Themes and Characters
"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is a story of sharp contrasts. First, O'Connor creates a sharp contrast between a nuclear family and a band of three male criminals. The family is a microcosm of the decaying society in the American South, with the grandmother's firm ties to tradition offset by her grandchildren's abandonment of any semblance of propriety of manners. The Misfit is also starkly contrasted with the grandmother, but this contrast centers around religious beliefs. Evidence of society's decaying fabric is woven into the story through these contrasts.
The first person the reader meets is the grandmother, a cartoon representation of a "good" Christian woman. She is seemingly obstinate from the very moment the reader is confronted by her insistence that her family cancel their trip down to Florida to avoid meeting the Misfit. Her powers of persuasion are ineffective, however, until she adds deception to her tales: when she desires to stop and visit a site she believes houses a plantation she visited in her youth, she lies about its grandeur and "secret doors" to rile up the child and force her son to make a detour to find the plantation. Her lie is selfish but by no means atrocious, yet the consequence for this lie is death, for herself and her entire family. It is shocking penance, one far out of bounds of what one might normally expect for a trifling selfish act.
In the grandmother, O'Connor creates a conduit for the values of the "Old South." She does not paint these values in rosy shades: her character is prattling, longwinded, and self-absorbed. However, she is also warm to new ideas, easily thrilled by everyday experiences, and gripping to life as only one who knows the true value of life can. Thus, although the grandmother chatters ceaselessly about whatever is before her—the red clay banks, the speed limit, the A Good Man Is Hard to Find 197 trees—none of which is of any particular import, she is genuinely interested in sharing with the rest of the family. That they ignore or repel her comments speaks volumes about her status within the family. The elders here are not revered but barely tolerated. The grandmother is a caricature not only in the descriptions by O'Connor but to the other characters as well. At one point during the drive, she makes a joke that everyone ignores, and then the children begin to play a game which escalates into an argument. The children begin to slap each other—over the grandmother. Finally, the children pay attention to the grandmother when she promises to tell them a story. Interestingly, she is able to tell the story all the way through. The young boy giggles over the details of the story, but the young girl misses the comedy in the tale and only complains that she would not have liked some boy who only brought her a watermelon each week to woo her. Again, the girl unveils her insatiable selfishness.
One of the most telling moments in the story is when the grandmother arrives at the car, ready for the drive to Florida. The night before, she had vehemently argued against going, but now she is ready, fully dressed in her finest wear. Complete with white cotton gloves,
. . . the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet.
O'Connor explains that she was so dressed so that, should the family be in an accident on the highway, "anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady." A comical aside to an unknowing reader, but a soft sense of foreboding begins to play into the story. The grandmother is setting herself up, it seems, for a fall. But it is not a fall from grace she will experience, rather a fall from life that ultimately provides her redemption. Up until the time that the grandmother envisions her murderer as her own child, she continues in the vein of pettiness, criticizing whatever does not...
(The entire section is 1677 words.)
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The Grandmother in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is the story's principal character. Her religious epiphany at the story's end provides the philosophical thrust behind the narrative. By giving her no name other than Grandmother and crotchety conversation that provides much of the story's humor, O'Connor paints her as a tragically comic caricature, one that a reader can easily, but wrongly, feel superior to. She is selfish and pushy; in fact, her desire to see a house from her childhood results in the family's death at the end of the story. The story's primary action involves a family car trip on which they encounter an escaped criminal and his gang. If the Grandmother had not insisted they detour to see the old house, which, she realized too late was in Tennessee, not in the part of Georgia where they were, the family would have escaped the disaster. The Grandmother is critical of the children's mother, who is never named, and she dotes on her son Bailey although she treats him like a child. She demonstrates racist behavior by calling a poor Black child "a pickaninny ... Wouldn't that make a picture, now?" and she reveals a superior moral attitude. In her conversation with the murderer, an escaped convict called the Misfit, the Grandmother says that she knows he is from "good people," as she tries to flatter him in order to save her own life. Her last words to him as she reaches out to touch his shoulder,"You're one of my own children," signify that she has...
(The entire section is 335 words.)
The Misfit is an escaped murderer who kills the family at the end of the story and shoots the Grandmother three times in the chest. Described as wearing tan and white shoes, no socks, no shirt, he is an older man with glasses "that gave him a scholarly look." By his speech, readers can tell that he is rather uneducated. However, he speaks to the grandmother and the others with deliberate politeness. He remains calm throughout the scene as he instructs his two companions, Bobby Lee and Hiram, to take the family to the woods. He says to the Grandmother, "it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn't reckernized me."
In the Misfit's conversation with the Grandmother about Jesus throwing "everything off balance," O'Connor presents a view of a world out of balance. Just as the story's violence does not seem to match its comedy, the Misfit's life of punishment has not fit his crimes. In a long section of dialogue, the Misfit unburdens his soul to the Grandmother about his father's death, his own mistreatment, and his feelings about the world's injustices. He kills her when she calls him one of her "own babies." Although critics have interpreted the actions and words of the Misfit in many ways, one reading is that he brings the Grandmother to a moment of grace in which she makes an unselfish, religious connection with another human being, something she had been incapable of before that time. In his comment, "She would of been a good woman ... if...
(The entire section is 310 words.)
Bailey is the son of the principal character in the story, the Grandmother, and is the father of June Star and John Wesley. He drives the car as the family embarks on their vacation. Bailey's major importance in the story is his relationship to other people, especially his mother. He allows her to boss him around and to convince him to go out of the way to visit an old house she remembers from her childhood, where the family is killed. Bailey seems unresponsive to his wife and children, allowing them to take advantage of him. Overall, Bailey, who wears a yellow shirt with blue parrots, perhaps symbolizing his cowardice, is a "flat" character.
Red Sammy Butts
Red Sammy Butts owns the barbecue restaurant called the Tower at which the family stops on their car trip. O'Connor describes him as fat with his stomach hanging over his khaki pants "like a sack of meal swaying under his shirt." Signs along the highway advertise his barbecue: "Try Red Sammy's Famous Barbecue. None like Famous Red Sammy's! Red Sam! The Fat Boy with the Happy Laugh. A Veteran! Red Sammy's Your Man!" He orders his wife around and engages in empty chatter with the Grandmother. Red Sammy's statement, "A good man is hard to find," in reference to the proliferation of crime and a nostalgia for the days when people did not have to lock their doors, becomes the title of the story.
(The entire section is 430 words.)