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. Flannery 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.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Flannery O’Connor, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.