The Nature of Faith and Its Consequences in two American Short Stories
Many authors have attempted to define the idea of faith and its place in the psychological fabric of individuals. They have attempted to discover what makes one person believe (or not believe) in himself, in his world, in another person or in a group of people so strongly but without solid proof. In “The Road Not Taken” the reader is left to assume that the persona’s genuine faith in his own abilities and intuition has led him down the advantageous path. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Conner appears to support the opposite notion that faith can falter in the face of danger and cannot easily be faked. Both works center on the idea of faith in humankind, but while the poem leaves the reader with a somewhat ambiguous ending, the short story makes its lesson perfectly clear. Both stories show the reader that faith in both self and humanity can produce unexpected, even tragic, consequences.
Both works immediately present the dichotomy between right and wrong or between good and evil. “The Road Not Taken” illustrates the picture of a man standing at the proverbial crossroads. This is the basic choice of humanity –What do I do? Clearly, the speaker understands that he cannot go both ways. He notes that he is “sorry I could not travel both /
And be one traveler” (Frost, lines 2-3). He also seems to understand that his choice is permanent when he asserts that “knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back” (Frost, lines 14-15). His decision is both imminent and permanent.
In O’Connor’s story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the grandmother must choose upon whom to place her faith. She is fully resolute in her self-righteous notions about who is good and who is bad. For example, she cannot stop harping on the dangers of traveling to Florida now that the Misfit is on the loose. She declares that “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” (O’Connor 495). In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the Misfit clearly represents the bad, while the unwelcome maxims of the grandmother represent the good.
The speaker and the grandmother’s perceptions of faith are tested in each of these works. As he speaker evaluates his choices, he notes that while both path’s are “fair” or inviting, his chosen path “has perhaps the better claim, / Because it was grassy and wanted wear” (Frost, lines 7-8) although both, at this time of the morning, seem the same, as he is the first traveler of the day: “And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black” (Frost, lines 11-12). The grandmother’s choices are less evident. It appears that her decision to have faith is blindly focused. She will trust nobody. She tells a filling station proprietor, Red Sammy, that “It isn’t a soul in this green world of God’s that you can trust…and I don’t count nobody bout of that, not nobody” (O’Connor 499).
Yet, both of these travelers prove to be unsure of their decision. The poem’s speaker seems to justify his choice with the assurance, which he later contradicts, that he can somehow undo this decision if it turns out poorly. He states “Oh, I kept the first for another day!” (Frost, line 13). Of course, he knows that once he has gone down that path, he will not turn back. One critic notes here that this poem actually gives the reader a glimpse of the speaker at two distinct ages – young and middle selves. He attributes the younger self to the comment above in a show of idealism while the comment about the sameness of the roads is attributed to the middle aged self you is perhaps saddened that choosing one thing means forever not experiencing another;
These observations about the roads’ similarities come to us from the middle-aged self’s corrective, more truth-seeking voice. While the younger self does admit to himself that the road he has chosen is “just as fair” as the other road, he ignores the two roads’ sameness to congratulate himself because his choice-to him–had “perhaps the better claim.” In contrast to the younger self, who does know life enough to doubt “if [he] should ever come back,” the middle-aged self does not delude himself with exclamations such as “I kept the first for another day!” (George 230).
Thus the impact of this decision escapes the younger self, but not the older self in Frost’s poem. What person has not wondered “what if?” What if I did or did not meet this person, move to this city, or choose this occupation? The middle aged self that George suggests seems to understand this while the younger self has yet to learn it.
The grandmother has not younger, idealistic self. Yet, she valiantly, albeit ironically, based on her earlier comments, attempts to convert the Misfit to good after a freak accident puts the family in his path. She immediately assaults the Misfit with a barrage of assurances that he is a good person who had simply been misunderstood and falsely accused his whole life. She tells him “I know you’re a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people” (O’Connor 504). Her attempts to convert him to her definition of good are her only chance at survival.
Unfortunately, the question of success or perceived perception must be asked. Did O’Conner’s grandmother and Frost’s persona make the right decision? Clearly, the grandmother’s only choice is to attempt to bring out the good in the Misfit. However, the reader already knows that her attempts will be pointless. The grandmother doesn’t give up so easily. The grandmother is never given any indication by the Misfit that he intends to spare her or any of her family’s lives. Grandmother is, of course, shot by the Misfit, only after her last, desperate attempt to make physical contact with him. Her end is clearly tragic.
The outcome of the speaker’s choice is far more ambiguous. Many critics, including Patrick Basset, urge readers to read deeper than the obvious theme of nonconformity and individualism. He notes that the speaker is guilty of what he calls the “Frostian lie” by directing the readers’ attention to the three separate times that the speaker tells the reader that the roads are the same. He says they are “worn really about the same,” “just as fair,” and “equally lay.” The only interpretation for the “success” of the choice is that it really didn’t matter. “Thus there are no real forked roads in life, no real choices in life” (Bassett 41-42). Therefore, to combine the logic of George and Basset, the younger individual is still idealistic enough to think that he has wide-ranging, impacting choices, but the older individual realizes that this is a farce.
Why then do the characters/speakers even act at all? The grandmother clearly is the reason the family is in the predicament they are in. The Misfit clearly is a cruel and bloodthirsty villain. Even so, she seems almost compelled to save him. Keil notes that she “longs for a divine connection” (46) because she is not accepted by her family. However, this connection is not one for your to initiate, but to receive. The Misfit’s words actually teach the grandmother the nature of his evil and his philosophy:
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 (Bethea 247).
Here, the grandmother and the Misfit are both powerless to effect their destinies and, similarly, hold not faith in the ability of other people to do so either.
The younger speaker, and most of the poems readers, wants to believe in the aura of free and open choices. However, because, as the speaker notes, nobody can be two travelers, nobody ever knows the differences in the paths. Perhaps there are no differences at all. The only thing that the speaker has to make him believe in his choices is his faith in himself. The grandmother’s faked faith in the Misfit and her misguided faith in her own abilities leads her to doom.
Faith in people is a difficult and even counterproductive undertaking for many people. Frost’s person shows the gradual erosion of faith on oneself and in the world. As a youngster, he would like to believe that his life could have followed one of many paths leading to a diverse set of outcomes. Upon the passage of many years, he recounts the story, but realizes that his choice of roads did not really make a difference. However, no harm is done to him, except a slight loss of faith.
However, things are very different for the grandmother. She professes to have no faith in humanity, but turns it on strong when confronted with the murderous trio led by the Misfit. Her soothing encouragements that he is a good person fall upon the proverbial deaf ears. Ironically, the Misfit actually notices that the grandmother, to him, was a lowly as he was to her, prophetically remarking over the grandmother’s oddly smiling body, “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” (O’Connor 509).
Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” and O’Connor’s story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” show that both youthful faith and contrived faith are pointless endeavors that can have ambiguous, even, tragic consequences.
Bassett, Patrick F. Explicator 39 (3), Spring 1981: 41-43
Bethea, Arthur F. “O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find.’” Explicator 64 (4), Summer
Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken.” Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, Drama and the
Essay. 4th Edition. DiYanni. Boston: McGraw Hill, 1998: 513
George, W. Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Explicator 49 (4), Summer 1991: 230
Keil, Katherine. “O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find.’” Explicator 64 (1), Fall 2006: 44-
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound,
and Sense. 8th Edition. Arp and Johnson, Eds. Boston: Wadsworth, 2002: 495-509