Take What You Can Find: Seeing, Seizing, and Revelations

Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is richly dark, a deeply layered story about a doomed Georgia family and a trio of escaped convicts. The story is, throughout its length, told with a kind of detached repulsion; none of the characters is particularly likeable and the language is clinical and precise. The characters are written with and act by the common principle that to behold is to control. However, this theme of dominating gaze is subverted by the power of the hidden. It is ultimately the act of revelation, of the hidden becoming visible and the redirection of the gaze, that controls the action.

The conception of scrutiny as an act of authority, both im- and explicit, is repeated several times throughout the length of the story. The scenery passed on the family’s car trip is possessed by them as soon as it is seen, a tacit and recurring assumption of authority. These are inanimate targets, unable to feel the effects or be transformed by the gaze. A game between the children of guessing the shapes of clouds becomes an absolute classification; a cloud is, objectively, shaped like a cow, and to say otherwise, rejecting what is most evident to the gaze, is to cheat. Passing “a large cotton field with five or six graves fenced in the middle of it, like a small island”(12), the grandmother claims it for their perception. The small, abandoned graveyard becomes theirs to speculate and joke about only because it is in their view; they will later, through their own deaths, realize the full range of their ownership. The monkey in the chinaberry tree at The Tower, although he climbs out of reach of the children, is still within their gaze and can therefore be used for their entertainment. A black child standing half-naked in a doorway, by catching their attention, comes under their control as well. He is quickly evaluated – too poor to own britches – and reduced to a two-dimensional figure, an image the grandmother would like to paint. His self is outweighed by his value as a picturesque image, one which the car’s occupants, but not he, can see, and choose to display for others.

There is more blatantly self-aware manipulation of the gaze, as well. After the grandmother has begun detailing the scenery they pass, the boy John Wesley demands, “Let’s go through Georgia fast so we won’t have to look at it much”(11), asserting not only dissatisfaction with the state, but his own ability to react in a meaningful way by refusing to waste his sight on it. However, the use of one’s gaze on other people is more complex; in order for it to it to be internalized by others as a controlling force, it must be recognized. It is important to note that only the image of the aforementioned black child’s is stolen, and his self is not affected; while he sees the car and the eyes of the family upon him, his innocent response indicates that he is either unaware or uncaring about their power to judge him. Those who do find importance in the gaze’s power, however, bind themselves inside it. An unexpected detail of its reach can be seen in June Star’s final refusal to hold hands with Bobby Lee, saying he reminds her of a pig. Although he has complete control over her in all physical respects and is about to aid in her death, this cutting assessment causes him to blush and laugh to cover his embarrassment.

Most notably among the characters, the grandmother consciously attempts to control others’ views of herself, dressing fastidiously on the car trip so that “In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady”(11). A woman who sees and seizes often, she also enacts awareness that she is at the liberty of others’ gazes, the power of the rest of the world to determine her character through her appearance. Even the story she tells of her courtship is a detail of appropriation, in which a “nigger boy” takes a watermelon intended for her because he sees the initials E.A.T. carved into its surface. Because her own skills of possessing what she sees are so well developed, she can hold up for ridicule someone who misinterprets signs, taking the watermelon inappropriately. This is the only story we see her tell the children, apparently passing on the moral not only of marrying well, but of the importance of learning how to correctly manipulate the visual world. The grandmother and The Misfit are matched by their awareness and use of gaze to control the world and each other. They are a matched pair: the grandmother carefully grooms her appearance in case of her death, while The Misfit apologizes for being shirtless while Bailey is being killed, both emphasizing the power of the gaze over even death.

It is finally The Misfit who declares all life to be a tricky game of watchfulness, recalling that, “They never shown me my papers. . . . I said long ago, you get a signature and sign everything you do and get a copy of it. Then you’ll know what you’ve done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you’ll have something to prove you ain’t been treated right”(27-28). He is The Mis-fit because his lists do not correlate, because he has judged all the history that is within his sight and found himself to have been treated unjustly. His dependence on visual evidence is repeated in his insistence on the existence of his father’s grave and his claim that without a visual record, all crimes will be forgotten, leaving only their punishments behind as evidence. His stay in prison is described in terms of what his vision is limited to: a wall, a ceiling, a floor. He is imprisoned and “buried alive” in a way that robs him of the force of his gaze. With no one to turn his vision on, nothing to see but his cell and no visual evidence of his crime, he has nothing but hollow efforts at remembrance. He possesses the family, piece by piece, with his gaze, and then refuses to acknowledge theirs, staring instead into the distance, or into the sky. His removal of his glasses at the end of the story marks the end of his need for power; he no longer needs to focus his gaze with such intensity, and his naked eyes are “red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking”(29).

It must be considered that all this action takes place in a carefully constructed world; more important and immediate than the actions of any of the characters is O’Connor’s work into directing our gaze. She controls what we see in a way that is inescapable if we choose to read the story at all; we cannot look away at any moment from what she draws our attention to in order to see what else is occurring. Our gaze is directed by the author and limits the degree to which we in turn possess the characters; we are given minute description of the grandmother and The Misfit – largely through the grandmother’s eyes – and more cursory ones of the remaining characters. We are given only details of the other characters: Bailey’s jaw, baldness, shirt; the mother’s face and broken arm; Red Sammy’s swaying gut; Bobby Lee’s stallion shirt; etc. But the grandmother’s actions are preferred over the rest of the family’s in the narrative, and we are even given access to her thoughts, this final privacy removed. The grandmother is given to us as someone we in turn can control with our gaze; we cannot control or change a static character, but we have the power to judge her.

Despite all this power focused in the controlled gaze, it is through the idea of visual revelation that the true shifts in power occur in the story. If to see is to control, and it is possible to subvert the power of others’ gazes, then consider the power of the hidden. For anything to be revealed to the public gaze is to change the change the current structure of influence and dominance, and so to control the circumstances of being hidden or being revealed is to control the forces of possession. It is a logical entailment of the theoretical structure of the gaze, and the story turns on points of revelation, each placed upon the other.

The unfortunate turn that takes them off their original path and down the dirt road is caused directly by the screaming insistence of the children, indirectly by the grandmother’s desire to see a half-remembered house and her having convinced the children into taking her side. Her lure is the promise of a house with a secret panel where the family silver is kept, a lie that immediately grabs the imagination of the children. The idea, not of finding the silver, but of seeing the secret panel, is the impetus for their change in plans, and so they head down the dirt road because of the children’s desire to see something new, to have something new revealed to them. Presumably, Bailey acquiesces in order to keep the peace, but the driving force behind their change in plans is that of visual acquisition. While Bailey and the grandmother insist that viewing the house from the car will be enough, John Wesley plans on ways to sneak into the house.

This is almost immediately followed by the second revelatory change, that of Pitty Sing’s escape from her basket. The grandmother has her terrible thought, that the house they are searching for is in Tennessee, not Georgia, but this in itself would not have been a major catastrophe if it had not been expressed by her physical action. The thought itself is not necessarily affective, and neither is her startled kick. We already know that Pitty Sing is being carried as contraband, hidden beneath the seat because Bailey “didn’t like to arrive at a motel with a cat”(10). Whenever the cat is revealed, therefore, some upset in order and authority must occur. It is the frantic spring of Pitty Sing out of hiding, rather than the grandmother’s private and never-shared realization that seems as though it must have some catastrophic impact upon the occupants of the car, as indeed it does. It is an unintentional revelation that changes the world of the family, and because there is no intent and no agent, it leaves all concerned powerless.

The next action in the chain is the appearance of the criminals. The three of them have been nearby, watching the accident. Their position of surveillance puts them in a position of practical control of the direction the situation takes – they understand the full state of affairs far before the family does – but they cannot have direct influence until they reveal themselves. For the gaze of the criminals to be effective, the family must know that it exists; unlike the appraisal of the landscape, there is no direct power over other people until the recipient acknowledges it. Just as the black child is free of the controlling gaze of the family, the family is free of the control of The Misfit and his compatriots until they become aware of their presence and their identity. The criminals bringing their “hearse-like automobile” into sight of the family immediately turns the family into supplicants; the grandmother waving her arms to attract their attention and aid. The mother obeys their commands, due to either their guns or her unspoken knowledge, and Bailey only flails verbally, with no real attempt at authority. The decisions the criminals make in revealing their guns and the telling slow deliberation with which they drive to the scene of the accident alerts the family that they have been seen and considered, and that the situation is not what they could have anticipated.

This is followed almost immediately by the grandmother’s recognition of the Misfit. Her declaration of the success of her gaze in recognizing him is the inverse of the criminals’ appearance. While their indication that they comprehend the situation fully, having witnessed it from afar, the grandmother’s verbal assessment of the situation puts her and the entire family in peril. The Misfit says that “it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn’t of reckernized me”(22), but he is not precisely correct. It is not the fact that the grandmother recognizes him, but that she reveals her discovery that determines the course of the action. She has asserted the power of her gaze, her recognition, matching his face with wanted posters and being able to place him within, or rather outside, society. This exposure of the hidden firmly turns the tables; The Misfit must disarm her gaze if he is to maintain control. The grandmother aids him in this in some respects. She tries repeatedly to change her visual assessment to a positive one, claiming “I know you’re a good man at heart. I can just look at you and tell”(23). She retreats into platitudes, fixed by The Misfit’s gaze, weakening her own and staring uselessly into the woods, at The Misfit’s bony shoulders. In a desperate attempt to backtrack and delete what her revelation has brought about, she makes her view so powerless that she is unable even to recognize Bailey’s shirt when The Misfit puts it on.

The final act of the story is a culmination of revelation. We can see The Misfit as an expert in exposing the hidden and manipulating the power changes that entails. His self-conscious announcement of his presence and his smooth engulfment of the grandmother’s powerful gaze, even expressing pride at his notoriety, show us how able he is with the concept. He even tells us, “Daddy said, ‘it’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s others has to k now why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He’s going to be into everything!”(24). The way in which he arranges the deaths of the family, in small, hidden groups further impresses us with his power to arrange the powers of sight and observation. He is in complicity with O’Connor, the two of them working together to decide what action will be concealed from us, and what will be revealed. His murder of the grandmother is a final, decisive trump of ocular power. She has finally emerged from her daze and seen The Misfit, recognized him, wearing her son’s shirt and with his face screwed up like a child’s, and speaks her final expository piece – “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!”(29). Her earlier empty protests of The Misfit’s morality never touch him, but this awareness and exposure of some real connection of humanity and suffering is too dangerous to be permitted. The Misfit, frantically in need of control and fully aware of the power of disclosure of secrets, must stop her, immediately, before she further threatens his authority with her too-familiar gaze of recognition. Her death is open to both the road and our eyes, giving us shades of what we did not see in the other characters’ demises. His own shocking revelation to our eyes outweighs any power that the grandmother’s final, startling judgment may have had.

Work Cited

(Note: Any and all links in this section lead to web-published versions of these texts, which have different citations than the ones listed here.)

O'Connor, Flannery. A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories. New York: HBJ, 1955.

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