Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

The Function of Signature in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." (Short Story by Flannery O'Connor)

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

The Function of Signature in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." (Short Story by Flannery O'Connor)

Article excerpt

In her fatal encounter with The Misfit, the grandmother in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" confronts a particularly lethal manifestation of her changing social order. Throughout her life, this woman has been struggling with the shift from the ante-bellum values of lineage and gentility to those of a cash-oriented culture, and with the implications this shift has for the assumptions that underwrite her vanishing system of beliefs. While she does not accept or even fully comprehend these implications, in her behavior she acknowledges them and attempts some adjustment. The grandmother's handling of signatures, while clearly demonstrating the tension involved in this ongoing negotiation of adaptation and denial, also indicates that her difficulties arc related to her failure to recognize fully the arbitrariness of the sign. The story she tells of Mr. Edgar Atkins Teagarden and his edible initials illustrates this failure. Moreover, The Misfit's subsequent discussion of signature, coupled with his threat of murder, cause the grandmother to repeat this error; she retreats back into the assumptions whose erosion she has been attempting to deny, but these assumptions, which have been dismantled throughout the story, offer her no protection from her killer.

The grandmother's value system is founded upon particular notions of aristocracy and heredity. According to this system, there is a specific, superior class of people, the gentility, in which one can locate certain finer qualities. This class and its attributes cannot be separated from each other by a change in outward appearances, even one as severe as the Confederacy's crippling defeat in the Civil War: these qualities are fixed in the blood and are passed directly from one generation to the next. A certain social order follows from the assumption that blood is the guarantor of worth, an order in which ladies are treated as ladies, gentlemen behave as gentlemen, and those of less fortunate lineage remain in their appropriate, subordinate places.

By attaching such great importance to heredity, this social structure reflects a logocentric foundation. According to the structure, the gentility possess certain admirable qualities, and these qualities have a point of origin: presumably, God's bestowal of them. Through blood, these attributes have been communicated, directly and without any deterioration of the original signal, through the many generations that have followed from this starting point. The accuracy and reliability of this communication are guaranteed by the one-to-one relation that exists between the information being transmitted and the mechanism of that transmission. The blood that carries value is comprised of that value: blood and worth are one.

This connection is echoed and supported by a similar relationship, the one-to-one signifier/signified correlation upon which the logocentric viewpoint rests. just as blood has carried forward the superior qualities of the southern aristocracy, so too has language: the logocentric linkage of signifier and signified sustains an identically direct line back to the Word with which God created the aristocracy. A southern gentlemen is therefore as good as his word, because his word is as good as his blood; his blood is his worth, and that worth is the Word.

The logocentric relationship of word and worth is reflected in the grandmother's approach to her environment. In her efforts to preserve the values of an aristocratic tradition, she devotes as much attention to the maintenance of that tradition's outward signs as she does to its less visible aspects. She is very conscious throughout the story of what people are wearing, because to her it is through such things as clothing that one can externally reflect internal worth, even when this worth is otherwise obscured by surrounding conditions. While her son Bailey chooses an alarmingly loud, parrot-patterned shirt for the family outing, and while her declasse daughter-in-law remains in slacks for the duration of the trip, the grandmother wears an elaborately cuffed and collared dress, so that "in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady" (118). …

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