A Good Man…What’s in a Name?

As I announced yesterday, I am going to spend this week on the blog sharing some words of literary wisdom from some of my wonderful writer friends.

This is the first of several guest blogs for the week focused on Flannery O’Connor’s story, A Good Man is Hard to Find. Heather Magruder and I were writing peers at Queens University of Charlotte, and in addition to being a fine writer, Heather is a lot of fun to talk to. (She also provided a unique moment for her graduating class: She played the bagpipes as her classmates entered the auditorium for graduation.)

I learned a lot about using place as a character in my own work from seeing how she embraces setting in her writing. I’m happy to present her guest post as the first of this series on A Good Man.

What’s in a name?

If you’re Flannery O’Connor, there’s often a fair bit in a name, and A Good Man is Hard to Find, is no exception.  Originally published in the anthology, Modern Writing in 1953, A Good Man reveals with name – there’s June Star, the sassy, shallow daughter in the story, and her brother John Wesley, perhaps named in reference to the Anglican cleric and Christian theologian, for instance. Even minor characters are named, and soon after we meet them – Red Sam at the restaurant, Hiram and Bobby Lee who are accomplices. More interesting to me, though, is O’Connor’s choice to withhold names. She does this for the three adult females – the grandmother, the mother, Red Sam’s wife – as well as for the baby.

O’Connor is in good company in choosing to leave characters nameless. Daniel Defoe did it in Roxana, Margaret Atwood in Surfacing, Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man. There are plenty more. The reasons are as varied as the authors and the works.  It’s one of the more nuanced choices available to writers – whether to name, what name to give, and when to reveal it.

Writer and friend, Heather Magruder.

So, in A Good Man, the women are named according to their primary role. They don’t need the adornment of proper names like June Star. Like her dead-on, entirely unsentimental descriptions in this story, O’Connor lets the women stand as they are, bare of name, exposed from start to finish. Red Sam’s wife is wife or woman. She’s in the story only briefly, and follows Red Sam’s instructions, being told to serve the family rather than chatting. The baby is the baby throughout – not fully formed, handed off between mother and grandmother, and, in the end, asleep before death. The mother is mother and woman. When O’Connor needs a bit extra to get to the core, she adds to her direct description with simile, another favorite element of this story:

“…the children’s mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green headkerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit’s ears.”

The mother is passive, deferring to the grandmother. She’s limp and submissive from her rabbit-like state at the start to the point of being led into the woods to be shot.

The grandmother is just that – the elder, the matriarch, the keen observer who doesn’t know when to keep her observations to herself, the manipulator. (She’s also a lady.) In the end, though, when she touches The Misfit, he recoils, “as if a snake had bitten him.” He shoots the grandmother three times, leaving her, “in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child’s.”

It’s worth noting, I think, that The Misfit straddles the ground between name and not. Although he gets enough name to warrant capitalization, it’s hardly a given – or what in some places is still called a Christian – name. Like the women, he is named by his role. He’s partly covered by the proper noun, but still exposed in ways that the named characters in the story are not.

In this way, O’Connor goes a step further than most in A Good Man is Hard to Find, exploring the range of naming options, from fully named to nicknamed to nameless.

* * *

Originally from Kilmarnock, Scotland, Heather Magruder is now based in the foothills of South Carolina, where she lives with two of her three children, a pair of Labrador-mix dogs, a set of bagpipes and a Royal Enfield motorcycle. Her fiction is published in a variety of periodicals — mostly recently in Northwords Now, Prime Number and Six Minute Magazine. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. Heather likes to explore the connection — or disconnection — between characters and the natural environment in her writing. When she isn’t at work, you can find her tromping or riding over the hills near her home, and, when she can get away with it, on the other side of the Atlantic.

Heather’s blog can be found at: heathermagruder.wordpress.com

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10 thoughts on “A Good Man…What’s in a Name?

  1. Pingback: A Good Man…What’s in a Name? « Heather Magruder

  2. Great insight, Heather! It’s so true that the nature of character identification is a powerful device in story-telling. In memoir, writers often decide not to use the real names of characters because of privacy issues; in some instances in my own memoir, I’ve referred to characters by their roles: my ‘supervisor,’ the ‘boss,’ etc.

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