Authors often use irony in order to place their characters into tricky situations in which they must make a decision, which often reveals more about their true self. Flannery O’Connor was a southern gothic, and grotesque writer who is known for her strong use of irony and distortion. In her book, The Complete Stories, O’Connor uses numerous rhetorical devices, but most notable is her use of irony. O’Connor’s use of irony is most prominent in her short stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find, and The Life You Save May Be Your Own. In the short story A Good Man is Hard to Find, there is an overwhelming amount of irony that leads to foreshadowing, which helps the protagonist come into contact with her moment of grace. In O’Connor’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, there is an inordinate amount of both, dramatic and situational irony, throughout the story, again prompting the protagonist to face his moment of grace. O’Connor’s use of irony within her short stories helps the protagonists of the stories to face their moment of grace, while at the same time teaches a moral lesson to her readers, and those characters in contact with their moments of grace.
In the short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, O’Connor presents irony throughout the story in order to help the protagonist to face her moment of grace. The narrator starts the story by saying, “The Grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida” (O’Connor 117). Shortly after, the family learns about an escaped prison convict who is also headed towards Florida. At this moment, the reader can begin to foreshadow that something bad is going to happen because the grandmother doesn’t want to go, and because one of the family members happened to stumble upon an article about the Misfit heading to Florida. The grandmother reluctantly decides to go with the rest of the family to Florida. On the way to Florida, the family stops for food, and while they are eating, the grandmother asks if anyone has heard about The Misfit. The owner of the restaurant says to the grandmother, “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he didn’t attack this place right here” (122). O’Connor is again foreshadowing an encounter with The Misfit, and it is rather ironic because as the reader knows, the family will run into the misfit who will eventually kill them all. After the family leaves the restaurant, the Grandmother recalls an old, nearby plantation that she visited when she was young, and convinces the family to take a detour to go look at it. On the way to the plantation, the family gets into a car accident and they all get out on the side of the road. Shortly after their accident, a car drives by and stops next to them, with none other than The Misfit in it. This situation is ironic for a number of reasons. First, the only reason the family went down the deserted dirt road, and got into a car accident was because the grandmother had told the family that she knew of a scenic plantation she wanted to show the children, but just before the accident, the grandmother realized that the road they were headed on was not the right road to get to the plantation the grandmother had had in mind, in fact, they weren’t even in the same state as the plantation. One of the most ironic lines in the story is when the eight year old boy, John Wesley says to the grandmother, “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” (117). At the time, the family had no idea that they would encounter The Misfit during their travels, but it is ironic that the grandmother is the one who didn’t want to go in the first place, was the one who was constantly talking about The Misfit, and was the one who ultimately directed the family right into The Misfit’s path. When The Misfit and his companions hold the family at gunpoint, the grandmother begins to speak with The Misfit, in an attempt to save her life, but not her own families. The grandmother says things that she thinks The Misfit would want to hear such as when she says, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” (132). This is an example of dramatic irony because in this instance one would expect the grandmother to plead for the lives of her family, but instead she disregards them as they are being directed into the woods by gunpoint, and only pleads for her own life. This prompts the grandmother’s moment of grace, which she willingly accepts.
In the story, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, there are copious amounts of irony throughout. The most evident, and physical example of irony is Mr. Shiftlet himself. Upon his arrival to the farm, the old woman describes him as “a tramp and no one to be afraid of” (145), but as the reader learns shortly after, he is not so innocent and not so normal. Mr. Shiftlet, the protagonist, is physically disabled because he only has one arm. The old woman’s daughter, Lucynell, is both deaf and mute, and is not self dependent, thus she relies on her mother for daily care. The farm which Mr. Shiftlet comes across is in a desolate, barely populated spot, which makes it strange that a random man would stumble upon it, but what makes this situation rather ironic is that both Mr. Shiftlet and Lucynell have physical handicaps. This is the first of many instances of irony in the short story. Throughout the story, the reader is made aware of the old woman, Mrs. Crater, and her desire for a son-in-law. Mrs. Crater desires a son-in-law for a number of reasons: to provide a sense of safety and security, to take care of her precious daughter, and to “save” her daughter from a life of loneliness. Eventually, Mrs. Crater gets exactly what she wishes for, a son-in-law, but she does not get exactly what she had expected. Mr. Shiflet takes his new wife on a honeymoon, but on the way abandons her at a diner, and steals their car. This entire scene is full of situational irony because Mrs. Crater and the reader believe that Lucynell was being saved from her loneliness, and emptiness by Mr. Shiftlet, but really she was being taken advantage of and left to be lonely once more. At the end of the short story, O’Connor presents more irony when the narrator says, “Mr. Shiftlet felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him. He raised his arm and let it fall again to his breast (156)…”Break forth and wash the slime from this earth!” (156), Mr. Shiftlet said. This is ironic because shortly after he says this, there is a huge rainstorm that chases him away, implying that he is the “slime from this earth.” This ironic instance prompts Mr. Shiftlet to face his moment of grace, after he is driving down the road to Mobile, Alabama. Mr. Shiftlet realizes his moment of grace as he is driving away from the diner; he thinks about what he just did, but he ultimately rejects this moment of grace, and continues on in the car, towards Mobile.
Through her varying use of irony, O’Connor is able to develop her characters, and lead them to their moment of grace in each of her short stories. When the characters face irony in the stories, it brings out their true colors, which often creates more dramatic irony for the reader and prompts them to face their moment of grace. O’Connor’s use of irony fits right into her well-known writing style, and prompts both characters and readers to think about the bigger picture, the moment of grace and its meaning.