Author: Flannery O’Connor
Appears in: A Good Man is Hard to Find ; The Complete Stories . You can read it online here.
Premise: A Grandmother and her family take a wrong turn on a vacation road trip and run into the serial murderer known in the papers as The Misfit.
Thoughts: Widely considered one of the greatest American short stories ever written, I shamefully admit I’d never read O’Connor’s masterpiece from beginning to end, despite having passages of it excerpted in at least 70% of creative writing books. I’m not going to bother with telling you if the story’s good or not because it is, one of the rare examples of a writer deliberately layering symbolism on her work without it damaging the finished product: it’s the story that launched a million undergrad English essays. I’m also not going to break down my own interpretation of the story [though mine falls in line with popular academic opinion]. What I will tell you about are the choices O’Connor made that I admire. I admire that the mother’s name is never given, only ever referred to as ‘the children’s mother’; because the grandmother is the point of view for the story, and she’s selfish and vain, the children’s mother isn’t worth a mention by name, being no blood kin of hers. The same with calling the murderous villain the family meets at the end of the story The Misfit. He’s not a character, he’s a force of nature; I doubt Flannery O’Connor was one for superhero comics, which is intriguing since she essentially wrote The Joker into her best known work.
But the primary reason I wanted to make a point to read this story was because of its appearance in an essay I read recently on how even words as simple as ‘the’ and ‘a’ can add a layer of meaning to what a writer is saying, and are a choice, even if the words themselves are so innocuous.
The scene from AGMIHTF cited in the essay comes near the story’s end, where The Misfit’s accomplice has taken the grandmother’s son and grandson into the woods to shoot them. Throughout the story, O’Connor makes a point of drawing a reader’s attention to the grandmother’s son Bernie’s shirt, a yellow sport shirt with blue parrots on it. After Bernie and her grandson are killed, The Misfit’s accomplices return:
“Bobby Lee and Hiram came ambling back from the woods. Bobby Lee was dragging a yellow shirt with bright blue parrots in it.”
Bobby Lee tosses the shirt to The Misfit, who puts it on, beginning the story’s final movement. But what the essay I read was drawing attention to was O’Connor’s use of the word a. ‘A yellow shirt.’ As readers, we know who the shirt belonged to. If O’Connor had written it, ‘Bobby Lee was dragging the yellow shirt with bright blue parrots on it,’ the entire meaning of the scene changes. The grandmother’s mental state, how she’s processing the horror going on around her, and how she’s not, all hinges on swapping out the for a.
Isn’t that so ridiculous it’s amazing?
I’ll likely never write anything as good as the ending of this story [I found the first 2/3 far weaker, but they’re necessary for the ending to work], but I can remember that every story is a like a crystal, and every word choice an angle cut on it, that changes the way the light of a reader’s eye catches it.
Lesson: Every word is a choice. Every one.
Favourite line: “She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”