"She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
It is difficult to see clearly from the semi-distorted cover but there is a man wearing a farmer's hat, his hands raised up to the sky in an odd gesture and the sun shining down as he stands by a river in a rural countryside. His physical features are obscured but his shadow takes the shape of a devil and the valise laying the ground by his feet also gives off an ominous shadow. This illustrated cover design by Lauren Elder from the Women's Press edition effectively reflects the essence of many of the stories contained within the collection by Flannery O'Connor which all take place in the rural south of the United States where the precarious nature of good and evil are in contention. There is is equal opportunity to obtain righteousness or fall into perpetual sin. As a result, many of these stories are religious parables or attempt to explore various underlying Christian doctrines. Many of the characters atempt to obtain grace or redemption in predominantly conservative southern states undergoing profound social, political and economic transformations. Thus, it is easier to fall into sin as they struggle to adjust to a radical new way of life as the older southern values begin to disintegrate.
As with many short-story collections that I have come across, not all of the stories are consistent in quality; some ranging from decent to excellent with a few underwhelming ones in between such as "A Stroke of Good Fortune" and "The Artificial Nigger" but I would not classify any of the stories as atrocious in any particular fashion. There is usually at least some element of each story that is engaging or admirable. The best stories include "A Good Man is Hard to Find", "Good Country People" , "The Displaced Person" and "A Late Encounter with the Enemy" which all display O'connor in top literary form: her hauntingly poetic and ironic writing style where she is able to create a compelling sense of time and place in the deep south; the concern with the macabre, the disillusionment of religion, false facades, racial bigotry, xenophobia and feminism.
Some readers may find the blatant racism offensive especially towards African-Americans but one must place O'connor's writing within its historical context. For instance, in "The Displaced Person", the female plantation owner hires black labour and is prone to making racist comments about them: "The Judge had said always hire you a half-witted nigger because they don't have sense enough to stop working" (230). There are plenty of other racist remarks made throughout these stories where the N-bomb is casually dropped such as the grandmother in A Good Man is Hard to Find who says, "Little niggers in the country don't have things like we do" (12). I don't know if Flannery O'Connor was a white supremacist but she was a southern belle writing at a particular time in American history where blacks lacked basic civil rights and were commonly referred to as niggers. There is no denying that O'Connor has made a valuable contribution to American literature with many of these stories worthy of praise for their literary craft and authentically rare southern perspective but other than the title story, I would be hard-pressed to read any of them again unless for an American literature course.
Read from May 10 to 27, 2011