In the story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”, Flannery O’Connor focuses on the lack of the ‘good’ aspects that are supposed to lead to ‘grace’ among human beings. The author shows the frailty of human beings and how they lack in spirituality. The story is presented through a short trip taken by the family, which is the focus of the narrative (O’Connor 56). The characters are depicted as ordinary people who lack intellectual disposition. O’Connor’s narrative has a lot of Christian themes. However, the characters have no religious traits.
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The title of the short story and the regular reference to ‘the good man’ indicates that the author is evaluating the spirituality of human beings. At another level, O’Connor reviews the lack of this trait in the society. In essence, the discourse explores the theme of ‘the good man’. In this paper, the author will analyse the theme of grace and religion in relation to the difficulties associated with finding a good man. The characters who receive grace in the story will be reviewed. The analysis will be made from the perspective of the grandmother, who is the main character. She is the vehicle through which the good man is delivered in the novella.
Background to the Story
The text first appeared in a collection of short stories by O’Connor. The stories were published in 1955(Desmond 129). Contrasting violence with humour through well-constructed characters paints O’Connor’s philosophy and her Catholic faith. Many critics admire the author’s prose and how she feeds her faith into the narrative. The declaration of her belief in the role of God’s grace in the lives of ordinary people is apparent (Desmond 130).
The story has enough drama to make it disturbing, albeit in a humorous way. Nadal agrees with this observation by stating that “O’Connor is considered a visionary writer and ‘a comedian of genius’ who recurrently resorts to distortion and excess-what is also called the grotesque- to convey her Catholic faith” (26).
The narrative opens with innocent banter between the grandmother and her family. The family is made up of her son, his wife, and their two children (a boy and a girl). However, the introduction of the Misfit character is what is most interesting. The character is brought in at the beginning of the story. Although there are occasional mentions of the Misfit as the story progresses, the character is only seen towards the end of the story.
He comes to the front stage when he kills the whole family (Gretlund and Karl-Heinz 32). O’Connor uses the character of the Misfit to explore the concept of grace as viewed through the eyes of Christians. The concept points to a divine forgiveness from God. At the end of the story, it is the grandmother who is seen as attaining the grace. She attains it at her moment of death. She reaches out and recognises the Misfit as her child (Desmond 132).
It is noted that throughout the story, it is the grandmother who advocates for the Christian faith. It is through her comments that the idea of the good man is sustained and revealed. As far as O’Connor is concerned, God’s grace is beyond the control of the individual. However, the character seems to exhibit a spiritual blindness. As a consequence, they miss many opportunities to make connections that would reveal the truth. The spiritual blindness exhibited by the characters in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” can be described as a deliberate characterisation to demonstrate the grace of God.
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Ochshorn sees the story as a humorous and enjoyable narrative (113). The family embarks on a vacation that never was. According to Ochshorn, O’Connor is deliberately unforgiving in the way she portrays the characters (113). All the characters repel compassion and are unlikeable. In essence, this is a deliberate move to create the premise for O’Connor’s argument. O’Connor opines that God’s grace is available to everyone, including those who are loathsome (Ochshorn 115). In an attempt to justify her characterisation, Ochshorn claims that O’Connor is “most sincere in her Catholicism and her view of its expression in her fiction. She was troubled that her readers often identified with the wrong characters or with the right characters for the wrong reasons” (113).
The story is delivered through the third person narrative. It revolves around the grandmother. It focuses on her perspective of events. The initial argument was her opposition to the idea of travelling to Florida. Instead, she prefers going to Tennessee to visit her friends. When she lost the argument, she cunningly packs herself and her cat in the car together with her family. Her argument regarding her dressing may be viewed as comical.
However, it provides a foreboding of the events that would unfold later. She makes an effort to dress properly. Her aim is to ensure that she is recognised as a lady should she die in public. It is interesting that her concern was dying on the highway and not anywhere else. The concern, coupled with her preoccupation with the Misfit, seems to suggest that there is likelihood that such a thing may take place. It can then be presumed that the author is preparing the reader for the violent events that takes place at the end of the story (Brown 3).
The family stops at Red Sammy Barbeque for lunch. They discuss the Misfit with the proprietor. He observes that a good man is hard to find. According to Red Sammy, the world is increasingly becoming a more unfriendly and dangerous place (O’Connor 7). However, it is what happens after the family resumes their journey that is captivating. The grandmother appears determined to avoid going to Florida.
Instead, “She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee” (O’Connor 137). She convinces her son to divert to an old plantation that she recalls from her childhood. To win the support of the children, she claims that there was an old plantation house with secret passageways. Suddenly, the grandmother realises that the plantation was not in Georgia but in Tennessee. The sudden realisation makes her upset the cat’s basket. It should be noted that the family was not aware of the cat’s presence. In fear, the cat leaps onto the driver’s shoulder. As a result of his surprised reaction, the driver loses control and lands in a ditch.
Surprisingly, no one is injured. To the children, the accident is just an adventure. The family needs help to get the car back on the road. The help comes in the form of the Misfit. The grandmother, who had studied the face of the Misfit from newspaper cuttings, could not recognise him at first. However, she feels that he looks like someone she had known all her life. When he speaks, she realises that it is Misfit. The Misfit intends to take the car.
To accomplish his mission, the occupants have to be killed. He tells his accomplices to take the family to the forest and kill them. The Misfit then wears Bailey’s shirt. When they are left alone, and on realising what is about to happen to her, the grandmother frantically attempts to convince him not to kill her by flattering him (Gretlund and Karl-Heinz 56).
She tells him that he is not a commoner. However, she soon realises that her words have no effect on the Misfit. The situation makes her speechless. According to O’Connor, “She (the grandmother) opened and closed her mouth several times before anything came out. Finally, she found herself saying ‘Jesus. Jesus’ meaning Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing someone” (13).
It is when the Misfit attempts to explain his behaviour that the self-centred grandmother gets an opportunity to reflect on her worldly and Christian beliefs. It was a moment of epiphany. It is also moments before she is killed. Just before she is shot, she reaches out to touch the Misfit and softly tells him that he is one of her children.
Who Is a Good Man?
The grandmother seems to apply the label of a good man rather indiscriminately. The situation blurs the meaning. For instance, she first describes Red Sammy as a good man. The opinion is formed when he protests angrily about the general untrustworthiness of people. He had just allowed two strangers to draw gasoline and it is obvious that he had been swindled. The grandmother opines that he did it because he is a good man. According to Nadal, to a large extent, the description of the good man seems to embrace gullibility that is re-enforced by poor judgment and blind faith (25). None of these qualities are inherently good.
Ultimately, the term of the good man is applied on the Misfit. In the exchange that arises between the two, grandmother asks the Misfit if he is willing to shoot a lady. The Misfit gives no indication that he would not shoot the grandmother. Being a lady is a significant part of her worldview, which she takes as a moral issue (“The Other Gender: Women as Villains or Nobodies in A Good Man is Hard to Find” 4).
Misfit’s response and the actions that follow prove that he does not subscribe to her moral codes. Grandmother’s reaction is to desperately call him a good man. The reaction is an attempt to appeal to his assumed underlying values. They are values that the Misfit would not deny. It is observed that her view of “good” is skewed and is entirely based on the lack of common blood. The reader realises that the label of ‘the good man’ shows that the good she desperately applies on the people she interacts with is neither moral nor kind. In contrast, Misfit’s summarises his view of the gospel and values by saying:
Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead. He shouldn’t have done it. He showed everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can-by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness. (O’Connor 151).
According to the grandmother, people are good only if their values are in line with her values, which are not defined. It is possible that she actually does not ascribe to any known form of belief that carries any values (Nadal 29).
For instance, she describes Sammy as a good man. The reason is that he trusts people without questioning. At another level, he is good because of his nostalgia about past innocent times. For example, he remembers “the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more” (O’Connor 142). They are times that the grandmother can easily relate to. During her encounter with the Misfit, she describes him as good because she thought that he would not kill a lady. The assumption proved fatal.
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Critics observe that the only recognisable good trait exhibited by the Misfit is the consistency of his moral code. The code is defined by his pleasure of being mean. Nevertheless, as Desmond observes,
The Misfit feels the mystery of evil in his bones, and he finds it incomprehensible. While there are surely elements of self-pity and self-justification in his statement, his mental suffering, his sense of guilt, and his questioning cannot be ignored or dismissed, because it reflects a spiritual condition that is both fundamentally human and conspicuously modern in temper. (145).
The observations suggest that there is a sublime element of spirituality in all human beings.
The Unlikely Recipients of Grace
In the story, the grandmother and the cruel Misfit are the two characters depicted as recipients of grace. They receive grace despite their many flaws, weaknesses, and sins. According to Christians, human beings can only attain salvation through God’s grace. Consequently, “When he puts them back on, it seems as though he has a new view of the world, stating in the dramatic and memorable final line of the story, ‘It’s no real pleasure in life’ (“The Other Gender: Women as Villains or Nobodies in A Good Man is Hard to Find” 4).
According to Brown, the story should be understood from O’Connor’s religious perspective (1). Grace and faith are evident in the lives of the characters. A case in point is the change seen in the grandmother. She appears to abandon her manipulative and self-centred ways (Brown 1). In essence, she has achieved grace. The transformation is similar to salvation in Christian’s faith.
Christianity teaches that God has the power to forgive. He can take individuals whose lives were full of sin to heaven through the dispensation of grace. For instance, the grandmother was an unlikely recipient of grace (Walls 44). She is depicted as lying to her grandchildren. She actively manipulates her son. In addition, she emphasises on the inadequacy of the present while regarding the past highly (Brown 25). It is obvious that she lacks self-awareness.
She is oblivious to her world. In addition, she is full of ‘self-righteousness’ and believes that she has the right to judge the goodness of other individuals. The rights also include the power to dictate to other people how to lead their lives. For instance, she advises the Misfit to pray. Praying is a righteous thing to do. However, she is unable to construct a coherent prayer (Nadal 31).
The Misfit is an embodiment of evil. He is a murderer who is unremorseful. According to Walls, “Violence serves as a catalyst to produce the Grandmother’s moment of grace at the climax of the story, when the Grandmother ‘makes the right gesture’ to the Misfit” (43). The two characters are not good people. As such, it can be argued that they do not deserve God’s grace.
O’Connor demonstrates that anyone can receive God’s forgiveness through His grace. For example, Misfit expresses the desire to know what Jesus did. In that instance, the grandmother experiences a moment of epiphany as she awakes from self-absorption. She proclaims that Misfit, who had just ordered her family to be murdered, is one of her children. Her comment should be seen as a figurative way of saying that both of them are human beings.
At this point, she is displaying compassion, a rarely exhibited emotion in her life. She receives grace before she is murdered. For the Misfit, he is open to grace as he realises that there is no pleasure in life. It appears that killing no longer appeals to him. He realises that he can change. The realisation suggests that the elusive good man can only be realised through God’s grace.
Brown, Bob. Looking for the Good Man in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”. n.d. Web.
Desmond, John. “Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit and the Mystery of Evil.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 56 (2004): 129-137. Print.
Gretlund, Jan, and Westarp Karl-Heinz. Flannery O’Connor’s Radical Reality, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006. Print.
Nadal, Marita. “Temporality and Narrative Structure in Flannery O’Connor’s Tales.” Journal of the Spanish Association of Anglo-American Studies 31.1 (2009): 23-39. Print.
Ochshorn, Kathleen. “A Cloak of Grace: Contradictions in ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’.” Studies in American Fiction 18.1 (1990): 113-117. Print.
O’Connor, Flannery. A Good Man is Hard to Find, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993. Print.
Walls, Doyle. “O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The Explicator 46.2 (1988): 43-45. Print.