A Good Man Is Hard to Find
A Good Man Is Hard to Find
A Good Man Is Hard to Find
Flannery O’Connor 1955
Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” first appeared in the author’s short story collection by the same name, which was published in 1955. Since then, it has become one of O’Connor’s most highly regarded works of short fiction because it exhibits all the characteristics for which she is best known: a contrast of violent action with humorously and carefully drawn characters and a philosophy that underscores her devout Roman Catholic faith. Critics have admired the prose and the way O’Connor infuses the story with her Catholic belief about the role God’s grace plays in the lives of ordinary people. The story is disturbing and humorous at the same time—a quality shared by many of O’Connor’s other works, including her novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away.
Though the story begins innocently enough, O’Connor introduces the character of the Misfit, an escaped murderer who kills the entire family at the end of the story. Through this character, O’Connor explores the Christian concept of “grace” —that a divine pardon from God is available simply for the asking. In the story, it is the Grandmother—a petty, cantankerous, and overbearing individual—who attains grace at the moment of her death, when she reaches out to the Misfit and recognizes him as one of her own children. For O’Connor, God’s grace is a force outside the character, something undeserved, an insight or moment of epiphany. Often, however, O’Connor’s characters miss moments of opportunity to make some connection; their spiritual blindness keeps them from seeing truth.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is the title story of O’Connor’s first short story collection, and, therefore, often serves as an introduction to the rest of her fiction. The story is enjoyable for its humorous portrayal of a family embarking on a vacation; O’Connor has been unforgiving in her portrayal of these characters—they are not likable. However, in creating characters that elicit little sympathy from readers, O’Connor has carefully set the premise for her main argument: that grace is for everyone, even those who seem loathesome.
Although she produced relatively few works in her short lifetime of 39 years, Mary Flannery O’Connor is considered one of the most important short story writers of the twentieth century because of her strange but interesting characters, her violent plot elements, and her religious world view. O’Connor was a Roman Catholic writer who knew that most of her audience did not share her strict moral view of the world. She sought, however, to present a message of God’s grace and presence in everyday life. Born in the “Bible Belt” Southern city of Savannah, Georgia, on March 25, 1925, O’Connor’s region and upbringing influenced her fiction in her depiction of character, of conflict, and in her choice of themes.
O’Connor was the only child of wealthy parents and attended high school in Milledgeville, Georgia. Her father, Edward Francis O’Connor, died when she was sixteen from degenerative lupus, the same disease that later took her life. At the Georgia College for Women, O’Connor majored in social sciences and edited and wrote for school publications. She later received a master’s degree in writing from Iowa State University in 1947, using six of her stories as her master’s thesis. After completing graduate school, O’Connor attended the prestigious Yaddo writers’ colony in upstate New York in 1947-48 where she worked on her first novel Wise Blood. Moving to New York and then to Connecticut to live with good friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, O’Connor continued to work on her novel until she suffered her first attack of lupus, a chronic, autoimmune disease which causes inflammation of various parts of the body, such as the skin, joints, blood and internal organs. O’Connor then moved back to Milledgeville, where she lived the remainder of her life with her mother.
O’Connor wrote steadily through the 1950s. Her novel Wise Blood was published in 1952, and A Good Man Is Hard to Find, a short story collection containing the well-known story by the same name, in 1955. A second novel, The Violent Bear It Away came out in 1960. The year of her death, 1964, saw the publication of Three by Flannery O ‘Connor and another short story collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge. Most of her stories were originally published in periodicals such as Accent, Mademoiselle, Esquire, and Critic. She won three O. Henry Memorial Awards for her short stories, a Ford Foundation grant, a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in literature, and two honorary doctor’s degrees during her lifetime. After her death, her fiction won a National Book Award, and her collection of letters The Habit of Being won an award from the Library Journal.
O’Connor’s health prevented her from traveling much, so she spent much of her time writing hundreds of letters to friends, family, and strangers. The collection of letters The Habit of Being reveals a great deal about O’Connor’s compassionate, but often critical, personality. Besides her friendships and her correspondence, O’Connor helped her mother on their Georgia dairy farm Andalusia, painted with oils, and raised peacocks, birds that figure prominently and often symbolically in her fiction. She traveled when she could and presented lectures and speeches. She died on August 3, 1964, at the age of 39, from the effects of her disease and abdominal surgery associated with it; however, her fiction lives on, appearing in anthologies, garnering critical attention, and continuing to astound readers with its depiction of the human condition.
O’Connor’s story is told by a third person narrator, but the focus is on the Grandmother’s perspective of events. Even though she complains that she would rather go to Tennessee than Florida for vacation, she packs herself (and secretly her cat, Pitty Sing) in the car with her son Bailey, his wife, and their children June Star, John Wesley, and the baby. In a comical instance of foreshadowing, she takes pains to dress properly in a dress and hat, so that if she were found dead on the highway everyone would recognize her as a lady.
When the family stops for lunch at Red Sammy Butts’ barbecue place, the proprietor, a husky man, is insulted by June Star. Nevertheless, he and the Grandmother discuss the escaped murderer known as the Misfit. Noting that the world is increasingly a more dangerous and unfriendly place, Red Sammy tells the Grandmother that these days “A good man is hard to find.” Back on the road, the Grandmother convinces her hen-pecked son to go out of their way so they can visit an old plantation she recalls from her childhood. The children second her suggestion when she mentions that the house contains secret passageways. Soon after Bailey turns down a dirt road “in a swirl of pink dust” with “his jaw as rigid as a horseshoe,” the Grandmother realizes that the plantation is not in Georgia, where they are, but in Tennessee. This sudden realization causes her to upset Pitty Sing’s basket. The cat leaps out onto Bailey’s shoulder, and the surprise causes him to lose control of the car and roll it into a ditch.
No one is seriously hurt, and the children are inclined to view the accident as an adventure. Soon a car happens along the desolate stretch of road and the family believes the driver will stop and help them. As the driver makes his way down the embankment, the Grandmother thinks “his face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but she could not recall who he was.” As soon as he starts to speak, however, she recognizes him as the infamous Misfit. He is accompanied by two other men; they are all carrying guns and are dressed in clothes that are clearly not their own. The first thing he wants to know is if the car will still run.
While the Misfit talks with the grandmother, his two accomplices, Hiram and Bobby Lee, take each member of the family off to the woods and shoot them. Soon the Misfit obtains Bailey’s bright yellow shirt with blue parrots on it, and he and the Grandmother are alone. She tries to convince him that he is “not a bit common,” in an effort to flatter him and spare her life. When it becomes clear that her words are having little effect on him, she becomes speechless for the first time in the story. “She opened and closed her mouth several times before anything came out. Finally she found herself saying, ‘Jesus. Jesus,’ meaning Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing.”
The Misfit’s explanation for his behavior provides an opportunity for the self-centered Grandmother to reflect on her beliefs in the moments before he shoots her “three times through the
chest.” The Misfit explains that “Jesus thown everything off balance.” In her final moment, the Grandmother reaches out and touches the Misfit, whispering “You’re one of my own children!.” The Misfit’s final commentary on the Grandmother is that “she would of been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Bailey is the son of the principal character in the story, the Grandmother, and is the father of June Star and John Wesley. He drives the car as the family embarks on their vacation. Bailey’s major importance in the story is his relationship to other people, especially his mother. He allows her to boss him around and to convince him to go out of the way to visit an old house she remembers from her childhood, where the family is killed. Bailey seems unresponsive to his wife and children, allowing them to take advantage of him. Overall, Bailey, who wears a yellow shirt with blue parrots, perhaps symbolizing his cowardice, is a “flat” character.
Red Sammy Butts
Red Sammy Butts owns the barbecue restaurant called the Tower at which the family stops on their car trip. O’Connor describes him as fat with his stomach hanging over his khaki pants “like a sack of meal swaying under his shirt.” Signs along the highway advertise his barbecue: “Try Red Sammy’s Famous Barbecue. None like Famous Red Sammy’s! Red Sam! The Fat Boy with the Happy Laugh. A Veteran! Red Sammy’s Your Man!” He orders his wife around and engages in empty chatter with the Grandmother. Red Sammy’s statement, “A good man is hard to find,” in reference to the proliferation of crime and a nostalgia for the days when people did not have to lock their doors, becomes the title of the story.
The Grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is the story’s principal character. Her religious epiphany at the story’s end provides the philosophical thrust behind the narrative. By giving her no name other than Grandmother and crotchety conversation that provides much of the story’s humor, O’Connor paints her as a tragically comic caricature, one that a reader can easily, but wrongly, feel superior to. She is selfish and pushy; in fact, her desire to see a house from her childhood results in the family’s death at the end of the story. The story’s primary action involves a family car trip on which they encounter an escaped criminal and his gang. If the Grandmother had not insisted they detour to see the old house, which, she realized too late was in Tennessee, not in the part of Georgia where they were, the family would have escaped the disaster. The Grandmother is critical of the children’s mother, who is never named, and she dotes on her son Bailey although she treats him like a child. She demonstrates racist behavior by calling a poor Black child “a pickaninny . . . Wouldn’t that make a picture, now?” and she reveals a superior moral attitude. In her conversation with the murderer, an escaped convict called the Misfit, the Grandmother says that she knows he is from “good people,” as she tries to flatter him in order to save her own life. Her last words to him as she reaches out to touch his shoulder, “You’re one of my own children,” signify that she has experienced a final moment of grace. The Misfit shoots her three times, but her transcendence to grace is underscored by the fact that she died “with her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.” Through her portrait of the Grandmother, O’Connor demonstrates her strong belief in the salvation of religion. Everyone’s soul deserves to be saved, she is saying, no matter how impious their actions in life.
The Misfit is an escaped murderer who kills the family at the end of the story and shoots the Grandmother three times in the chest. Described as wearing tan and white shoes, no socks, no shirt, he is an older man with glasses “that gave him a scholarly look.” By his speech, readers can tell that he is rather uneducated. However, he speaks to the grandmother and the others with deliberate politeness. He remains calm throughout the scene as he instructs his two companions, Bobby Lee and Hiram, to take the family to the woods. He says to the Grandmother, “it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn’t reckernized me.”
In the Misfit’s conversation with the Grandmother about Jesus throwing “everything off balance,” O’Connor presents a view of a world out of balance. Just as the story’s violence does not seem to match its comedy, the Misfit’s life of punishment has not fit his crimes. In a long section of dialogue, the Misfit unburdens his soul to the Grandmother about his father’s death, his own mistreatment, and his feelings about the world’s injustices. He kills her when she calls him one of her “own babies.” Although critics have interpreted the actions and words of the Misfit in many ways, one reading is that he brings the Grandmother to a moment of grace in which she makes an unselfish, religious connection with another human being, something she had been incapable of before that time. In his comment, “she would of been a good woman. . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” the Misfit seems to understand that her grace required an extreme situation. The Misfit, by helping the Grandmother understand her own mortality and connection with “all God’s children,” may actually be an unlikely—and evil— messenger from God.
See Red Sammy Butts
See Red Sammy Butts
June Star, the granddaughter of the principal character in the story, is rude, self-centered, and annoying. She argues with her brother John Wesley and seems disappointed when no one is killed in their car accident. When Red Sammy’s wife asks her if she would like to live with them, June Star replies, “No I certainly wouldn’t. . . . I wouldn’t live in a broken-down place like this for a million bucks!” She, like many of O’Connor’s characters, serves as comic relief or as an example of realism.
John Wesley, the eight-year-old grandson of the principal character of the story, is described as a “stocky child with glasses.” He is portrayed as a kid with normal interests and actions. His enthusiasm to see the house his grandmother tells them about, mainly to explore the secret panel she says it contains, influences his father Bailey to make the fateful detour. John Wesley’s name is undoubtedly an ironic reference to the English priest who was one of the founders of the Methodist church.
In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” an escaped convict and his companions murder a family because of a series of mishaps on the part of the Grandmother. Thinking that an old house is in Georgia rather than Tennessee, she insists that her son Bailey take a detour that leads them to their deaths. Because she has secretly brought her cat along, her son Bailey drives the car off the road when the cat leaps to his shoulders. Finally, she blurts out the identity of the murderer so that he has no choice but to murder them all. Readers are introduced to a quirky family and what appears to be a typical family car trip, but the story ends on a more philosophical note when the Grandmother attains a state of grace at the moment she realizes that the murderer is “one of her children.”
Prejudice vs. Tolerance
The Grandmother demonstrates racial and class prejudice through her words and actions. She is vain and selfish, and she believes that good character is a result of coming from “good people,” an important concept in O’Connor’s fiction. When she sees an African-American child without any clothes, she
Topics for Further Study
- In the 1950s, automobiles became more accessible to many Americans, and people’s mobility and freedom reached new proportions. O’Connor often used the automobile as a symbol in her writing. In addition to “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” read “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” and “The Displaced Person” and discuss the importance of the automobile in those narratives.
- Read about the Civil Rights Movement and some of the frustrations African Americans faced in the South during the 1950s and 1960s. Read another story from O’Connor’s collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find called “The Artificial Nigger.” How does a racist lawn statue become a symbol for spiritual searching? What seems to be O’Connor’s position on racism?
- Discuss how the tenets of Roman Catholicism are manifest in O’Connor’s fiction. How does she interpret her own Catholic faith, and what does she expect her readers to understand about it?
- Compare O’Connor’s use of humor to Mark Twain’s, especially in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. How do both of the writers use humor to present the harsh realities of the human condition?
exclaims, “Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!” She continues, “Wouldn’t that make a picture, now?” When her granddaughter comments on the child’s lack of clothes, the Grandmother says, “He probably didn’t have any . . . . Little niggers in the country don’t have things like we do.” Believing that she came from a good family and from a time when “People did right,” the Grandmother possesses a false sense of self-righteousness. She tells Red Sammy, a restaurant owner, that she believes that the United States’ problems can be blamed on Europe. She says “the way Europe acted you would think we were made of money.” In her ignorance of others’ lifestyles and points of view, the Grand-mother is one of O’Connor’s numerous characters who flaunt their prejudice. Early in her encounter with the Misfit, she tries to flatter him, telling him that he does not look “common,” and therefore could not be a “bad” person. A lifetime of prejudicial attitudes is erased, however, at the end of the story when she realizes her helplessness and the fact that discriminatory views such as hers are related to monstrous behavior like the Mistfit’s. This moment is encapsulated in her epiphany: “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!”
God and Religion
Most of O’Connor’s fiction involves God and religion in some way. She created characters and put them in situations which convey her message that human beings are trapped in their selfish, petty worlds and often overlook opportunities for understanding and connection; they miss out on love. Central to O’Connor’s theology is the idea of grace, that God’s love and forgiveness are available to people in everyday life. Some have defined grace in O’Connor’s fiction as the moment in a human being’s life when a power from the outside intervenes in a situation. O’Connor’s stories almost always teach by negative example; her characters are often too selfish or unobservant to see the acts of grace in everyday experience. She used violence in her fiction to grab the characters’ attention, because she believed that people needed to be coerced into noticing God’s presence in the modern world. She shocked readers into understanding that people cannot survive alone in the world. As she said in Mystery and Manners, a collection of her nonfiction writing published after her death, grace is “simply a concern with the human reaction to that which, instant by instant, gives life to the soul. It is a concern with a realization that breeds charity and with the charity that breeds action.” Charity, in this context, is a synonym for love; certainly, readers have noticed the absence of love in O’Connor’s fiction. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” all of the characters—most obviously the Grandmother— are concerned only with their own wants and desires. There is no real connection or love between them until they encounter the Misfit and his gang of murderers. When the Grandmother exclaims at the end, “You’re one of my children!,” she makes the first statement of connection in the story. At this point she receives grace as she understands her place in humanity. All are sinners in O’Connor’s fiction, but all are capable of being saved.
Violence and Cruelty
Much of O’Connor’s fiction contains violence, which she claimed was necessary to get readers’ attention. Her violence has a purpose, therefore; she claimed that the world in general would not notice God’s presence unless something monumental occurred. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the Grandmother must be shocked out of her selfish and judgmental views by the barrel of a gun. Only when her entire family is murdered within earshot of her and when she faces her own death does she make a real connection with another human being. She says to the Misfit, “You’re one of my own children!” and recognizes her own mortality, her own sinfulness, and her relationship to other “children of God.” O’Connor believed that God’s grace often came into people’s lives precisely when they are not looking for it. As she said in Mystery and Manners, her “subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.”
Symbols, elements in a work of fiction that stand for something more profound or meaningful, allow writers to communicate complicated ideas to readers in a work that appears to be simple. O’Connor includes several symbols in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” For example, skies and weather are always symbolic to O’Connor, and she often uses such descriptions to reveal a character’s state of mind. In another story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” O’Connor ends the story with a man being “chased” by an ominous thundercloud, because the man is feeling guilty for abandoning his mentally and physically challenged wife at a roadside diner. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the sky at the end of the story is cloudless and clear, indicating that the Grandmother has died with a clear vision of her place in the world. Another symbol in the story is the old house that the Grandmother insists on visiting. It represents the woman’s habit of wanting to live in the past, in a time she believes people were more decent and better than they are today. However, the house is not where she thought it was—it was in Tennessee, not Georgia— a realization that symbolizes that one’s perception of the past is often distorted. This focus on a distorted past leads the family directly to their ruin; they have been sidetracked by a past that did not exist.
Point of View
O’Connor was extremely interested in point of view, and she was careful to keep her point of view consistent.“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is told in third person, which means that it is not told directly by one of the characters involved in the action. The first sentence of the story indicates an “objective” narrator: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.” However, the reader is privy to the Grandmother’s thoughts and no one else’s. This point of view is sometimes called “third person limited,” in which the author reveals only one character’s emotions and thoughts to the reader. Even the names of characters illustrate the story’s point of view; Bailey’s wife—the Grandmother’s daughter-in-law— is referred to generically as “the children’s mother.” This reveals that the Grandmother thinks of her only in terms of being her son’s wife and her grandchildren’s mother. O’Connor is careful, however, not to enter completely into the Grandmother’s thoughts; she keeps what is called “authorial distance.” O’Connor is often praised for being “detached” in her narration, allowing readers to come to their own conclusions about the characters. Consistent with this idea of detachment is the fact that the Grandmother is never given a name in the story either, a technique that keeps readers from identifying too closely with her, or recognizing her as an individual. She is simply a “type” of person. This tactic allowed O’Connor to present characters who must be judged by their actions, rather than on some criteria that O’Connor would have deemed “less objective.”
Instances of foreshadowing, an indication of future events, occur several times in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Many writers of short fiction include few superfluous details; every detail contributes to an overall effect that the story intends to produce. Thus, certain descriptive phrases or dialogue in a story that first appear to have no special significance often take on new meaning in retrospect. In the first paragraph of the story, O’Connor introduces the Misfit, the murderer who eventually kills the family. Similarly, as the family prepares to embark on their vacation, the Grandmother plans her outfit with an eye toward tragedy. Dressed in a polka-dot dress trimmed with organdy and decorated by a spray of violets,“anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.” Later, as the family drives through the countryside, they pass a cotton field “with five or six graves fenced in the middle of it,” a hint of approaching death for the six occupants of the car. Finally, as the Misfit and his gang approach, their car is described as “a big battered hearse-like automobile,” a further indication that death will figure into the story.
Irony is one of the most difficult elements to identify in a story because it is related to tone and the author’s attitude toward the work. Irony is a literary device that is used to impart that things are not what they seem; the simple meanings of the story’s words betray an idea that is actually contrary to what has been stated.“Ironic” is not the same as “sarcastic” or “coincidental.” Irony can occur in situations in which things happen which are unexpected given the circumstances; an example of this is that a family embarks on a summer vacation and winds up murdered. Or irony can occur through dialogue when a character’s words have a meaning other than that intended by the person who utters them. Finally, there is “dramatic irony,” in which the reader understands something that the characters do not. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” O’Connor uses several kinds of irony to communicate her message about the human condition. At the beginning of the story, the Grandmother says “I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.” However, this is exactly what she does when she sidetracks the family to a desolate roadside. Verbal irony occurs after the car accident when June Star announces disappointedly, “But nobody’s killed.” The story’s dramatic irony centers around the family’s interaction with the Misfit, when readers understand the gravity of the situation yet the characters do not; Bailey states “we’re in a terrible predicament! Nobody realizes what this is.”
The story is structured to fall into two sections, each with a distinctive tone. The first half of the story, up until the car accident, is humorous and light. After the accident, however, readers understand that a tragedy will occur. The tone turns dark, the subject matter becomes serious, and dialogue becomes more weighted with irony and symbolism. The conversation about religion between the Grandmother and the Misfit is deeply philosophical and in stark contrast to the story’s prior petty exchanges about old boyfriends or poor children. The story moves from being a portrait of an unremarkable family to being a dialogue one the themes of death, forgiveness and injustice.
In a work of fiction, tone can be discerned from an author’s choice of words and action. The tone of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” combines humor, detachment, irony, and seriousness. Throughout O’Connor’s stories, readers confront humorous descriptions or situations, such as in this story when the narrator describes the children’s mother as having “a face as broad and innocent as a cabbage . . . tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit’s ears.” O’Connor approaches the characters in her story with detachment; in other words, her narrative voice does not help readers to become sympathetic to her characters. She presents them with all their faults and oddities so that readers may judge them honestly. Towards the end of the story, the tone turns more serious and tragic as the Misfit happens upon the family. O’Connor presents a situation in which average people confront a force of pure evil. The dark tone is established when the characters are unable to reason with the evil Misfit and must confront their own mortality.
Fueled with the speeches of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and with the deaths of several African-American activists, the civil rights movement was at its peak in 1955. Just the year before, the Supreme Court of the United States had struck down legal segregation in schools in a landmark decision. In 1955, Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama, made her heroic and famous decision not to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. This single action engendered a widespread bus boycott which catapulted its organizer, Martin Luther King, Jr., to national attention. Georgia, where O’Connor lived and set the story, was filled with racial tension. The Grandmother’s attitudes toward African Americans typify the beliefs of many in the state at the time. When she tells June Star that “Little niggers in the country don’t have things like we do,” she was expressing a sentiment many people in white society in 1955 held.
The Era of the Automobile
The 1950s saw a significant increase in the number of cars on American roads, a result of post World War II economic prosperity. In 1955 motorcar sales passed the 7 million mark in the United States, Chevrolet introduced the V-8 engine, and President Eisenhower submitted a 10-year, $101 billion proposal to build a national highway system to Congress. Family vacations by car, like that in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” became common as Americans took to the highways and embraced the freedom and independence that automobiles provided. Although New York’s Long Island Expressway opened in 1955, it was unable to handle the volume of traffic passing over it. As American society became more mobile and independent, the culture changed. Drive-in restaurants and movie theaters proliferated in the 1950s, as did roadside motels and suburban shopping malls. Cars are important to O’Connor’s fiction as both an element of realism in her work and as a symbol for a shift in the way Americans think about themselves and their sense of place.
The Silver Screen, the Small Screen, and Rock ‘n’ Roll
American popular culture shifted dramatically during the 1950s. The new prosperity allowed increasing numbers of families to buy television sets, and it became a central form of family entertainment. Shows like Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best presented an idealized and skewed picture of American life. Western movies, stories of good guys and bad guys like The Lone Ranger, reinforced the country’s moral belief that crime does not pay. Many famous movies or musicals also debuted in the 1950s: Oklahoma!, Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Rebel without a Cause, and Blackboard Jungle, many of which hinted at problems festering just under the surface of American life. Movies often showed a darker side of American life, and many of the movies of the 1950s dealt with the social unrest that would break loose in the next decade. A new form of music, rock’n’roll, debuted in the mid-1950s. Entertainers such as Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Bill Haley enjoyed tremendous popularity as they appealed to young people and often sang about issues that concerned them. Such overwhelming
Compare & Contrast
- 1955: Racial tensions run high as the civil rights movement makes real changes in American society. Rosa Parks refuses to go to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Two African-American leaders, Lamar D. Smith and George W. Lee, are killed.
1996: Dozens of African-American churches, mostly in the South, burn down during the spring and summer months. Though the cause of some of the blazes is unknown, arson is suspected in many cases.
- 1950: According to crime statistics, approximately 7,000 murders were committed in the United States during the year.
1994: According to crime statistics, approximately 23,305 murders were committed during the year. Of these, 15,456 involved firearms.
- 1955: The U.S. census bureau reveals that the American population increased by 2.8 million, the largest 1-year advance on record. The generation born in the years between 1945 and 1960 are dubbed “The Baby Boomers.”
1990s: The first Baby Boomers are turning 50, and the United States looks to ways to provide for the health care and social security of such a large number of aging individuals.
changes in many facets of American society prompt the Grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to feel nostalgia for a lost past.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the title selection of O’Connor’s 1955 collection, has received a great deal of critical attention. The story serves as an excellent introduction to O’Connor’s fiction because it contains all the elements that typify O’Connor’s work: a combination of humor and horror, grotesque characters, and an opportunity for characters to accept God’s grace. Critics were initially intrigued with O’Connor’s use of violence in her stories, uncommon for a writer—not to mention a woman—in the 1950s and 1960s, yet they recognized her ability to draw characters with clarity and detachment. These traits caused critics to categorize O’Connor as a Southern Grotesque writer, similar to William Faulkner, who also wrote critically of his Southern heritage. However, these same critics were confused by her staunch Roman Catholic perspective, which was unusual for a writer in a region that was predominantly Baptist. O’Connor thought of herself as more of an outsider: not a Southern writer because of her Catholicism, and not a Catholic writer because of her Southern roots. Because her point of view is often theological, and because she fails to present a clear, straightforward moral, the message in her stories has often been misinterpreted.
Initial reaction to “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” was positive. Caroline Gordon wrote in The New York Times Book Review that the story was “characterized by precision, density and an almost alarming circumscription.” Louis D. Rubin, Jr., in an essay entitled “Two Ladies of the South” recognized that O’Connor “is in essence a religious writer. Knowledge of good and evil is at the heart of her stories.” In an essay published in Mystery and Manners, O’Connor wrote that the Grandmother had been interpreted as being a witch and the Misfit a fallen prophet. She says that “there are perhaps other ways than my own in which [“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”] could be read, but none other by which it could have been written.” More recently, Russell Kirk wrote in an essay for The World that the Misfit is “the most forlorn and terrifying desperado in all Flannery’s tales.”
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Miles Orvell’s Flannery O’Connor: An Introduction, written in 1972, is an early introduction and commentary on her fiction. Josephine Hendin, in another work about the author, The World of Flannery O’Connor, says that there are two O’Connors: “the perfect daughter who lives in her mother’s memory, the uncompromising Catholic O’Connor. . .and the more enigmatic writer of those strange and violent tales.” Although some early reviewers were confused by O’Connor’s fiction—she seemed to be making fun of religion—the large body of criticism on her work in the past three decades has converged on an accepted interpretation of her work. The New Critics, writers like Cleanth Brooks and John Crowe Ransom who dominated literary criticism in the 1950s promoted O’Connor’s fiction, admiring the “intentionality” of her words: every element of the story worked to promote her desired effect. After O’Connor’s death, the publication of her many letters in Mystery and Manners gave readers added insight through the author’s own explanations of her work. In the book, O’Connor emphasizes the form of her stories: writes that the “form of a story gives it a meaning which any other form would change, and unless the student is able, in some degree, to apprehend the form, he will never apprehend anything else about the work.”
Today O’Connor’s place in the literary world is well established. She is appreciated for her complexity and her contradictions. Anthony DiRenzo’s American Gargoyles: Flannery O’Connor and the Medieval Grotesque tries to explain some of those contradictions. DiRenzo compares O’Connor’s fiction to the medieval cathedrals that were adorned with the grotesque figures of the gargoyle. He says that if one wants to understand O’Connor, one must understand her mixing of the serious and sacred with the comic and the common. The humor in O’Connor keeps readers from crying. Many other studies are available, and the thirty or more years since O’Connor’s death have given readers time to appreciate her powerful fiction.
Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton is an educator and the coordinator of the undergraduate writing center at the University of Texas at Austin. In the following essay, she discusses O’Connor’s story as a good example of the author’s fiction.
What Do I Read Next?
- O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood, published in 1952, deals with religious themes, as does much of her work. The plot revolves around the character of Hazel Motes, a man obsessed with Jesus in ways that the Misfit is. Hazel becomes a preacher for the Church Without Christ. Like “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Wise Blood demonstrates O’Connor’s vision of what happens to people who try to live their lives without any kind of spiritual presence.
- No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, by Mark Twain deals with religion in a humorous way.
- A Curtain of Green, a collection of stories by Southern writer Eudora Welty. Also characterized as a “Southern Gothic” writer, Welty’s fiction often deals with brutal themes as well.
- Carson McCullers has helped to define Southern fiction. A Member of the Wedding, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter are three of her most highly regarded novels.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is one of the most widely discussed of all Flannery O’Connor’s stories. It also provides an excellent introduction to her work because it contains all the major ingredients characteristic of the remarkable literary legacy left by a woman who only lived to be thirty-nine years old and who was too ill to write in her last years. Readers who encounter O’Connor for the first time should be aware that she always identified herself as a Southern writer and as a Catholic writer and that her stories are always informed by these identities and beliefs.
As a Southerner, O’Connor draws on a rich tradition of humor and regional specific detail in her fiction. Beyond the comedic characters and precise rendering of their dialects, however, O’Connor’s South is a place rich with myth and history. In two influential essays, “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” and “The Regional Writer,” now collected in Mystery and Manners, O’Connor argued that the best literature is always regional literature because good writing is always rooted in a sense of place, in “a shared past, a sense of alikeness, and the possibility of reading a small history in a universal light.” She further claimed that among the regions in the United States, the South has produced the best writing because it has already “had its fall.” Southern writers possess special insight, she said, because “we have gone into the modern world with an inburnt knowledge of human limitations and with a sense of mystery which could not have developed in our first state of innocence—as it has not sufficiently developed in the rest of our country.”
By the references to the fall and loss of innocence in Mystery and Manners, O’Connor meant the Civil War and the crisis of identity, guilt, and shame that accompanied it. Such an experience gave Southerners a richer, more complex sense of who they were and how they were connected to the land than their Northern counterparts had. O’Connor’s characters tend to express some degree of confusion and ambivalence toward the South. The Grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is a good example. As James Grimshaw points out, she is a southern stereotype in that she is cautious, devious, indirect, and afraid of the unfamiliar. She is also vain and obsessed with the trappings of class. In O’Connor’s own words in a letter to writer John Hawkes, the Grandmother and other “old ladies exactly reflect the banalities of the society and the effect is comical rather than seriously evil.”
As an unapologetically religious writer, O’Connor wrote stories informed by the particulars of her Catholic faith. Readers need not share her faith in order to appreciate her fiction, but it helps to be aware of the basic tenets of Catholicism that appear in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and her other stories. O’Connor’s religious vision was sacramental; that is, she believed that Christ provides outward signs that confer grace on members of the church. In this view, an individual may not earn opportunities for grace by good works, but he or she may turn away, like the Misfit does, from grace when it is offered. In O’Connor’s fiction the outward sign of grace often appears as an act of violence. In a letter about “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” O’Connor explained that her use of grace “can be violent or would have to compete with the kind of evil I can make concrete.” O’Connor’s fiction was always shaped by her beliefs in mystery, grace, redemption, and the devil. In an essay titled “Catholic Novelists,” O’Connor explained that the Catholic writer’s beliefs make him or her entirely free to observe and that “open and free observation is founded on our ultimate faith that the universe is meaningful, as the Church teaches.”
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” pits the banal and superficial Grandmother against the malevolent Misfit. Although the story starts off as a satire of a typical family vacation, it becomes a tale of coldblooded murder as the focus narrows to the Misfit and the Grandmother. The story becomes, in O’Connor’s words, “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.” She also cautions readers that they “should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother’s soul, and not for the dead bodies.” The struggle between the Misfit and the Grandmother is not confined to her efforts to save her own life but also takes the form of an argument about faith and belief. The Grandmother, who has chattered nonstop since the family left home, is gradually rendered mute in the face of the Misfit’s assertions about Christ, and when she makes her only sincere gesture of the story, reaching out to touch him, the Misfit is threatened and horrified and shoots her three times through the chest. Before he shoots her, however, the Misfit offers a lengthy explanation for how he ended up where he is and why he believes what he does.
O’Connor uses the Misfit’s deeply held and passionate convictions as a foil, or contrast, to the Grandmother’s easy platitudes and cliches. The author is critical of the woman’s empty reassurances that he is “a good man at heart” and if he would pray “Jesus would help” him. The Misfit, by contrast, devises his own challenging and rational way of looking at the world based on his belief that “Jesus thown everything off balance.” The source of his stubborn non-belief is his insistence that everything be explained rationally. Because the Misfit did not see Christ performing any miracles, he cannot believe they ever happened. “The presence of a divine force operating outside the bounds of reason,” in the words of Robert Brinkmeyer in an essay published in The Art and Vision ofFlannery O ‘Connor, is what upset the balance of the universe. In other words, the Misfit cannot place his faith in something he cannot be rationally certain of, while the Grandmother continues to cling to a faith without an intellectual foundation or certainty of belief. The Misfit is incapable of wrapping himself around the paradox as O’Connor phrased it,“that you must believe in order to understand, not understand in order to believe.”
As the paths of these two characters converge in the final moment of the story, they are both given opportunities for grace. When the Grandmother finally runs out of words and is left to mutter “Jesus” over and over, O’Connor is suggesting that she is moving toward a deeper awareness of her faith. Similarly, when the Misfit angrily pounds his fist into the ground and complains,“I wisht I had of been there. It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had been there I would of known,” we recognize his frustrated longing for faith. When he confesses,“If I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now,” the Grandmother has a moment of clarity and recognizes his twisted humanity as part of her own by calling him one of her children. In O’Connor’s words,“The Misfit is touched by the Grace that comes through the old lady when she recognizes him as her child, as she has been touched by the Grace that comes through him in his particular suffering.” The Grandmother realizes, O’Connor explained in a later essay, “that she is responsible for the man before her and joined to him by ties of kinship which have their roots deep in the mystery she has been merely prattling about so far.”
The Misfit has an opportunity to accept grace but recoils in horror at the Grandmother’s gesture. In his parting words, however, he acknowledges how grace had worked through him to strengthen the woman’s faith: “She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Brinkmeyer points out that “the Misfit’s ‘preaching’ to the Grandmother ‘converts’ her to Christ.” The Misfit himself seems lost, as his dismissive words to Bobby Lee, “It’s no real pleasure in life,” indicate. O’Connor, however, had the last word on the Misfit and his future: “I don’t want to equate the Misfit with the devil. I prefer to think, however unlikely this may seem, the old lady’s gesture, like the mustard-seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit’s heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become. But that’s another story.”
Source: Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.
In the following short essay, Clark discusses the moment of grace in O’Connor’s story, when the grandmother reaches out to touch the Misfit. Though O’Connor has repeatedly explained the ending to her story, many critics remain confused about her intentions, particularly those who do not agree with or understand her strict approach to religion.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is one of Flannery O’Connor’s most discussed and most problematic short stories. The major difficulty involves the story’s climax. Should the Grandmother’s final act—her touching of the Misfit—be taken as a token of true, divine grace and spiritual insight? Or should the story be interpreted strictly as a naturalistic document? Perhaps the Grandmother achieves no spiritual insight. One can find critics on both sides of the argument. Since the issue is central to O’Connor’s work at large, it is worth further examination. While this question may ultimately be impossible to resolve with certainty, further light can be shed upon this critical gesture.
In Mystery and Manners, O’Connor asserts that the Grandmother’s final act is a “moment of grace.” Critics, though, have not been convinced. While acknowledging Flannery O’Connor’s reading, Madison Jones prefers to stress the “realistic explanation” of grace—a “naturalistic” grace which may be “spelled in lower case letters.” Stanley Renner is also uncomfortable with the “religious” explanation and describes “the vague touch” on the Misfit’s shoulder as “a parental blessing” or “the ceremonial dubbing of knighthood.” Thus the Grandmother’s response not so much reflects divine grace as it “touches her almost instinctive springs of sympathy and human kinship.” Leon Driskell and Joan Brittain seem to see the Grandmother’s final act, not as a transcendent spiritual experience, but as a “gesture of kinship,” which comes from one
“O’Connor’s fiction was always shaped by her beliefs in mystery, grace, redemption, and the devil.”
whose “revelation, though limited, is adequate.” And most recently, Kathleen Ochshorn has entered the fray in a most unequivocal manner, insisting that in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” “a world of propriety and illusion is laid low by wrath, not redeemed by grace.” Rather than seeing the Grandmother’s final act as an embodiment of spirituality, Ochshorn asserts that the touch expresses the grandmother’s “final hope that her noblesse can alter her fate,” an interpretation that renders the grandmother’s final gesture as mundane, selfish, and in every sense unredeeming. These critical responses—especially Ochshorn’s—are symptomatic of the reluctance to read the story in light of O’Connor’s religious beliefs.
Should O’Connor’s interpretation of the story be judged as wrong? Critics have an excellent authority for a subversive reading in D.H. Lawrence’s well-known dictum: trust the tale, not the teller of the tale. Unless the tale itself can guide us in our interpretation, we are threatened with being like the people in Plato’s cave, very inadequate interpreters of shadows on the wall. But there is another piece of evidence in the story which has been overlooked and which strengthens O’Connor’s claim that the tale should be read in a theological context.
In an indispensable article several years ago, Hallman Bryant noted that there is no Timothy, Georgia, the setting for the encounter with Red Sammy. He argues persuasively that O’Connor is alluding to “the book in the New Testament which bears the same name” —that is, Paul’s Epistle to Timothy. The evidence that Bryant presents leaves no doubt that O’ Connor did indeed have the Bible in mind. As Bryant notes, several of Paul’s teachings are especially germane to the story: the role of the husband (a negative judgment of Bailey, the Grandmother’s son), for example, and strictures against hypocrisy and false religion (which are useful correctives to the family’s, especially the Grandmother’s, attitudes). However, Bryant glosses O’Connor’s story only with reference to a single book of the Bible, Timothy I. But Timothy II can help explain the crux of the story, the touching of the Misfit; it provides a subtext for the central and problematic episode of O’Connor’s story, the grandmother’s moment of grace.
In his Second Epistle, Paul stresses to Timothy that true grace is associated with the charismatic tradition of the “laying on of hands”:
I keep the memory of thy tears, and long to see thee again, so as to have my fill of joy when I receive fresh proof of thy sincere faith. That faith dwelt in thy grandmother Lois, and in thy mother, Eunice, before thee; I am fully persuaded that it dwells in thee too. That is why I would remind thee to fan the flame of that special grace which God kindled in thee, when my hands were laid upon thee.
True faith dwelt in Timothy’s mother and grandmother and in Timothy too after Paul’s hands were laid upon him. When the Grandmother of the story touches the Misfit, she replicates Paul’s laying on of hands at the very moment she loses her artificiality and realizes that she and the Misfit are spiritual kin. Both events emphasize the grace which accompanies charismatic physical contact. Those critics who argue for a “realistic” interpretation of the story must ultimately acknowledge and account for O’Connor’s biblical allusions. The details of the story, particularly the allusion to Timothy, emphasize that the Grandmother has undergone a personal experience that is significantly different from her normally artificial and spiritually dead self. Aside from whether God exists, such moments are real, and they have de facto been defined through history as “religious.”
In a newly discovered and just recently published letter, O’Connor (in referring to The Violent Bear It Away) states the issue clearly and definitively: The novel “can only be understood in religious terms.” The same is true of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” God’s grace is not limited by one’s religious orientation. Even the most tough-minded critic will acknowledge that all human beings— even the self-satisfied grandmother—have the potential to experience epiphanies, moments of psychological clarity, that could save them from the sour and life-denying restrictions that human beings may labor under. These are moments (from the clarifying moment of the ordinary life to the trance of the mystic) that historically we have come to define as religious.
In Mystery and Manners, O’Connor tells us quite directly that the inescapable threat of death shatters the Grandmother’s complaisance and makes her look at the essential: “violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.” Life is full of such moments—though perhaps rarely on the crucial life-and-death plane of the Grandmother’s experience. O’Connor believed that such moments come from God. Theology and art are not mutually exclusive. As O’Connor wrote in Mystery and Manners, “In the greatest fiction, the writer’s moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense.”
Source: Michael Clark, “Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’: The Moment of Grace,” in English Language Notes, Volume XXIX, No. 2, December, 1991, pp. 66-9.
Kathleen G. Ochshorn
In the following essay, Ochshorn attempts to dispel some common misinterpretations of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find“ -mainly that the grandmother was evil and the Misfit was misunderstood. Nevertheless, Ochshorn concedes that the grandmother’s act of reaching out towards the Misfit was a last-ditch effort to save her own life.
Flannery O’Connor was often shocked to find how people interpreted her stories. Some readers of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” believed the grandmother was evil, even a witch. Soon O’Connor set out, quite explicitly, in letters and lectures to detail the theology of the story and the importance of the grandmother as an agent of grace. In a letter to John Hawkes, she explained how violence and grace come together:
More than in the Devil I am interested in the indication of Grace, the moment when you know that Grace has been offered and accepted—such as the moment when the Grandmother realizes the Misfit is one of her own children. These moments are prepared for (by me anyway) by the intensity of the evil circumstances.
When O’Connor speaks of her Catholicism and its expression in her fiction, she is clear-headed, eloquent, and convincing. In Mystery and Manners, the posthumous collection of her occasional prose, she claims the assumptions that underlie “A Good Man is Hard to Find” “are those of the central Christian mysteries. These are the assumptions to which a large part of the modern audience takes exception.” O’Connor was upset with critics who were determined to count the dead bodies: “And in this story you should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother’s soul, and not for the dead bodies.” For O’Connor, grace is “simply a concern with the human reaction to that which, instant by instant, gives life to the soul. It is a concern with a realization that breeds charity and with the charity that breeds action.”
Flannery O’Connor was most sincere in her Catholicism and her view of its expression in her fiction. She was troubled that her readers often identified with the wrong characters or with the right characters for the wrong reasons. She felt readers “had a really sentimental attachment to The Misfit. But then a prophet gone wrong is almost always more interesting than your grandmother, and you have to let people take their pleasures where they find them.” When she learned readers were identifying with Hazel Motes’ rejection of Christ, O’Connor added a preface to the second edition of Wise Blood claiming Motes’ integrity lay in his inability to shake the ragged figure of Christ from his mind. Generally O’Connor chalked up all the misreadings and confusion to the spiritual shortcomings of the modern reader: “Today’s audience is one in which religious feeling has become, if not atrophied, at least vaporous and sentimental.”
But the discrepancies between how O’Connor is often read and how she claimed she should be read cannot simply be explained by her theology of grace or by the lack of religious feeling among readers. Critical opinion over the years has tended to line up behind O’Connor’s own explanations; however, O’Connor’s analysis of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” still seems baffling and occasionally a critic has questioned the theology of the fiction. Andre Bleikasten, focusing on O’Connor’s novels, claimed that
the truth of O’Connor’s work is the truth of her art, not that of her church. Her fiction does refer to an implicit theology, but if we rely, as we should, on its testimony rather than on the author’s comments, we shall have to admit that the Catholic orthodoxy of her work is at least debatable.
And Frederick Asals recalls D. H. Lawrence’s advice that a reader should trust the tale and not the teller. Of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Asals claims:
One can easily pass over her [O’Connor’s] hope that the grandmother’s final gesture to The Misfit might have begun a process which would “turn him into the prophet he was meant to become”; that, as she firmly says, is another story, and it would be a reckless piety indeed which would see it even suggested by the one we have.
Finally, any work of art must speak for itself, and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” speaks much louder than O’Connor’s claims. It depicts evil with a power
“O’Connor tells us quite directly that the inescapable threat of death shatters the Grandmother’s complaisance and makes her look at the essential.”
akin to Dostoevsky. Yet Dostoevsky presented holy innocence in characters like Sonia and Alyosha as well as evil in Smerdyakov and Raskolnikov. O’Connor focuses her story on what is sinister in The Misfit and satirical in the grandmother and her family. O’Connor is dark and negative in the modernist tradition, albeit with religious preoccupations. She depicts pure evil in The Misfit as he obliterates the whining grandmother and her clan. This fine story, one of O’Connor’s best, derives much of its power from the anger and vengeance it expresses. And that pile of dead bodies cannot be canceled out when the grandmother touches The Misfit.
Yet O’Connor is not diminished by the contradictions between her work and her explanation of her work; she is made richer. The fury that lights up her art keeps “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” from being reduced to a theological exercise. The complexity of this story in part explains its broad appeal to audiences who do not see the story as a parable of grace. Grace is the uneasy cloak O’Connor designed to cover and justify the violence in the story. The grace is a guise, a rationale that is not brought off. O’Connor’s naive and deluded mothers and grandmothers are often brought low by a violent encounter that shakes them out of their petty superiorities and their would-be aristocratic and genteel trappings. They are forced to realize their vulnerability, their ridiculous condition.
The character of the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” for several reasons, contradicts any reading of her as an agent of grace. First, the grandmother’s judgments of others are totally twisted. She pronounces Red Sammy Butts “a good man” despite the evidence he is a lazy slob who treats his wife like a slave. Throughout the story the grandmother is a full-blown agent of disaster, a Geiger counter for catastrophe. Her fuzzy fantasies about a southern mansion combined with some assistance from the smuggled cat manage to cause the car wreck. Then her pronouncement “You’re The Misfit” seals their fate. The few pleasures in the story involve the grandmother’s false sense of superiority. She chuckles over how a “nigger boy” ate the watermelon Mr. Teagarden (E.A.T.) had left for her when they were courting, and she wishes to paint a picture of the “cute little pickaninny” she sees standing, without pants, in the doorway of a shack. Her pleasure and self-esteem increases directly in relation to the degree of superiority she manages to feel. Her limitations are so extreme that it seems impossible to imagine her thinking about anyone but herself, even for a moment.
Then the grandmother deals with The Misfit by appealing to his gentility. She keeps insisting he is a good man, from good people:“You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!” She waves her handkerchief and adjusts the broken brim on her hat, insisting she is a lady and should not be shot. In one of the more bizarre moments in the story, she suggests suburban propriety for what ails The Misfit:’ “Think how wonderful it would be to settle down and live a comfortable life and not have to think about somebody chasing you all the time.” Later, when she asks him to pray, she again appeals to the fact that she is a lady, and she adds, “I’ll give you all the money I’ ve got!” The contents of her purse seem an unlikely ransom when the rest of her family has already been shot.
O’Connor does say that the grandmother’s head clears before she tells The Misfit “why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” and reaches out to touch him. But by that time he is wearing Bailey’s shirt, the yellow one with the blue parrots. And more than extending grace, the grandmother appears to be insisting on what is not real or true, as she has throughout the story. The touch expresses her final hope that her noblesse can alter her fate. But when she wishes upon a Misfit, she is likely to be murdered.
In a sense, O’Connor admitted that the grace she saw in the grandmother’s touch could not have run deep. In a letter to John Hawkes, she restated and edited The Misfit’s remarks: “She would have been a good woman if he had been there every moment of her life. True enough.” Though O’Connor claims the grandmother’s limitations do not prevent her from being an agent of Catholic grace, it seems a hard won and shaky grace indeed, dependent, as The Misfit says most precisely, on “somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” And in death the grandmother smiles up with a child’s face, still without comprehension.
Despite their obvious differences, The Misfit and the grandmother are bound by their concern with appearances and superficial respectability. The Misfit reddens when Bailey curses at the grandmother and adds “I don’t reckon he meant to talk to you thataway.” He admits he would prefer not to shoot a lady. He appears embarrassed when the family huddles in front of him. He apologizes:“I’m sorry I don’t have on a shirt before you ladies.” The grandmother dresses for accidents; The Misfit, for murders. He gets Bailey’s shirt from Bobby Lee.
The power The Misfit has in the story resides not only in his gun and his violent sidekicks. He is energized by his keenness, his experience, his knowledge of evil. Though he claims to be confused about the extent of his own guilt, his view of human nature is certainly more direct than the view of the grandmother and her family. He is the opposite of the children’s mother, “whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage . . . .” He has been many different things, including a gospel singer and an undertaker. He has been in a tornado and even says he has seen a woman flogged. He has the same “all or nothing” mentality of Flannery O’Connor herself, who said “I write from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy.” The Misfit says of Christ:
“If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”
While O’Connor clearly feels Christ is all, The Misfit thinks he is managing fine without Him. When The Misfit shoots the grandmother he is recoiling from whatever grace she offers. He is rejecting not just any warmth conveyed in the touch, but also the revolting world she represents and the repulsive notion that he is her child. With good reason, The Misfit is unwilling to be adopted by this grandmother.
Essentially, the story is a stronger indictment of the grandmother and her pathetic view of life than of The Misfit. It is no accident that the grandmother and her entire crew are killed off in the story: this family vacation was doomed from the outset. And it is with no small degree of pleasure that O’Connor finishes off this family. Her fictional world is basically satirical, not theological. She casts a plain and cold eye on a sorry sight, a real world, and renders it mercilessly. A mean pleasure sustains the satire and nourishes the reader. Though The Misfit finally decides “it’s no real pleasure in life,” there is pleasure in this story.
A personal wrath oozes from “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and from most of O’Connor’s fiction. The wrath is O’Connor’s strength and her idealism, her refusal to believe the world around her was all. But apparently her anger left her with guilt enough to cause her to insist on an impossible reading of her own story. In her version a moment of kindness mixed with a plea for mercy would carry the day and push the massacred clan into the background, minimizing the survival of The Misfit.
The story reveals the hidden Flannery O’Connor glimpsed by Katherine Anne Porter. Porter was struck by the discrepancy between O’Connor’s appearance and her fiction and suggested that the famous self-portrait with the peacock revealed an inner Flannery:
Something you might not see on first or even second glance in that tenderly fresh-colored, young, smiling face; something she saw in herself, knew about herself, that she was trying to tell us in a way less personal, yet more vivid than words.
That portrait, I’m trying to say, looked like the girl who wrote those blood-curdling stories about human evil—NOT the living Flannery, whistling to her peacocks, showing off her delightfully freakish breed of chickens.
The force of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” speaks for an angry outsider, a person without illusions or sentimentality. The grandmother does not go to Florida, and O’Connor has her way. A world of propriety and illusion is laid low by wrath, not redeemed by grace.
Source: Kathleen G. Ochshorn,“A Cloak of Grace: Contradictions in ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’,” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 113-17.
Brinkmeyer, Jr., Robert H. The Art and Vision of Flannery O’Connor, Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Gordon, Caroline.“With a Glitter of Evil,” in The New York Times Book Review, June 12, 1955, p. 5.
“Despite their obvious differences, The Misfit and the grandmother are bound by their concern with appearances and superficial respectability.”
Hendin, Josephine. The World of Flannery O’Connor, Indiana University Press, 1970.
Kirk, Russell. “Flannery O’Connor and the Grotesque Face of God,” in The World and I, Vol. 2, No. 1, January, 1987, pp. 429-33.
O’Connor, Flannery. Flannery O’Connor: Mystery and Manners, edited by Robert Fitzgerald and Sally Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1957.
Orvell, Miles. An Introduction to Flannery O’Connor, University Press of Mississippi, 1991.
Rubin, Louis D., Jr. “Two Ladies of the South,” in Critical Essays on Flannery O ‘Connor, edited by Melvin J. Friedman and Beverly Lyon Clark, G. K. Hall & Co., 1985, pp. 25-8.
Asal, Frederick. Flannery O’Connor: The Imagination of Extremity, University of Georgia Press, 1982.
Although the book discusses all her fiction, he devotes a section to “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a story that “dramatizes a world radically off balance.” Posits that the story is a good example of O’Connor’s comic treatment to violent material.
Asal, Frederick, editor. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”: Women Writers, Texts and Contexts, Rutgers University Press, 1993.
A useful book for those studying “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Similar to Norton Critical Editions, this books contains an introduction to the story, the text itself, and many critical essays that explore the story’s possible meanings.
Baumgaertner, Jill P. Flannery O’Connor: A Proper Scaring, Harold Shaw Publishers, 1988.
Discusses primarily Flannery O’Connor’s use of traditional Roman Catholic emblems in her fiction.
Coles, Robert. Flannery O’Connor’s South, Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
This is a readable introduction to the author and her fiction, and as the title indicates, it focuses on her ties to her region.
Friedman, Melvin J., and Lewis A. Lawson, editors. The Added Dimension: The Art and Mind ofFlannery O ‘Connor, Fordham University Press, 1977.
This volume contains a number of landmark essays by critics and fellow writers about O’Connor’s work, as well as an interview, and provides a good summary of the early criticism on O’Connor.
Friedman, Melvin J., and Beverly Lyon Clark, editors. Critical Essays on Flannery O ‘Connor. G.K. Hall Publishing, 1985.
A diverse collection of essays about many aspects of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, from many well-known critics.
Grimshaw, Jr., James A. The Flannery O’Connor Companion, Greenwood Press, 1981.
Basic guide to O’Connor’s works.
O’Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979.
Award-winning collection of Flannery O’Connor’s letters to family, friends, and strangers.