[(essay date spring 1990) In the following essay, Ochshorn explores the contradictions between readers' interpretations of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and O'Connor's intentions regarding the story.]
Flannery O'Connor was often shocked to find how people interpreted her stories. Some readers of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" believed the grandmother was evil, even a witch. Soon O'Connor set out, quite explicitly, in letters and lectures to detail the theology of the story and the importance of the grandmother as an agent of grace. In a letter to John Hawkes, she explained how violence and grace come together:
More than in the Devil I am interested in the indication of Grace, the moment when you know that Grace has been offered and accepted--such as the moment when the Grandmother realizes the Misfit is one of her own children. These moments are prepared for (by me anyway) by the intensity of the evil circumstances.1
When O'Connor speaks of her Catholicism and its expression in her fiction, she is clearheaded, eloquent, and convincing. In Mystery and Manners, the posthumous collection of her occasional prose, she claims the assumptions that underlie "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" "are those of the central Christian mysteries. These are the assumptions to which a large part of the modern audience takes exception."2 O'Connor was upset with critics who were determined to count the dead bodies: "And in this story you should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother's soul, and not for the dead bodies."3 For O'Connor, grace is "simply a concern with the human reaction to that which, instant by instant, gives life to the soul. It is a concern with a realization that breeds charity and with the charity that breeds action."4
Flannery O'Connor was most sincere in her Catholicism and her view of its expression in her fiction. She was troubled that her readers often identified with the wrong characters or with the right characters for the wrong reasons. She felt readers "had a really sentimental attachment to The Misfit. But then a prophet gone wrong is almost always more interesting than your grandmother, and you have to let people take their pleasures where they find them."5 When she learned readers were identifying with Hazel Motes' rejection of Christ, O'Connor added a preface to the second edition of Wise Blood claiming Motes' integrity lay in his inability to shake the ragged figure of Christ from his mind. Generally O'Connor chalked up all the misreadings and confusion to the spiritual shortcomings of the modern reader: "Today's audience is one in which religious feeling has become, if not atrophied, at least vaporous and sentimental."6
But the discrepancies between how O'Connor is often read and how she claimed she should be read cannot simply be explained by her theology of grace or by the lack of religious feeling among readers. Critical opinion over the years has tended...