Courtney Montgomery

The Project

The assignment asked students to apply the lessons embedded in Flannery O'Connor's essay, "Writing Short Stories," to a story we studied in Fiction Writing. Students were asked to consider how the story's author followed--or didn't follow--O'Connor's advice as it related to concrete details, sensory involvement, and character development.

from her nomination....

"Courtney chose one of O'Connor's own stories, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," and wrote a beautiful analysis exploring how truly Southern the piece is. Because Courtney's family is Southern, she was able to analyze O'Connor's thoughts on mystery and manners--the context in which the characters live on the page--with authority and energy.."

Mark Clevenger, English Teacher

Courtney Montgomery '09
O’Connor’s Advice: Personality and the South

Courtney Montgomery
Fiction Writing
Fall 2007
pdf version

O’Connor’s Advice: Personality and the South

To give advice to others is hard, and to actually follow one’s own advice is even more difficult, but Flannery O’Connor accomplishes both. Her essay on “Writing Short Stories” is like the Bible for anyone interested in creating a successful fictional story. In it she lays out the guidelines and rules that she intuitively uses while writing her own masterpieces. The reader can clearly find in O’Connor’s work areas where she has applied her own lessons: her characters, descriptions, language, and the effortless flow and sudden stop of her stories prove the value of what she says. Her narrative, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” is a short tale of family relationships, criminals, mistakes, and murder that embodies two of O’Connor’s teachings: her belief that fiction is made by mystery and a sense of manners, as well as her idea of how character personality creates the action of a story. Through the Southern mannerisms and the character mystique that form the personalities of the talkative grandmother and the subdued Misfit, O’Connor’s story takes shape on its own accord.

The South is the South; it has its own feel, its own customs and manners; it is practically another country. O’Connor uses specific regional attributes to create personalities for the story’s characters, especially the grandmother and the Misfit, which make them somewhat mysterious. The grandmother is the typical Southern belle. Only a woman from the South would “settle herself comfortably, removing her white cotton gloves” (O’Connor, "Good Man," 1202) for a simple car trip to Florida. With her “navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim” and the “purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet” (1202), the grandmother is refined, almost foolishly so, and out of place from the rest of her family. She “ate a peanut butter sandwich and an olive” (1203) for lunch, and blames Europe “for the way things were now” (1205). Upon seeing a naked black boy outside a shack, she calls him a “little pickaninny” and says to the car, “Wouldn’t that make a picture, now?” (1203). There is even a reference to Gone with the Wind while the grandmother continues on with her chatter of plantations, General Sherman, and hidden treasure. She embodies the South, its traditions, stereotypes, and manners. With this much in the way of setting the reader instantly knows more about the grandmother, but also feels the weight of history, humidity, and voodoo magic. O’Connor thereby demonstrates the power of her advice to “get the manners from the texture of existence that surrounds you. The great advantage of being a Southern writer is that we don’t have to go anywhere to look for manners; bad or good, we’ve got them in abundance” (O’Connor, "Stories," 103).

As with the grandmother, O’Connor develops the Misfit through the interplay of Southern etiquette with the unknown. The Misfit and his cronies show up in a “big black battered hearse like automobile” ("Good Man," 1207), and although the reader eventually finds out he is a murderer and ex-convict, he has all the manners parents would want for their child. The Misfit greets the family with, “Good afternoon. I see you all had you a little spill,” and politely calls the grandmother “lady”; and when Bailey, the grandmother’s son, says something rude to her, the Misfit apologizes for Bailey, saying, “Lady, don’t you get upset. Sometimes a man says things he don’t mean” (1208). His formal, almost polished speech and polite manners surround him with a mystifying and ever more frightening aura, especially his absence of emotion and the ordinariness with which he sends members of the family into the forest to be shot. His lack of religious zeal, which the grandmother possesses in excess, causes the Misfit to seem even more misguided, as the typical Southern man, whose manners the Misfit exhibits, is religiously Protestant. The clash between the Southern belle and the false Southern gentleman is intriguing, though O’Connor makes it even more so with her use of cultural background. She is correct in her belief that “we in the South live in a society that is rich in contradiction, rich in irony, rich in contrast, and particularly rich in its speech” ("Stories," 103). And O’Connor uses all these Southern traits to expand and create dimensionality for her characters through their setting.

The unique personalities of her characters, fashioned largely by their Southern manners, conceive the action of the story with little help from the writer. According to O’Connor’s advice, “the action is controlled through the characters” with a “mystery of personality” (90). This means that O’Connor creates her characters and sets them loose like a fox and a hound, their interactions organically forming the story. The grandmother, wanting to see “an old plantation that she had visited in this neighborhood once when she was a young lady” ("Good Man," 1205), invents a tale about a secret panel to entice her grandchildren to help her achieve her goal. Yet her desire to relive the old days backfires as she realizes she is in the wrong state, and it “was so embarrassing that she turned red in the face and her eyes dilated and her feet jumped up, upsetting her valise” (1206). The valise hits the cat, the cat jumps on Bailey’s shoulders, and the car flips and lands in a ditch, leaving the family vulnerable to the Misfit. Again, the grandmother, as the hospitable Southern matron, recognizes but cannot place the Misfit’s face. When she finally does recall his identity, in her agitation she blurts out his name, condemning her family to the Misfit’s wrath and certain death. Her drawn-out conversation with the Misfit about good men and the power of prayer, and her inability to understand the Misfit’s beliefs on religion or the fact that he could not be a good man, stem from her dogmatic Southern ideology and self-absorption. She implores him, “I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady” (1211), but even her Southern traditions cannot save her, and she gives up on them in her last moments, faltering, “Maybe He didn’t raise the dead” (1212). These most important actions of the story occur through the personality of the grandmother, as O’Connor’s advice promised in her lecture.

In the same way, the sullen, quiet disposition of the Misfit clashes with the grandmother’s noisy and disrespectful family, motivating him to kill all of them. “Children make me nervous” (1208), the Misfit immediately tells the family. Already he feels uncomfortable, and when Bailey begins to give him attitude about his family’s situation, the Misfit sends Bailey and John Wesley, Bailey’s son, into the forest to be shot. The Misfit, as an old-fashioned gentleman, likes to be in charge, and Bailey telling all to “shut up and let me handle this!” (1209) does not appeal to the Misfit’s sense of control over the situation. When Bailey’s wife later begins “to make heaving noises as if she couldn’t get her breath” (1211), the Misfit condemns her, her baby, and June Star, her daughter, to their deaths as well, saving only the grandmother who spouts the most interesting ideas. Yet when the grandmother becomes too personal with him and “touched him on the shoulder,” the Misfit “sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest” (1212). Had the grandmother not touched him, perhaps the Misfit would have allowed her to live, but she violates his very private personal space and shows him affection that makes him afraid, given his past history with his father. Despite all of his killings, the Misfit finds no pleasure in the murders; it is as if it is his duty to destroy those who do not feel the same way as he does about life and religion. As O’Connor so poignantly states, “a story is a dramatic event that involves a person because he is a person, and a particular person” ("Stories," 90). The Misfit is a very peculiar, specific person, and his likes and dislikes cause the deaths that make the story so somber and memorable.

Flannery O’Connor invents a story from characters fashioned and elaborated by the traditions of their surroundings: the South. Their personalities drive the story, clashing and molding to form the action that makes the story work. Her fictional piece, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” demonstrates these ideas, as described in her lecture on “Writing Short Stories.” Without the Southern flares of the grandmother and the Misfit, the story’s events would not hold together and successfully capture the imagination of the reader.

Works Cited

O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Ed. Richard Bausch and R. V. Cassill. 7th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006. 1201-12.

- - -. “Writing Short Stories.” Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Comp. Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969. 87-106.