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Flannery O’Connor’s understanding of life is reflected especially clearly in her short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” In that story, an entire family is killed by an escaped convict, The Misfit, and his two henchmen. The Misfit can be seen as a symbol of the death that awaits all of us. In O’Connor’s view, each one of us will eventually confront The Misfit, and The Misfit will “win” such a confrontation in the sense that each one of us will die physically. What matters to O’Connor, however, is not that each of us dies but, rather, how we live our lives and meet our inevitable deaths. Thus, the fact that the entire family dies at the end of this story is merely an exaggerated, symbolic depiction of what happens to everyone. The deaths of the family are not as tragic, when seem from O’Connor’s Christian point of view, as they might seem from a merely secular perspective.
Indeed, a good case can be made that the confrontation with death – with The Misfit – actually benefits the family in some respects. This is clearly true in the case of Bailey and his mother, and it is especially true in the case of the grandmother in particular. Bailey and the mother re-connect emotionally, in touching ways, right before Bailey is taken off to be killed and immediately after his death. They are much closer, and show much more love for one another, right before Bailey’s death than at any earlier point in the story. Meanwhile, although the grandmother is indeed shot dead by The Misfit when she reaches out to him in pity, compassion, and love (partly because she now sees him as a kind of son), the fact that she dies does not invalidate the worth of her final gesture. In the last split second of her life, the grandmother finally and actually lives the Christian values to which she has only nominally been committed earlier. Her earlier commitment had been shallow; her final commitment is deep. Without quite realizing what she is doing, she gives The Misfit the kind of proof of genuine, godly love that he so plaintively desires.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” then, demonstrates O’Connor’s belief that life is lived most richly when it is lived in the presence of death and when it is glimpsed from an eternal perspective. What matters is not that we all eventually die. What matters, instead, is that we live well while we do live. For O’Connor, living “well” meant living as the Christian god wants his creatures to live – full of genuine love for him and therefore full of genuine love for one another. At the very end of the story, it is the grandmother who, although physically dead, seems to symbolize full spiritual life:
. . . the grandmother . . . half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child's and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky. [emphasis added]
In contrast, the Misfit seems troubled and defeated:
The Misfit's eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking.
The grandmother has finally lived, if only very briefly, a rich, meaningful, and loving life. She has finally lived her faith, and that is all that really matters to O’Connor. The Misfit, by contrast, has not yet begun to live in any kind of truly meaningful sense.
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