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In Defense of Flannery O’Connor’s Point of View in A Good Man is Hard to Find

January 23, 2009 by · No comments

Joan Gumbs


Flannery O’Connor, responding to a letter from an English Professor, once said, “The meaning of a story … cannot be captured in an interpretation.… If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem … then I think student will never learn to enjoy fiction” (63).

At the risk of incurring the wrath of the deceased Ms. O’Connor, I will embark on a journey to interpret her use of the omniscient point of view, which Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft points out, “is the objective author” and is not “omniscient but impersonal” (228). Whether omniscient or impersonal, O’Connor uses a point of view that ensures the reader form no emotional attachment to the characters, making their demise acceptable, and the lesson, or what O’Connor prefers to call her “theme,” obvious.

O’Connor starts her short story with a negative space: “THE GRANDMOTHER did not want to go to Florida” (9). Immediately we know it is neither first nor second person narrative, and the use of the article “the” tells us the narrator is a third party witnessing events. By narrating that the grandmother did not want to go, out of scene, she goes into “contract” with the reader, informing us that she will be using the omniscient point of view.

By using this point of view, the narrator can interpret all the characters’ thoughts and actions, which sets the stage for the rest of the story. According to Burroway, an author is free to decide how much he or she knows, and should decide very early in the story, what degree of omniscience is chosen. It would seem O’Connor heeded this instruction by choosing the editorial author omniscient point of view, with the grandmother as the central figure, even though her role in the family is far less essential, and is in fact, marginal.

William S. Doxey claims in his essay “A Dissenting Opinion Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” that the story fails as a short story because “the point of view shifts from the grandmother to The Misfit and the reader is suddenly left holding the bag… without a focus of narration” (96).

Doxey would do well to read O’Connor’s “Background to the Story” in Frederick Asals edited version. According to Doxey the shift occurs after Bailey Boy loses control of the automobile and the family is plunged into the ditch” (96). If this was where the point of view shifts, surely The Misfit would already be on the scene witnessing the children’s, “We’ve had an accident” (41)?

And why would the children’s mother say, “Maybe a car will come along” if the foreshadowed big black battered hearse-like automobile driven by The Misfit was already upon them? An omniscient narrator who “know[s] every universal and eternal truth” (Burroway 224) is obviously narrating these events.

Furthermore, the story was never the grandmother’s point of view in the first place, because she never would have seen herself as “insensitive, pretentious, manipulative” (O’Connor 17), etc. These are opinions the reader, her family and O’Connor’s critics have of her. Frederick Asals, in his Introduction to the story states that his Canadian students were not at all convinced that the old lady had a good heart.

“They found this central female character not only ‘a hypocritical old soul’ but the possessor of ‘assorted juicy sins unforgivable to the minds of nineteen-year-olds—garrulous, insensitive, underhanded, pretentious, manipulative, self-serving, morally obtuse, out of touch with reality,’ and so on” (17). By choosing the omniscient point of view, O’Connor can get away with her reasoning of the grandmother being the hero/ine of the story even though many of her critics, like Asal’s students, believe the grandmother is “evil” and got what she deserved (57).

What Doxey is referring to however, occurs much later in the story towards the end, where it seems the point of view shifts from the grandmother to The Misfit, and we become privy to his thoughts and actions. At least that’s how it appears to Doxey. If this were so, then O’Connor would have broken her contract with the reader.

However, O’Connor did not break her contract with the reader. Because the narrator has not limited her omniscience, she can focus the rest of the story on the Misfit after he shoots the grandmother. Because the story is told from an omniscient point of view, the loss of the grandmother is not significant to the narration. The narration continues with the Misfit getting the last word.

In conclusion, a shift in point of view can be confusing, but in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” there is no shift. An all-knowing, omniscient narrator tells the story because according to O’Connor, “the story is a duel of sorts between the Grandmother and her superficial beliefs [,] and the Misfit’s more profoundly felt involvement with Christ’s action which set the world off balance for him” (63). “The fact that these meanings are there makes the book significant. The reader may not see them but they have their effect on him nonetheless…. [O’Connor tells us], this is the way the modern novelist sinks, or hides, his theme” (72).

We didn’t know The Misfit was going to wipe out the entire family, but when we found out that this was what was going to happen, we realized it was inevitable. O’Connor’s plot produces a shock for the reader. The grandmother, lives in a society that O’Connor states is “rich in contradiction, rich in irony, rich in contrast, and particularly rich in its speech” (103).

O’Connor uses her point of view to highlight these contradictions and ironies. But as she herself will tell you, “When you write a story … there will always be people who will refuse to read the story you have written” (95).

Works Cited

Asals, Frederick. Introduction. A Good Man is Hard to Find. By Flannery O’Connor. New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1993. 3-24.
Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1987.
Doxey, William S. “A Dissenting Opinion of Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find,’ A Good Man is Hard to Find. Ed. Asals, Frederick. New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1993. 95-100.
Lye, John. “Critical Reading: A Guide.” 2 Oct. 2000. Brock University.
O’Connor. Flannery. A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Ed. Frederick Asals. New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1993.
—. A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories. New York: Harcourt, 1955. 9-29.
—. Mystery and Manners. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, 1961.

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