Naming our characters (or, sometimes, not naming our characters) is a big piece of the literary puzzle for many writers. This is the second essay about the names of characters in A Good Man is Hard to Find.
It didn’t surprise me that my fellow writer, Andrea Cumbo, would write about the names in this O’Connor story. I’ve read a draft version of the book Andi is working on (which she mentions briefly at the end of this post) and I know how important nameless-ness is to her.
Here is Andi’s contribution to our ongoing discussion of the classic short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find.
The Power of the Nameless
Writers and writing teachers often tout the importance of names in stories and essays, the way names reveal something about character – Hayden is very different from Preston, Laticia quite different from Carla. And I don’t disagree.
But re-reading Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” reminded me that sometimes being nameless is even more powerful. In this masterful story, every single man has a name or nickname – Bailey, The Misfit, Red Sam, etc. – but the all the grown women – the grandmother, the mother, Red Sam’s wife – are left nameless, identified only by their relationship to other people. Knowing O’Connor this is neither coincidence nor a subliminal consequence of the times in which she was writing.
Nope, I’m sure O’Connor left these women nameless for a reason . . . and if I had to guess, the reason is that we are supposed to imagine them as defined by those relationships rather than by their own identities as shown in their names.
Ironically, however, it is these women who are the most defined as characters. Take June Star and John Wesley’s mother, for example. Right at the beginning of the story, O’Connor gives us the most wonderful description of her – “the children’s mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied up with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit’s ears.” I can see her – a little moon-faced, a little too simple, but likable, kind. We know her better than we ever know Bailey with his name and his parrot shirt. We know she will collapse under the grief of her husband’s murder, even from there.
And the grandmother, well, we just know her too well, and most of us probably don’t like her, even find a bit of relief in her death. We know her cat and her attempts to manipulate that result in the family’s murder. We also know her hat, intact on her head as she climbs from that car, and we see the brim break off – that great symbol of her hardness cracking.
Yet, we don’t know her name, and I think that might be O’Connor’s greatest gift to us as readers. For see, when we name something, we call forth all the associations with it – just think about how many people you know named Adolf or Judas these days and ponder how many you will know named Osama in the future. We choose names because they speak of certain characteristics, and this is why they are so crucial in good writing.
But maybe O’Connor’s lesson for us as writers is that there is space and depth in the nameless, that we can let our readers build images without names and trust that we can guide them well without those easy associations of nomenclature.
Maybe there’s something of power in the nameless.
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Andi Cumbo is a writer, editor, and writing teacher who is finishing up her book about the people who were enslaved on the plantation where she was raised. She will be releasing the God’s Whisper Manifesto about her new farm on December 1st. You can read more about her work at her website – andilit.com
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This is the third essay about the story, A Good Man is Hard to Find. If you missed the other posts, you can find them here:
- A brief introduction and links to A Good Man resources.
- Heather Magruder writes: A Good Man…What’s in a Name?
- Kelly Fordon considers Good and Evil.