On April 22, 1959, the 34-year-old southern novelist and short-story writer Flannery O’Connor visited Vanderbilt University and read her best-known story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” first published in 1955.
When she gave a reading of this story at Hollins College in Virginia on October 14, 1963—just 9 months before she died from complications of lupus—she prefaced it with some remarks.
Among other things, she addressed “what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story.” She answered:
I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies. This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity. The action or gesture I’m talking about would have to be on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it. It would be a gesture that transcended any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make. It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery.
She identifies the place of such a “gesture” in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”:
The Grandmother is at last alone, facing the Misfit. Her head clears for an instant and she realizes, even in her limited way, that she is responsible for the man before her and joined to him by ties of kinship which have their roots deep in the mystery she has been merely prattling about so far. And at this point, she does the right thing, she makes the right gesture. I find that students are often puzzled by what she says and does here, but I think myself that if I took out this gesture and what she says with it, I would have no story. What was left would not be worth your attention. Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them. The devil’s greatest wile, Baudelaire has said, is to convince us that he does not exist.
On the violence in her stories, O’Connor comments:
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. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.
O’Connor knows that some people label this story “grotesque,” but she prefers to call it “literal.”
A good story is literal in the same sense that a child’s drawing is literal. When a child draws, he doesn’t intend to distort but to set down exactly what he sees, and as his gaze is direct, he sees the lines that create motion. Now the lines of motion that interest the writer are usually invisible. They are lines of spiritual motion. And in this story you should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother’s soul, and not for the dead bodies.
O’Conner elsewhere expanded on the comparison of stories and drawings:
When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock-to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.
Quotes from: Flannery O’Connor, “On Her Own Work,” in her Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, ed. Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), pp. 107-118. The “stick figures” quote is from “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” Mystery and Manners, p. 34.