At the end of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the grandmother has an epiphany – a sudden realization – of sorts. I say “of sorts,” because it isn’t clear that the grandmother is entirely or fully conscious of this realization, and it is clear that the revelation lasts for only a split second before she is immediately shot and killed by the Misfit.
O’Connor, referring in the first sentence here to the Misfit, describes the crucial moment as follows:
His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother's head cleared for an instant. She saw the man's face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.
The grandmother has increasingly been in a state of paralyzed shock as she realizes that the Misfit and his henchmen are systematically murdering her entire family and that she, too, is about to die. She has been saying anything she can think to try to save her life. However, as the Misfit reveals his own spiritual torment and his own deep emotional pain, the grandmother responds in an entirely unexpected way: she reaches out and tries to comfort the last person on earth to whom she might have been expected to show compassion. Her “epiphany” – her realization that the Misfit is “one of [her] own children,” lasts only an “instant,” but it is enough (O’Connor implies) to transform the grandmother’s spiritual existence and perhaps to begin the transformation of the Misfit as well.
It’s important to emphasize that O’Connor does not present the grandmother’s perception and conduct here as the products of deliberate, rational choice. Doing so would have implied an entirely different kind of “epiphany.” Rather, O’Connor presents the grandmother as an instrument of God’s grace. God is using his own power to transform the grandmother and also to literally reach out, through her, to the Misfit, so that the Misfit, too, is granted a sort of epiphany. The grandmother is not responsible for the epiphany she experiences; God is. The grandmother’s life is transformed, in its last split seconds, not by the grandmother but by God. O’Connor argued (rightly) about this particular story that the grandmother is both the beneficiary and the instrument of God’s grace. Her epiphany is God’s gift, both to her and (if he will accept it) to the Misfit as well. One may agree or disagree with O’Connor’s theology, but her explanation of what happens in this tale seems far more convincing than any other.
Some readers are shocked by the grandmother’s behavior: why, they ask, should she reach out to such a vicious person? Isn’t she just being manipulative one last time? Why doesn’t she resist him? Isn’t her death meaningless?
O’Connor would have said (rightly) that thanks to God, the grandmother is the one who wins this contest with the Misfit. Each of us, after all, must die, but it is the grandmother who manages to live, if only for a moment, in the truest and deepest senses of the word.
Little wonder, then, that our last vision of the grandmother shows her, with her legs “crossed” under her like “a child’s” and “her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.”