I teach an undergraduate class in fiction at Georgia Southern University. I often have to think which stories I can select from the amazingly large arsenal of great literature. This is no easy feat. I’ve decided to post a series of blogs on the selections I make, explaining why they lend themselves as good examples for what I want my beginning students to understand about fiction.
I break my class into three major assignments for which I spend considerable time teaching.
The one that will concern us today is the first section, having to do with realist fiction with a research component. The assignment involves creating a realist story based on the first person testimony of an historical event.
I like to use Flannery O’Connor’s story because so many undergraduate students are interested in stories about serial killers. This one also happens to be based on a true event, and it’s especially useful in that respect to show what a talented writer can do beyond gore and shock value with a story that has this kind of premise.
What follows is a breakdown of the elements of fiction that we study at the start of the term, and how O’Connor’s story exemplifies it.
Character and motivation:
“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He shown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.
It goes without saying that we must experience a character in order to identify with his or her plight. We identify with a character if we can connect with their thinking and mannerism and if we can recognize how we see them play out their story as being true to real life. In the abstract, this can be a difficult concept to grasp for a beginning writer, especially when we are surrounded by a culture of film and television that often downplays character and overplays archetype (and, alas, stereotype). A character’s motivations are too often dismissed with the lowest human emotions: if a lover cheats, then of course it justifies why his girlfriend/wife killed him; if a man breaks into a school and shoots every kid it’s because he was crazy. These sort of gross oversimplification of character motivation is something that I try to eradicate at the start of a course.
But in A Good Man Is Hard To Find the Misfit’s motivations for executing an entire family aren’t quite so easily dismissible, and O’Connor gives us approximately two pages of dialog to explore the complex and multi-layered derangement of the Misfit, which proves, in the end, to be a well-constructed and disturbingly profound philosophy. Scholars have written about the Misfit as being an inverse Jesus Christ because he is able to trigger in others that moment of repentance that is at the heart of the Catholic notion of salvation. Nor is it so easy to answer the question of why the grandmother cries out, “Why you’re one of my own children,” right before the Misfit puts a bullet through her head, and after he’s executed her only son, and all his family.
O’Connor forces us to witness the character of the grandmother in all its complicated and often contradictory facets. We see her trying to assert her waning authority with Baley when she tries to hijack the family vacation plans with her newspaper stories, and later we see her manipulate the children so that Bailey will detour merely to satisfy her melancholy longings. She displays that old southern attitude towards the poor black children they encounter on the road, and her embarrassment with her granddaughters rudeness reflects that obsession with formality and grace that was once the norm for women of her age. But when confronted with the Misfit and with the possibility of execution, the grandmother has to peel the varnish of good manners layer by layer, motivated by her necessity to understand and possibly disarm the ticking bomb that is the Misfit. We watch her struggle with a range of emotions, at first predictable (fear, disbelief and denial, desperation, even anger), and then growingly more complicated and profound, until she is able to recognize and embrace a transcendent state of total forgiveness.
When the Misfit shoots her, readers have to ask, why then? Why not before? He plays with her like a cat with a lizard, indulging her questions about his past, her false flatteries regarding his being “good people” and her reminders of a necessity to obey and pray to God, but finally his vanity breaks him. He likes talking about himself. He is flattered by his fame, and he therefore is unaware that by indulging the grandmother’s questions, he begins to unhook the stiffer pleats of his armor. The Misfit, holding a gun, and with hands filled with blood, lowers himself on his knees before this woman. The grandmother’s words have found a foothold inside him, and this is precisely why he needs to shoot her, and shoot her dead. The last most famous line in that short story, “She would have been a good woman if she had somebody to shoot her every day of her life,” would apply to him as much as it does her, in spite of his attempt to diminish and dismiss the profound connection he shared, through her, with his own true self.
“In my time,” said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, “children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then. Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!” she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack. “Wouldn’t that make a picture, now?” she asked and they all turned and looked at the little Negro out of the back window. He waved.
“He didn’t have any britches on,” June Star said.
“He probably didn’t have any,” the grandmother explained. “Little riggers in the country don’t have things like we do. If I could paint, I’d paint that picture,” she said.
Setting is not always just about the place in which a story occurs. Setting is inextricably tied to geographical space and time. It must reflect not only the physical attributes of the place, but also on the social dynamics of the time in which this story is taking place. (My most common example to my students: “Your high school twenty years after your graduation won’t be the same place it was when you were a freshman”). In this respect setting is everything: from the clothes the characters wear, to the diction they use, to their sense of propriety, their sense of personal boundaries, their beliefs, and their attitudes to one another and their surrounding world. Therefore, setting contributes not only to the description of the locations in which each scene takes place but it will also influence the character’s every word and action. A good writer of fiction will be able to incorporate these elements seamlessly into their story, and make them an inextricable part of the plot. A good story will seep setting through the pores of their characters.
There is a bit of a geographic and cultural bias here, since I teach at Georgia Southern, only sixty miles distant from Flannery O’Connor’s hometown of Savannah, and a few hundred miles from her childhood farm of Milledgeville. And that’s why I take particular pleasure in teaching the dialog sequence of that story, particularly in two instances: the first, when the grandmother strikes up casual conversation with the restaurant owners, after she’s waved at the “little black children”. There is always one such scene in any of O’Connor’s best stories: an element of the old south making good face at the integration efforts of the new south, and revealing with such efforts the bigotry of the old order. These revelations are apparent in the smallest gestures, the slightest mannerism. O’Connor understood the South; it was her stomping ground, and she grew up in it as an outsider, a Catholic amidst a world of staunch Primitive Baptists she would have been considered strange, and she would have had limited access to the close-knit communities that Southerners develop almost exclusively through church and church-related activities. A woman in a fiercely patriarchal society, she would have been suspect because of her sharp intellect, and finally, her debilitating sickness would have further set her apart — she would have been the eyes of the soul, looking into her homeland with particular clarity about what made the south what it was.
So much in O’Connor’s setting, therefore, reflects a South that is meticulously sectioned in “good people” and those whose names we’d rather not mention. The grandmother is a meddlesome, powerless but manipulative figure, full of vain ideas about her seat in the family and her right to authority within it, but ultimately she is only a frail old woman, an old brooch of a woman who represents the elapsed times, the fine manners and the dainty traditions of the old south. My students quickly grasp onto and recognize the character. These grandmothers are still alive all over the south. “She’s like my grandma!” A student will declare with a half knowing smile. “You can’t help but know she’s ignorant. But that’s just because of the old ways.” And another will launch into a story about how her grandmother never believed that a human set foot on the moon “because the moon won’t fit into that little tv, child!” But all this talk about family stories will eventually lead up to an awareness of setting. The grandmother is a familiar character precisely because she is so exactly rooted in her world: with how she loves that scrawny cat, Pitty Sing, for how she will try to apologize for her own granddaughter’s unconscionable rudeness to strangers, for how she will treat “small black children” as part of the scenery, for how she still refers to her one and only son as “Bailey boy,” and because her idea of fun is visiting an old, abandoned plantation house.
In every turn of phrase, in every reaction to the world that surrounds her, this character oozes her history, her upbringing, her morals and her values — however outdated they may seem to us now, or to her own grandchildren in the story. She is the product of regional history and regional social dynamics.
More revealing still is one of my favorite passages in the story: when Bailey is still alive, the Misfit admits that hadn’t the grandmother recognized him from the papers, he wouldn’t have had to shoot them and kill them all. Bailey then for the first time in the story loses patience with his mother and curses her out. We never hear what he says, but we know that it must be something fairly scathing if the Misfit, with gun in hand and ready to execute the family, has to intercede on behalf of Bailey with a suave reassurance: “don’t you get upset. Sometimes a man says things he don’t mean. I don’t reckon he meant to talk to you thataway.” The irony here is that the Misfit is concerned about manners even while he’s executing this woman’s family. In the South, even a serial killer can feel embarrassed by cussing, especially if that cussing falls from the mouth of a son to his mother’s ears.
Tension and Dialog
“You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?” the grandmother said and removed a clean handkerchief from her cuff and began to slap at her eyes with it.
The Misfit pointed the toe of his shoe into the ground and made a little hole and then covered it up again. “I would hate to have to,” he said.
“Listen,” the grandmother almost screamed, “I know you’re a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!”
“Yes mam,” he said, “finest people in the world.” When he smiled he showed a row of strong white teeth. “God never made a finer woman than my mother and my daddy’s heart was pure gold,” he said.
That elusive element that wants us to keep turning the page, keep wanting to find out what happens next, is embedded in unsuspecting aspects of a story, for example, in the length of a sentence or in the flow of the prose. Of course, tension is also inherent in plot if we can make our readers care sufficiently for the plight of the main characters. There is that tension that the movie industry calls “the ticking clock,” having to do with the reader awareness that time is running out and something important must happen before another event occurs. Effective dialog can also be an excellent tension point. When done right, dialog should always exude tension: small talk doesn’t belong in a short story. When characters talk, they have an agenda, and they have strategies for accomplishing that agenda. Good dialog should reflect a battle of will.
In “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” the indulgent opening of the grandmother’s whim, the Bailey’s long detour through countryside, their foray in an out of the way rural restaurant is juxtaposed with the tension that begins from when Pitty Sing springs out of the valise causing the car to swerve and the accident to happen. From then on, things move very quickly. The Misfit appears in his hearse-like vehicle, rolling slowly down the hill. When his gang exit the hearse, the grandmother recognizes the Misfit.
What lends tension to the story is the fact that there is a ticking clock in the scene: the grandmother’s persuasion must occur as the Misfit and his cronies execute her family one by one. The longer the grandmother takes to persuade the Misfit, the more members of her family will be shot and executed, until ultimately of course, the grandmother is the only one left, and what she’s pleading for is her own life. What is extraordinary about this exchange is the masterful execution of these exchanges, the juxtaposing of the violence that occurs just a few feet away from these characters, versus the cool, casual calmness of the Misfit, and the desperate and constantly shifting strategies of the grandmother to try to sway the Misfit’s mood towards compassion. The grandmother keeps the conversation focused on the Misfit: she tries to persuade him that he’s a good person, making the fatal mistake of thinking that her values are equal to his. She misses the point entirely, of course, but who, at this point in the story, would hold it against her?
“It’s not much farther,” the grandmother said and just as she said it, a horrible thought came to her. The thought was so embarrassing that she turned red in the face and her eyes dilated and her feet jumped up, upsetting her valise in the corner. The instant the valise moved, the newspaper top she had over the basket under it rose with a snarl and Pitty Sing, the cat, sprang onto Bailey’s shoulder.
The children were thrown to the floor and their mother, clutching the baby, was thrown out the door onto the ground; the old lady was thrown into the front seat. The car turned over once and landed right-side-up in a gulch off the side of the road. Bailey remained in the driver’s seat with the cat gray-striped with a broad white face and an orange nose clinging to his neck like a caterpillar.
An aristotelian plot involves a sequence of events that are causally connected, an irony, and a reversal of power or fortune. It is still one of the most seen plot structures in short story writing, and I like to teach it as a primer for undergraduate students. The domino effect of one character’s action leading to an ironic reversal lends catharsis to the piece. For Edgar Allan Poe, however, plot was a function of character. A character has an outer desire which is reflected in an inner need. Joyce further extrapolated that the inner need must lead to a character insight. We shall see how A Good Man Is Hard To Find employs all three methods in her story.
In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” the causality happens subtly at first. The grandmother has a need to prove herself important to the family. She advises the family to take a different route from their planned vacation ostensibly to keep them safe from the prowling Misfit written about in the newspapers, but inwardly because she desires to assert her importance with Bailey, her only son whose affections and concerns are rather aimed towards his own family than to his old mother.
She also insisted on bringing the cat in the car, knowing that Bailey would be displeased, again to assert her position in the family, and it’s because the cat springs out of the cage that the car spins off road and crashes. Furthermore, it’s because of the grandmother’s recognition of the Misfit from the newspapers, and her regrettable decision to say out loud that she recognized him that the Misfit decides to execute the family. The causality then becomes the mechanics by which the story moves forward. The irony and the insight here are both fairly obvious: in recognizing her needs, the grandmother comes to accept as “one of her own children” the Misfit who will end her life. Every action that the grandmother produces in an effort to avoid an encounter with the Misfit ends up leading the family exactly to where they were trying to avoid in the first place. Her insight comes at the price of her own life — and that of many of her children, but her desire to keep the family safe and to assert her choices over those of Bailey are a direct product of her inner need to belong and to be seen.
“Ain’t she cute?” Red Sam’s wife said, leaning over the counter. “Would you like to come be my little girl?”
“No I certainly wouldn’t,” June Star said. “I wouldn’t live in a broken-down place like this for a million bucks!” and she ran back to the table.
“Ain’t she cute?” the woman repeated, stretching her mouth politely.
“Arn’t you ashamed?” hissed the grandmother.
“A Good Man Is Hard To Find” of course lends itself to many fruitful discussions derived from interpreting the material and applying to it larger themes, but in terms of what it offers as an example of well-executed craft, this is one of those rare stories that shows just how much work goes into a story that reads so seamlessly, and so simply.