Flannery O’Connor is best known for her obscure, but thought-provoking short stories unlike most of the other 20th century American writers. She makes use of tragedy and brutality in her works to create an atmosphere of terror to deal with the subject of spirituality. The theme of ‘A Good Man Is Hard To Find’ too is religion. The story involves the cruel murder of a whole family by a criminal, to demonstrate that the grace of God is mysterious and its impact is there even on the least deserving people.
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The main plot of the story is the cold-blooded murder of the family and the sudden transition in the character of the grandmother due to divine grace when she sees death right in front of her. The author does not reveal the family’s fate until the climax. The setting of the story is of great relevance to the plot. It takes place in Georgia, at a time when the culture and humanitarian values of the South were almost dying. But O’Connor, being a Southerner herself carefully puts in the beauty of Georgia and Tennessee through the grandmother’s descriptions of them. Though the exact year is not mentioned, the reference to Europe gives the idea that it happened sometime after the Second World War. This was a period when racial discrimination against the Negro people still prevailed.
The framework of the characters in this story is unique. All of them have negative qualities that are typical to the South of that time. The protagonist is the grandmother who seems to be arrogant and manipulative. Throughout the story, she irritates her son Bailey, and her grandchildren. Her arrogance is obvious when she comments that she has pinned the purple violets to let people know that she was a lady in case she was found dead on the highway. The racist in her comes out when she exclaims that she wants to paint a poor nigger child whom she saw on the road. To entertain her grandchildren, she also narrates how, years back a nigger boy had eaten her watermelon because in it was cut the initials, E.A.T. Like the children of those days, John Wesley and June Star show disrespect to their grandmother on every possible occasion. June Star speaks rudely even to the woman in the restaurant. The detachment they show to their homeland is another characteristic of the youngsters of the South during this period. Bailey is a good-for-nothing son who gets angry about everything that bothers him. Though he seems to be adamant at the beginning, later on, he is understood as incapable of controlling the annoying children and grandmother. The children’s mother is only a passive and flat character in the story.
Another main character in the story apart from the grandmother is the Misfit. Because he is the antagonist, his behavior and thoughts are puzzling. Through his last dialogue, it is clear that the Misfit regrets his villainous life when he says that there is no pleasure in killing. His views about religion are more sensible than the grandmothers. The Misfit is as inevitable in the narration as the grandmother. He becomes the reason for the sudden change in the main character. The grandmother in the story is a round character. Being the focal point of the work, she transforms into a God-fearing woman at the end when she knows that Misfit is going to kill her. She is a stereotypic Southerner. The argument between the grandmother and the Misfit is the part consequential to the plot. The complexity of every characterization is worth mentioning at this point. O’Connor has carefully created every character with at least some negativity in them, to relieve the readers the shock at their murders.
A third-person point of view has been used in the narration of the story for several reasons. Firstly, O’Connor doesn’t want to force her interpretation of the characters’ behavior or their thoughts on the readers. She describes everything mainly from the perspective of the grandmother, but as a third person like she can read the grandmother’s mind. Throughout the narration, she uses ‘the grandmother’ instead of a name. This gives room for the readers’ interpretations and thoughts. She doesn’t want the character to be taken for granted. However, she also resorts to the family’s perspective occasionally. When the family sees a car coming from a distance, she uses ‘they’, unlike the usual ‘she’. By that, she explains what they all saw and not the grandmother alone. Secondly, as all the characters are dead by the end, it is impossible to narrate it from any of their point of view. O’Connor maintains the southern gothic style which is the regional language of her characters till the end to add to its naturality. Misfit’s dialogues are examples of that. In between the dialogues, she writes simple sentences. The suspense is not broken till the end, but she gives occasional warnings to the readers about what might happen to the family. The whole story is narrated in a negative tone. The references to the graveyard with five or six tombs, the grandmothers’ usage, ‘gone with the wind,’ all foreshadow the evil that is to come. “O’Connor’s specific mention of the number of grave plots indicates that it is no trivial inclusion.” (Guz). The grandmother talks about her death even before they begin the journey through actually she has no idea about it till they face the Misfit. Though her language might look simple, the writer wants most of it to be read between the lines. She uses a lot of symbolism, allusions, and allegory in her work which require a deep introspection to be understood. For example, each time the grandmother comments on the children or the children make fun of the grandmother, the author mentions the children’s comic books. As far as the children are concerned the grandmother is a funny character who is not worthy of respect.
The author writes this story at a time when religion was given only a backseat in people’s lives. ‘A Good Man Is Hard To Find’ can be paralleled with Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales. Both the works deal with how a good man and good woman must be in the religious sense. When Chaucer names his character as ‘Bailly’, O’Connor uses the name ‘Bailey’. When the characters drink wine in Canterbury Tales, the family drinks ‘Co-Colas’. In Chaucer’s, the goal of their journey is finally attained, spiritual renewal. But in O’Connor’s, the grandmother meets with death even after she receives the grace of God. The author wants to convey that the modern world is filled with evil. “Whereas Chaucer’s microcosmic group contains all classes of church and secular personages, O’Connor limits her “pilgrims” to one lower-class family…” (Blythe and Sweet, 50). Critics cite an allusion to 1 Timothy with her naming one of the towns in the fiction as Timothy. Red Sammy’s ‘The Tower’ is situated near this town. Also, an allusion to 2 Timothy is made when grandmother touches the Misfit saying he is one of her children.
There are religious symbolism hidden in the work the understanding of which alone conveys the real meaning of the story. The grandmother narrates about a plantation house inside which there is a hidden treasure and later on the family decides to change their route to find out the house and its treasure. In the end, they not only fail in reaching the house but also get killed by a criminal. Through this, the author means that the family met with such ill-fate because they tried to deviate from the path of God and their religious beliefs. Here, the Misfit is the one who brings the grandmother back to the right path. The grandmother who has wrong ideas about religion and good people tries to reason with the Misfit who has better notions about it. She makes a mistake by unnecessarily commenting about Jesus which makes the convict even angrier. At last, he says had he been alive at the time of Jesus, he would not have followed the wrong path. At this, the grandmother realizes her mistakes and the grace of God in her forgives him. But the Misfit kills her, and she falls like a child onto the ground. The grandmother gets salvation at death. The grandmother, who does not pray even once till the moment she meets the Misfit, starts doing so when she recognizes his evil intentions. When the Misfit says that he was buried alive in his past, the grandmother responds that he should have started praying at that time. The allegory here is how people suddenly turn to God for his mercy at times of misery. The Misfit talks about his past life and sins, which is almost like a confession to the grandmother. But ironically, at last, it is the grandmother who understands the real truth and forgives the Misfit for the crime that he committed. She touches him because of her understanding of good and evil. She tries to bring about a change in him too but fails in it. “Crude and inarticulate though it be, the Misfit’s view of life has an ancient pedigree, linking him to the original Sinner himself Like Milton’s Satan…” (Bandy, 1).
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However, at the same time, O’Connor is criticized for her monotonous style of writing. Most of her characters originate from the South. The cruelty and savagery aspects of her works are a popular topic among critics. Many of her works cannot be completely understood and enjoyed by ordinary readers. It requires a lot of thinking and researching to identify her allusions and symbolisms. Her depictions of the characters might seem strange to foreign readers who cannot relate ones like the grandmother to anyone in their society. Hence, her intentions sometimes confuse the readers or even backfire. Despite all these, O’Connor is undoubtedly one of the best American short story writers. Her works are perfect representations of the South, its traditions, beliefs, people, and even its dying culture. Being a woman did not stop her from writing stories with powerful relevant messages that make readers think.
Bandy, Stephen. One of My Babies: The Misfit and the Grandmother. Studies in Short Fiction. New Berry College,1996: 33.1.
Blythe, Hal., and Sweet, Charlie. O’Connor’s a Good Man id Hard to Find. The Explicator. 1996: 55.1.
Guz, Savannah Schroll. Funerary Symbols in a Good Man is Hard to Find: The family Graveyard. Web.