Religious Symbolism in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find " This paper will present a rhetorical context for the use of violence in the short story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," as she presented in her essay "The Element of Suspense." The form of classical tragedy in this story will also be analyzed from the critical theories of Aristotle and Longinus. Tolstoy will be used to examine the use Christian symbolism. Nietzsche will provide a more well-rounded universal conclusion to the uses of tragedy and spiritual elements in this classic story. Flannery O'Connor gave a talk about "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" in 1963 at Hollins College, Virginia, which was published as the essay, "The Element of Suspense In 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find.' " In this essay, O'Connor defined the reasons for using violence in her stories.
To establish a basis of reason within the story, O'Connor stated "Much of my fiction takes its character from a reasonable use of the unreasonable, though the reasonableness may not always be apparent. The assumptions that underlie... are those of the central Christian mysteries" ('Suspense' 803). O'Connor placed her characters in seemingly unreasonable situations as a means of creating a sublime experience.
Her beliefs were strongly evident in the collected body of her fiction. She commented that, "Belief, in my own case, is the engine that makes perception operate" ('Suspense' 803). Perhaps the strongest influence on her writing was her illness with lupus. O'Connor's struggles with being ill and facing death certainly affected the creation of the characters who awaited a moment of grace. To justify the use of violence in her fiction, O'Connor stated "in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace" ('Suspense' 804). Her characters were closed-minded and self-centered.
"Their heads are so hard that nothing else will for the work," was her justification for using violent means to awaken the characters to reality ('Suspense' 804). Although she employed terror and death in many of her stories, she stated that violence was not the ultimate goal of the stories. "It is in the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially" ('Suspense' 805). O'Connor believed the violent situations her characters faced brought out personality qualities which they "will take into eternity" ('Suspense' 805)." Writing Short Stories," an essay summarizing O'Connor's concepts of the elements of good fiction, was a lecture she gave to a group of creative writing students in 1961. She stated that "In good fiction, certain of the details will tend to accumulate meaning from the action of the story itself, and when this happens they become symbolic in the way they work" ('Writing' 807). The use of symbolism in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" created a story which seemed to follow a classic model for tragedy.
O'Connor explained "I do think, though, that like the Greeks you should know what is going to happen in the story so that any element of suspense in it will be transferred from its surface to the interior" ('Suspense' 802). She created a "cathartic experience" for the purpose of eliciting "a degree of pity and terror" from the audience, "even though its way of being serious is a comic one" ('Suspense' 802). Elements of foreshadowing, contrived circumstances, and catharsis in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" followed the classic model of Greek tragedy. The use of foreshadowing conformed to Aristotle's concept of magnitude. He believed that "beauty is determined by magnitude and order" (Aristotle 47). The epigraph at the beginning of the story described travelers who must "pass by the dragon" on their journey to the "Father of Souls" ('Good Man' 593).
The epigraph set the stage for the family's trip and their encounter with danger. The first scene of the story when the family talked about their trip to Florida foreshadowed events in the final scene when the family was murdered. The Grandmother told Bailey she would not take her family on a trip with a murderer in their area. She stated "I could not answer to my conscience if I did" ('Good Man' 593). Her statement connected with the encounter with The Misfit when she was forced to answer to her conscience (604). When the family left on vacation, the Grandmother dressed nicely, so that "anyone seeing her dead would know at once she was a lady" (594).
This description clearly predicted her death. John Wesley said he would "smack his face" when asked by the Grandmother what he would do if he met The Misfit ('Good Man' 593). Personal contact came into play when The Misfit reacted "as if a snake had bitten him" when the Grandmother touched his shoulder. Her touch was received as a smack and The Misfit killed her (604).
Coincidences and contrived events, used by O'Connor, may have seemed unreasonable. Effective use of coincidences should "appear to have some design associated with them" (Aristotle 49). This design of events was called "deus ex machine." Aristotle stated that deus ex machine should be used carefully to explain "events that lie outside the plot," to announce unknown events to the audience. He believed that action should be resolved through the plot and not be resolved by inappropriate use of deus ex machine by the author (Aristotle 53). In the first scene, the Grandmother explained to Bailey about the escape of The Misfit from prison ('Good Man' 593). This event had to be explained to set up the course of action for the story.
The conversation with Red Sam's wife sealed the family's fate. The wife heard about The Misfit and told the Grandmother that "I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he didn't attack this place right here" (597). The wrong turn on the dirt road and the car accident appeared to be contrived events by the author (598). Order in Greek tragedy also included the "imitation of pitiable and fearful incidents." Recognition of such events, one element of catharsis, would evoke "pity and fear" in the audience.
Reversal, the other element of catharsis, "is the change of fortune in the action of the play to the opposite state of affairs" (Aristotle 50). Catharsis was most the effective result of tragedy when the moment of recognition occurred simultaneously with the reversal of fate (50). "Pity and fear can arise from the spectacle and also from the very structure of the plot" (51). According to Longinus, "sublimity depends upon the place and the manner and the circumstances and the motive" (93).
He stated that "inversion," like Aristotle's reversal, was a key element of creating sublimity (95). Longinus also believed that characters' behaviors lent "support to the sublime," since their actions created the event of inversion and the audience could be moved by emotions (93). "Sublimity flashing forth at the right moment scatters everything before it like a thunderbolt, and at once displays the power of the orator" (81). O'Connor certainly created a she of the final scene, when the Grandmother was on her knees and begged The Misfit to pray to Jesus for help. She came to a realization that she was connected to The Misfit.
The audience could have expected that her moment of revelation could have saved her life. However, O'Connor twisted the plot and the Grandmother, along with the entire family, was murdered ('Good Man' 604). O'Connor explained her use of religious symbolism in the essay, "The Element of Suspense." She stated that "the heroine... is in the most significant position life offers the Christian. She is facing death. And to all appearances, like the rest of us, is not too well prepared for it" ('Suspense' 803).
Tolstoy believed that the only good forms of art was Christian. He stated that "the appraisement of feelings (that is, the recognition of one or another set of feelings as more or less good, more or less necessary for the well-being of mankind) is effects by the religious perception of the age" (Tolstoy 472). Tolstoy believed the dominant religious perception of the modern world was Christianity. "The essence of Christian perception consists of the recognition by every man of his son ship to God and of the consequent union of men with God and with one another" (Tolstoy 475). Art could be considered good only if it expressed feelings that were common and accessible to everyone (475).
Tolstoy's concept of art related directly to Flannery O'Connor's use of Christian symbols. O'Connor admitted that the Grandmother was a hypocrite and that "her wit was no match for The Misfit's." However dim-waited the Grandmother was, her "capacity for grace" was greater than The Misfit ('Suspense' 803). During the final scene when the Grandmother confronted The Misfit, "she realizes, even in her limited way, that she is responsible for the man before her." Her moment of sublimity came with the realization of the connection to her murderer through "roots deep in the mystery she had been merely prattling about" ('Suspense' 804). Throughout the entire story, the Grandmother talked about morals and proper conduct, but only came to believe in her Christian ideals when she stared down the barrel of a gun at The Misfit. O'Connor stated that the Grandmother "made the right gesture" in reaching out her with her hand and her spirit to The Misfit, even though that action resulted in her murder. O'Connor believed the ultimate goal of the story is the symbolic action in the Grandmother's soul.
The audience should not focus on the death of the family (804). The characters of the Grandmother and The Misfit can be analyzed in a synthesis Burke's principles of continuity and discontinuity and Tolstoy's concept of the unifying feelings of Christian art. The Grandmother disconnected herself from other characters and reality. She had a need to feel superior in her conduct and morals, as if she were the gauge by which to judge "a good man." The Grandmother perceived herself as a model "lady." In reality, she was not the model lady because of her domineering and prejudiced actions. Only when she faced death did she believe in the qualities of a "good man" and the ideals of Christian brotherhood. She felt connection, after the murder of her son Bailey, in the moment she told The Misfit, "Why you " re one of my own babies.
You " re one of my own children!" ('Good Man' 604). Her gesture of unity was heartfelt. However, her connection was made ironic by the rejection of The Misfit. Although The Misfit could be symbolically interpreted as evil incarnate, O'Connor herself did "not equate the Misfit with the Devil" ('Suspense' 804). His morality and actions were dissociated from mainstream beliefs. "But somewhere's along the line I done something wrong and got sent to the penitentiary.
I was buried alive."I forgot what I done, lady," The Misfit explained to the Grandmother ('Good Man' 602). His disconnection from reality originated from not knowing the difference between right and wrong. The Misfit criticized Jesus for healing and resurrection, which threw 'everything off balance.' The Misfit explained that "If He [Jesus] did what he said" then it would be right to follow Christ, like the Grandmother did. However, The Misfit doubted Christ, and "if [Jesus] didn't" perform those actions, then The Misfit could justify murder and meanness as the only pleasures in life ('Good Man' 604).
"If I had been there I would have known and not be like I am now" ('Good Man' 604). If The Misfit could have seen with his own eyes the actions of Christ, then he speculated that his life would be different. "She would have been a good woman... if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life" ('Good Man' 604). This statement after the Grandmother's murder implied that people would only behave morally if their lives were in a constant state of peril. In the end of this tragedy, the Grandmother didn't measure up to be a good woman.
Although Tolstoy provides an effective filter through which to analyze O'Connor, the focus is too narrow. Tolstoy did not consider other religions and common beliefs. Nietzsche could provide a more universal analysis of tragedy, in contrast to the Christian dogma of Tolstoy. Nietzsche described an individual's reaction to art as a response to a dream. Images are art, expressions of reality, which influence the mind of the observer. "It is by these images that he interprets life, by these processes that he rehearses it" (Nietzsche 420).
'The divine comedy of life" is expressed through art. The most effective images or illusion are those that are based on reality, with which the audience will form a connection' (420). Tragic art originated in the Greek cultural awareness of the "terrors and horrors of existence" (422). Nietzsche proposed that the Greeks created their mythology of deities who modeled human behavior as a means of coping with the tragedy of existence (422). "The gods show us how there is a need for a whole world of torment in order for the individual to produce the redemptive vision" (422).
O'Connor employed Christian beliefs to create cathartic works of fiction in the same way Greek writers used their gods and heroes in tragic literature." A Good Man Is Hard to Find" has spiritual meaning which transcends exclusively Christian ideals. O'Connor intended for the audience to become aware of what traits were essential for living and were "taken into eternity" ('Suspense' 805). The actions of the characters could be viewed through a more open minded screen which, actions that demonstrated the "real heart of the story" on a level which deals with "the Divine life and our participation in it" ('Suspense' 803). O'Connor intended for the story to "transcend any neat allegory" or "pat moral categories a reader could make" (803). The true heart of the story "must have somehow made contact with mystery" (803). Readers of diverse spiritual beliefs could still derive meaning from this story, since the unifying feeling of brotherhood is common among major religions..