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A Good Man Is Hard to Find Flannery OConnor


Context

Mary Flannery OConnor was born in 1925 in Savannah, Georgia. She moved to Atlanta with
her family as a teenager but moved to Milledgeville, Georgia, when her father was diagnosed
with lupus. He died three years later when she was just fifteen. When OConnor was a young
woman, she began studying at Georgia State College for Women. An avid writer since
childhood, she worked for the student newspaper and literary magazine and also wrote
stories. These stories won her a place in the masters program at the University of Iowas
writers workshop, where she honed her craft and began publishing fiction. When she was
twenty-one, she published her first story, The Geranium, in Accent, a publication that earned
her both an award and a contract for her first novel. OConnor received her degree in 1947,
then worked as a teaching assistant at the University of Iowa while beginning to write her
novel, Wise Blood.

OConnor continued writing Wise Blood at Yaddo, a respected artists colony in Saratoga
Springs, New York, but her publisher disliked the first drafts. Rather than start from scratch,
OConnor chose a new publisher and submitted portions of the novel for publication in
prominent journals. After leaving Yaddo, OConnor lived in New York City and briefly in
Connecticut. When OConnor was twenty-five, her health began to decline, and doctors
diagnosed her with lupus. Fearing that she would live only three more years as her father had,
she left New York and moved in with her mother on their Georgian dairy farm, Andalusia.
There, she raised and tended a variety of birds and kept up a complicated regimen of
treatments for her lupus. She also wrote diligently and often gave lectures about writing.

OConnor published Wise Blood in 1952. The novel, which satirized American religious life,
was criticized for being an affront to Christianity, but OConnors talent did not go unnoticed.
She published her first collection of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, in 1955 and
followed up with a second novel in 1960, The Violent Bear It Away. Although critics loved her
short fiction, her second novel suffered as Wise Blood had. Nevertheless, OConnors
reputation grew, and she continued to write, lecture, and teach until her death in 1964 at age
thirty-nine. Everything That Rises Must Converge, her second volume of short stories, was
published posthumously in 1965. She also posthumously won the National Book Award in
1972 for her Collected Stories. OConnors popularity has increased since her death, and
many now deem her one of the best short-story writers of the twentieth century.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find is one of the most famous examples of Southern Gothic
literature. Southern Gothic writing focuses on strange events, eccentric characters, and local
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color to create a moody and unsettling depiction of life in the American South. Southern history
figures prominently, and stories usually draw upon the tragic history of slavery; lingering
feelings of defeated regional pride after the Civil War; and isolated, often neglected locales.
People, places, and events in Southern Gothic literature appear to be normal at first glance,
but they eventually reveal themselves to be strange, disturbing, and sometimes horrific.
Although she loathed the label, OConnor was a master of the genre while simultaneously
keeping a tone of realism in her novels and short stories. Her prose, for example, emphasizes
the truths of her characters actions rather than their quirky peculiarities. Despite the often
apocalyptic, surreal tone of her writing, her works always contain believable actions and
choices. OConnor grounds the story in reality by deemphasizing the eerie, disquieting tone of
the backdrop and focusing instead on the relationships and events that drive the narrative.

Plot Overview

The grandmother tries to convince her son, Bailey, and his wife to take the family to east
Tennessee for vacation instead of Florida. She points out an article about the Misfit, an
escaped convict heading toward Florida, and adds that the children have already been there.
John Wesley, eight years old, suggests that the grandmother stay home, and his sister, June
Star, says nastily that his grandmother would never do that.

On the day of the trip, the grandmother hides her cat, Pitty Sing, in a basket in the car. She
wears a dress and hat with flowers on it so that people will know she is a lady if theres an
accident. In the car, John Wesley says he doesnt like Georgia, and the grandmother chastises
him for not respecting his home state. When they pass a cotton field, she says there are
graves in the middle of it that belonged to the plantation and jokes that the plantation has
Gone with the Wind. Later, she tells a story about an old suitor, Edgar Atkins Teagarden.
Edgar brought her a watermelon every week, into which he carved his initials, E. A. T. Once he
left it on the porch and a black child ate it because he thought it said eat.

The family stops at a restaurant called the Tower, owned by Red Sammy Butts. Red Sammy
complains that people are untrustworthy, explaining that he recently let two men buy gasoline
on credit. The grandmother tells him hes a good man for doing it. Red Sams wife says she
doesnt trust anyone, including Red Sam. The grandmother asks her if shes heard about the
Misfit, and the woman worries that hell rob them. Red Sam says, A good man is hard to find.
He and the grandmother lament the state of the world.

Back in the car, the grandmother wakes from a nap and realizes that a plantation she once
visited is nearby. She says that the house had six white columns and was at the end of an oak
treelined driveway. She lies that the house had a secret panel to make the house seem more
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interesting. Excited, the children beg to go to the house until Bailey angrily gives in. The
grandmother points him to a dirt road.

The family drives deep into the woods. The grandmother suddenly remembers that the house
was in Tennessee, not in Georgia. Horrified at her mistake, she jerks her feet. Pitty Sing
escapes from the basket and startles Bailey, who wrecks the car. The childrens mother breaks
her shoulder, but no one else is hurt. The grandmother decides not to tell Bailey about her
mistake.

A passing car stops, and three men get out, carrying guns. The grandmother thinks she
recognizes one of them. One of the men, wearing glasses and no shirt, descends into the
ditch. He tells the childrens mother to make the children sit down because they make him
nervous. The grandmother suddenly screams because she realizes that hes the Misfit. The
man says its not good that she recognized him. Bailey curses violently, upsetting the
grandmother. The grandmother asks the Misfit whether hed shoot a lady, and the Misfit says
he wouldnt like to. The grandmother claims that she can tell hes a good man and that he
comes from nice people. The Misfitagrees and praises his parents.

The grandmother continues telling him hes a good man. The Misfit tells the other two men,
Hiram and Bobby Lee, to take Bailey and John Wesley into the woods. The grandmother
adjusts her hat, but the brim breaks off. The Misfit says he knows he isnt good but that he isnt
the worst man either. He apologizes to the grandmother and the childrens mother for not
wearing a shirt and says that he and the other men had to bury their clothes after they
escaped. He says they borrowed the clothes theyre wearing from some people they met.

The grandmother asks the Misfit whether he ever prays. Just as he says no, she hears two
gunshots. The Misfit says he used to be a gospel singer, and the grandmother chants, pray,
pray. He says he wasnt a bad child but that at one point he went to prison for a crime he cant
remember committing. He says a psychiatrist told him hed killed his father. The grandmother
tells the Misfit to pray so that Jesus will help him. The Misfit says hes fine on his own.

Bobby Lee and Hiram come back from the woods, and Bobby Lee gives the Misfit the shirt
Bailey had been wearing, but the grandmother doesnt realize its Baileys. The Misfit tells the
childrens mother to take the baby and June Star and go with Bobby Lee and Hiram into the
woods. Bobby Lee tries to hold June Stars hand, but she says he looks like a pig.

The grandmother starts chanting, Jesus, Jesus. The Misfit says hes like Jesus, except Jesus
hadnt committed a crime. He says he gave himself this name because his punishment doesnt
seem to fit the crime people said he committed. A gunshot comes from the woods. The
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grandmother begs the Misfit not to shoot a lady. Two more gunshots come from the woods,
and the grandmother cries out for Bailey.

The Misfit says that Jesus confused everything by raising the dead. He says that if what Jesus
did is true, then everyone must follow him. But if he didnt actually raise the dead, then all
anyone can do is enjoy their time on earth by indulging in meanness. The grandmother
agrees that perhaps Jesus didnt raise the dead. The Misfit says he wishes he had been there
so he could know for sure. The grandmother calls the Misfit one of my own children, and the
Misfit shoots her in the chest three times.

Bobby Lee and Hiram return, and they all look at the grandmother. The Misfit observes that the
grandmother could have been a good woman if someone had been around to shoot her every
minute of her life. The Misfit says life has no true pleasure.

Character List

The Grandmother - An irksome woman who lives with Bailey and his family.
During the familys journey to Florida, the grandmother suggests that they visit an
old house she remembers, an idea that leads to a car accident and the murder of
everyone in the group. Before she is killed, the grandmother remembers that the
house is actually in Tennessee, nowhere near where she said it was. She tries to
reason with the Misfit but only enrages him. She experiences a moment of grace
right before the Misfit shoots her.

Read an in-depth analysis of The Grandmother.

The Misfit - A wanted criminal who stumbles upon the family when they crash
their car in the woods. The Misfit lives by a moral code that involves murder and
remorselessness, but he also spends time wondering about Jesus. Because he
doesnt know for sure whether Jesus really raised the dead, he has opted for
meanness as a way of giving his life meaning. He doesnt see himself as a
terrible person. His two henchmen kill the entire family, and the Misfit shoots the
grandmother himself.

Read an in-depth analysis of The Misfit.

Bailey - The frazzled head of the family. Bailey seems to love his mother, but her
needling behavior sometimes gets the best of him. He gives in to the
grandmothers request to visit the old plantation house that she remembers only
because the children are driving him crazy. When the grandmothers cat jumps
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onto his shoulder, he wrecks the car. He tries to quiet the grandmother and stop
her from provoking the three criminals, but he is ineffective. He and John Wesley
are the first to be killed by the Misfit.

John Wesley - A loud, obnoxious, eight-year-old boy. John Wesley wants to visit
the house the grandmother talks about because she says it has a secret panel.

June Star - An obnoxious young girl. June Star loudly speaks her mind and makes
cutting observations about those around her.

The Mother - Baileys wife and the mother of John Wesley, June Star, and a baby.
The mother breaks her shoulder in the car crash and is eventually killed by the
Misfits henchmen.

Red Sammy Butts - The owner of the Tower restaurant. Red Sammy is a good
man according to the grandmother, trusting and even gullible to a fault.

Bobby Lee - One of the escaped criminals. Bobby Lee is fat and, according to
June Star, looks like a pig.

Hiram - One of the escaped criminals. Hiram wears a gray hat and inspects the
familys car.

Analysis of Major Characters


The Grandmother

The unnamed grandmother in A Good Man Is Hard to Find considers herself morally superior
to others by virtue of her being a lady, and she freely and frequently passes judgment on
others. She claims that her conscience is a guiding force in her life, such as when she tells
Bailey that her conscience wouldnt allow her to take the children in the same direction as the
Misfit. She criticizes the childrens mother for not traveling to a place that would allow the
children to be broad, and she compares the mothers face to a cabbage. She chastises John
Wesley for not having more respect for Georgia, his home state. She also takes any
opportunity to judge the lack of goodness in people in the world today. During all this, she
proudly wears her carefully selected dress and hat, certain that being a lady is the most
important virtue of all, one that she alone harbors.

The grandmother never turns her critical eye on herself to inspect her own hypocrisy,
dishonesty, and selfishness. For example, the conscience the grandmother invokes at the
beginning of the story is conveniently silent when she sneaks Pitty Sing into the car, lies to the
children about the secret panel, and opts not to reveal that she made a mistake about the
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location of the house. When the Misfit systematically murders the family, the grandmother
never once begs him to spare her children or grandchildren. She does, however, plead for her
own life because she cant imagine the Misfit wanting to kill a lady. She seems certain that hell
recognize and respect her moral code, as though it will mean something to him despite his
criminal ways. She tries to draw him into her world by assuring him that hes a good man, but
even though he agrees with her assessment of him, he doesnt see this as a reason to spare
her. Only when the grandmother is facing death, in her final moments alone with the Misfit,
does she understand where she has gone wrong in her life. Instead of being superior, she
realizes, she is flawed like everyone else. When she tells the Misfit that he is one of [her] own
children, she is showing that she has found the ability to see others with compassion and
understanding. This is a moment of realization, one that is immediately followed by her death.

The Misfit

With his violent, wanton killing, the Misfit seems an unlikely source to look to for spiritual or
moral guidance, but he demonstrates a deep conviction that the other characters lack. Unlike
the grandmother, who simply assumes that she is morally superior to everyone else, the Misfit
seriously questions the meaning of life and his role in it. He has carefully considered his
actions in life and examined his experiences to find lessons within them. He has even
renamed himself because of one of these lessons, believing that his punishment didnt fit his
crime. Because the Misfit has questioned himself and his life so closely, he reveals a self-
awareness that the grandmother lacks. He knows he isnt a great man, but he also knows that
there are others worse than him. He forms rudimentary philosophies, such as no pleasure but
meanness and the crime dont matter.

The Misfits philosophies may be depraved, but they are consistent. Unlike the grandmother,
whose moral code falls apart the moment its challenged, the Misfit has a steady view of life
and acts according to what he believes is right. His beliefs and actions are not moral in the
conventional sense, but they are strong and consistent and therefore give him a strength of
conviction that the grandmother lacks. Twisted as it might be, he can rely on his moral code to
guide his actions. The grandmother cannot, and in the last moments of her life, she recognizes
his strength and her weaknesses. OConnor called the Misfit a prophet gone wrong, and
indeed, if he had applied his moral integrity to a less depraved lifestyle, he could have been
considered a true preacher, pillar, or teacher.
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Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes

THE ELUSIVE DEFINITION OF A GOOD MAN

The grandmother applies the label good indiscriminately, blurring the definition of a good
man until the label loses its meaning entirely. She first applies it to Red Sammy after he
angrily complains of the general untrustworthiness of people. He asks her why he let two
strangers charge their gasolinehes obviously been swindledand the grandmother says he
did it because hes a good man. In this case, her definition of good seems to include
gullibility, poor judgment, and blind faith, none of which are inherently good. She next applies
the label good to the Misfit. After she recognizes him, she asks him whether hed shoot a
lady, although he never says that he wouldnt. Because being a lady is such a significant part
of what the grandmother considers moral, the Misfits answer proves that he doesnt adhere to
the same moral code as she does. The grandmother desperately calls him a good man, as
though appealing to some kind of underlying value that the Misfit wouldnt want to deny. Her
definition of good, however, is skewed, resting almost entirely on her claim that he doesnt
have common blood.

The grandmothers wanton application of the label good man reveals that good doesnt
imply moral or kind. For the grandmother, a man is a good man if his values are aligned
with her own. Red Sammy is good because he trusts people blindly and waxes nostalgic
about more innocent timesboth of which the grandmother can relate to. The Misfit is good
because, she reasons, he wont shoot a ladya refusal that would be in keeping with her own
moral code. Her assumption, of course, proves to be false. The only thing good about the
Misfit is his consistency in living out his moral code of no pleasure but meanness.

THE UNLIKELY RECIPIENTS OF GRACE

In A Good Man Is Hard to Find, the grandmother and the Misfit are both recipients of grace,
despite their many flaws, sins, and weaknesses. According to Christian theology, human
beings are granted salvation through Gods grace, or favor, which God freely bestows on even
the least likely recipients. In other words, God has the power to allow even bad people to go to
heaven, which he does by granting them grace. The grandmother is an unlikely candidate for
receiving grace. She lies to her grandchildren, manipulates her son, and harps constantly
about the inadequacy of the present and superiority of the past. She has no self-awareness
and seems oblivious to the world around her. Certain of her own moral superiority, the
grandmother believes that she is the right person to judge the goodness of others as well as
the right person to instruct other people on how to live their lives. However, she herself has an
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inherent moral weakness. She instructs the Misfit to pray, for example, even though she
herself is unable to formulate a coherent prayer. She changes her mind about Jesus rising
from the dead as she grows more afraid of what will happen to her. The Misfit, for his part, is
an unrepentant murderer. Both bad people in their own way, they are each unlikelyeven
undeservingrecipients of grace.

Grace, however, settles on them both, suggesting that even people like the grandmother and
Misfit have the potential to be saved by God. The grandmother, moved by the Misfits wish to
know for sure what Jesus did and didnt do, experiences a moment of grace when her head
momentarily clears and she exclaims, Why youre one of my babies. Youre one of my own
children! The Misfit isnt literally the grandmothers child; rather, this points to the fact that she
realizes they are both human beings. Her comment seems inappropriateeven insanegiven
the circumstances, but this is actually the grandmothers most lucid moment in the story. She
has clarity and, more important, compassion. God has granted her grace just before she dies.
The Misfit, too, is open to grace at this moment. Although he had claimed earlier that there was
no pleasure but meanness in life, he now denies that there is any pleasure in life at all. Killing
has ceased to bring him happiness, suggesting that he, too, may harbor the possibility to
change.

Motifs

NOSTALGIA

The grandmother, Red Sammy, and the Misfits nostalgia for the past suggests that they all
believe that a good man was easier to come by long ago and that pursuing goodness in the
present day is difficult and even pointless. During the car trip, the grandmother reminisces
about an old suitor, Edgar Adkins Teagarden, who brought her a watermelon every weekend.
She suspects she should have married him because he was a gentlemanand therefore a
good man as welland became wealthy. Red Sammy and the grandmother reminisce about
the past, when people could be trusted. Red Sammy says outright that a good man is hard to
find, considering himselfgullible and foolishto be one of this dying breed. Even the Misfit
remembers things his father said and did as well as the unfairness of his punishment for
crimes that he cant remember committing. According to these characters, the present is rife
with ambiguity and unhappiness, and things were much different long ago. In a way, this belief
allows them to stop short of deeply exploring their own potential for goodness because theyve
convinced themselves that the world is not conducive to it.
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Symbols

THE GRANDMOTHERS HAT

The grandmothers hat, which she wears for the sole purpose of showing that she is a lady,
represents her misguided moral code. When the grandmother prepares for the car trip with the
family, she dresses up to be prepared for a car accident so that anyone seeing her dead body
would know that shed been a lady. The grandmother seems to be entirely unconcerned with
the fact that shes dead in this scenario and oblivious to the fact that other peopleincluding
her three grandchildrenwould have probably died as well. For the grandmother, the only
thing that matters is her standing as a lady, a ridiculous concern that reveals her selfishness
and flimsy moral conviction. When the grandmother does become involved in a car accident,
the hatlike her moral convictionsfalls apart. After she is thrown from the car and the family
is facing the Misfit, the brim of the hat falls off. She drops the broken hat as her self-conception
as a lady dissolves.

Moral Codes

In A Good Man Is Hard to Find, the grandmother and Misfit live by moral codes that affect
their decisions, actions, and perceptions. A moral code is a set of beliefs and behaviors that
people abide by to live what they consider to be a reasonable, fulfilling
lives. The term moral doesnt necessarily mean good; its simply a code of conduct, while the
righteousness of a persons morals is entirely subjective. Although at first glance the Misfits
code seems to be misguided, it is actually the grandmothers code that proves to be flimsy and
inconsistent. The grandmother has built her moral code on the characteristics that she believes
make people good. She places great stock in being a lady, for example, which emphasizes
appearance over substance. At the same time, she repeatedly deceives her family and lacks
even a rudimentary awareness of the world around her. Despite her professed love for
Christian piety, she herself is unable to pray when she finds herself in a crisis and even begins
to question the power and divinity of Jesus.

The Misfit, however, adheres to a moral code that remains consistent and strong. From his
experiences as a convicted criminal, he believes that the punishment is always
disproportionate to the crime and that the crime, in the end, doesnt even really matter. He also
harbors a genuine bafflement about religion. Whereas the grandmother accepts faith
unquestioningly and weakly, the Misfit challenges religious beliefs and thinks deeply about how
he should follow them or not follow them. He has chosen to live under the assumption that
religion is pointless and adheres to his own kind of religion: No pleasure but meanness. His
moral code is violent and never wavers, and in the end, his is the one that triumphs.
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OConnor and Catholicism

Flannery OConnors Catholic upbringing influenced almost all her fiction, often garnering
criticism because of her stark, sometimes harsh portrayal of religion. OConnors great-
grandparents had been some of the first Catholics to live in Milledgeville, Georgia, and her
family stood out in the predominantly Protestant South. OConnor attended parochial school
and frequently went to Mass with her family. Although her stories and novels are often violent
and macabre, they are rooted in her belief in the mysteries of belief and divinity. Moreover, her
characters often face violent or jarring situations that force them into a moment of crisis that
awakens or alters their faith. Moments of gracea Christian ideaare pervasive, such as the
grandmothers moment of grace in A Good Man Is Hard to Find. For OConnor, writing was
inextricable from her Christian beliefs, and she believed she wouldnt be able to write were it
not for this background. In a lecture about A Good Man Is Hard to Find in 1943, OConnor
said, Belief, in my own case anyway, is the engine that makes perception operate. She also
attributed her desire to write to her Catholicism, writing once in a letter, I feel that if I were not
a Catholic, I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason ever to feel horrified
or even to enjoy anything.

Important Quotations Explained

1. I found out the crime dont matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man
or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later youre going to forget what it was you done
and just be punished for it.

The Misfit speaks these words near the end of the story, just before sending the childrens
mother, the baby, and June Star into the woods to be shot. The Misfit has told the grandmother
that he had been punished for a crime that he cant remember, and this is the lesson he has
taken away from it. According to the Misfits theory, no matter what the crime, large or small,
the punishment will be the sameeven if one never remembers what one did. This idea of
being punished for an unremembered crime alludes to the Christian belief in original sin.
According to Christian theology, all human beings are born sinners for which they will be
eternally punished. Only through Gods grace can these people be saved. In this sense,
humans forget their crime, yet are punished nonetheless, just as the Misfit suggests. The
grandmother has her moment of grace when she recognizes the Misfit as one of her own
children, recognizing how similar she is to the Misfit for the first time. She isnt morally
superior, as she has always believed. Instead, both are struggling in their own ways to come to
terms with the difficult, often ambiguous tenets of the Christian faith.
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2. She would have been a good woman, The Misfit said, if it had been somebody there to
shoot her every minute of her life.

This quotation, at the end of the story, reveals the Misfits understanding of what has occurred
in the grandmothers final moments, and he seems to recognize two things about her. First, he
fully understands that despite her obvious belief in her moral superioritywhich she conveys
through her self-proclaimed identification as a lady and religious instructionthe
grandmother is not, in fact, a good woman. She is flawed and weak, and her age grants her no
particular rights for respect or reverence. Second, the Misfit recognizes that when facing
death, the grandmother has the capacity to be a good woman. In her final moments, she
foregoes the moral high ground shed staunchly held and instead embraces her and the
Misfits common humanity. The Misfit observes this shift and seems to realize what it means: if
the grandmother could have lived her life at gunpoint, so to speak, she could have gained the
self-awareness and compassion that shed lacked.