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

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

Illustration by Junyi Wu (junyiwu.blogspot.com)
Illustration by Junyi Wu (junyiwu.blogspot.com)

Part Two: “Flannery O’Connor’s Good Characters”

Continued from Part One: “Flannery O’Connor’s Evil Characters”

A common theme throughout Flannery O’Connor’s stories is that people are not always what they seem. Most people like to believe that no matter how wicked a person may seem, everyone has at least a little good within them, even if you have to dig deep down to find it and bring it to the surface. The tendency is to make excuses for a person’s bad or violent behavior – they’re having a bad day, or they had an unfortunate upbringing, or they are simply misunderstood and need some love and compassion. O’Connor’s  stories, on the other hand, often present the exact opposite view– that no matter how good a person appears on the outside, there is at least a little evil lying below the surface; it’s just a matter of the right circumstances occurring to reveal it.

The “Good” Characters

If the heart of man is truly “deceitful and desperately wicked,” as the Bible teaches and Flannery O’Connor believed, and any good he does is actually contrary to his nature, then an individual’s heart cannot be judged strictly by his or her behavior. O’Connor uses her characters to show that people who appear to be proper, upstanding citizens may still have impure motives and attitudes within them. In a unique way, she uses evil characters to expose the flaws hidden deep within the outwardly “good” characters. While it is true that a person’s actions reveal what’s in their heart, some people are skilled at hypocritically portraying themselves in the way they wish others to see them.

“A Good Man is Hard To Find”

“She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Grandma has definite ideas about what people should be like, and she views herself as a model of this ideal. It is important to her that people view her as a lady, and this even dictates how she dresses for the family road trip. Although the children’s mother dresses casually and comfortably, Grandma travels in a dress, hat, and even gloves. The writer makes the foreshadowing observation that “anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.” Additionally, the grandmother’s sense of self-importance causes her to constantly voice her opinions about how things used to be, and how people should act. In fact, she judges everything and everyone in reference to herself. “If I were a little boy, I wouldn’t talk about my native state that way…In my time, children were more respectful…People are certainly not nice like they used to be.” While “Negroes” are not expected to live up to her standards, she is concerned with how her own family’s actions reflect on her and is embarrassed when little June Star is rude to the woman at the restaurant.

Although Grandma seems self-confident, the reader senses that it may be an act she puts on to hide her insecurity. She desires to be noticed, appreciated, and included. With insight, June Star observes that Grandma doesn’t want to be left out of anything. She chatters a lot, telling one story after another, and she continually draws attention to herself and expresses her opinions. However, the grandmother is not honest with herself or others, and her deceitfulness drives the plot and eventually leads to disaster. In spite of Bailey’s disapproval, she secretly brings along her cat, which causes the accident. Then, she deceitfully persuades them to turn off onto a little-traveled road. Of course, she never admits she was mistaken about the house they were looking for. After the accident, she implies she is injured in order to appease Bailey’s anger.

Ultimately, Grandma tries to impose her ideals on The Misfit. She claims she can tell that he is a good man just by looking at him, insisting, “You could be honest too if you’d only try” — more deception. She does not really believe he is a good person, but is simply trying to talk him out of what he is about to do. Then she suggests that he pray and ask Jesus to help him. Although she is trying to persuade him of his goodness, he is actually more honest than she is and recognizes himself for what he is. He knows that regardless of his appearance, his efforts, or even his prayers, he will not change. Finally, she attempts to pay him off to spare her life, and it is not until just before he shoots her that she realizes that they are not so different from one another. This realization prompts her to remark, “You’re one of my own children.” But all of the grandmother’s talk is ineffective, and the falseness behind it actually provokes him to kill her.

“Good Country People”

“Woman! Do you ever look inside? Do you ever look inside and see what you are not?”

Mrs. Hopewell is similar to Grandma in that she categorizes people as either good or bad, and she honestly believes herself to have no bad qualities. Her daughter, Joy, is aware of this and sees her mother as a hypocrite. She yelled at her mother one day, “Do you ever look inside and see what you are not?” Mrs. Hopewell does not understand her daughter, nor does she approve of her attitudes, habits, or looks. As her name implies, Mrs. Hopewell is hoping that her unhappy daughter will some day change to live up to her name. Joy senses this, and expresses it when she says, “If you want me, here I am – LIKE I AM,” and spitefully changes her name to Hulga. She wants to be accepted by her mother, but rather than loving or accepting her daughter for who she is, Mrs. Hopewell pities her and treats her as a child. Yet, ironically she considers herself as tolerant and patient, and is often heard saying such things as, “It takes all kinds,” and “Everyone has a right to his opinion.”

As with the grandmother, it is important to Mrs. Hopewell how others perceive her. For example, Mrs. Hopewell does not mind being seen with Mrs. Freeman, her tenant, because she is a lady, and not trash. She feels compelled to be polite and hospitable to make up for Joy’s rudeness. When Manley enters the house, her first thought is to wonder what he thinks about the room. Then she lies about having a Bible, so he would not think her a heathen. In fact, Manley affirms for Mrs. Hopewell everything she wants to believe about herself – that she is a Christian, that she is a good woman, that she is honest and hospitable. He tells her what she wants to hear, so she accepts him as trustworthy.

Mrs. Hopewell’s tragic flaw is that she judges people based on their appearances. In the end, she bases her opinion of Manley on the act he successfully puts on for her. She too quickly labels him as a good person. There is nothing wrong with assuming that people are decent and moral upon first meeting them. Unfortunately, that assumption sometimes proves wrong. As Mrs. Hopewell discovers, such was the case with Manley Pointer.


“If it’s one thing I am … it’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’ It could have been different!”

If the ultimate goal of the average human being is to be a “good person,” the question remains, “What is the definition of a good person?” In the story, “Revelation,” O’Connor introduces Mrs. Ruby Turpin, a woman whose temperament and attitude parallel those of Mrs. Hopewell and Bailey’s mother. Although outwardly pleasant and generous, inwardly she is judgmental of everyone. It is crucial to Mrs. Turpin that she be considered a good woman; as she expresses it, “Make me a good woman and it don’t matter what else, how fat or how ugly or how poor!” Then, one day she is forced to closely examine herself when an ugly, unpleasant young girl physically and verbally attacks her in public and calls her an old wart hog. When the girl yells at her, “There was no doubt in her mind that the girl … knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition.” The girl somehow sees right through Mrs. Turpin’s hypocrisy and exposes it, and fortunately, this is not wasted on her. As Mrs. Turpin struggles with the reason for this girl singling her out, she yells aloud, “Who do you think you are?” presumably at her attacker, and perhaps indirectly to God. But inevitably, she must direct the question to herself. Once the initial shock, anger, and denial of the girl’s accusation wear off, she realizes that she has been thinking she is better than those around her. While sitting in the doctor’s office, she was comparing everyone there with herself, and feeling rather smug about where she fit in the overall scheme of life.

In addition to her religious beliefs, O’Connor’s stories reflect the influence of the prevailing attitude of the South, where she was raised during the mid-20th century. In this historical setting, it was advantageous to be white rather than black. An individual’s skin color greatly determined his or her social status and privileges. In some of her stories, a class of people labeled “white trash” is mentioned, particularly in “Revelation.” Mrs. Turpin clearly delineates the social hierarchy as she sees it, and while she is undoubtedly glad to be white, she admits to herself that “there are worse things than being black.” Given a choice, she would prefer to be a “neat, clean respectable Negro-woman” than to be white and trashy. Later, she envisions all people, black and white alike, as souls rising together to heaven. O’Connor conveys the truth that an individual’s worth should not be based on skin color.

O’Connor often ends her stories with an unexpected, shocking twist. In each of the three stories discussed here, a moral person is suddenly confronted by an individual with evil intentions. Neither Mrs. Hopewell nor Joy suspected that Manley was planning to steal Joy’s wooden leg; the grandmother believed she could talk The Misfit out of his wicked deeds; Mrs. Turpin was totally unprepared for the attack she received. However, as a result of the conflict that they face, each one gains new insight about herself. Mrs. Turpin shows signs of repentance, whereas it is uncertain how Mrs. Hopewell or Joy will respond. Unfortunately, Grandma’s epiphany comes to her just before her death. All four of these women actually come to see their own hypocrisy, self-deception, and shallowness, but their responses vary.

In the Gospels, Jesus addresses the issue of hypocrisy on numerous occasions. He extends more compassion and forgiveness to the repentant sinner than to the proud, religious Jewish leaders. For example, in Matthew, chapter 23, Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites and says to them, “You make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess,” and a little later He calls them white-washed tombs (v. 25-28). Another example is found in Luke 18:9-14, where Jesus describes two men praying in the temple – one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. Jesus condemns the Pharisee, who in his prideful prayer tells God all the good deeds he does and thanks God that he is not a terrible sinner like others are. (Sounds like Mrs. Turpin!) Off to the side, the tax collector acknowledges that he is a sinner and begs God to show mercy on him. The second man is the one held up as the example to follow. The point is not that attempts to live a good life are wrong, but that what’s in the heart is more important. Comparing myself with others whom I consider worse than myself results in a more prideful heart, not a purer one. The self-righteous women in O’Connor’s stories do just this. Only by comparing myself with Jesus Christ will I gain a correct perspective of the true nature and condition of my heart.

Flannery O’Connor’s view of humanity certainly seems to be contrary to popular opinion, but is actually more inline with what God’s Word teaches. As a devout Catholic, she has incorporated the Biblical doctrine of the depravity of man into her stories. In the book of Romans, it states, “There is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10), and Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it?” The Biblical view of man is that everyone is born sinful (Ps. 51:5) and is incapable of doing anything good without God. In Genesis 8:21, God declares, “…the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” According to this doctrine, then, any good that a person does is in spite of his natural tendencies, not because of it. The truth is, it’s merely by God’s grace that each of us isn’t more wicked than we already are.

Flannery O’Connor. Photo credit: Letters of Note (www.lettersofnote.com)

O’Connor appears to have written her stories with their grotesque characters and shocking endings to produce a particular reaction in the reader. As a Catholic writer, her intended audience is primarily unbelievers rather than believers. She was not trying to communicate a religious message as much as she was trying to transfer a vision, an image that would stick in the mind of the reader and hopefully provoke him to think. Truth is not always pleasant to hear, but it must be told just the same, she might say. A sinner cannot be saved until he realizes he is a sinner, but most people truly believe they are a “good person.” He also needs to realize that any good he does apart from Christ is “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6) in God’s eyes. Through stories like these, if a reader is challenged to consider that he may not be as good a person as he once thought, he may then be drawn to repentance and faith in Christ. In such a case, I believe O’Connor will have achieved her purpose.

Note: The stories of Flannery O’Connor are included on my list of fictional works I believe every Christian should read.

8 thoughts on “Flannery O’Connor: Seeing the Bad in the Good (Part Two)

      1. I like that every word in the story is carefully chosen and that every character represents a specific stereotype. I like the brilliant way that Flannery O’conner demonstrates that good manners have nothing to do with good character — but people always assume that a person who has good manners is a good person. The grandmother actually thought that the man who ultimately killed her was basically a good person. She didn’t have a clue that there nothing that she could do to save herself from being murdered. The grandmother was a manipulative and foolish woman from the onset. I have a draft in my blog that I have never finished writing about the deception of manners. I try not to be a judgmental person, but I prefer people who lack good manners, yet have good character. I did name one of my stray cats Pity Sing. It took me about ten readings of the story before I finally realized that Pity Sing is southern for Pretty Thing! Haha!

        Stereotypes annoy me. I also love the play “Trying to Find China Town,” by David Henry Hwang. I have only read the play, but I would love to see a performance.

  1. I would love to write like Flannery O’connor. I want to write in a way that reveals the human condition; The best writers who ever lived prick the human spirit by exposing the true nature of human beings. I try so hard to do that, and I never have been successful.

    1. Good points; thanks for sharing your observations. Anyone can fool those around them by behaving and speaking in a way that they think others want or expect them to. Isn’t there a saying that goes something like, “Character is what you are when no one is watching”? Contrary to the popular thought that most people are basically good by nature, I believe that, given the right circumstances every human being is capable of carrying out the most horrible evil, without the restraining hand and grace of God upon them.

      That’s funny about your cat’s name. I’m going to check into the Hwang play you mentioned – thanks!

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