“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.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Flannery O’Connor, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.
Elisabeth Piedmont-Marlon, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.