Flanner O’Connor was known – justifiably – for a somewhat cynical perspective with respect to the superficial judgments people make regarding the character of those they deem worthy or “good.” Her much-read short story Good Country People established the template for cynicism regarding people who render judgments based upon superficial characteristics like displays of proper etiquette and presumed fealty to God. A Good Man is Hard to Find is entirely consistent with O’Connor’s theme of paradoxical relationships between perceptions and realities. The Bible salesman in Good Country People is revealed as a con man who conceals alcohol and condoms in his hollowed-out Bible, and the individual in A Good Man is Hard to Find who best exemplifies the manners and fealty to God most cherished by the story’s main protagonist, the grandmother, is a stone-cold killer who has escaped from prison and who will murder the grandmother just as the aforementioned Bible salesman deceives Mrs. Hopewell and, most significantly, Hulga/Joy, Mrs. Hopewell’s arrogant daughter.
The family at the heart of A Good Man is clearly of limited economic means and could, conceivably, represent the author’s ideal of ‘poor white trash.’ That, however, may be too harsh. What we can decipher about this family, however, is that they are poor and live simply, as the following passage suggests:
“Bailey didn't look up from his reading so she wheeled around then and faced the children's mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit's ears. She was sitting on the sofa, feeding the baby his apricots out of a jar.”
O’Connor has chosen her imagery well to enable the condescending grandmother to contrast herself with those whom she looks down upon. As the family prepares to depart on their trip to Florida, O’Connor describes the grandmother’s demeanor as suggestive of a person uncomfortable with her status in life and delusional regarding that status relative to those around her. In the following passage, O’Connor describes the grandmother’s apparel to emphasize the contrast between her self-image and that more down-to-earth demeanor of her family:
“The old lady settled herself comfortably, removing her white cotton gloves . . .
“The children's mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief, but the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”
That the grandmother would dress as described to sit in the backseat of an old, probably beat-up car is indicative of her delusional nature. And, typical of O’Connor’s harsh perceptions of humanity, it is the ‘refined’ grandmother who elicits the virulently racist sentiments. Intending to admonish her grandchildren for their disrespectful behavior, she instead reveals her own ignorance and prejudiced attitudes:
“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. "Wouldn't that make a picture, now?" she asked and they all turned and looked at the little Negro out of the back window. He waved.
"He didn't have any britches on," June Star said.
To pile on the depth of the grandmother’s innately duplicitous nature, O’Connor has her make a pop culture reference intended to further illuminate her perception of her elevated status:
"Look at the graveyard!" the grandmother said, pointing it out. "That was the old family burying ground. That belonged to the plantation."
"Where's the plantation?" John Wesley asked.
"Gone With the Wind" said the grandmother. "Ha. Ha."
During the family’s stop at Red Sammy’s B.B.Q. stand, the grandmother engages in conversation with the proprietor, who O’Connor has emphasized is anything but culturally sophisticated: “Red Sammy was lying on the bare ground outside The Tower with his head under a truck while a gray monkey about a foot high, chained to a small chinaberry tree, chattered nearby.”
It is later in the story, when the family, much to their horror, and as predicted could happen by the grandmother, encounters the escaped convict, “the Misfit.” True to O’Connor’s use of figurative language, it is this murderous criminal who exemplifies the grandmother’s preferred tone and linguistic etiquette:
The grandmother shrieked. She scrambled to her feet and stood staring. "You're The Misfit!" she said. "I recognized you at once!"
"Yes'm," the man said, smiling slightly as if he were pleased in spite of himself to be known, "but it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn't of reckernized me."
Bailey turned his head sharply and said something to his mother that shocked even the children. The old lady began to cry and The Misfit reddened.
"Lady," he said, "don't you get upset. Sometimes a man says things he don't mean. I don't reckon he meant to talk to you thataway."
"You wouldn't shoot a lady, would you?" the grandmother said and removed a clean handkerchief from her cuff and began to slap at her eyes with it.
The Misfit pointed the toe of his shoe into the ground and made a little hole and then covered it up again. "I would hate to have to," he said.
"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!"
"Yes mam," he said, "finest people in the world." When he smiled he showed a row of strong white teeth. "God never made a finer woman than my mother and my daddy's heart was pure gold," he said.
With this extended passage, O’Connor emphasizes the irony of her characters’ relationships to God. Bailey will never acknowledge the role of religion in his life, if such a role even exists. But he is considerably less deferential towards the grandmother than this hardened convict who will shoot her before the story ends. O’Connor’s meticulous use of language to contrast character with appearance is in full force in A Good Man is Hard to Find. The Misfit recalls his parents as the “finest people in the world” and reflexively addresses the grandmother as “ma’am,” displaying the kind of manners the elderly woman misses in her fast-changing world. O’Connor’s story is ironic in the sense that it attributes the most genteel manners to the most reprehensible of individuals. That is how she used language, though, and it was her trademark.