Irony In A Good Man Is Hard To Find

What is the irony in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

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Stephen Holliday eNotes educator| Certified Educator

O'Connor establishes the foundation of the irony very early in the story when she gives us the reason for the grandmother getting dressed up for the car ride:

In case of an accident anyone seeing the dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.

At several points in the story, the grandmother judges people as good or bad based on her very quick assessment of how they look and behave.  For example, the first time we see the phrase "A good man is hard to find," the speaker is Red Sam at the roadside barbecue restaurant where the family is having lunch.  Just before that, however, Red Sam has described his willingness to allow some strangers to charge gas, and he asks himself the question, "Now, why did I do that?"  The grandmother's immediate response is "Because you're a good man."  She makes this assessment on the the barest of information about Red Sam, not on the basis of any meaningful knowledge about his character.

After the car crash and the Misfit and his cohorts make their appearance, and the grandmother recognizes the Misfit, his politeness, which is genuine but also calculated to put the family at ease, draws out the grandmother's assessment of the Misfit:

"Listen," the grandmother almost screamed, "I know you're a good man.  You don't look a bit like you have common blood.  I know you must come from nice people!"

Although it's quite possible that, in her desperation, she is trying to curry favor with the Misfit, the observation is also consistent with her judgment of people based on their physical appearance and outward behavior.

The great irony at this point is that the grandmother has completely mis-read the nature of the Misfit who, as we learn a short while later, is an absolute sociopath with a dash of the psychopath thrown in to the mix.

Another ironic twist occurs at the end of the story when, after talking to the Misfit about salvation and finally understanding how troubled and confused he is, the grandmother, who has been relentlessly superficial up to this point, has an epiphany and actually feels sympathy for the Misfit:

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.

This act of compassion, however, is rewarded with three bullets to the chest.  This is, perhaps, the greatest irony in the story: just when the grandmother becomes truly compassionate, finally moving past her self-absorption, she signs her own death warrant because the Misfit is not interested in compassion and understanding--his goal is survival, and the grandmother is a threat to that survival.

leospengler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The central irony in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" (1953) is Bailey's mother's realization before the Misfit.

Though Bailey's mother views herself as an upstanding, virtuous Christian woman, her actions throughout the story reveal her to be selfish, foolish, and racist. In the story's climactic denouement, the murderous Misfit judges Bailey's mother; this is a reversal of typical trial scenes for here, the murderer holds power and judges the ostensibly virtuous grandmother. As Bailey's mother begs for her life, the narrator tells us,

 "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!'"

First, her head "clears," or, in other words, Bailey's mother's thinking becomes unclouded and sensible. Second, in labeling the Misfit as one of her children, she collapses the distance between herself and the Misfit and recognizes their equal moral standing.

The Misfit, however, shoots her before asserting, "She would of been a good woman...if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." This line conflicts with the story's title, for the prior focus on a "good man" has now shifted to a "good woman." With this, O'Connor uses irony to trick the reader into analyzing not the ostensibly sinful Misfit, but instead the apparently principled grandmother.

I hope this helped, and for more information, please check out the eNotes guide for this remarkable and poignant story!

Read the study guide:
A Good Man Is Hard to Find

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