Ever since the year 1805 short stories have held a great impact on the world of literature and are used to share a message or a moral in a very condensed and short amount of time. Throughout this semester I have read, studied, and analyzed various short stories, observing how the author’s use their stories to relate to the reader and acquire their attention thus relaying their message. Through the year I learned that one of the most impactful pieces of a short story is the theme. What better author relay’s theme in her stories than Flannery O’Connor, specifically in A Good Man is Hard to Find, Good Country People and Everything That Rises Must Converge. All of these stories share the same theme of good versus evil to show the readers the corruptions of the real world.
In order to being, and to properly analyze the connection of themes in O’Connor’s short stories the question must first be asked: Why is the theme of the story so important? Not to be confused with the Plot, which is the sequence of events in a story. The Theme in the words of writing lecturer Joan McCord, “A theme is a natural, unobtrusive part of a story. The writer starts with an idea; as the story develops, it is influenced by the writer’s own philosophy or observation of the human condition. This is the theme, the quality that brings with it a sense of values and drama.” Our Author, Flannery O’Connor expresses her ideas and philosophy of good versus evil through the themes of these three short stories.
We start with Flannery O’Connor’s A good man is hard to find. Written in 1953, it tells the story of a family from Georgia taking a road trip to Florida for vacation. Through certain events the family find themselves stranded on the side of the road in Florida to be met by a dangerous criminal, “The Misfit,” and his two accomplices who end up taking the family group by group into the woods to shoot and kill them.
The grandmother quickly establishes the theme of good versus evil at the beginning of the story. ‘Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.’ (1) Grandma essentially draws a line in the sand of good versus evil, putting herself and her family on the side of good and the misfit on the side of evil. She does this while also foreshadowing the confrontation of the Misfit with the family, ironically being the one to lead them to the encounter.
Next, a “small” character in the story brings us a very substantial quote, that relates highly to O’Connor’s theme. ‘A good man is hard to find, everything is getting terrible. I remember that day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more.’ (43) Red Sammy Butts, the owner of the Tower restaurant, is a good man according to the grandmother, trusting and perhaps a little gullible. To him, ‘good’ means ‘decent’ or ‘respectable,’ as it does for the grandmother. Of course, the grandmother, who certainly sees herself as a ‘good’ person, and the family, will encounter somebody who’s ‘the other kind,’ which makes what Sammy said humorous yet foreboding. There’s also a more serious irony because the encounter with genuine evil will pose the question of what it really means to be good. It could be that the word means a lot more than Sammy or the grandmother had previously thought. This quote also relates to O’Connor’s view of the troubled world, a good world turned evil where it was once acceptable to “go off and leave your screen door unlatched.”
Finally, we come to a quote from the Misfit himself, ‘She would of been a good woman… If it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.’ (140) This is personally my favorite quote when it comes to discussing the theme of good versus evil. This is the first time someone besides the grandmother is talking about being ‘good,’ only this time it comes from The Misfit who is quite obviously not good. After The Misfit ordered his men to kill the family, the grandmother is left to basically plead for her life, going on and on about “good people” and the Misfit himself being good. The Misfit’s line here suggests that the grandmother who seems throughout the story to be the essence of “good” would only be good if he were continuously threatening her life. He recognizes that the grandma’s final plea, for which he killed her, was in every way “good,” while implying that it was with this encounter, and with death, what genuinely made her “good.” Leaving the reader to ask themselves, if it was at this moment that the grandmother actually became good, then what does it truly mean to be good?
We now carry on to Flannery O’Connor’s second story, Good Country People. Published in 1855, the story opens with Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell starting their day taking care of “important business” as they do every morning. The Hopewell’s house and employ the Freeman family, stating that the Freeman’s are “not trash” but “good country people.” The story revolves around Mrs. Hopewell’s daughter Joy, or Hulga as she changed her name, and Manley Pointer, a bible salesman. The two walk together around the woods, and the property becoming more and more romantic with each other. Towards the end, much to our surprise, Pointer tricks Hulga into giving him her prosthetic leg to which he insults her and takes off, leaving her stranded in a barn loft. It is quite simple to see the elements of good versus evil in this story. Unlike A Good Man is Hard to Find, these examples do not come in quotes but rather the way the characters behave.
We start with the obvious, Manley Pointer. A Bible salesman who is “not even from a place, just near a place’ (40). From the beginning, we are given the impression that he is elusive and hard to pin down. Hulga and Mrs. Hopewell, however, think Manley’s uncomplicated, unintelligent, and generally inferior. Since he’s anything but, he uses his perceived status as a simple and good country folk to get what he wants. Whether it be a free meal, a person’s time, or even a prosthetic body part. There is something sneaky, perhaps even predatory, about Manley. We get that he’s a predator and sees Hulga like his prey, a trapped animal, waiting to be claimed. Which, of course, is exactly what he does… to her leg. We see throughout the story that O’Connor finds evil within this character, but it is with Pointer that we can uncover the “good” and even “evil” within the others.
Our next main character is quite hard to interpret, it isn’t until the reveal of Pointer’s evil that we can uncover the good in Hulga. Hulga is thirty-two year old and has a doctoral degree in philosophy. She’s been doing a lot of reading and writing for at least the past ten years, and probably plenty before in high school. Meaning the lady has learned a great deal. Hulga has what she needs to make the life she wants for herself seeing that she is highly educated and yet she can’t pursue this life because of her many health problems. Instead, she’s stuck at home, with her mother and Mrs. Freeman, both of whom Hulga says she doesn’t exactly think of as intellectual equals. With her doctorate in philosophy, Hulga spends all her time with two people who wouldn’t know the first thing about philosophy. Hulga has a complex belief system, first learned from a conversation of her mother and Manley. ‘[Hulga] Is an atheist and won’t let me keep the Bible in the parlor’ (31). Okay: So Hulga was raised Christian, but is now an atheist. Hulga confirms this when she tells Manley that she “doesn’t even believe in God’ (96), even restating herself later, ‘I told you I didn’t believe in God’ (102). This doesn’t mean Hulga is belief-less. What she does believe in is ‘nothing’ (115). Hulga’s philosophical foundation is in nothing, which is a way of O’Connor telling us she’s a nihilist. Nihilism is a philosophical belief that, in the simplest terms, basically means there’s no real basis for judging right from wrong. Hulga, then, believes in the truth of nothing. Hulga wants Manley to go against his principles. The reason for this is based on Hulga’s belief that he is good, and won’t hurt her. She wants to do the hurting, to crush his beliefs. This desire to conquer his beliefs shows just how much she really does believe in right and wrong, otherwise, she wouldn’t feel so betrayed come the end. If Hulga truly believed in nothing like the ultimate truth, it wouldn’t matter what Manley does, nor would she have believed in his overall goodness. So while she sets out to change Manley’s belief, in the end, she really exposes her own beliefs and therefore becomes the “good” in “good country people.”
Flannery O’Connor’s final story sets its action between a mother and son. Julian Chestny, our leading man, is a recent college graduate living at home who is set to take care of his mother. He works like a typewriter salesman but longs for a life as a writer. Julian gets the bright idea to teach his mother a lesson about the error of her old-fashioned views on race and class. Ms. Chestney, Julian’s mother is described from the perspective of our narrator, Julian, and is said to be a racist old-fashioned woman reliant on her son to help her get around. It’s quite obvious to see who the “good” and “evil” are in our story right? Wrong.
First impressions mean everything, except for this story. The first thing you need to know about Julian’s mother the entire story is written from Julian’s perspective, so we never get an objective look at her despite that fact that he claims to be objective. I’m not saying she’s a cup of tea, she is racist snobbish, and just a tad annoying, but does that make you evil? In a lot of ways, she’s way more likable than her stuck up son. Looking at what we learn about her, outside of Julian’s prejudiced view. We know she is a widow, she struggled most of her life to feed dress and put Julian through school, and constantly supports her son. Knowing all of this it’s quite difficult to see her ass the evil villain Julian makes her out to be. Did Ms. Chestny deserve being punched by the black woman? Did she deserve having a stroke? Perhaps. What she did was definitely offensive. However, we should also consider her action in the context of what she has been through, her life and experience. it might be her son who needs the sense knocked into him. All things considered, it’s quite simple to say that Julian’s mother is the “good” half of our, good versus evil theme.
During the story, Julian attempts to teach his mother a series of lessons in order to change her worldview. Julian can’t stand a lot of things about his mother, but he above all cannot stand her outdated notions of race and class. He says to her, ‘Knowing who you are is good for one generation only. You haven’t the foggiest idea where you stand now’ (17).
Besides attending college with African-Americans and trying to interact with them on the bus, Julian does not have any black friends. In fact, his interactions with blacks are mostly made up, with the end goal of teaching his mother a ‘lesson.’ We have to ask is this justify his behavior towards his mother’s ideals?
Julian is just as much, if not more, of a snob than his mother is. When he imagines making a black friend, he only images the ‘better types,’ such as professors, lawyers, ministers, and doctors. In real life, Julian has only made contact with an “undertaker” and a man who gave him two lottery tickets. He may be progressive towards the changing society in his mind but, in reality, he is as conservative and unmodernized as any racist, including his mom. When he describes bringing home a ‘suspiciously Negroid woman’ he calls it the ‘ultimate horror,’ I wonder if the “horror” of this idea is shared between Julian and his mother? Throughout the whole story, Julian fantasizes about teaching his mom a lesson. His insecurity and evil attitude towards his mother make him incapable of engaging with the world. Despite his want to have black friends, his mom is the one who actually plays with Carver, the black child. Maybe Julian is the one who should take a lesson from her.
Flannery O’Connor incorporates Good versus Evil in these three short stories to such an extent that it is simple to relate the theme to our own lives and in the grand sense, the world around us. It is through stories where we learn the most about ourselves and the world around us. Hopefully, you can take away a few lessons from O’Connor, perhaps the forces of good and evil in your life.