A Good Man Is Hard to Find was first published in 1953 after Flannery O’Connor’s permanent migration to Andalusia, her mother’s dairy farm, and displayed several characteristics typical of the author’s style. Constrained, in many ways, by her sickness, the author had to take advantage of various resources available to her to fuel her imagination while working on her texts on immigration. People around her, her reading material, which comprised numerous books and publications that had come to Andalusia, and a variety of local and regional newspapers, were among these resources. This essay examines the implications of the story’s summary, analyzes its key characters and presents an overview of themes and symbols.
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The story examines the topics of family, morality, intergenerational respect, and hypocrisy. The tale feels claustrophobic, with the participants confined to a small car space on a road trip. Such trips are arguably prone to provoke people into displaying their true natures within relatively casual circumstances. The plot of the short story can be briefly described as a chronicle of a family road trip going terribly wrong. An authoritative and capricious grandmother uses the story of an escaped convict to alter the road trip’s destination, ultimately causing the encounter between her family and the convicts.
Despite seeming like outlets for more traditional and positive examples of morality and goodness, the family members in the story are largely ridiculed. The reader’s initial impression of the family is one intended to convey the contempt and absurd satire that fuels their interactions (Wilson 111). The grandmother’s vanity and self-centered attitude are shown in the first three lines of the narrative. Rather than agreeing to the family’s trip to Florida, she wants to see some of her connections in east Tennessee. The grandmother, in an attempt to persuade the family to travel to Tennessee rather than Florida, uses the news report about the escaped killer, the Misfit, to terrify Bailey into altering his mind. The grandmother herself, and the leader of the convicts, Misfit, can be identified as the narrative’s central characters.
The way O’Connor treats the characters in this narrative confirms her belief that man is a flawed, ultimately hopeless creature. In a nutshell, the narrative portrays three escaped prisoners destroying an all-too-normal family. The story’s thematic finale is a gift of grace and the grandmother’s acceptance of it as a consequence of an insight she had moments before she died. The events that build up to that culmination, on the other hand, contribute greatly to the narrative appeal of the story. The use of irony and absurd strengthen the sense of the characters spiraling out of control.
Grandmother and Misfit
The grandmother and Misfit in A Good Man Is Hard to Find live by moral rules that influence their decisions, behaviors, and perceptions. A moral code is a collection of ideas and practices that individuals follow in order to live lives that they believe are rational and rewarding. The term moral does not always imply good; it merely describes the standards of conduct, and the morality of a person’s morals is inherently subjective. Although the Misfits’ code appears to be flawed at first inspection, the grandmother’s code shows to be fragile and inconsistent. The grandmother’s moral code is based on the qualities she feels define “good” individuals. She values her own ladylike qualities, for example, and places a premium on appearance above content. These qualities, in her eyes, ensure her eligibility to judge and criticize those who are less pristine and presentable than herself. At the same time, she deceives her family on a regular basis and has only a rudimentary understanding of the world around her.
The Misfit, on the other hand, follows a strict and consistent moral code. He feels that the penalty is usually disproportionate to the offense and that the crime itself doesn’t really matter in the end, based on his experiences as a convicted felon. He also has real skepticism about religion. Unlike the grandma, who accepts faith without inquiry and without thought, the Misfit has to challenge his personal beliefs while thinking about whether to pursue them. He has decided to live under the premise that religion is meaningless, and he practices his own kind of religion: “No joy, only meanness” (O’Connor 11). His moral code is fierce and unwavering, and he is the one who prevails in the end, due to an almost animalistic readiness to keep going.
Themes and Motifs
Perhaps the main theme of the short story stems from the ever-important question of what exactly constitutes a good man and if being truly morally good is at all possible. The story highlights how the overuse of the term can lead to a loss of value and meaning. For example, the grandmother initially uses it on Red Sammy after he angrily rants about people’s overall lack of trustworthiness. He inquires as to why he let two strangers charge their gas, and the grandma responds that he did so because he’s a wonderful man. In this situation, she appears to include gullibility, poor judgment, and blind trust in her definition of good. She then assigns the label to the Misfit, asking him if he had shot a lady and, presumably, coming to her own conclusions prematurely. She assumes that he would not attack her, despite never receiving confirmation of this understanding from him. The Misfit’s response demonstrates that he does not share the grandmother’s moral code because being a lady is such an important component of what she thinks is moral.
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The topic of this misguided, flawed understanding of morality is symbolically represented in the grandmother’s hat. The grandmother’s hat, which she wears just to demonstrate that she is a lady, symbolizes her erroneous moral system. When the grandma gets ready for the family’s vehicle excursion, she dresses up to be ready for a car accident so that anybody who sees her dead body knows she is a lady (Kinney 77). The grandmother is nonchalant about the fact that she is dead in this hypothetical timeline, and she appears to be unaware that other people, including her three grandchildren, would have died as well. The only thing that counts to the grandmother is her status as a lady, a foolish worry that betrays her self-centeredness and shaky moral character.
The hat, like the grandmother’s moral ideals, breaks apart after she is involved in an automobile accident. The brim of her hat slips off when she is tossed from the automobile and the Misfit confronts the family. Although minor, this element is illustrative of how the grandmother’s perception of herself and the world around her cannot stand the test of reality. It is functionally identical to a lady’s hat: pretty but often superficial and unable to provide comfort or proper protection to its owner.
The second major theme and simultaneously a mood-setting motif that can be identified across the story, is nostalgia. The grandmother, Red Sammy, and the Misfit’s yearning for the past implies that they all feel that coming across as a good person was easier a long time ago and that pursuing virtue now is difficult, if not worthless. During the automobile ride, the grandma recalls an old suitor Edgar Adkins Teagarden, who brought her a watermelon every Saturday. In turn, the Misfit recalls his father’s words and actions and the injustice of his punishment for crimes he does not recall doing. The present is filled with uncertainty and sadness, according to both central characters, while a golden mirage surrounds the past. Because of this mindset, they both reject the possibility of examining the potential for goodness within themselves.
In conclusion, A Good Man is Hard to Find is a thoughtful, philosophical, yet simultaneously entertaining and heartbreaking story. It is based on well-established realities of words and actions not always aligning with each other. Despite discussing and debating the topics of morality, goodness and good people, characters are barely exhibiting signs of such behavior themselves. It can be concluded, hypothetically, that such human nature is ultimately confined within the limits of its own imperfections. Yet, at the same time, arguably, none of the characters of the story are wicked enough to be considered incapable of acting in the interests of others. It remains up to the interpretation whether their unfavorable actions can be attributed to their innate nature or poor choices. Perhaps, like in many other tales of morality, justice, and self-importance, both of these are true.
Kinney, Arthur F. “Flannery O’Connor and the Fiction of Grace.” The Massachusetts Review, vol. 27, no. 1, 1986, pp. 71-96.
O’Connor, Flannery. A Good Man is Hard to Find. Faber & Faber, 2016, pp. 1-13
Wilson, Kathleen, editor. Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Gale Research Inc, 1992, pp. 98-114