Despite the superficial differences in form, structure, and plot, Flannery O’Connor’s and Margaret Atwood’s respective short stories both examine the various ways of living a rich and fulfilling life.
Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is about a family embarking on a trip to Florida. The grandmother, a cantankerous and manipulative old lady, was reluctant to take a trip. Despite her hesitation, on the day of the trip she is the first one in the car, smartly dressed so that “in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady (O’Connor, par. 12).” On their way to Florida, family gets involved in an accident. As they were waiting for help, the Misfit and his crew stumble upon them and kill the whole family.
Margaret Atwood’s “Happy endings,” on the other hand, mimics the structure of a fairy tale / love story. She employs the classic and clichéd “boy-meets-girl” opening, but presents several versions of the plot. In the end, however, Atwood tells the readers that despite the diverging storylines that can be produced from one beginning, the end will always be the same: “John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die. (Atwood, par. 17).”
In O’Connor’s story, the idea of living a good and rich life comes into focus in the last few paragraphs of the story. To evoke this message, Atwood draws upon the tenets of Christianity and its message: that the grace and mercy of God are necessary to live a good life. In the story, it initially seems as if there is the binary opposition between good and evil, with Misfit being “evil” and the grandmother embodying “good,” Atwood shows the readers that the case is not as simple as this. Throughout the story, the grandmother shows just how spiritually lacking she is, as she tries to associate goodness and Christianity with external appearances. For instance, the grandmother was very manipulative:
She knew that Bailey would not be willing to lose any time looking at an old house, but the more she talked about it, the more she wanted to see it once again and find out if the little twin arbors were still standing. “There was a secret:-panel in this house,” she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing that she were, “and the story went that all the family silver was hidden in it when Sherman came through but it was never found . . . (O’Connor, par. 47)”
It was because of this lie that she forced her son to turn back and look for the house, which eventually led to their accident and eventual deaths in the hands of Misfit. She only wanted to satisfy her desires and she was going to do it anyway possible.
Furthermore, it was through her desire to be the center of attention that she got the whole family in trouble. The question arises: if she had only kept it to herself that the man who stopped to help them was indeed the Misfit, would she have been able to save the family? Misfit believes so: “…it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn’t of reckernized me (O’Connor, par. 85).’”
When she was bargaining with the Misfit, however, the grandmother undergoes a dramatic change. Just before she is killed, she tells the Misfit: “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children (O’Connor, par. 92)!” The grandmother realizes that the man was just like her own children whom she raised just like herself. The grandmother, through this dramatic realization, is finally able to admit to herself that she has been a hypocrite all along, that her purported Godliness was in fact all for show.
O’Connor is telling her readers that being God-fearing is a spiritual exercise that is not to be confused with outward shows of religiosity. To live a good Christian life, she seems to say, is to go at the root of Christianity and live from there. The grandmother, though she believes that she is a good disciple of Christ, is shown through her actions that she is not who she thinks she is. Being a Christian, O’Connor says, is to follow the tenets of Christianity with one’s heart.
On the other hand, for Margaret Atwood, living life is about asking the right questions, the how and the why. In contrast to O’Connor’s Christian exhortations, Atwood examines this idea by crafting her story in such a way that it resembles a story board development for an actual story. According to her, despite the numerous ways we can live our lives, at the end, we will all die: “You’ll have to face it, the endings are the same however you slice it. Don’t be deluded by any other endings, they’re all fake, either deliberately fake, with malicious intent to deceive, or just motivated by excessive optimism if not by downright sentimentality (Atwood, par. 16).”
Because of this reality, Atwood tells her readers to focus more on the way to death. This does not mean that we should focus excessively on dying; rather, this is a call for us to enrich our lives, as the living of the life is more important. She examines this concept of living by presenting several versions of the “boy-meets-girl” formula. Through the different scenarios in which she throws John and Mary, the author forces us to look at life in a deeper way, rather than just taking it as it comes. “True connoisseurs,” she says, “are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with (Atwood, par. 18).” The stretch that she is referring to is life and the way we live it. However, she says, it should never only be about “one thing after another, a what and a what and a what (Atwood, par. 18).” Rather, we should try “How and Why.” What she means here is that our life plot should never just be one action after another. Meditation and thought should accompany our action, and that we should have a goal for ourselves to help us live our lives.
Both Atwood and O’Connor explore the theme of living though cast in different lights. However, they both concur in one thing: living one’s life should be an exercise in enriching it, not simply playing out parts. For O’Connor, living a good life is not acting out the part of the Christian but embodying its ideals and beliefs. On the other hand, for Atwood, living a good life is not about playing out pre-destined roles with slight modifications. But rather it is to find the meaning of one’s actions and experiences.
Atwood, Margaret. “Happy Endings.” University of Central Florida Homepage. <http://users.ipfw.edu/ruflethe/endings.htm> 19 April 2007.
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne Homepage. <http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~surette/goodman.html> 19 April 2007.