Study Guide

A Good Man Is Hard to Find

by Flannery O’Connor

A Good Man Is Hard to Find Analysis

Style and Technique (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical 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 logic of The Misfit’s outlook on the world: “I call myself The Misfit . . . because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.” Finally, there is the sardonic understatement of The Misfit himself, who declines the grandmother’s offer of money, noting, “Lady, . . . there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip.”

A brilliant mixture of horror and humor, compassion and tough-mindedness, this story epitomizes O’Connor’s greatest powers as a writer. Her bedrock of belief in the Roman Catholic faith made it possible for O’Connor to view that most horrifying representative of humankind, the serial killer, with sympathy and hope. Her tough, critical intelligence made her sensitive to the petty hypocrisy and smugness that sometimes accompany religious faith, but she was also able to see that these are at worst venial sins. It was this clear perspective that enabled O’Connor to note “that the old lady lacked comprehension, but that she had a good heart.” Thus, the reader may observe about O’Connor what O’Connor observed about the southerner: She “is usually tolerant of those weaknesses that proceed from innocence, and . . . knows that a taste for self-preservation can be readily combined with the missionary spirit.”

A Good Man Is Hard to Find Form and Content (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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 Circle in the Fire,” Mrs. Cope is the proud owner of the best-kept farm in the county, but her worst fears come true when three boys, envious of her possessions, set fire to her farm. She watches, stunned, as a column of smoke rises over her woods, and she listens to their “shrieks of joy as if the prophets were dancing in the fiery furnace, in the circle the angel had cleared for them.”

Mrs. Hopewell is a landowner in the story “Good Country People.” She lives with her grown daughter, Joy, who has changed her name to Hulga because she believes it better suits her disposition, her physical ailments, and the fact that she has no illusions about life. Hulga finds out that she is not as smart as she thought when Bible salesman Manley Pointer tricks her into handing over her wooden leg as she tries to seduce him. The story ends with poor Hulga stranded in a hay loft while Pointer happily absconds with her leg. In “The Displaced Person,” the parish priest, Father Flynn, persuades the wealthy Mrs. McIntyre to hire Mr. Guizac, a Polish war refugee or “displaced person,” to assist the African American workers and Mr. Shortley, a hired white man, in running the farm. Mrs. Shortley, afraid that Guizac will take her husband’s job, soon begins to undermine Mrs. McIntyre’s impression of Guizac. Mrs. Shortley packs her family’s belongings and, as they leave early the next morning, is overcome with a stroke and dies. Mrs. McIntyre decides that she must fire Mr. Guizac, but cannot seem to do it. When a brake mysteriously slips on a tractor, Mrs. McIntyre, Mr. Shortley, and a young African American boy freeze, in a moment of collusion deciding not to help the displaced person as the tractor runs over him.

The other five stories in this collection seem to center around the theme of spiritual initiation. In “The River,” Harry Ashfield is a young boy who changes his name to Bevel after his babysitter takes him to see a preacher by that name. Young Bevel’s baptism in the river seems an appealing alternative to his neglected life with his parents. He returns to the river alone to baptize himself and to keep going until he finds the Kingdom of Christ. The story ends with the current pulling Bevel down and swiftly forward, “like a long gentle hand.”

A precocious twelve-year-old girl receives her first intimations of sexuality in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” as her two older cousins relay the story of a hermaphrodite they have seen in a freak show. After returning the cousins to their convent, the girl sees the sun as a blood-drenched Host. In “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” one-hundred-and-four-year-old General Sash (who was never really a general) attends his sixty-two-year-old granddaughter’s graduation. Sally Poker Sash’s grandfather is brought to the stage by wheelchair in a general’s uniform with a sword across his lap, but the old man can recall nearly nothing of his own past. The final image of the story is of young John Wesley, a nephew in charge of pushing the general around for the day, lined up at the Coca-Cola machine outside with a wheelchair that now contains the corpse of General Sash.

“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” begins with Mr. Shiftlet, a drifter who wanders onto the farm of Lucynell Crater and her deaf and retarded daughter, who is also named Lucynell. Mrs. Crater slyly offers Shiftlet the late Mr. Crater’s car, some money, and a home if he will marry Lucynell. After the ceremony, Shiftlet leaves Lucynell at a roadside eating place after she falls asleep waiting for her food. Shiftlet, ironically seeing himself as an honorable man, instructs the boy behind the counter to give her the food when she wakes up. Shiftlet picks up a young male hitchhiker so that he can carry on a dramatic monologue about mothers—especially his own, who was an “angel of Gawd.” The young man suddenly tells Shiftlet to “go to the devil” and jumps out of the car.

Some of the most beautiful language in this collection is found in “The Artificial Nigger,” the story that O’Connor said was her favorite. It is the story of a literal journey into the city of Atlanta, representing young Nelson’s initiation into the real world, and a spiritual journey for the boy’s grandfather, Mr. Head, who is forced to face the fact that he requires the mercy of God to be redeemed. Mr. Head is disdainful of Nelson’s positive reaction to the city and to African Americans there. Determined to break the boy’s independent spirit, Head sets up little tricks, culminating in his denial of his grandson at a moment when the boy needs him most. The day climaxes in a wealthy neighborhood with the sighting of “an artificial nigger,” a chipped statue of a boy sitting on a wall, miserable, and nearly falling off. The two come to a mysterious understanding and head home together, the boy realizing that the grandfather is his mentor in the world and the grandfather recognizing his moral deficiency.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find Context (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find Historical Context

The Civil Rights Movement
Fueled with the speeches of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and with the deaths of several...

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A Good Man Is Hard to Find Setting

The story is firmly set in the rural American South. The characters, particularly the grandmother, are imbued with classic Southern...

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A Good Man Is Hard to Find Literary Style

Symbolism
Symbols, elements in a work of fiction that stand for something more profound or meaningful, allow writers to...

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A Good Man Is Hard to Find Literary Qualities

In A Good Man Is Hard To Find, O'Connor writes from a third-person narrator, telling the story from the perspective of the...

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A Good Man Is Hard to Find Social Sensitivity

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...

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A Good Man Is Hard to Find 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...

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A Good Man Is Hard to Find 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...

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A Good Man Is Hard to Find 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...

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A Good Man Is Hard to Find 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...

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A Good Man Is Hard to Find Related Titles / Adaptations

"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...

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A Good Man Is Hard to Find 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...

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A Good Man Is Hard to Find For Further Reference

Browning, Preston M., Jr. Flannery O'Connor. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974. This biography covers the whole of...

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A Good Man Is Hard to Find Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Brinkmeyer, Jr., Robert H. The Art and Vision of Flannery O'Connor, Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

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A Good Man Is Hard to Find Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.

Shloss, Carol. Flannery O’Connor’s Dark Comedies: The Limits of Inference. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

Zoller, Peter T. “The Irony of Preserving the Self: Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Stroke of Good Fortune.’” Kansas Quarterly 9, no. 2 (Spring, 1977): 61-66. Zoller reads “A Stroke of Good Fortune” as a religious parable on the foibles of human pride. Calls the story “the Divine Comedy in modern dress.”