“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is one of O’Connor’s most frequently anthologized short stories, and it makes an excellent illustration of her ability to combine grotesque humor with serious thematic material.
The story opens as a family prepares to go on vacation in Florida. The story focuses immediately on the grandmother, who wants to visit relatives in east Tennessee and who uses the escape of the Misfit, a murderer, from prison to try to persuade her son, Bailey, to change his mind. He refuses. The two grandchildren, John Wesley and June Star, are quickly characterized as smart alecks who nevertheless understand their grandmother and her motives very well. When the family sets out, the grandmother is resigned to making the best of things. She is first to get into the car and has even, secretly, brought along her cat. As she rides along, her conversation is conventional, self-centered, and shallow.
When the family stops for lunch at a barbeque stand, their conversation again turns to the Misfit, and the adults agree that people are simply not as nice as they used to be. Later, back in the car, the grandmother persuades Bailey to take a road which she imagines (wrongly, as it turns out) will lead by an old mansion. Suddenly the cat escapes its basket and jumps on Bailey’s neck, and the car runs into the ditch. As the family assesses its injuries, a man who is obviously the Misfit drives up with his armed henchmen. The grandmother immediately feels that she recognizes him as someone she has known all of her life, and she tells him that she knows who he is.
Methodically, the henchmen lead first Bailey and then the mother and children off to be shot in the woods while the Misfit begins to talk about himself and his life of crime. He blames his career on Jesus, who, he says, threw everything “off balance” by raising the dead. Because the Misfit cannot be sure that the miracle really occurred, he cannot know how to think about it. If Jesus really raised the dead, the Misfit says, the only logical response would be to drop everything and follow him. If he did not, then life is meaningless and only crime makes sense: “No pleasure but in meanness.”
The grandmother is terrified; she knows that she, too, will be shot. Yet she knows something more, and suddenly she stops her empty prayers and meaningless assertions that the Misfit is a “good man,” to utter perhaps the truest words of her life in telling him that he is one of her own children. At that, the Misfit shoots her, but he says that she would have been a good woman if someone had been there to shoot her every minute of her life. O’Connor intends the reader to take the Misfit’s comments seriously (he is the most serious-minded character in the story, after all) and notice that the grandmother, in her moment of receiving grace, has recognized that she and the Misfit (and presumably all the rest of humanity) are related as children of God. She is left in death smiling up at God’s sky.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the title story of Flannery O’Connor’s first collection of short stories, is one of her most anthologized stories. As in most of her stories, the theme of identity in this story involves O’Connor’s Christian conviction about the role of sin, particularly the sin of pride, in distorting one’s true identity. The focal character in the story, who is identified only as the grandmother, convinces herself and, she thinks, her family, that she is a good judge of human nature.
In fact, she assumes that she is the best judge on any matter. The story opens with her son, Bailey, planning a family vacation to Florida. The grandmother opposes the idea, because an escaped killer known in the papers as the Misfit is supposedly headed toward Florida. She has very clear ideas of the flaws in character and the influence of class that go to making a criminal such as the Misfit. The grandmother’s false sense of self-importance, which she sees as separating herself from vulgarity, which is represented by the Misfit, is a motif typical of O’Connor’s fiction, and the plot hinges on the revelation of the falseness of the grandmother’s self-image.
From the beginning, O’Connor is careful to distance the narration from the grandmother’s delusions, with judicious use of irony. After describing the physical details of the grandmother’s extravagant traveling clothes, the narration offers a reflection that is apparently intended to represent the grandmother’s thoughts: “In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.” Being “a lady” is an important part of the grandmother’s self-identity, yet it is defined externally, by clothing, and seems dependent on other people’s opinions. A further irony is that the grandmother is reflecting on her appearance and class in death, a time when neither matters much. The same irony reappears a few pages later when the grandmother tells her grandchildren, John Wesley and June Star, that she would have done well to marry a certain Mr. Teagarden because he was “a gentleman” and had died a very wealthy man. Again the insistence on wealth and status appears in the context of death, which renders them meaningless.
The grandmother’s own death at the end of the story provides the final irony. After lamenting with a restaurant owner on the decline of gentility—the scarcity of “good men” suggested by the title—the family encounters the only character in the story with the sort of manners and external refinement that the grandmother values, and he turns out to be the Misfit. She can tell by looking at him, the grandmother tells the Misfit, that he has no “common blood” in him, and the Misfit agrees. Then he and his henchmen shoot the entire family dead.
This grotesque tale of sudden violence in the rural South opens quietly, with a family planning a vacation. The husband, Bailey, his wife, and their children, John Wesley and June Star, all want to go to Florida. The grandmother, Bailey’s mother, however, wants to go to east Tennessee, where she has relatives, and she determinedly attempts to persuade them to go there instead. Unable to convince them that the trip to Tennessee will be novel and broadening for the children, the grandmother offers as a final argument a newspaper article that states that a psychopathic killer who calls himself The Misfit is heading toward Florida.
Ignoring the grandmother’s wishes and warnings, the family sets out the next morning for Florida. The grandmother settles herself in the car ahead of the others so that her son will not know that she has brought along her cat, Pitty Sing, hidden in a basket under her seat. As the trip proceeds, she chatters away, pointing out interesting details of scenery, admonishing her son not to drive too fast, telling stories to the children. Throughout the drive, the children squabble, the baby cries, the father grows irritable. In short, the trip is both awful and ordinary, filled with the trivia, boredom, and petty rancors of daily life, from which the family cannot escape, even on vacation.
At lunchtime, they stop at Red Sammy’s, a barbecue eatery, where the grandmother laments that “people are certainly not nice like they used to be,” and Red Sammy agrees: “A good man is hard to find.” In this conversation, the grandmother, narrow-minded and opinionated, repeatedly assures herself that she is a lady, a good Christian, and a good judge of character: She maintains that Red Sammy, a bossy loudmouth, is a “good man” and that Europe “was entirely to blame for the way things were now.”
After they leave the roadhouse, the grandmother manipulates her son into making a detour to see an old plantation she once visited as a girl. Suddenly, she remembers that the plantation is not in Georgia but in Tennessee. She is so upset at this realization that she jumps up and upsets her valise, whereupon the cat jumps out onto her son’s shoulder, her son loses control of the car, the car overturns, and they all land in a ditch.
As they emerge, an old, “hearse-like” automobile comes over the hill and stops for them. Three men step out, one of whom the grandmother instantly identifies as The Misfit. The grandmother, realizing that he intends to kill them, tries to talk him out of it by appealing to his chivalry, urging him not to shoot a lady. Then she tries flattery, asserting that she can tell that he is a “good man.” She tries to tempt him by suggesting that he stop being an outlaw and settle down to a comfortable life. She urges him to pray to Jesus for help and forgiveness. Finally she tries to bribe him with money. All these tactics fail. As she talks with him, he has his henchmen take the other members of the family to the woods and shoot them.
Although The Misfit rejects all the grandmother’s arguments, he listens to them closely; he pays particular attention when the grandmother refers to Jesus. Indeed, The Misfit declares, “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead. . . . 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.” In his intense pride, however, The Misfit maintains that he is unable to believe without having been a witness; therefore, “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.”
When the grandmother is at last alone with The Misfit, she abandons all of her tactics. Her head clears for an instant, in which she sees the murderer as thin, frail, and pathetic. Declaring “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” she reaches out and touches him. He recoils in revulsion and shoots her. Having been witness to the grandmother’s moment of grace, The Misfit admits that “meanness” has lost its kick: “It’s no real pleasure in life.”