"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is one of Flannery O'Connor's most discussed and most problematic short stories. The major difficulty involves the story's climax. Should the Grandmother's final act—her touching of the Misfit—be taken as a token of true, divine grace and spiritual insight? Or should the story be interpreted strictly as a naturalistic document? Perhaps the Grandmother achieves no spiritual insight. One can find critics on both sides of the argument. Since the issue is central to O'Connor's work at large, it is worth further examination. While this question may ultimately be impossible to resolve with certainty, further light can be shed upon this critical gesture.
In Mystery and Manners, O'Connor asserts that the Grandmother's final act is a "moment of grace." Critics, though, have not been convinced. While acknowledging Flannery O'Connor's reading, Madison Jones prefers to stress the "realistic explanation" of grace—a "naturalistic" grace which may be "spelled in lower case letters." Stanley Renner is also uncomfortable with the"religious'' explanation and describes "the vague touch" on the Misfit's shoulder as "a parental blessing" or "the ceremonial dubbing of knighthood.'' Thus the Grandmother's response not so much reflects divine grace as it "touches her almost instinctive springs of sympathy and human kinship." Leon Driskell and Joan Brittain seem to see the Grandmother's final act, not as a transcendent spiritual experience, but as a "gesture of kinship," which comes from one whose "revelation, though limited, is adequate." And most recently, Kathleen Ochshorn has entered the fray in a most unequivocal manner, insisting that in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" "a world of propriety and illusion is laid low by wrath, not redeemed by grace." Rather than seeing the Grandmother's final act as an embodiment of spirituality, Ochshorn asserts that the touch expresses the grandmother's "final hope that her noblesse can alter her fate," an interpretation that renders the grandmother's final gesture as mundane, selfish, and in every sense unredeeming. These critical responses—especially Ochshorn's—are symptomatic of the reluctance to read the story in light of O'Connor's religious beliefs.
Should O'Connor's interpretation of the story be judged as wrong? Critics have an excellent authority for a subversive reading in D.H. Lawrence's well-known dictum: trust the tale, not the teller of the tale. Unless the tale itself can guide us in our interpretation, we are threatened with being like the people in Plato's cave, very inadequate interpreters of shadows on the wall. But there is another piece of evidence in the...
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Flannery O'Connor was often shocked to find how people interpreted her stories. Some readers of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" believed the grandmother was evil, even a witch. Soon O'Connor set out, quite explicitly, in letters and lectures to detail the theology of the story and the importance of the grandmother as an agent of grace. In a letter to John Hawkes, she explained how violence and grace come together:
More than in the Devil I am interested in the indication of Grace, the moment when you know that Grace has been offered and accepted—such as the moment when the Grandmother realizes the Misfit is one of her own children. These moments are prepared for (by me anyway) by the intensity of the evil circumstances.
When O'Connor speaks of her Catholicism and its expression in her fiction, she is clear-headed, eloquent, and convincing. In Mystery and Manners, the posthumous collection of her occasional prose, she claims the assumptions that underlie "A Good Man is Hard to Find" "are those of the central Christian mysteries. These are the assumptions to which a large part of the modern audience takes exception." O'Connor was upset with critics who were determined to count the dead bodies: "And in this story you should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother's soul, and not for the dead bodies." For O'Connor, grace is "simply a concern with the human reaction to that which, instant by instant, gives life to the soul. It is a concern with a realization that breeds charity and with the charity that breeds action."
Flannery O'Connor was 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. She felt readers "had a really sentimental attachment to The Misfit. But then a prophet gone wrong is almost always more interesting than your grandmother, and you have to let people take their pleasures where they find them." When she learned readers were identifying with Hazel Motes' rejection of Christ, O'Connor added a preface to the second edition of Wise Blood claiming Motes' integrity lay in his inability to shake the ragged figure of Christ from his mind. Generally O'Connor chalked up all the misreadings and confusion to the spiritual shortcomings of the modern reader: "Today's audience is one in which religious feeling has become, if not atrophied, at least vaporous and sentimental."
But the discrepancies between how O'Connor is often read and how she claimed she should be read cannot simply be explained by her theology of grace or by the lack of religious feeling among readers. Critical opinion over the years has tended to line up behind O'Connor's own explanations; however, O'Connor's analysis of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" still seems baffling, and occasionally a critic has questioned the theology of the fiction. Andre Bleikasten, focusing on O'Connor's novels, claimed that:
the truth of O'Connor's work is the truth of her art, not that of her church. Her fiction does refer to an implicit theology, but if we rely, as we should, on its testimony rather than on the author's comments, we shall have to admit that the Catholic orthodoxy of her work is at least debatable.
And Frederick Asals recalls D. H. Lawrence's advice that a reader should trust the tale and not the teller. Of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," Asals claims:
One can easily pass over her [O'Connor's] hope that the grandmother's final gesture to The Misfit might have begun a process which would "turn him into the prophet he was meant to become"; that, as she firmly says, is another story, and it would be a reckless piety indeed which would see it even suggested by the one we have.
Finally, any work of art must speak for itself, and "A Good Man Is Hard to Find'' speaks much louder than O'Connor's claims. It depicts evil with a power akin to Dostoevsky. Yet Dostoevsky presented holy innocence in characters like Sonia and Alyosha as well as evil in Smerdyakov and Raskolnikov. O'Connor focuses her story on what is sinister in The Misfit and satirical in the grandmother and her family. O'Connor is dark and negative in the modernist tradition, albeit with religious preoccupations. She depicts pure evil in The Misfit as he obliterates the whining grandmother and her clan. This fine story, one of O'Connor's best, derives much of its power from the anger and vengeance it expresses And that pile of dead bodies cannot be canceled out when the grandmother touches The Misfit.
Yet O'Connor is not diminished by the contradictions between her work and her explanation of her work; she is made richer. The fury that lights up her art keeps "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" from being reduced to a theological exercise. The complexity of this story in part explains its broad appeal to audiences who do not see the story as a parable of grace. Grace is the uneasy cloak O'Connor designed to cover and justify the violence in the story. The grace is a guise, a rationale that is not brought off. O'Connor's naive and deluded mothers and grandmothers are often brought low by a violent encounter that shakes them out of their petty superiorities and their would-be aristocratic and genteel trappings. They are forced to realize their vulnerability,...
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