Mercy & the Hard Heart: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964)

Bizarre, disturbing, violent and peopled with freaks and unpleasant characters – this seems to be a common consensus about the content of Flannery O’Connor’s writing. I’ve just finished reading ten of her short stories contained in the selection above. If I’d stopped after only reading the first few I might have described them in that way also. Some of her stories left me wondering what it was she was getting at, and her characters certainly weren’t appealing. At the same time, though, I sensed there were significant themes tucked below the surface that needed some stretching of my moral imagination before I could interpret their meanings.
The first story in this collection was ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find.’ I knew what to expect, having heard about it beforehand, so it didn’t have the shock value it might have had if I hadn’t been prepared. Still, my reaction to the story was “What ?? Is that the end of it??”
I went on to the next story, and then the next.
Then I came to story number six, the one with the unfortunate title of The Artificial N***er, and all of a sudden, O’Connor’s theme of violent mercy, grace and redemption is so clear.
Mr Head takes his belligerent grandson, Nelson, to the city, intending for him to see everything there is in a city so that he would be content to stay at home for the rest of his life. An incident occurs in which Mr Head, in the grip of fear, denies that Nelson is related to him.

Mr. Head began to feel the depth of his denial…He knew that if dark overtook them in the city, they would be beaten and robbed. The speed of God\’s justice was only what he expected for himself, but he could not stand to think that his sins would be visited upon Nelson and that even now, he was leading the boy to his doom.

Mr Head had never disgraced himself before and he hadn’t known what mercy felt like because he had always been too good to deserve any!

Mr. Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again but this time he knew that there were no words in the world that could name it…
He understood it was all a man could carry into death to give his Maker and he suddenly burned with shame that he had so little of it to take with him. He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair…
He saw that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved him in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that moment to enter paradise.


‘He had so little of it to take with him.’ 

It is of the Lord‘s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.
 They are new every morning…
Lamentations 3

Out of all the stories in this collection, this one was my favourite and I think it would be a good first introduction to Flannery O’Connor.

‘The Displaced Person’ would be my next pick – a haunting sort of piece about a Polish refugee:

…she felt she had been tricked by the old priest. He had said there was no legal obligation for her to keep the Displaced Person if he was not satisfactory, but then he had brought up the moral one.

The old priest…sat on her porch, taking no notice of her partly mocking, partly outraged expression as she sat shaking her foot, waiting for an opportunity to drive a wedge into his talk. “For,” he was saying, as if he spoke of something that had happened yesterday in town, “when God sent his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ Our Lord” – he slightly bowed his head – “as a Redeemer to mankind, H…”
“Father Fynn!” she said in a voice that made him jump. “I want to talk to you about something serious!”
The skin under the old man’s right eye flinched.
“As far as I’m concerned,” she said and glared at him fiercely, “Christ was just another D. P.”

I enjoyed O’Connor’s ironic sense of humour and the names she gave to some of her characters:

Mrs Hopewell who ‘had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other people’s in such a constructive way that she never felt the lack.’

Mrs Freeman: ‘Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings.’

Mrs Shortley: ‘Her arms were folded and as she mounted the prominence, she might have been the giant wife of the countryside, come out at some sign of danger to see what the trouble was. She stood on two tremendous legs, with the grand self-confidence of a mountain, and rose, up narrowing bulges of granite, to two icy blue points of light that pierced forward, surveying everything.’

Not to mention Mr. Shiftlet and Mr. Paradise and a host of other unlikable and offensive individuals.

Flannery O’Connor was a devout Roman Catholic from the Bible Belt of the South, and is considered to be one of the most important short story writers in American literature. He first story was published when she was twenty-one and she died eighteen years later of an auto-immune disease at the age of thirty-nine. She said of her own work:

Many of my ardent admirers would be roundly shocked and disturbed if they realized that everything I believe is thoroughly moral, thoroughly Catholic, and that it is these beliefs that give my work its chief characteristics.

Heidi @  Mt Hope Chronicles has a comprehensive post about the author with many and varied links. I listened to the Circe Podcast she linked to earlier this year and it gave a good introduction and overview of the author.

Invitation to the Classics edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness contains a short chapter on her life and work.

I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. 
Their hearts are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.
Invitation to the Classics

This is my Classic Short Stories entry for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2106

5 thoughts on “Mercy & the Hard Heart: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964)

  1. Flannery O'Connor is one of my all-time favorites. Just yesterday I finished a book recommended in that Circe podcast episode (assuming it was the same one) called The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An Amercan Pilgrimage, which followed O'Connor and three other Catholic writers in mid-century America. It was really fascinating. She became a far more real person to me, flawed but visionary. I read her novel The Violent Bear It Away for a class at my very secular university, and I remember feeling like I was having a spiritual epiphany right there at my desk.


  2. Now I want to read The Violent bear it Away! The story about mercy I mentioned above had a similar effect on me. The podcast I listened to was an interview with Jonathon Rogers who wrote a spiritual biography about O'Connor: The Terrible Speed of Mercy. The book you read sounds very interesting.


  3. We read a couple Flannery O'Connor stories for our local book group last year. I found that my first reading of her was less than pleasant, but she greatly improved upon second reading. I think my experience was similar to yours in that way — I didn't get the hopefulness and grace in the midst of the violent/depressing moments of her writing right away, but when I did, it seemed to be threaded throughout. I haven't read the stories you listed except for A Good Man Is Hard to Find (the other we read together was Revelation — I liked the former better), so I'll be checking out your particular favorites.


  4. In a way it was a little like my experience with Brideshead Revisited – i.e. the threads of grace etc were not obvious at first. Good Country People was a strange story in the collection I read & I'm still trying to work out what she was meant with that one.


  5. Pingback: Top Ten Tuesday – my top ten uncomfortable reads | journey & destination

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s