Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
In remarks prefatory to a public reading of this story, O’Connor stated that “what makes a story work . . . is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies.” This action, which is “both totally right and totally unexpected,” must operate “on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it.” O’Connor, anticipating a non-Catholic audience essentially hostile to her religious and philosophical position, manages to dramatize her views within the story: She shows a human being change and creates an effective scene in which God’s grace intervenes in the natural world. Thus, O’Connor makes it possible for the reader to focus on what she sees as crucial: “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.”
A balance for the seriousness, even sublimity, of this moment of grace is the black humor of the dialogue between The Misfit and the grandmother, which precedes the grandmother’s gesture. Much of this humor derives from the regional particularities of southern speech, which O’Connor’s sharp ear accurately registers. When the grandmother urges The Misfit to seek God’s help, he replies, “I don’t want no hep, I’m doing all right by myself.” Another source of humor is the bizarre...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
This collection of ten short stories demonstrates O’Connor’s skill at using irony, violence, and the grotesque to create opportunities for redemption in the lives of characters who are often comical and always spiritually adrift in a realistic, yet highly symbolic world. At least one character in each story is somehow deluded and in need of an awakening by the Divine to reveal the true self and offer an opportunity for change.
Five of the stories include strong Southern women whose “sins” range from simple smugness to pride in one’s physical and material attributes as virtues. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a meddlesome but good-hearted grandmother inadvertently leads her entire family to their violent deaths at the hands of a criminal known as the Misfit. After the rest of the family has been killed, the grandmother experiences a profound spiritual change while talking to the Misfit as she accepts her connection to all living things. The Misfit acknowledges that she would have been a good woman if there had been “somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” In “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” Ruby Hill is a plump, judgmental woman returning from a visit to Madam Zoleeda, a fortune teller who informed Ruby that she is on the brink of a long illness followed by good fortune. The story ends with a stunned Ruby accepting the fact that she is pregnant, a condition she has carefully avoided and finds disgusting in others. In “A...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
While O’Connor died before the women’s movement of the 1960’s gained much momentum and never chose to identify herself openly with feminist concerns, her work itself is important to women’s literature for several reasons. In her depiction of strong, independent female characters with as much of a chance at redemption as their male counterparts, O’Connor was responsible for presenting a new, more realistic picture of white Southern women. As Alice Walker has written, “when she set her pen to them not a whiff of magnolia hovered in the air.” Walker was shocked and delighted at the humanity of O’Connor’s characters, “who are miserable, ugly, narrow-minded, atheistic, and of intense racial smugness and arrogance.”
Being a woman affected the way in which O’Connor was received during her time, particularly because the violence and general nastiness of her characters were often not admired coming from a “lady writer.” Even those critics who praised her sometimes did so in carefully couched language. Evelyn Waugh once said of O’Connor’s writing, “If this is the unaided work of a young lady it is a remarkable product.” O’Connor was the first woman to be compared to the great male Southern writer William Faulkner. By taking her art seriously, and working hard during her tragically short life to achieve the status of a great American writer, O’Connor set a standard and paved the way for women writers to come.
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The Civil Rights Movement
Fueled with the speeches of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and with the deaths of several African-American activists, the civil rights movement was at its peak in 1955. Just the year before, the Supreme Court of the United States had struck down legal segregation in schools in a landmark decision. In 1955, Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama, made her heroic and famous decision not to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. This single action engendered a widespread bus boycott which catapulted its organizer, Martin Luther King, Jr., to national attention. Georgia, where O'Connor lived and set the story, was filled with racial tension. The Grandmother's attitudes toward African Americans typify the beliefs of many in the state at the time. When she tells June Star that "Little niggers in the country don't have things like we do," she was expressing a sentiment many people in white society in 1955 held.
The Era of the Automobile
The 1950s saw a significant increase in the number of cars on American roads, a result of post World War II economic prosperity. In 1955 motorcar sales passed the 7 million mark in the United States, Chevrolet introduced the V-8 engine, and President Eisenhower submitted a 10-year, $101 billion proposal to build a national highway system to Congress. Family vacations by car, like that in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find'' became common as Americans took to the highways and embraced...
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The story is firmly set in the rural American South. The characters, particularly the grandmother, are imbued with classic Southern characteristics, and they display an intimate understanding of the landscape of which they are a part. As the family drives south from Georgia to Florida, the grandmother points out all along the way various things about the southern landscape—the kudzu, the plantations that are no more. The most important point about the setting is that it is representative of the decay of the Old South; the fact that the children have disdain for the state of Georgia, as well as Tennessee, is held in sharp contrast to the pride that the grandmother displays for her native state. The setting allows for a backdrop against which O'Connor can contrast the old values of the South with the decaying sense of pride exhibited in younger generations.
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Symbols, elements in a work of fiction that stand for something more profound or meaningful, allow writers to communicate complicated ideas to readers in a work that appears to be simple. O'Connor includes several symbols in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." For example, skies and weather are always symbolic to O'Connor, and she often uses such descriptions to reveal a character's state of mind. In another story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," O'Connor ends the story with a man being "chased" by an ominous thundercloud, because the man is feeling guilty for abandoning his mentally and physically challenged wife at a roadside diner. In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," the sky at the end of the story is cloudless and clear, indicating that the Grandmother has died with a clear vision of her place in the world. Another symbol in the story is the old house that the Grandmother insists on visiting. It represents the woman's habit of wanting to live in the past, in a time she believes people were more decent and better than they are today. However, the house is not where she thought it was—it was in Tennessee, not Georgia—a realization that symbolizes that one's perception of the past is often distorted. This focus on a distorted past leads the family directly to their ruin; they have been sidetracked by a past that did not exist.
Point of View
O'Connor was extremely interested in point of view, and she was careful to keep...
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In A Good Man Is Hard To Find, O'Connor writes from a third-person narrator, telling the story from the perspective of the Grandmother. The point of view straddles the line between limited omniscience and total omniscience. O'Connor lets the reader know whose story this is in the first two lines, "The grandmother didn't want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey's mind."
The omniscient narrator is limited in that she does not reveal any of the characters'— besides the Grandmother's—thoughts or states of mind but simply relates their words and actions.
O'Connor does provide background information about what happened just before the story started but, again, it is background provided only through the eyes of the Grandmother. In fact, the only action the reader learns about relates to the point of view of the grandmother: "Bailey didn't look up from his reading so she wheeled around then and faced the children's mother, a young woman in slacks . . ." And yet O'Connor never crosses the line to allow the Grandmother to actually narrate the story. The reader is kept at bay from any direct contact with the character's mind.
Throughout the story, O'Connor teeters between an omniscient and a limited omniscient narrator. The narrator will sometimes be explicit in describing the grandmother's motives:
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Flannery O'Connor was deeply concerned with the values and the direction of the youth of her time. She believed that Christ was no longer enough of a priority to the people of her generation. "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is representative of O'Connor's concern for the priorities and values of the 1940s.
In exhibiting her concerns, O'Connor paints fairly broad caricatures of the family members in the stories, and of the Misfit as well. The children never show a moment of remorse; they are relentlessly obstinate and impertinent, and none too intuitive. The young girl, June Star, sees her father and brother taken away from the rest of the family and led into the woods. She hears two shots, and sees the young man who led her father and brother away return, holding her father's shirt in his hand. Even after witnessing this, when that same young man tries to lead her away with her mother, June Star spits out: "I don't want to hold hands with him . . . He reminds me of a pig." The young man does not lash out at the child; rather, he is ashamed by her harsh words, and he blushes and laughs in response. Of course, a few minutes later he kills June Star, so there is certainly a comeuppance in the end, one that is hugely out of proportion with any moral injustice June Star may have committed through her insolent behavior. O'Connor never allows the punishment to fit the crime—she hyperbolizes the punishment in a way that many readers take as cruel and unfitting. It...
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Compare and Contrast
1955: Racial tensions run high as the Civil Rights Movement makes real changes in American society. Rosa Parks refuses to go to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Two African-American leaders, Lamar D. Smith and George W. Lee, are killed.
1996: Dozens of African-American churches, mostly in the South, burn down during the spring and summer months. Though the cause of some of the blazes is unknown, arson is suspected in many cases.
1950: According to crime statistics, approximately 7,000 murders were committed in the United States during the year.
1994: According to crime statistics, approximately 23,305 murders were committed during the year. Of these, 15,456 involved firearms.
1955: The U.S. census bureau reveals that the American population increased by 2.8 million, the largest 1-year advance on record. The generation born in the years between 1945 and 1960 are dubbed "The Baby Boomers."
1990s: The first Baby Boomers are turning 50, and the United States looks to ways to provide for the health care and social security of such a large number of aging individuals.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Why does the Grandmother insist on wearing her nicest suit on the road trip with her family?
2. What is the significance of the Misfit's name?
3. What role does faith and religion play in this story?
4. Characterize the grandmother. Do you feel any sense of compassion for her? Why or why not?
5. What is the significance of the Misfit's response to the grandmother just before he kills her?
6. Characterize the Misfit. Do you think that the Misfit presents valid reasons for the violent way he lives his life? Is there ever an excuse for violence?
7. Explain how O'Connor uses her characters to comment on one another. 8. How would you describe the importance of family to each of the characters in the story?
9. What is the relationship between the grandmother and her grandchildren? Does this relationship surprise you?
10. What are some ways in which O'Connor infuses the story with humor?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. How realistic is this story? What would make it more realistic?
2. Discuss O'Connor's use of detail in telling her story. How does this add to the story?
3. O'Connor sets her stories decisively in the American South. What is it about "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" that makes it a southern story?
4. How would you describe the relationship between the Misfit and the Grandmother? How does it change over the course of the story?
5. The Misfit explains that he cannot recall why he was put in jail the first time he went to prison, and that the crime written on his prison papers—that he killed his father—was not correct. Do you believe him? How often do you think that men are wrongly accused of a crime?
6. Is prison a salutary experience? Can it reform a person, or does it make the person more liable to commit more crime?
7. O'Connor is subtle with the issue of age versus youth. What are some of the problems or miscommunications that can exist due to age differences?
8. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of using an omniscient narrator?
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Topics for Further Study
In the 1950s, automobiles became more accessible to many Americans, and people's mobility and freedom reached new proportions. O'Connor often used the automobile as a symbol in her writing. In addition to ''A Good Man Is Hard to Find," read "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" and "The Displaced Person" and discuss the importance of the automobile in those narratives.
Read about the Civil Rights Movement and some of the frustrations African-Americans faced in the South during the 1950s and 1960s. Read another story from O'Connor's collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find called "The Artificial Nigger." How does a racist lawn statue become a symbol for spiritual searching? What seems to be O'Connor's position on racism?
Discuss how the tenets of Roman Catholicism are manifest in O'Connor's fiction. How does she interpret her own Catholic faith, and what does she expect her readers to understand about it?
Compare O'Connor's use of humor to Mark Twain's, especially in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. How do both of the writers use humor to present the harsh realities of the human condition?
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"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" stands alone in O'Connor's work; there are no related titles. In addition, there have been no adaptations of this story.
Readers who enjoy O'Connor's story might enjoy the works of other gritty realist short story writers. Examples include Eudora Welty, Doris Lessing, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Raymond Carver, and Zora Neale Hurston. In particular, Eudora Welty's The Worn Path (1969) describes an older black woman's annual walk from her back woods home into the nearest town to obtain free medicine for her grandson. The story can be found in a volume of her stories titled A Curtain of Green and Other Stories (1969). Doris Lessing, a British writer, wrote "To Room Nineteen" as part of a collection of stories entitled A Man and Two Women and Other Stories (1958). It is a fictionalized account of Lessing's and tells of the dissolution of love within a marriage, from the perspective of the wife. Any one of Faulkner's stories is a joy of pith and raw nerve endings. Katherine Anne Porter, a Texas writer, is one of the finest short story writers of the century. Her works include "Rope "(1930), a narrative telling of the power struggle between a young man and woman in love, or at least something resembling love. Raymond Carver's "Fat", published in the collection Cathedral (1983), is a masterpiece of the melodrama of the quotidian. It describes the events during one afternoon in the life of an...
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What Do I Read Next?
O'Connor's novel Wise Blood, published in 1952, deals with religious themes, as does much of her work. The plot revolves around the character of Hazel Motes, a man obsessed with Jesus in ways that the Misfit is. Hazel becomes a preacher for the Church Without Christ. Like "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," Wise Blood demonstrates O'Connor's vision of what happens to people who try to live their lives without any kind of spiritual presence.
No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, by Mark Twain deals with religion in a humorous way.
A Curtain of Green, a collection of stories by Southern writer Eudora Welty. Also characterized as a "Southern Gothic" writer, Welty's fiction often deals with brutal themes as well.
Carson McCullers has helped to define Southern fiction. A Member of the Wedding, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter are three of her most highly regarded novels.
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For Further Reference
Browning, Preston M., Jr. Flannery O'Connor. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974. This biography covers the whole of O'Connor's life, from her many moves during her childhood to her illness.
Driggers, Stephen G., Robert J. Dunn, and Sarah E. Gordon. The Manuscripts of Flanneiy O'Connor at Georgia College. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989. This invaluable depiction of the original manuscripts of O'Connor details the edits within the manuscripts as well as parts left out of her published works.
Farmer, David. Flannery O'Connor: A Descriptive Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing Company, 1981. Farmer has compiled a didactic explanation of all of O'Connor's work, from small press articles and stories to best-sellers, and includes an explanation of each entry.
Fitzgerald, Sally, ed. The Habit of Being. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979. This comprehensive compilation of O'Connors letters to friends, editors, and family provides fascinating insight into the mind of a prolific and gifted writer.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Brinkmeyer, Jr., Robert H. The Art and Vision of Flannery O'Connor, Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Gordon, Caroline "With a Glitter of Evil," in The New York Times Book Review, June 12,1955, p. 5.
Hendri, Josephine. The World of Flannery O'Connor, Indiana University Press, 1970.
Kirk, Russell, Flannery O'Connor and the Grotesque Face of God," in The World and I, Vol. 2, No 1, January, 1987, pp 429-33
O'Connor, Flannery. Flannery O'Connor: Mystery and Manners, edited by Robert Fitzgerald and Sally Fitzgerald, Fartar, Straus and Giroux, 1957.
Orvell, Miles An Introduction to Flannery O'Connor, University Press of Mississippi, 1991.
Rubin, Jr., Louis D., "Two Ladies of the South," in Critical Essays on Flannery 0 'Connor, edited by Melvin J. Friedman and Beverly Lyon Clark, G. K. Hall & Co., 1985, pp 25-8.
Asal, Frederick, Flannery O'Connor: The Imagination of Extremity, University of Georgia Press, 1982.
Although the book discusses all her fiction, he devotes a section to "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," a story that ''dramatizes a world radically off balance." Posits that the story is a good example of O'Connor's comic treatment to violent material.
Asal, Frederick, editor, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," Women Writers, Texts and Contexts,...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Asals, Frederick. Flannery O’Connor: The Imagination of Extremity. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982.
Bloom, Harold. Flannery O’Connor. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Cash, Jean W. Flannery O'Connor: A Life. University of Tennessee, 2002.
Cheatham, George. “Jesus, O’Connor’s Artificial Nigger.” Studies in Short Fiction 22, no. 4 (Fall, 1985): 475-479. Offers a brief discussion of the symbolism of the statue in “The Artificial Nigger.”
Cheney, Brainard. “Flannery O’Connor’s Campaign for Her Country.” Sewanee Review 72 (Autumn, 1964): 555-558. Cheney’s obituary for O’Connor describes her vocation as a Christian writer.
Getz, Lorine M. Nature and Grace in Flannery O’Connor’s Fiction. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1982. Getz attempts to analyze the various actions of grace in O’Connor’s work and the literary devices used to convey them.
Grimshaw, James A., Jr. The Flannery O’Connor Companion. Westport, Conn. Greenwood Press, 1981. An introduction to O’Connor’s writings, both fiction and nonfiction. Features an introductory overview, a chronological survey of O’Connor’s work, a catalog of her fictional characters, illustrations, and two appendices....
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