetuating her recusant ways.
When the family spots a car on the road approaching them, O'Connor's narrator, once again, makes sure that we know that "…the big black hearse-like car…" will bring more trouble than help. The characters fail at first to see this presage; or that the car will bring help of a different brand than they had bargained for. The reader is astonished, confused, and horrified when the Misfit--the driver of the black car--has his accomplices take the father and son into the woods and shoot them. The narrator's almost burlesque treatment adds to the story's overall irony, in the fact that this family got sidetracked--spiritually, as well as geographically--and now they will pay the price for going astray. The author's theme that salvation comes at a hefty price is elucidated in a dark humorous manner in this situation.
As each member of her family is dragged off into the woods and shot, the grandmother scrambles, in conversation with the Misfit, for a secret key that might save her life. The author uses verbal irony, manifested in both the grandmother's dialog and that of the Misfit, to show us that the grandmother needs to change her ways, if she is to be granted grace during the last moments of her life. Yet she continues using the same perfidious devices that brought about her current situation. She perceives veracity and candor as a hindrance to saving her life. The narrator's tone leads the reader to believe that what the grandmother actually says is the opposite of what she means, thereby leading us to believe when she says "I know you come from good people" or "I just know you're a good man...You're not a bit common" that the grandmother really sees the Misfit as common, and not coming from good people, but she continues her lies, trying to save herself. She engages the killer in a discussion of religion, pleading with him to pray, assuring herself that "... [he] wouldn't shoot a lady, would [he]?" Through this dialog, the reader is shown that this derelict criminal understands and accepts more about providence than the grandmother with her pious attitudes ever did; yet she still fails to recognize his (or His?) reality. The Misfit accepts that we will be punished for our sins--whatever they may be--because they (our sins, or misdeeds, or perhaps original sin) surely will be. He says "I found out the crime don't matter. You can do one thing or you can do another…sooner or later you're going to forget what you done and just be punished for it." We readers see what the grandmother does not: that the Misfit understands concepts about original sin, salvation and damnation that the grandmother has never internalized.
The final irony in this story comes as the grandmother has an epiphany, and she senses a new awareness. When she sees the Misfit wearing Bailey's shirt, she suddenly realizes that the Misfit is "…one of [her] own children…," or more simply put, that he and she are children of the same God. In a secular sense, we would say that she realized they are both part of the human race, but this is no doubt a religious story. When the grandmother, as a result of her perspicuity, tenderly and graciously expresses this with a touch to his shoulder, the Misfit recoils and shoots her. Her final show of humanity is not something he wants to see, when he knows he must kill her. He then concludes that "She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." Through this character's ironic dialog, we see that the grandmother's salvation did come, in her moment of clarity as her eyes were suddenly opened and she was forced to finally get honest with herself; yet, for her, it was too late.
While some, perhaps many, may perceive O'Connor's truth, her message, as one beneficial to our society, I see it as rather sad. The idea that there is only one valid perception when it comes to spiritual and moral reality, smacks of narrow religious dogma. Furthermore, the possibility that our final acceptance of this 'one reality' culminates in death, is harder, yet, to swallow. Critics of the preceding statements might argue that all the grandmother lamented about in the story several decades ago, has come to pass, and that, indeed, our society is sorely wanting for a moral and spiritual foundation. They may agree with O'Connor that the terms of this new, corrected, sight are meant to be swift and harsh. But salvation is available, and not at such exorbitant costs. This story is meant to show us that perceptions shape the way in which we experience life, and the one true perception is that there is a god who is capable of granting salvation.
So what does all this mean to us in the 21st century? Why bother reading and writing about Flannery O'Connor? Poet as prophet may be an appropriate idiom here. Our world is a frightening place these days, and there is a lot of evil of O'Connor's brand singeing through our daily lives. But if we give up hope for a brighter future, we in essence, begin down the path of this author's all too real, and sadly, soul-sickened characters. While I concede to this story's literary worthiness, I reject its absence of light. Perhaps this was intentional on the part of O'Connor, but it is really irrelevant. By rejecting this story's dark message we may in turn reject such a fateful form of reality for ourselves, and work to broaden our perceptions, and in doing so, create a more tolerant spiritual awareness; a valid reason, perhaps, for living with hope.
O'Connor, Flannery. "A Good Man is Hard to Find," Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 7. eds. George McMichael, et al. New York: Prentice Hall, 2001.