Table of Contents | Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version
A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND
THE ARTIFICIAL NIGGER
This story is a period piece: the language, O'Connor's use of "nigger," would probably not be tolerated much today. Many reader's are offended, and it can be a difficult story to discuss. But it is worth keeping in mind that she is reflecting the thinking of her time, telling a story about two very immature and ignorant characters. She is not, by any means, condoning their views. Some reader's will argue that a story such as this is important to read and discuss: we should not forget that there were many people who practiced this level of bigotry not that long ago--some still do. It is our history, and we should remember that we are not so far removed from it as we would like to think. Bigotry is worth discussing, for only by facing the problem can we work towards change. Fiction is the cultural reflection of social thinking, hopefully helping us to think about what we are made of.
Also, O'Connor herself might argue that the story is more concerned with a sixty-year-old man's view of mercy (see Themes, below). Mr. Head is a man with very limited experience, and snappy grandson on his hands. The story is mostly concerned with the older man's point of view, and works slowly from point to point, as the two characters have a long day of it. The situation becomes more and more dire--but in the end Mr. Head gets exactly what he wants: Nelson does not want to go back to the city, ever.
In typical fashion, this story works towards a terrible climax: Nelson is scared out of his wits, and the old man is so silly (denying Nelson) that the boy is on the verge of writing him off forever. The last minute save--their connection over the surprising statue--is justified: the boy and the man only have each other, and their combined ignorance and desire. Indeed, Mr. Head has been granted a moment of grace, the return of his grandson.
The religious Themes in this story are sharpest at the end. Mr. Head's vision of his denial of Nelson is so painful--so absolutely and totally terrible and shameful to him--that he can see God's hand in granting a moment for reconnection to Nelson. At the start of the story, Mr. Head believes that it is only long experience that allows the old to guide the young. At the end, he realizes not only that he needs guidance, but that he is capable of terrible things, and that mercy (or God's love) can save a person. Experience is only viable, then, when one sees God's hand in the goings-on, and one learns to appreciate that divine gift.
The realization of mercy is the point of this story. It is surprising that the mercy comes in the form of a sad old statue--the boy and the man do not realize what they are looking at: the manifestation of a whole people's sorrow. They only see something they cannot fathom: an artificial person of such low class that they cannot comprehend why the statue exists. But it makes them feel better: the threat they have felt from these people is removed because the statue cannot do much, say much, or respond to them in any way. They can agree on their reaction to the thing, and they desperately need agreement at the moment. The divine mercy of the story is the coincidence of the statue, of having a moment when they can agree--and go on.
The ignorance of the two characters is nothing new in these stories. It is sometimes comic, and sometimes sad. It is very realistic. The old man is about on the same level as the boy: they compete for who is "right," who "knows more," and who can control the situation. And the boy is still a boy, and feels his dependence. The depiction is realistic, and very thought provoking. Although this story is probably the one least reprinted--for the reasons explained above--it is probably the one most worthy of discussion.