, Research Paper
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” is an extremely powerful commentary that elucidates Flannery O’Connor’s opinions about religion and society. Like the majority of her other works, ” A Good Man is Hard to Find” has attracted many “interpretations based on Christian dogma” (Bandy 1). These Christian explications are justified because Miss O’Connor is notorious for expressing Catholic doctrines through her fiction. Once she even remarked “I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy” (Kropf 1). This longstanding reputation compels every critic of O’Connor to expose the religious convictions encrypted within her stories. The grandmother’s final gesture towards the Misfit is not a moment of grace but rather an extremely selfish act intended to save her life at any cost. Therefore, the grandmother’s final gesture symbolizes society’s lack of genuine spirituality.
Further evidence that supports the notion that “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is a commentary on society’s lack of spirituality is its parallelism with Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” The stories conform so closely to one another that one must consider the possibility that Flannery O’Connor used the “Canterbury Tales,” or more specifically the “Pardoner’s Tale, as an outline for her own commentary about society’s lack of genuine spirituality. Notably, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and the “Canterbury Tales” seek “to define the good man and good woman of their age within a Christian context” (Blythe & Sweet 1). The stories use a journey as a tool to determine and define a good man or woman. Pardoner’s and O’Connors parties encounter death because of their avarice of treasure. The Pardoner’s message “radix malorum est cupiditas” when loosely defined corresponds and strengthens O’Connors message.
Remarkably, the theme of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” centers around two developed characters. The grandmother and the Misfit are essentially the only characters of significance. The other characters such as June Star or Bailey Boy merely reflect O’Connor’s observations about society. The other characters have little affect on the central theme of the story. The Misfit and the grandmother seem to be the exact opposite. The grandmother seems to be “a harmless busybody, utterly self-absorbed but also amusing” (Bandy 2). The Misfit fits the stereotypical cast of an escaped convict. Ironically, their similarities will allegorize Flannery O’Connor’s notion that a good man or woman is hard to find.
A literal interpretation of the grandmother portrays an elderly southern woman attempting to maintain the proper and genteel values of the South. The grandmother places great importance on her appearance and the opinions of others. This importance is revealed at the beginning of their journey when the story compares the grandmother, a reflection of the past, to the daughter-in-law, a reflection of the present:
The children’s mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief, but the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with white dot in the print. Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had a pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady (O’Connor 267).
Clearly the grandmother believes that how you look reflects what kind of person you are. The grandmother makes an effort to instill her “refined” values in her grandchildren. When the children insult the grandmother’s native state of Tennessee she scornfully replies “In my time children were more respectful of their native states of their parents and everything else” (O’Connor 268). A casual reading of the story illustrates an innocent elderly woman who is generally a good person.
The critics’ interpretation of the grandmother drastically differs from that of O’Connors. They view the grandmother as a self-absorbed prejudice woman “struggling with the shift from the antebellum values of lineage and gentility to those of a cash oriented culture” (Owens 1). This is hard for many readers to accept because she often invokes images of their own grandmother. Her prejudices are common among older southern individuals remember who times before the civil rights movement. The grandmother relishes in the humor of the watermelon she never received because a “nigger boy ate it when he saw the initials, E.A.T.” (O’Connor 269). She also casually remarks that a Negro child without pants would make a splendid picture to paint. The grandmother believes herself to be a patron of “social decorum in a world of barbarians” (Bandy 6). She often complains about the decay of respect and trust in today’s society. She honestly believes that everything in society including people “is getting terrible” (O’Connor 270). Her negative views of society make her “a woman with neither values nor morals, though she would be shocked to be told so” (Bandy 6). The grandmother’s self-absorbed nature and affinity with the antebellum social system indicates she too is evil.
The Misfit is the apotheosis of a lost soul engulfed by evil. He has a complete lack of religious faith. An example of this lack of faith is revealed when he responds to the grandmother’s request to pray by saying “I don’t want no hep, I’m doing alright by myself” (O’Connor 276). This philosophy has brought the Misfit to the conclusion that there is “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” (O’Connor 277). The Misfit also “trusts nothing that he has not himself witnessed, touched, weighed and measured” (Bandy 7). Critic C. R. Kropf best summed up the Misfit’s philosophy by stating, “the Misfit believes that in the present uncertain state of thing “meanness” is the only answer” (2). The Misfit’s evil nature warrants him to trust nobody. The Misfit is truly an evil character that has a complete lack of faith and remorse.
Though Bailey and June Star are of little importance, they do allow us to gain some insight in to Flannery O’Connor’s observations about modern society. Bailey is a submissive male who is easily manipulated by others (Blythe & Sweet 1). The bright parrot shirt indicates his submissive outlook on life. Bailey represents the lack of authority in modern society. Little June Star is an extremely rude child who has no respect for adults. She does not think twice about her insult directed at Red Sammy’s wife. June Star is the perfect indication of the decline in refinement in society. O’Connor’s supplemental characters depict a dismal picture of modern society.
Red Sammy is another character that appears to be genuinely good person. When scrutinized, it is discovered that Red Sammy represents evil. Critic C.R. Kropf interpreted Red Sammy as “a devil figure in metaphorical hell” (2). Kropf came to this explanation because of the similarities between Red Sammy and the Devil. The color red found in Sammy’s name is a obvious reference to hell and the Devil. Strangely, Sammy keeps a chained monkey outside his home. The monkey can be interpreted as “a grotesque travesty of fallen man” (2). Red Sammy’s wife is even described as “burnt-brown” (O’Connor 269). This is definitely a reference to the flames and extreme heat of hell. Associating Red Sammy with the devil fits the theme of the story perfectly.
The grandmother’s actions are center of debate among critics. Interpreting the conflict between the grandmother and the Misfit is the key to unlocking O’Connor’s message. The scene’s ambiguity has compelled many critics to argue over its intended interpretation. Critics dispute whether the grandmother’s gesture towards the Misfit should be interpreted as “a token of true, divine grace and spiritual insight” (Clark 1), or as “the ultimate selfish act, designed to save her own life at any cost” (Bandy 1). Despite the argument of some critics, the grandmother because of her evil attributes, allegorizes society’s lack of genuine spirituality.
The final and most important scene of the story begins when the grandmother recognizes the Misfit. Immediately, the fate of the family is sealed because the Misfit quickly points out “it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn’t of reckernized me” (O’Connor 273). The Misfit admits that he would prefer not to shoot a lady, but because of his complete lack of religious faith knows there’s “nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can-by killing somebody” (O’Connor 277). The Misfit then instructs his gang to begin killing the family. The grandmother, concerned only with herself, “lurches desperately from one strategy to another, not quite admitting to herself that the Misfit will kill her just as casually as he has killed the rest of her family” (Bandy 5). She quickly refers to her antebellum values and compliments the family of the Misfit. This is the grandmother’s futile “technique of the insincere compliment” (5), for she is desperate to appeal to the Misfit’s virtuous feelings. Unfortunately, the grandmother will not admit to herself that the Misfit is pure evil. Suddenly realizing “her [antebellum] rules, so dependable in the past, have failed” (5), the grandmother cleverly mentions the name Jesus. It is very apparent “that the Grandmother’s religion is entirely of the lip-serving variety” (8). Her lack of spirituality is revealed when she questions her own faith by saying, “Maybe He didn’t raise the dead” (O’Connor 277). The grandmother, still believing she can save her life, exclaims “You’re one of my own children!” (278). She then touches the Misfit only to be shot three times in the chest. The grandmother finally realized that she and the Misfit are fundamentally the same.
The grandmother and the Misfit are two people who live only for themselves. Critic Kathleen G. Ochshorn stated “Despite their obvious differences, the Misfit and the grandmother are bound by their concern with appearances and superficial respectability” (2). The Misfit knew the entire time that the grandmother lacked genuine spirituality. His remark “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” illustrates the Misfit’s belief that the grandmother’s spirituality was only skin deep. Flannery O’Connor cleverly crafted two characters that appeared to be exact opposites. Ironically, their similarities revealed the lack of genuine spirituality in modern society. A good man or woman is truly hard to find.
Bandy, Stephen C., “‘One of my babies’: the misfit and the grandmother, in ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 107-111. Gale Research. 2001. Document Number A19638483
Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet, and, “O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find,’ in The Explicator, September 22, 1996, Vol. 55, No. 1, pp. 49-51. DISCovering Authors. Gale Group, 1999, Reproduced in Discovering Collection. Farmington Hills, Mich: Gale Group. December, 2000. http://www.galenet/servlet/DC/ Document Number: CD2101209255
Kropf, C.R., “Theme and Setting in ‘A Good man Is Hard to Find’,” in Renascence, Vol. XXIV, no. 4, Summer, 1972, pp. 177-206. EXPLORING Short Stories. Gale Research, 1998. Reproduced in Discovering Collection. Farming Hills, Mich.: Gale Group. December, 2000. http://www.galenet.com/servlet/DC/ Document Number: CD2112200084
Ochshorn, Kathleen G., “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.113-117. EXPLORING Short Stories. Gale Research, 1998. Reproduced in Discovering Collection. Farmington Hills, Mich: Gale Group. Decmber, 2000. http://www.galenet.com/servlet/DC/ Document Number CD2112200082
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell eds. Fort Worth: Harcourt, 2001. 254-259.
Owens, Mitchell., “The function of signature in ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 101-106. EXPLORING Short Stories. Gale Research. 2001. Document Number A19638482