In a 1958 letter to an unnamed friend, “A,” found in the collection The Habit of Being, Flannery O’Connor once remarked, “All of my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it,” (275). The themes of grace and redemption are vital to any work by O’Connor. Oftentimes her characters are seen at the beginning of a story as being estranged from O’Connor’s perception of God’s grace and living in what could be considered a life of sin. Throughout the course of the work, though, a change is enacted upon the character in which he or she experiences grace by way of a greater understanding of humanity. To O’Connor, the action of grace implies an experience in which one’s pride is replaced with humility, in which one experiences the true intimacy of life through human interaction, or by which one is released from the bondages of sin and returns to a life with God. The characters of the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and Harry Ashfield in “The River,” both experience the action of grace in some way throughout their respective short stories. In both cases, the bestowal of grace upon the character is violent and tragic, an indication of O’Connor’s thoughts on the nature of God’s grace. Through these characters, O’Connor presents that the action of God’s grace is not something that can be predicted, but rather an action that is surprising and life changing, as it brings the bestowed to a deeper, more intimate understanding of humanity, and requires a death of one’s old self.
In the titular short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” grace is bestowed upon the character of the grandmother in her fatal confrontation with the Misfit. Like the other characters mentioned above, the grandmother is presented at the beginning of the story as being distanced from God, as living in a life of sin. She is full of pride, arrogant, and judgmental. There are many instances in which these qualities are expressed at the beginning of the story. When the family is leaving for Florida, the grandmother is the first one ready to go, dressed in a navy blue dress and white cotton gloves. The narrator explains that she dresses in this way so that “in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (118). In this way, the grandmother is presented at the onset of the story as being concerned with appearances and material possessions. She believes that the standards of womanhood are not aspects of one’s character, but rather aspects of one’s wardrobe. This translates into a method of living in which the real sustenance of life is neglected in favor of what one presents on the surface. The grandmother’s inclination to the ephemeral aspects of life is apparent again when she hurls judgment at other people whom she does not know. As the car passes a shack belonging to a sharecropper family, the grandmother reminds the children that, “little niggers in the country don’t have things like we do,” (119). While this may be interpreted as her attempt at teaching the children to appreciate what they have, she never truly instills any real message in the kids, as she doesn’t take the necessary extra step in reminding them to be thankful, but simply observes the poverty of the “little niggers.” This type of attitude continues throughout the trip until the accident, when the Misfit joins the family.
Some scholars, such as David Eggenschwiler in his book The Christian Humanism of Flannery O’Connor, have noted the grandmother’s “persistent and often irritating grandmotherliness,” (91) as a symbol of her capacity for affection even in her sinful state. The reader is given the sense that the grandmother tries to be a good woman, even if her actions appear to be hypocritical and superficial. It is this potential to show true affection that allows the grandmother to receive grace in her confrontation with the Misfit. Only when she is faced with the threat death does she exhibit the true Christian ideals and experience grace. André Bleikasten, in his essay titled “The Heresy of Flannery O’Connor,” notes that, for the grandmother, “the beginning is quite literally the end, and the price paid for spiritual rebirth is an immediate death,” (153). The grandmother acknowledges her own ignorance as to the validity of Jesus’s resurrection, and thus is reminded that her entire morality is based on “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” (Hebrews 11:1). The true action of grace is bestowed upon the grandmother in her recognition that the Misfit is not so much a misfit as simply another fallen human. He and she are united in their sins with rest of humanity, and although the grandmother believes herself to be a lady, she is truly no different from the rest of the world. In a moment of clarity, she sees the Misfit and murmurs, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” (132) and reaches out to touch him as an intimate sign of their shared humanity before the Misfit shoots her in the chest. The reader is left unsure of how to feel regarding the grandmother’s death. On the one hand, her death is a tragedy as she had finally understood the meaning of grace and made a change from her sinful ways, only to be robber of the opportunity to live out this change. On the other hand, her encounter with the Misfit is redeeming in that it gave her the chance, at the end of her life, to experience her profound change and thus die a free, righteous woman. As the Misfit remarks at the end of the story, the grandmother “would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” (133).
Harry Ashfield, of O’Connor’s short story “The River,” is another character that pays the fatal price of spiritual rebirth, being granted God’s grace through his death by means of escaping his young, sinful life. Harry Ashfield is introduced as a young boy, “four or five,” (158) who, like the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is separated from God in the beginning of the story, not by any fault of his own, but simply through lack of introduction to religion. Harry is lives in the city (due to the prevalence of streetcar transportation one may assume New Orleans, a famously sinful city) with his neglectful, socialite parents. Harry’s parents show no regard for their boy’s well-being and are incredibly distant, caring more about nursing their hangovers than taking care of their son. Harry is not unaffected by his parents’ lifestyle; he shows iniquitous behavior in lying to Mrs. Connin about his name, attempting to jump on the tail of the dog at her house, and stealing her handkerchief and Bible. Harry’s first introduction to Jesus begins with a picture of Jesus the carpenter surrounded by little children he sees in Mrs. Connin’s house. She informs him that he was “made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ,” although he originally thought he had been made by “a doctor named Sladewell,” (163). This confusion emphasizes Harry’s inability to distinguish between the literal and the metaphorical or spiritual, a theme that reemerges with his two baptisms in the river.
The first baptism is a devastating experience for Harry, as he expects to be able to escape his apartment life with his parents and join Christ in the Kingdom of God, only to be shocked by the violence of the baptism. The preacher, Mr. Bevel, assures the crowd at the baptism that “there ain’t but one river and that’s the River of Life, made out of Jesus’s Blood,” (165) and promises Harry (who incidentally and jokingly calls himself Bevel), “if I baptize you, you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ,” (168). Enticed by the promise of entering God’s Kingdom, and not being able to distinguish between the muddy river he stands in and the spiritual River of Life advertised by the preacher, Harry responds that he would like to be baptized so that “[he] won’t go back to the apartment… [he’ll] go under the river,” (168). The shock and disappointment of this baptism is indicated by the violent words used to describe it. Harry is “swung upside down and plunged into the water,” before being “jerked” back up again and addressed “sternly” by Mr. Bevel (168). Unfortunately for Harry, after this devastating experience, he must return to his deplorable home and confront his parents in the midst of a party. Harry is still distanced from God in this state, as the next morning he deliberately spills ash trays onto the floor and rubs the ash into the carpet, causing a nuisance for the sake of nuisance, but it is from this state that he realizes how he can escape; “very slowly, his expression changed as if he were gradually seeing appear what he didn’t know he’d been looking for. Then all of a sudden he knew what he wanted to do,” (172). Harry no longer thinks of the religiosity of baptism as a joke, and decides to return to the river to baptize himself and finally escape to the promised Kingdom of Christ. The second baptism is as violent as the first, until he is finally caught by the current “like a long gentle hand” and “for an instant he was overcome with surprise… all his fury and fear left him,” (174). In this moment, his drowning, the action of grace is bestowed upon Harry, as he is finally freed from his world of sin and taken downstream. The apostle Paul acknowledges this aspect of baptism in his letter to the Romans, arguing that one is baptized in order that “[one] might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin,” (Romans 6:6-7). In an online analysis of this short story, user Dermot acknowledges that, “in his final moment, through striving for salvation, [Harry] has obtained grace through death. He has chosen God over a life living with his parents” (Dermot, The Sitting Bee). Although Harry’s acceptance into the Kingdom of Christ is paid for with his death, it is this faith that he can find the promised Kingdom that allows him to experience grace and escape the life riddled with sin.
To O’Connor, grace is the conversion of one’s self from a life of sin to a life of spiritual awakening in Christ. The characters of the grandmother and young Harry experience this conversion in the stories “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “The River,” but pay for it with their lives. For the grandmother, grace is given to her by her ultimate understanding of the equality of all humanity, her understanding that she is not any better or worse than the Misfit, that all humans are fallen and are in need of salvation. For Harry, grace is bestowed on him through his faith that he can truly find the metaphorical Kingdom of Christ beneath the murky waters of the literal river. Although his search ends in his death, the reader feels content that he has escaped the hell that is his life with neglectful parents and entered a new life in Christ. O’Connor utilizes these characters to make an important statement about her own perception of God’s grace; namely, that it is violent and tragic and requires a death of one’s old self. Both characters experience grace at the end of their lives in a violent conversion experience. According to Eggenschwiler, Harry’s fault was due his inability to “differentiate between the River of Life and the actual river, between faith and superstition,” (67) but the enlightened reader need not lose his literal life to experience grace. To O’Connor, one must simply lose their old life, their sinful life. Grace is not something easily earned, but its bestowal on a person brings one to a greater understanding of the intimacies of life, and allows him to be renewed and freed from a life of sin.
Fitzgerald, Sally. The Habit of Being: Flannery O’Connor. Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1979. Print.
O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971. Print.
Eggenschwiler, David. Christian Humanism of Flannery O’Connor. Toronto: Copp Clark Publishing Company, 1972. Print.
André Bleikasten. “The Heresy of Flannery O’Conor.” Critical Essays on Flannery O’Connor. By Friedman, Melvin J., and Beverly Clark. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1985. Print.
Dermot. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Collection) – Flannery O’Connor – The Sitting Bee.” The Sitting Bee. Web.
Harper Collins Study Bible NRSV. Fully rev. ed. Harold W. Attridge. New York: Harper Collins, 2006. Print