In Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," why does the grandmother have an epiphany, and what is its significance?

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The grandmother has an epiphany, an illuminating realization of truth, because, as the Misfit identifies in the end, she finally "had...somebody there to shoot her." It took being in a life-and-death situation, a moment that tested all of her mettle and values, for her to have a realization about her...

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The grandmother has an epiphany, an illuminating realization of truth, because, as the Misfit identifies in the end, she finally "had...somebody there to shoot her." It took being in a life-and-death situation, a moment that tested all of her mettle and values, for her to have a realization about her own humanity as well as the Misfit's. When the Misfit shows emotion and vulnerability, his voice "about to crack," this is when her own "head cleared for an instant." It seems that this is the exact moment of her epiphany: when she observes his emotions in her own heightened emotional state, she realizes how they are similar, rather than how they are different.

The Misfit is precisely the kind of person that the grandmother would never have called a "good man" before she found herself in this situation. He has been to prison multiple times; he's been accused of many crimes, some of which he has actually committed. He doesn't come from a family she would consider to be "good people," even though she tells him he does when she is trying to convince him to spare her life. This epiphany is significant because it shows that people can be redeemed and can reconnect with humanity, even after an extended estrangement. The final description of her shows that she has become innocent again: she "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." Her mind, like the sky, was clear when she recognized the Misfit, figuratively speaking, as "one of [her] babies." She saw him, however briefly, as someone deserving of love and care. It is significant that she was able to have this realization at all.

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In "A Good Man is Hard to Find," the grandmother's epiphany comes at the end of the story, as she faces certain death at the hands of the Misfit. Throughout the story, the grandmother has shown herself to be judgmental, concerned primarily with airs of respectability and the putting on of appearances, showing little empathy for the experiences of other human beings.

In the conclusion of the story, she is left alone with the Misfit, an unrepentant killer, with the grandmother pleading for her life, to no avail. As the situation looks increasingly bleak (with the Misfit's gang executing the other members of her family) and the grandmother becoming increasingly overwhelmed, she has a momentary flash of empathy and recognizes the humanity within the Misfit himself.

The thing to keep in mind is that Flannery O'Connor was a deeply Christian writer whose work was informed by her own Catholicism. The same applies to the epiphany itself, which is treated as a spiritual awakening for the grandmother. It is only at the end of her life that she comes to recognize and empathize with the essential humanity of other human beings, including someone as broken and monstrous as the Misfit.

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In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the grandmother’s epiphany – or moment of enlightenment or revelation – is almost surely the moment when she reaches out and touches The Misfit. Although The Misfit and his henchmen have slaughtered all the other members of her family, the grandmother is nevertheless able to suddenly see a connection between herself and The Misfit.  She thus reaches out and touches him while saying,

“Why, you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!”

As soon as she says this, however, The Misfit shoots and kills her.

This startling moment in the story is also one of the story’s richest moments for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • The grandmother had earlier been estranged from her biological son, Bailey, and his wife and children. The fact that she is able to see and make some connection with The Misfit is therefore a sign of a significant change in her entire existence.
  • The grandmother, early in the story, had been unable to see any real connection between herself and a small black child the family had passed along the side of the road on their trip to Florida. Now, however, she is able to see some real connection between herself and The Misfit.
  • Throughout the story, the grandmother had assumed that she was quite different from people such as The Misfit. For example, when discussing contemporary problems with Red Sammy Butts, she had actually said that the entire continent of Europe was to blame for any problems that existed in the world [!].  This is one of many unintentionally funny statements she makes during the course of the story. The statement implies her tendency to consider herself a good woman who has no responsibility for any problems, either within her own family or in the world at large.
  • The fact that the grandmother is finally able to see some connection between herself and The Misfit suggests that she is finally also able to see some connection between herself and evil, which is one thing The Misfit surely symbolizes.
  • However, the fact that the grandmother is finally able to see some connection between herself and The Misfit also suggests that she is finally able to really put into practice the Christianity she prattles about elsewhere in the story -- a Christianity she never really lives, in the truest sense, until right before she dies.  She reaches out to The Misfit in love and compassion and fellowship. The fact that he kills her for doing so means little to O’Connor.  What matters is that the grandmother has actually, for once, acted like a true “grand mother.” The grandmother’s physical death is insignificant: we will all die, but few of us will ever live a moment as authentically rich and full of meaning as the grandmother’s last moment on earth. In the last split seconds of her life, she finally is used, by God, to give The Misfit a much-needed epiphany of his own. How he chooses to respond to that epiphany is, as O'Connor herself once said, another story.

 

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