In order to arrive at the joy and affirmation of Easter Sunday, we encounter the suffering and despair of Good Friday. It’s not a pleasant thing to acknowledge, but grace and violence appear bound together at Easter.
Few writers are as astute at recognizing this relationship as Flannery O’Connor. Rather than a world of neutral surfaces, O’Connor’s fiction presents us with a world that is irreducibly “grotesque.” For her, the history of the South has made for an environment that is “hardly Christ-centered, [but] is most certainly Christ-haunted” (M&M 44). Her characters may not act like Christians, but theirs is a world which is divinely given, a world in which grace regularly emerges and disrupts. For this reason, O’Connor’s fiction adopts what she has called, “prophetic vision,” a way of seeing that paradoxically understands near things at a distance and far things up close. As she puts it, “The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that you find in the best modern instances of the grotesque.” This has everything to do with her view that art is incarnational. It is, in other words, ultimately about embodiment rather than abstraction, and its particular kind of embodiment is a deeply mysterious and troubling one.
Among O’Connor’s best-loved stories, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” presents a family of six (two parents, three children, their grandmother, and her cat) on its way to Florida. Along the way, the grandmother uses her gullible grandchildren to pressure her son (the driver) into taking a detour and searching for an old plantation from her past. After a minor car accident, the family waves down a passing car, described as “a big black battered hearse-like automobile” (126). After the vehicle stops, the grandmother loudly identifies one of its passengers as a notorious serial killer who goes by the name of The Misfit.
This outspoken recognition is a fatal mistake for the grandmother and for the rest of her family. As the Misfit’s henchmen begin to take her children and grandchildren into the woods to shoot them, the grandmother continues to talk with the Misfit. As his words turn to stories from his violent past, the grandmother begins to lose her scruples. Naturally, she turns to her faith, but it appears void of content. At best, she can only say the words “pray, pray . . pray, pray” and offer empty advice to her adversary (133). “If you would pray,” she says again, “Jesus would help you.” The Misfit agrees with her but admits he has no use for the help. “Jesus thrown everything off balance,” he counters. “I call myself the Misfit . . . because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment. . . . Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain’t punished at all?” (131). The Misfit understands that human attempts to distribute justice inevitably fall short of the proportionality to which they lay claim. Despite the fact that he is more or less justifying murder, O’Connor’s serial killer has adopted a prophetic register, questioning the very basis of morality and judgment that has empowered the grandmother’s pious faith.
“Listen lady,” he said in a high voice, “if I had been there [with Jesus] I would have known and wouldn’t be like I am now.” She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them. (132)
It’s a shockingly violent end to an already disturbing story, but for O’Connor, there is a theological reason for this kind of violence. The grandmother has spent most of the story presenting her ability to remember as the key to her superior moral code, a source of manners and piety that she believes is disappearing along with her generation. The Misfit does just the opposite. He has little trouble admitting to the grandmother that he has no real grounding in the past and that its mystery torments him to no end. While the grandmother has used the past as a way of sentimentalizing the present and achieving some sense of piety, the Misfit recognizes that things are “off balance,” that our moral judgments can no longer have the last word. In an almost Nietzschian moment, the Misfit reveals the grandmother’s nostalgic morality as a fiction. Jesus has tipped the balance and relativized our relationship to the world and to each other. If Jesus didn’t do what he said he did, says the Misfit, there is “no pleasure but meanness” (132).
But in the interaction between the Misfit and the grandmother grace has also entered the picture, even if he can’t recognize it as such. In the moments before she is murdered, the grandmother realizes that she is responsible for the Misfit, that he is one of her own “children.” As O’Connor has written elsewhere,
Violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. 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. (M&M 112)
Easter is about the breaking of limits, our collective liberation from the bondage of sin, death, and our own self-seeking imaginations. Easter names the event in which our endeavors and projections, our habits and compulsions, are revealed in their common violence. This is also O’Connor’s point with the Misfit: “the freak in modern fiction is usually disturbing to us because he keeps us from forgetting that we share in his state” (M&M 133). This process of demystification is a common thread in O’Connor’s fiction. And yet, even if this is where we begin to understand our responsibility for each other, it cannot end there.
In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the monstrous side of our humanity comes repeatedly to the surface. When we see it as our own, we are ashamed. The good news of Easter is that, along with all our facile moral judgments, this shame need not hold us back from communion with God and with one another.
Jonathan Dyck blogs at Church Going. He is a co-editor of the Catholic Commons
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971. 117-133.
—. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Eds. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970.