"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" O'Connor, Flannery
(Full name Mary Flannery O'Connor) American short story writer, novelist, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism of O'Connor's story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," first published in her 1955 collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Other Stories. See also Flannery O'Connor Short Story Criticism.
Considered one of O'Connor's best short stories, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" depicts the callous murder of a family by a group of escaped convicts led by a notorious killer called The Misfit. The story is noted for its religious aspects, in particular O'Connor's penchant for depicting salvation through a shocking, often violent experience undergone by characters who are spiritually or physically grotesque. Commentators have praised "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" for O'Connor's effective use of local color and the rich comic detail of her Southern milieu, as well as her ability to record with a keen ear the idiosyncratic dialect of characters such as the grandmother and The Misfit.
Plot and Major CharactersThe opening scene of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" introduces us to an unappealing family: a vain and manipulative grandmother, her taciturn son Bailey, his passive wife and baby, and their difficult children, June Star and John Wesley. The family plans to travel on vacation from their home in Georgia to the state of Florida. Alarmed by newspaper accounts of an escaped convict, The Misfit, the grandmother attempts to persuade the family to change their vacation destination away from the vicinity of the fugitive. Derided for her concern, she responds by concealing her cat in the car against her son's wishes. During their long trip through Georgia the grandmother relates the story of a nearby plantation house with a secret panel. The story fires the children's interest, consequently forcing Bailey to take a unplanned detour down a rough dirt road in search of the house. Suddenly, the grandmother realizes that her memory has deceived her. In her acute embarrassment, she involuntarily releases the cat from its hiding place, causing Bailey to lose control of the car. As the family members struggle to free themselves from the ensuing wreck, three men in an ominous black car appear on the horizon. The grandmother's blurted recognition of The Misfit seals her family's fate and, in spite of her desperate attempts to win the convict's confidence, each is taken separately into the woods and shot. Left alone with The Misfit, the grandmother tries to bargain for her life by calling on him to pray. He responds by complaining that Jesus offers him no choice between blind faith or violent nihilism, and his pain unexpectedly moves the grandmother to a feeling of kinship. As she reaches out to touch him, however, he reacts by shooting her three times in the chest.
With rare, but significant, exceptions most critics accept O'Connor's description of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" as a tale of redemptive grace in a fallen world. The story's religious concerns are expressed through a series of motifs and emblems, cleverly muted by O'Connor's superficially naturalistic style. Critics point to the disastrous detour into the dark woods of error, for example, as a traditional theme in Christian exempla, from Dante's Divine Comedy to Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. The Misfit himself typifies the existential despair and guilt of the fallen sinner. As many commentators argue, the grandmother's epiphanic recognition of her kinship with the desperate figure belatedly redeems her from a life that has been petty, materialistic, and selfish. Her child-like expression as she collapses with crossed legs into her own grave has been suggested as a symbol of her sudden accession to Christian grace.
"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is regarded as one of O'Connor's best stories and has drawn much critical attention. Most discussions of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" have focused on the story's extreme violence. O'Connor herself justified the use of terror to shock spiritually complacent modern readers: "To the hard of hearing you shout and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures." While many critics accept this rationalization, others are less comfortable with the story's abrupt descent into brutality. For some commentators, the jarring shift from comedy to tragedy takes unfair advantage of a group of characters whose depiction verges on caricature. More recent interpretations of the tale range from structural and political analysis to an examination of its classical and medieval literary influences.