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Free Study Guide: A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O'Connor - BookNotes

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A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND: PLOT SUMMARY

THE ARTIFICIAL NIGGER

SHORT SUMMARY (Synopsis)

They move out into the squall of traffic, and Nelson wants to know how they are going to see everything. Mr. Head doesn't answer him, but directs him up and down streets, where they look in windows. The most special is the one where a Negro will polish your shoes. Mr. Head won't go into any, because on his first trip he got lost in a big store and people made fun of him. They weigh themselves on a scale that dispenses fortunes. The weight is wrong and Nelson's says to beware of dark women.

Mr. Head wants to walk only where he can keep the dome of the train station in sight, so he doesn't' get lost like before. Nelson says proudly, I was born here! and Mr. Nelson makes him look in the sewer and tells him people get sucked in there and are never seen again. Nelson is shaken, but after a few minutes exclaims again, This is where I come from! Then he notes that they are only going in circles--he sees the same shops--so Mr. Head turns down a street and sees a beckoning woman, is almost hit by a bicycle, and then Nelson points out that there are only Negroes around. Mr. Head says there is more to see that them, but they keep walking and there keep being Negroes staring at them. Nelson accuses him of losing his way. Mr. Head tells him that if he is so smart, he can ask one of these people how to get back to the downtown. They discover they have no lunch, and accuse each other of leaving it on the train. There is nowhere to sit, and they are very hot. Nelson asks a big woman how to get town. She tells him he's in town now. The train? She tells him to take a car at the next corner. He is fascinated with her look and smell, and wishes she would hold him to her breast. Mr. Head pulls him away and tells him the woman was making fun of him and he cannot act like that in the city, talk to those people. Nelson remembers his fortune, about dark women, and feels dependent on Mr. Head again.

They find some tracks and start following them, but Mr. Head won't take a streetcar and Nelson suspects that he doesn't even know if they are going in the right direction. They start seeing people again, and Nelson sits down on the sidewalk and leans against a building and says he is resting himself, no matter what Mr. Head does. He says he never wanted to come here--it was all Mr. Head's idea--and Mr. Head obviously doesn't even know what he's doing. Nelson starts to cry a little. He's hot, and falls asleep.

Mr. Head decides it's time to teach Nelson a lesson. He dips into an alley and waits for Nelson to wake up and find himself alone. Nelson sleeps and sleeps, and so Mr. Head finally bangs on a can to wake him up. Nelson is so shocked he jumps up, looks around, and takes off in a panic. Mr. Head goes after him, loses him, and then finds him in a heap on the sidewalk with a bunch of women, one who is also on the sidewalk with her groceries spilt all over and threatening to sue for a broken ankle. They are calling for the police, and Mr. head has never had any dealings with police before. Mr. Head approaches slowly, and when Nelson runs to him and puts his arms around him, Mr. Head says he doesn't even know this boy and keeps on walking. The women are disgusted, and Nelson is dumb struck. After standing in shock for a minute, he follows his grandpa, but he is mad and won't get too close.

Mr. Head is ashamed of himself, and devastated. The boy was not forgiving by nature, and Mr. Head knows that his crime will be seen as very grievous by Nelson. He suggests they get a coke, but Nelson doesn't reply. Then they eventually pass a water spigot, but when Mr. Head suggests that Nelson get himself some water, Nelson only stares at him like a very old man, his hate boring holes right through Mr. Head. As they walk on, Mr. head knows his crime is like a last judgment, plain horrible.


It's getting late, and they have to get their train home at six. They get into a fancy suburb, and when they see a fat man walking a dog Mr. Head just breaks down and pleads with the man to help him--they are going to miss their train, they are lost, oh Gawd! The man tells him that the suburban train is only three blocks away--they'll have to get the train there, since they'll miss it downtown. Nelson still won't move near his grandpa--home is nothing to him.

They come up to a house with a statue in the yard, a Negro holding a piece of watermelon. The two of them stand there-- young and old, same posture--and stare. Mr. Head says, Well look at that, an artificial nigger! Nelson says the same, in awe. The Negro statue looks miserable, tilted, unkempt, the paint chipped. Mr. Head wants to say something wise, and exclaims that he guesses they haven't got enough of the real ones around, they must need artificial niggers too in the city. They are in agreement--a great mystery in front of them--and Mr. Head feels the mercy of the moment, Nelson returned to him by this little moment of dual amazement.

Nelson says they best get going home before they get lost again, and Mr. Head moves with him down the street to the train station. The train even stops as arranged at the junction to let them off--if it hadn't they would've jumped--and slips off into the trees and the dark silently. Mr. Head realizes the enormity of his sin, and of the mercy granted to him. He now knows what original sin is, the depths of depravity possible in himself at denying Nelson, and knows that the enormity of God's love, in mercy, has prepared him for paradise right now.

Nelson swatches the train disappear. He says he's glad he went once to the city, but never again!

Notes

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.


THEMES

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.


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