Symbolism and Religious Subtext in Flannery O'Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find

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Flannery O’Conner’s short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find is a modern parable. The story is laced with symbolism and religious subtext. In many ways the piece is similar to classical Greek plays about pride and retribution.

Before launching into a discussion of O’Conner’s story it is important to understand the woman and her motivations to write. O’Conner was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1925 to her devout Catholic parents, Edward and Regina O’Conner. Flannery spent her youth attending Catholic parochial schools. In 1938, the family moved to a town just outside Atlanta called Milledgeville where Flannery continued her education. Unfortunately, her father would ultimately die in this town as the result of complications from the disease lupus. Flannery went on to Georgia State College for Women and then proceeded to the State University of Iowa where she received her MFA in 1947.

It was 1951, O’Conner went to the doctor complaining of heaviness in her arms. It was then that she was diagnosed with the same disease that killed her father. She would go through the rest of her life fighting a losing battle against lupus.

In the end, O’Conner wrote two novels and thirty-two short stories. She went on tour and won numerous awards and honors, struggling with her disease the entire time. Flannery O’Conner died of lupus in August of 1964. She was thirty-nine years old.

O’Conner’s work was rooted in two facets of her life, her religion and her disease. The combination of these two items fashioned both her outlook on life and on her characters. Her work, however is never preachy. One must look beneath the surface to understand what she is really trying to say. Her writing is filled with meaning and symbolism, hidden in plain sight beneath a seamless narrative style that breathes not a word of agenda, of dogma, or of personal belief. In this way, her writing is intrinsically esoteric, in that it contains knowledge that is hidden to all but those who have been instructed as to how and where to look for it, i.e. the initiated. Flannery O’Conner is a Christian writer, and her work is message-oriented, yet she is far too brilliant a stylist to tip her hand; like all good writers, crass didacticism is abhorrent to her. Nevertheless, she achieves what no Christian writer has ever achieved: a type of writing that stands up on both literary and religious grounds, and succeeds in doing justice to both. (Galloway, Pg. 1)

O’Conner was heavily influenced by the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. This particular “great thinker” developed a theory which he called dasein. The idea behind this particular theory is that death represents the moment wherein a given person’s life is complete, for better or for worse. O’Conner probably interpreted this particular theory as meaning that were one witness to another’s death, some type of understanding of that person’s life would come about.

Greek theatre had a similar understanding, but it did not necessarily require death. When a Greek tragic hero in a play such as Oedipus the King or Antigone made a realization about their life and about the lies that they have lived, the Greeks referred to this moment as an anagnorisis.

The Grandmother in A Good Man is Hard to Find makes a realization which would be akin to anagnorisis at the same moment that she encounters her dasein. This element will be discussed in depth shortly.

Before delving to far into Grandmother’s dying moment it is important to look at her character. Throughout the story the audience is provided glimpses of a woman who is living a lie. Her values and her belief system are seriously flawed as is her sense of self worth and pride. The Grandmother does everything in her power to control her family, to make them do what she wants them to do. The manipulation which she uses involves everything from veiled insults about her son and his wife’s parenting skills; “I wouldn’t take my children...
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