At a Glance

  • The grandmother, who convinces her family to take a detour that ultimately leads them to their deaths.
  • The Misfit, an escaped convict who murders the grandmother and her entire family.
  • Bailey, the father of the family, who gives in to his mother's request to take a backroad.
  • June Star, Bailey’s rude, obnoxious daughter.
  • Red Sammy Butts, the owner of the barbecue joint.

Themes and Characters

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is a story of sharp contrasts. First, O'Connor creates a sharp contrast between a nuclear family and a band of three male criminals. The family is a microcosm of the decaying society in the American South, with the grandmother's firm ties to tradition offset by her grandchildren's abandonment of any semblance of propriety of manners. The Misfit is also starkly contrasted with the grandmother, but this contrast centers around religious beliefs. Evidence of society's decaying fabric is woven into the story through these contrasts.

The first person the reader meets is the grandmother, a cartoon representation of a "good" Christian woman. She is seemingly obstinate from the very moment the reader is confronted by her insistence that her family cancel their trip down to Florida to avoid meeting the Misfit. Her powers of persuasion are ineffective, however, until she adds deception to her tales: when she desires to stop and visit a site she believes houses a plantation she visited in her youth, she lies about its grandeur and "secret doors" to rile up the child and force her son to make a detour to find the plantation. Her lie is selfish but by no means atrocious, yet the consequence for this lie is death, for herself and her entire family. It is shocking penance, one far out of bounds of what one might normally expect for a trifling selfish act.

In the grandmother, O'Connor creates a conduit for the values of the "Old South." She does not paint these values in rosy shades: her character is prattling, longwinded, and self-absorbed. However, she is also warm to new ideas, easily thrilled by everyday experiences, and gripping to life as only one who knows the true value of life can. Thus, although the grandmother chatters ceaselessly about whatever is before her—the red clay banks, the speed limit, the A Good Man Is Hard to Find 197 trees—none of which is of any particular import, she is genuinely interested in sharing with the rest of the family. That they ignore or repel her comments speaks volumes about her status within the family. The elders here are not revered but barely tolerated. The grandmother is a caricature not only in the descriptions by O'Connor but to the other characters as well. At one point during the drive, she makes a joke that everyone ignores, and then the children begin to play a game which escalates into an argument. The children begin to slap each other—over the grandmother. Finally, the children pay attention to the grandmother when she promises to tell them a story. Interestingly, she is able to tell the story all the way through. The young boy giggles over the details of the story, but the young girl misses the comedy in the tale and only complains that she would not have liked some boy who only brought her a watermelon each week to woo her. Again, the girl unveils her insatiable selfishness.

One of the most telling moments in the story is when the grandmother arrives at the car, ready for the drive to Florida. The night before, she had vehemently argued against going, but now she is ready, fully dressed in her finest wear. Complete with white cotton gloves,

. . . 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.

O'Connor explains that she was so dressed so that, should the family be in an accident on the highway, "anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady." A comical aside to an unknowing reader, but a soft sense of foreboding begins to play into the story. The grandmother is setting herself up, it seems, for a fall. But it is not a fall from grace she will experience, rather a fall from life that ultimately provides her redemption. Up until the time that the grandmother envisions her murderer as her own child, she continues in the vein of pettiness, criticizing whatever does not abide her old-fashioned, well-honed...

(The entire section is 1677 words.)