A Woman of Her Convictions: The Grandmother’s Moment in A Good Man Is Hard to Find
I first made acquaintance with Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” not in the reading, but in the hearing of it, in Smith Kirkpatrick’s fiction writing class at the University of Florida back in the late sixties. He read it aloud as was his practice, and I remember feeling that something important had happened, but also that I’d just been gut-punched by some words on a page. Now I read it to my own students, allowing myself the pleasure of what I presume Smith also enjoyed: the smiles suddenly disappearing, giving way to a disoriented silence at the words, “The children were thrown to the floor and their mother, clutching the baby, was thrown out the door onto the ground; the old lady was thrown into the front seat. The car turned over once and landed right-side up in a gulch on the side of the road.” That, and an audibly relieved, collective exhalation when the narrative has run its course.
A few semesters ago, a middle-aged, white-haired black lady said afterwards that she felt as if all the air had been sucked out of her. A year or two before that, I closed the book and looked up to see a young woman in the front row quietly weeping. I asked if she was all right, since weeping females make me nervous. These days, I’ve been instructed, you have to be careful about people’s feelings. She wiped at her eyes and said that she had a problem with people who kill babies. That’s good, I thought, she had counted the gunshots coming from the woods. But some of her fellow students had not, and at her words I saw knowledge dawn in their eyes. (Yes, I’m often asked post-story, “What happened to the baby?”} With the young lady in question, though, it wasn’t clear by “people who kill babies” whether she meant the Misfit and his cohorts or the author herself. I considered asking her if she’d noticed that three adults and two other children of the age of reason had just been wiped out, but since she seemed fragile at the moment, I let it go.
I also remember a young married couple in their 30’s taking my night class together, and the husband asking in the stunned silence of the aftermath, “Why did you read that to us?” He seemed exhausted and genuinely aghast. His wife nodded. At first I didn’t know what the question meant. So I asked him if, had he read it at home, he thought the story would have turned out differently. Oh, he didn’t want to read it at home, either. He didn’t want to read stories like that at all. It was brutal, too brutal. Brutality for its own sake. (His wife still nodded. They were compatible.) I asked if he was at all impressed by the fact that a couple generations’ worth of readers, lit scholars, anthologists, and O’Connor’s fellow writers disagreed with him. Even after much class discussion and after handing out O’Connor’s own essay on the story, in which she makes her intentions perfectly clear, his answer was still Nope, nope, nothing here but brutality. I later discovered in the course of other conversations that this same couple were frequent patrons of the movie theater and the video store, in and from which they enjoyed at their unperturbed leisure a good deal of R-rated sex, violence, and filthy language, the first of these requiring pornographic depictions that fall just shy of “official” pornography, and the second unflinching renditions of severed body parts, spurting blood, and widely dispersed brain matter. So I asked my resistant couple why they put up with it. Well, they said, it’s not real; it’s just entertainment. It’s fun. I tried to convince them they were paying an inadvertent compliment to the power of O’Connor’s off-screen violence, but don’t know if I made a dent.
And then there are the younger students who have just come through four years of being schooled in the propaganda of racial politics in our public and private schools, and whose reaction to the grandmother’s murder is that she had it coming. It’s hard to know what to do with this sort – as I don’t lay much of the blame on them – but you have to try, so I ask if they understand that in saying this they are elevating racism, even of the grandmother’s “soft” sort, to the level of a crime tantamount to murder. They don’t usually have an answer, other than the occasional stubborn flippancy. If I handed you a gun (I ask them) would you do what the Misfit did? Or would you be content if she were executed by the state for her faulty opinion?
Sometimes I tell the story of an old woman I knew – who is merely representative of many I’ve known – who held the same opinions as the grandmother, but who in her personal dealings with folks of another race was always gracious and kind. She had employed a black woman as a maid for about thirty years when one day that woman didn’t show up for work. She was a woman who virtually never missed work, and certainly never without phoning in news of her indisposition. So by the second week her white employer became worried, and when the third week came around the old white lady got in her car and drove down into the depths of “colored town” - parts of which would fit any description of ghettoized desolation – to seek her out. She knocked on the maid’s door. It took a while, but finally the door opened and a scowling old black man stood behind the screen. The lady asked if she might speak to Jessie. She was told that Jessie wasn’t home, though the white lady knew otherwise, as she’d caught a glimpse of her when a curtain moved before the door had opened. So the old lady said she’d been worried about her and wondered when she’d be coming back to work. That’s when Jessie stepped in front of the man, opened the screen door and came out onto the porch. It turned out that Jessie, in the late years of her widowhood, had found another man to marry, and that Earl, she said, didn’t want her “working for no white folks.” After an embarrassed moment she added, “I’m sorry.” Well, said the old white lady, “so am I.” She reached into her purse, pulled out an envelope, and tried to hand it to Jessie, explaining that it contained the wages she was owed. Earl, still standing behind the screen, said, “She don’t need none of that.”
So the old lady put the envelope back in her purse, wished Jessie well, and returned to her car and her nice home in another part of town, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief along the way because, in spite of her opinion of black people in general, she had grown quite fond of this particular one; and probably because she had, for the first time in her life, run into someone who detested her for nothing more than the color of her skin. And I may fairly presume that she always treated the black folks with whom she came in contact with the same civility accorded to all because she knew, deep down in that place where she seldom cared to look, that those opinions were wrong.
And then I inform my students that I can tell this story because that old lady was my grandmother. Would it make their day to see her dead? Would they like her to run into the Misfit? And I would suggest further that anyone more desirous of her condemnation than her redemption, who thinks hell to be her only obvious and just reward, should perhaps, when time’s finished with him, join her in that place reserved for people whose capacity for hatred is in perpetual flower, and where love never wilts on the vine because it cannot find soil to root. This revelation is usually met with a wide-eyed silence, similar to that which follows a reading of O’Connor’s story, since the propaganda they’ve been raised on admits no subtlety. It paints a picture black and white, of good guys and bad guys, and instills a correct way of thinking that has nothing to with redemption. To make allowance for the real and complicated messiness of human relations, for a consideration of any ultimate end toward which our nature is aimed (other than a complete and indiscriminate egalitarianism) would be to destroy its purpose: the inculcation of an obeisant posture to the reigning political order. In other words, (as Andrew Lytle said) it’s about power, not love.
As I say, I don’t blame the students (entirely), for I no more believe than O’Connor herself would that our collective cultural trash really speaks to the depths of their being. They have a lot to overcome – such as teachers of English. Such as the one who wrote to O’Connor begging – for himself and several colleagues – her assistance with interpretation. Their own had come thus far in concluding that the second half of the story was unreal, the Misfit a phantasm of Bailey’s fevered imagination, the car accident maybe or maybe not a literal occurrence, though they could not tell “the point at which reality fades into illusion or reverie.” Among them, these professors had ninety students in their charge into whose yawning intellects they’d been shoveling this hog slop. O’Connor responded that their interpretation was “about as far from my intentions as it could get to be,” and that “If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable as long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction.” She said she didn’t mean “to be obnoxious,” but that she was “in a state of shock.”
In Mystery and Manners, O’Connor mentioned another professorial theory regnant at the time (and probably viral to this day):
I’ve talked to a number of teachers who…tell their students that the Grandmother is evil, that in fact, she’s a witch, even down to the cat. One of these teachers told me that his students, and particularly his Southern students, resisted this interpretation with a certain bemused vigor, and he didn’t understand why. I had to tell him that they resisted it because they all had grandmothers or great-aunts just like her at home, and they knew, from personal experience, that the old lady lacked comprehension, but that she had a good heart…This same teacher was telling his students that morally the Misfit was several cuts above the Grandmother. He had a really sentimental attachment to the Misfit…
I found out later in her letters, to my surprise, that an occasional but revered mentor of my own acquaintance, Andrew Lytle, was of a similar persuasion. Says she to a correspondent in 1960:
It’s interesting to me that your students naturally work their way to the idea that the Grandmother…is not pure evil and may be a medium for Grace. If they were Southern students I would say this was because they all had grandmothers like her at home. These old ladies exactly reflect the banalities of the society and the effect is of the comical rather than the seriously evil. But Andrew insists that she is a witch, even down to the cat. These children, your students, know their grandmothers aren’t witches.
And it’s clear from the wording that these thoughts became parent to the later essay in Mystery and Manners. To my own good fortune, the professor who actually taught me the story, the aforementioned Smith Kirkpatrick, and himself Lytle’s former student, did not foist the latter’s interpretation on me because, as best I recall, he didn’t hold to it.
At mention of those students who “work their way to the idea that the Grandmother is not pure evil,” I should probably at this point pay tribute to those rather few who, upon first hearing, see past the brutal surface into the story’s soul. I remember one quiet black girl who sat in the back and never volunteered anything, a behavior that tends to annoy. They had been given some study questions to take home, and in answer to number 4 – Why does the grandmother say to the Misfit, ‘Why, you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’? – the volunteers were mostly quite confident and virtually unanimous: she’s still just trying to save herself. So I looked around at some of the others and settled on the annoyingly quiet black girl. I forget her name, though her memory lives in honor. Well, she nearly whispered, I think she just sees him as human, and herself too. I think God touched her.
Oh. I can’t play favorites but I wanted to run back there and give her a hug. She was smarter than I at that age, or at least had her nose to a different wind. I found out later that she was a Christian of some enthusiastic, fundamentalist persuasion, and thus the wind she kept her nose to was the one on which redemption rides, the one carrying O’Connor’s “almost imperceptible intrusions of grace.” She had been trained to be on the lookout for it.
But then there was the fellow with no religion at all, who in fact seemed to hold it in vehement disregard, if not outright contempt. “Nah,” he said in answer to number 4, “she’s not trying to save herself. She’s given up and decided to let go of all the bullshit.”
All right, I can work with that. Said O’Connor, after all, “There are perhaps other ways than my own in which this story could be read” (though “none other by which it could have been written”), and if the young man could not see souls at stake or redemption on the wind, he at least saw what the story put before him rather than what he would impose upon it.
There are as many ways of misreading a story as there are minds brought to bear upon it, and no doubt O’Connor ran into most of them during her foreshortened life. But it is this tendency to impose one’s personal predilections on the narrative – from a professor’s bizarre psychological fantasy to a student’s very selective distaste for violence (or for racist white ladies) – that causes the misreading which ends in grumbling dissatisfaction. Few of us think that when we walk out the door in the morning that the world’s going to behave according to our druthers, but we expect it all the time of short stories. Maybe it’s that we pay for the privilege of watching the movie or reading the book and consider that being satisfied in the way we prefer is a matter of getting our money’s worth. From the sentimental to the sordid, the pious to the pornographic, if you have a taste for what O’Connor called “sins against form”, there are plenty of writers and moviemakers (the vast majority) prepared to satisfy. Unfortunately, the serious artist wants to say something true about human nature and, like the world at large, doesn’t care how much you paid for the privilege of getting in the door. He wants to satisfy but cannot if you insist on sitting in the cheap seats. It is blithely claimed that there’s no accounting for taste, as though one’s aesthetic sensibility were as biologically immune to adjustment as one’s hatred for spinach. Taste, I would think, is where you start, not where you finish.
I’d like to leave aside the theories of professors possessed by “the Devil of Educationism”, who, as though resentful at having nothing original to say, feel the need to impress their students by making things up, and to focus on those that at least have the appearance of reasonableness, and of these I think the most significant focus on the story’s central moment – “Why, you’re one of my babies, etc.” – when the grandmother reaches out to the Misfit, and in the common conviction that “she’s still just trying to save herself;” or, somewhat less commonly, the belief of the reader who sees what O’Connor is trying to do, but simply cannot accept it, for whatever reason, and which amounts to the same thing, that nothing’s really happened in the end, other than murder, of course. For it is this moment, and this only, that can rescue us from the brutality. O’Connor herself admits to finding that
students are often puzzled by what she [the grandmother] says and does here, but I think myself that if I took out this gesture and what she says with it, I would have no story. What was left would not be worth your attention. Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them…This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.
We often read in class the essay from which these remarks are taken, and I, in turn, find that “students are often puzzled” by O’Connor’s use of this word ‘grace,’ many having no sense of its religious implication, to the extent that when the angel said to Mary, “Hail, thou who art highly favored,” he might have been complimenting her social skills. Since, as I have admitted, a theological grasp of the term is not essential to appreciating the story; since, in fact, the sincere believer is as liable as his faithless counterpart to having his prejudices vindicated – indeed, may find this tendency aggravated by his heightened sense of what is at risk in this war we do with principalities and powers – I’d like to share a letter sent at my request by a lady correspondent whose intellectual and religious pedigrees far outstrip those of my students, and to let it stand as a reasonable summary of those difficulties many have, particularly with the grandmother’s gesture. Some of it is worth quoting:
I imagine you’ll find my objections hopelessly unliterary and philistine. It seems to me, even now on second reading after all these years…that either the story has no point and is just brutal for the sake of being brutal or that it has a point and the point is stuck on like a post-it note. I’m assuming the latter is the case. Now, if the latter is the case, then I gather the idea is that the grandmother thinks herself a good woman to begin with but isn’t really a good woman. Nice externally but a bit of a hypocrite, a bit proud in a southern way (talks about family and good blood and so forth) and pharisaical, though she means to be good…the grandmother manipulates her son, who doesn’t really love her, tricks him by a lie (that there is a secret panel in the house) into getting nagged by his bratty kids and agreeing to go to see this house she remembers. She likes the thought of seeing the house, because it brings back her genteel youth to her, though it turns out that actually there is no house there, because she misremembered and thought it was in Georgia instead of Tennessee. Her judgement, her punishment, for this trick on her son is that they all get murdered by the Misfit’s gang.
The Misfit, I gather, we’re supposed to have some sympathy for. He keeps going on about how he can’t remember what he did that got him thrown into the pen in the first place and about how he doesn’t think his actual crimes match the punishment he’s received. To me this is a lot of disgusting hooey from a self-justifying sociopath who should have been pushing up daisies long ago so he couldn’t escape and murder innocent people. But I can only conclude that O’Connor means us to think his maunderings at least semi-profound. Just like Jesus, he is. Jesus “thrown everything off” just like the Misfit does. Just as Jesus comes into man’s life and challenges him with life and death, throws him out of his self-admiration, so the Misfit, by bringing death to the genteel grandmother, forces her to confront the really important things. So at first the grandmother tries to preach to him by telling him she can tell he has good blood. It’s still this genteel southern lady thing, which means she hasn’t really learned. But after she realizes that her whole family have all been coldly murdered, she has this sudden last moment of clarity and insight, she feels pity for the Misfit, and she “recognizes” him as “one of my babies.” Now my whole heart and soul just rebels against the idea that this is a great and deep profundity. Yes, we are supposed to love and forgive those who do us wrong, but this version of, “Forgive them for they know not what they do,” coming in the form of some sort of “all men are related deep down” thing, just annoys me. The Misfit rejects her insight and her pity, murders her, and then utters what I gather we’re supposed to agree with: “She would have been a good woman if she’d had someone to shoot her every day of her life.”
Okay, right. Samuel Johnson also said that the knowledge that a man is about to be hanged clears the mind wonderfully. I think I preferred learning it from Johnson
No, I don’t think she’s a philistine, and yes, you can learn it from Johnson (whom I can’t recommend highly enough) but you won’t live it. Or, as my co-editor Rick Barnett responds, “Johnson was an essayist, not a fiction writer, and what [she] seems to imply is that she is willing to accept the same thing O’Connor is saying as long as it remains on the abstract level of moral sermon.”
Much that she says is correct and even perceptive, as in her assessment of the grandmother’s character, but there are a couple of points my friend raises that are so contrary to a plain reading of the story I hardly know how she arrived at them. “ ’Forgive them for they know not what they do’, coming in the form of some sort of ‘all men are related deep down’ thing, just annoys me.” There are many things in life with which one might be justifiably annoyed, but why would the truth be one of them? And “Just like Jesus, he is. Jesus ‘thrown everything off’ just like the Misfit does. Just as Jesus comes into man’s life and challenges him with life and death, throws him out of his self-admiration, so the Misfit, by bringing death to the genteel grandmother, forces her to confront the really important things.” My word. Just like Jesus. The closest one can come to this is O’Connor’s description of him as “a prophet gone wrong,” of which part the ‘gone wrong’ cannot be overly emphasized, and with which sort our history is replete. Or perhaps it was derived from the Misfit’s own “self-justifying, disgusting, sociopathic hooey”: “It was the same case with Him as with me except He hadn’t committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me.” But that’s his delusion, not O’Connor’s and not ours. Having seceded from the society of God and man, having renounced any pursuit of ultimate ends in favor of those immediate and transitory, what he cannot see, but what readers should, is that he is nevertheless in service to it.
The Misfit is important on several levels, but before anything else he is a man who has re-enacted to a self-serving extreme the primal rebellion of the human race: “I don’t need no hep. I’m doing all right by myself.” Not content with mere unbelief, he has taken up arms against God and his fellow man for the simple and very modern reason that God will not show himself. He makes demands of the grandmother’s Jesus that Jesus himself announced in advance would not be met. The Misfit is of that generation which is always seeking a sign, and for his being denied it, he will take his revenge. It does not matter how seriously we think he takes all this, coming from a man who may well be mentally as well as morally unbalanced. You’re not going to figure him out – any more than you can figure out Abner Snopes in “Barn Burning” or the Bible salesman in “Good Country People” - because it’s not his story. It’s the grandmother’s, and she takes him seriously indeed, as her family gradually disappears into the woods, and her attempts to con the Misfit fall, one by one, pathetically flat.
I don’t know exactly how to label my friend’s perception that his (the Misfit’s) shooting her is “punishment” for playing a trick on her son, except that it seems somewhat hyper-moralistic, the observation of one who likes in her fiction the semblance of a just proportion between the crime and the punishment. This is fine in a court of law, but why anyone should expect it in a short story is beyond me since crime is by definition of this disproportionate nature, life being full of “punishments” out of all proportion to any possible transgression, sometimes seeming to bear no relation to each other at all. The innocent have no refuge, and the grandmother is certainly innocent in light of what the Misfit is about to do to her. His punishment will not fit her crime, neither has he the authority to judge her, nor does he bear the sword on behalf of any concept of justice save that which serves his own survival, the means to which require a certain “pleasure in meanness.”
Though her “whole heart and soul rebels against the idea,” my friend’s quite right that “by bringing death to the genteel grandmother, [the Misfit] forces her to confront the really important things.” But that’s only so because he is not a punishment; he is an opportunity. He is the agent of that event which awaits us all. Sometimes it comes by way of a non-moral, natural evil (say, a close brush with accidental death), and at others, and more terribly, at the hands of our fellow human beings. The subject of O’Connor’s story is not whether, or under what circumstances, any of us will die, but what we’ll make of it (and of ourselves) should we be so blessed by fortune as to see it coming.
Some people don’t need the event. By some mysterious process that O’Connor might credit to the action of grace, they come to a sensible understanding of their place in the world, to an effortless embrace of gratitude, modesty, humility, and a steadfastness in faith and friendship that never fails even should they suffer torments, though I have heard that even saints suffer doubts, as Christ’s words on the cross foretold. This description does not fit the grandmother. She does not doubt because she has never found the need, nor been made to see it. For her, as for most of us, I think O’Connor, in justifying her use of violence, is right to say that “It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially…the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him; and since the characters in this story are all on the verge of eternity, it is appropriate to think of what they take with them.” It is not that the grandmother must confront violence in order to be returned to her senses – some other incident in life, or even an unexpected thought crossing her mind, might have done the trick – but it is how she will be returned. Not because she deserves it, but because it’s there.
Perhaps there is at work among many readers a sort of visceral antipathy to the notion that a man of such seemingly unregenerate evil can possibly be an agent of grace, can at all be conceived as serving any good purpose of either God or man; such that, even on the grandmother’s behalf, we must deny ourselves the comfort of asserting that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him.” Along these lines, editor Barnett offers what seems to me a useful insight:
The careful reader does not admire the Misfit, but he does give the devil his due. You can’t have Satan without having God, and even the Misfit knows this. He just rejects it because it has to be taken on faith, which he isn’t interested in…the grandmother and the Misfit are alike in the beginning, though to different degrees, of course. She loves herself and wants to manipulate everyone to her own liking. This is self-love and not love at all. It is finally choosing power over love. This the Misfit does in the most extreme way. It could even be inferred that she is made aware of this connection of her own sinfulness to his in her last remark, “Why, you’re one of my own babies.” They are kinfolks in sin…If God Himself became man and handed His son over to the torturers, the God-man trusting in the Father’s divine purpose, and that indeed even the torturers were in the service of grace, how can we not do the same?
Adding in conclusion, “That this is a hard saying is an understatement.”
In the beginning I said that, upon first hearing, I felt the story had related something important, something more than a murder, without knowing exactly what or why. But we hear and read about murders all the time in the various media. Like that couple mentioned earlier, we even count on them for entertainment, especially in the bloody verisimilitude provided by modern film. But when many read O’Connor’s story, they don’t feel that they’ve escaped from anything. Why, I wondered, should this printed little facsimile disturb my ennui, why should it (as O’Connor hoped it would) “hang on and expand in the mind” when so many others leave my waking slumber intact? Why, in other words, was I once like so many (most, I would say) of my students, who are at first moved but uncomprehending?
For those who are, I think at bottom the story’s power must rest on the degree to which we come to care about the grandmother. If we have not been struck with sympathy for her plight by the time the recalcitrant Bailey turns around before entering the woods and calls out, “I’ll be back in a minute, Mama, wait on me!” – remembering at the last that he really does love his annoyance of a mother – all is probably lost. When later she cries out, “’Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy!’ as if her heart would break, “ and her desperation is not nearly our own, there is little chance of success.
And for those who are not so moved, or at least give a good impression of it, I think part of my friend’s objection is straight to the point:
It seems to me that O’Connor is trying to force the reader to believe that the Misfit and the grandmother illustrate something profound. But in great or even very good literature, meaning should arise naturally out of the story itself. I am unconvinced that the Misfit is a Christ figure, but I feel as if I’m pressured as a reader to agree that he is. I am unconvinced that the Misfit’s horrific murdering behavior is somehow turned to good…but the author seems to be trying to force me to accept that…The brutal story seems to be yoked together by the author’s will alone with a significance that it will not bear in itself and that it is difficult to feel is very important in any event.
I, of course, fully believe that the story’s meaning arises most naturally from the action, that something profound happens to the grandmother, and will deal more fully with it in a moment. But, frankly, I don’t know that there’s anything to be done about her central difficulty, which really turns on a point of credibility. Smith Kirkpatrick was in the habit of conceding that every story won’t work for everyone, and of this one in particular that the degree to which it “worked” would depend on one’s ability to believe in the grandmother’s capacity for revelation, and for the kind of self-denial that ends in martyrdom – that, in essence, such a woman could be truly transformed “in the twinkling of an eye.” Obviously, for my friend, such belief could not be come by. I wish all could feel what I felt, but they can’t be made to do so.
Whenever I pick up a story, I try to follow O’Connor’s advice and just enjoy it the first time through. All I’m looking for are believable characters involved in a moderately arresting surface action containing a conflict that can keep my attention. If luck will have it, I might even spy what I’m looking for on second reading: a deeper or central conflict – which is, echoing Faulkner, an eternal verity of the human heart – a universal action which precedes the story and will continue beyond its conclusion. It is that action which is a quality of human nature, and said to be true of all men and women in all times and places. In thought it seems to exist as an abstraction, but that it has movement is clear from its concrete manifestation in the surface action. I’m looking for a sort of marriage between them, a one-flesh union, if I may – the surface action the body, the universal the soul – the two being driven toward a consummating moment, what O’Connor described as “some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies…an action or gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected…both in character and beyond…it would have to suggest both the world and eternity.” And this action or gesture will render any attempt to extricate the meaning from a story and hold it up to the light as a thing with a separate life of its own difficult to fruitless, as if we could get to the paradise of meaning without suffering the action of living in the world.
This universal action is what I believe O’Connor meant by those “invisible lines of spiritual motion” which most interest the writer, and their delineation is quite visible in the story’s opening: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.” The conflict is between her and the rest of the family over which direction their vacation will take and, stated in this way, is action of the most superficial kind. But why she doesn’t want to go to Florida (she’d rather visit her “connections” in Tennessee) contains within it that seed of meaning for which we seek. Later, in the instant before she reaches out to the Misfit, she will revisit her understanding of what it means to be connected.
All subsequent conflicts in the action proper are microcosmic mirrors of the central conflict, that between the world as it is and as the grandmother would have it ordered. Even the conflict of greatest dramatic impact, that between the grandmother and the Misfit, is of this character. True, it is the crucial conflict of the action proper because it propels the grandmother toward her final (or shall we say, true) destination. But it is not itself the destination, no matter how its brutal force may seem to overwhelm all that came before or could possibly follow.
That action which most concerns us, that “line of spiritual motion” in the grandmother’s soul, while invisible, is yet made manifest in her character and in the structures of the society which gave her birth, for no character exists in a vacuum: our ideas of who we are, or think we are, are drawn from the forms and traditions made available by our culture. In the grandmother’s case, this form is the aristocratic tradition of the Old South. She considers herself “connected” to it (and probably is) but it is a tradition largely lost on the other members of what is, to all appearances, a modern, middle-class American family for whom a trip is a vacation, not a quest to affirm one’s pride of place in the world by re-establishing contact with the source, however remote, of that pride. It is a family with a workaday father made nervous by travel, a quiet, self-effacing mother who embarks on the journey with her hair still tied in yesterday’s green kerchief, and children for whom the term ‘spoiled brats’ hardly covers the case; children who, according to the grandmother, in an earlier, “better” time would have been “more respectful of their native states, their parents, and everything else.” Along the way, her racial condescension reveals itself in rather stark fashion: at the sight of a Negro boy standing in the door of a shack and wearing no breeches, the grandmother is moved by the romantic urge to “paint that picture,” but not to reflect upon another’s destitution and the responsibility her proud origins might bear for it. Shortly thereafter, she tries to amuse the children by telling the story of Mr. Edgar Atkins Teagarden, who, when she was a maiden lady, left a watermelon for her on Saturdays with his initials cut in it, and of that one Saturday when she didn’t get it “because a nigger boy ate it when he saw the initials E.A.T.!”
In our self-righteousness, we find her a woman easily disdained. As my correspondent pointed out, she’s “nice externally but a bit of a hypocrite, a bit proud in a Southern way.” Well, she is a liar, but of a very ordinary kind. She manipulates others to her selfish but, again, very ordinary ends. She is vain of her appearance – decked out for the trip in white organdy and lace so that, in the event of an accident, the image of a lady would survive even death – and proud of her origins in a way that puts some folks down here and others, like her, up there. She is fond of her own opinion, and in general wishes the world were nicer than it is, just before finding out how bad it can be. She may be “proud in a Southern way,” but also in a very universal way, such that one is tempted to announce with Red Sammy’s wife that, “It isn’t a soul in this green world of God’s that you can trust. And I don’t count nobody out of that, not nobody.”
“A good man is hard to find,” said Red Sammy, who treats his wife as no lady, the truth emerging blindly, as it often does, from those most in need of it. Shortly, the grandmother will utter one even more profound: “If you would pray, Jesus would help you.” Now, it would not surprise us to learn that this woman attends church on Sunday, that she is the type of woman who considers it important to be seen in church every Sunday. But her invocation of Jesus’ name is entirely self-serving: God as another means of escape, of keeping her image intact. Even near the end she is still trying: “Jesus! You’ve got good blood. I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady...I’ll give you all the money I’ve got!” If Jesus doesn’t work, flatter his bloodlines; if that doesn’t work, buy him off. At the story’s outset she tells Bailey she couldn’t answer to her conscience if she took her children in the same direction that had a criminal like the Misfit “aloose in it.” Now, suddenly, he’s got good blood - so, too, would the trouserless Negro boy if he were the one holding the gun – all this coming as culmination to the unraveling fabric of the grandmother’s self-image which began with her embarrassment at a simple lapse in memory: the house “was not in Georgia but in Tennessee.” And remember those Tennessee “connections”? It is a blood connection; this is what she values, and what she must now surrender.
When the Misfit expresses no interest in her money (and we already know he isn’t a thief) by remarking that “there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip,” the grandmother seems finally to realize that this time there is no escape, and no more lies to be told. The Misfit says something about Jesus raising the dead and she says that maybe He didn’t, as though entertaining for the first time in her life some dark doubt about the faith she has assumed into her self-image with the same unthinking, unreflective assurance that clothes her in an aristocratic past. It is not difficult to imagine her confidently proclaiming only an hour earlier her willingness, if asked, to die for Jesus. But now?
What happens next happens fast, in ‘real time,’ shall we say, and it is that thing that so many miss at first pass but without which O’Connor said, “I would have no story.” Maybe some would like to see it better prepared for, without acknowledging that it already has been from the story’s opening lines. Unlike a Joyce or a Faulkner, O’Connor is not given to roaming around in a character’s mind, articulating the ineffable in suspended time. Such a suspension would in any case violate the story’s established method, and risk displacing the significance of the grandmother’s dramatically rendered gesture with a gauzy veil of lyrical abstraction.
Something happens because some spark of faith remains, though it is the Misfit’s capacity for doubt, not her own, that ignites it. Speaking almost as a paradigm of the skeptical mind, the doubting Thomas who cannot believe without seeing, without proof, the Misfit says, in apparent anguish, that if he had been there when Jesus raised the dead, he would have known and wouldn’t be as he now is. The grandmother’s head clears in the face of this terrible choice (between faith and doubt, between something and nothing) and all her armor of the past falls away. Her simple confession proceeds directly from the heart: that this man, who now wears her murdered son’s yellow sport shirt, and who is not by his own admission a “good” man, is one of her “babies,” one of her “own children.” The blood connection is gone, save insofar as all people have blood in their veins, and the grandmother now lies in her own.
Flannery O’Connor once wrote that she tries to give her characters a moment of grace, and this is the grandmother’s. She doesn’t look much like a lady, lying in a ditch with her legs crossed under her like a child’s, her blue hat with white violets on the brim lying broken somewhere nearby – but she was allowed for one brief moment of life to be one, in the sense of becoming a woman of her convictions, in knowing what those convictions were and what they demanded of her. Her confession embraces all those who are not connected, not of good blood, who formerly would not have been admitted into the circle of her aristocracy and the company of her ladies and gentlemen.
It is this moment, and this confession, which strikes my friend as trite, finding in the grandmother’s words not truth but a mere truism, that “all men are related deep down,” which would indeed be a valid objection if one takes only the literal sense of those words, and has not closely observed the gradual disintegration of her resistance to the inevitable. But if the grandmother has at last accepted the insight afforded by grace, which, though always there for the taking, she had disdained for most of her life, what words would could she possibly utter that would rise to this occasion? Should she, for example, have broken out in prayer? Such an overtly religious gesture would probably have struck the reader as a continuance of old habits, a self-preserving “Jesus, save me.” O’Connor wanted a gesture that would “suggest eternity,” without vainly imagining that she might render it in full. The grandmother is at that moment of our greatest weakness in life, and her words are bound to be weak as well. If the solicitude of those who love us cannot abide our failings, then what love is worthy of the name? It is in recognition of the radical fragility of this life we share that our empathy for one another should be most exercised. And so the grandmother’s gesture shows that greatest strength of all: she looks beyond herself and reaches out to another, the lowest of the low and the meanest of the mean, one who is to all appearance beyond salvation, but in whom yet remains the imprint of God’s image, and in an act of self-forgetfulness, forgives him. She does and says, in essence, what she is capable of, not what is perfect.
Some years ago, when it was still in the textbook, I used to have students read the Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke’s gospel. Yes, it was, mirabile dictu, in the book, a parable of Christ as another exemplar of the narrative form, the Bible as literature, don’t you know. And I had them read it because it seems to me to characterize so much of O’Connor’s fiction, whose characters are all brought to a point of desperation at which their vanity is laid low, and the illusions of their lives laid to rest. They must first be lost, often unto death, before being found, their place in the world destroyed before it can be restored. In “Good Country People” a Bible salesman steals a girl’s artificial leg, without which her artificial ugliness has not a leg to stand on. In “Revelation” a woman is made to see that the aristocracy of God’s favor is not at all what she first imagined. In “The Displaced Person” and “A Good Man,” the point of desperation occurs at the threshold of life’s end. Some readers, whether Christian or sceptic, may resist O’Connor’s vision of this brutal necessity because they want to do to their fiction what the grandmother did to the world: romanticize it to meet a demand, conform it to a preconception in which good and evil are easily distinguished, the former standing in clear triumph over the latter. This is actually a commendable and completely natural desire, and to insist that it be enacted on the page is a temptation not only to the reader but to the writer as well.
But it is more important to realize that that is exactly what has happened. The grandmother lies in that ditch victorious, though it is a victory the world will not herald. She has made her peace, but of a sort the world could not give her. Her “line of spiritual motion,” which had remained unchanged until the moment of the car accident, is forced into the open by the man who brought her heart into conflict with its own assumptions, which then fell away to lay bare something hidden in the core of her being. No doubt the grandmother had read or had heard preached, at one time or another, that beautiful story of the prodigal son, but could only understand it in her final moment – that moment when she came alive again.