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Ambiguity of Goodness in O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

In the chef-d’oeuvre story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, O’Connor presents an ambiguous definition of goodness. The characters in the story including the Grandmother and the Misfit live by different moral codes, with each insisting that he or she is good. The Misfit murders and entire family, but the Grandmother says that he is a good man. As such, the definition of goodness is relative in this context and the author does not ultimately indicate what true goodness means. The very existence of the Misfit in the story nullifies any objective definition of goodness. This paper discusses the concept of goodness in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The definition of goodness in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is ambiguous and the author purposely uses characters with questionable personalities to show that grace is available to all despite their flaws.

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The Grandmother uses the term “goodness” arbitrarily, which further complicates the definition of this concept. The first instance she talks about someone being good is during her conversation with Red Sammy when he laments that people are untrustworthy. When Red Sammy remarks that people cannot be trusted, Grandmother reminds him that the previous week he had allowed strangers to fuel at his place because he is a good man. In this case, the Grandmother’s definition of goodness seems to entail poor judgment, blind faith, credulousness, and naivety. However, none of these attributes is inherently good. In most cases, self-centered individuals exploit these virtues in others for personal gains. Therefore, the question that arises, in this case, is whether being good should be one-sided benefitting only the unscrupulous. The people who fuelled at Red Sammy’s place exploited him, but the Grandmother seems to overlook this injustice and focus on the goodness accorded to them, even though they do not deserve it.

The grandmother is always self-centered, gives selfish evidence, and engages in actions that are intended to manipulate others. Throughout the story, the reader realizes that the grandmother is keen to present conflicting evidence while at the same time trying to pursue her way. Using a cunning or deceptive strategy, she appears subtle while at the same time considering how to provide conflicting or selfish evidence. Her moments with The Misfit show conclusively that she is always keen to keep her own life without thinking about the implications of her choices. The work succeeds in showing how her selfish evidence proves that she is prideful, ignorant, and incapable of focusing on the needs of others. Through such efforts and actions, the reader is convinced that the author’s definition of goodness remains ambiguous.

The complexity of defining goodness in this story deepens when Red Sammy’s wife arrives to serve orders. Balancing five plates without a tray she says, “It isn’t a soul in this green world of God’s that you can trust… And I don’t count nobody out of that, not nobody,” she repeated, looking at Red Sammy” (O’Connor 8). The arising question in this context is whether goodness is defined using a person’s actions or personality. Red Sammy’s wife is in a good position to know him and whether he is good or not because presumably, they have lived together for a long time. However, she insinuates that she does not trust anyone including Red Sammy, which points to the possibility of him not being a good person, an untrustworthy man. On the other hand, Grandmother is quickly convinced that Red Sammy is a good man because he allowed strangers to charge their gas at his place. Defining goodness is thus ambiguous as the reader is torn between deciding whether goodness is a matter of a single action or a product of an individual’s personality. While Red Sammy seems good to Grandmother, his wife holds a contrary opinion.

The Grandmother further complicates the definition of goodness when she refers to the Misfit as a good person. The Grandmother seems to define goodness based on her moral standards, which, unfortunately, are not universal. She thinks that the Misfit cannot shoot an old lady because, in her moral world, such individuals are highly respected. However, the Misfit does not share these sentiments. To him, what makes a person good is irrelevant and he has all along known that he is not a good person. He says, “I ain’t a good man…My daddy said I was a different breed of dog from my brothers and sisters” (O’Connor 17). Therefore, the Misfit does not adhere to the Grandmother’s moral code, which explains why he ultimately shoots her in cold blood even after she praises him at length. This assertion implies that the definition and meaning of goodness in this story are equivocal, with every character having his or her version of what it means to be good.

Therefore, the author does not seek to give the true definition of goodness, but he wants to add to the complexity of this issue, which allows the reader to question this concept in its entirety. The Grandmother’s foolhardy use of the term “good” to refer to seemingly contrasting personalities is purposely used to compound the complexity associated with the definition of this word. To her, being good does not imply that an individual is kind of moral – on the contrary, a person is good only if his or her moral values are aligned with hers and if it serves her egoistical and security needs. For instance, Red Sammy is deemed good because he helps strangers – something that resonates with the Grandmother’s values. Similarly, she thinks that the Misfit is a good man because he cannot shoot an old woman, as according to her, it would be an abomination for anyone to think of doing such a heinous act. However, Grandmother’s arguments are subjective based on her belief system, which unfortunately does not align with that of the Misfit. Perhaps the only good thing about the Misfit is the fact that he has remained consistent and faithful to his moral code that this world has no pleasure but meanness.

However, despite the inherent flaws found in human beings, they could all find grace. Grandmother believes that she is morally and socially superior to other people. Therefore, she despises those that fail to measure up to her standards of what she perceives and defines as acceptable. Even though she takes long hours to present herself as an admirable person, her heart is full of prejudice, deception, and self-centeredness. For instance, she berates her son’s parenting skills and when faced with death, she forces the Misfit to pray. She quotes the Bible extensively to prove that she lives by the standards of this holy book and that perhaps everyone should copy her example, but she does not practice love, joy, peace, grace, and generosity as core Biblical values. However, in the end, she realizes that she is as flawed as anyone else is, including the Misfit. She is stripped of her ego and at that moment she acknowledges Misfit as one of her children, as the ultimate show of grace and compassion. Even though she dies in the hands of a murderer, she dies smiling up at the sky perhaps after realizing the importance of grace in life. She dies a changed woman, which is the entire purpose of grace – to change the way people view themselves and others.

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Similarly, the Misfit is an unlikely recipient of grace in this story. When he meets the Grandmother together with her family, he indicates that the only meaningful part of this life is to enjoy it “by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness” (O’Connor 22). However, toward the end of the story, he seems to change this stance. He no longer derives pleasure from killing people or being mean to them. He clearly states, “It’s no real pleasure in life” (O’Connor 23) to kill people. Therefore, it suffices to argue that perhaps the Misfit finds redemptive grace in the end and hopefully changes his ways. Even in his animalistic thinking whereby the only thing that makes sense is killing other people and being mean to them, grace is available to the Misfit.

In the end, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” challenges the place of verbalized ideas and platitudes, specifically the concept of goodness. O’Connor seeks to make readers question their idea of goodness by presenting characters with questionable personalities, which are somehow termed as good. The Grandmother’s definition of goodness is solely based on her moral code. However, this code is only applicable in her world, because when she finally meets the Misfit, he shoots her without a second thought, which is contrary to the generally accepted morality. Additionally, O’Connor uses the Grandmother and the Misfit’s flaws to show that grace is available to anyone despite his or her beliefs and actions. The grandmother has been mean to everyone around her, but in the face of death, she sees the Misfit as one of her children, which indicates that all are simply human beings. Similarly, the Misfit changes his heart ultimately and acknowledges that killing is not pleasurable under the influence of redemptive grace.

Work Cited

O’Connor, Flannery. A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1955.

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StudyCorgi. 2022. "Ambiguity of Goodness in O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”." July 23, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/ambiguity-of-goodness-in-oconnors-a-good-man-is-hard-to-find/.

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