Flannery O’Connor and Jesus

 

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A good man is hard to find…until you meet Jesus; then it’s impossible. Flannery O’Connor’s masterful short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is perhaps my favorite short story, because it throws down a gauntlet. It challenges readers to confront Jesus. If Jesus rose, we’ve got to deal with it, because a resurrection would change everything.

If you’re unfamiliar with thimgres-2e story, it’s a simple plot: A grandmother, the protagonist, persuades her only son, Bailey, to take her along on a family vacation Bailey and his family have planned to FL. The grandmother, a complaining prig and gossip, would rather go to east TN, but she acquiesces to the FL plan. Referencing the newspaper, the grandmother alerts her son (Bailey) that an escaped convict called the Misfit, is on the loose:

“Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.” (117)

Nonetheless, they all set out–Bailey (the grandmother’s son), his wife, the two adolescent children (John Wesley and June Star), the unnamed infant, and the pontificating grandmother.

The ensuing irony is superb. The grandmother is resolved that she wouldn’t put her family in harm’s way. Naturally, she’s concerned with keeping a clear conscience. But guess what happens? The family gets lost (due to the grandmother), is involved in a car accident, and ends up at the end of the Misfit’s muzzle.

The paths of the escaped criminal/main antagonist (the Misfit), along with his fellow escapees (Hiram and Bobby Lee), and the vacationing family, cross. Murder, the reader senses, looms.

The confrontation is unforgettable. These words from the Misfit are some of the most important in literature:

“Jesus thown everything off balance. It was the same case with Him as with me except He hadn’t committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the paper on me. Of course,” he said, “they never shown me my papers. That’s why I sign myself now. I said long ago, you get you a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it. Then you’ll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you’ll have something to prove you ain’t been treated right. I call myself The Misfit,” he said, “because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.” (131)

Again the irony is dramatic and tragic. The grandmother, a southern “lady,” meticulous in her dress, mindful of her acquaintances and how she appears in her sphere, is a “good” person on the outside. And for a while, she is spared…until now. She has been granted grace. Her family, however, is a few yards away, slaughtered in the woods, and she’s in existential discussion in a few tense minutes before eternity. And the Misfit utters these words:

“If He [Jesus] 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.” (132).

The Misfit was right, of course. Jesus was right, too, when He said, “No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18b). Who’s good in the story, truly good? The grandmother? Hardly. Her family? No. The Misfit? No. But if Jesus did what He said, then that changes everything, and we should follow.

Flannery has thrown down a gauntlet, and we’d do well to pay attention.

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