A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’Connor, 1953
The magic trick:
Three shots in the woods, not just two
Quick spoiler alert: I am writing this post under the assumption that the reader is familiar with this story. If you are not, good grief, do yourself a favor and skip to the link at the bottom immediately and read this story before you do anything else today. It’s pretty much the best short story ever written.
I have a simple magic trick to discuss today for a story that isn’t simple at all. But rather than go into all of the existential dilemmas O’Connor presents, I want to focus on one detail that I believe sums up why she is one of the greatest short-story writers of all time.
What does this mean? I’m talking about the execution of the wife, daughter and baby in the woods. At this point in the story, The Misift has just had his goons kill Bailey and the son, so we know O’Connor means business. But it is the next shootings that really sent me over the edge. The goons escort the daughter and the wife, holding her baby, into the woods, following the first two murders.
I’m thinking: No, no way they kill the baby. They wouldn’t kill the baby, right?
And then three – not two – gun shots ring out from the woods.
O’Connor went all the way. I was floored.
This was my first encounter with Flannery O’Connor and I recall having to sit in a silent stupor for about an hour after I finished the story. I couldn’t believe she killed the baby. I mean, there’s an oppressive air of menace that hangs about the story from the first mention of The Misfit in the opening paragraph. The reader knows, or at least strongly suspects, this family will encounter the serial killer at some point. I just didn’t think they would all die. I didn’t think they would all be executed. I didn’t think the baby would be shot.
I didn’t think a writer would go there. I didn’t think it was possible to write funny, wrestle with spiritual truths, make hard-hitting social commentaries, and take a story to such a violent end – all in some kind of natural flow of storytelling. It was a shocking first read, and what’s more, these stories somehow seem to produce an even stronger sense of shock and horror upon repeat reads, even after you know where the plot is going; even after you know that third bullet is being fired. And that’s quite a trick on O’Connor’s part.
“Yes’m, The Misfit said as if he agreed. “Jesus shown 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 papers 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.”
There was a piercing scream from the woods, followed closely by a pistol report. “Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain’t punished at all?”
“Jesus!” the old lady cried. “You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady. I’ll give you all the money I’ve got!”
“Lady,” The Misfit said, looking beyond her far into the woods, “there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip.”
There were two more pistol reports and the grandmother raised her head like a parched old turkey hen crying for water and called, “Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy!” as if her heart would break.