What are some typical responses, by critics, to Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find"? How did O'Connor herself interpret the story?
Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” can seem a very puzzling and even bizarre story on first reading, but the story makes much more sense once a reader understands that O’Connor is writing from an explicitly Christian perspective. Fortunately, O’Connor makes this fact repeatedly clear, and the story makes perfect sense if read from a Christian point of view. Here are some insights you may wish to consider:
- The title, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” is a common cliché. O’Connor loves to write about clichés because clichés often imply shallow and unoriginal thinking. O’Connor wants to disturb and undermine shallow and unoriginal thinking. In this story, she shows how difficult it indeed is to discover true goodness in people, and she also suggests how people mistake superficial goodness for deep, genuine goodness of the kind that Christ manifested and taught.
- Essentially, the grandmother is O’Connor’s version of a superficial Christian who merely talks about virtue without ever deeply practicing it. Consider, for example, the following moment in the story:
“In my time,” said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, “children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then. Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!” she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack.
Here, the grandmother claims that people “did right” when she was growing up, and then she makes a racist comment, not realizing the irony of the juxtaposition. Throughout the story, people like to think of themselves as good without ever treating each other with true Christian love and kindness. Another good example is Red Sammy, who explicitly agrees that he is a “good man” even while treating his wife as a mere servant (to say the least).
- Ironically, the character in the story who best seems to fit the standard, shallow definition of what it means to be a “good man” is The Misfit, the killer who has escaped from prison. In his dealings with the terrified family whose car has wrecked, he is exceptionally polite and courteous. However, just as prim, proper, lady-like clothes do not make the grandmother a truly good woman, so The Misfit’s superficial courtesy does not make him a “good man.”
- Ironically, it is only when the grandmother reaches out to touch The Misfit in kindness and love that she becomes the truly good woman she could have been all along. In the last split seconds of her life, without even quite realizing what she is doing, she responds with compassion and Christian love to the last person one would have expected her of reaching out to in a spirit of genuine love. In her last moments, she actually lives the Christian faith she has been prattling about throughout the story.
- The Misfit himself sums up the main meaning of the tale when he says (after killing the grandmother), “She would of been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” In other words, we are most likely to lead the kinds of lives Christ wants us to lead (Christ-like lives) if we are constantly aware that our lives could end at any minute.
For whatever it's worth, I hated this story when I first read it as a student, but now it's one of my favorites becasue of the way it mixes great humor with deep moral seriousness.