How do the characters in Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" challenge a reader’s notion of goodness?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Various characters in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” challenge readers’ conventional notions of goodness in a variety of ways, including the following:

  • The grandmother thinks of herself as a good woman and tries to dress as one, but her notions of goodness are superficial until the very end of the story, when her final gesture toward the Misfit reveals to him, to her, and to us the nature of true goodness.
  • The grandmother’s early notions of goodness are entangled with superficial notions of social and racial superiority, thus revealing her excessive pride (the root of all sin, from a Christian perspective). One of the most revealing (and ironic) moments in the story occurs when the grandmother laments the ways the present differs from the supposedly much better past:

"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.

In describing this incident, O’Connor juxtaposes the grandmother’s pride in the morality of the past with an unfortunate example of her own racism in the present. The grandmother, of course, is not nearly as virulent a racist as she could have been, but her comment here is sufficient evidence that she has too simple and shallow an understanding of goodness.

  • Red Sammy Butts is another character who complicates our sense of what true goodness is.  Like the grandmother, he thinks of himself as a good person and even shares this assessment with others.  He prides himself on being a veteran and on being generous to strangers, and thus it is not surprising that he and the grandmother see eye-to-eye on many issues, especially in their nostalgia about the past.  They also tend to blame anyone but themselves for the problems of the world, including the entire continent of Europe (!).
  • Of course, the character who most obviously challenges our conventional notions of goodness is The Misfit.  He is the most polite, well-spoken, and (in some ways) considerate person in the tale, but he is also, of course, a killer himself and the head of a gang of killers.  By making The Misfit a good man is various superficial senses, O’Connor indicates that superficial goodness is insufficient.
  • The truly “good man” in this story is (from O’Connor’s perspective) Jesus Christ, whose deep love of others led him to sacrifice himself so that they could be forgiven of their sins. By doing so, he threw “everything off balance,” as The Misfit puts it.  By demonstrating the possibility of utterly selfless love, Christ made it possible that even people like The Misfit can be redeemed and transformed (as the final paragraphs of the story hint may happen).
  • The grandmother, in her final gesture of reaching out in compassion to a horrible sinner, becomes, by the very end of the story, herself a genuinely good person, if only for a split second.  She becomes the kind of truly “grand mother” that she could have been all along.  Ironically, it takes a confrontation with death and evil to help her achieve the true goodness of which she was always capable. Hints of this goodness had already appeared in her final atitudes toward Bailey, but not until she dies is her ultimate goodness especially obvious.
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A Good Man Is Hard to Find

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