In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” an escaped convict and his companions murder a family because of a series of mishaps on the part of the Grandmother. Thinking that an old house is in Georgia rather than Tennessee, she insists that her son Bailey take a detour that leads them to their deaths. Because she has secretly brought her cat along, her son Bailey drives the car off the road when the cat leaps to his shoulders. Finally, she blurts out the identity of the murderer so that he has no choice but to murder them all. Readers are introduced to a quirky family and what appears to be a typical family car trip, but the story ends on a more philosophical note when the Grandmother attains a state of grace at the moment she realizes that the murderer is “one of her children.”
Prejudice vs. Tolerance
The Grandmother demonstrates racial and class prejudice through her words and actions. She is vain and selfish, and she believes that good character is a result of coming from “good people,” an important concept in O’Connor’s fiction. When she sees an African-American child without any clothes, she exclaims, “Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!” She continues, “Wouldn’t that make a picture, now?” When her granddaughter comments on the child’s lack of clothes, the Grandmother says, “He probably didn’t have any … . Little niggers in the country don’t have things like we do.” Believing that she came from a good family and from a time when “People did right,” the Grandmother possesses a false sense of self-righteousness. She tells Red Sammy, a restaurant owner, that she believes that the United States’ problems can be blamed on Europe. She says “the way Europe acted you would think we were made of money.” In her ignorance of others’ lifestyles and points of view, the Grandmother is one of O’Connor’s numerous characters who flaunt their prejudice. Early in her encounter with the Misfit, she tries to flatter him, telling him that he does not look “common,” and therefore could not be a “bad” person. A lifetime of prejudicial attitudes is erased, however, at the end of the story when she realizes her helplessness and the fact that discriminatory views such as hers are related to monstrous behavior like the Mistfit’s. This moment is encapsulated in her epiphany: “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!”
God and Religion
Most of O’Connor’s fiction involves God and religion in some way. She created characters and put them in situations which convey her message that human beings are trapped in their selfish, petty worlds and often overlook opportunities for understanding and connection; they miss out on love. Central to O’Connor’s theology is the idea of grace, that God’s love and forgiveness are available to people in everyday life. Some have defined grace in O’Connor’s fiction as the moment in a human being’s life when a power from the outside intervenes in a situation. O’Connor’s stories almost always teach by negative example; her characters are often too selfish or unobservant to see the acts of grace in everyday experience. She used violence in her fiction to grab the characters’ attention, because she believed that people needed to be coerced into noticing God’s presence in the modern world. She shocked readers into understanding that people cannot survive alone in the world. As she said in Mystery and Manners, a collection of her nonfiction writing published after her death, grace is “simply a concern with the human reaction to that which, instant by instant, gives life to the soul. It is a concern with a realization that breeds charity and with the charity that breeds action.” Charity, in this context, is a synonym for love; certainly, readers have noticed the absence of love in O’Connor’s fiction. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” all of the characters—most obviously the Grandmother— are concerned only with their own wants and desires. There is no real connection or love between them until they encounter the Misfit and his gang of murderers. When the Grandmother exclaims at the end, “You’re one of my children!,” she makes the first statement of connection in the story. At this point she receives grace as she understands her place in humanity. All are sinners in O’Connor’s fiction, but all are capable of being saved.
Violence and Cruelty
Much of O’Connor’s fiction contains violence, which she claimed was necessary to get readers’ attention. Her violence has a purpose, therefore; she claimed that the world in general would not notice God’s presence unless something monumental occurred. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the Grandmother must be shocked out of her selfish and judgmental views by the barrel of a gun. Only when her entire family is murdered within earshot of her and when she faces her own death does she make a real connection with another human being. She says to the Misfit, “You’re one of my own children!” and recognizes her own mortality, her own sinfulness, and her relationship to other “children of God.” O’Connor believed that God’s grace often came into people’s lives precisely when they are not looking for it. As she said in Mystery and Manners, her “subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Flannery O’Connor, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.