In March, 1961, an English professor wrote Flannery O'Connor asking for her intention in writing the story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find." He and his colleagues, along with 90 students, had been debating its meaning for weeks. Finally, they'd settled on a clever, academic reading, which interpreted the Misfit and his murder of the Georgia family (spoiler alert) as an extended dream sequence. In other words, a twist ending that only a professor reading into things never meant to be read into could dream up.
If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction.
For she did intend something with the story...
[It] is a duel of sorts between the Grandmother and her superficial beliefs and the Misfit's more profoundly felt involvement with Christ’s action which set the world off balance for him.
The professor, his colleagues and students had, unsurprisingly, missed the point. But they had, unwittingly, made themselves the butt of O'Connor’s joke.
Her joke was simple. Show us as we are. Develop a character's sin and offer them a chance to repent. When they (more often than not) refuse, enact judgment. Her characters are foolish and blind, ranging from grandmothers who lie about a childhood memory to get their way, to "intellectuals" who feign sickness so they can go home to their mothers and be lazy. She brilliantly depicts Southern manners, which must be polite in public and dysfunctional in private, as well as the tensions caused by the destruction of morals in the 1960s. In the same letter, Flannery said her stories' "conventions are comic though [their] meaning is serious." The meaning is God’s grace and judgement confronting our foolishness.
One of the simplest beauties of O'Connor is how she never implied her stories could take the place of the gospel. The gospel lets us see what she was up to, but only because she was humble enough to subject her writing to Christ. Her first love was the Church. Yes, it was the Roman Catholic Church, so you should keep an eye open for Sacramentalism in her stories, particularly those dealing with baptism. But these works can also be her best, such as "The River," which shows us the simple faith of a child set against the proud fundamentalism or flaccid world-weariness of the adults surrounding him. The story, in its dead eye precision, is heartbreaking.
The best method for reading O'Connor is to treat her like Chesterton. Furiously right, in many ways, and tragically wrong, in many others. Also, because of the violence of her stories, I can't recommend every Christian read her. She has a way of unsettling her readers, (my wife has yet to read her stories, largely because I don't think they would be helpful to her). Though her violence is never flashy or ironic like post-modern gore, it is still prevalent. So use discernment.
If you do choose to read O'Connor, a good place to start is her final volume of stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge, followed by her earlier set of stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories. Even better, purchase her aptly titled The Complete Stories, and read "The River," "Good Country People," and "Revelation." Move from there to "Judgement Day." Then, if you want, keep going to "A Good Man is Hard to Find," "Greenleaf," and so on.
If you prefer audio books, blackstone audio offers both Everything that Rises Must Converge and A Good Man is Hard to Find for decent prices on iTunes.
And if you have time, listen to Flannery read "A Good Man is Hard to Find" here. After you do, try not to hear her thick Georgia drawl as you make your way through her other stories.