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Critical Analysis on "a Good Man Is Hard to Find"

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Religious Symbolism in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find"

This paper will present a rhetorical context for the use of violence in the short story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," as she presented in her essay "The Element of Suspense." The form of classical tragedy in this story will also be analyzed from the critical theories of Aristotle and Longinus. Tolstoy will be used to examine the use Christian symbolism. Nietzsche will provide a more well-rounded universal conclusion to the uses of tragedy and spiritual elements in this classic story.

Flannery O'Connor gave a talk about "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" in 1963 at Hollins College, Virginia, which was published as the essay, "The Element of Suspense In 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find.'" In this essay, O'Connor defined the reasons for using violence in her stories. To establish a basis of reason within the story, O'Connor stated "Much of my fiction takes its character from a reasonable use of the unreasonable, though the reasonableness may not always be apparent. The assumptions that underlie . . . are those of the central Christian mysteries" ("Suspense" 803). O'Connor placed her characters in seemingly unreasonable situations as a means of creating a sublime experience. Her beliefs were strongly evident in the collected body of her fiction. She commented that, "Belief, in my own case, is the engine that makes perception operate" ("Suspense" 803). Perhaps the strongest influence on her writing was her illness with lupus. O'Connor's struggles with being ill and facing death certainly affected the creation of the characters who awaited a moment of grace.

To justify the use of violence in her fiction, O'Connor stated "in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace" ("Suspense" 804). Her characters were closed-minded and self-centered. "Their heads are so hard that nothing else will for the work," was her justification for using violent means to awaken the characters to reality ("Suspense" 804). Although she employed terror and death in many of her stories, she stated that violence was not the ultimate goal of the stories. "It is in the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially" ("Suspense" 805). O'Connor believed the violent situations her characters faced brought out personality qualities which they "will take into eternity" ("Suspense" 805).

"Writing Short Stories," an essay summarizing O'Connor's concepts of the elements of good fiction, was a lecture she gave to a group of creative writing students in 1961. She stated that "In good fiction, certain of the details will tend to accumulate meaning from the action of the story itself, and when this happens they become symbolic in the way they work" ("Writing" 807). The use of symbolism in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" created a story which seemed to follow a classic model for tragedy. O'Connor explained "I do think, though, that like the Greeks you should know what is going to happen in the story so that any element of suspense in it will be transferred from its surface to the interior" ("Suspense" 802). She created a "cathartic experience" for the purpose of eliciting "a degree of pity and terror" from the audience, "even though its way of being serious is a comic one" ("Suspense" 802).

Elements of foreshadowing, contrived circumstances, and catharsis in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" followed the classic model of Greek tragedy. The use of foreshadowing conformed to Aristotle's concept of magnitude. He believed that "beauty is determined by magnitude and order" (Aristotle 47). The epigraph at the beginning of the story described travelers who must "pass by the dragon" on their journey to the "Father of Souls" ("Good Man" 593). The epigraph set the stage for the family's trip and their encounter with danger.

The first scene of the story when the family talked about their trip to Florida foreshadowed events in the final scene when the family was murdered. The Grandmother told Bailey she would not take her family on a trip with a murderer in their area. She stated "I could not answer to my conscience if I did" ("Good Man" 593). Her statement connected with the encounter with The Misfit when she was forced to answer to her conscience (604). When the family left on vacation, the Grandmother dressed nicely, so that "anyone seeing her dead would know at once she was a lady" (594). This description clearly predicted her death.

John Wesley said he would "smack his face" when asked by the Grandmother what he would do if he met The Misfit ("Good Man" 593). Personal contact came into play when The Misfit reacted "as if a snake had bitten him" when the Grandmother touched his shoulder. Her touch was received as a smack and The Misfit killed her (604).

Coincidences and contrived events, used by O'Connor, may have seemed unreasonable. Effective use of coincidences should "appear to have some design associated with them" (Aristotle 49). This design of events was called "deus ex machina." Aristotle stated that deus ex machina should be used carefully to explain "events that lie outside the plot," to announce unknown events to the audience. He believed that action should be resolved through the plot and not be resolved by inappropriate use of deus ex machina by the author (Aristotle 53). In the first scene, the Grandmother explained to Bailey about the escape of The Misfit from prison ("Good Man" 593). This event had to be explained to set up the course of action for the story. The conversation with Red Sam's wife sealed the family's fate. The wife heard about The Misfit and told the Grandmother that "I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he didn't attack this place right here" (597). The wrong turn on the dirt road and the car accident appeared to be contrived events by the author (598).

Order in Greek tragedy also included the "imitation of pitiable and fearful incidents." Recognition of such events, one element of catharsis, would evoke "pity and fear" in the audience. Reversal, the other element of catharsis, "is the change of fortune in the action of the play to the opposite state of affairs" (Aristotle 50). Catharsis was most the effective result of tragedy when the moment of recognition occurred simultaneously

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