Jeanne d’Arc, OSB
Perhaps because we’re not so young anymore, the topic of death comes up at times when I’m with friends, and sometimes it gets around to what we’d like on our memorial cards.
When I say I’d like something from a Flannery O’Connor story, all are interested until I tell them the quote, so typical of O’Connor’s writing: “She would have been a good woman if it had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Considered one of the best writers of the 20th century, Flannery O’Connor was born in 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, and published her first story in 1946. Her first novel, Wise Blood, was published in 1952. Her work was cut short, however, when she died of lupus in 1964.
Her writings are sometimes classified as Southern Gothic, no doubt due to her characters and settings being in the rural American south of the mid-twentieth century with its fundamentalist characteristics. Her stories often have a deep religious tone, reflecting her Catholic beliefs, dealing with alienation from others and from God, and the difference between living under the control of manners as opposed to living in the deeper world of the soul, which she calls “mystery.”
Three characteristics of O’Connor’s writing attract me and are all related. The first is their setting in the South, since I am a Southerner and remember the world she depicts. The second is her type of descriptions. For example, in one story she describes a woman who “had a face like a cabbage,” and as one reads more, one sees how well this description fits her.
The third thing is that I delight in her characters. To a first-time reader, they may seem quite different, even, at times, weird. But if one goes deeper, one can see how our own human frailty and foibles are reflected in them.
Back to my original quote. It comes from O’Connor’s story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” which opens with a family going on vacation. From the outset, the grandmother is depicted as a good woman, but one who is always determined to get her own way. She is also big on manners, making sure she has her gloves, etc., but can tell a small lie that will give her what she wants and force a change in plans.
As they drive along, her cat, hidden in her luggage, gets out and jumps on her son, the driver, causing an accident. As the stunned family sits there, an escaped killer, “the Misfit,” and his henchmen find them.
You will have to read the story to find out all the not-too-pleasant things that happen as the grandmother, using all the manners of which she is capable. tries to convince the Misfit, standing before her aiming a gun, that he is a good man.
Well, I do have to tell you that he kills her, but only after she has left her manners behind for the mystery of our relatedness. When she gently puts her hand on his shoulder, he shoots her. His henchmen return and laugh, but the Misfit quickly and correctly says, “She would have been a good woman if it had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Isn’t this often the case with us? We know the right or good thing to do, yet don’t do it. Perhaps had there been someone there, not necessarily with a gun, to call us to the truth, we would have acted differently. Hence, my delight in the quote. I find it so true in my own life.
Now, I hope I haven’t given the wrong impression of O’Connor’s writing. I hope you will read her stories and enjoy them as much as I do.