Flannery O’Connor: Seeing the Bad in the Good (Part One)

GoodManHardtoFindA Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

Through the ages, philosophers have debated the issue of man’s morality. The question can be asked like this: “Is man basically good, having a potential for evil? Or, is man essentially bad, with the potential for doing good?” How do we distinguish between a “good” person and a “bad” person? If you were to ask the average person on the street, most people would likely say they believe man is basically good. But I believe that the southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor  (1925-1964) would disagree with this assessment. O’Connor’s stories have been classified as Southern Gothic. She is quoted as remarking that “anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” She uses irony and dark humor in some of her short stories to expose the depravity that she believes exists in the heart of every person.

Two types of “bad” characters are found in O’Connor’s stories. One type purposely displays some positive qualities in order to mislead the people around him. This character expertly puts on a show of goodness and sincerity, while inwardly harboring evil intentions. The second type, the self-deceived good person, believes himself to be a generous and honest, upstanding citizen. This character cares a great deal about appearances, and is concerned with the opinions others have about him. O’Connor brings these two character types face to face in situations which reveal the true nature of each.

In this two-part article, I will be taking a look at a few of the characters that O’Connor has created in the following stories: “Good Country People”, “A Good Man is Hard To Find”, and “Revelation.”

Part One: Flannery O’Connor’s Evil Characters

In several of her stories, O’Connor introduces a character with such a black heart and evil intentions that the reader is shocked by the acts he commits. Manley Pointer, in “Good Country People,” and The Misfit, in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” are two such characters. These two men are able to use first impressions to deceive others. They emotionally earn the trust of their unsuspecting victims in order to gain what they want.

“Good Country People”

“He was so sincere and genuine I couldn’t be rude to him. He was just good country people, you know…just the salt of the earth.”
Illustration by Marie Condenzio (mcondenzio.blogspot.com)
Illustration by Marie Condenzio (mcondenzio.blogspot.com)

When Manley Pointer arrives as a Bible salesman at the Hopewell residence, he appears friendly and polite, and shows an interest in Mrs. Hopewell’s daughter, Joy. He carefully chooses his words to paint the image of himself that he wants Mrs. Hopewell to accept: “I know I’m real simple. I don’t know how to say a thing but to say it. I’m just a country boy.” Then he tells her, “I want to devote my life to Chrustian service… I got this heart condition. I may not live long.” A heart condition, just like Mrs. Hopewell’s daughter has. Coincidence? Doubtful. Most likely, he picked up this tidbit of information from a neighbor, just as he learned that Mrs. Hopewell is a “good woman” and that Joy has a wooden leg. After telling her a heart-breaking story about his family, Manley successfully gains her trust and sympathy. The next day, Mrs. Hopewell comments to her neighbor, “[H]e was so sincere and genuine I couldn’t be rude to him. He was just good country people, you know…just the salt of the earth.”

Believing Manley to have an “inferior mind”, Joy (or Hulga, as she calls herself) makes a plan to manipulate and seduce him when they meet on the following day. Although she is highly intelligent and educated, her lack of worldly experience leaves her unprepared for how Manley treats her. Joy is more emotionally vulnerable than she imagined. Regardless of her determination to control her emotions, she is put off her guard, and Manley is able to break her down. He seems so naïve and sincere when he asks if she loves him. Thinking she is so much wiser than he is, she ironically says to him, “We are all damned…but some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there’s nothing to see.” Of course, she does not realize that she has actually been blinded and deceived herself about Manley’s true intentions. Desperately, Joy confronts him about his Christianity, saying, “You’re just like them all – say one thing and do another.” She had rejected religion because she associated Christianity with hypocrisy, but suddenly she understands the consequences of believing in nothing at all.

As it turns out, Manley is not as simple and sincere as he appears. He is like a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing. He starts by admiring and complimenting Joy; he tells her she is special and kisses her, something she has never before experienced. He is able to persuade her to yield to him that which is most precious to her, after which Manley reveals his true character. Both of them claim to believe in nothing, but for Joy it is merely an intellectual decision, while Manley lives out the implications of his philosophy. For him, there is no morality, or truth, or love. Far from being simple-minded, he is in fact quite clever and scheming. We learn that he has a history of preying on the vulnerable and has in fact committed acts of this kind in the past, using different names in order to hide his true identity. Having been duped by Manley’s act and ignorant of what he has done to Joy, Mrs. Hopewell ironically comments, “He was so simple…but I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple.”

“A Good Man is Hard to Find”

“Listen, you shouldn’t call yourself The Misfit because I know you’re a good man at heart. I can just look at you and tell.”

In this story, a different criminal-type is portrayed. Upon first meeting the criminal known as The Misfit, one might perceive him as a cordial, decent sort. However, unlike Manley Pointer, The Misfit has the disadvantage of being a publicly known murderer. Because of this, it is not long before the grandmother recognizes him. Nevertheless, The Misfit is able to gain a certain amount of trust by the way he appears to the family members. Although he is shirtless (having just escaped from prison), he has an intelligent look and gentlemanly manners. He speaks courteously to the family. He acts uncomfortable when Bailey speaks rudely to his mother, and he apologizes to the women for not having on a shirt. As he converses primarily with the grandmother, he sounds honest and open about how he views himself and his life. He speaks highly of his parents, as the “finest people in the world.” He admits he is not a good man, yet as he discusses how he came to be a criminal, he almost gains the listener’s sympathy. He tells Grandma he doesn’t recall being a bad child, nor does he remember why he originally was sent to jail. The Misfit has taken on this epithet for himself because he fails to see how the punishment he has endured fits the crimes he has supposedly committed.

In the end, it becomes evident that The Misfit is a cold, calculating killer. During their conversation, Grandma hears her family being murdered in the woods just behind her. He practically invites the mother to go with her children to their murder, asking her warmly, “Would you and that little girl like to step off yonder…and join your husband?” to which she unwittingly agrees. In spite of his respectful attention and responses to all that Grandma says to him, it eventually becomes obvious that The Misfit never considered sparing anyone. He coolly states, “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Apparently he never really took anything Grandma said seriously. Although grace, forgiveness and repentance are within reach and available to him, he rejects them for himself.

To balance the blatantly evil characters of Manley Pointer and The Misfit, O’Connor adds two upright characters into these stories.  Both Mrs. Hopewell and Bailey’s mother wish to be well thought of, but deep down they are not as good as they believe themselves to be. While these women outwardly seem to have good intentions, the author shows they are not completely good, as no one is.

To be continued next week with Part Two: “Flannery O’Connor’s Good Characters“.
If you haven’t read these stories before, why not read them before continuing? See the links below.

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