In Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," which characters are sympathetic or unsympathetic? Explain.  

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In order to identify sympathetic or unsympathetic characters in Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," it is important to define the concept:

Sympathetic characters are those with whom we associate, forming a bond through which we vicariously share their experiences. We also get a sense of their attributes which we would perhaps like to have more of for ourselves.

With this in mind, it is hard to find much to sympathize with the story's characters. The grandchildren are rude, unruly and selfish. Wise for their years, they understand the grandmother's attempts to manipulate her son to travel to her preferred destination by bringing up the topic of the dangerous Misfit. But they have no respect for their grandmother—they get into a slapping fight with each other, which they conduct over their grandmother as she sits between them.

The grandmother, for most of the story, is also an unsympathetic character. She is self-centered, interfering and manipulative. For example, had she not smuggled her cat into the car for the trip, one could argue that there would have been no car accident, and the family would have avoided The Misfit and his men.

Bailey, the grandmother's son, seems beaten down by his mother and the situation in which he finds himself. He does not give the impression of a family leader: rather, he appears to do all he can just to survive. He is not someone who, by definition, demonstrates behavior that inspires others.

His wife is a one-dimensional caricature of a woman in the midst of a dysfunctional family, ineffectual at best, doing all she can to care for the infant she holds.

The Misfit and his men are, in general, unsympathetic characters; it is safe to assume that most readers will not find much with which to identify in them.

It is interesting to note that when the grandmother first meets The Misfit, she has an unexpected reaction, which will be worth studying later:

The grandmother had the peculiar feeling that the bespectacled man was someone she knew. His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life...

The Misfit is a hard, brutal man. He dispassionately orders the execution of the family members. At first look, he seems a man without intelligence or depth. Quite the contrary, as the grandmother tries to convince him that he is a good man, The Misfit demonstrates that he has spent a great deal of time trying to understand the meaning of life—more to the point, his place in it especially where salvation is concerned.

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead," The Misfit continued, "and He shouldn't have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness," he said... 

If we can sympathize with The Misfit at all it may come from the sense that his life has been horrific. He says he was accused of killing his father. And the only pleasure he receives in life is "meanness." Perhaps through inference we can sympathize with the child he had once been, and the life we can imagine he has experienced to make him the man he has become. However, we find nothing in his character that we can admire.

There is little to find worthy in terms of grace…except when the grandmother speaks to the Misfit, hearing and understanding (perhaps for the first time in her life) that her personal relationship with God has been more like a suit of clothing she has worn, and less about her connection with God. In trying to tell The Misfit what he needs to see within himself, at the story's end the grandmother has her own epiphany. One might question whether The Misfit has a better knowledge of God and His expectations. But before the grandmother dies, she comprehends that she had not before. And the Misfit is the one that delivers the new knowledge to her:

"Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead […] I wasn't there so I can't say He didn't…I wisht I had been there," he said, hitting the ground with his fist. "It ain't right I wasn't there because if I had been there I would of known…and I wouldn't be like I am now."

We might sympathize with this deadly man as he wishes he had been something different, redeemed by witnessing the resurrection of Christ. Perhaps he might have found hope that he, too, could be resurrected…for it would seem he sees himself as one dead to the world.

The grandmother's enlightenment presents itself at this moment:

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, "What you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!"

In the moment prior to her death, the grandmother sees that they have a great deal in common: both of them are sinners. Both of them are God's children. She finds in herself "the essence of forgiveness and salvation."

When she reaches out to touch him, he quickly kills her. Talking off his glasses, the author describes him:

Without his glasses, The Misfit's eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking. 

For an instant, there is almost a childlike spirit—albeit damaged—visible in his eyes…the windows of the soul.

But before the Misfit has her body thrown over the bank of the road, he, too, sees her humanity. In death, she is smiling, as if renewed by the final act of her life.

In a broad sense, none of the characters are sympathetic. However, we may find a glimpse in The Misfit and the grandmother. In this, there is a great irony in that they are so very different, but that one offers redemption to the other. In a brief moment, the reader can see something that fails to redeem The Misfit, but an instant of true redemption is witnessed in the grandmother's final moments.

Flannery O’Connor comments on the character of the grandmother:

The Grandmother is at last alone, facing the Misfit. Her head clears for an instant and she realizes, even in her limited way, that she is responsible for the man before her and joined to him by ties of kinship which have her roots deep in the mystery [religion] she has been merely prattling about so far. And at this point, she does the right thing, makes the right gesture. . . . 

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

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