O’Connor’s Definition of a Good Story

Flannery O’Connor’s definition of a good story is one that needs “every word in the story to say what the meaning is” and “involves, in a dramatic way, a mystery of personality.” When I first read this definition, I didn’t understand what she meant in any concrete way, but after reading her short story “Good Country People,” I agree that these aspects are what make the story so engaging. 

The story had a really interesting structure, beginning with who was narrating the story/who the story was about. At first, I thought that the story was being told from Mrs. Freeman’s point of view, but she turned out to be more of a background character. Then, I thought the story was about Mrs. Hopewell, but while it is told partially from Mrs. Hopewell’s perspective, in the end the story is really about Hulga. When combined with the twists and turns of the plot itself, these narrative misdirections give the reader a sense that the story is unfolding before them and anything could happen next. I felt like I didn’t know where the story was going until the very end, and so the story really did need every word to get its final meaning across.

“Good Country People” also creates a “mystery of personality” in the character of Manley Pointer (or whatever his real name is). The innocent country Christian persona he presents turns out to be a disguise he uses to take advantage of people and steal from them, as he does with Hulga and her prosthetic leg. This mystery creates intrigue throughout the story but also continues once the story is over, with the reader left wondering who this character really is and why he acts the way he does.

The World Outside Spiderhead

The short story Escape from Spiderhead by George Saunders is an intense, dystopian tale that describes a system where criminals are forced to be test subjects in futuristic drug experiments. The scientists behind the experiments, particularly Abnesti, portray themselves as righteous knowledge seekers whose only goal is to advance science, no matter the cost. Abnesti viewed Heather’s death from Darkenfloxx as a regrettable event but one that could hopefully yield data, showing his indifference by saying, “‘Look, Jeff, these things happen…This is science. In Science we explore the unknown” (72). The world inside the Spiderhead is jarringly distant from our own, where laws protect the abuse of people, and prisoners specifically, in scientific experiments. But it prompts a question that isn’t directly explored in the story: what is the outside world that enables this system? It may not be as distant. One aspect of the story I found really interesting was the way the drugs are labeled, with a consumer-friendly, catchy name (“Verbaluce,” “SpeedErUp,” etc.) followed by a ™, just like a drug ad you might see on TV today. The drugs being tested in the story seem to be made to be sold in a capitalist society for a profit. While I don’t see something like these experiments happening in our society today, our world probably has some of the same incentives as the world outside Spiderhead that allows the horrific treatment of the people in Spiderhead to occur.