Of the stories in The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor I’ve read I most enjoyed (not surprisingly) “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and this was in part due to the way O’Connor handles the violence in the piece. The threat of violence is ubiquitous in the story, but no actual violence happens on the page.
Violence is a complex thing in life and even more so in fiction. While it can happen randomly in reality, it must serve a purpose in any story. There are many different ways to use violence within fiction depending on the kind of feeling the writer is trying to create. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” has a murderer as one of the primary characters (The Misfit). He is capable of, and has done, terrible things. The way O’Connor presents this is telling of what sort of story is to come. She could have shown a vivid description of his crimes, perhaps in a police report or through word of mouth, but instead she only mentions that violence happened and skips any gruesome details.
“…And you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it,” (117).
O’Connor alludes to the atrocities The Misfit has committed, but she doesn’t show them to the reader (this happens again on page 122 when they discuss The Misfit with Red Sammy). By not providing the reader with details it forces them to furnish the story with whatever particular crimes they find to be the most terrible. Withholding the details of the violence also increases the tension (in the same way a Hitchcock film is more suspenseful than any gruesome movie in the theaters today). The threat of violence has to feel as large and omnipresent as possible for the scene where the family encounters The Misfit. Five of the seventeen pages in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” pass between the reader’s suspicion of The Misfit appearing and any actual killing taking place, and O’Connor makes them tense and suspenseful by withholding any physical depictions of violence earlier in the story.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” was one of the best short stories I’ve read in a long time, and it is an excellent story to study to look at how violence can be used effectively without being gruesome or graphic. Something novice and veteran writers alike would do well to keep in mind.
O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.
P.S. Good horror/thriller stories withhold scenes in a similar manner. Few creatures or men are as menacing as those your imagination defines for you.