As one of Flannery O’Connor’s most famous short stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is a story of grace. Not only grace for “sinners” such as adulterers thieves, and charlatans, but also for the “nice God-fearing Christians” that often make it a point to do something mean or manipulative every day. The narrative is in the third person omniscient, and the family is portrayed in vivid, lurid detail. Because no specific point of view was adopted, the qualities of each character are honestly presented. No one is likeable or sympathetic. Matters of class, religion, family, and ethics are addressed in a sardonic manner through the eyes of two characters: the Grandmother and The Misfit. The grandmother represents the voice of the establishment, supporting twentieth century social ideals such as superficial Christianity, the status quo, and self-interest—even if it isn’t the enlightened kind. The Misfit, on the other hand, is a literalist that chooses his own morality, which happens to exist outside the parameters of civil society. The scepter of salvation hangs over the scene when the Grandmother and The Misfit are faced with the significance of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, and the grace that might come to them both. Ultimately, their interaction reveals the seed of evil that exists within everyone and that the real battle is between faith and nihilism; the final showdown also reveals that one can truly enter a state of grace at anytime.
The grandmother is a selfish, manipulative narcissist that will lie, complain, or guilt people into doing everything she wants. In fact, the grandmother is one of O’Connor’s favorite subjects for transformation, “a nice, mild, middle-class [lady], full of decent and righteous advice”(Jones). Using her grandchildren as pawns, she gets them to annoy their parents into going to the mansion she wants to visit, “She knew that Bailey would not be willing to lose any time looking at an old house, but the more she talked about it, the more she wanted to see it once again and find out if the little twin arbors were still standing, ‘There was a secret panel in this house,’ she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing she were”(O’Connor, 730). Of course this was simply a tactic to deflect Bailey’s annoyance from her to the children. All she had to do was use their innately disagreeable personalities. After the accident, the grandmother could only think of how mad everyone would be at her, “The grandmother was curled up under the dashboard, hoping she was injured so that Bailey’s wrath would not come down on her all at once”(O’Connor, 731). Though she seems childish, silly, and harmless, she ends up getting herself and her entire family killed except for Pitty Sing. With the despicable characterization of her and the rest of the family, readers almost want something bad to happen to the family, but justice in the form of an execution by escaped felons is not one of them. Yet, this deliverance from the mortal realm redeemed the characters, and made them into something better. The grandmother is touched by grace before she dies.
The Misfit is a walking contradiction. He has the courtly manners of a southern gentleman coupled with the cold heart of a serial killer. Politely asking the family to step into the woods with his accomplices, they unwittingly walk to their deaths. The New York Times succinctly commented on this social phenomenon, “O’Connor’s short stories and novels are set in a rural South where people know their places, mind their manners and do horrible things to one another. It’s a place that somehow hovers outside of time, where both the New Deal and the New Testament feel like recent history. It’s soaked in violence and humor, in sin and in God. He may have fled the modern world, but in O’Connor’s he sticks around, in the sun hanging over the tree line, in the trees and farm beasts, and in the characters who roost in the memory like gargoyles. It’s a land haunted by Christ — not your friendly hug-me Jesus, but a ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of the mind, pursuing the unwilling” (Downes). This was quite fascinating considering how embarrassed he was when Bailey cursed out his mother (O’Connor, 733). He looks like an academic, yet had spent much of his life in jail, and much of it in non-academic fields such as serving in the military, becoming a day laborer on the railroad and joining a gospel choir (O’Connor, 734). Even though he had such a common life, he had long struggled with the big questions in life—What was his purpose? Is there a God? Is there nothing at all? His life had taken such a terrible twist that he concluded that nothing mattered.
That everyone would end up dead anyway so he may as well raise hell while he lived. Good and evil people alike end up as worm food anyway, so why be good if he was only going to be punished for it like Jesus? When they first meet, The Misfit and the Grandmother could not have been any more different. She does not live in the present, instead, clinging to an idyllic past where things were better and good people, a point of view that is little more than illusion. She accepts the ideals she was brought up with without question, and at no other time in her life were her beliefs tested in any way. Growing up as a Southern Protestant, most people she had come into contact with shared her religious beliefs. Her contemporaries embraced her ideals on social class and race. She was dismayed at living in an era were things were changing for the worse. Catherine Calloway, a scholar on twentieth century literature has an interesting take on the grandmother’s statements, “The grandmother’s use of the phrase ‘gone with the wind’ is not necessarily an allusion to Margaret Mitchell’s novel by that name; instead the phrase may relate to the biblical book of Psalms and the idea of divine salvation after death”(351). As long as there is life, there is hope. That kept the grandmother pleading for her life even as her family was slaughtered around her. The Misfit, on the other had, lived squarely in the ‘here and now.’ Unlike the Grandmother, he had no recollection of his past at all, not remembering what he had done to get into the mess he had. Unlike the Grandmother, he questions the metaphysical assumptions that he was raised to believe and makes a conscious choice to do evil, which he fully acknowledges. While the GrandmotherHe At the end, she finally realized that her chances of salvation were gone because she denied her faith in the same breath of declaring kinship with the man. According to the Christian doctrine, she is as hell-bound as The Misfit.
Robert H. Brinkmeyer (The Art and Vision of Flannery O’Connor) also takes a metaphysical reading of O’Connor’s work. He explains that the dialogue between the grandmother and the misfit was characteristic of the orthodox religious perspective, “The rigor demanded by the fundamentalist imperative—the obligation to make a total commitment either for or against Christ—O’Connor found very appealing, and there is no doubt that one part of her, one of the voices of her multi-voiced self, was given to its expression”(34). Grandmother tried to share the faith she had grown up with—a faith she did not strongly believe in herself. Once she makes that admission, her character is literally deflated and defeated. Letting fate guide her steps, she married the ‘wrong’ man, The Misfit had made a conscious commitment to evil when he was punished for a crime he never remembered committing. “I never was a bad boy that I remember of, but somewheres along the line I done something wrong and got sent to the penitentiary. I was buried alive…I call myself The Misfit because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment” (O’Connor, 734-5). He compares himself to Jesus in terms of the earthly punishment both men were subject: Jesus was crucified, and The Misfit was falsely imprisoned for the murder of his father. Instead of devoting his life to God and goodness, he wanted to commit all the crimes he had been punished for.
Tracing the use of the sacred imagery through the majority of Flannery O’Connor’s work, Hedda Ben-Bassat in Prophets Without Vision concluded, “O’Connor’s characters do not confess their allegiance to any God or devil. They do not upbraid God for saying nothing or for lying and deceiving. They do not sell their souls to a satanic mysterious stranger who sermonizes about negativity and nothingness. Neither absence of good nor proliferation of evil interests them”(68). The grandmother often alleged that people could not be trusted, “People are certainly not as nice as they used to be”(O’Connor, 729). Yet she is not in the least a spiritual person. On the surface, she adopted the religious beliefs of her family, but never thought about them very much. The Misfit, though he had a rough life, never claimed that God had deserted him, nor did he claim to be an agent of the devil. Throughout the whole episode, he never cursed God, though others might have. The Misfit struggled with accepting Christianity for a large part of his life before deciding to remove himself from the sphere of religion altogether. He simply could not believe because he did not witness it himself—an unusually scientific point of view for the people of the American South fifty years ago. In the end, the grandmother never called out to God to save her. She was only using Him to manipulate The Misfit into having compassion for her.
Many literary critics have written extensively on O’Connor’s use of metaphysical elements and the ethereal, grotesque nature of her stories. Timothy Bewes, author of “Immanence and the Ethics of Form,” remarks that her stories are so memorable because of the fusion between earthly and spiritual themes, “For O’Connor, in fact, there is no distinction between ‘the present reality’ and ‘the ultimate reality,’ between the supposedly worldly text and its supposedly otherworldly meaning”(74). The family in question is painfully human. They have strained relationships with one another and behave horribly most of the time. In death, they were born again into a state of innocence—as victims of the malevolent intentions of the grandmother and The Misfit rather than the fallible people they were in the beginning. When they are led to their deaths, the first stirrings of sympathy for this hapless family began to take root. While none of the characters possessed any extraordinary understanding and goodness, they never deserved to be murdered in cold blood. The rest of the family, the people at the diner, and the Misfit’s accomplices are passive agents acted upon by the two protagonists, reacting to the moods, and attitudes of the main characters rather than making any conscious decisions themselves, but most of them were fleshed out as characters. Bailey, her son and father of three, is a very impatient and frustrated man.
He is constantly harried by his mother about everything from the evening news and his driving to planning the itinerary for the family vacation. It would be safe to say that he is frustrated with the present living arrangement. The baby is mostly harmless; looking dazed and confused when held and crying when upset. However, her two older grandchildren are spoiled brats with no sense of decorum or compassion. They were extremely disappointed when no one died in the accident (O’Connor, 732). The mother is a person of little importance in the eyes of the grandmother for she is never once mentioned by name, nor is her relationship to Bailey clear. Her irrelevance is heightened by her comparison to produce, “her face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit’s ears”(O’Connor, 727). She is the mother of Bailey’s children, but the text does not give her a personality of any kind. The Misfit’s companions were thuggish buffoons with an unquenchable bloodlust; their only apparent aim in life was to follow The Misfit’s orders, whatever they may be. Red Sammy and his wife are the average American couple, trying to get by as best as they can.
In the end, the grandmother reaches an understanding that she and the Misfit are two sides of the same coin, and cut from the same cloth. This ‘enlightenment’ came at the cost of her life. “The Misfit murders her in a horrified recoil of her confession of their deep kinship. He is prompted to pump bullets into her chest when she touches him on the shoulder in an outrageous act of mutual identification as ‘one of her babies.’ In this single saving gesture that costs her her life, the Grandmother at last drops all of her fearful self-justifications, all of her vain attempts to stay alive at whatever price. Finally she tells the truth: she is not a good woman; he is not a good man; they both are in terrible trouble and they both need radical help”(Wood, 39). Neither one was on the side of goodness and light. Both gave a superficial nod to propriety, both lacked compassion, and both were adept at manipulating circumstances to attain their own ends. However, the Misfit chose his path consciously and deliberately while the grandmother spent her entire life in denial of her true nature. By acknowledging The Misfit as her spiritual offspring, she had finally come to terms with the state of her own soul. Even as her family was slaughtered, the grandmother was still trying to do everything within her power to save her own skin, including bargaining with a sociopath. This was definitely not a normal reaction for someone whose family were murdered moments before. The final debate of the grandmother and the Misfit at first glance appeared to be a fierce spiritual battle for the man’s soul; a fight between order and chaos, good and evil, Christ and Satan. As with all metaphysical battles, the final outcome must result in the destruction of one or both. Only a few moments before her death, the grandmother recanted her faith in Jesus as God with power over life and death. Maybe she knew she was going to die and did not want to live a lie anymore. Perhaps she knew that her belief in God was manufactured for social reasons. Because the Misfit was unable to believe anything he could not see and hear, she knew her arguments would be ineffective. She conceded, “Maybe he didn’t raise the dead”(O’Connor, 736). As a fundamental part of the Christian belief system, her admission was quite stunning. The act was over; it was time to close the curtain. Congruent with the story’s title, the grandmother, the Misfit and the family could never be mistaken for good people. The darkness within each of them was only a matter of degree. Truly, good men (or women) are hard to find.
Ben-Bassat, Hedda. Prophets Without Vision: Subjectivity and the Sacred in Contemporary American Writing. PA: Bucknell UP, 2002
Bewes, Timothy. “What is a Literary Landscape? Immanence and the Ethics of Form.” Differences 16 (2005): 63-102
Brinkmeyer, Robert H. Art and Vision of Flannery O’Connor. LA: Louisiana State UP, 1989
Calloway, Catherine. “Fiction: The 1930s to the 1960s.” American Literary Scholarship. 2001 (2003) 343-362
Downes, Lawrence. “In Search of Flannery O’Connor.” New York Times. 4 Feb. 2007
Jones, Douglas. “Who’s Afraid of Flannery O’Connor?” Credenda Agenda. Vol. 18, No. 2, (2006). Accessed 9 Apr. 07 at ;www.credenda.org/issues/18-2thema.php;
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Worlds of Fiction. Eds. Roberta Rubenstein and Charles R. Larson. NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002
Wood, Ralph C. Flannery O’Connor and the Christ Haunted South. MI: Wm. B. Eerdman Publishing Co., 2005