Flannery O’Connor lived only thirty-nine short years before dying from lupus in 1964, but in those thirty-nine years, she left a legacy through her writing. Although she completed two novels, it is her short story collection that left an indelible mark on the literary world. One of her most noteworthy stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” was published in 1953 on the horrific heels of World War II and the devastating act of opening Pandora’s box by releasing the atomic bomb, following the Korean War, and during the throes of McCarthyism and witch hunts that defined the Cold War. Considering the violence that permeated the world during her time, it is not a wonder that her writing was also permeated by violence.
As Gretlund and Westarp note in Flannery O’Conner’s Radical Reality, “O’Connor’s fictional world is so full of mental and physical deformities that her fate among readers is often to be placed among the writers off southern gothic whose horrifying characters and plots are seen as decidedly “grotesque” (4). From her Southern background and her religious background, Catholicism, Flannery O’Conner writes with such a unique and disquieting voice. It is also the conflict between her religious faith and the intellectual, existentialist, growing mindset of a country bombarded by conflict and death that O’Conner writes: “I dread, Oh Lord, losing my faith. My mind is not strong. It is a prey to all sorts of intellectual quackery. I do not want it to be fear which keeps me in the church” (3).
From a reader response critic’s viewpoint, Bertens explains this kind of criticism “mostly starts from the phenomenological position that since we cannot with absolute certainty know that we know the outside world, we must focus on how that world appears to our senses and is constituted by our consciousness” (96). In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” many readers will struggle with the very same conflict that O’Conner writes about: religious faith versus hopeless despair and, even worse, intellectual apathy. Whether the audience lived through the angst and confusion of Vietnam or whether the audience suffered from the post-9/11 terror and the seemingly uncertain beginnings of the 21st century, the reader will most likely be able to recognize the fear through the character of the Grandmother and the apathy which unfolds through the Misfit.
Other themes like the collective feeling of disconnect, which comes through the actions of the family (children with their comics, mother with baby, the father with his paper, and Grandmother, well, Grandmother with herself) is also a theme that is relevant today and felt by many people. With the ever-growing isolation that social media perpetuates, divorce and two-income families in which infants are sent away to daycare, among other social issues, O’Conner’s story will resonate painfully with many readers today.
From a deconstructionist viewpoint, “the words we say or read never achieve stability, not only because they are related to, and take part of their meaning from, the words that have just preceded them, but because their meaning is always modified by whatever follows” (Bertens 108). It can most certainly be argued that O’Connor’s story is unstable up to the very end and leaves the reader with a continuing sense of instability to take away.
Bertens mentions that the deconstructionist critic believes “…there is a category of literary texts that confess to their own impotence, their inability to establish closure,” which makes them “far more interesting than texts that try to hide their impotence, such as philosophical texts or realistic novels that claim to offer true representations of the world” (120). O’Conner’s story fills the criteria for a “more interesting” text in that while there is a conclusion (ultimately the death of the entire family) to the story, there is no resolution. The final act of the Grandmother reaching out to the Misfit can be interpreted in more than one way, but regardless of the interpretation, there is no closure.
Parker, Robert. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford, 2015. Print.
Rivken, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edition. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 1998. Print.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.
Bertens, Hans. Literary Theory: The Basics. New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.
O’Conner, Flannery. Prayer Journal. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2013. Print
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