Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1721
SOURCE: "A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable," in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969, pp. 107-14.
[In the following lecture given at Hollins College, Virginia, on October 14, 1963, O'Connor discusses the function of violence in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find. "]
Last fall I received a letter from a student who said she would be "graciously appreciative" if I would tell her "just what enlightenment" I expected her to get from each of my stories. I suspect she had a paper to write. I wrote her back to forget about the enlightenment and just try to enjoy them. I knew that was the most unsatisfactory answer I could have given because, of course, she didn't want to enjoy them, she just wanted to figure them out.
In most English classes the short story has become a kind of literary specimen to be dissected. Every time a story of mine appears in a Freshman anthology, I have a vision of it, with its little organs laid open, like a frog in a bottle.
I realize that a certain amount of this what-is-the-significance has to go on, but I think something has gone wrong in the process when, for so many students, the story becomes simply a problem to be solved, something which you evaporate to get Instant Enlightenment.
A story really isn't any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind. Properly, you analyze to enjoy, but it's equally true that to analyze with any discrimination, you have to have enjoyed already, and I think that the best reason to hear a story read is that it should stimulate that primary enjoyment.
I don't have any pretensions to being an Aeschylus or Sophocles and providing you in this story with a cathartic experience out of your mythic background, though this story I'm going to read certainly calls up a good deal of the South's mythic background, and it should elicit from you a degree of pity and terror, even though its way of being serious is a comic one. I do think, though, that like the Greeks you should know what is going to happen in this story so that any element of suspense in it will be transferred from its surface to its interior.
I would be most happy if you had already read it, happier still if you knew it well, but since experience has taught me to keep my expectations along these lines modest, I'll tell you that this is the story of a family of six which, on its way driving to Florida, gets wiped out by an escaped convict who calls himself the Misfit. The family is made up of the Grandmother and her son, Bailey, and his children, John Wesley and June Star and the baby, and there is also the cat and the children's mother. The cat is named Pitty Sing, and the Grandmother is taking him with them, hidden in a basket.
Now I think it behooves me to try to establish with you the basis on which reason operates in this story. Much of my fiction takes its character from a reasonable use of the unreasonable, though the reasonableness of my use of it may not always be apparent. The assumptions that underlie this use of it, however, are those of the central Christian mysteries. These are assumptions to which a large part of the modern audience takes exception. About this I can only say that there are perhaps other ways than my own in which this...
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story could be read, but none other by which it could have been written. Belief, in my own case anyway, is the engine that makes perception operate.
The heroine of this story, the Grandmother, is in the most significant position life offers the Christian. She is facing death. And to all appearances she, like the rest of us, is not too well prepared for it. She would like to see the event postponed. Indefinitely.
I've talked to a number of teachers who use this story in class and who tell their students that the Grandmother is evil, that in fact, she's a witch, even down to the cat. One of these teachers told me that his students, and particularly his Southern students, resisted this interpretation with a certain bemused vigor, and he didn't understand why. I had to tell him that they resisted it because they all had grandmothers or great-aunts just like her at home, and they knew, from personal experience, that the old lady lacked comprehension, but that she had a good heart. The Southerner is usually tolerant of those weaknesses that proceed from innocence, and he knows that a taste for self-preservation can be readily combined with the missionary spirit.
This same teacher was telling his students that morally the Misfit was several cuts above the Grandmother. He had a really sentimental attachment to the Misfit. But then a prophet gone wrong is almost always more interesting than your grandmother, and you have to let people take their pleasures where they find them.
It is true that the old lady is a hypocritical old soul; her wits are no match for the Misfit's, nor is her capacity for grace equal to his; yet I think the unprejudiced reader will feel that the Grandmother has a special kind of triumph in this story which instinctively we do not allow to someone altogether bad.
I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies. This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity. The action or gesture I'm talking about would have to be on the analogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it. It would be a gesture that transcended any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make. It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery.
There is a point in this story where such a gesture occurs. 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 their roots deep in the mystery she has been merely prattling about so far. And at this point, she does the right thing, she makes the right gesture.
I find that students are often puzzled by what she says and does here, but I think myself that if I took out this gesture and what she says with it, I would have no story. What was left would not be worth your attention. Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them. The devil's greatest wile, Baudelaire has said, is to convince us that he does not exist.
I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.
I don't want to equate the Misfit with the devil. I prefer to think that, however unlikely this may seem, the old lady's gesture, like the mustard-seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit's heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become. But that's another story.
This story has been called grotesque, but I prefer to call it literal. A good story is literal in the same sense that a child's drawing is literal. When a child draws, he doesn't intend to distort but to set down exactly what he sees, and as his gaze is direct, he sees the lines that create motion. Now the lines of motion that interest the writer are usually invisible. They are lines of spiritual motion. And in this story you should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother's soul, and not for the dead bodies.
We hear many complaints about the prevalence of violence in modern fiction, and it is always assumed that this violence is a bad thing and meant to be an end in itself. With the serious writer, violence is never an end in itself. It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially, and I believe these are times when writers are more interested in what we are essentially than in the tenor of our daily lives. Violence is a force which can be used for good or evil, and among other things taken by it is the kingdom of heaven. But regardless of what can be taken by it, the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him; and since the characters in this story are all on the verge of eternity, it is appropriate to think of what they take with them. In any case, I hope that if you consider these points in connection with the story, you will come to see it as something more than an account of a family murdered on the way to Florida.
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"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.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3385
SOURCE: "Advertisements for Grace: Flannery O'Connor's 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. IV, No. 1, Fall, 1966, pp. 19-37.
[In the following essay, Marks analyzes "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" as religious allegory.]
As a narrative stylist, Flannery O'Connor belongs, however peripherally, to a Pauline or Augustinian tradition extending from Langland to Bunyan and Hawthorne. Her tastes for gothicism, allegory, and regional setting derive from that special admiration for The House of the Seven Gables evident in so many important Southern writers from Faulkner to Truman Capote. The mingled scorn and sorrow with which Hawthorne faced the decline of New England, his ambivalent attitude towards Puritanism, and his dubious hopefulness about America's spiritual future find echoes throughout Miss O'Connor's stories of Evangelical awakening amid the scattered ashes of plantation Georgia. In "The Fiction Writer and Her Country," she makes this statement about writers in the South:
The anguish that most of us have observed for some time now has been caused not by the fact that the South is alienated from the rest of the country, but by the fact that it is not alienated enough, that every day we are getting more and more like the rest of the country, that we are being forced out, not only of our many sins, but out of our few virtues.
Further isolated from most of her contemporaries by virtue of her staunch Catholicism, Miss O'Connor reminds us less, perhaps, of Hawthorne than of Orestes Brownson, the apostate from Transcendentalism who was converted to Rome, to Calhoun, and to the notion that only a Catholic block could stem the tide of Democratic progress which was sweeping from the land all its traditional and spiritual values.
Temperamentally, Miss O'Connor displays more in common with such lay preachers of the New Left as LeRoi Jones and James Baldwin than with any specifically Southern or Catholic reaction. Similar to Baldwin's, her gripe against white liberalism grew out of a sense of estrangement from its ultimate and unannounced purpose: the homogenizing of all racial, regional, and religious cultures into one uniform and godless civilization. Her increasing frustration with this unholy prospect produced a formula: 'Were it not for the diabolic anodynes of secular liberalism man would at once recognize his hopeless depravity and degradation, repent, and be saved from the hell of this world; out and out demonism, because it openly declares man's sinful nature, must on the other hand be regarded as salutary and even admirable.' Behind this philosophy is a fascination with Dostoyevsky easily discoverable too in the Negro radicals of her generation.
Not incidentally, many of the figures in Miss O'Connor's personal pantheon have Calvinist backgrounds. It is, finally, with Evangelicalism and with the more eschatologically preoccupied varieties of religious existentialism that her work reveals its deepest affinities. Through a humorousness notably lacking in Baldwin, she speaks just as fondly of the wrath to come. "God's grace burns," she tells her readers, excusing the characteristic violence of her plots as pious metaphor. An author's consistent choice of metaphors nevertheless has inevitable implications beyond pure technique. There is, moreover, a distinction to be made between grace (which can also fall as the morning dew) and mere metaphysical evil. Miss O'Connor's further anxiousness to demonstrate the irresistibility of this grace reduces her characters to hollow recipients of divine impulse. Like rudely carved figures in some cosmic marionette show, they twitch on their wires as the indifferent spirit moves them—either to bizarre acts of criminal insanity or to equally incredible decisions for Christ. While virtue consists in conversion, sin lies in the deplorably human tendency to cut oneself loose from the puppet master, to become independently articulate. The apocalyptic terrors she visits on those who follow this atheistic course, either from bucolic ignorance or false academic sophistication, are awful to behold.
Favoring an older and more romantic mode, Flannery O'Connor rejected literary realism for much the same temperamental reasons that led her to despise other aspects of contemporary American culture. A college generation presently repudiating the liberalism of their ancestors will scarcely fail to appreciate her dogged efforts to caricaturize and deflate this public wisdom. The rare and incurable disease that crippled her and eventually took her life doubtless encouraged her to question the very basis of liberalism: the naive faith that among them democracy, free enterprise, and science hold both the explanation and permanent cure for human suffering. Because the riddle of man's incurable mortality, his subjection to physical and metaphysical torment, could not be separated from moral evil and original sin, the Freudian Aufklärung that had sought to evaporate these mysteries was a blasphemous lie. The mental disturbances that, along with club feet, amputated legs, myopia, and various other bodily disorders, distinguish a host of O'Connor characters, their author quaintly conceives as a species of demonic possession. Christ, who makes foolish the wisdom of her fictional world, is its only true physician. In the Raskolnikovian analysis of The Misfit, one of the more lethal and sadistic of her anti-heroes: "Jesus was the only one that ever raised the dead, . . . 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 its 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." One of Miss O'Connor's chief delights was to parody worldly wisdom through an ironic emphasis on the clichés and advertising slogans that summarize it. Frequently stock expressions—The Life You Save May Be Your Own, A Good Man Is Hard To Find—constitute disguised advertisements for the spirit. Truth, it is thus pointed out, is only hidden from the wise. For those who will hear Him, Christ speaks even from billboards. For those who won't, Miss O'Connor reserved an audience with Death and the Devil, two of her most persuasive spokesmen.
In "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," one of the most characteristic and frequently anthologized of her pieces, these allegorical figures fool old Grandma Worldliwise with plausible Southern accents that may, however, give them away to the constant reader. Nominally set in backwoods Georgia (A "romantic precinct" on the order of Hardy's Wessex or Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha) the action of the story expands parabolically into a narrative of modern man's general sin-sickness. In bare outline, the plot concerns the tragi-comic destruction of some Florida-bound Georgians, chiefly through the senile offices of a grandmother who craftily, if unintentionally, detours her son and his family into the hands of a homicidal maniac called the Misfit. The main business of the plot, a pleasure trip to the Sunshine State, neatly optimizes America's commercialized dream of happiness. Although each member of the family cherishes his own peculiar means of self-gratification, they are united in a common pursuit of pleasure. Enjoyment, we notice, becomes increasingly vicarious with each succeeding generation. The needs of little John Wesley and June Star are for the most part answered by Coca-Colas and, less immediately, by the promised excitement of strange new places. Mother spends her extra nickels on the juke box, which obliges her fancy with "The Tennessee Waltz"—perhaps the most popular tune ever recorded. Sadly, but necessarily, Grandmother depends on the flattering distortions of an indifferent memory. Naturally placed in a weak and unfavorable position, she is the most resourceful and least scrupulous in attaining her ends. The old woman has lived longer than her family only to develop its distinguishing trait of vain self-regard into a case of fatal hubris. The fabrication which the grandmother uses to implement her scheme of detouring Bailey Boy past the scene of badly confused girlhood memories is eagerly swallowed by John Wesley and June Star only because it serves to promote their own craving for spurious adventure.
Florida, land of the fabled fountain of youth, remains beyond the horizon, just as Grandma's romantic plantation house (which is not where she remembered it) also proves elusive. Man is the victim of irreversible time. Thus the "ACCIDENT" that prevents this arrival and is occasioned by the sudden and expressly forbidden presence of Grandma's cat, may also fall into the categories of moral or metaphysical necessity. Still the plot leans heavily and deliberately on chance, and especially on the absurdity of accidental death. In Miss O'Connor's existential universe all events, including whatever acts of poetic justice the reader may happen to see, are essentially unpredictable, beyond human control, and, in a strict sense, accidental. It is only death, however, that speaks loudly enough to convince man of his foolish self-deceptions. "She was a talker, wasn't she?" says Bobby Lee, as the Misfit concludes his massacre of Bailey Boy's family by firing three slugs into its senior member. Underlining the major theme of the story, the Misfit rebukes his lieutenant: "Shut up, Bobby Lee. . . . It's no real pleasure in life."
Coming early in the story, the grandmother's anecdote of her dead beau Mr. Edgar Atkins Teagarden announces this theme of the vanity of human wishes and foreshadows the family's disastrous end:
She said he was a very good-looking man and a gentleman and that he brought her a watermelon every Saturday afternoon with his initials cut in it, E.A.T. Well, one Saturday, she said, Mr. Teagarden brought the watermelon and there was nobody at home and he left it on the front porch and returned in his buggy to Jasper, but she never got the watermelon, she said, because a nigger boy ate it when he saw the initials, E.A.T! This story tickled John Wesley's funny bone and he giggled and giggled but June Star didn't think it was any good. She said she wouldn't marry a man that just brought her a watermelon on Saturday. The grandmother said she would have done well to marry Mr. Teagarden because he was a gentleman and had bought Coca-Cola stock when it First came out and that he had died only a few years ago, a very wealthy man.
The watermelon, which neither Grandma nor Mr. Teagarden ever got to enjoy, and instead was inadvertently devoured by the Negro boy, symbolizes the sensual and specifically sexual gratifications allowed the Negro but denied the virtuous white man under the peculiar dispensations of the Protestant ethic. Her attitude of holding out for more than watermelon suggests June Star has been corrupted at an even earlier age than Pamela, while John Wesley's laughter punctuates Miss O'Connor's rather broad and heavy irony. Coca-Cola (as opposed to watermelon, an artificial gratification), which furnishes the basis of Mr. Teagarden's wealth, also provides a transition to the scene at Red Sammy's roadside barbecue-and-soft-drink tower that follows.
The irresistible hint that Red Sammy is the Devil or his agent gives the key both to his character and that of The Misfit, who to this point has remained only a sinister rumor. By pretending a flattering allegiance to the grandmother's radical and disastrous prejudice in favor of the past, Red Sammy is no mean contributor to the family's downfall. He is full of platitudes, lies, and diabolical halftruths. "These days you don't know who to trust," he says ironically, all the while calculating his take at the till. While a manifestly mercenary motive would explain this cajoling of his customers, hints of a darker purpose are plentiful. At its bottom reaches—and Red Sammy's is certainly that—both the physical exterior and psychological workings of capitalistic enterprise reveal its true ugliness and depravity. There is no need of a deeper hell or profounder hellishness. Sammy's wife says she wouldn't be surprised if The Misfit attacked their cash register. Taking up this suggestion of a harrowing of hell, the reader may prepare himself for the catastrophic and apocalyptic events that bring the story to its predicted conclusion.
The coming of The Misfit, which like the coming of Antichrist heralds the Last Day, is first rumored by the newspaper Grandma is reading as the narrative opens. Like Sammy's wife, the other characters pay religious lip service to the proximity of this terror partly to make topical conversation and partly to exorcise a real fear for their individual safety. They think of The Misfit as they think of death; and that indeed is one of the things he represents. Admirably designed as an agent of divine wrath, The Misfit is also, and less plausibly, presented as an existential Everyman. "I been most everything," he confides. "Been in the arm service, both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twict married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive oncet. . . but somewhere along the line I done something wrong and got sent to the penitentiary. I was buried alive. . . ." Playing shrewdly on the religious meanings of penitentiary, the story draws a Kafkaesque comparison between The Misfit's unremembered crime and original sin. When the grandmother placatingly suggests he might have been brought up on false charges, he declares: "Nome. It wasn't no mistake. They had the papers on me." Papers, in this metaphorical instance, means Scriptural as well as legal proof. After scorning the old woman's further suggestion that his crime has been theft (the apple myth literally interpreted), he proceeds with his allegorical confessions: "It was a head doctor at the penitentiary said what I had done was kill my Daddy but I known that for a lie. My Daddy died in nineteen ought nineteen of the epidemic flu and I never had a thing to do with it. He was buried in the Mount Hopewell Baptist churchyard and you can go there and see for yourself." No doubt a psychoanalyst, the head doctor in question seems to have been imbued with Freud's theory that primitive man thought of original sin as parricide. While Freud announced this idea in "Totem and Taboo," its refinement in "Dostoevsky and Parricide" has greater relevance to the portrait of The Misfit, which is remarkably like Freud's subject in this latter essay.
According to Freud: "Dostoyevsky's condemnation as a political prisoner was unjust and he must have known it, but he accepted the undeserved punishment at the hands of the Little Father, the sin [a death wish] against his real father." Like Dostoyevsky, who made "use of his sufferings as a claim to be playing a Christlike role," The Misfit also identifies himself with Jesus, claiming: "It was the same with him as with me except he hadn't committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me." Both the Freudian Dostoyevsky and The Misfit are depicted as sado-masochists, unable either to escape or wholly to accept their guilt; and both stoically refuse to allow science to explain it away. Attempting to case further suspicion on the genuineness of Dostoyevsky's penitential experience in Siberia, Freud cites the novelist's sympathy with the criminality of his fictional characters, a feeling that "goes far beyond the pity which the unhappy wretch might claim, and reminds us of the 'holy awe' with which epileptics and lunatics were regarded in the past." For Dostoyevsky a criminal is "almost a Redeemer," Freud observes, "who has taken on himself the guilt which else must have been borne by others." This last remark, which might apply to Stavrogin, Raskolnikov, or Dmitri Karamazov, serves equally well to describe Miss O'Connor's dramatic conception of The Misfit.
The intellectual quarrel between science and religion, allegorized in the anecdote of The Misfit's difference of opinion with the prison psychiatrist, can be resolved only by the individual's (prisoner's) flight from this world (the prison break) and his spiritual alienation. Isolated, even outlawed, he will either direct the violent longings of his soul inward (under conversion) or he will direct that violence, as The Misfit does, against others. The danger of secularism (the prison's psychiatrically oriented rehabilitation program) is that it attempts to rationalize man's inherent spiritual drives out of existence, rather than acknowledging and providing for them. Secularism makes war (the story contains several strategic reminders that World War II has not been long concluded) inevitable, for the psychology of nations or masses of people is identical with that of the individual in his search for spiritual—and sexual—release. As we have already seen from the example of Edgar Atkins Teagarden, capitalism sees to it that even man's baser needs (for watermelon) are not really satisfied. Psychoanalysis is thus on a par with Coca-Cola as an index of the ersatz character of modern civilization.
We now have to deal with Act Five, The Misfit's shooting of the grandmother, an incident that fits in with the desperate and perverse imitation of Christ we have noticed earlier. Having ordered the murder of Bailey Boy, whose unneeded shirt he now wears, The Misfit understandably reminds the dazed and fear-stricken old woman of her son: "Why you're one of my babies," she cries. As she reaches to touch him, The Misfit kills her. To his warped but alert intelligence, the grandmother's embrace represents an ancient threat to his identity. He is not Bailey Boy (the Old Adam), despite the fact that he is wearing Bailey's yellow shirt, decorated with blue parrots to indicate man's animal nature. Wearing the shirt means, emblematically, putting on the flesh, becoming incarnate. This final act of seemingly incomprehensible cruelty recalls Raskolnikov's nausea at his mother's physical approach as well as certain echoes from the Gospels. By killing the old woman—again the reminder of Crime and Punishment—The Misfit asserts his spiritual independence from Dame Nature or Mother Earth. He is, emphatically, not one of her babies. Where the alternative to nonadjustment is Bailey Boy, one may agree that man does well to remain a "misfit."
Flannery O'Connor was, it is almost needless to say, an incorrigible allegorist, but one who was wise enough to see, as Hawthorne had, the necessity of rooting allegory in history. Her interpreter needs at the outset, therefore, a good firm grip on the obvious and literal significance of her plots before launching into an analysis of their symbolic aspects. The reader must equally go in fear of seeing too little as of finding too much in often very detailed physical descriptions of character. For example: Are the glasses The Misfit wears a "silent parable" that says in effect, We see through a glass darkly? Wherever such motifs recur through her work, as this one does, the initiate may exercise something like a confident judgment. Although doubtless familiar with the literary methods of Dante and of James Joyce, Miss O'Connor was very much her own writer. An insistence on paradigms, such as the four-fold manner of allegorical interpretation, as the key to her fiction will certainly lead to distortion rather than illumination. Any doctrinaire approach is likely, first of all, to neglect one of the major virtues of her style—the brutal satire one discovers so abundantly in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find." One safe rule of allegorical conduct is to remember that the true emblem participates in the reality its meaning temporarily transcends. We see through a glass darkly only where there is real glass, and real darkness.
The blackness that Flannery O'Connor detected in the American soul, and that Hawthorne had found a century before, was in neither case mere literary invention. Despite her indebtedness to Hawthorne, as well as to Kafka and Joyce, she had, however, none of their moral uncertainty, and very little of the psychological insight that would induce such a skepticism. A graver deficiency or limitation of her work is that lifelessness of characterization that Hawthorne recognized as a frequent flaw in his own early productions. As Hawthorne further saw, it was only when the plight of his brainchildren touched their author's heart as well as his moral imagination that they took on the roundness and reality of the living flesh. It is not brilliance of invention one misses in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," but something of real human dignity and "the mere sensuous sympathy of dust for dust."
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Browning, Preston M., Jr. "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." In Flannery O'Connor, pp. 40-71. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974.
Discusses the title story of A Good Man Is Hard to Find in the context of the entire volume.
Bryant, Hallman B. "Reading the Map in 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find."' Studies in Short Fiction XVIII, No. 3 (Summer 1981): 301-07.
Surveys the significant settings and place names in O'Connor's short story.
Desmond, John F. "Signs of the Times: Lancelot and The Misfit." The Flannery O'Connor Bulletin XVIII (1989): 91-8.
Considers similarities between the anti-heroes in the fiction of Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor.
DiRenzo, Anthony. "Grinning Devils and Ludicrous Saints: The Grotesque and the Dialectic between Satire and Sanctity." In American Gargoyles: Flannery O'Connor and the Medieval Grotesque, pp. 134-49, 153-62. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993.
Compares O'Connor's use of the grotesque to medieval religious art.
Doxey, William S. "A Dissenting Opinion of Flannery O'Connor's 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find.'" Studies in Short Fiction X, No. 2 (1973): 199-204.
Provides a structural analysis of O'Connor's short story. Doxey maintains that "the point-of-view shifts from the grandmother to the Misfit, and the reader is suddenly left holding the bag, as it were, or—to be more technical—without a focus of narration."
Eggenschwiler, David. "Demons and Neuroses." In The Christian Humanism of Flannery O'Connor, pp. 31-70. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1972.
Discusses suffering and despair in O'Connor's stories, with reference to The Misfit.
Frieling, Kenneth. "Flannery O'Connor's Vision: The Violence of Revelation." In The Fifties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by Warren French, pp. 111-20. Deland, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, 1969.
Examines the impact of violence and grace in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."
Martin, Carter W. The True Country: Themes in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1968, 253 p.
Examines recurrent themes in O'Connor's fiction, with references to "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."
McFarland, Dorothy Tuck. "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." In Flannery O'Connor, pp. 13-41. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1976.
Examines the major themes of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."
Mills, Jerry Leath. "Samburan Outside of Toombsboro: Conrad's Influence on 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find.'" The South Atlantic Quarterly 84, No. 2 (1985): 186-96.
Finds parallels in structure and characterization between O'Connor's story and Joseph Conrad's novel Victory.
Orvell, Miles. "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." In Invisible Parade: The Fiction of Flannery O'Connor, pp. 130-36. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1972.
Discusses the tragi-comic effect of O'Connor's story.
Renner, Stanley. "Secular Meaning in 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find.'" College Literature IX, No. 2 (Spring 1982): 123-32.
Views O'Connor's story as a dramatization of the human condition.
Walters, Dorothy. "Excursions into Catastrophe." In Flannery O'Connor, pp. 63-70. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1973.
Presents a nihilistic interpretation of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," concluding that "whether read as Christian testimony or a nihilistic document, the story is powerful in its impact."
Additional coverage of O'Connor's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 7; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941-1968; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4 (rev. ed.); Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 3, 41; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 13, 15, 21, 66; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980; Discovering Authors; Major 20th-Century Authors; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 1; and World Literature Criticism.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6173
SOURCE: "Miss Flannery's 'Good Man'," in The Denver Quarterly, Vol. III, No. 3, Autumn, 1968, pp. 1-19.
[In the following essay, Montgomery explores the spiritual aspects of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find. "]
And if Christ is not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain
I. Corinthians 15:14
I'm going to preach there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn't the first two. Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar.
Hazel Motes, in Wise Blood
The Dragon is by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the Dragon.
Epigram to "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," from St. Cyril of Jerusalem
In an interview at the Vanderbilt Literary Symposium in April, 1959, speaking of the technical difficulties she had as a fiction writer, given the handicap that is hers as a Christian writer, Flannery O'Connor remarked:
I think it is easier to come out with something that is negative because it is just nearer fallen nature. You have to strain for the other, strenuously, too.
The positive "other" is, specifically, the terror of mercy, which is what she builds toward as the denouement of a story, choosing to start with the "something negative" that she associates with man's fallen nature. On her skillful uses of fallen nature, it is a tribute to her art, though a particularly narrow-lensed one, when Professor Oscar Cargill says in a memorial statement that she "reported faithfully the message life of her region and its obvious social decay because these were the things her wide-angled lens took in." Thus, her use of "fallen nature" seems a species of "naturalism."
On the whole, Cargill's plumbing of Flannery O'Connor's fiction is on the same level as that of a housewife I know who, after reading "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," swore never again to feed her infant from a babyfood jar because of the repulsively effective description in the story. Flannery O'Connor is no Erskine Caldwell nor James T. Farrell, as most of her readers are now prepared to admit. She does not account for evil through naturalism, with its implications of man's rescue from misfortune through education or rehabilitation within behaviorist and environmental programs. She repeatedly rejects evil as historical accident, insisting that evil's hideousness is truly seen only in relation to another grotesqueness that carries its horror too. As she writes in her "Introduction" to A Memoir of Mary Ann, "Few have stared at [good] long enough to accept the fact that its face too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction." The shocking aspect of that second horror, the good "under construction," is much more difficult to project in art than its absence; for the objectively acceptable existence of that implacable "terrible mercy" that Tarwater, in The Violent Bear It Away, announces, is suspect to contemporary audiences. Ours is an age, as Flannery O'Connor repeatedly indicates, that tends to see life as only temporal and transient, we being more concerned with saving our bodily lives on the highway than with rescuing the spirit which in her view mere accident cannot destroy. Yet that sharp division of our world which Jacques Maritain calls Manicheian provides Miss O'Connor her ironic materials. Just what those materials are, Maritain can help us see. Having lost what, in The Peasant of the Garonne, he calls the "pre-philosophy of common sense," we are given over to an abandonment of an accumulated wisdom that grew out of that common sense. The modern world's philosophers would make us "hear the plantiff ballade of a being which is not being and a knowledge which is not knowledge," until finally "What such a world can offer is the magnificent ersatz of the science of Phenomena, and along with it, power over matter; a dream of complete domination of all visible things (even the invisible) and also the abdication of the human mind, renouncing Truth for Verification, Reality for Sign."
Thus speaks the Thomist philosopher. To say the same thing, Miss O'Connor writes "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," starting from that marvelously ironic National Safety Council slogan. Through Mr. Shiftlet's reflections on the skill of science in revealing the "invisible," she displays the falseness of our supposed domination of the invisible.
"There's one of these doctors in Atlanta that's taken a knife and cut the human heart—the human heart . . . out of a man's chest and held it in his hand," and he held his hand out, palm up, as if it were slightly weighted with the human heart, ". . . and lady, .. . he don't know no more about it than you or me."
Signs are indeed taken for wonders, signifying only further signs. The "pre-philosophy of common sense" in such people as Mr. Shiftlet, and Flannery O'Connor herself, might well make the one protest and the other chuckle at the latest of our spectacular exhibits of life saving, the heart transplant.
Mr. Shiftlet would protest the new presumption of putting a new motor in an old chassis, while doing just that if occasion arose to his benefit. Miss O'Connor would be interested in both but disturbed by neither. In resolving this distinction between her reaction and a Shiftlet's lies the clue to the problem of Miss O'Connor's use of the devil and his works, part of the negative from which she makes her positive vision. Now the suspicion is abroad, directly stated to her by John Hawkes, that Miss O'Connor is on the devil's side. (She denied it emphatically.)
Let us say rather that, true to her understanding of herself as made in the image of God, she attempts through her talents to bring good out of evil through her creations. As artist, she is detached. But it is a detachment neither out of Hawthorne's "fastidiousness" (the word and application are Flannery O'Connor's) nor with that grand indifference in the name of art that Stephen Dedalus proposes. Hers is rather a recognition of the dangers to the artist of directly attempting a construction of the good. "What is written to edify," she says in the "Introduction" to A Memoir of Mary Ann, "usually ends by amusing." She means that such a work amuses through its failure as art. For whereas the philosopher such as St. Thomas Aquinas, in whose tradition Miss O'Connor writes, defines evil as it has reference to a good already defined (that is, evil as a deprivation, a negative), the artist starts with the complicated reality of the world in which the negative is more immediately arresting. The existence of a petty con man such as Mr. Shiftlet, or of an escaped murderer such as the Misfit terrifying the populace, strikes the reader as both immediate and dramatic, two appropriate considerations to the fiction writer. The writer who does not choose to "strain" himself "strenuously" in pursuit of that grotesque called the good is tempted to an easy reliance on homiletics or allegory in treating the facts of his own encounters with the world, such as con men and murderers. But the time for such homiletics is out of joint.
Since there is no myth to which a modern literary audience gives a general consent of faith, the uses to which allegory may be put by the modern writer seem to allow only the pleasures of correspondence. That is, allegories such as Faulkner's Fable or Updike's Centaur are of interest to the extent of their being perfected and self-contained metaphors. And even so, that concession to the "poetic" by the modern mind has been tenuously possible to the artist only through the persuasiveness of Coleridge's appeal to our suspension of disbelief. Meanwhile, we witness a widening of the gap between poet and audience, between poetry and what his potential, reluctant audience calls "real life." This is the history of the poet in society, since the eighteenth century at least. The visionary reality which Dante praises in his allegory is of scant importance to the modern world, which is why we tend to justify a reading of him as an entertainment of the mind separate from any reality of spirit, particularly in that anagogic dimension. (As psychological reality, well enough, but save us from the spiritual!) Occasionally as with Eliot there is a progression toward Dante's high reality, from Prufrock's teaparty to the Cocktail Party.
But Miss O'Connor chooses to approach her vision not through allegory such as Dante's (noting Hawthorne's failures) nor through the metaphor's command of intellect such as Eliot's (Eliot's approach turned his audience more to the academy than to the church). She chooses to keep fiction anchored in the literal world throughout. Her pilgrims remain in those dark woods which is Dante's starting point. It is increasingly apparent from her work that she was very conscious of the difficulties she faced in a modern audience, in contrast to Sophocles' audience or Dante's. Her letters and essays are full of that awareness, as Robert Fitzgerald illustrates in his introduction to Everything That Rises Must Converge, but one may see it subtly present in the comic version she presents of Dante and Virgil's descent into Hell, "The Artificial Nigger." She is remarkable in her art for her ability to transfer Dante's distorted souls out of their eternal static condition in Hell and make them believable in the dark pine woods of Georgia or even in the streets of Atlanta. The mark of her success is that a reader does not have to set aside his disbelief. That this is a stratagem through which "naturalism" is enlarged toward a spiritual dimension is apparent to one who analyzes her imagery in relation to Dante's, particularly her use of the pine woods, the sky, the sun, or the Hell images and movements in such a story as "The Artificial Nigger." Her intention is not like Rilke's—to change the nature of her reader through art; it is, rather, like Dante's—to lead him toward a state of bliss.
Miss O'Connor's procedure is to start with her negatives and remove from them all modern justifications of evil as an accident of existence. And who may better defend himself as more real than accident than the prince of active perversion? And in the absence of a common belief or even a common myth, how better than through the most basic common denominator of natural fallen man, the latent "pre-philosophy of common sense"? It is precisely this natural gift that is the effective weapon of the Bible salesman in "Good Country People" when he gets the better of that female Ph.D devoted intellectually to "the plaintive ballade of a being which is not being." It is Shiftlet's gift and Greenleaf's and Rufus Johnson's, and that of the city boys in "A Circle of Fire." And of course it is a gift almost perfect in its negation in the figure of the Misfit.
What these characters from Miss O'Connor's fiction have in common is an element of the diabolic. Miss O'Connor tells us that her reader "will find that the devil accomplishes a good deal of ground work that seems to be necessary before grace is effective." Grace, about which much has been written in relation to Miss O'Connor's fiction, becomes operative when that groundwork is finished. "Those moments .. . are prepared for—by me anyway—by the intensity of the evil circumstances." Grace touches her fiction with a mystery difficult to explicate, but clearly at points in a story that we would call technically a climax. It does so with an implication of the possibility of good, which she leaves suspended as only possibility. (Whether Tarwater successfully escapes Hell as he goes about waking the children of God is an open question.) The result is that one has the use of epiphany in her stories with a meaning at once given to the reader by Joyce and given to mankind by the New Testament. For if she insists on the real and actively malign presence of a particular evil in the world dedicated to man's destruction through a willing perversion of common sense, even more she insists upon a real and actively healing intervention of grace in the presence of that same common sense when it wilfully resists its own perversion. When she says that she is interested in the old Adam, who only happens to talk Southern because she is Southern (that is, particularized by a history and geography in which she participates but to which she is not limited) she is stating a battleground in the individual on which meet Christ and Satan.
The devil she presents in her fiction is the devil Christ came to oppose, made articulate in a world largely given to him. Her devil is not merely a static symbol of evil, of absolute evil such as Dante images at the bottom of his Hell, but active in the world. He is, as she sees him (and as in Milton's intentions in his great fiction), an agent of good though he intends no good. (Milton, too, has been accused of being on the devil's side.) Thus it is that in her fiction her diabolic character repeatedly underlines the fundamental issue she proposes to us. For instance, the Misfit, the devil's surrogate, in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," is at large in the world, enlarged toward the legendary by his nickname. To the sophisticated reader, the mythical overtones in the figure of the Misfit are increased by the talk of people like Red Sammy and his wife, though the grandmother and her family are at first as unconvinced of any danger as they would have been had Red Sammy talked of a centaur loose in the wood.
The grandmother, it is true, has been the first to introduce the Misfit into the story, from newspaper accounts, but only because she doesn't want to go to Florida, the direction taken by the Misfit in his escape. "I wouldn't take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I wouldn't answer to my conscience if I did." On its first appearance, her argument is on the same level as the one that immediately follows it—that the children have already been to Florida once and might better profit from a trip to Tennessee. But it is a statement that becomes much enlarged upon as we see the grandmother coming finally to face her conscience. One might note also that the Misfit is a self-imposed title, picked up for its sensationalism by the newspapers, who are not likely to allow as more than myth the figure of that ultimate misfit of Christian orthodoxy, Satan. For the present, however, the Misfit is far less demanding of her interest than the cat Pity Sing. Yet the reader is aware through the scene at Red Sammy's "Tower" of ominous overtones, even though the comedy performed by the characters distracts him. A reader's attention to the human antics in the story is tempted to remain on the same level as the children's attention to Red Sammy's monkey, which is still possessed of enough of what Maritain calls the "pre-philosophy of common sense" to climb a tree beyond the reach of June Star and John Wesley.
The comedy of names, in this story as in others, is a calculated delight, though a tricky one. Here, for instance, the children are named for a movie star and that evangelist so important in the history of southern Protestantism. Such playful disparity is suggestive of the spiritual chaos in the world these characters inhabit, a chaos which they more shrewdly see than their elders, as witness their easy manipulation of those elders, accompanied by ill manners. That chaos, particularly spiritual chaos, as a concern of the story is thus underlined. But there are more subtle implications of names and the particulars of time and place that call for attention. It is almost noon as the family stops for lunch, and Red Sammy's Tower is "just outside Timothy." One cannot but remark Paul's words in Timothy, concerning the "last days" which the Grandmother and Red Sammy agree are descending upon us:
. . . perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,
Without natural affection, truce-breakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good,
Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof. (Chapter 3, verses 1-5)
The comic correspondences in the story to this passage are remarkable, but they are also deadly serious, carrying in them that voice of prophecy which Miss O'Connor saw as suitable to the poet and fiction writer. For if she takes an impish delight in private jokes, as when she calls Atlanta "Taulkinham" in Wise Blood, those jokes become less than private and certainly more than jokes as one penetrates the stories. Concerning the comedy of prophecy she herself remarks: "There is the prophetic sense of 'seeing through' reality and there is the prophetic function of recalling people to known but ignored truths. Certainly none of these precludes Comedy—" And just as certainly, the serious commitment of Paul, that New Testament Misfit, buttresses this story. Rather innocently, then, the reader laughs at the comedy of the grandmother asking her son to dance with her to The Tennessee Waltz or at June Star's ugly exchange with Red Sammy's wife, who in turn takes a caustically dim view of Red Sammy's estimate of himself as a good man.
A few pages later one's attention is seized away from the comedy of the automobile accident by the appearance of "a big black battered hearse-like automobile." The description seems to promise more than we are at first given. When we are at first directly confronted by the Misfit he seems unusual, but hardly deserving of the newspaper's honorific article. (He is the Misfit and Miss O'Connor sometimes in her letters calls him "The Misfit".) He is an "older man" whose hair is "just beginning to gray." His silver-rimmed spectacles give him a "scholarly look," a suggestion at first comic since he has on no clothes except bluejeans that are too small for him and sockless shoes. In one hand he politely carries a black hat. But the smile a reader is tempted to is a tentative one: in the other hand he has a gun. Even so, this is hardly a startling or impressive figuring of the old dragon as the Misfit stands looking down from the roadside at his victims in this Georgia bolge. The uneasy concern the grandmother exhibits in trying to save her life has, at this point, only mild spiritual overtones. She nevertheless has "the peculiar feeling that the bespectacled man was somehow someone she knew. His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but she could not recall who he was."
Indeed, one of the most unsettling aspects of the Misfit is his manners, which contradict the legend out of the newspapers. He has removed his hat in the presence of the two ladies, and he continues most polite as he directs the multiple executions. ("Lady, . . . would you and that little girl like to step off yonder with Bobby Lee and Hiram and join your husband? . . . Hep that lady up, Hiram.") As his manners are praiseworthy, so too is he resolute for the truth. Unlike the old woman's son Bailey, he pays close attention to what she says, treating her as a person worthy of attention, as no other character in the story does. Initially the grandmother cries excitedly "We turned over twice!" He corrects her: "Oncet .. . we seen it happen." From this point on he attempts with great care to keep the record straight. (He is a believer in records: society "had the papers" on him.) Patiently he rejects the modern excuses for that record of evil that is his, excuses which the grandmother proposes desperately in an attempt to save her life. But he will not allow her to excuse his hideousness by admitting, as Red Sammy has earlier managed to do so transparently, that he is a good man. Nor is his wickedness to be explained as his having fallen on bad luck, the victim of society's mistakes and so a fit candidate for the mercies of the sociologist or psychologist or psychiatrist. Speaking with an evenness of tone throughout, as if with an immortal pain, he shows that he is something more ominous than simply an escaped killer.
The basic point which The Misfit insists upon is that "Jesus thown everything off balance."
"If He did what He said [i.e., raised the dead, including Himself], then it's nothing for you to do but thow 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 . . ."
One might set beside the Misfit's argument one from a book by C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (in which book he considers the problem Miss O'Connor addresses so cogently in her "Introduction" to A Memoir of Mary Ann):
There was a man born among these Jews who claimed to be, or to be the son of, or to be "one with," the Something which is at once the awful haunter of nature and the giver of moral law. The claim is so shocking—a paradox, and even a horror, which we may easily be lulled into taking too lightly—that only two views of this man are possible. Either he was a raving lunatic of an unusually aborninable type, or else He was, and is, precisely what He said. There is no middle way.
C. S. Lewis and Flannery O'Connor affirm that He is what He said. The grandmother says Christ was what He said He was. But one knows already from her own duplicity in trying to turn the trip north instead of south, and her "treachery" to her son Bailey in smuggling the cat Pity Sing along, that her words are no more dependable than her affections. Her entertainment of the children, including her anecdotes and jokes, are empty rituals such as are historically expected of a grandmother. In short, the grandmother's position is one in which we see that her manners are without substance, a revelation that comes to her also in the last instance. And one must conclude that, unless one take "meanness" to be exhibited only through such physical acts as the Misfit catalogues, the grandmother's whole family is devoted only to meanness. That their meanness is exhibited in petty acts of rudeness against each other and the strangers encountered does not obscure its corrosive presence, which has an effect in the story of conjuring up the devil. What one begins to see is that the Misfit is apparently not unlike the grandmother and her family, but that his similarity is at first obscured by his polite manners and his scrupulous insistence upon being honest about his condition.
Because he was not there when Christ raised the dead, the Misfit can act only as if Christ were one historical man. That is, he assumes Christ a lunatic. "Listen Lady," he says, "if I had of been there I would know and I wouldn't be like I am now," being out of his misery either because dead in history or alive in Christ. Cursed by his scholarly awareness of alternatives and so unable to act upon what Lewis calls the "horror" of that "shocking paradox" of God made man, he reacts, turning downward. The Misfit has made himself indeed "a lunatic of an unusually aborninable type," whose ultimate figuring is the antithesis of the Son of Light.
The root meaning of aborninable, a word Lewis carefully chooses, with its Biblical uses relative to outer darkness, makes it an apt description of the Misfit. His words, setting the alternatives to which there is no middle way, come at the very instant the grandmother recognizes just what an ill omen he is. At first she has thought him familiar through the newspaper accounts of him; now at the moment of her death, she sees through him the dark abyss and must conclude, as Miss O'Connor would have us conclude, that the devil is not simply a metaphor for an adornment of fiction, whether that in a story by Miss O'Connor or a story in an Atlanta paper, which prefers the term The Misfit to apply only on a social level. The devil's active pursuit of non-being is no gimmick to facilitate an illusion of action in Miss O'Connor's story. He turns out also to be more than a sentimental naming of evil in a natural or social environmentalist philosophy, through which we prefer to pursue a state of innocence. She insists that
We lost our innocence in the fall of our first parents, and our return to it is through the redemption which was brought about by Christ's death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of the process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence which strongly suggests its opposite.
Evil exists, and in its pained torment cannot do otherwise than put things directly in antithetic action to good, between which there is no middle way despite the illusion which sentimentality provides as alternative. Our pretense grows in the circumstance of these "last days" such as St. Paul spoke of in Timothy, in which we are overcome by what Maritain calls that "magnificent ersatz of the science of Phenomena" whose spectacle overwhelms our common sense till we renounce "Truth for Verification, Reality for Sign."
Insofar as evil is presented as an absolute negation, it expresses a more shocking Manicheism than the comfortable, sentimental devotees to secular phenomena can tolerate. In man, to be hypocritical is to attempt to substitute a lesser for a greater good so that one may rest comfortably in the substitution by a deliberate refusal of reason to employ common sense. It is a false means toward a false end. But the devil's hypocrisy does not involve self-deception as does man's; it is a means toward wilfully and knowingly making the lesser the greater, the ancient stratagem in the conflict with Light. The devil, of necessity, is a confirmed Manicheian. To set the alternatives boldly before the unthinking is effective if, as with Hawthorne's sentimental Goodman Brown, both good and evil are rejected. For the devil enjoys a singular triumph in that conversion, being the prince of negation.
In this light, we may at last see just how shocking the grandmother's final words to the Misfit truly are. When she says "Why you're one of my own babies. You're one of my own children," she has reached an extremity of attempts to save her life through denial. (She specifically denies Christ.) At this point there is a glimmer of recognition of her failure. And for the first time in the story there is coming into existence a being at once repulsive to and frightening to the force of evil. When she says the words, touching the Misfit's arm, he draws back in terror "as if a snake had bitten him" and then shoots her "three times through the chest." Whether that dawning recognition of participation in evil, through grace which enters the story to lift the scales from the grandmother's eyes, is sufficient to rescue the grandmother is perhaps a moot question, beyond our concern as is Tarwater's subsequent history after his terrifying experience with another of the agents of darkness. As Miss O'Connor says, "Judgment is separate from vision" as God is separate from man, and the grandmother's visionary reaction to the Misfit is here the center of our concern.
Miss O'Connor, while she avoids strict allegory, is constantly hinting at analogue. Hers is not a formal, point by point structural use, such as Joyce's in Ulysses. Her suggestiveness, through the careful selection of details, gives her fiction a continuity out of Biblical history. Thus in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" one is taken back to man's first disobedience, and to the first fruits of that disobedience as presented in the third and fourth chapters of Genesis. For if one consider the grandmother here in her aspect as The Grandmother (that is, as Eve [i.e., the "mother of all living" Genesis 3:20]) as we have considered the misfit as The Misfit (that is, as Satan), interesting overtones result from the details. The Misfit bears the mark of Cain (on the level of the story in which the literal murder is, he is, as I have said, the devil's surrogate). Cain is the child of Eve's ambition. For wishing to be equal to the gods through a knowledge of good and evil, she gained not an equality but a limited specialization for mankind. The gods, as the serpent presents the case in Genesis, have the power of life and death. Man through his fall gains the power of death in an absolute sense, that of negation. Its first fruit is the death of Abel, out of that incurable questioning of the gods. In our story the Misfit, the questioning child of Eve, recalls his father (of the generation of the grandmother, by the way) who recognized his particular curse:
". . . Daddy said, 'It's some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it's others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters.'"
His father has called him "a different breed of dog" from his brothers and sisters. Miss O'Connor's wit may also be involved in this respect in the minor character of the child John Wesley, named after the Protestant evangelist to Georgia. The child is described as if a miniature version of The Misfit. Like the Misfit, he wears glasses, but more important he is interested in getting behind the appearance of things. When the grandmother builds her false Eden, the old mansion with its rose arbors, out of her childhood, John Wesley begins to plunder it in his imagination, getting into its secret passages. The grandmother's false Eden is also conjured again in her vain attempt to save her life, in her arguments for the Misfit's innocence, the plea that he might settle down somewhere "and have a comfortable life and not have to think about somebody chasing you all the time." But the Misfit knows that, as God told Cain, he is destined to be "a fugitive and a vagabond .. . in the earth." Even the Misfit's words, against calling on Jesus for help ("I don't need no hep") are an inversion of Cain's "Am I my brother's keeper." And he knows too that "Everyone that findeth me shall slay me." Thus to prolong his misery that seems to be life he must destroy these witnesses of a chance encounter. The grandmother's false version of Eden is, I take it, changed by the time of her death. That is, she comes to see that Eden cannot be regained, but also that she is responsible for its loss. That is part of what happens as the Misfit puts on Bailey's yellow shirt, with the bright blue parrots. (The popular American version of Eden is usually thought of as off Florida's coast.) At first the grandmother "couldn't name what the shirt reminded her of." But it clearly reminds her of much more than simply her son Bailey when she reaches out to touch the Misfit and says "Why you're one of my babies! You're one of my own children!" We are all the children of Adam and the parents of both Cain and Abel. To acknowledge Cain is a first step toward that place where the soul may settle down and not worry about somebody chasing it all the time.
In any event, we may make one final observation about the mystery that settles upon the story. We do notice that our final image of the grandmother, seen through the eyes of the gunmen, is that 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 a cloudless sky.
It is a picture of innocence in bodily death and suggests a victory the three gunmen are excluded from understanding. And we notice that the colloquy between the grandmother and the Misfit that climaxes with her death carries itself through a distorted version of the confessional, in which the grandmother occupies the role of priest, with the Misfit as penitent. She literally stands above him during the crucial exchange. The story is in the beginning deliberately comic (the comic irony residing in the pretended measure of the true by the false characters): the characters in the first part of the story say generally true words to which they are not committed, as in the grandmother's first arguments against going to Florida and Red Sammy's analysis of the decline of civilization. The forms necessary to the comic continue in that final examination of evil, with the grandmother intent upon explaining away evil, while the Misfit clings insistently to his evil as his own. It is only at the moment of climax that the grandmother recognizes her own participation in evil, with the beginnings of an entry into what in the final words of another story is called "the world of guilt and sorrow."
The story's climactic scene then is a black confessional, analogues to Hawthorne's black mass, but acted out under the full sun rather than in Goodman Brown's dream of a night confrontation with the devil. Neither the Misfit nor the grandmother looks up to discover the sun they both state as missing from the sky, though in the grandmother's final posture, the sun shines full upon her face. When the grandmother makes her gesture of hand and words to acknowledge her estate, the roles become reversed. It is an act freely made by her, a sacrifice on which point Miss O'Connor once said:
My view of free will follows traditional Catholic teaching. I don't think any genuine novelist is interested in writing about a world of people who are strictly determined. Even if he writes about characters who are mostly unfree, it is the sudden free action, the open possibility, which he knows is the only thing capable of illuminating the picture and giving life. So that while predictable predetermined actions have a comic interest for me, it is the free act, the acceptance of grace particularly, that I always have my eye on as a thing which will make the story work. In the story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," it is the grandmother's recognition that the Misfit is one of her children.
The Misfit, on the other hand, as if fearing exorcism, leaps back from that recognition and shoots the grandmother. If in the tragic, one has a reverse of the comic, that is if one has a measure of the false by the true (the aspect we call tragic irony), then we may see triumph in that final picture of the grandmother sitting like a child, smiling up into a cloudless sky. For either the Misfit is right that Christ was a fake, and hence the grandmother's death carries no meaning beyond the fact that she has reached the end of what the Misfit calls "the few minutes" allowed natural man. Or the grandmother's arguments about Christ are true, even when not truly taken by her until by implication in her last moment. If Christ was what He said, we see the tragedy of waste in the lives of the characters of this story. And we see also the appropriateness of our attention being turned back to the Misfit in the final sentences of the story. He is that agent of evil which, in a Christian reading of tragedy, is the cause of all tragedy. We may conclude from the skill with which Miss O'Connor manages her conclusion something of what she meant when she said, in acknowledging her kinship to Hawthorne, that she writes "tales" in the sense Hawthorne wrote them, though she trusts she does so "with less reliance on allegory." The Misfit's final position, like Goodman Brown's, is maintained in emptiness. But there is not even bitterness in his final word, only what I have called an immortal pain in that worldly darkness as immediately present as pine trees and a bright blue cloudless sky. So long as one inhabits this world only, "It's no real pleasure in life."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1353
SOURCE: "Flannery O'Connor and Southern Literature," in The World of Flannery O'Connor, Indiana University Press, 1970, pp. 147-51.
[Hendin is an American educator and critic. In the followingexcerpt, she compares The Misfit to other violent characters in Southern literature.]
While, from a statistical point of view considering annual income, national origin, and religion, some of O'Connor's heroes could wander into [Faulkner's fictional setting of] Yoknapatawpha, one senses they would find it totally alien. Faulkner and Styron build their countries out of the South's greatest literary virtue: its ability to lag behind the rest of America in giving up the romantic sense of the hero and of history. O'Connor and Capote have abandoned the South's most distinctive concerns. Whether by choice or default, they write out of the mainstream of the American consciousness, In their murder scenes, a framework of meaning, if it exists at all, has receded into so remote a distance that it provides no scale of value. While [Faulkner's] Christmas and [Styron's] Turner transcend a life of ambivalence and ambiguity, make of their murders and death a resolution of significance to them and to us, the fate of [O'Connor's] the Misfit and Motes, of [Capote's] Smith and Hickock, remains irrelevant in a larger sense, even to them.
Smith, Motes, and the Misfit can connect nothing with nothing. They are so estranged from themselves, so out of touch with their own feelings that they only know them from external signs or infer them from their own actions. Like the Misfit who speaks most honestly with his gun, or Motes, whose most potent part is his car, they come closest to connecting with objects, things which magically fulfill their fantasies of destruction. Looming about O'Connor's vivid acts of violence is an immense and total silence. It is the silence that engulfs the Misfit's polite speech as he shoots the grandmother. It is in this silence that Flannery O'Connor becomes most eloquent. Like a painter with a genius for using negative space, O'Connor says most about human feeling when she says nothing. In both her murder scenes it is what is left out that says most.
O'Connor clearly intended "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" to be tragedy and Wise Blood to burlesque it. But the two are oddly alike. Missing in both is a sense of human death, human life or directly felt passion. Both the story and novel convey a feeling of undifferentiated life—of there being few distinctions between living and dying. O'Connor conveys a sense of consuming meaninglessness. If Faulkner was obsessed with the power of memory, the power that let Virginia Du Pre make myths, O'Connor is obsessed with the power of forgetfulness. As the Misfit observes, "you can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you're going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it." He cannot remember his own crime because "they never shown me my papers."
Like Motes's Essex, the Misfit's papers, kept by the Authorities, would explain why he was imprisoned, would anchor him to reality and give some direction to a mind that gropes to make his crime—which he has forgotten—equal his punishment—which seems to be his life. Although the Misfit thinks a lot about the Authorities and even the miracles of Christ, what he affirms is not the existence or nonexistence of either. He affirms the sameness of all events, the difficulty of telling the difference between murdering a man or stealing his tire. Where the deaths of Christmas and Margaret float endlessly significant, no death has much meaning for the Misfit.
What frees the Misfit from total emptiness is his gun. Solid and enduring in his otherwise blank universe, the gun expresses the Misfit's unfathomable rage. Its "voice" is far more authentic than the polite phrases he uses to address the family before he has them exterminated. The gun is his most "animal" part, a potent extension of himself. When the grandmother touches him, her touch is like a snakebite. And for the first time in this story where he has behaved like the politest of backwoods gentlemen, he answers that snakebite touch with an instinctual, immediate gunshot.
The grandmother's gesture of "tenderness"—her claim that he is one of her babies—is ambiguous and ironic. All her babies that we know of are dead, killed, in a sense, by her own manipulation of their trip and her desire to keep their wills infantile and subjected to her own. In likening him to one of her dead babies, she may be reminding him of his own mortality. Her tenderness diminishes, infantilizes him, minimizing his power as a murderer. Suggesting that he is as helpless as a baby, she implies that she can somehow cure his misery like Asbury's mother in "The Enduring Chill," who convinces her son that she can overpower death. She resembles all those indefatigably optimistic, powerful mothers in O'Connor's fiction. Sitting in her blood like a smiling child, she seems an earlier Mrs. Chestny who has spent her life looking for the past and reverts to her childhood in death. At a moment when she is surely the Misfit's victim, as Mrs. Chestny was the victim of the Negro woman's "emancipation," she tries to be his redeemer. Like Mrs. Chestny, who tried to put the Negro woman in her place with a bright new penny, the grandmother tries to buy off the Misfit's revenge with a gesture. Like Mrs. Chestny, she is attacked in the heart, shot three times in the chest. Although the Misfit's voice is on the verge of breaking as he laments his absence at the miracles of Christ—perhaps he cries as his red-rimmed eyes imply—he shoots her quickly and, cleaning his glasses, restores his perspective on life as he orders her thrown with the other bodies.
O'Connor probably intended her Misfit hero to be a kind of Christ. But the grandmother who tries to be his mother also tries to be his redeemer, his Christ. Beneath the veneer of kindness and gentility, it is clear that these two Christs are crucifying each other. The most powerful crucifixion for O'Connor is the one you live out daily for a lifetime, the constant agony involved in human contact, human needs, and human striving. It is, in large part, the agony of being part of the human chain, of having a grandmother who wants to "care" for you. For O'Connor, it is the horror she sees at the core of family life. Almost predictably, the only one who can survive this family outing is the cat, Pitty Sing, who rubs herself pleasurably against the Misfit's leg.
A cause of the accident and the murders, the cat who jumps when the grandmother moves her knees, jumps at random. The cat is too slender a figure to carry much symbolic weight. The cat's leap is not one that seems the result of an accumulation of history or of a lifetime of mingled hatred and desire. It seems no expression of some ultimate cosmic force. The meaning of the cat seems to derive precisely from its symbolic thinness. That a pet, a cat, leaping at random for no great reason, should cause the destruction of an entire family expresses the randomness, the pointlessness of the murders. That the cat's name is Pitty Sing suggests O'Connor's attitude toward violence. In the Mikado, it is Pitti Sing who remarks in a sprightly way, "Well, dear, it can't be denied that the fact that your husband is to be beheaded in a month does seem to take the top off it, you know." It does indeed.
Like O'Connor, Pitti Sing sings without pity, a precursor of doom without human compassion. The murders in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" are of no particular importance to the cat, or to the Misfit. They are not the stuff romantic legends are made of. Only a cat and a Misfit survive the human wreck as detached observers of the scene.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2245
SOURCE: "Theme and Setting in 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find'," in Renascence, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, Summer, 1972, pp. 177-80, 206.
[In the following essay, Kropf surveys the major themes of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find. "]
The Criticism of Flannery O'Connor's work has failed to throw any considerable light on one of her most popular stories, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." To a large extent critics of Miss O'Connor have been preoccupied with the religious meaning of her symbols and the relation of her stories to Catholic doctrine. To a degree such a preoccupation is obviously valid; Miss O'Connor's own comments in "The Fiction Writer and His Country" to the effect that "I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy" have encouraged commentators on her works to bring to their task the assumption, rarely qualified or explained, that as Thomas A. Lorch has written "Flannery O'Connor was a Catholic writer, and she expressed her religious vision in her art" [Critique, 1968]. The reader of such criticism, however, is led to the unfortunate conclusion that her religious vision is all that Miss O'Connor's art contains. This specialized doctrinaire approach I take to be responsible for the critical failure to appreciate the complexity of Miss O'Connor's artistic achievement in her works as a whole, and in "A Good Man" in particular, which as the title story of the volume in which it appears would seem to have been high in Miss O'Connor's regard. For this and other reasons which will appear in the following discussion, it lends itself especially well to a broader sort of critical analysis I believe could be used to advantage to supplement the standard doctrinaire approach.
The critical pronouncements on "A Good Man" are a good example of the limitations of an excessively specialized approach. Commentaries always deal primarily with the final scene or the final conversation in the story, one between a psychotic killer and a preoccupied grandmother, neither of whom is in very firm contact with reality. The final scene is no doubt a crucial one, but the story is full of vivid details for which such discussions fail to account. The riot of carefully described color, the numerous events before the final one, the trite anecdotes Grandmother tells, the presence of Red Sammy Butts all pass unmentioned as the typical critic hastens on to unfold the religious implications of the final scene. Miss O'Connor's working methods and her advice to young writers would suggest that more attention to details is justifiable. She advised aspiring young authors of fiction that a good author "makes his statements by selection, and if he is any good, he selects every word for a reason, every detail for a reason, every incident for a reason, and arranges them in a certain time-sequence for a reason." And later in the same address, recently reprinted in Mystery and Manners, she asserted that detail "has to be controlled by some overall purpose, and every detail has to be put to work for you."
If Miss O'Connor's theory bears any relation to her practice, critical attention to details is likely to furnish significant clues to the broader concerns of theme and structure in her stories, and at least in the case of "A Good Man" the setting appears to be one of the important details. Miss O'Connor's remarks to an audience at Hollins College at a reading of "A Good Man" imply that the setting deserves more than casual attention. This story, she said, "certainly calls up a good deal of the South's mythic background, and it should elicit from you a degree of pity and terror, even though its way of being serious is a comic one." She then goes on to associate this mythic background with her religious concerns by remarking that the assumptions underlying the story "are those of the central Christian mysteries." The combination of Southern history with religious matters recalls a similar comment Miss O'Connor made on another occasion in a discussion of the position of the Southern author. The Civil War in Southern history, she suggests, is analogous to the Fall of Adam in human history, and the Southern author is "doubly blessed, not only in our Fall, but in having a means to interpret it," provided by the South's strong Christian tradition. The association on both of these occasions of Southern history with the Christian mysteries indicates that the two were blended in Miss O'Connor's thinking and in her fiction, a fact Robert Drake implies when he writes that "literally rural Georgia was Miss O'Connor's true country, man's encounter with Jesus Christ her true story." In other words one cannot separate the religious theme of her works from their Southern setting and its historical implications without the risk of seeing only a part of the meaning of her stories. Only if the critic draws on both of these traditions can he appreciate the extent to which, as Caroline Gordon has remarked in "Heresy in Dixie," "her stories are soundly constructed," or see her as an artist instead of a knowledgeable Catholic [Sewanee Review, 1968]. The synthesis of Christian morality and Southern myth so that the two comment upon each other appears to inform nearly all of her works, but it dominates "A Good Man" and is the theme itself of the story. To that extent "A Good Man" is a thematic statement of what Miss O'Connor tried to achieve in her art.
Early in "A Good Man" it becomes clear that Grandmother and her family are at odds over more than superficial opinions. While the family wants to visit Florida, a desire typical of modern middle-class Americans, Grandmother wants to visit her "connections" in Tennessee. The family dresses casually for the trip, but Grandmother dresses like "a lady" and insists that things were not like this in the old days. She has the inevitable story of the wealthy suitor who has grown rich on the inevitable Coca-Cola stock and whose trite gift of a watermelon is mistakenly consumed by the inevitable ignorant servant boy. Her allusion to Gone with the Wind, the official handbook of ante-bellum myths, and her reaction to the grinding poverty of the Negro family as a pretty picture all mark her as one who is attracted by and would gladly return to the mythic past. The antagonism between Grandmother and the family goes much deeper than matters of dress and children's respect for their elders; it extends to values. She agrees with Red Sammy Butts on the deplorable state of morality while the modern family remains apathetically silent, and she maintains all the prim and proper concerns of conventional morality. She laments, in Miss O'Connor's terms, the loss of that prelapsarian innocence so obviously missing in present society and so easily attributed to the mythic past.
The conflict between the past and present, and metaphorically between the values they represent, becomes more overt when in the midst of its typically modern activity the family is interrupted by Grandmother's idealized recollection of a plantation house with all the appropriate trimmings of columns, towering oaks, arbors, garden, and suitor. With the aid of a carefully placed lie, the past, in the form of Grandmother, wins. Bailey must turn around both literally and figuratively, backtrack, and leave the modern paved highway for a little-traveled dirt road. The symbolic interpretation of these events as a turning away from the present and toward the past is inescapable in light of the conflict the author has carefully set up previous to their occurrence. That the past to which the old lady is trying to return is largely mythical is indicated by the fact that the house, its six columns corresponding to the six occupants of the car, is not there.
Up to this point "A Good Man" is similar in theme to "A Late Encounter with the Enemy" in which Sally Poker Sash blindly regards her grandfather, a lecherous and senile Confederate Veteran, as a symbol of the past and its values. In "A Good Man" the old lady is not only blind to the evils of the past; she attributes to it virtues which, Miss O'Connor implies, it never had. The conclusion of the story suggests that the attempt to live in an idealized past leads to death and destruction, and this conclusion the author prepares us for by the careful selection of detail. Grandmother is a confused and exasperating character, but she is not evil; she is certainly not to be regarded as the witch (complete with cat) some readers had supposed her to be, much to the author's amusement. What the old lady believes and stands for, however, is clearly ominous; it is the function of Red Sammy Butts in the story to identify it as such. The ironic title phrase "a good man (woman)" is applied only to Red Sammy, Grandmother, and the Misfit; the color red is associated only with them; and all three are linked with animals. All three of these details first appear together in the visit to Red Sammy's. It is a visit with a devil figure in a metaphorical hell. Red Sammy lives in a Tower, reminiscent of the Tower of Dis, and presides over his "famous barbecue" and a "burnt-brown" wife. Outside the Tower he keeps chained a monkey, a grotesque travesty of fallen man. Once the title phrase, the color red, and the animals have been associated with impending evil, many of the rest of the story's details fall into place. As the family drives along the dirt road to its doom, the pink dust swirls up to envelop their car just as Grandmother's ideals have enveloped their attention. The Misfit, with his red-rimmed eyes and red ankles, slowly destroys the family, and finally even Grandmother lies dead in a pool of her own red blood. The Misfit's last act in the story is to pick up the old lady's cat which has been rubbing itself affectionately against his leg.
In the confrontation between the Misfit and Grandmother the two major themes of the story, the nature of the mythic past and the problem of sin, combine and form comments on each other. As the story has made clear, Grandmother is a misfit in her own right; at the moment of her death she recognizes the Misfit as her own son and understands that they are alike in more profound ways than their alienation from current society. Most basically both are confused about the past and its proper relation to the present. The old lady is convinced that her own romanticized memories furnish a perfect code of conduct; the Misfit believes that in the present uncertain state of things "meanness" is the only answer. He is most disoriented when he thinks about the past and remarks that "if I had of been there" at Christ's resurrection "I would of known and I wouldn't be like I am now." From the first sight of him Grandmother has been vaguely aware of a feeling that "she had known him all her life," and his statement of doubt about the resurrection confirms her feelings and triggers her insight into their relation. Miss O'Connor's analogy between the Fall of Adam and the Civil War is operative here. In doubting the historicity of the resurrection of Christ, the Misfit of necessity doubts the possibility for divine mercy to forgive original sin. If man's condition is one of such hopeless sin, then meanness is the only answer, and there can be no joy in life.
Grandmother is likewise concerned with the sinful state of man and society, but for her the crucial historical moment is the Civil War, analogous to the Fall, and the possibility of eradicating its effects by returning to the past. But as the story as shown, the past as Grandmother conceives it is mythical and its values are more likely to be represented by a Red Sammy Butts than an arisen Christ. In the last analysis Grandmother is as merciless in her regard to the Negro family as the Misfit is in regard to hers. Both are confused about the nature of right and wrong, the definition of which lies at the heart of Christian morality. In the terms of the analogical reasoning which informs this merging of themes, the Misfit is Grandmother's son, and her salvation lies in her recognition of that fact immediately before her death.
The two themes which appear in "A Good Man" never merge and comment on each other in quite the same way in any two stories, but in one form or another they appear and interact again and again throughout Miss O'Connor's works. It is probably of more than passing significance, for example, that the title story of All That Rises Must Converge treats the same themes as that of "A Good Man." Here Julian's mother, in her attitudes toward race, dress, and social mores in general, is reminiscent of Grandmother and her values. But in this case it is Julian's system of values which receives the ironic comment; it is to him that the revelation comes. These two stories, one early and one late in Miss O'Connor's career, and both in dominant positions in their collections, are strong indications that Miss O'Connor's true country is more than a spiritual abstraction. Perhaps the central fact of life in her fiction is the religious experience, but that life cannot be divorced from the soil of the deep South.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6266
SOURCE: "Belief and the Tonal Dimension," in The Question of Flannery O'Connor, Louisiana State University, 1973, pp. 18-36.
[Stephens is an American critic. In the following excerpt, she examines the abrupt shift from comedy to tragedy in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find. "]
"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" divides, in terms of the time it encompasses, into two parts. The opening page of the story describes the grandmother's attempt to get the family to go to Tennessee instead of Florida on their vacation; this serves as a kind of brief prologue to the rest of the tale, all of which takes place the following day as the family begins its fatal trip to Florida. The trip itself then divides into two parts of its own. The first part—the morning ride through middle Georgia with the grandmother and children reacting to the sights along the roadside and the grandmother entertaining the children with stories of her girlhood—is climaxed by a highly entertaining scene at Red Sam's Barbecue. The second part of the story may be said to begin, as the family starts out again after lunch, with the grandmother's suggestion, clamorously taken up by the children, that they turn off the highway onto a certain dirt road which leads to an old plantation house the grandmother had visited in her youth. Or—even better—let us say that this scene in which the aggravated father finally agrees to take the turn onto the dirt road to the old house, serves as a transition between the two parts. For just off the dirt road, the grandmother's cat, secretly smuggled into the car in a basket, leaps onto Bailey's back and makes him wreck the car. The car overturns into a deep ditch alongside the road, and as the occupants are pulling themselves together, the "hearse-like" car of the Misfit appears on the road overhead. The major break in the story comes with the following passage: "The road was about ten feet above and they could see only the tops of the trees on the other side of it. Behind the ditch they were sitting in there were more woods, tall and dark and deep. In a few minutes they saw a car some distance away on top of a hill, coming slowly as if the occupants were watching them." Our easy enjoyment of the domestic comedy of this very ordinary family excursion begins at this point sharply to subside. Here the story clearly takes a much more solemn turn than we had expected it to—just how solemn we are not yet sure. The Misfit and his two mates now appear on the scene with drawn guns; they are as sinister a trio as they could well be, and the main concern, surely, of any reader from this point on is with what is going to happen to the family in the hands of the convicts.
The final scene will need to be studied in detail, but one may stop at this point to ask: what kind of story do we have up until the major tonal shift which occurs with the words tall and dark and deep in the above passage?
Plainly it is a comic view of the family that we get in the first half of the story—and it is rich comedy indeed. The comedy issues, as it often does in O'Connor, from the author's dry, deadpan, seemingly unamused reporting of the characters' hilarious actions and appearance. Like many good modern comedies, the story is, in other words, all the funnier for not appearing to be told in a funny way. The grandmother, of course, is the largest and funniest figure, and she is the character from whose point of view the tale unfolds.
Like so many O'Connor vignettes, the opening scene is remarkable for what it accomplishes in a brief space; the vivid visual picture is etched in with swift, deft strokes, and the speech of the grandmother and the children (in this tableau-like scene the parents are silent) is also deftly, wittily done, so that even at the end of the first page we have a sharp sense of the personalities involved and a feeling for the kind of family life that is in question.
What is particularly impressive here is the way the visual image—the image of the family gathered in the living area of the house on what is perhaps a Sunday afternoon—takes shape from the ever-widening lens of the eye of the story. The opening sentence presents no image but tells of the grandmother's desire to go to Tennessee: 'The grandmother didn't want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey's mind." Then we see, not the grandmother, but Bailey, sitting at the table over the Journal; and in the next sentence the grandmother herself comes into view behind the son, rattling at his head a piece of newspaper: "Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn't take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn't answer to my conscience if I did."
The grandmother gets no response from her shut-mouthed son, and as she wheels around to face the mother, the eye of the story widens again so that the mother, her face "as broad and innocent as a cabbage," is allowed to come into view sitting on the sofa silently feeding the baby his apricots. "You ought to take them somewhere else for a change so they would see different parts of the world and be broad. They never have been to east Tennessee," urges the grandmother. But the voice that replies comes from John Wesley, "a stocky child with glasses," and the eye of the story moves back again to bring into view the two older children reading the funny-papers on the floor.
"If you don't want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?". . .
"She wouldn't stay at home to be queen for a day," June Star said without raising her yellow head.
"Yes and what would you do if this fellow, The Misfit, caught you?" the grandmother asked.
"I'd smack his face," John Wesley said.
"She wouldn't stay at home for a million bucks," June Star said. "Afraid she'd miss something. She has to go everywhere we go."
"All right, Miss," the grandmother said. "Just remember that the next time you want me to curl your hair."
June Star said her hair was naturally curly.
The next morning the grandmother was the first one to the car, ready to go.
During the trip the next day we continue to relish the comical side of the grandmother's character: her busybody backseat driving—which so infuriates her ill-natured son Bailey ("He didn't have a naturally sunny disposition like she did."); her awful humor ("'Where's the plantation?' John Wesley asked. 'Gone with the Wind,' said the grandmother."); the inevitable childlike recounting of her early courting days ("She would have done well to marry Mr. Teagarden because he was a gentleman and had bought Coca-Cola stock when it first came out.").
The grandmother's costume for the trip is carefully etched in, detail by tiny detail:
The old lady settled herself comfortably, removing her white cotton gloves and putting them up with her purse on the shelf in front of the back window. The children's mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief, but 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 collar and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.
Now this business of being a lady, of doing right ("In my time . . . children were more respectful. . . . People did right then."), of being nice, begins rather early in the story to suggest the superficiality of the old lady's sense of good and evil, of what is right and good in the world. It is the grandmother who, when Red Sam of the barbecue palace says to her, "These days you don't know who to trust," delivers the crowning turn on the title line, "A good man is hard to find":
People are certainly not nice like they used to be.
When Red Sam complains of his own misplaced trust in his fellow man—why did I let them fellers charge the gas they bought?—the grandmother is ready: "Because you're a good man!"
This conversation with Red Sam and his wife—the latter is perhaps the choice comic figure of the story—certainly prefigures the climactic dialogue, with its "good man" theme, between the grandmother and the Misfit at the end. In the final scene the utter absurd comedy of the grandmother's values is pointed up by her belief that "a good man" wouldn't shoot "a lady"! The grandmother's pathetic strategy, even early on in the fatal encounter with the Misfit, comes to no more than that. When the grandmother says, "You wouldn't shoot a lady, would you?" the Misfit replies, "I would hate to have to," and the old lady blunders on with her grotesque appeal to the escaped murderer's sense of "niceness": "'Listen,' the grandmother almost screamed, 'I know you're a good man. You don't look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!"'
But for all the grandmother's innocence and absurdity, one's feelings about her are by no means totally negative. If she is not endowed with insight into the eternal scheme of things—well, what of that? It is certainly possible to feel affection for the grandmother—though one may not be sure, as he reads, whether against the grain of the story or not. And yet surely there are lines and passages where the story is designedly setting our sympathies astir. The grandmother has a liveliness, curiosity, and responsiveness that the others seem to lack. Her true delight in telling stories ("she rolled her eyes and waved her head and was very dramatic") and in watching June Star dance ("the grandmother's eyes were very bright . . . she swayed her head from side to side") does not cast her in an ugly light. And the tone of such a passage as this, for instance, where she plays with the baby, is hardly ambiguous: "The grandmother offered to hold the baby and the children's mother passed him over the front seat to her. She set him on her knee and bounced him and told him about the things they were passing. She rolled her eyes and screwed up her mouth and stuck her leathery thin face into his smooth bland one. Occasionally he gave her a faraway smile." It is the grandmother, moreover, who sees the beauties of the Georgia landscape—the "blue granite," for instance, "that in some places came up to both sides of the highway; the brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple; and the various crops that made rows of green lace-work on the ground." About the sentence that follows, "The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled," one may well ask: who sees the trees in this way? This line, it may be recalled, is the one singled out by Robert Fitzgerald, in his preface to Everything That Rises Must Converge, as evidence of O'Connor's "sense of natural beauty and human beauty" (even the meanest of her characters, Fitzgerald argues, can be said "to sparkle" as well). But are we to take the line as an aside of the author, or is it, in fact, strongly implied that the grandmother herself sees the trees in this way?
However that may be, one thing, I think, is clear: all in all, the comedy of the grandmother's portrait is not wholly without warmth, is not totally abusive and satiric. Certainly one cannot view the grandmother as one whose malignity of soul is such that one can welcome—be amused by, or, let us say, accept in a comic spirit—her fatal comeuppance at the hands of the Misfit. There is not, in other words, such heavy stylization, such gross distortion, in the characterization of the old lady that one's distance from her is great enough to preclude any pain that her tortured death might bring. Indeed, there is everywhere in the first part of this story the most scrupulous comic realism. It is the averageness, the typicality of this old grandmother that is so nicely caught by the story.
The story's careful realism is nowhere better seen than in the lunch scene at Red Sam's barbecue palace. Red Sam's memorable helpmate, for instance, is closely drawn on the cheerless, complaining, vacant-eyed, fish-wife of the country Georgia road-stop. Bringing in the family's barbecue plates, this wife delivers herself of another variation of the good-man-is-hard-to-find motif:
"It isn't a soul in this green world of God's that you can trust," she said. "And I don't count nobody out of that, not nobody," she repeated, looking at Red Sammy.
"Did you read about that criminal, The Misfit, that's escaped?" asked the grandmother.
"I wouldn't be none surprised to see him. If he hears it's two cents in the cash register, I wouldn't be atall surprised if he . . ."
"That'll do," Red Sam said. "Go bring these people their Co'Colas. . . ."
Much of the charm of this comic characterization one may certainly lay to O'Connor's gift for folk speech. (Ben Jonson's injunction to a hypothetical character—"Language most shows the man—speak! that I may see thee!"—was one O'Connor would have fully appreciated.)
Just before the descent of this story into the much darker and grimmer world of Part Two, the domestic comedy peaks again in the scene in which the father is tormented into making the turn down the dirt road to the plantation. The ritualistic rhythm, for instance, of the following scene is altogether too familiar for there to be any question of the reader's not being drawn into the experience of the family:
The children began to yell and scream that they wanted to see the house with the secret panel. John Wesley kicked the back of the front seat and June Star hung over her mother's shoulder and whined desperately into her ear that they never had any fun even on their vacation, that they could never do what THEY wanted to do. The baby began to scream and John Wesley kicked the back of the seat so hard that his father could feel the blows in his kidney.
"All right!" he shouted and drew the car to a stop at the side of the road. "Will you all shut up? Will you all just shut up for one second? If you don't shut up, we won't go anywhere."
"It would be very educational for them," the grandmother murmured.
"All right," Bailey said, "but get this: this is the only time we're going to stop for anything like this. This is the one and only time."
"The dirt road that you have to turn down is about a mile back," the grandmother directed. "I marked it when we passed."
"A dirt road," Bailey groaned.
What we have, in other words, up until the moment when the grandmother, startled by the sudden embarrassed realization that memory has played a foul trick on her and that the old plantation is not on this road at all and not even in this state, jolts the basket and frightens Pitty Sing into springing with a snarl onto Bailey's shoulder, causing him to overturn the car—what we have is a skillful and richly entertaining domestic comedy of a not very lighthearted if not totally abusive kind. And if we have happened to read the inscription on the fly-leaf of A Good Man Is Hard to Find, on the page in fact facing this title story, we have certainly forgotten it—so little apropos does it seem to this funny family tale:
The dragon is by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the father of souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.
—St. Cyril of Jerusalem
No trace of a devouring dragon here! And though this epigrammatic dragon ought, perhaps—critically speaking—to be dealt with (is it the Misfit himself who plays the part in this story of a dragon by the side of the road?), if it crosses our minds, as we read, to wonder at all where the story is heading (and because O'Connor always seems to have her tales so well in hand, usually it doesn't cross our minds), the actual appearance of a death-dealing Misfit does not seem a very likely possibility. Some final sumptuous comic irony—harmlessly or indirectly involving, perhaps, the real or an imagined Misfit—is probably what one half-consciously expects.
Then the story breaks in two. Behind the wrecked family, sitting paralyzed with fear and shock in the ditch, the woods, which seen a few hours ago from the highway were full of silver-white sunlight, are now described as "tall and dark and deep." After the arrival of the convicts, the line of woods behind them will be said in fact to gape "like a wide open mouth"; and when the first member of the family is taken off to the woods and shot, the wind will seem to the grandmother "to move through the tree tops like a long satisfied insuck of breath." A very different story indeed!
With the accident, then, and the appearance of the armed convicts, the reader is much taken aback. "Why this is not at all the kind of story I thought it was going to be," he may feel—somewhat pleasurably; and he is much affected by the terrifying situation the family finds itself in and is suddenly hypersensitively alert to the slightest detail of the action which follows. Other stories of sudden disaster, when all had seemed to be going normally and well, may occur to him: Richard Wright's "Big Boy Leaves Home," for instance, a story similar to "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" in the perfectly gratuitous nature of the suddenly descending misfortune—that is, the sudden appearance of the hysterical white woman at the edge of the swimming hole where the naked black boys are playing on a summer day.
In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" it is true that in a trivial sense everything that happens is the grandmother's fault: it was she who urged the turn-off onto the dirt road, she who stowed Pitty Sing away in the basket and who startled him into making Bailey wreck the car, and it is she who finally dooms them all by recognizing the Misfit and saying so: "You're The Misfit!" she shrieks; "I recognized you at once!"; and any sense the reader might have had that the story could continue in the comic mode is shattered by the Misfit's reply: "Yes'm, but it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn't of reckernized me."
It is within the consciousness of the grandmother that we continue to experience the action of the story, even though the suffering of the mother and father is perhaps even more affecting than hers for being witnessed from the outside. The mother is shown from time to time sitting in the ditch, her left arm dangling helplessly and holding with the other the baby (who—a horrifying and somehow totally characteristic O'Connor detail—has gone to sleep). When the Misfit politely asks her if she would like to "step off yonder" into the woods with the killers, she replies "faintly": "Yes, thank you." Let a reader who feels that one can take this story too seriously ponder that detail—and with it the image, early on, of the father walking to his death with his son, holding the boy's hand.
But in any case it is to the author's purpose that the parents can credibly be made to remain for the most part dumb with shock. The grandmother has consistently been shown as "a talker," as the killer Bobby Lee puts it, and the effect of the situation on her is to make her try to talk her way out of it. The Misfit is a talker too, and the grandmother's insistence that he is really "a good man" who comes from "nice people" incites him to a long, querulous, rambling, rather absentminded reflection on the course of his life—his upbringing, his real or alleged wrongdoing, and the vexed (to say the least) state of his soul. What is of course the chief horror of the whole massacre scene is the way in which his casual discussion of these matters is punctuated by his polite commands for the execution of the other members of the family. The grandmother grows dizzier and dizzier as the murders are carried out, and finally, she seems, in a sequence that has been given as many as half a dozen conflicting interpretations, to take leave of her tortured senses altogether: "[The Misfit's] 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, 'Why, you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!' She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest." The Misfit begins to clean his glasses, and this is the way the story ends:
Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who 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.
Without his glasses, The Misfit's eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking. "Take her off and thow her where you thown the others," he said, picking up the cat that was rubbing itself against his leg.
"She was a talker, wasn't she?" Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.
"She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
"Some fun!" Bobby Lee said.
"Shut up, Bobby Lee," The Misfit said. "It's no real pleasure in life."
Thus the mean tonal snarl the story has wound itself into. What is the reader to think or feel about anything in the massacre scene? There is pain and shock but much that mocks that pain and shock—the heavy comedy, for instance, indeed one might say the almost burlesque treatment, of the three killers. There is the feeling that though we cannot help but pity the tormented family, the story continues to demand our contempt for them. One feels that somehow the central experience of the story—in spite of the affecting, the chilling details surrounding these deaths, in spite even of the not altogether abusive treatment of the grandmother in Part One—will elude anyone who gives way to these feelings of pain and pity. If the writer's task is, as Conrad said, to make us "see," what is here to be seen? Surely not that life is wholly senseless and contemptible and that our fitting end is in senseless pain.
Looking at the narrative skeleton of the story again, having corrected our original notion of it after reading the final half, what now do we have? An ordinary and undistinguished family, a family even comical in its dullness, ill-naturedness, and triviality, sets out on a trip to Florida and on an ordinary summer day meets with a terrible fate. In what would the interest of such a story normally lie? Perhaps, one might think, in something that is revealed about the family in the way it meets its death, in some ironical or interesting truth about the nature of those people or those relationships—something we had been prepared unbeknownst to see, at the end plainly dramatized by their final common travail and death. But obviously, as regards the family as a whole, no such thing happens. The family is shown to be in death just as ordinary and ridiculous as before. With the possible exception of the grandmother, we know them no better; nothing about them of particular significance is brought forth.
The grandmother, being as we have seen the last to die, suffers the deaths of all her family while carrying on the intermittent conversation with the Misfit, and any reader will have some dim sense that it is through this encounter that the story is trying to transform and justify itself. One senses that this conversation—even though our attention is in reality fastened upon the horrible acts that are taking place in the background (and apparently against the thrust of the story)—is meant to be the real center of the story and the part in which the "point," as it were, of the whole tale lies.
But what is the burden of that queer conversation between the Misfit and the grandmother; what power does it have, even when we retrospectively sift and weigh it line by line, to transform our attitude towards the seemingly gratuitous—in terms of the art of the tale—horror of the massacre? The uninitiated reader will not, most likely, be able to unravel the strange complaint of the killer without some difficulty, but when we see the convict's peculiar dilemma in the context of O'Connor's whole work and what is known of her religious thought, it is not difficult to explain.
The Misfit's most intriguing statement—the line that seemingly the reader must ponder, set as it is as the final pronouncement on the grandmother after her death—is from the final passage quoted above: "She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." Certainly we know from the first half of the story that the grandmother has seen herself as a good woman—and a good woman in a day when good men and women are hard to find, when people are disrespectful and dishonest, when they are not nice like they used to be. The grandmother is not common but a lady; and at the end of the story we know that she will be found dead just as we know she wanted to be—in the costume of a lady. She was not common, and the Misfit, with his "scholarly spectacles," his courtly apology for not wearing a shirt, his yes ma'ams and no ma'ams, was not common either—she had believed, wanted to believe, or pretended to believe. "Why I can see you come from good people," she said, "not common at all." Yet the Misfit says of her that she would have been a good woman if somebody had been there to shoot her all her life. And if we take the Misfit's statement as the right one about the grandmother, how was she a good woman in her death?
A good woman, perhaps we are given to believe, is one who understands the worthlessness and emptiness of being or not being a "lady," of having or not having Coca-Cola stock, of "being broad" and seeing the world, of good manners and genteel attire. "Woe to them," said Isaiah, "that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight." The futility of all the grandmother's values, the story strives to encapsulate in this image of her disarray after the car has overturned and she has recognized the Misfit: "The grandmother reached up to adjust her hat brim as if she were going to the woods with him but it came off in her hand. She stood staring at it and after a second she let it fall on the ground."
The Misfit is a figure that seems, one must say to the story's credit, to have fascinated more readers than any other single O'Connor character, and it is by contrast with the tormented spiritual state of this seeming monster that the nature of the grandmother's futile values becomes evident. We learn that the center of the Misfit's thought has always been Jesus Christ, and what becomes clear as we study over the final scene is that the Misfit has, in the eyes of the author, the enormous distinction of having at least faced up to the problem of Christian belief. And everything he has done—everything he so monstrously does here—proceeds from his inability to accept Christ, to truly believe. This is the speech which opens the narrow and emotionally difficult route into the meaning of the story:
"Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead," The Misfit continued, "and He shouldn't have done it. He thown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but thow 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 and his voice had become almost a snarl.
The Misfit has chosen, at least, whom he would serve—has followed the injunction of the prophet in I Kings 18:21: "And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him." The crucial modern text for the authorial view here, which belongs to a tradition in religio-literary thought sometimes referred to as the sanctification of the sinner, is T. S. Eliot's essay on Baudelaire, in which he states: "So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing; at least, we exist. It is true that the glory of man is his capacity for salvation; it is also true to say that his glory is his capacity for damnation."
Thus observe how, in the context of these statements, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" begins to yield its meaning. What O'Connor has done is to take, in effect, Eliot's maxim—"It is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing"—and to stretch our tolerance of this idea to its limits. The conclusion that one cannot avoid is that the story depends, for its final effect, on our being able to appreciate—even to be startled by, to be pleasurably struck with—the notion of the essential moral superiority of the Misfit over his victims, who have lived without choice or commitment of any kind, who have in effect not "lived" at all.
But again, in what sense is the grandmother a "good woman" in her death, as the Misfit claims? Here even exegesis falters. Because in her terror she calls on the name of Jesus, because she exhorts the Misfit to pray? Is she "good" because as the old lady sinks fainting into the ditch, after the Misfit's Jesus speech recorded above, she mumbles, "Maybe he didn't raise the dead"? Are we to see her as at last beginning to face the central question of human existence: did God send his son to save the world? Perhaps there is a clue in the dead grandmother's final image: she is said to half lie and half sit "in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child's and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky." For Christ said, after all, that "whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter herein."
To see that the Misfit is really the one courageous and admirable figure in the story; that the grandmother was perhaps—even as he said—a better woman in her death than she had ever been; to see that the pain of the other members of the family, that any godless pain or pleasure that human beings may experience is, beside the one great question of existence, unimportant—to see all these things is to enter fully into the experience of the story. Not to see them is to find oneself pitted not only against the forces that torture and destroy the wretched subjects of the story, but against the story itself and its attitude of indifference to and contempt for human pain.
Now as it happens, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" was a favorite story of O'Connor's. It was the story she chose to read whenever she was asked to read from her work, and clearly it held a meaning for her that was particularly important. Whenever she read the story, she closed by reading a statement giving her own explanation of it. (One version of that statement can now be read in the collection of O'Connor's incidental prose edited by Robert and Sally Fitzgerald titled Mystery and Manners.) She had come to realize that it was a story that readers found difficult, and she said in her statement that she felt that the reason the story was misunderstood was that the present age "not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them." The intrusion of grace in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" comes, Miss O'Connor said, in that much-discussed passage in which the grandmother, her head suddenly clearing for a moment, murmurs to the Misfit, "Why, you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" and is shot just as she reaches out to touch him. The grandmother's gesture here is what, according to O'Connor, makes the story work; it shows that the grandmother realizes that "she is responsible for the man before her and joined to him by ties of kinship which have their roots deep in the mystery she has been merely prattling about so far," and it affords the grandmother "a special kind of triumph . . . which we instinctively do not allow to someone altogether bad."
This explanation does solve, in a sense, one of the riddles of this odd story—although, of course, one must say that while it is interesting to know the intent of the author, speaking outside the story and after the fact, such knowledge does not change the fact that the intent of the narrator manifested strictly within the story is damagingly unclear on this important point. And what is even more important here is that O'Connor's statement about the story, taken as a whole, only further confirms the fact that the tonal problem in this tale is really a function of our difficulty with O'Connor's formidable doctrine. About the Misfit, O'Connor's says that while he is not to be seen as the hero of the story, yet his capacity for grace is far greater than the grandmother's and that the author herself prefers to think "that the old lady's gesture, like the mustard-seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in The Misfit's heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become." The capacity for grace of the other members of the family is apparently zero, and hence—Christian grace in O'Connor, one cannot help noting, is rather an expensive process—it is proper that their deaths should have no spiritual context whatever. O'Connor goes on to say (and here I am quoting from a version of the statement read at the University of Georgia and included in the O'Connor papers recently given to the Georgia College library by the author's mother):
"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" has been written very baldly from the orthodox Christian view of the world. I think we seldom realize just how deliberately we have to change our sights to read such a piece of fiction. It is a view of the world which is offensive to modern thought and particularly to modern feeling. It is a view of the world which sees the life of the body as less important than the life of the soul, and the happiness of the individual as secondary to his observance of truth and his practice of charity.
This, in fact, is rather mildly put. A statement in the former version makes the reader's harsh dilemma even clearer: "in this story you should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother's soul, and not for the dead bodies."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2834
SOURCE: "Everything Off Balance: Protestant Election in Flannery O'Connor's 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find'," in The Flannery O'Connor Bulletin, Vol. VII, Autumn, 1979, pp. 116-24.
[In the following essay, Bellamy determines the role of Protestantism in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find, " maintaining that "it is difficult to explain the crucial event in this story, the sudden and abrupt conversion of the grandmother, without reference to evangelical Protestantism. "]
Robert Milder's article "The Protestantism of Flannery O'Connor," [which was published in The Southern Review, Vol. II, 1975] is based on two essential aspects of Protestantism he finds in O'Connor's so-called Catholic fiction: "The first is an insistence upon the absolute and irremediable corruption of the natural man, and consequently upon the necessity of divine grace for every good work; the second is an exaltation of private religious experience at the expense of the sacraments and the institutional Church." Late in his essay, Milder mentions that "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is one of O'Connor's more Catholic stories. I would like to take issue with Milder, not because of his association of O'Connor's writings with Protestantism, but rather because, at least in the case of "A Good Man," he does not go far enough. It is difficult to explain the crucial event in this story, the sudden and abrupt conversion of the grandmother, without reference to evangelical Protestantism. Moreover, the Misfit, the other major character in "A Good Man," is a visible manifestation of the theological contradictions which Miller describes in his discussion of O'Connor: much like his author, the Misfit is a Bible Belt Fundamentalist in spite of himself. Thus, we can learn something significant about this story in particular, as well as its author's more generally significant religious beliefs, by considering the extent to which "A Good Man" reveals the conflict between Flannery O'Connor's avowed Catholicism and her tendency to view religious experience in the context of Protestant Election.
On the most general level, the story has resonances of the typical spiritual allegory of the Protestant pilgrim. Once this overall similarity to the situation in, say, Pilgrim's Progress, is established, specific differences stand forth. The family in O'Connor's story is on a journey, but unlike the pilgrim in Bunyan's book, they are literally, and spiritually, on vacation; it is appropriate that they get lost, for, though they are headed for Florida in a sense, they are really going nowhere. O'Connor's story also differs from Bunyan's in that the entire family comes along; given the incessant bickering of the family in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," it is obvious, in retrospect, why the pilgrim in Pilgrim's Progress who hopes to succeed must leave his family behind. The accident that ends with the automobile "in a gulch off the side of the road" is reminiscent of the "slough of despond" that temporarily interrupts the quest in Pilgrim's Progress. The crucial difference is that the family does not survive. Their executor, the Misfit, appears on the road above them in his "hearse-like" automobile, an Anti-Christ in his chariot, announcing the apocalypse. The Misfit's role as an Anti-Christ is subsequently maintained by other ironic inversions of divine characteristics. Unlike Christ, who suffered little children to come unto Him, the Misfit shuns John Wesley and June Star, for children make him "nervous." His reference to the fact that he "was a different sort of dog" from his brothers and sisters is similarly indicative of his satanic nature, for "dog" is, of course "God" spelled backwards, and demonology is based on inverting the sacred.
This set of inversions is consistent with the Misfit's entire personality, for he is a sort of Protestant exegetical scholar manqué. Temperamentally, he is suited for the kind of profound, sustained curiosity that motivates the biblical scholar. His father used to describe this trait in a down-to-earth way: "It's some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it's others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He's going to be into everything." The Misfit even looks like a scholar: "His hair was just beginning to gray and he wore silver-rimmed spectacles that gave him a scholarly look." Like many literal interpreters of the Bible, he has an inordinate respect for the written word. He does not, for example, question that he is guilty of the crime for which he was originally sent to prison, though he confesses he cannot recall exactly what he did. But never mind, he tells the grandmother: "It wasn't no mistake. They had the papers on me." For the original, but impossible, goal of tracking down his original sin, he has substituted the rectitude of keeping good records:
He [Jesus] hadn't committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me. That's why I sign myself now. I said long ago, you can get a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it. Then you'll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you'll have something to prove you ain't been treated right.
His interpretation of the prison psychiatrist's oedipal diagnosis is similarly indicative of exaggerated faith in the literal word. His literal understanding of Freud is but a secular correlative of a Fundamentalist reading of the Bible:
It was a head-doctor at the penitentiary said what 1 had done was kill my daddy but I know that for a lie. My daddy died in nineteen ought nineteen of the epidemic flu and I never had a thing to do with it. He was burried in the Mount Hopewell Baptist churchyard and you can go there and see for yourself.
The Misfit is the man from Missouri who believes only in what he has seen; thus we learn immediately the difference between the grandmother's hypocrisy and his fidelity to his own experience when he corrects her version of the accident, stating that the car actually only turned over "Oncet," for he had seen it happen. All he lacks is faith, for had he been there when Jesus "raised the dead," he would have immediately and radically changed his life:
Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead . . . 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.
The central message of the Misfit's sermon, for a sermon is what his remarks amount to, is a familiar one in Flannery O'Connor's fiction; there is no middle ground between absolute belief in Christ's messianic function and a belief that life is nasty, brutish, and short. In fact, since the Misfit lacks faith in Christ's resurrection, he actually sees it as his duty to make life nastier, shorter, and more brutish. Implicit in the Manichean reduction of life to two antithetical alternatives is the Protestant insistence on man's total depravity without God's saving grace. The Misfit describes this belief as it applies to himself: "I found out the crime don't matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you're going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it." The Misfit not only assumes that man is inherently guilty; he also assumes men are individually responsible for Original Sin. Given this congenital depravity, man is utterly incapable of doing anything to effect his own salvation. To do so would be roughly equivalent to pulling himself up by his own bootstraps. Here we have the surest sign of Protestantism: the absolute necessity of faith and, as a corollary, the belief that good works are at most merely a sign of God's favor.
The Misfit must be given credit for acting in conformity with his nature. We cannot say as much for the grandmother, for she is, until the moment of her death, a thorough hypocrite. It is of crucial importance that her election occurs at the very moment when she is at her most hypocritical. She has, in fact, just conceded—she will do anything to survive—that "maybe He [Christ] didn't raise the dead" after all. The moment of her election merits quoting at length:
"Maybe He didn't raise the dead," the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her. . . .
"I wasn't there so I can't say He didn't," the Misfit said. "I wisht I had of been there," he said, hitting the ground with his fist. "It ain't right I wasn't there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady," he said in a high voice, "if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn't be like I am now." 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, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.
Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who 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.
It is clear that the grandmother is a better woman at the moment of her death than she had been at any time heretofore; or, as the Misfit puts it, "She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." The grandmother's salvation occurs when "her head cleared for an instant"; thus her legs, earlier described as "twisted" under her, are, subsequent to her salvation, "crossed under her like a child's." Similarly, for the first and only time, she imitates the rhetoric of the New Testament, not for her own selfish purposes, but because she actually feels a maternal concern for the Misfit as one of her own children.
The extraordinary thing about the grandmother's story is the radical discontinuity between her behavior and her redemption. In fact, this discontinuity is most apparent during the moments that immediately precede her conversion. How could the irrelevance of good works for salvation be more effectively demonstrated? How could there be any relationship between good works and election when it is the confrontation with death that brings about the moment of grace? Clearly, the grandmother will not be around for any good works, since her death is the occasion for her conversion.
There is another more explicit indication of the paradoxical relationship between merit and outcome in "A Good Man": the Misfit's very name is itself indicative of his inability to discover how his punishment fits his crime. This discontinuity is but the converse of the discrepancy between the grandmother's behavior and her extraordinary fate. If Christ has, in fact, "thrown everything off balance" by overcoming death, His offer of salvation through grace has also disturbed the balance of the scales of justice. Again, broadly speaking, the imbalance implicit in the irrelevance of good works and the emphasis on the gift of faith are Protestant. The Misfit accepts this imbalance as the only conceivable interpretation of Christianity, even as he agonizes over the injustice of his own damnation. For without the gift of faith, the Misfit is inevitably unable to establish whether or not Christ actually rose from the dead: "It ain't right I wasn't there because if I had of been there I would of known. . . . Listen Lady, if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn't be like I am now." Where, he asks, is the justice in a world in which grace is a gift, a gift he feels temperamentally incapable of receiving? Where is justice when the word "grace" actually means "favor"? For surely, by the very definition of the word, some people are "favored" or "gifted" and some are not.
This radical discontinuity between man's efforts and the divine gift of grace is the most obvious, and the most important, aspect of Flannery O'Connor's Protestantism. Again, the discontinuity is apparent in fates of both of the main characters in "A Good Man": The Misfit is genuinely concerned—in fact he is obsessed—with the ultimate issues of the human condition, while the grandmother, up to the very instant of her election, is a nauseating hypocrite. Thus, the Misfit's sincere efforts to investigate his place in the universe are to no avail, while the grandmother seems to stumble into salvation. Milder's comments on Protestantism are illuminating with respect to the fate of both characters. The attempt of the Misfit to understand his condition is bound to fail, for total depravity decrees "that man's reason has become so obscured since the Fall and his nature so debased that he is wholly incapable of virtue in his unregenerate state." On the other hand, Milder's remarks on the grandmother are revealing to the extent that they tend to distort her experience. He sees "A Good Man" as one of O'Connor's more Catholic works in that the grandmother's election demonstrates "a free acceptance of grace," an aspect of the episode that Milder sees as "one of the few remaining doctrinal points which . . . [links Flannery O'Connor] to the Catholic tradition." In the first place, it is obvious that "acceptance," free or otherwise, is not a very active word to describe the grandmother's role in the episode. Even at that, her will is barely apparent in what looks like a gratuitous gesture that is utterly antithetical to everything else in her life. In fact, her attempt to touch the Misfit is much like the existentialists' gratuitous act in its radical discontinuity from what went before. Given the doctrine of total depravity, election must be gratuitous, which is to say a gift given out of the context of the receiver's life. Thus, the grandmother is suddenly converted by an overwhelming infusion of grace, an experience much like St. Paul's abrupt enlightenment at the moment of his fall from his horse. What we have, in short, is Protestant election.
There are obvious aesthetic advantages to this kind of abrupt turn-about through a direct confrontation with God. The experience of election, as Milder perceptively points out, is far more likely to be dramatically moving than gradual spiritual improvement through the mediation of the sacraments or the practice of good works. But what is missing from the stunning conversion of the grandmother is the sense of balance, the sense of justice, so central to what Thomas Acquinas called the via media, or the middle way. Acting in good faith is not, in this context, acting according to a specific body of doctrine, but rather the sort of endeavor the Misfit describes. He feels this kind of effort ought to be sufficient, but he does not believe it actually is. Conversely, the world in which the grandmother seems to be so arbitrarily saved, so far off the beaten track, or what we might call a middle way, does seem off-balance. The grotesque element that so many people have noted in O'Connor's fiction is in great part a result of this puzzling void between the few who seem to be somewhat arbitrarily saved, and just about everybody else, the depraved. This void is also a major feature of the surrealistic element in O'Connor's fiction, that nightmarish quality that pervades the allegorical landscapes in which her grotesque figures engage in Manichean struggle. But if we step back from the works and view them in the context of their author's avowed beliefs, the most significant struggle is not this Manichean battle between good and evil, but rather the conflict between Flannery O'Connor's tendency to conceive of the human condition in terms of stark polarities, and the tendency, infrequently fulfilled but implicit in her Catholicism, to view mankind in the context of a middle way. It is because of this second attitude that the world of her fiction appears to the Misfit, to the Catholic humanist in Flannery O'Connor, and no doubt to many readers as well, as off-balance, almost at times in fact, as grotesque.
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SOURCE: "The 'New Jesus'," in Flannery O'Connor: Voice of the Peacock, Fordham University Press, 1982, pp. 69-76.
[Feeley is an American author and educator with a special interest in the work of Flannery O'Connor. In the following excerpt, she views "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" as a clash between "a romanticist creating her own reality and an agnostic cut off from spiritual reality."]
A romanticist creating her own reality and an agnostic cut off from spiritual reality come into violent conflict in the title story of the first collection of O'Connor short stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find. One of her most perfectly wrought artifacts, it relates the meeting of a vacation-bound grandmother and her family with the Misfit, a psychopathic killer. A piece of comic realism, the story explores the characters' apprehension of reality—both natural and supernatural. The grandmother dominates the first half of the story; through its events one sees that her inability to grasp reality truly alienates her from its spiritual extensions. When the Misfit enters, he brings a different kind of alienation: he has an absolutely honest conception of reality which embodies all reason and no faith. His agnosticism cuts him off from the supernatural world. The violent conflict of these two views marks the advent of grace. About this violence, the author stated:
I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.
Violence moves into the story when a grey-haired man with "silver-rimmed spectacles that gave him a scholarly look" slides down the gully to the scene of the family's car accident, and the grandmother shrieks, "You're the Misfit!"
Up to this point, the structure and details of the story have given vivid life to an ordinary family, starting on their annual vacation. Through the action, each member of the family displays his attitude toward reality. A self-centered romantic, the grandmother arranges reality to suit herself when she can, and indulges in fantasy when she cannot. Her false gentility precludes any honest reaction to life: the naked Negro child whom they see in a doorway is "a cute little pickaninny" that she'd like to paint; the tombstones in the cotton field are remnants of a grandiose plantation. To Bailey, her son, bending over the sports section of the paper or over the steering wheel of the car, reality is a heavy weight. The world is real for him—too real. He faces it stolidly until his automobile accident attracts the Misfit. Then, eye-to-gun with his destiny, he can only reiterate, "We're in a predicament." His wife, called "the children's mother" all through the story, is alienated from reality by her passivity. She exhibits no will; she acquiesces to everyone. In the lunchroom, "June Star said play something she could tap to and the children's mother put in another dime"; in the gully the Misfit asks her if she'd like to join her husband who has just been led away to his death and she replies dazedly, "Yes, thank you." Her one statement of assertion concerning her son's exploring the old house—"We'll all stay in the car"—seems to signal her attitude toward life.
Only the children respond honestly (if brattishly) to reality. They fade out of view when the Misfit takes over the scene with his devastating honesty. But while they, with the grandmother, hold the center of the story, they are foils for her gentle deviousness. They listen to her trying to persuade their parents not to go to Florida. To Bailey she speaks of the danger of meeting the Misfit; to his wife she extols the educational advantages of travelling to new places, and they had all been to Florida. The boy, John Wesley, faces the truth: "If you don't want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?" On the trip, when the grandmother exclaims over the Negro child, June Star comments flatly, "He didn't have any britches on." The story seems to imply that the children instinctively see the visible world truly, and are therefore open to invisible reality.
When the family stops for lunch at The Tower, the scene points up a subtle contrast between man's penchant for closing his eyes to reality (a form of alienation) and an animal's immediate apprehension of it. When the family approaches the lunchroom, the children run toward "a grey monkey about a foot high, chained to a small chinaberry tree." The monkey responds by climbing to the highest limb of the tree. He knows how to deal with the world realistically. During lunch, the grandmother shows her tenuous grasp of reality. As the juke box plays, she pretends that she is dancing in her chair; to Red Sammy, the owner of The Tower, she presents her view that "Europe was entirely to blame for the way things were now." Even though she watches Red Sammy treat his wife as a menial, she calls him "a good man." She seems completely incapable of dealing with the real world. As the group leaves the lunchroom, they notice the monkey dealing effectively with reality; he is "catching fleas in himself and biting each one carefully between his teeth as if it were a delicacy." The two references to the monkey which frame the family's visit to the lunchroom seem to imply a comparison between man's power to deal subjectively with reality, and an animal's instinctive objective response.
As the trip progresses, the pace of the story quickens. The grandmother erroneously remembers an exciting old mansion slightly off their route; the children badger their father to make a detour; clouds of pink dust rise from the dirt road onto which the grandmother directs her son; Pitty Sing, the cat, springs out of the grandmother's hiding place and onto Bailey's shoulder, precipitating the accident. So real are the events of the story that one can accept the metaphysical turn which the story takes when the Misfit enters. With his appearance, two attitudes toward reality converge. The Misfit apprehends visible reality honestly; the grandmother rearranges visible and invisible reality to suit herself. The first conflict concerns the accident: "We turned over twice!" said the grandmother. "Oncet," the Misfit corrected. "We seen it happen." The conflict then moves rapidly to the center of supernatural reality: the Redemption. For the Misfit, it mattered whether or not Christ was God: if He was, then all lives were His; if He was not, then life was meaningless. For the grandmother, it really did not matter. She could adjust supernatural reality to her own liking—"Maybe He didn't raise the dead"—just as she could readjust natural reality—"not telling the truth but wishing she were." Although she talked religion—"If you would pray, Jesus would help you"—it is evident that Christ has no reality in her life. The author phrases this ambivalence succinctly: "Finally she found herself saying 'Jesus, Jesus,' meaning Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing."
One thing about the grandmother is clear: she believes she is a Southern lady. From her appearance at the beginning of the trip in her navy blue sailor hat to her genteel statement, "I think I have injured an organ" as she sits down in the ditch, the grandmother is a weak, plebeian version of the gentility of the Old South. But as her confrontation with the Misfit becomes more intense, more real, the gentility is stripped away. This is symbolized by the fate of her hat, the true sign of a lady: as the Misfit invites Bailey to his death, "the grandmother reached up to adjust her hat brim as if she were going to the woods with him but it came off in her hand. She stood staring at it and after a second she let it fall to the ground." Gradually her concern becomes more oriented to someone other than herself. Although she begins by begging for her life, she ends by pleading with the criminal to save himself. She tells him over and over to pray. It is a strange phenomenon for a person on the edge of death to tell her captor to pray rather than pray herself. Throughout the final dialogue, her concern is obviously with his conversion for her sake. But in a final moment of absolute reality, all pretense is over and vision fills the void: "the grandmother's head cleared for an instant," and her heart embraces the criminal in a movement of perfect charity. The Misfit's comment, "She would of been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life," indicates that he understands the impact of violence which has ended her alienation by returning her to reality and transformed her from a "lady" to a "good woman." The distance which the grandmother travelled after the speedometer registered 55,890 is the distance from her vacuous comment, "look at the cute little pickaninny" to her amazed realization of the bonds of humanity—"Why, you're one of my babies." The story's moment of grace is extended by the description of the dead woman "with her legs crossed under her like a child's [reborn in an act of selfless love] and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky."
The Misfit explains his philosophy clearly, and its echoes can be heard in the voices of Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, and other alienated agnostics of our time. Because he "wasn't there," and he couldn't "know," he refused to open his mind to belief. Some writers might have made him an existential hero, but Flannery O'Connor portrays the moral sterility of his world. The Misfit describes the world of the agnostic, forced to meaningless suffering in a world beyond his understanding, when he describes the penitentiary: "Turn to the right, it was a wall. . . . Turn to the left, it was a wall. Look up it was a ceiling, look down it was a floor." Symbolic of the Misfit's spiritual condition is the sky which overhangs the scene of the six passionless murders. He calls attention to it as he stands, seemingly embarrassed, in front of his captives. "Ain't a cloud in the sky," he remarked, looking up at it, "Don't see no sun but don't see no cloud either." While describing his walled existence, he looks up again at "the cloudless sky." As he faces the last of his victims, "there was not a cloud in the sky nor any sun." The sun suggests divinity, and clouds suggest rain, a biblical symbol for grace. The blankness of the sky suggests the Misfit's spiritually unlighted, unnourished world.
Yet the Misfit is a "good man" in many respects. The author draws him with compassion and puts him far ahead of Bailey and Red Sammy in gentleness and politeness. With his clear conception of the significance of Redemption, what bars him from belief? The story indicates that pride in his self-sufficiency blocks his apprehension of spiritual reality. An interesting theological corollary of this idea appears in Joseph Peiper's Belief and Faith. Peiper quotes from Cardinal Newman, whose influence on Flannery O'Connor seems evident from the number of books concerning him in her library, and her references to him in her essays and lectures. O'Connor marked this passage, in which Peiper says:
If a man becomes aware of certain teachings, or of certain data which purport to be the Word of God—then he cannot possibly assume the right to remain "neutral for the present." This is a point to which John Henry Newman repeatedly adverts. Men, he says, are greatly inclined to "wait quietly" to see whether proofs of the actuality of revelation will drop into their laps, as though they were in the position of arbitrators and not in that of the needy. "They have decided to test the Almighty in a passionless judicial fashion, with total lack of bias, with sober minds." It is an error as common as it is fatal, says Newman, to think that "truth may be approached without homage."
That homage is a mental attitude foreign to the Misfit seems immediately evident. His father had said of him when he was a child that he would have to know the "why" of everything. This complete dependence on reason excludes any apprehension of that which the mind of man cannot encompass. Coupled with his complete reliance on reason is the Misfit's self-sufficiency. In a wry repudiation of the crime of theft, he asserts that "nobody had nothing I wanted." That he also repudiates any reaching out toward supernatural reality becomes evident when he answers the grandmother's question, "Why don't you pray?" with the dogmatic assertion, "I don't want no hep; I'm doing all right by myself."
The books in Flannery O'Connor's library give strong evidence of her concern with this type of pride, which is the cause of spiritual alienation. Among her marked or signed books which reflect this interest are James Collins's The Existentialists; Martin Heidegger's Existence and Being; Gabriel Marcel's The Mystery of Being; Henri De Lubac's The Drama of Atheist Humanism; Ignace Lepp's Atheism in Our Time; and Martin Buber's The Eclipse of God. In this last volume, O'Connor marked a passage which seems to explain theologically the Misfit's state of mind:
All religious reality begins with what Biblical religion calls the "fear of God." It comes when our existence between birth and death becomes incomprehensible and uncanny, when all security is shattered through the mystery. This is not the relative mystery of that which is inaccessible only to the present state of human knowledge and is hence in principle discoverable. It is the essential mystery, the inscrutableness of which belongs to its very nature; it is the unknowable. Through this dark gate (which is only a gate and not, as some theologians believe, a dwelling) the believing man steps forth into the everyday which is henceforth hallowed as the place in which he has to live with the mystery. He steps forth directed and assigned to the concrete, contextual situations of his existence. That he henceforth accepts the situation as given him by the Giver is what Biblical religion calls the "fear of God."
The Misfit is standing in the "dark gate" of the unknowable, and has been standing there during his adult life—a misfit because he belongs neither with the complacent nor with the believers. This gate has become for him "a dwelling" because movement through it demands faith: "the believing man steps forth." Faith implies an acceptance of mystery, which, for the Misfit, is impossible, because he has to know "why." The story leaves open the possibility that the grandmother's mysterious action of love will open the Misfit's mind to the reality of mystery. The grandmother both reaches this gate and steps through it in a single action. Throughout her life she has been estranged from "religious reality" because her existence has never seemed "incomprehensible" or "uncanny" to her. Living only on the surface of life, she is unaware of its depth. She does not discern life's mystery; the Misfit does not accept it. Their conflict brings both face to face with religious reality. The grandmother embraces it, and the Misfit's response is deliberately ambiguous.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1928
SOURCE: "The Genesis of Flannery O'Connor's 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find'," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. X, No. 2, Autumn, 1982, pp. 227-31.
[In the following essay, Lasseter explores the real-life incidents that probably inspired O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."]
Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" begins as Bailey reads the sports section of the Atlanta Journal (the evening edition of the Constitution). The tableau is appropriate: a study of the genesis of "A Good Man" shows that from 1950 to 1952 O'Connor found substantial pieces of her short story in the Atlanta newspaper; her transformation of newspaper clippings into a tale of theology and violence on a Georgia back road provides insights into her creative process.
O'Connor frequently used newspaper accounts as source material for her fiction. Harvey Klevar has shown how O'Connor used advertisements and news articles from the Milledgeville Union Recorder for "A Late Encounter with the Enemy," "The Displaced Person," and for parts of Wise Blood. Like the woman in "Greenleaf" who collects morbid stories from the newspaper, O'Connor delighted in sending friends clippings of Hadacol advertisements, odd names from birth announcements, and such human interest stories as the report of Roy Rogers' horse attending church in California or the seven-year-old who won a talent contest singing "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." Commenting on her fascination with such miscellanea, O'Connor wrote: "I live in a rat's nest of old papers, clippings, torn manuscripts, ancient quarterlies, etc., etc., etc."
O'Connor's letters, collected in The Habit of Being, show that she was a fairly regular reader of the Constitution while she was working on "A Good Man," which she could have begun as early as 1950 and which she sold in 1953. O'Connor no doubt relied on newspapers as well as correspondence to communicate with the world outside Milledgeville after the first attacks of lupus put her in the hospital and made travel difficult. By the end of 1950, O'Connor was hospitalized in Milledgeville; in January, 1951, she was taken to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, where she also spent much of the summer of 1951. She was able to travel to Connecticut in the summer of 1952, but when she returned she was increasingly slowed down by her illness. During this summer, however, the Milledgeville paper gave her the idea for "A Late Encounter with the Enemy." In the fall, she read the Constitution closely while following the Eisenhower-Stevenson race. During this period she found several newspaper articles that inspired "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."
O'Connor may have clipped some stories from the Constitution as early as winter, 1950; these stories closely parallel some of the details in "A Good Man." Two other items in the fall of 1952 would provide O'Connor with the ideas for the dangerous escapees, the name of The Misfit, and the character of the polite killer who discusses theology at gunpoint. On February 15, for instance, the paper ran a front page account of a New Orleans man and his children whom burglars held captive for three hours. The two bandits showed unusual courtesy in fetching comic books for the boys and spirits of ammonia for the father, earning themselves this headline: "Two Gentle People Win Dad's Praise as Kindliest Bandits He Ever Met." On February 22, O'Connor may have noticed the story of Jack Ellis Vines, who had been sentenced to one hundred twenty years in prison for thirty armed robberies. As part of his rehabilitation for parole, Mr. Vines announced that he would be ordained into the ministry. Certainly the idea of the robber-preacher would have caught O'Connor's attention, adding a religious dimension to the character of the kindly bandit. In the same issue, O'Connor probably saw this more violent story: a woman testified secretly in Raleigh, North Carolina, about her flogging by the Ku Klux Klan. Since The Misfit in "A Good Man" has "even seen a woman flogged," perhaps this violent image began to transform the simple idea of the kindly bandit into something more complex and disturbing. Another kindly bandit story appeared on June 15, 1951, the summer of O'Connor's hospitalization at Emory. When three escaped convicts released their hostages, they gave the mother of two children sixty cents. The victim remarked that the convicts were "very considerate."
A character was growing in O'Connor's mind; his religious side took on new importance as O'Connor read (on July 11, 1951) about a thirty-year-old evangelist involved in an armed robbery. While his older brother (Bernie Lee) and another accomplice fatally wounded an Atlanta grocer during a hold-up, the evangelist prayed on his knees in the getaway car. In contrast to the comic incongruity of the preacher-robber, a report of a violent crime appeared in the August 4, 1951 Constitution. In this story, a fourteen-year-old boy admitted arguing with his father over money for a rifle. In the argument, the boy shot his father. Two days later, the Constitution reported another patricide. And in the same month, the paper featured two items about dangerous prison escapees. By now, O'Connor had in her "rat's nest" of clippings a kindly bandit, a robber-preacher, a flogging, several dangerous prison escapees, and a patricide.
Before leaving for Connecticut in the summer of 1952, O'Connor doubtless noticed another flogging story (June 2), this time about a public flogging of a wife beater in Delaware. She may have also read in August of the robber who blamed his crime on headaches: "Sometimes I don't know what I'm doing, I guess. I don't know what gets into me." Here is a source for the introspective but violent Misfit who patiently tries to explain his motives: "I forget what I done, lady. I set there and set there, trying to remember what it was I did and I ain't recalled it to this day."
The Habit of Being shows that O'Connor was following the Eisenhower-Stevenson race in the fall of 1952 closely enough to comment on some of John Crowe Ransom's letters to the editor. One can be almost certain, therefore, that she followed the sensational news of James Francis ("Maniac") Hill, which broke on the front page of the October 25 edition. This frightening report of criminals terrorizing innocent citizens supplied a major increment in the character of The Misfit. The story described "one of the largest police searches in the history of the South" for a "three-man gang led by a self-styled madman." (Hill was later committed to an insane asylum.) The report went on to identify the most recent of Hill's kidnapping victims, who had been forced to drive the Hill Gang from Tennessee to Atlanta. After kidnapping a Tennessee hunter and locking his companion in his car trunk, Hill gave his victim eight dollars so he could go back and release his friend.
The story of "Maniac" Hill, the politely insane kidnapper, competed with news of the presidential election. On the eve of the election, November 1, 1952, Hill made the front page again. A photograph shows a young man (twenty-nine) whose wire-rimmed spectacles and graying hair give him a look of age, wisdom, and kindliness. His photograph resembles O'Connor's description of The Misfit: "His hair was just beginning to gray and he wore silverrimmed spectacles that gave him a scholarly look." The man who called himself a "three gun maniac" said that he would have gone down shooting at the Florida roadblock had he not felt kindly toward the young couple he took as hostages.
The November 1 issue of the Constitution gave more details about Hill. He had only recently been released from prison in Florida when he made the first of twenty kidnappings in a "two-week rampage" that "advanced him from an obscure hoodlum to top billing as a public enemy." When asked why he did it, Hill said that after the first kidnapping "I faced more time than I could make anyway, so I decided I might as well have some fun"; in "A Good Man," Bobby Lee thinks that killing is "some fun!" A Florida prison superintendent's comment on Hill suggests a further parallel: Hill, he said, "apparently was just one of those adventurous kids who has to lead." O'Connor's criminal quotes his father as saying, "'It's some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it's others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He's going to be into everything!'"
Up to this point, newspaper articles had suggested to O'Connor the character of a gentle, polite, but dangerous criminal who kidnapped "for fun." Another article gave her an idea that transformed the front page criminal into an archetypal O'Connor character, The Misfit. On November 6, 1952, a headline in the Constitution read "The Misfit' Robs Office, Escapes with $150." The brief story told of a thirty-year-old male who walked into an Atlanta Federal Savings and Loan Office and handed the teller a bag with this message: "Put $150 in here and don't say anything. I have a gun, and I am The Misfit.'" This small-time criminal, his very name the equivalent of "Hard Luck" tattooed across the knuckles, suggested to O'Connor not only a social but also spiritual outlaw. O'Connor needed another party to the back road confrontation; she found her in a brief November 19 item about a pious sixty-yearold woman who survived five days in her car which had overturned in a ditch. "I just knew the Lord would send someone," the woman said. From these front page beginnings, O'Connor created her story of spiritual rebellion colliding with spiritual complacency.
O'Connor's creation of fiction from the newspaper confirms what she has written about her own creative processes. A recurring theme in her letters is that her fiction begins with an external stimulus: "I have to have a 'story' in mind—some incident or observation that excites me and in which I see fictional possibilities—before I can start a formal piece." As an example, "The Artificial Nigger" began on a trip with her mother to buy a cow (surely one of the most homely origins in American literature). When her mother stopped to ask directions, a farmer told her that she couldn't miss the place because "it was the only house in town with an artificial nigger." O'Connor was so intrigued by that comment that she said "I made up my mind to use it." The provocation for her fiction often came, then, from casual encounters, observation, anecdote, and newspapers. She remarked once that she had "one of those food-chopper brains, that nothing comes out the way it went in."
Of course, O'Connor was an artist who knew that a memory and a pair of scissors do not make art. One of her most important statements about fiction emphasizes the dimension that art adds to life: "Fiction is not a case history or a reported incident. . . because it has an extra dimension and I think the dimension comes about when the writer puts us in the middle of some human action and shows it illuminated and outlined by mystery." Like thousands of other readers, Flannery O'Connor read the Constitution's human interest items and accounts of criminals who were polite, religious, and mad. But out of these newspaper materials O'Connor fashioned a fiction with a mystery at the center: out of "Maniac" Hill and the Atlanta Misfit she created a symbol of the modern anti-Christ; out of the pious accident victim, a symbol of the modern infidel. She was attracted to these news accounts less by their sensationalism than by their fictional possibilities and ironic suggestions; her genius transformed these "human interest" stories into ironic and profound metaphors of modern disbelief.
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SOURCE: "A Good Man's Predicament," in The Southern Review, Vol. XX, No. 4, Autumn, 1984, pp. 836-41.
[In the following essay, Jones offers an alternative to O'Connor's interpretation of the controversial conclusion of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."]
Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" has been for the past decade or more a subject of virtually countless critical readings. Any brilliant work of fiction resists a single interpretation acceptable to everyone, but judging by the variousness and irreconcilability of so many readings of "A Good Man" one might conclude, as R. V. Cassili does, that like the work of Kafka the story "may not be susceptible to exhaustive rational analysis." The suggestion, I believe, would be quite apt if applied to a good many O'Connor stories. Not this one, however. If there are in fact authorial lapses, moments when the reader's gaze is led a little awry, they are simply that, lapses, instances of O'Connor nodding.
Much has been made of O'Connor's use of the grotesque, and the vacationing family in "A Good Man" is a case in point. The family members are portrayed almost exclusively in terms of their vices, so much so, it would seem, as to put them at risk of losing entirely not only the reader's sympathy but even his recognition of them as representatively human—a result certain to drain the story of most of its meaning and power. Such is not the result, however. What otherwise must prompt severity in the reader's response is mitigated here by laughter, the transforming element through which human evil is seen in the more tolerable aspect of folly. The author laughs and so do we, and the moral grossness of the family becomes funny to us. This is what engages and sustains our interest in them and, through the effect of distance that humor creates, makes possible our perception of their representative character.
What we see portrayed is increasingly recognizable. Here embodied in this family are standard evils of our culture. Indeed the term "family" is itself a misnomer, for there is no uniting bond. It is each for himself, without respect, without manners. The children, uncorrected, crudely insult their grandmother, and the grandmother for her own selfish ends uses the children against her surly son. The practice of deceit and the mounting of pietisms are constants in her life, and her praise of the past when good men were easy to find degrades that past by the banality of her memories. Even such memories as she has are not to be depended on; in fact, it is one of her "mis-rememberings" that leads the family to disaster.
But this portrait of unrelieved vulgarity is extended, and by more than implication only, to suggest the world at large. This is the function of the interlude at Red Sammy's barbecue joint where the child June Star does her tap routine and Red Sammy bullies his wife and engages with the grandmother in self-congratulatory conversation about the awfulness of the times and how hard it is to find a "good" man these days. It is hard indeed. In a world unleavened by any presence of the spiritual—a world portrayed, incidentally, in scores of contemporary TV sitcoms—where is a good man to be found? Nowhere, is the answer, though in one way the Misfit himself comes closest to earning the description.
The Misfit is introduced at the very beginning of the story by the grandmother who is using the threat of him, an escaped convict and killer, as a means of getting her own way with her son Bailey. After this the Misfit waits unmentioned in the wings until the portrait of this representative family is complete. His physical entrance into the story, a hardly acceptable coincidence in terms of purely realistic fiction, is in O'Connor's spiritual economy—which determines her technique—like a step in a train of logic. Inert until now, he is nevertheless the conclusion always implicit in the life of the family. Now events produce him in all his terror.
The Misfit comes on the scene of the family's accident in a car that looks like a hearse. The description of his person, generally that of the sinister red-neck of folklore, focuses on a single feature: the silver-rimmed spectacles that give him a scholarly look. This is a clue and a rather pointed one. A scholar is someone who seeks to know the nature of reality and a scholar is what the Misfit was born to be. As the Misfit tells the grandmother:
"My daddy said I was a different breed of dog from my brothers and sisters. 'You know', Daddy said, 'it's some can live their whole life without asking about it and it's others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He's going to be into everything!'"
And in the course of his life he has been into everything:
"I was a gospel singer for a while," the Misfit said. "I been most everything. Been in the arm service, both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twict married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive oncet," . . . "I even seen a woman flogged," he said.
Life and death, land and sea, war and peace, he has seen it all. And his conclusion, based on his exhaustive experience of the world, is that we are indeed in the "terrible predicament" against which Bailey, who is about to be murdered for no cause, hysterically cries out. "Nobody realizes what this is," Bailey says, but he is wrong. The Misfit knows what it is: a universal condition of meaningless suffering, of punishment that has no intelligible relationship to wrongs done by the victim.
"I call myself the Misfit," he said, "because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment." . . . "Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain't punished at all?" . . . "No, lady," . . . "I found out the crime don't matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you're going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it."
Now the Misfit signs everything and keeps a copy. That way:
"you'll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you'll have something to prove you ain't been treated right."
The Misfit, of course, makes reference here to one significant experience not included in the catalogue previously quoted, but this experience was probably the crucial one. He was sent to the penitentiary for a crime—killing his father—of which he has no memory. In fact he is certain that he did not do it. But they had the papers on him. So, without any consciousness of the crime for which he was being punished, he was "buried alive," as he says. And his description of his confinement, with walls every way he turned, makes an effective image of the Misfit's vision of the world.
The penitentiary experience, however, has a further important thematic significance. It is the very figure of a cardinal doctrine of Christianity, that of Original Sin. Man, conscious or not of the reason, suffers the consequences of Adam's Fall. Guilt is inherited, implicit in a nature severed from God's sustaining grace and submitted to the rule of a Prince who is Darkness. Hence a world deprived of moral order, where irrational suffering prevails: the world that the Misfit so clearly sees with the help of his scholarly glasses. Here, he believes, are the facts, the irremediable facts, of the human condition.
What the Misfit cannot see, or cannot believe in, is any hope of redress for the human condition. He may be haunted, at times tormented, by a vision of Christ raising the dead, but he cannot believe it: he was not there. All that he can believe, really believe, is what his eyes show him: this world without meaning or justice, this prison house where we are confined. Seeing this, what response is fitting? Says the Misfit:
"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 and his voice had become almost a snarl.
It is like the response of Satan himself, as Milton envisions it:
Save what is in destroying; other joy To me is lost.
But release for hate of an unjust creation is at best an illusory pleasure. "It's no real pleasure in life," the Misfit says, after the carnage is complete.
What has driven the Misfit to his homicidal condition is his powerful but frustrated instinct for meaning and justice. It may be inferred that this same instinct is what has produced his tormenting thoughts about Christ raising the dead, making justice where there is none. If only he could have been there when it happened, then he could have believed.
"I wisht I could have been there," he said, hitting the ground with his fist. "It ain't right I wasn't there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady," he said in a high voice, "if I had of been there I would have known and I wouldn't be like I am now."
It is torment to think of what might have been, that under other circumstances he would have been able to believe and so escape from the self he has become. In light of this it is possible to read the Misfit's obscure statement that Jesus "mowed everything off balance," as meaning this: that it would have been better, for the world's peace and his own, if no haunting doubt about the awful inevitability of man's condition ever had been introduced. In any case it could only be that doubt has made its contribution to the blighting of the Misfit's soul.
But doubts like this are not enough to alter the Misfit's vision. In the modern manner he believes what he can see with his eyes only, and his eyes have a terrible rigor. It is this rigor that puts him at such a distance from the grandmother who is one of the multitude "that can live their whole life without asking about it," that spend their lives immersed in a world of platitudes which they have never once stopped to scrutinize. This, his distinction from the vulgarians whom the grandmother represents, his honesty, is the source of the Misfit's pride. It is why, when the grandmother calls him a "good" man, he answers: "Nome, I ain't a good man," . . . "but I ain't the worst in the world neither." And it is sufficient reason for the violent response that causes him so suddenly and unexpectedly to shoot the grandmother. Here is what happens, beginning with the grandmother's murmured words to the Misfit:
"Why, you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children." She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.
Given the Misfit's image of himself, her words and her touching, blessing him, amount to intolerable insult, for hereby she includes him among the world's family of vulgarians. One of her children, her kind, indeed!
This reason for the Misfit's action is, I believe, quite sufficient to explain it, even though Flannery O'Connor, discussing the story in Mystery and Manners, implies a different explanation. The grandmother's words to the Misfit and her touching him, O'Connor says, are a gesture representing the intrusion of a moment of grace. So moved, the grandmother recognizes her responsibility for this man and the deep kinship between them. O'Connor goes on to say that perhaps in time to come the Misfit's memory of the grandmother's gesture will become painful enough to turn him into the prophet he was meant to be. Seen this way, through the author's eyes, we must infer an explanation other than my own for the Misfit's action. This explanation would envision the Misfit's sudden violence as caused by his dismayed recognition of the presence in the grandmother of a phenomenon impossible to reconcile with his own view of what is real. Thus the Misfit's act can be seen as a striking out in defense of a version of reality to whose logic he has so appallingly committed himself.
Faced with mutually exclusive interpretations of a fictional event, a reader must accept the evidence of the text in preference to the testimonial of the author. And where the text offers a realistic explanation as opposed to one based on the supernatural, a reader must find the former the more persuasive. If the two are in fact mutually exclusive. And if, of course, it is true that the acceptability of the author' s explanation does in fact depend upon the reader's belief in the supernatural. As to this second condition, it is a measure of O'Connor's great gift that the story offers a collateral basis for understanding grace that is naturalistic in character. This grace may be spelled in lower case letters but the fictional consequence is the same. For sudden insight is quite within the purview of rationalistic psychology, provided only that there are intelligible grounds for it. And such grounds are present in the story. They are implicit in the logic that connects the grandmother and the Misfit, that makes of the Misfit "one of my own children." In the hysteria caused by the imminence of her death, which strips her of those banalities by which she has lived, the grandmother quite believably discovers this connection. And so with the terms of the Misfit's sudden violence. His own tormenting doubt, figured in those preceding moments when he cries out and hits the ground, has prepared him. Supernatural grace or not, the Misfit in this moment sees it as such, and strikes.
These two, the author's and my own, are quite different explanations of the Misfit's sudden violence. Either, I believe, is reasonable, though surely the nod should go to the one that more enriches the story's theme. If the two are mutually exclusive. I believe, however, that they are not. Such a mixture of motives, in which self-doubt and offended pride both participate, should put no strain on the reader's imagination. And seen together each one may give additional dimension to the story.
"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is perhaps Flannery O'Connor's finest story—coherent, powerfully dramatic, relentless, and unique. In essence it is a devastating sermon against the faithlessness of modern generations, man bereft of the spirit. This condition, portrayed in the grossness of the vacationing family, barely relieved by the pious and sentimental prattle of the grandmother, produces its own terror. The Misfit enters, not by coincidence but by the logic implicit in lives made grotesque when vision has departed. He, O'Connor tells us, is the fierce avenger our souls beget upon our innocent nihilism.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3680
SOURCE: "'The Meanest of Them Sparkled': Beauty and Landscape in Flannery O'Connor's Fiction," in Realist of Distances: Flannery O'Connor Revisited, edited by Karl-Heinz Westarp and Jan Nordby Gretlund, Aarhus University Press, 1987, pp. 147-55.
[Martin is an American author and educator with a special interest in O'Connor's work. In the following excerpt, he examines moments of epiphanic beauty in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."]
"'We've had an ACCIDENT,'" the children cry gleefully. "'But nobody's killed,' June Star said with disappointment." Within a few minutes, June Star is dead, and so is the rest of her family. This extraordinary irony informs the story in several ways. Like Eliot being surprised that so many have crossed the bridge or Ransom's characters being astonished at a child's death, we as readers of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" are awed by the swiftness and finality of the six deaths effected by The Misfit. I think we come back to the story time and again to experience this awe and to inquire into it. We are, in this, somewhat like Mrs. Greenleaf, who clips stories of grotesque deaths and bizarre suffering so that she can wallow in the dirt and pray over them. There is a medieval quality about the centrality of death in O'Connor's fiction.
There are, however, other dimensions to the irony of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," specifically, that the automobile accident and the swift deaths following it constitute an opening up, a movement of this fiction to a moment when Flannery O'Connor shows us, as she so often does, the landscape of eternity. Rather than showing us, as Eliot does, "Fear in a handful of dust," she shows us beauty in the most horrible of human experiences. This journey of the imagination from the horrible to the truth of God's grace has been an important response often noted by O'Connor's readers. Nevertheless, there is a wallowing in the dirt about it all, for we too often assume that it is only through the ugly and the grotesque, through suffering and pain, through loss and death that the grand truths of the universe emerge from Wise Blood, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, The Violent Bear It Away, and Everything That Rises Must Converge. However, O'Connor presented the beauty of this world as vividly as sunlight through the stained-glass window of a Gothic cathedral or the brilliant icons of the churches of Byzantium. It is this beauty I want to show in its importance in the total perception of O'Connor's fiction. It is one reason for her popularity—not just among academics but among readers everywhere of every persuasion and personal circumstance.
In his introduction to Everything That Rises Must Converge, Robert Fitzgerald took issue with those who complained that O'Connor's fiction "lacked a sense of natural beauty and human beauty." In refutation, Fitzgerald cites a line from a beautiful story, which is actually also O'Connor's most notoriously violent story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." The line reads: "The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled." More generally but relevant to this passage, Fitzgerald says: "Beyond incidental phrasing and images, beauty lies in the strong invention and execution of the things, as in objects expertly forged or cast or stamped, with edges, not waxen and worn or softly moulded." For this quality he uses the term ascesis because of its economy, its spareness and brevity. Further, he contends that the wife in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" carries out a beautiful action when she politely says "Yes, thank you," to her murderer, as he leads her away into the woods. Such actions, he contends, are beautiful, "though as brief as beautiful actions usually are."
In spite of Fitzgerald's pointing the way, too little has been written about the very real beauty to be found in O'Connor's fiction. She herself does not use the word often, but in her nonfiction she makes it clear that beauty is very important to her view of the world. In a letter to "A" she states: "I am one, of course, who believes that man is created in the image and likeness of God. I believe that all creation is good. . . ." And when reviewers failed to see that there was (according to her) no bitterness in her stories but a cherishing of the world, she took their failure to be a moral one and tantamount to "what Nietzche meant when he said God was dead." She admits that her stories in A Good Man Is Hard to Find contain ". . . many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born," but contends that reviewers have "hold of the wrong horror." She insists that "you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it."
I want to demonstrate in several of O'Connor's works a pattern of beauty which I take to be an important part of the rhetorical structure of her fiction. These patterns happen to be at one with the narrative structure, and they are at one with her own statements in regard to what the works are "about." She once complained in a letter to Sister Mariella Gable that critics too often do not see what is really there, and she invoked Gerard Manley Hopkins' notion of "inscape" to explain what she meant. Her method is at one with so many other writers who have, like Hopkins, written in Tied Beauty' about:
All things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; . . .
It is a method of indirection that nevertheless is especially about the beautiful. One thinks of Emily Dickinson, who spoke of this matter in one of her poems:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant— . . . The truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind—
She carries out what Robert Browning's painter "Fra Lippo Lippi" claimed was one of the artist's functions:
. . . We're made so that we love First when we see them painted, things we have passed Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see; . . . Art was given for that; . . .
O'Connor was herself a visual artist as well as a literary one. Robert Fitzgerald describes some of this graphic art: "They are simple but beautiful paintings of flowers in bowls, of cows under trees, of the Negro house under the bare trees of winter." Her literary work is also highly visual, and when this visualization is specifically beautiful it often constitutes a special form of punctuation that gives rhythm and shape to the structure of her narrative. One must look carefully to appreciate this aesthetic, for it is similar to what Auden perceives about Breughel and the old masters in his poem "Musée des Beaux Arts": Those painters understood, he says, the human position of suffering,
. . . how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along, . . . That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse Scratches its innocent behind on a tree
The beauty in O'Connor's stories is that way: it occurs casually, is understated, characterized by the spareness of ascesis, and is usually surrounded by ugliness, banality, or violence. The result, however, is not necessarily an impression that beauty is chimerical or accidental but instead that it is the reality that informs the entire structure of the affective world she portrays. "For the almost blind," she wrote, "you draw large and startling figures." Which is to say that she, like Dickinson, doubted the capacity of her audience to look directly and consistently upon the beauty that she herself perceived in the universe. Breughel's "The Blind People," portrays in the foreground a single file of stumbling, wildly disoriented blind men; but in the background landscape is the church. The rhetoric could not be simpler or clearer. In his "The Fall of Icarus" the rhetoric is similar; the great tragic drowning is proportionately minuscule in comparison to the coarse farmer, his ox and plow cutting fresh furrows in the foreground. In "The Hunters in the Snow" Breughel creates unusual beauty from a severe, colorless and cold landscape by investing it with meaning that comes from the shape of life and activity and the sense of returning home or coming into the open. The village and the frozen lake lie below the men and their slender dogs.
O'Connor's use of such forms of beauty is found throughout her work. . . . In "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," we find what might be called a brief conceit of grotesque beauty: "A fat yellow moon appeared in the branches of the fig tree as if it were going to roost there with the chickens." The poetic adequacy of this sentence is as fully realized as Ezra Pound's poem, "In a Station of the Metro":
The apparition of those faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough.
O'Connor's sentence achieves what Pound himself claims for his poem and his concept of Imagisme and vorticism: that the image when presented directly transforms an outward and objective thing "into a thing inward and subjective," but he goes on to say that "the image is not an idea. It is a radiant node or cluster, . . . a vortex, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing." Pound quotes Thomas Aquinas, Nomina sunt consequentia rerum, that is, names are the consequence of things. O'Connor's sentence permits the reader to find beauty where it would not have been perceived without the intervention of art; she permits the beauty and objective propriety of the moon/fig tree/chickens image to emerge. The entire matter illustrates the meaning of a passage she underlined in her copy of Croce's "A Breviary of Aesthetics": "Art is an ideal within the four corners of an image." In this case the ideal is linked with the actual and is made flesh by the linking of heavenly bodies with earthly ones—a converging of actualities in one plane of perception. Another fleeting but beautiful image in an unlikely context is Mrs, Lucynell Crater's perception of the evening sun in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own": it "appeared to be balancing itself on the peak of a small mountain." Mrs. Crater sits "with her arms folded across her chest as if she were the owner of the sun." The sun, from her perspective, is indeed on the mountain, and as seen from her porch it is indeed her sun. Just as she is confident that her chickens are roosting in her fig tree, so the moon must be there and be hers. Her literal-mindedness and simplicity are counterbalanced by Mr. Shiftlet's mechanical rationality and calculatingly evil opportunism. The flashes of beauty, brief though they may be, enable the reader to understand the wholeness of the world portrayed by O'Connor—its depth and its contradictions and its multiple realities.
When a reader enters an O'Connor story by looking through such windows that open onto beauty—particularly when he feels that the narrative house from which he looks is filled with darkness and terror and malignity—he is experiencing what Martin Heidegger referred to as "coming into the open." Heidegger asserts that "meaning is . . . not a property attaching to entities, lying 'behind' them, or floating somewhere as an 'intermediate domain.'" It is the field upon which "something becomes intelligible as something." Heidegger contends that the poet experiences the abyss (the "default of God," he calls it) and causes readers to reach into the abyss to discover divine radiance shining "in everything that is" and also to realize that absence is presence, "the ancient name of Being." In "What are Poets For?" Heidegger says that they "sense the trace of fugitive gods" and trace for others the way toward the turning. In the midst of the unholy, he claims, the songs of the venturesome poets (those who take dangerous risks) turn "our unprotected being into the Open."
A reader's experience of coming into the open by way of O'Connor's punctuation of beauty is more elaborately realized in one of her most violent and disturbing stories, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." The pattern of this story is a series of scenes in confined space which are seen in the context of unbounded space—light, sky, clouds, and woods seen from above so that they stretch out as the blue tops of trees. The story moves from the unpleasant circumstances of three-generational family life to the awesome absence of the lives so recently present. Yet this movement is one that leads us from the beauty of the world to the beauty of death or perhaps to the beauty of grace attendant upon death. The key lines form an image cluster that controls this meaning. Significantly, the perception originates with the grandmother, just as the presence of grace is understood only with reference to her at the time of the mass murder. When the family is setting out on their Florida trip, the grandmother tries to share the beauty she sees with the ill-tempered children, Wesley and June Star:
She pointed out interesting details of the scenery: Stone Mountain; the blue granite that in some places came up to both sides of the highway; the brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple; and the various crops that made rows of green lace-work on the ground. The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.
All of these images are patently beautiful: the mountain, the granite, the red clay, the crops, the trees, the sunlight, and in the combination that O'Connor places them, they are poetic and constitute a potential vortex, a radiant node or cluster into which the meaning of the story eventually enters. Only five of the twenty-one pages of the story do not contain cognate imagery. Even though we do not perceive it as beauty as it casually occurs, this imagery represents the macrocosm of the story and permits the reader to come into the open thematically on what O'Connor calls elsewhere "the true country." The fleeting signs of the reality of that country are in this story the woods filled with light, beginning with the grandmother's paean and moving through the chinaberry tree at Red Sammy Butts', the "blue tops of trees for miles around," trees that look down on the family car, "woods, tall and dark and deep," "woods [that] gaped like a dark open mouth," and the woods that relentlessly devour the family before the awestruck grandmother: "Alone with The Misfit, the grandmother found that she had lost her voice. There was not a cloud in the sky nor any sun. There was nothing around her but woods." At this point the story has moved from the circumstantial beauty of the affective world to the ideal and permanent beauty of the action of grace that paradoxically informs the irrational gesture in which the grandmother reaches out to touch The Misfit, anagogically accepting him as her own, as Christ accepted sinners.
This remarkable conclusion to the story has been explained by O'Connor herself in terms of grace and its focus on the grandmother, but her explanation is not easy for many readers who see in the foreground a homicidal maniac carrying out a mass murder. However, if the reader examines the structure of the story, the affirmation of this reading is more available, even to the reader who may be unfamiliar with O'Connor's explanation. The pattern already described is enhanced by its contrapuntal movement with reference to the imagery of enclosure. The grim, threatening quality of the story begins before the appearance of The Misfit and is associated with the microcosm of the family, specifically as they are presented enclosed and entrapped, so confined and relentlessly bound to each other's presence that, except for the grandmother, they are unable to look out to the larger world or to conceive of the possibility that they may come into the open, enter a larger, freer, more beautiful world.
The first of these enclosures is the home itself. Only one and one-half pages long, it is a tightly blocked stage setting which conveys the maddening intimacy of family life. Bailey, the father, is unsuccessfully trying to escape by immersing himself in the sports section of the Journal. The garrulous grandmother is invading everyone's space by fatuously claiming a role as wise elder, warning the family of The Misfit and trying to change the plans for the trip to Florida; that she is expressing her desperate lack of belonging, of being an unwanted outsider is borne out by the cruel remarks of the children, who are lying on the floor reading the funny papers: ". . . why dontcha stay at home?" one of them asks. The mother, "whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage," sits on the sofa in quiet desperation, feeding apricots to the baby. The terrible proximity of them all creates an atmosphere of hysteria, and the reader's inclination is to scream and flee. This first instance of enclosure is brief and quite intense.
The enclosure in the automobile is similarly cloying because of the quite raw conflicts between the generations: a lonely and silly old woman trying to be cheerful and agreeable, children who are by turns ill-mannered or sullenly oblivious, and parents who are almost stupefied and overtaxed by their role as the responsible adults. They are caged and baffled in a rolling domestic zoo, objectified with satire and irony by the grandmother's stories, the children's cloud game, the baby being passed to the back seat, and occasional glimpses of the quickly passing stable world outside the car, one of which, the Negro child, the grandmother would like to bring into stasis: "If I could paint, I'd paint that picture," she says. The overwhelming irony of the boredom and tension is that the end of it in the affective world is not reconciliation or a coming into love and harmony but sudden death.
The same ironic pathos informs the details of the third objectification of the existential enclosure of life in the countryside or the fallen world. Red Sammy Butts' restaurant, "The Tower was a long dark room with a counter at one end and tables at the other and dancing space in the middle." The discontent and hostility continue: Bailey glares at his mother when she asks him to dance, June Star insults Red Sammy's wife, he tells his wife "to quit lounging on the counter and hurry up with these people's order." The conversation is premonitory and pessimistic in its concern with The Misfit and the degeneration of mankind in general. It is a relief when "The children ran outside into the white sunlight and looked at the monkey in the lacy chinaberry tree."
The next narrative block returns to the enclosure of the automobile. It is at this time that the grandmother awakens "outside of Toombsboro" (note the extension of the irony and the imagery) with her plan to visit an old plantation, the venture that leads them to their encounter with The Misfit. The children are eager to get out of the car. The imagery of the secret panel and hidden silver and the sudden emergence of the cat from its basket foreshadow the sudden and catastrophic opening up of the narrative and of the six lives.
With the grandmother, the reader is awed by the ten-page conclusion to the story, more than one-third of its length. O'Connor protracts this event. She has prepared us for it carefully, so that when we see the hearselike car on the hill and look down upon the family spilled out from their banal entrapment into the big world, we know the terrible outcome at once. Thus we must participate in the moment of dying, with horror, outrage, and finally with wonder. This narration is somewhat like the medieval drama Everyman in which the protagonist's moment of death is expanded artistically and dramatically to include his realization, his pleading, his acceptance, and his receiving the sacraments and God's grace. A similar effect is achieved by Tolstoy in "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" and by William Faulkner in his treatment of the death of Joe Christmas in Light in August. To stand for so long before the mystery of death enables the reader to realize the irrelevance of the banality, the tension, the petty egotism and pride which constitute the ordinary life in physical and metaphysical confinement. This we are made aware of by the events at large and by passages of humbly apocalyptic beauty: "There was a pistol shot from the woods, followed closely by another. Then silence. The old lady's head jerked around. She could hear the wind move through the tree tops like a long satisfied insuck of breath. 'Bailey Boy!' she called."
That the grandmother's action of reaching out to The Misfit signifies the moment when grace is manifest is a received truth about the story. It is not, however, a surprise ending. Her identity with grace occurs early and at several points before this conclusion. Coming into the open is clearly part of the story's structure and imagery, and part of the grandmother's character. We see this, for example, after the others have been taken away; she is alone with The Misfit and O'Connor confirms in this penultimate moment her having come into the open: "There was not a cloud in the sky nor any sun. There was nothing around her but woods. She wanted to tell him that he must pray. She opened and closed her mouth several times before anything came out. Finally she found herself saying, 'Jesus, Jesus,' meaning Jesus will help you. . . ." Again the imagery of clouds, sky, sun, and trees objectifies beauty, spare and stark though it be; the end thus returns to the beginning image of the meanest trees filled with light.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7143
SOURCE: "Cats, Crime, and Punishment: The Mikado's Pitti-Sing in 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find'," in English Studies in Canada, Vol. XIV, No. 4, December, 1988, pp. 436-50.
[In the following essay, Dyson explores the links between The Mikado and "A Good Man Is Hard to Find, " maintaining that "both works explore thematically the significance of the mysteriously arbitrary design by which characters and situations are moved despite themselves."]
If the grandmother is, as she appears to be, the "good man" who is so hard to find in Flannery O'Connor's story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," then who or what, one wonders, is Pitty Sing, the grandmother's cat? Her namesake is of course one of the "Three Little Maids from School" who come tripping on-stage early in Act 1 of Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta The Mikado. The connection between Pitti-Sing and Pitty Sing might not appear to be worth following up but for two reasons: the first is the nature of the fiction O'Connor was writing at this stage of her career; the second, growing out of the first, is that O'Connor herself seems clearly to reinforce the connection of the names by making one of the key utterances in her tale a clear echo of the best-known sentence from W. S. Gilbert's sardonic libretto. The Mikado explains himself and his conception of justice to his subjects by announcing, "My object all sublime / I shall achieve in time—/To let the punishment fit the crime—/The punishment fit the crime." The Misfit attempts to explain himself and the way, in his view, justice functions, to the bewildered grandmother by saying: "I call myself The Misfit because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment."
Few commentators on the story have had anything to say about Pitty Sing, and those that have have been less than helpful. Puzzlement is the usual response; ignorance of, or generalized comment on, the connection with The Mikado character the norm. Josephine Hendin, the major commentator to date on Pitty Sing, may be taken as representative of how far interpretation of the cat's function in the tale has gone. "The meaning of the cat," she writes [in The World of Flannery O'Connor, 1970], "seems to derive precisely from its symbolic thinness. That a pet, a cat, leaping at random for no great reason, should cause the destruction of an entire family expresses the randomness, the pointlessness of the murders." Life, and indeed cats, may be random, but O'Connor as a writer, especially at this stage of her career, was emphatically not. Reading Wise Blood, written about the same time though published a year earlier, one feels that if it has a fault as a novel it is the almost excessively logical density of its symbolic texture. Only an insensitive reader could miss the precisely crafted significance of individual props (for example, Haze's Jesus-seeing hat, the potato-peeling machine, or, indeed, the mummy, revealed in the fullness of time and plot as the new Jesus of the Church of Christ without Christ) and the ingenious intricacy of the roles these props are called on to play or the interlocking system of character-doubling which underpins, with almost too cerebral a clarity, the fictional structure. "Symbolic thinness," "random," and "pointless" are inappropriate terms to apply to O'Connor's fictional technique in this tale which shares many of Wise Blood's characteristics.
I am less interested in "proving" sources than in following up some of the numerous and complex Mikado echoes in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," letting them throw what light they can; the fact that the light is considerable is less surprising than one might suppose. The priorities of this paper preclude an extended discussion of Gilbert's libretto, the best-known of course among many, but, to a reader familiar with both, it is obvious that important aspects of its technique—the hardness of its intellectual structure and its witty brilliance—are manifest in O'Connor's early fiction. Utilizing the major elements of wit—paradox, reversals of language and action—both works explore thematically the significance of the mysteriously arbitrary design by which characters and situations are moved despite themselves. But while Gilbert's all-powerful Mikado figure is deployed along his happily despotic way for purposes of social satire, the vagaries of human pretension are exploited by O'Connor as the material for a blackly comic exploration of the terrifying nature of Providence. A clue to that nature is provided by the epigraph to the volume A Good Man Is Hard to Find, a feature of the story to which I shall return.
The primary usefulness of Pitty Sing, the connector between the two works, is to illuminate the roles of The Misfit and the grandmother in the O'Connor story; nevertheless, it is more useful to begin with a broader perspective. The best starting-point for seeing how the road coming out of the town square of Titipu leads structurally to the back roads of Georgia is the Mikado himself. Five minutes into the first act we learn that this supreme, arbitrary law-giver had paradoxically begun his reign by introducing a law with a purportedly educative purpose. Intended as "A plan whereby / Young men might best be steadied," it has succeeded in nothing but handing the kingdom over to absurdity and reducing the idea of law to a mockery. The "crime" is flirting, the punishment, beheading: "Our great Mikado, virtuous man, / When he to rule our land began, / Resolved to try / A plan whereby / Young men might best be steadied. / So he decreed in words succinct, / That all who flirted, leered or winked / (Unless connubially linked), / Should forthwith be beheaded."
The absurd law begets a correlatively absurd response, reductive in nature, from the affected townspeople: "And I expect you'll all agree / That he was right to so decree. / And I am right / And you are right, / And all is right as right can be!" The law is a great leveller since everyone in Titipu is equally affected, but it is the young who suffer most: "The youth who winked a roving eye, / Or breathed a non-connubial sigh, / Was thereupon condemned to die—/He usually objected."
Well might the youth of Titipu cry out with the voice of The Misfit, "I call myself The Misfit because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment." However, The Misfit's perception of the irrationality of punishment is more thoroughgoing since it draws out the Mikado's logic one step further: If the severity of punishment is pushed beyond all logical correlation, then all crimes take on the same moral weight. His reply to the grandmother's question about what he did to get sent to the penitentiary the first time makes the point unmistakably: "I forget what I done, lady. . . . I found out the crime don't matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you're going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it."
The final stanza of the song about the Mikado's law introduces a new character, Ko-Ko, whose career finds an astonishing echo in that of The Misfit. The townspeople of Titipu had taken counter-action against the threat of near-universal decapitation: "And so we straight let out on bail, / A convict from the county jail, / Whose head was next / On some pretext / Condemned to be mown off, / And made him Headsman, for we said, / 'Who's next to be decapited / Cannot cut off another's head / Until he's cut his own off.'" Ko-Ko, the "cheap tailor," released in order to be appointed headsman, becomes thereby a paradox: through the townspeople's recognition of their mutual vulnerability, he becomes his own next victim—the lowest man in the kingdom, the condemned man—simultaneously with the highest (since the rank of Lord High Executioner is the highest next to that of the Lawgiver himself). Ko-Ko thus points towards both The Misfit's paradoxical Jesus "who thown everything off balance" by becoming simultaneously the lowest and the highest, the all-powerful Being who allows himself to be put to death, and towards The Misfit himself, who is the condemnedman-turned-executioner of the grandmother and her family.
The Mikado, accepting the logic underlying the townspeople's stratagem, extends it by adopting a moral stance which links Titipu structurally with Georgia. Pooh-Bah explains: "Our logical Mikado, seeing no moral difference between the dignified judge who condemns a criminal to die, and the industrious mechanic who carries out the sentence, has rolled the two offices into one, and every judge is now his own executioner." O'Connor follows the pattern by rolling the two offices into one, requiring The Misfit to act as both "judge" and "mechanic."
However, the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] distinguishes two principal meanings of the verb "judge": 1. "To try or pronounce sentence; to condemn"; and 2. "To form an opinion about; to estimate; to appraise." The first meaning is the more relevant to The Mikado, but it is The Misfit's interest in the second that leads to his carrying out the first. "My daddy," he confides to the grandmother, "said I was a different breed of dog from my brothers and sisters. 'You know,' Daddy said, 'it's some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it's others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He's going to be into everything!'" The Misfit is moved to pass sentence on individual cases by his impulse to philosophize on the nature of the circumstances which produce the individual cases: Since Jesus "has thown everything off balance . . . 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." The fruits of this considered judgement are the decision to kill the family. The execution of Bailey together with his wife and children he delegates to Hiram and Bobby Lee; the execution of the grandmother he reserves—for reasons of narrative strategy suggested by The Mikado—for himself.
That the unanticipated, though very logical, corollary of the Mikado's "object all sublime"—the ironic transformation of victim into judge and executioner—helps account for O'Connor's conception of The Misfit should now be clear, but, as a matter of fact, the character in whom the judge-executioner pattern occurs most startlingly is not The Misfit but the grandmother herself. It is her case which is dramatized in the story; it is she whom O'Connor makes act out—for the most part unwittingly—the pattern of crime-punishment-victim-judge-executioner before the reader's disbelieving eyes. Indeed, she exhibits the pattern with a good deal more subtlety and complexity than The Misfit himself does. But The Misfit, as his name suggests, is a special case, while the grandmother is the average person who, by means of the savage logic of paradox (both The Mikado's and O'Connor's), is turned into the opposite of what she intended to be. Let us trace the pattern first, then, as she exhibits it.
The grandmother is established, in the story's abrupt opening sentence ("The grandmother didn't want to go to Florida") in terms of her "wants"—characteristically negative—and of the destinations she either rejects or aims at. She immediately begins to manipulate to achieve her goal of getting to Tennessee rather than to Florida, pointing out to her son Bailey with an air of self-satisfaction that an escaped convict is headed towards Florida: "I wouldn't take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn't answer to my conscience if I did." The course of action she embarks on develops according to a Titipu logic unperceived by herself or those accompanying her to lead to an end other than that which she envisages: by sending the family mistakenly down the abandoned road, she unwittingly leads her child and his children in precisely the direction in which the criminal is "aloose"; by starting up suddenly in the car when she realizes her mistake—that she has led them down the road to her not-yet-abandoned "want" to go to Tennessee—she lets the concealed denizen of Titipu, the cat Pitty Sing, "aloose" among them to cause the accident; by voicing her recognition of The Misfit, she seals her fate, sending them all to their ultimate destination.
Bizarre as it sounds, her "crime" is nothing more than to want to go to Tennessee rather than to Florida, and to engage in manipulation to get there; her punishment is that she has to "answer to [her] conscience" for leading her family to their deaths and to lose her own life. The disproportion is scarcely less absurd than that of being decapitated for flirting. The logic, therefore, by which the grandmother becomes victim and executioner is easy enough to trace; it is perhaps more difficult to see her as "judge." Nevertheless, it is the handling of the "judge" aspect that reveals most clearly O'Connor's reworking of the Mikado material into something extraordinarily original. Understanding it requires turning to another character from The Mikado, one who has bequeathed to the grandmother her most notable characteristic, her defining of herself by her gentility.
This is Pooh-Bah, the courtier who sets out the Mikado's logic in combining the offices of judge and executioner. Pooh-Bah relates that when Ko-Ko, the condemned man, was released from prison to be made Lord High Executioner, all the great officers of state resigned in a body because they were too proud to serve under a former criminal. Pooh-Bah thereupon allowed himself to be persuaded to accept all their various offices to become Lord High Everything Else, an act which required him to mortify his family pride since, as he disarmingly confesses, "I am, in point of fact, a particularly haughty and exclusive person, of pre-Adamite ancestral descent. . . . my family pride is something inconceivable. I can't help it. I was born sneering."
Pooh-Bah is invited, in the course of Act 1, to take on one more office, Lord High Substitute, which means putting his head on the block in place of Ko-Ko for whom a substitute victim is required. Pooh-Bah predictably declines, but the reasons he gives are instructive for understanding O'Connor's conception of the grandmother. He advances family pride as the reason why he is simultaneously obliged both to accept and decline the honour: "I am so proud, / If I allowed / My family pride / To be my guide, / I'd volunteer / To quit this sphere / Instead of you, / In a minute or two." Family pride must be "mortified," however; humility forbids him to make such a straightforwardly heroic gesture.
Family pride has two sides according to Pooh-Bah: the first is the noblesse oblige dimension which inspires man to rise magnanimously to heroic challenges; the second is the exploitative dimension which tempts man to use his gentility merely to avoid unpleasantness. Pooh-Bah achieves the second by paying lip-service to the first; in the very act of acknowledging that noblesse does oblige him to put himself forward as voluntary victim, he parodies the obligation by ironically turning it into self-promotional capital—advancing it as a reason why he should not have to die.
The grandmother's conception of gentility is altogether shabbier; that noblesse should oblige her to anything does not enter her head, although she is as quick as Pooh-Bah to lay the obligation on others. For her, gentility is a pure and simple defence against unpleasantness. "Does it seem right to you, lady," The Misfit asks the grandmother, "that one is punished a heap and another ain't punished at all?" The grandmother's response—the exchange takes place between the off-stage shootings of her daughter-in-law and of her two remaining grandchildren—is to use both The Misfit's gentility and her own as the reason why she should not have to die. "'Jesus!' the old lady cried. 'You've got good blood! I know you wouldn't shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady.'" She advances his gentility as the reason he should not kill her; hers as the reason she should not have to die.
O'Connor has been careful to establish this pattern back in the very first exchange between The Misfit and the grandmother, precisely at the point at which the old lady voiced her recognition of the stranger as The Misfit:
"You wouldn't shoot a lady, would you?" the grandmother said and removed the clean handkerchief from her cuff and began to slap at her eyes with it.
The Misfit pointed the toe of his shoe into the ground and made a little hole and then covered it up again. "I would hate to have to," he said.
The mordancy of The Misfit's answering gesture in this opening joust indicates how very mistaken the grandmother is in advancing her gentility as a defence against the threat he represents. Indeed, the futility of reliance on her shabbily self-interested conception of gentility has already been signalled by the flimsiness of the genteel paraphernalia with which she has equipped herself for the journey—the "clean handkerchief," accessory to the "navy blue straw sailor hat" and the "navy blue dress with a small white print," worn so that "in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady"—and by the emptiness of her defensive slapping gesture.
Unfortunately for her, however, noblesse carries no more sense of obligation for him than it does for her:
"Listen," the grandmother almost screamed, "I know you're a good man. You don't look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!"
"Yes mam," he said, "finest people in the world."
The grandmother's threadbare genteel vocabulary—"lady," "good," "common," "nice," "fine"—stands in need of redefinition, which the tale proceeds to give it. Lacking any glimmer of the magnanimity or generosity inherent in true gentility, she is pushed by the pressure of events towards a perception of the terrifying demands of gentility in its root meaning, which the OED gives as from "L. gentilis, of the same gens or race." The moment at which the old lady makes the breakthrough to this level of understanding is, though she is scarcely aware of it, clearly marked for the reader as a moment of vision:
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, "Why, you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.
The grandmother, at this moment when her "head clear[s]," becomes the "good man" who is so hard to find, precisely because she abandons her hold on gentility as a defence, a means of keeping the unpleasant "other" at a distance. Noblesse oblige: she acknowledges her kinship with, her motherhood of, The Misfit. That the grandmother should be executed at the very moment she becomes "good"—indeed because she has become "good"—is the final link in the paradoxical chain of logic. Having been made the inadvertent executioner of her family, she transcends the threat posed by The Misfit by reaching a new, altruistic level of judgement about him, the consequence of which is death. In her momentary clarity of vision, the grandmother judges The Misfit and herself to be members essentially of the same race—the human—and reaches out to seal the kinship with an embrace. The Misfit ratifies his name by his violent repudiation of the kinship. Yet the kinship is there, and a glance back at Pooh-Bah in The Mikado will help illuminate its nature. Pooh-Bah is haughtily exclusive because he considers himself to be of "pre-Adamite ancestral descent." The grandmother, having set herself apart from "common" man, learns now that The Misfit is one of her "own," that they are both children of Adam. As Pooh-Bah would have died at the hands of Ko-Ko, the executioner whose place he would be taking had he followed the demands of gentility, so the grandmother dies at the hands of The Misfit in answer to his question, "Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain't punished at all?" All the children of Adam are born to be punished by suffering and death; the grandmother's acknowledgement—however muddled—of this mystery of kinship earns her the right to the title, "lady."
But now it is time to return to the prototype, Pitty Sing, who suggested all these connections, and trace the geometrically precise role O'Connor has assigned to him. Although mentioned early in the story, he does not enter the action properly speaking until he is inadvertently released from his hiding-place in the car and causes the accident. He then disappears again until just after the grandmother's death, when he returns to offer himself to The Misfit who, surprisingly, responds by picking him up.
The sequence, however, can be described from a quite different perspective: the grandmother (we may say) initiates the action by bringing Pitty Sing with her; Pitty Sing, accidentally made a free agent, initiates a specific sequence of events and disappears while The Misfit completes the sequence; Pitty Sing reappears, identifies with The Misfit, an identification which The Misfit accepts. The cat, therefore, begins by being identified with the grandmother; having helped bring about the grandmother's death, he then identifies with her murderer. Clearly, the relationship of both cat and convict to the grandmother is primarily structural; the clue to how it works lies with Pitti-Sing, the prototype.
The original Pitti-Sing is one of two companions of Yum-Yum, the heroine of The Mikado. The grouping of the girls as a threesome—they introduce themselves rather insistently in their opening trio as "Three little maids from school"—suggests a model for O'Connor's gangster trio as they step out of their "hearse-like" automobile and arrange themselves around their "scholarly" leader in front of the shaken family.
The primary note associated with the girls throughout the operetta is mockery. They begin, on their entry, by attacking the pretensions of Pooh-Bah (the incarnation of virtually every aspect of the status quo) to gentility, and his condescension towards their youth ("Go away, little girls. Can't talk to little girls like you. Go away"), a condescension echoed by the grandmother ("In my time children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else").
Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, oscillating ambivalently between his roles as society's victim and its sanctioned exterminator, participates in the mockery of Pooh-Bah in a way which provides a pattern for The Misfit's ambiguous gallantry towards the grandmother. "Don't laugh at him, he can't help it," Ko-Ko explains in an aside to the girls; "Never mind them, they don't understand the delicacy of your position," he reassures Pooh-Bah sotto voce. The Misfit apologizes for Bailey's outburst of profanity at his mother. "Lady, don't you get upset. Sometimes a man says things he don't mean. I don't reckon he meant to talk to you thataway," and then, as he sends Bailey off to be shot, he apologizes without a hint of a smile for not having a shirt on before the "ladies."
Any member of the trio of school-girl mockers might perhaps have made a natural prototype for the cat who will permanently end the grandmother's pretensions to gentility, but what presumably caught O'Connor's attention about Pitti-Sing is the fact that, of the three, she alone is witness to an execution. The Mikado execution (Act II) is, to be sure, not real but fictional. It is fabricated by Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah, and Pitti-Sing to appease the Mikado who, arriving unexpectedly, wants to hear the details of all recent executions. None having taken place, they invent one. The fictional Mikado execution provided O'Connor with a number of features which she incorporated into her handling of the grandmother's death. I would now like to trace those.
Ko-Ko, the prototype for The Misfit, sings the first stanza, setting out, in the persona of the executioner, the preparations for the decapitation: "The criminal cried, as he dropped him down, / In a state of wild alarm—/With a frightful, frantic, fearful frown, / I bared my big right arm. . . . Oh, never shall I / Forget the cry, / Or the shriek that shrieked he, / As I gnashed my teeth, / When from its sheath / I drew my snickersnee!"
Two moments in this narration find an echo in "A Good Man." The first, the threatening menace of the executioner in the opening quatrain causing the criminal to "[drop] him down," reappears in the climax of The Misfit's apologia just before he kills the grandmother: "' . . 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,' he said and his voice had become almost a snarl."
In the state of "wild alarm" produced by this theological onslaught, the grandmother squirms, struggles, and mumbling, "Maybe He didn't raise the dead," sinks down in the ditch.
The second, more emphatic, echo from Ko-Ko's narration ("Oh, never shall I / Forget the cry . . .") produces one of the most electrifying moments in the dialogue between the old lady and her killer. The second group of shots—those killing her daughter-in-law and her two remaining grandchildren—is heard from the woods:
There were two more pistol reports and the grandmother raised her head like a parched old turkey hen crying for water and called, "Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy!" as if her heart would break.
"Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead," The Misfit continued.
The grandmother's crying-out signals a crucial change of direction for her on the road out of Titipu. She cries out to/for her son who is in fact already dead, killed by the first pair of shots. The poignancy of the moment comes in part from the homeliness of the parched turkey hen metaphor; its significance lies in her calling out not on behalf of herself but for another person. The breaking of her heart moves her towards the disinterested maternal love that becomes both her nemesis and her glory. The Misfit's sardonic response—"Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead"—cannot halt her approaching readiness, almost in spite of herself, to offer The Misfit a place to "fit," the place of the Bailey Boy he has just murdered.
The second stanza of the execution narration, belonging to Pitti-Sing, I will return to in a moment. Pooh-Bah describes, in the final stanza, what happens immediately after the victim has been executed: "Now though you'd have thought that head was dead / (For its owner dead was he), / It stood on its neck, with a smile well-bred, / And bowed three times to me! / It was none of your impudent off-hand nods, / But as humble as could be; / For it clearly knew / The deference due / To a man of pedigree!"
This underpins the grandmother's reliance on her own gentility as the quality which will see her through safely into the next world ("anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady"). The smile Pooh-Bah discerns on the corpse acknowledging his pedigree is echoed on the grandmother's dead face: "Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky." The fact is, her gentility has seen her through; however, it is gentility now made authentic, as I suggested a moment ago, by its disinterested acknowledgement of kinship with The Misfit, acceptance of his pedigree as one of her "own children." Her smile is now directed towards that "cloudless sky" which is, in effect, the sky of Wise Blood, carrying on above the unseeing eyes of Hazel Motes and the inhabitants of Taulkinham its "vast construction work that involved the whole order of the universe and would take all time to complete."
The stanza Gilbert assigns Pitti-Sing narrates the moment of execution: "He shivered and shook as he gave the sign / For the stroke he didn't deserve; / When all of a sudden his eye met mine, / And it seemed to brave his nerve . . . / As the sabre true / Cut cleanly through / His cervical vertebrae! / When a man's afraid, / A beautiful maid / Is a cheering sight to see; / And it's oh, I'm glad, / That moment sad / Was soothed by the sight of me!"
The primary point of connection between the two Pitti-Sings is that each is a witness to and implicated in an execution. The two moments made to stand out in Gilbert's version—when the victim's eye suddenly meets Pitti-Sing's and the moment "sad" when the victim is "soothed" by the sight of her—are particularly helpful in clarifying the intricacies of the role relationships among the grandmother, The Misfit, and the cat. Understanding Pitty Sing's role in the action from the beginning will clarify his role in the grandmother's execution.
Essentially, Pitty Sing functions as a double of the grandmother (much the way Enoch Emery, Solace Layfield, and others act for Hazel Motes in Wise Blood), expressing a dimension of her self of which she is largely unaware. The nature of that aspect, pointed to by the Mikado prototype, becomes clear when we trace the operation of the double. The morning of the trip, the grandmother is "first one in the car, ready to go." The first mention of the cat follows immediately: "[The grandmother] had her big black valise that looked like the head of a hippopotamus in one corner, and underneath it she was hiding a basket with Pitty Sing, the cat, in it." The point of the oddly incongruous "head of a hippopotamus" image is twofold: "hippopotamus" obviously suggests the size, colour, and shape of the valise, but the relevance of the "head" emerges only—if at all—with the announcement of the cat's name and the reader's retroactive realization that the cat's prototype appears in a work dominated by the threat of decapitation. The cat is a concealed, forbidden presence in the car. The grandmother's reason for bringing the cat against her son's wishes—her fear that, left on his own, Pitty Sing might unwittingly bring about his own death—ironically figures forth the direction her own life is about to take because of her insistence on bringing Pitty Sing with her on the journey.
The grandmother's other reason for not wanting to leave Pitty Sing behind ("because he would miss her too much") suggests both the symbolic identification between the two and the grandmother's ignorance of Pitty Sing's true nature. The ground underlying both these reasons is her narcissistic wilfulness ("She didn't intend for the cat to be left alone") which opposes itself to Bailey's wishes ("He didn't like to arrive at a motel with a cat" [emphases added]). Pitty Sing functions essentially as an extension of the grandmother's wilfulness.
The journey begins; Pitty Sing remains quiescent while the grandmother takes "cat naps." The grandmother continues to pursue her own will by "craftily" manipulating the children ("Not telling the truth but wishing she were") to "yell and scream" until their father agrees to take them to the house which represents the imperfectly remembered desires of her youth. Bailey unwittingly underlines the portentousness of the decision: "All right, . . . but get this: this is the only time we're going to stop for anything like this. This is the one and only time." When the grandmother suddenly realizes as they drive down the abandoned road that she has led them in the wrong direction, her startled reaction frees Pitty Sing to act out her—the grandmother's—wilfulness without any hindrance. The result is the car crash, after which Pitty Sing disappears.
The passage in which Pitty Sing makes his startlingly graphic entry into the tale as an active agent repays close analysis:
The road [to the grandmother's remembered plantation] looked as if no one had travelled on it in months.
"It's not much farther," the grandmother said and just as she said it, a horrible thought came to her. The thought was so embarrassing that she turned red in the face and her eyes dilated and her feet jumped up, upsetting her valise in the corner. The instant the valise moved, the newspaper top she had over the basket under it rose with a snarl and Pitty Sing, the cat, sprang onto Bailey's shoulder.
The grandmother's "thought"—the sudden realization that she has been betrayed by the determined, narcissistic "wanting" which has dominated her since the story's opening sentence—triggers off a series of reactions in which the parts of her body and her suitcase take on an identity and life of their own (like the head of the hippopotamus or the head which "bowed three times" to Pooh-Bah) and act out, independently, the meaning and consequences of the perception she has just had: "her eyes dilated . . . her feet jumped up. . . . the valise moved, the newspaper top . . . rose with a snarl," climaxing in "and Pitty Sing, the cat, sprang."
The cat's spring metamorphoses into another grotesque decapitation image: "Bailey remained in the driver's seat with the cat . . . clinging to his neck like a caterpillar." The causal connection between the grandmother's "thought" and the accident having been established ("The horrible thought she had before the accident was that the house she had remembered so vividly was not in Georgia but in Tennessee"), Bailey "removed the cat from his neck with both hands and flung it out the window against the side of a pine tree." While Bailey is still "in the driver's seat," he violently rejects the cat, real and symbolic, and steps out onto the road, unaware that he is in a landscape controlled by the logic of The Mikado; his own and his family's execution thereby become inevitable. Inevitable because, although Pitty Sing has vanished, the grandmother is about to meet and be driven by her impetuous wilfulness to recognize the agent destined to continue the process of destruction set in motion by Pitty Sing. Or, to put it in literary terms, The Misfit is about to take over Pitty Sing's role as double to the grandmother.
Many readers of "A Good Man" have been puzzled by the grandmother's initial reaction to The Misfit: "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 but she could not recall who he was." Identifying him a few minutes later as The Misfit, she cries, "I recognized you at once!" What is clear to the reader is that she didn't recognize him as something (or someone) who has always been present in her life but as something or someone she cannot yet put a name to; she recognizes him as that aspect of herself which has been present since the first sentence, that aspect which has till now found its symbolic expression in Pitty Sing. Bailey having flung Pitty Sing temporarily out of the action, The Misfit takes over and extends Pitty Sing's function until Pitty Sing himself returns to endorse what has transpired in his absence.
The links between the cat and The Misfit are many, beginning with the cat's change of sex from female to male. The verbal associations are powerful. For example, The Misfit's first appearance is in the newspaper the grandmother is holding as the story opens, "rattling" it at Bailey, the same paper which makes its reappearance at the moment Pitty Sing is inadvertently turned loose by the grandmother. A quick reading of the passage might suggest that Pitty Sing springs up from under the "newspaper top" which conceals him—as in actuality he would—but the language embodies a more precise suggestion: "The instant the valise moved, the newspaper top she had over the basket under it rose with a snarl and Pitty Sing, the cat, sprang." That is to say, the decapitated head of the hippopotamus gets out of the way, the newspaper containing The Misfit rises with a snarl, and Pitty Sing springs to send the car into the ditch. The "snarl" emanating from the "newspaper top" recurs at that crucial moment of the story when The Misfit reaches the climax of his frighteningly logical deductions from the proposition that Jesus "thown everything off balance": "'No pleasure but meanness,' he said and his voice had become almost a snarl."
The re-entry of Pitty Sing into the story as The Misfit orders his men to "Take [the grandmother] off and thow her where you thown the others" is no more accidental, structurally speaking, than any other aspect of his role; neither is his cosily domesticated overture to The Misfit, nor The Misfit's acceptance of the offered identification. The shocking juxtaposition of The Misfit's answering gesture to the cat—picking it up—with his brutality to the grandmother—shooting her three times "through the chest" merely because she touched him—is a typical O'Connor procedure in this story, but it should not divert us from seeing that, primarily, the function of this final gesture is to express the oneness of Pitty Sing with The Misfit.
The two aspects of the Mikado execution emphasized by Gilbert's Pitti-Sing, the moment at which the victim's eye met hers and the sense that her presence "soothed that moment sad" for the victim, are both thematically relevant to and intertwined with "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." Since the grandmother reaches the same eye-level as The Misfit only when she sinks to the ground under his snarling "No pleasure but meanness," it is then that, her "head clear[ing]," she sees "the man's face twisted close to her own," and reaches out to him compassionately. As in The Mikado, the victim looks at the executioner: the expression on his face ("as if he were going to cry") precipitates the gesture which in its turn precipitates the shot. But if the grandmother's touch prompts The Misfit to kill her, it is what he has not been able to see that is at the root of his reaction: "'I wasn't there so I can't say [Jesus] didn't [raise the dead],' The Misfit said. 'I wisht I had of been there,' he said, hitting the ground with his fist. 'It ain't right I wasn't there because if I had of been there I would of known. . . . and I wouldn't be like I am now.'" Not knowing because he wasn't there to see, he shoots her.
That the limitations on his vision are implicit in the Pitti-Sing perspective is clear from the careful juxtaposition O'Connor makes between the two gestures she now gives The Misfit. He puts away his glasses as a prelude to picking up the cat:
Then he put his gun on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them. . . . Without his glasses, The Misfit's eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking. 'Take her off and thow her where you thown the others," he said, picking up the cat that was rubbing itself against his leg.
The glasses, in conjunction with the return of Pitty Sing, help chart The Misfit's spiritual course in the last moments of the story. The "scholarly look" they endowed him with on his first appearance established his connection with the Mikado schoolgirl whose function is to mock; removing the glasses, he removes the mocking perspective, allowing him to look as "defenseless" as the old lady now lying in the ditch with "her legs crossed under her like a child's." The last thing O'Connor would do, however, is sentimentalize this moment of vulnerability; indeed, the removal of the glasses enables The Misfit to see and pronounce a very hard truth—a sardonic version of Pitti-Sing's "sooth[ing] that moment sad" for her victim and the only eulogy the grandmother will enjoy: "She would of been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." Cold comfort, the reader may well feel; but O'Connor is merely being relentlessly—albeit characteristically—precise. The eulogy is "sooth[ing]" to the exact degree allowed by the compassionate ferocity, the paradoxical theological perspective, expressed in the excerpt from St. Cyril of Jerusalem which O'Connor chose as the epigraph to the collection in which "A Good Man" figures as the title-story: "The dragon is by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the father of souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon."
The ironically sentimental tableau made by Pitty Sing and The Misfit—the killer cuddling the pussy-cat—represents, in structural terms, the grandmother's apparent defeat at the hands of her "dragon." While the obvious dragon waiting by the side of the road may indeed have been The Misfit, it was Pitty Sing who, in an immediate sense, brought her to the rendezvous. However, what is even clearer is that both these dragons are, as symbolic extensions of the grandmother's own inadequacies, interiorized dragons. The grandmother's rendezvous on her way to "the father of souls" is, in the last analysis, with herself.
The tale's closing moment is a tableau in which Pitty Sing and The Misfit, joined by Bobby Lee, recreate the schoolgirls' opening trio, while refining the nature of the sardonicism their predecessors expressed. The girls sang:
YUM-YUM: Everything is a source of fun! (Chuckle).
PEEP-BO: Nobody's safe, for we care for none! (Chuckle).
PITTI-SING: Life is a joke that's just begun! (Chuckle).
"Some fun!" is Bobby Lee's verdict, echoing Yum-Yum as he "slid[es] down the ditch" with a "yodel" instead of a "chuckle." The Misfit, for his part, has made it a clean sweep—"Nobody's safe"—by finishing off the family in the person of the grandmother. Nevertheless, with glasses off and Pitty Sing in his arms, The Misfit is moved to stretch his vision beyond the restrictions of his own earlier perspective ("No pleasure but meanness"). Bobby Lee's facile enjoyment is curtly dismissed ("Shut up, Bobby Lee"); Pitti-Sing's "Life is a joke!" has gone sour. Facing up to the implications of the epigraph, he utters a disclaimer that is also the bottom line: "It's no real pleasure in life."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2766
SOURCE: "Deconstructed Meaning in Two Short Stories by Flannery O'Connor," in Ambiguities in Literature and Film, edited by Hans P. Braendlin, The Rorida State University Press, 1988, pp. 125-34.
[In the following excerpt, Schenck offers a deconstructionist analysis of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."]
Many contemporary theories of criticism address problems of meaning based on philosophies of language and the aesthetics of reception, so we worry less today about the author's conscious intentions than in previous times. Nevertheless, interpreting works of an author who has commented extensively on his or her own art may still be considered presumptuous. When the author has offered religious interpretations, counterarguments may seem to border on the heretical. Such are the risks for critics attempting to discuss how the fiction of Flannery O'Connor creates meanings in addition to or in contrast with what she herself said about her work.
O'Connor frequently commented on the Catholic faith, which she insisted formed her work, and most critics accept her own exegetical interpretations of her bizarre and troubling stories. Although the stories seem too brutal to be illustrations of Christian doctrine, at least as we conventionally conceive of it, O'Connor was able to justify her preoccupation with the ugly and grotesque by insisting on the writer's role as a prophet who must shake the reader and open his complacent eyes to reality and the need for grace. She was quite emphatic about the didactic function of the narrated events for both characters and readers, though the complications of interpreting her stories arise from the fact that they are not straight-forward narratives like parables or exempla. Her texts are thoroughly ironic, and her use of irony creates ambiguities that undercut her own interpretations, even suggesting opposite ones, as other critics have suggested.
What I would like to do is consider the ironic language of the texts in light of what Baudelaire in "De l'Essence du Rire" and Paul de Man in "The Rhetoric of Temporality" have revealed about this figure. For Baudelaire, comedy results from a doubling of spectator and laughable object or person. The heightened form of comedy, called irony, is in part an internalized doubling; it is a capacity to be at once self and other. As de Man explains:
The dedoublement thus designates the activity of a consciousness by which a man differentiates himself from the non-human world. . . . The reflective disjunction not only occurs by means of language as a privileged category, but it transfers the self out of the empirical world into a world constituted out of, and in, language. . . . Language thus conceived divides the subject into an empirical self, immersed in the wold, and a self that becomes like a sign in its attempt at differentiation and self-definition.
What de Man says of the ironic consciousness accurately depicts the method by which characters are created and create themselves in O'Connor's fiction. In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" . . . characters consciously or unconsciously use both written and oral language as well as pictorial "texts" to create a doubled self to escape an empirical one. To the extent that they succeed, they illustrate the performative quality of language, momentarily creating reality rather than reflecting it. But most of O'Connor's characters fail to understand the performative and arbitrary nature of their language. The disastrous climaxes so characteristic of her fiction are created in part by the conflict between the two selves as well as the conflict between characters who all may be doubled. The ironic doubling leads to a complete disintegration of the self at the moment when the character must confront the absence of grounding behind the linguistic self. As de Man explains, this process is not a finite or affirmative one. It is a radical process of deconstruction leading to madness. In a statement that well could have been written about the ironic process in O'Connor's fiction, de Man says:
Irony is unrelieved vertige, dizziness to the point of madness. Sanity can exist only because we are willing to function within the conventions of duplicity and dissimulation, just as social language dissimulates the inherent violence of relationships among human beings. Once this mask is shown to be a mask, the authentic being underneath appears necessarily as on the verge of madness.
As we will see in the following discussion, the unmasking of language in O'Connor's stories leads very precisely to violence, if not madness.
"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" presents a masterful portrait of a woman who creates a self and a world through language. From the outset, the grandmother relies on "texts" to structure her reality. The newspaper articles about The Misfit mentioned in the opening paragraph of the story is a written text which has a particular status in the narrative. It refers to events outside and prior to the primary récit, but it stands as an unrecognized prophecy of the events which occur at the end. For Bailey, the newspaper story is not important or meaningful, and for the grandmother it does not represent a real threat but is part of a ploy to get her own way. It is thus the first one of her "fictions," one which ironically comes true. The grandmother's whole personality is built upon the fictions she tells herself and her family. Although she knows Bailey would object if she brought her cat on the trip, the grandmother sneaks the cat into the car, justifying her behavior by imagining, "he would miss her too much and she was afraid he might brush against one of the gas burners and accidently asphyxiate himself." She also carefully cultivates a fiction about the past when people were good and when "children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else." As she tells Red Sam at the Tower when they stop to eat, "People are certainly not nice like they used to be."
The grandmother reads fictional stories to the children, tells them ostensibly true stories, and provides a continual gloss on the physical world they are passing. "Little niggers in the country don't have things like we do. If I could paint, I'd paint that picture." Lacking that skill, the grandmother nevertheless verbally "creates" a whole universe as they ride along. "'Look at the graveyard!' the grandmother said, pointing it out. 'That was the old family burying ground. That belonged to the plantation.'" She creates the stories behind the visual phenomena she sees and explains relationships between events or her own actions which have no logic other than that which she lends them.
Her most important fiction is, of course, the story of the old plantation house which becomes more of an imperative as she tells it. The more she talks about it, the more she wants to see it again, so she does not hesitate to selfconsciously lie about it. "There was a secret panel in this house,' she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing she were. . . ." At this point we see clearly the performative quality of the grandmother's language. At first it motivates her own desire, then spills over onto the children, finally culminating in their violent outburst of screaming and kicking to get their father to stop the car. The performative quality of her language becomes even more crucial when she realizes that she has fantasized the location of the house. She does not admit it, but her thoughts manifest themselves physically: "The thought was so embarrassing that she turned red in the face and her eyes dilated and her feet jumped up, upsetting her valise in the corner." Of course, it is her physical action which frees the cat and causes the accident. After the accident, she again fictionalizes about her condition, hoping she is injured so she can deflect Bailey's anger, and she cannot even manage to tell the truth about the details of the accident.
The scene with The Misfit is the apogee of the grandmother's use of "fictions" to explain and control reality, attempts that are thwarted by her encounter with a character who understands there is no reality behind her words. When the grandmother recognizes The Misfit, he tells her it would have been better if she hadn't, but she has named him, thus forcing him to become what is behind his selfselected name. In a desperate attempt to cope with the threat posed by the murderer, the grandmother runs through her litany of convenient fictions. She believes that there are class distinctions ("I know you're a good man. You don't look a bit like you have common blood"), that appearance reflects reality ("You shouldn't call yourself The Misfit because I know you're a good man at heart. I can just look at you and tell"), that redemption can be achieved through work ("You could be honest too if you'd only try. . . . Think how wonderful it would be to settle down . . ."), and finally, that prayer will change him ("'Pray, pray,' she commanded him").
In contrast to the grandmother, whose flood of questions, explanations, and exhortations accompany the sequence of murderous events, the mother and Bailey react only physically. Deprived of language, they are barely more than props in the drama unfolding around them. Even the grandmother soon starts to lose her voice, the only mechanism that stands between her and reality. When she does try to tell The Misfit he must pray, her language has become fractured; all that comes out is the end of a sentence. "She wanted to tell him that he must pray. She opened and closed her mouth several times before anything came out. Finally she found herself saying, 'Jesus, Jesus,' meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing." She finally loses control of her language and the myths they provide: '"Maybe He didn't raise the dead,' the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her."
When she reaches out to touch The Misfit and says, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children," she either has uttered her final fantasy, having lost touch with reality as she confuses The Misfit (who is now wearing Bailey's shirt) with her own child, or she is attempting a last ingratiating appeal for his sympathies. O'Connor's interpretation of this line is that at this moment the grandmother 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 their roots deep in the mystery she has been merely prattling about so far." This is one possible reading of the scene and in some quarters the accepted one, but we could also say that the grandmother simply is wrong again, and her comment provokes The Misfit into shooting her. Surely we witness here the moment when a clash of language creates the vertiginous movement of irony into violence and madness. The Misfit rejects her interpretations of his being and refuses to provide a grounding for that language. Her fictions are proven to be "just talk" and both her empirical and linguistic self are destroyed.
In counterpoint to the grandmother's slow destruction as each verbal system she has created fails to reflect the reality around her, The Misfit uses language literally to relate events, at the same time recognizing the dangerous power of words. His language accurately describes the accident scene: "'We turned over twice!' said the grandmother. Oncet,' he corrected. 'We seen it happen.'" He is the only one who seems to know that sometimes language fails utterly: "He seemed to be embarrassed as if he couldn't think of anything to say."
His understanding of himself is grounded not in a knowledge of the events of his empirical self but in the recognition that language has created him. His father provided him an essence by describing him as "a different breed of dog." He knows that he has been or done various things in his life, but he is curiously unclear about the crime which sent him to jail. Nevertheless, he says his punishment is no mistake for two reasons—a written document says he committed it and a psychiatrist told him so. Even though he maintains it was a lie, he accepts the power of words to define his existence, and he knows that he should get things in writing in order to control his life. Since he cannot make sense of the events of his empirical self, he quite consciously creates a double by remaining himself The Misfit and living out its violent implications. The phenomenon of a character acquiring a new identity by using a new name is common to both stories we are discussing, and it is the most explicit indication of the linguistically doubled self so crucial to the irony of the texts.
We might believe that The Misfit through his ironic vision has at least created a self that copes with the empirical world when he says, "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." But in the very last line of the story, he deconstructs even this doubled self: "'Shut up, Bobby Lee,' The Misfit said. 'It's no real pleasure in life.'" His strange alternations between polite talk and cold-blooded murder and his last statement demonstrate the radical shifting back and forth between selves that cancel each other figuratively as he has literally cancelled the shifting consciousness of the grandmother. . . .
At the conclusion of ["A Good Man Is Hard to Find"] the reader is left with a vision of destruction of human life both literal and figurative that is absurd rather than tragic because the victims are not heroic figures reduced to misfortune. They are ordinary, even unsympathetic characters who meet a grotesque fate. But they are not villains either, so it is difficult to accept the outcome as justified in any way by their conduct, no matter how much we may dislike the grandmother. . . .
The difficulty in "reconstructing meaning," to use Wayne Booth's term, is that the central characters with whom we should identify or from whom we hope to grasp some sense of meaning dissolve before our eyes into non-beings. The frightening moment occurs when we witness the fictional self confront a challenge to the reality of that self. As de Man and Baudelaire have pointed out:
The movement of the ironic consciousness is anything but reassuring. The moment the innocence or authenticity of our sense of being in the world is put into question, a far from harmless process gets underway. It may start as a casual bit of play with a stray loose end of the fabric, but before long the entire texture of the self is unraveled and comes apart.
The personalities of [O'Connor's] characters are created by language, and this language fails them in one of two circumstances. They either are confronted by the natural world whose laws mock their interpretations, or they are confronted by a character who understands that language is mere convention. If the conventions are not shared, the encounter will lead to devastating physical or emotional violence. Seen from this perspective, the events which may seem absurd at first now appear to be well motivated by language. All types of language—names, Bible stories, daydreams, myths, sermons, and newspaper articles—function to create characters and events. The people are separated from each other and their world through this language, but at the outset the alienation is merely a tension inhibiting communication. By the end, when the language of the doubled selves has been unmasked, the characters behind it are totally deconstructed and no longer exist. Kierkegaard refers to "the infinite elasticity of irony, the secret trap door through which one is suddenly hurled downward, not like the schoolmaster in The Elfs who falls a thousand fathoms, but into the infinite nothingness of irony." In spite of her intentions to the contrary, at the end of O'Connor's stories we feel a sudden shock of recognition as we witness the unraveling of the characters' personalities. Like the characters' fictional selves, our own experience with the text is deconstructed as we sense ourselves "fall through the trap door," uncertain of where, or if, we will land on any firm ground of meaning.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5480
SOURCE: "A Good Grandmother Is Hard to Find: Story as Exemplum," in The Antigonish Review, Nos. 81-2, Spring-Summer, 1990, pp. 143-55.
[In the following essay, Currie examines "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" as a religious exemplum.]
Near the end of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," The Misfit's henchmen Hiram and Bobby Lee shoot the grandmother's son, Bailey, the two grandchildren, and the children's mother. After she exhausts her repertoire of verbal manoeuvers, in a desperate effort to save herself, the grandmother reaches out and touches The Misfit on the shoulder. He responds with three pistol shots to the chest, aborting a promising encounter between two people who have much in common. Then:
Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who 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.
This is the second mention of her legs, first as twisted, now as crossed. Critics seem agreed the author intends the reader to understand crossed legs as a sign of Christ's cross implying that the grandmother, at the last moment, accepts the gift of grace and is redeemed. Before the shots, before she reached to touch The Misfit on the shoulder, "She saw the man's twisted face close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, 'Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!'" Critics take her act to be of the same kind as the Ancient Mariner's blessing the slimy sea creatures and consequent lifting of the curse; the grandmother opened herself to God, God made the offer of grace, she accepted.
I think a deathbed conversion, a standard piety, is probably the farthest thing from O'Connor's mind at the end of this gruesome comedy [as Kathleen Feeley writes in Flannery O'Connor: Voice of the Peacock, 1982]:
Flannery O'Connor despised sentimentality, a quality [she defined] as "giving to any creature more love than God gives it." She saw sentimentality as an attempted short cut to the grace of Redemption which overlooks its price.
The author disapproves of both The Misfit and the grandmother, although she is easier on the grandmother than many readers are. Indeed, the reader is unwittingly led to condemn her genteel, middle-class values; unwittingly, because no character in O'Connor more resembles the genteel reader than this grandmother does, particularly the reader who presumes to espouse Christian values. The alert reader should recall T. S. Eliot's reminder of Baudelaire's caution to the reader in Les Fleurs du Mal: "Hypocrite lecteur,—mon semblable,—mon frère!" On the other hand, readers who are prepared to disparage the grandmother's values are often quick to accord the Misfit a grudging admiration. O'Connor intends and approves of this grudging admiration. But the question remains: who is the good man and who is the bad man in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?
Like Hazel Motes and Enoch Emery in Wise Blood, The Misfit and the grandmother are contrary aspects of the same problem. A close look at T. S. Eliot's influence on O'Connor's work will help us understand how these unlikely spiritual twins resemble one another and how they differ. Sally Fitzgerald has demonstrated that Eliot's Wasteland was a major influence on Wise Blood, and it is difficult now not to think of the wounded knight of the grail legend seeking the chapel perilous, as Hazel Motes carries his mysterious war wound up and down the streets of Taulkinham.
It would be interesting to know when O'Connor read Eliot's essay on Baudelaire, because a serious O'Connor student who reads it will soon be reminded of Hazel Motes and The Misfit. Here is Eliot on Baudelaire's relationship to Christianity:
He is discovering Christianity for himself; he is not assuming it as a fashion or weighing social or political reasons, or any other accidents. He is beginning in a way at the beginning; and being a discoverer, is not altogether certain what he is exploring and to what it leads; he might almost be said to be making again, as one man, the effort of scores of generations. His Christianity is rudimentary or embryonic, . . . His business was not to practice Christianity, . . . [but] more important for his time—to assert its necessity.
Eliot's later statement about Baudelaire's dissatisfaction with "post-Voltaire France" could well serve as a description of Hazel Motes' or The Misfit's attitude toward the world, and by implication the world Flannery O'Connor so sharply criticizes for its lack of attention to significance:
.. . the recognition of the reality of Sin is a New Life; and the possibility of damnation is so immense a relief in a world of electoral reform, plebiscites, sex reform and dress reform, that damnation itself is an immediate form of salvation—of salvation from the ennui of modern life, because it at least gives some significance of living.
"Baudelaire's notion of beatitude certainly tended to the wishy-washy," Eliot says, but (like Motes and The Misfit) he had a firm conviction that a perception of the importance of sin is essential for an adequate perception of the significance of human life. Eliot later encapsulates his own idea of what a human life is all about, and what a Christian life is all about. We can easily imagine O'Connor running her pencil under these lines:
So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing: at least, we exist. It is true to say that the glory of man is his capacity for salvation; it is also true to say that his glory is his capacity for damnation. The worst that can be said of most of our malefactors, from statesmen to thieves, is that they are not men enough to be damned. Baudelaire was man enough for damnation . . .
Although Eliot disapproves of much in Baudelaire's life and work, he can't help according him a grudging admiration, just as the genteel reader accords the same to The Misfit. Eliot, with Dante, accorded the same grudging admiration for Anthony and Cleopatra whose sins were enormous, but at least they were important sins, committed with passion, unlike the pathetic transgressions of the typist and the young man carbuncular, home at the violet hour for a can of beans and a bit of hanky-panky, and unlike the mild mannered passivity of J. Alfred Prufrock. These people are not sinners. A social worker might stretch a point and put them down as slightly maladjusted; they have their problems, but they are not in the arena with lions.
In Flannery O'Connor's economy, as Hazel Motes might say, if you are not in the arena with the lions, then like Eliot's "malefactors," you are not man enough to be damned. Eliot lamented the fact that few who still accept Baudelaire's message: "La vraie civilisation .. . est dans la diminuition des traces du péché originel." Certainly O'Connor would agree. For her a sign of progress would not be the introduction of an enlightened penal code to accommodate the misfits of society, for example, as useful as such a code might be; but if the penal code were based on the assumption that every human being has a great potential for evil, which can be transformed into a great capacity for good, then true progress might be possible. For O'Connor "la diminuition des traces du péché originel" is not a question of social reorganization, but of a transformation of individuals from sinners to saints, as in the cases of St. Paul and St. Augustine.
Many other writers from Chaucer to Hemingway would agree with Baudelaire and have declared themselves in their work. For them, evil, or sin, the religious name for it, makes human life significant, and therefore interesting. A complete list might start with Chaucer, whose friar figured out he could have a more comfortable and fun-filled life if he could collect money from widows rather than hand it out to them. But many modern writers would impress Eliot, Baudelaire and O'Connor with their vision of how human beings behave at their best and worst.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, for whom O'Connor expressed admiration, displays a sense of humor more gentle, civilized, less raucous, less violent than hers, but based on the same perception of lost opportunity in the moral arena, and on the enormous discrepancy between the courageous and significant behavior people are capable of, and the timid, insipid, insignificant ways they often settle for.
Hawthorne is too civilized, perhaps too sensitive, to laugh out loud at Young Goodman Brown, who, like many of O'Connor's fictional people, is a cartoon character and the butt of the author's subtle humor. Hawthorne won't laugh at this sad young man, a Calvinistic caricature, but he smiles at his refusal to understand, that like his wife, Faith, and his neighbors, and his father and all his ancestors, he can only live a significant life by taking a chance on damnation. He won't understand that God didn't pick two teams, the good guys and the bad guys. He won't realize that there are only, on the one hand the bad guys, like his father and his wife, who are capable of transforming themselves into good guys, and on the other hand, guys like himself, who won't play, and therefore in any significant sense, never join the game, the human race.
Another young man of Hawthorne's invention, Robin, in "My Kinsman Major Molineux," manages better with the help of a guide. After crossing the water to pick up a job he presumes is saved for him by his kinsman, Robin discovers that Major Molineux no longer enjoys the power he wielded under the old dispensation. Now the young man will have to find his own place, brave the dangers, or get back on the boat. Hawthorne tries to identify and define political and spiritual freedom, and the price that must be paid. The price is danger. He smiles at spiritual adolescents who naively believe that freedom, spiritual, political or economic, is a gift handed out to nice people by a benign forefather, so they won't have to worry and can devote their lives to feeding their cats and teaching Sunday school. As O'Connor pointed out in her introduction to Wise Blood, a person's integrity lies in what he is not able to do. Dignity and freedom lie not in what has been settled once and for all, but in what has not yet been settled. It is essential to have something to settle. Without weakness there can be no strength, without sin no salvation.
Flannery O'Connor barely nodded to Ernest Hemingway in her letters; and her only reference to him in Mystery and Manners is in an enigmatic sentence on page 161 in which she also mentions Kafka, Gide and Camus, and the spirit of the times, which, she implies, they represent, and which she does not. But a close look reveals that O'Connor and Hemingway have a significant interest in common. It is true that Hemingway looks at the world as unbeliever, but he is a most reluctant unbeliever. Jake Barnes, in The Sun Also Rises, agonizes because he has not been a good Catholic and because the opportunity to become one is lost. Jake, another wounded knight, understands that his task, in the absence of a Christian blueprint, is to find, or create, in the void, a mode of behavior, a way for a human being to act with dignity. He tolerates the superficial behavior of his friends, who are expatriates like himself, aliens in the spiritual as well as political sense of the word. Their meaningless behavior is understandable in the circumstances, like playing solitaire in a bornb shelter, waiting for the siren to sound the all clear. But Jake knows there will be no siren, and he wants a real solution, not a "truce with mediocrity." At the end of the novel, Jake has not found the way, but he refuses to allow his thinking or feeling about it to degenerate into either sentimentality or rationality: "the world would be a nice place if only . . ." or "life is nothing but . . ." When Brett offers such a bromide, Jake replies, "Isn't it pretty to think so." A keen ear could almost hear O'Connor's silent applause.
Similarly, the author, the reader, and the older waiter in "A Clean Well Lighted Place," accord grudging admiration to the old man who can think of no other way to cope with the collapse of the universe, having failed at suicide, than to drink brandy until he can sleep, to try to hold himself in abeyance, to sit in a circle of cleanness and light in the middle of the spiritual and physical rubble that used to be Spain, while the sympathetic waiter chants parodies of the old praises, "Our Nada, who art in Nada, . . . Hail Nada, full of Nada". The old man refuses the truce with mediocrity; he will have dignity, or he will have nothing; or he will have dignity and nothing.
"The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" will bring us back to Eliot, Baudelaire, Flannery O'Connor, The Misfit and the grandmother. In Hemingway's most clear visioned morality, Francis Macomber, on safari with his wife Margot and guide Wilson, fails miserably in the lion hunt. He shoots and wounds the lion, then panics and runs while Wilson and his men kill the lion which is now under cover and dangerous. Macomber is in disgrace. That night his wife sneaks from their tent and goes to bed with Wilson: small consolation in an imperfect world. Good whisky. Good sex. Waiting for the siren. But the following day Macomber overcomes his fear and stands up to a buffalo. While he is killing the buffalo, however, Margot raises her rifle and kills him. An accident? Was she aiming for the buffalo? Was it a subconscious act? We don't know, but no matter, the act is symbolic and is only significant at the symbolic level. Macomber, by virtue of courage, has raised himself to a new level of existence. His years of spiritual subsistence are nothing compared to his few moments of real, rich life. Wilson and Margot accord him a grudging admiration. After the mess is cleared up they'll have some good whisky. They will be consoled. It is more comfortable not to be in the arena with the lions, better, as Binx Boiling suggests in The Moviegoer, to be consoled with "the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh." But the wounded knight is not consoled. Macomber's integrity, like Hazel Motes', stems from what he is not able to do.
In Auden's poem, "Musee des Beaux Art," Icarus ignores his father's advice and flies his wax and feather wings too high. The heat of the sun melts the wax and Icarus plunges nose first into the sea, thus finding out how far he can go by finding out how far he can't go, and demonstrating that he too would not settle for a truce with mediocrity as his father advised him to do. Auden is pointing out that such bold behavior has a price, and the price is suffering, and when you are suffering, you are out there, or up there, all by yourself. Suffering is individual, which is why a good man is hard to find.
A good man is hard to find, and an evil man is hard to find, because as Eliot put it, man is a moral being and if he is not good or evil, he is nothing, he does not exist as a human being. In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" the henchmen, Hiram and Bobby Lee, do not count, they are nobodies, they do their evil acts unthinkingly, as a dog might run off with his master's sirloin steak, inadvertently dropped on the kitchen floor. The steak is just as gone as if the dog were a moral being, and you are just as dead no matter who shoots you, Hiram and Bobby Lee or The Misfit; the physical evil is the same, but the moral evil adheres only to The Misfit. Hiram and Bobby Lee are moral morons, no more capable of committing sin than an idiot is capable of writing "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." In Eliot's economy, in O'Connor's economy, in Baudelaire's, Hiram and Bobby Lee don't exist. The Misfit, however, as his daddy recognized, is "a different breed of dog from [his] brothers and sisters." The Misfit is a moral thoroughbred with a curious and active nose. "... it's some that can live their whole life without asking about it and it's others has to know why it is, and this body is one of the latters. He's going to be into everything." So says The Misfit's father, and so says the grandmother: "You're not common," she tells him, ". . . You don't look a bit like you have common blood." And how does she know? Another old saying might have been as apt a title for this story: "It Takes One To Know One."
The Misfit first appears in the story as a "scholar," wearing silver-rimmed spectacles and a black hat, a rabbi, perhaps, in spite of his shirtless torso, ill-fitting blue jeans, and gun in hand. Contradictions in his appearance alert the reader who should know, if this is not his first trip through O'Connor county, that the author is introducing another "different breed of dog." The grandmother too is alerted: "His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but she could not recall who he was." This comment is metaphorical and is intended to set up the grandmother's comment on the next page, so that her recognition is not simply a recollection of his description from the radio broadcast of the escape; and it is only two pages later that The Misfit's forgotten crime and subsequent imprisonment recapitulates the doctrine of man's forgotten fall from grace and imprisonment in original sin. The subtext is allegorical, more subtle, but no less concrete than the adventures of Una and The Redcross Knight in Spenser's Faerie Queene, "pricking across the plain," searching to free Una's parents who had been imprisoned by the evil demon Orgoglio. O'Connor's mind was informed by the medieval in form as well as in substance.
The best way to understand how the grandmother is like The Misfit is to note the contrast between her and the children's mother:
The old lady settled herself comfortably, removing her white cotton gloves and putting them up with her purse on the shelf in front of the back window. The children's mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief, but 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. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once she was a lady.
A lady! The grandmother is frequently criticized for the mediocrity of her values, but O'Connor often reminds the reader that she does have values, like The Misfit, who feels there should be criteria for human behavior, and unlike the children's mother, whose passivity is so complete she even thanks The Misfit for sending her off with Hiram and Bobby Lee to be shot. It is important not to underestimate the grandmother's vanity (not a virtue but a close enough imitation to be often taken for one). It indicates a recognition of the need for virtue, that is, the habit of acting and being according to criteria. O'Connor's description of The Misfit and the grandmother identify them as Lord and Lady, part of a moral aristocracy which does not include the children's mother, Bailey, Red Sam's wife, Hiram and Bobby Lee. Eliot and Baudelaire would not count them as moral, therefore human in their strict meaning of the term.
Unlike the children's mother, the grandmother is active, even, in her genteel manner, aggressive. When she looks after the children she tells them stories, or curls June Star's hair, or bounces the baby on her knee and talks to it or sings, stimulating it rather than holding it and hoping it will go to sleep. At The Tower restaurant she tries, to no avail, to get Bailey to dance to "The Tennessee Waltz," she scolds the children for their unpatriotic remarks about several southern states, she won't let them throw their garbage out the window. She encourages them to play games, and she tries to transform their vacation into more than a boring ride down the road by associating it with a search for an enchanting plantation with a secret panel somewhere inside the house. The children's mother, on the other hand, spends her time in silence and/or asleep. When O'Connor introduces her she describes her metaphorically as a cabbage and a rabbit, the proletarians of the plant and animal kingdoms.
The Misfit and the grandmother are identified also by their mutual interest in decorum. Like her, he is very careful to be polite in conversation and takes care to apologize for the impropriety the clothing circumstance has forced upon him. But though he recognizes the need of social criteria, it is something he has gone beyond to a deeper need, that is, for moral criteria against which to measure behavior.
"If [Jesus] 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 and his voice had become almost a snarl.
The leap beyond the social to the moral level, the human level in Eliot's terms, is the significant difference between the grandmother and The Misfit. Both have the potential to rise to the moral level. The Misfit made the leap, the grandmother did not. Leaping to the moral level does not mean becoming a good man, it may just as easily mean becoming an evil man. '"Nome, I ain't a good man,' The Misfit said after a second as if he had considered her statement carefully, . . ." He is correct. He is a moral man but not a good man. But at this point in the story The Misfit no longer matters. We know that he, à la Baudelaire, is man enough to be damned. The question is: is the grandmother woman enough to be damned? Because if she is not woman enough to be damned, then she is not woman enough to be saved. The grandmother is obviously not a bad woman. The question is: is she a good woman? And the answer is no. We have the author's word for it, through the mouth of The Misfit: "She would of been a good woman, .. . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
And we have the author's word for it through some weather imagery. Early in the story the grandmother advances the information that it is a good day for a drive, "neither too hot nor too cold, and she cautioned Bailey that the speed limit was fifty-five miles an hour . . ." We might be reminded here of Christ's caution against caution: "Be ye either hot or cold; if you are lukewarm, I will vomit you from my mouth." And we might be reminded of Eliot's "awful daring of a moment's surrender which an age of prudence can never retract." It may be stretching a point to try to extract too much meaning from such a simple reference to the weather. However, there is more. "'Ain't a could in the sky,' he remarked, looking up at it. 'Don't see no sun but don't see no could neither.'" A cloudless, sunless sky can be a metaphorical fact, but is an astronomical impossibility between sunrise and sunset. What can this metaphor mean? Chances are it does mean something because the author, with her usual generosity, repeats it four pages later: "There was not a cloud in the sky nor any sun." And at the end the grandmother is dead and "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." The woman is still a child. The sky is neutral; there is nothing in it. If what Eliot said is to be taken seriously, that man's glory is his capacity for salvation and for damnation, then it seems that in this story, only The Misfit qualifies.
The next question might be: did the grandmother, at the last minute, in a moment of grace, make the leap, become a good woman? But this question cannot receive an answer. In real life no one can answer such a question because no one can know the answer. In fiction, the question is irrelevant, because life is over and fiction cannot go beyond life, and in this particular fiction there is nothing to indicate that the grandmother is up to anything but an understandable, desperate attempt to save her skin, even to the extent of denying her professed Christian belief: '"Maybe he didn't raise the dead,' the old lady mumbled .. ." The grandmother's denial of Christ's power is a bit inconsistent with her alleged deathbed conversion.
But the eventual disposition of the grandmother's soul is not finally relevant to the meaning of the story, for ultimately the story is an exemplum, and the reader must stand in the grandmother's place. The Misfit (always capitalized by O'Connor) is the cartoon character, the caricature, the "large and startling figure" drawn to shock the reader into recognition; The Misfit is the reader, distorted, almost beyond recognition; or at least he is a twisted version of one possibility of the reader's self. The grandmother too is the reader, undistorted, equipped to make the leap to the moral level of existence, where action and being are measured against moral criteria, but not likely to do so without some sort of metaphorical gun pointed at the bridge of the nose.
Lest the reader be tempted to feel superior to the grandmother, as he accords grudging admiration to The Misfit, and perhaps even to himself, he should note that he and The Misfit have a decided advantage over the grandmother, for she does not get her needed shock until too late, if, indeed it was too late. Neither The Misfit nor the reader has that excuse.
Like Parker in "Parker's Back," The Misfit has experienced the shock of fortune. He has seen the world and it has given him pause, and reason to reflect:
'I was a gospel singer for a while,' The Misfit said. 'I been most everything. Been in the arm service, both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twice married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive once .. . I even seen a woman flogged,' he said.
Like Mr. Shiftlet in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," The Misfit, wounded by the spear of experience, has developed a "moral intelligence." He knows there is more to life than chit-chat and wearing clean underwear in case you're found dead on the road. But the grandmother, like Julian's mother in "Everything That Rises Must Converge," is a moral innocent. She has lived in a cocoon and is whacked into death before she can emerge as a butterfly, or its moral opposite.
'Oh, look at the cute little pickaninny!' she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack. 'Wouldn't that make a picture now?' she asked and they all turned and looked at the little Negro out of the back window. She waved.
'He didn't have any britches on,' June Star said.
'He probably didn't have any,' the grandmother explained.
'Little niggers in the country don't have things like we do. If I could paint, I'd paint that picture,' she said.
A few pages later the grandmother offers the opinion that "Europe was entirely to blame for the way things were now." It is obvious that the grandmother's mindless blaming the victims of tragedy is not because she lacks generosity or is indifferent to the need for justice, but because she is innocent. Her political as well as her moral intelligence is dormant. Whether or not a person of her curiosity, intelligence and age has a right to such an innocence is another question. The fact is, she is innocent. She must be excused, rather than forgiven.
But in real life, the grandmother does not matter any more. The story is over. In real life, the reader, who now wears the grandmother's shoes, can not plead innocence. If he had not been shocked into knowledge before he read the story, then the story should be his education. If he formerly thought poverty was cute and that the rest of the world was corrupt but none of it was his responsibility; or if he thought, like Young Goodman Brown, that evil was part of other people's lives, not his, then the three shots in the grandmother's chest should teach him the knowledge he needs, and perhaps gratitude that he didn't have to be shot in the chest, or gassed in an oven, or starved in a ghetto just to lose his adolescent innocence.
In Flannery O'Connor's moral economy there are two levels of being and acting. Some characters belong to a moral aristocracy. The Misfit and the grandmother belong to this group. But not every aristocrat is aware of the significance of his position or the responsibilities that go with it. Note Marie Larish and other notables in The Wasteland, who didn't bother to mind the store and whose carelessness Eliot blames for the disintegration of European culture and civilization. Some aristocrats are themselves a menace and others do damage simply by default. What distinguishes the grandmother from The Misfit is that she, though a spiritual aristocrat, is spiritually still a child, at best an adolescent, and like Belinda at a party for Queen Anne, she is powerless to deal with the corruption surrounding her because she is unaware of it. Unfortunately, the grandmother stays adolescent until the day she dies.
Some O'Connor characters belong to what might be called the moral mediocracy, characters like the children's mother, who seem to be totally unaware that anything is happening but time. Such characters are not bad and not good, but moral morons. Just as some people can't compete in track and field because they are physically crippled, and others cannot become teachers or lawyers or plumbers because they are mentally crippled, these characters cannot operate in a moral world because they are spiritual cripples. If such people exist in real life, they could be Christians only in a nominal sense, since Christianity presupposes an ability to distinguish between good and evil and insists on the exercising of fortitude to decide on one or the other, not between one of them and nothing, which is no choice at all.
Whether or not moral nonentities exist in the world, they serve a function in O'Connor's fiction. Just as she presents us with large and startling figures, The Misfit, Mr. Shiftlet, and Hulga, she similarly presents us with small and unprepossessing figures like the children's mother who, with her cabbage face and rabbit ears, is as much a cartoon character as her opposite, The Misfit.
Real life, of course, is not a cartoon. In reality people are not characters, but people, and few if any resemble either The Misfit or the children's mother, except, perhaps, in the minds of their enemies. In reality people are like the grandmother, and of course the reader, and it behooves each one, before he gets shot to death in a ditch, to decide whether or not he is going to measure his acts and his being against moral criteria, every day, morning, noon, and night, in sickness and in health, because it isn't going to be someone to shoot him (us) every minute of his life.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4483
SOURCE: "O'Connor's Ancient Comedy: Form in 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find'," in Journal of the Short Story in English, No. 16, Spring, 1991, pp. 29-39.
[In the following essay, Donahoo analyzes the influence of Dantean and Aristophanean comedy on "A Good Man Is Hard to Find. "]
More than any other short story in the Flannery O'Connor canon, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" has attracted the attention of commentators, not the least of whom is the author herself. Both in letters and lectures, O'Connor found herself explaining the story, trying to recover it from the grasp of symbol hunters and allegory explicators, by ending a frustration perhaps summarized by her description of an exchange with an "earnest" young teacher seeking to know why the Misfit's hat was black. "Anyway," O'Connor wrote to Dr. Ted Spivey, "that's what's happening to the teaching of literature."
Perhaps this explains why, in a lecture to English teachers, O'Connor attacked what she saw as the usual ways literature is taught and called for "attention, of a technical kind." She elaborates:
The student has to have tools to understand a story or a novel, and these are tools proper to the structure of the work, tools proper to the craft. They are tools that operate inside the work and not outside it; they are concerned with how this story is made and with what makes it work as a story.
In the act of writing, one sees that the way a thing is made controls and is inseparable from the whole meaning of it. The form of a story gives it meaning which any other form would change, and unless the student is able, in some degree, to apprehend the form, he will never apprehend anything else about the work, except what is extrinsic to it as literature.
In emphasizing the importance of form and mechanics to the search for meaning, O'Connor clearly places herself in the modernist critical tradition sketched out by such predecessors as Eliot and Pound, both of whose work she claimed to know and appreciate. Moreover, O'Connor's emphasis on form goes beyond the critical sense; it undergirds her best work and points to levels of meaning commonly sought in the work of more prestigious figures but ignored in the fictions of this isolated Southern lady. In fact, her form, as it appears in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," is not an idiosyncratic creation but a définite patterning of her work according to classical models whom Eliot and Pound would surely have approved: Dante and Aristophanes.
Of the two writers, Dante's importance to O'Connor's work seems the least surprising. His Divine Comedy, with its foundations in Catholic theology, particularly the thought of Augustine, provides an obvious model for any writer interested in combining orthodox faith and "serious" art. And, as Kinney's research in O'Connor's personal library shows, O'Connor certainly had access to the great Italian's poetry—an access her own private writings argue she used. "For my money," she wrote to "A" in 1955, "Dante is about as great as you can get." More importantly, in her essay "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction," she directly refers to Dante as a model even as she hints as to how that model will be reflected in her own work:
I am told that the model of balance for the novelist should be Dante, who divided his territory pretty evenly between hell, purgatory, and paradise. There can be no objection to this, but also there can be no reason to assume that the result of doing it in these times will give us the balanced picture that it gave in Dante's. Dante lived in the thirteenth century, when that balance was achieved in the faith of his age. We live now in an age which doubts both fact and value, which is swept this way and that by momentary convictions. Instead of reflecting a balance from the world around him, the novelist now has to achieve one with a felt balance inside himself.
The key here is form—a Christian comic form which places individual narrative events into a particular perspective. Moreover, as John Freccero has well pointed out, Dante's form is built around his idea of conversion, "a death and resurrection of the self dramatized in the journey of "gradual illumination." Looking at "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" with an awareness of Dante's views begins to resolve some of the basic questions which critics have long argued. Instead of counting the bodies or the jokes, explaining the symbolic hats and cats, or even discerning the good guys from the bad, an awareness of O'Connor's modeling of Dante frees the reader to watch for signs of this illuminating journey—as well as for signs of what Freccero calls "the journey that fails," "the journey without a guide" in which the pilgrim seeks ultimate reality through his own intellect. Certainly, journeys, both literal and figurative, abound in O'Connor's text; indeed everyone in this story is moving. Recognizing Dante's presence behind the text pushes the reader to judge each motion in the light of his sense of comedy and to see why O'Connor herself was adamant about her tale's comic nature.
The opening sentences of the story reveal the two most overt journeys, one that will be taken and one that won't: "The Grandmother didn't want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey's mind." The family is planning a trip to the exotica of Florida, America's vacation wonderland, the Mecca of a tired middle-class looking for an inexpensive place to relax. It could almost be seen as a trip to paradise, except for the fact that by the 1950s Florida was already scarred by the line of neon-lit motels stretched along its beaches. Traveling there provides no pilgrimage toward illumination but an escape from reality. Moreover, as the Grandmother points out, "The children have been to Florida before'"; rather than discovering unknown territories, the family is only continuing in its comfortable rut. In fact, the family has little interest in traveling at all. Bailey, at his best, is a nervous driver, and the children dislike scenery ("'Let's go through Georgia fast so we won't have to look at it much,' John Wesley said." They would all be much happier to just be there—to be translated, as it were, from the living room of their Atlanta home to a Florida beach.
The Grandmother's purposed journey—her wish to travel to Tennessee—is hardly closer to the Dantean comic ideal. For, she desires not pilgrimage onward, but a return to her "connections." Moreover, her East Tennessee has no more reality than neon-orange Florida; it is largely the creation of her own romantic memory, complete with a courting prince (Mr. Teagarden) and a castle with secret panels (the plantation house). Like the family, she seeks no revelation; instead, she wants a solipsistic world with everything in its place, be they good men or pickaninnies.
But there is a third literal journey here, one that hardly seems important at first, but one which alters completely both the Grandmother's and the family's travel plans. This, of course, is the journey of The Misfit. Initially, his journey seems to parallel the one the family desires: an escape from Georgia to Florida. Drawing from the information in the newspaper, the Grandmother announces, "Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn't take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it." However, the direction The Misfit is headed is not really toward any particular place or thing; it's merely from. In fact, such movement away has defined his entire life's journey, despite its division into two distinct parts by his time in prison. Rather than construct anything in his life, he has moved from experience to experience. He describes his early life this way: "T was a gospel singer for a while. . . . I been most everything. Been in the arm service, both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twict married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive once .. . ; I even seen a woman flogged. .. . I never was a bad boy that I remember of . . . but somewheres along the line I done something wrong and got sent to the penitentiary.'" In images striking for their relation to what is to come, he describes prison as being "buried alive," a time when he tried to realize "what I done," only to discover that he can't remember anything. In the sense of Dante's journey of illumination, of his having learned anything capable of redirecting his life, this memory is accurate. For though The Misfit seeks illumination, he searches for it as a form of information—a form "in" which, according to Dante's poem, it does not have. Thus, he resembles Dante's Ulysses, of whom Freccero writes, "Just as the ancients equated knowledge and virtue, so too Ulysses seems to equate them, making no provision in his calculations for the journey within, the personal askesis upon which all such attempts at transcendence must be based. The distinction between Ulysses' journey and the journey of the pilgrim is not in the objective, for both are directed toward that mountain in the southern hemisphere, but rather in how the journey is accomplished." Seen in this light, it is not surprising that the Misfit has sometimes been mistakenly admired as a hayseed Byronic hero and the story twisted to show him in a positive manner. Nevertheless, for O'Connor, committed to the model of Dante's comedy, his very Byronic nature makes him damnable. And just as her model did not hesitate to place his misguided hero in hell, O'Connor clearly embeds her Misfit in a hellish morass of evil—in his own words, "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.'"
These are the literal journeys in the story, none of them illuminating, none comic. Were "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" merely the record of these movements, it would offer a dark vision indeed. However, an unacknowledged, spiritual journey is going on within the character who dominates this tale: the Grandmother. This journey has led her to the dark wood of her present self, to a danger she cannot immediately sense, and it will be altered, detoured, rescued only by an encounter with a guide she neither wants nor expects. Though, in many ways, her journey parallels the movement of The Misfit, it has that one crucial variation: the obtaining of a guide to whom she loses control.
As many critics have pointed out, the Grandmother begins the story as a self-centered, self-conscious representative and exploiter of genteel Southern-ness. She tries to assert her will over the family in the choice of a vacation spot; she smuggles the cat, the cause of the accident, onto the trip; she points out the "cute little pickaninny," enjoying the picturesqueness of his poverty; she ignores Red Sam's sloth and rudeness to his wife; and she deliberately lies about the "secret panel" in order to force a detour in the family's trip. The catalog of these events differs only in externals from the list of The Misfit's pre-prison activities; both are equally banal and unconstractive. But whereas he entered the crucible of prison and was left alone, her crucible comes in the confrontation with him, a guide from hell who takes her on a journey of illumination through loss.
Though The Misfit may seem an unlikely Virgil, he does share with Dante's guide one essential quality: an awareness of his situation, an awareness of what he does not have. What he lacks is Virgil's penitent nature, his hellgained acceptance of his condition. Instead, like a good empiricist, he defines his essential problem as his inability to have first-hand information, an inability to have certainty about history, the past, the supernatural world. In his own words, "'[Jesus] thown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but thow 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. .. . I wasn't there so I can't say He didn't [raise the dead]. .. . I wisht I had of been there. . . . It ain't right I wasn't there. . . . because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady, .. . if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn't be like I am now.'" Clearly, The Misfit believes he lacks information, and, by blaming his lack of information for his actions, he again links himself to the pre-Christian idea of equating knowledge and virtue. Considered from the Christian perspective, however, his problem could be seen, not as a lack of information, but a rejection of the possibility of ordering life by faith.
At this point, The Misfit and the Grandmother show their fundamental similarity. Like him, the Grandmother also bases her life on what she can see, though she seems well aware that what is seen may be mere appearance, not reality. After all, she has dressed for her journey so that "anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady." At the same time, her social position (dependent upon a son's charity) and her regional origins in rural East Tennessee hardly coincide with those of the gentility. Far from being a "lady," she is a pretentious, middle-class woman.
The difference between the two characters lies in their words. The Misfit's statements are as harsh as his vision; the Grandmother disguises her vision beneath traditional Christian pieties. In fact, she disguises it so well that even she is unaware of its true nature—until forced to view it in the mirror of The Misfit. When she does, she begins to change, to unify her words and actions, her medium and message—something that happens in what many view as an instantaneous conversion—an occurrence which Dante's form would seem to reject.
The writer's problem which O'Connor's situation on the highway presents is how in a limited physical situation to realize Dante's gradual illumination. Certainly, a reader could claim some sort of vague psychological journey—the kind of eternity-experienced-in-a-single-instant which not only stood Ambrose Bierce in good stead but has since provided fodder for such post-modernists as Barth and Borges. However, O'Connor is not interested in such literary tricks. Instead, she turns to a second, even more ancient, model for a comic form that suggests great action within a limited space: the comic form of Aristophanes.
Any suggestion of a link between O'Connor and the king of ribald fifth-century Greek comedy must, at first, seem odd. However, such a connection is more than possible. Robert Fitzgerald has noted the influence of Sophocles' Oedipus plays upon the composition of Wise Blood, and O'Connor herself seems to confirm this report in a 13 February 1954 letter to Ben Griffith: "At the time I was writing the last of [Wise Blood], I was living in Connecticut with the Robert Fitzgeralds. Robert Fitzgerald translated the Theban cycle with Dudley Fitts, and their translation of the Oedipus Rex had just come out and I was taken with it. Do you know that translation? I am not an authority on such things, but I think it must be the best, and it is certainly very beautiful. Anyway, all I can say is, I did a lot of thinking about Oedipus." Moreover, this chance encounter was not the limit of her contact with ancient Greek literature. As might be expected of the housemate and close friend of a Greek translator—if not a Georgia recluse—O'Connor shows in her letters a familiarity with the work of Euripides and Homer. Also, Kinney's study of her library reveals a volume of plays by Aeschylus and translations of two plays by Aristophanes—the two comedies, significantly, translated by Fitzgerald's co-worker on the Oedipus translation: Dudley Fitts. Admittedly, from this point, any further connection becomes tenuous, and it is not the argument advanced here that O'Connor consciously drew upon Aristophanes as a model. Nevertheless, the biographical evidence suggests that she knew at least some of Aristophanes' plays, while the text of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" offers striking parallels to his comic structure.
Francis MacDonald Cornford, in providing one of the major discussions of that structure, explains that in the comedies of Aristophanes there exists a "definite section" "referred to in the text as 'the Agon " Although he disagrees with those critics who see it as "the whole play," Cornford labels it "the first moment in the action" and "the chief and critical moment." He further describes the Agon this way:
In some plays, it is less a debate than a criminal trial, and less like a trial than a duel, with the two half-Choruses acting as seconds and the Leader as umpire. It is several times preceded by an actual fight with fists or missiles, which is somehow arrested in order that the flushed combatants may have it out with their tongues instead. Though the victory is finally won by argument—a term which must include all the arsenal of invective—the Agon is no mere 'dramatised debate'; it ends in the crisis and turning-point of the play, reverses the situation of the adversaries, and leads not to an academic resolution, but to all the rest of the action that follows. Above all, it is, as we have said, organically related to the final marriage in which the victor is bridegroom, the triumph of the new God or the new King.
He also describes the major players in the Agon as follows:
First there are the two Adversaries (as we shall call them). For the sake of convenience, we shall distinguish them as the 'Agonist' and the 'Antagonist.' The Agonist is the hero, who is attacked, is put on his defense, and comes off victorious. The Antagonist is the villain, who is in the stronger position at first, but is worsted and beaten from the field.
With these definitions and descriptions in mind, O'Connor's paralleling of them in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" becomes apparent. The dialogue between the Grandmother and The Misfit serves as "the chief and critical moment" in the story, and clearly, it consists of a debate which develops elements of both trial and duel. The question at hand involves "goodness": is there a good man present in the situation—the "accident," as the children refer to it—who can redeem or save those involved in it?
The course of this debate provides much of the story's black humor. The Misfit opens the proceedings and takes the offensive by aligning himself with the negative in his hints of the evil to come: "'it would have been better for "all" of you, lady, if you hadn't of reckernized me.'" The Grandmother counters by asserting the positive, using as the basis of her reasoning the evidence of appearance: "'I know you're a good man,'" she tells The Misfit, who is pointing a gun at her. "'You don't look a bit like you have common blood.'" The Misfit answers her with a direct denial—'"Nome, I ain't a good man'"—even as he emphasizes his good appearances by apologizing, like a gentleman, for being shirtless. Meanwhile, he orders his henchmen to take Bailey and John Wesley into the woods where they will be shot. Round one goes to The Misfit. This defeat forces the Grandmother to move on to another point of argument: the familiar forms of her religion. '"You could be honest too if you'd only try,'" she tells him, and then she asks, '"Do you ever pray?'" Obviously, the Grandmother imagines prayer as a kind of vending machine, and she sees goodness as some sort of necessary consumer item, part of the "comfortable life" she touts. At first, the Misfit replies by denying his materialism. '"Nobody had nothing I wanted,'" he tells her. However, in light of his story about borrowing clothes, this argument seems blatantly untrue, and, sensing a weakness, the Grandmother presses her point: '"If you would pray . . . Jesus would help you.'" Here The Misfit admits she is telling the truth—"That's right'"—but then destroys her point by showing that it is not germane: "'I don't want no hep . . . I'm doing all right by myself.'" Round Two goes to The Misfit. Her second point vanquished, the Grandmother moves onto a third position, a rather surprising one given her previous certainty but one, perhaps, dictated by the dire nature of events: the Grandmother presses her case on the basis of the mystery of Jesus. In seeing "Jesus" as both possible help and curse, as paradox, she moves toward the position her opponent claims: '"Yes'm . . . Jesus thown everything off balance.'" The truth of this statement in Christian doctrine is that by his existence Jesus demonstrated that humans could not justify themselves, that God does not run a good/credit, evil/debit accounting system. Instead, orthodoxy holds that "goodness" is not dependent upon human action but upon a faith which participates in the death/resurrection pattern Jesus established. In short, goodness stands in relationship to the paradoxical pattern St. Paul describes when he writes, "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me." By his statements, the Misfit responds to the Grandmother's use of the mystery of Jesus by claiming that it supports, not her case, but his.
At this point, The Misfit appears to have won the Agon, a sign that he is the "hero" of this tale; however, he then admits that he does not hold the position that he has described. He will not claim the argument of Christ's mystery because he lacks empirical evidence and refuses to accept on faith the possibility of Christ's action: "'I wasn't there so I can't say He didn't [raise the dead). . . . I wisht I had of been there. . . . It ain't right I wasn't there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady . . . if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn't be like I am now.'" The winning argument is now up for grabs, and the Grandmother advances to it. Having earlier admitted the impossibility of certainty—'"Maybe He didn't raise the dead'"—she begins symbolically to enact the death St. Paul speaks of, despite uncertainty. The text describes her as sinking "down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her." She then rises, not to argue that someone else is a good man, but she rises as a good man—justified, in the eyes of orthodoxy, by faith. More importantly, the discerning reader justifies her as well—not because of an unseen faith but due to an overt act. The Grandmother stops merely showing good manners by her words and, instead, shows love to her enemy by an act. '"Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my children'," she says, followed by a small but undeniable act of compassion: a touch. Such argument is unanswerable; the Grandmother wins the Agon, a fact the Misfit's wordless, mindless murder of her seems to admit.
In picturing the Grandmother's "change" as a Greek Agon, O'Connor manages to avoid giving her an instantaneous conversion and instead has her conform to the Dantean pattern of comic illumination achieved through a descent into a hell. In combining the two comic forms, she achieves in her art an illustration of the idea Emmanuel Mounier expressed in a passage which O'Connor marked in his book Personalism: ". . . life is a struggle against death; spiritual death is a struggle against the inertia of matter and the sloth of the body. The person attains self-consciousness, not through some ecstasy, but by force of mortal combat; and force is one of its principal attributes. Not the brute force of mere power and aggression, in which man forsakes his own action and imitates the behavior of matter; but human force, which is at once internal and efficacious, spiritual and manifest."
Still, this is not the end of the story, or of O'Connor's paralleling of Greek comedy. Cornford notes the tendency in the Sacrifice/Feast/Wedding portions of the plays for "elderly heroes" to "throw off the slough of sour and morose old age, and emerge at the end carrying their youthful behavior to the point of scandal"—a pattern especially clear in Wasps. In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," the final image of the Grandmother displays her not only as sacrificial victim, but also as strangely rejuvenated, her position "like a child's." Moreover, in the face of so much "serious" horror, "her face [is] smiling up at the cloudless sky."
The modern reader may be tempted to shiver at the thought of a smile in the face of so much blood—just as we shiver at horrors which the protagonist of Dante's poem encounters in hell. Moreover, unlike Dante, O'Connor does not mitigate her picture of suffering by allowing the reader to follow The Grandmother beyond the river of death into purgatory or paradise. Her focus remains plainly on this world, not the next. In Dante, however, the vision of Inferno changes because, as Freccero points out, we finally see it from the view of paradise. "In a sense," Freccero writes, "the purpose of the entire journey is to write the poem, to attain the vantage-point of Lucy, and of all the blessed, from which to perceive the figura and the coherence in life, and to bear witness to that coherence for other men."
The loss of faith in modern times, the difference O'Connor noted between Dante's age and her own, makes such a vantage point and such a coherence seem a fantasy—an obvious fiction unacceptable within the bounds of "realism." "Happily ever after" exists only in the province of fairy tales; O'Connor dare not claim it as "real." Instead, she can only make use of forms which imply it—the forms of comedy as it was known in ancient times.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5058
SOURCE: "Christian Realism and O'Connor's 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find'," in American Fiction in the Cold War, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1991, pp. 125-36.
[Schaub is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he examines "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" in the context of the revisionary liberalism of the 1950s.]
The idea of "the South" and of "southern writing" also helps to situate O'Connor's [A Good Man Is Hard to Find], for during the fifties specific political and cultural meanings were attributed to the southern experience. When Walker Percy won the National Book Award in 1961 for The Moviegoer, he was asked why the South was contributing so many fine writers. He answered, "Because we lost the War." O'Connor gave her interpretation of Percy's meaning in an essay she contributed to Esprit: "He didn't mean by that simply that a lost war makes good subject matter," O'Connor wrote. "We have gone into the modern world with an inburnt knowledge of human limitations and with a sense of mystery which could not have developed in our first state of innocence—as it has not sufficiently developed in the rest of our country." This is a summary identical to those we can find in the writing of Hartz, Niebuhr, and Vann Woodward—all of whom used the experience of the South as a source of directives for United States foreign policy.
There is some evidence that O'Connor's interpretation of Percy's comment paraphrased C. Vann Woodward's thesis in "The Irony of Southern History." O'Connor wrote to "A" on May 25, 1963, "I have taken up with reading C. Vann Woodward. Have you ever read this gentleman—The Burden of Southern History is what I have but I intend to order off after more. Southern history usually gives me a pain, but this man knows how to write English." Though O'Connor apparently did not read Vann Woodward's essay until 1963, he delivered the lecture in 1953 as an elaboration of Reinhold Niebuhr's thesis in The Irony of American History, published the year before.
One of the architects of postwar foreign policy, George Kennan, had defined this irony in terms similar to Niebuhr's. In the forward to American Diplomacy, Kennan described the ironic aura of the Allied victory: "one had the inescapable fact that our security, or what we took to be our security, had suffered a tremendous decline over the course of the half-century. A country which in 1900 had no thought that its prosperity and way of life could be in any way threatened by the outside world had arrived by 1950 at a point where it seemed to be able to think of little else but this danger."
The thesis of Vann Woodward's lecture, given in 1953, was part of a widespread conviction in the intellectual community that American foreign policy must recognize its limitations. One reads this in Schlesingers The Vital Center, and in Louis Hartz's The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), which asserts the "innocence" (and unconsciousness) of American liberalism, and argues that cold war conflicts may force Americans to understand "liberalism" as but one ideology among others: "which is to say that America must look to its contact with other nations to provide that spark of philosophy, that grain of relative insight that its own history has denied it."
Vann Woodward's essay first restated "the ironic incongruities of our position" and then explored this irony in light of southern history. In Vann Woodward's opinion, the southern historian can bring a special point of view and experience to these national ironies, and therefore is capable of making "a special contribution to the understanding of the irony of American history." For "the historian of the South can hardly escape the feeling that all this has happened before." The point of vantage for the southern historian, of course, is established by the South's having lost the Civil War, an experience setting it apart from the national experience: never having "known what it means to be confronted by complete frustration" has led to ideas of American invincibility and a vague belief that "history is something unpleasant that happens to other people." In sharp contrast, the South has something in common with Europe that the rest of the country does not. Hartz drew a similar lesson from southern history, though he focused upon the failure of the North to learn anything from the "Reactionary Enlightenment." Vann Woodward makes explicit the regional assumptions informing O'Connor's fiction, assumptions which she herself later articulated in terms evolved from cold war discourse.
Vann Woodward's essay helps historicize or situate a pervasive southern conviction within a specific postwar context. The irony of O'Connor's antiliberalism is the success of her vision, its marvellous coincidence with dominant discourses of cold war liberalism. One may be perfectly willing to grant the ahistorical legitimacy of O'Connors religious objections to the modern temper—without, in doing so, ignoring the historical discourses which O'Connor's language intersects and reinforces. O'Connor's good fortune, it may be said, was to be working at a time when her own objections to liberal thought were widely shared by the liberal audience that would have to make up her readership, if she was to have one at all. She and they shared for a time the emphasis upon "realism," innocence, evil, ambiguity, limitation, tragedy, and so forth. I think it fair to say that once we array this discourse beside O'Connor's work of the early fifties, there are many places at which the liberal self-critique and O'Connor's critique of liberalism overlap. This historicizing allows us to read aspects of her work with an enlarged sense of their cultural dialogue.
Revisionist liberalism is not so explicitly inscribed within the title story of A Good Man Is Hard to Find as in O'Connor's satire of Joy-Hulga in "Good Country People." The qualities that make this story so identifiable with the postwar era are more complex, powerfully embedded in ironic reversals and the themes they accentuate. This is especially clear if we read the fiction through its allusions to Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, which bring the irony of southern history to bear upon the Grandmother and her son's family.
In the story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," the Grandmother's desire differs from her son's: instead of vacationing in Florida, she wants to visit her "connections" in east Tennessee. Her son and his family seem to be interested only in comics, in the "funny papers" and the sports page; they have no eye for beauty in the landscape, no respect for family relations. As in so many of O'Connor's stories, the character who is going to take the hardest fall—here the Grandmother—is made to look good by contrast with her son and his family. Bailey is a bald, taciturn father, wearing a Hawaiian shirt with parrots on it. The mother, who is virtually mute, has a face "as broad and innocent as a cabbage" and a kerchief on her head with "two points on the top like rabbit's ears." The children are disobedient brats who speak in screams and shrieks. In this context, the Grandmother's vitality, her interest in things, however shallow, is refreshing. If we smile at her, we also feel the family line has degenerated a bit. She is stuck with a pretty slow crew. Their lives are a vacuity, they are always on "vacation," and they are headed for Florida, then beginning to incarnate the emptiness and deregionalization of American culture.
The Grandmother is so taken up with her desire to visit her relations that during the ride she begins to associate the scenery they are passing through with her girlhood landscapes, and this association is a recollection at once of her past and of the Old South before the Civil War. When they pass a cotton field with an "island" of graves in the center she says, "that was the old family burying ground. That belonged to the plantation." Her son's boy, John Wesley, asks where the plantation is and the grandmother makes a joke: "Gone With the Wind," she laughs. O'Connor left the words capitalized in order to emphasize their reference to Mitchell's novel and the film adaptation that won an Academy Award for best picture in 1939.
Like the fact that she has named her cat "Pitty Sing" after a character in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, the grandmother's reference to Gone with the Wind further identifies her as a character whose consciousness is in some degree manipulated by the kitsch of democratic-liberal culture. Though the Grandmother elaborates her harmless allusion no further, her joke participates in a complex system which O'Connor extends throughout the rest of the story and which dramatizes the serious consequences of mass cultural representation. The allusion at once tells a truth and refers to the transformation of southern history into representation, into writing and film—sign of that history's having lost its substantial meaning, of its conversion now to a diluted, glorified sentimentality. O'Connor herself had little interest in or patience with the South's antebellum nostalgia or with the war itself. She asks one of her correspondents, "What you want to read A Stillness at Appomattox for? Buy it for me but don't send it to me. I never was one to go over the Civil War in a big way. . . ." The literal representation of history was of less interest to O'Connor than the ahistorical and spiritual truths which the Grandmother's nostalgia overlooks.
For John Wesley to ask "where's the plantation?" is to ask where is the South? Where is its wealth and pastoral, Edenic promise? The past as a time when men were gentlemen and children respected their elders is a constant theme of the old woman. To quiet the children, the Grandmother tells them a story of her youth "when she was a maiden lady . . . courted by a Mr. Edgar Atkins Teagarden." Clearly, O'Connor wants us to understand the old lady's revery as a dream of lost paradise: her gentleman caller is named for the very "garden" that has been lost, and his initials—E.A.T.—are clearly meant to remind us of the story of the Fall. Mr. Teagarden was in the habit of leaving the Grandmother a watermelon with his initials carved on it. The old lady doesn't read the spiritual fact within the accidental name, and identifies her loss with the money Teagarden made from his Coca-Cola stock.
In many ways, "A Good Man" is a story about eating, about appetites and the Garden of Eden, and about nature's appetite, which swallows rich and poor alike. In fact, the children have just finished the lunch the grandmother has made for them when the family stops for barbecued sandwiches at Red Sammy's. While Sammy and the Grandmother discuss "better times" and complain about the Marshall Plan ("the way Europe acted you would think we were made of money," she tells Red Sammy), the children watch a monkey in the chinaberry tree outside, who is "busy catching fleas on himself and biting each one carefully between his teeth as if it were a delicacy."
O'Connor further elaborates the Civil War allusion in the scene which follows, describing the soporific car ride after lunch and the confused recollection the Grandmother has of "an old plantation that she had visited in this neighborhood once when she was a young lady. She said the house had six white columns across the front and that there was an avenue of oaks leading up to it and two little wooden trellis arbors on either side in front where you sat down with your suitor after a stroll in the garden." To induce her son to look for this old house she invents a lie that elaborates and projects her antebellum nostalgia: "There was a secret panel in this house," she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing that she were, "and the story went that all the family silver was hidden in it when Sherman came through but it was never found.'" The "secret panel" idea is a hit with the kids and Bailey is forced to capitulate.
The "secret panel," like the memory generally, is a facile representation of an undefiled South, a secret access to a recoverable past. But as with the explicit reference to Gone with the Wind, O'Connor turns the Grandmother's nostalgic allusions against her. For the woods, beside which their overturned car finally comes to rest, are (from Frost) "tall and dark and deep", and once the Misfit and his gang appear—outside "Toombsboro" in a "big black battered hearse-like automobile"—the woods become even more threatening: "behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth." The family's mindless, animal appetites here reemerge as instances of nature's appetite, red in tooth and claw, ready to consume. The ironic allusions to Mitchell's novel find their fulfillment in the pistol shots announcing the death of her son Bailey and the boy John Wesley, for the Grandmother "could hear the wind move through the tree tops like a long satisfied insuck of breath." Bailey and his son are gone with the wind, and this is no joke, but the irony of southern history.
The language of this scene implies not only a malign and unforgiving nature, but also the spiritual inadequacy of the "Liberal approach" based upon naturalist beliefs, such as that articulated by John Dewey and Sidney Hook in their "Failure of Nerve" essays: that the world of natural human history and society is a sufficient amphitheater for human aspiration, reason, and perfection. The two major players in the final scene of the story—its last third—are the Grandmother and the Misfit, both of whom are struggling within and coming to recognize the limitations of this "modern idea." Certainly the Misfit is more aware of this than is the Grandmother, whose "liberalism"—if we may ascribe such to her—is a watered-down set of mass cultural "banalities." She keeps a record of their mileage, encourages an aesthetic appreciation of the countryside, prattles on about education and the need to be "broad," and imagines a time when there used to be "good men." The lack of good men follows from a decline in culture or politics ("Europe was entirely to blame for the way things were now," she tells Red Sammy), instead of following from the idea—as O'Connor expressed it to Cecil Dawkins—that "man has fallen and that he is only perfectible by God's grace."
The Misfit, too, bears traces of "the Liberal approach." His "silver-rimmed spectacles" give him a "scholarly look," and he turns out to be a precise, literal man, outraged by the incommensurability of his crimes and punishments. He, too, is a record keeper, ready to acknowledge the claims made upon him by "papers" and accounts. "That's why I sign myself now," he tells the Grandmother. "I said long ago, you get you a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it. Then you'll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you'll have something to prove you ain't been treated right." This language is as close as O'Connor comes to acknowledging the song which gave her story its title. The Misfit is a man who hasn't been "treated right." The love he lacks, one supposes, is God's love, which his rigid rationalism prevents him from receiving. The Misfit's accounting house tropes may remind us of liberalism's origins in the rise of the middle class, as well as of the Grandmother's regret that she failed to marry into Teagarden's Coca-Cola wealth.
But cold war discourse denied that the bookkeeping of capitalism, its ideas of fairness and contracts, had any basis in the truth of human nature or social and political history. In his lecture "Diplomacy in the Modern World," Kennan argued the deficiencies of the "legalistic approach"—expecting the world's nations to subscribe to a common law and judicial process—especially because of "the inevitable association of legalistic ideas with moralistic ones" and the military indignation that follows from a conviction of moral superiority. "It is a curious thing," he wrote, echoing Lionel Trilling's conclusion to "Manners, Morals, and the Novel," his Kenyon talk on the novel, "that the legalistic approach to world affairs, rooted as it unquestionably is in a desire to do away with war and violence, makes violence more enduring, more terrible, and more destructive to political stability than did the older motives of national interest." On this subject there was a marvellous consistency to the discourse of the liberal center. Niebuhr's language echoes Trilling's even more perfectly: "Our moral perils are not those of conscious malice or the explicit lust for power. They are the perils which can be understood only if we realize the ironic tendency of virtues to turn into vices when too complacently relied upon. The ironic elements in American history can be overcome, in short, only if American idealism comes to terms with the limits of all human striving, the fragmentariness of all human wisdom, the precariousness of all historic configurations of power, and the mixture of good and evil in all human virtue." Niebuhr goes on to cite Kennan's book, which appeared the year before Niebuhr's, drawing a moral-religious lesson from history rather than stopping short with one of "national self-interest."
The Misfit's violence, of course, is a form of moral indignation that his experience and his morality do not "match," and his inability to remember his first crime suggests that the Misfit is human rationality itself, unable to comprehend the affront of mortality as a punishment for man's original "fall." "I done something wrong and got sent to the penitentiary. I was buried alive," he tells the Grandmother. In the "Liberal approach" there is no escape hatch from this mortality, and our natural environment becomes a prison house. "Turn to the right, it was a wall,' The Misfit said, looking up again at the cloudless sky. Turn to the left, it was a wall. Look up it was a ceiling, look down it was a floor. I forget what I done, lady.'"
The Misfit's symbolic penitentiary reveals how thoroughly O'Connor has invested her story with images of enclosure: the "black valise" imprisoning the Grandmother's cat, Pitty Sing; the gravestones the family sees at the beginning of their trip; the name Toombsboro; the "black, battered, hearse-like automobile"; the prison walls which enrage the Misfit; the dark open mouth of the woods. Even the name of the Grandmother's son, "Bailey," means the outer wall of a castle or the court enclosed by it. These are all images of enclosure producing the violence of history: as when Pitty Sing "rose with a snarl" from the valise and "sprang onto Bailey's shoulder"—causing the accident and the family's extinction. This movement is repeated later when the Misfit asks his sidekick for Bailey's Hawaiian shirt: "the shirt came flying at him and landed on his shoulder." Clothing himself in "Bailey"—as it were—the Misfit imprisons himself in the false paradise of the natural world. For him there is "no pleasure but meanness," and "his voice had become almost a snarl." The fiction itself operates as a place of punishment and retribution, imprisoning its characters in the straitjacket of moral reality.
At the same time, to see them as images only of enclosure is to misread the natural text—as the Grandmother misreads the initials carved on Teagarden's watermelon—for these images participate in a vast ironic reorganization of meaning, accessible to us through another image of enclosure, the Grandmother's fictive "secret panel." She imagined that inside this nonexistent panel they would find the "family silver," and family silver is exactly what she does find. The Misfit's hair is "silver-gray," he is wearing "silver-rimmed glasses," and one of his accomplices has a "silver stallion" embossed on his sweatshirt. (Now and then O'Connor ended her letters with the closing, "hi yo silver.") Readers may recall that the "trees" earlier in the story "were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled." This is also "family" silver because when the imminence of death "cleared her head for an instant" she recognizes the Misfit as "one of my own children!"—though not one of the "connections" she wanted to make in east Tennessee. When she touches "him on the shoulder"—in the second repetition of the cat's escape from prison—the Misfit recoils and shoots her three times in the chest. The Misfit here is a kind of black Lone Ranger, a mixture of good and evil, whose (phallocentric) "meanness" saves the Grandmother's life by killing her: "She would of been a good woman," he tells Bobby Lee, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." In the religious register of the story, the secret panel has become a doorway to the kingdom of heaven.
The stress this ending places upon the family is the culmination of the story's thorough reorganization of natural accident into the design of a spiritual parable. O'Connor repeatedly insists upon the family's belief in the power of accident: the Grandmother has taken the cat along because she is afraid he will "accidentally asphyxiate himself; she dresses formally for the trip so that "in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady"; when the car overturns, the children scream "We've had an ACCIDENT!" in a "frenzy of delight." They shout this three times, perhaps as a sign of the spiritual denial their lives represent. Just as their vacation is revealed to be an antipilgrimage, and the digressive sidetrip down the dirt road becomes a spiritual journey taking them into the same woods in which Dante lost his way, so here the Grandmother's sense of familial connection is entirely and radically altered under the pressure of the Misfit's presence. One system is displaced and reorganized into another as O'Connor's irony converts a world of reason without ground to an irrational world grounded in Christ.
The Grandmother's recognition of the Misfit as one of her own children, uniting the world's people beyond the bonds of blood and locality, signifies two central assumptions of revisionist liberalism—human depravity and the universality of human circumstance. In his essay on The Family of Man photographic exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1950s, Eric J. Sandeen described the collected images as an "elaborately conceived argument for the validity of the photograph as a persuasive document, as well as for the liberal sentiment that 'mankind is one.'" When Steichen invited photographers to submit their work, he told them, "It is essential to keep in mind the universal elements and aspects of human relations and the experiences common to all mankind rather than situations that represented conditions exclusively related or peculiar to a race, an event, a time or place." Sandeen offers this contextualization of those directives: "Like the liberal historians of the '50s, [Steichen and Miller] assumed that culture worked to bring humans together rather than to differentiate them. . . . Steichen believed in the psychic unity of mankind and used qualities of life, accessible to a mass audience, to get at this deeper level of confluence."
Such displacement of racial and class differences by a universalizing perspective was one of the more conservative implications of the new liberalism. Of course for O'Connor this subordination of race and class to the family of man was consistent with her religious focus and her Agrarian belief in the organic development of culture. "The South has to evolve a way of life in which the two races can live together with mutual forbearance." she told an interviewer in 1963. "You don't form a committee to do this or pass a resolution: both races have to work it out the hard way." O'Connor's fiction represents the relations of race and class in the South, but always as a means of demonstrating the universalism of the human condition. Several of the stories in the Good Man collection end with this reminder of universality: Mr. Head and his grandson "could both feel [the artificial Negro] dissolving their differences"; Mrs. Cope's face, at the end of "A Circle in the Fire," "looked as if it might have belonged to anybody, a Negro or a European or to Powell himself; and the old black man in "The Displaced Person" tells Mrs. McIntyre, "Black and white . . . is the same."
Reviews of A Good Man Is Hard to Find often praised O'Connor's characters as "part of the human tragicomedy." The New York Herald Tribune reviewed the book on page 1 of its book review section and praised O'Connor for her "use of the regional to communicate the universal" ("Flannery O'Connor: A New Shining Talent"). The Commonweal reviewer noted that "here, in rural miniature, are the primary intuitions of man." Certainly O'Connor herself thought in just these terms. She wrote Ben Griffith about her story "The Artificial Nigger" that she meant "to suggest with the artificial nigger .. . the redemptive quality of the Negro's suffering for us all"; nine months later, when she recalled the story's origin, O'Connor gave the statue a more specific cultural and historical significance: "It's not only a wonderful phrase but it's a terrible symbol of what the South has done to itself."
We needn't forget that O'Connor's demonstration of universality was rooted in Christian mystery, but this point of view not only had some currency within the postwar liberal community but also supplied a foundation for the social responsibility indigenous to "liberal sentiments." O'Connor's explanation of what happens at the end of "A Good Man" suggests how her story might easily be read within the terms of the liberal narrative: "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 their roots deep in the mystery she has been merely prattling about so far."
Within the postwar context the Misfit is really a double figure: on the one hand he is a defenseless liberal intellectual, guilty of what Trilling said was liberalism's tendency "to organize the elements of life in a rational way"; on the other he is the reality of violence and evil for which the liberal is unprepared. He is the reality of "history" itself—Stalin, Hitler, European evil showing up on the red dirt back road of the Georgia countryside—indeed, he is the greater evil that results from the astonished innocence of liberalism. His is the violence of a simplifying reason imposing its punitive logic upon the recalcitrant complexities of human nature and history.
Before encountering the Grandmother, the Misfit had developed a logic by which he could live, but it was a logic that required disbelief: if Jesus didn't raise the dead, he explains to her, "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." The possibility that Jesus might have raised the dead throws "everything off balance" and destroys the logic of his behavior. The Grandmother's gesture testifies to her belief, and it is for this reason that the Misfit is described springing back "as if a snake had bitten him." The Grandmother's gesture violates the consistency of the Misfit's protective logic and removes his last line of defense against the mystery of existence: "The Misfit's eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenselesslooking."
Understood in this way, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" turns out to enact one of the central parables of cold war thinking and the "end of ideology"—that the naive rationality of liberal idealism produces a greater violence than a belief which recognizes the reality of evil in human behavior. Introducing this story to her audience at Hollins College in Virginia (1962), O'Connor told them, "I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace." This is Christian realism with a vengeance.
The true authority of this story resides within the narrative action itself, which brings its characters and readers to a perception of human mortality and depravity—that is, to a perception of the silent authority of reality, presented here in the relentlessness of the criminal, and engineered throughout by O'Connor. Indeed, all the stories in A Good Man Is Hard to Find may be read as depictions of the "family of man" in need of its "father." The collection's title reminds us that there are almost no fathers in any of the stories, and none who exert authority. In "A Good Man," the Misfit is a man who has lost his father, Bailey is an ineffectual father, and we hear nothing at all of the Grandmother's husband, alive or dead.
The need for authority is one she herself felt. "If you live today you breathe in nihilism," she told one correspondent. "If I hadn't had the Church to fight it with or tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw right now." Similarly, to another she wrote, "I know that [baptism] had to be given me before the age of reason, or I wouldn't have used any reason to find it." The Misfit appears to be her imagination of how mean she could be without the faith. At the same time her faith seems to permit her the violence she wreaks upon her characters.
Inscribed within that violence was one of the repeated admonitions of revisionist liberalism—that we must return to "reality"—just as it was part of the liberal narrative (the story told by many liberals) that history ("all the lessons of modern history," Schlesinger wrote) had violently alerted them to the simplifications of liberal ideology. Despite O'Connor's expressed alienation from liberal culture, the "ugly words" of her fiction reproduce in another register the recurring injunctions of cold war discourse. All seemed to agree: it's time to establish a new realism, a less idealistic approach to domestic culture and foreign affairs, because a good man is hard to find.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4498
SOURCE: An introduction to A Good Man Is Hard to Find, by Flannery O'Connor, Rutgers University Press, 1993, pp. 3-9, 17-24.
[Asals is an American educator and critic. In this excerpt, he lauds thematic and stylistic aspects of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find, " praising, in particular, the significant role of the grandmother in the story.]
"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is probably now, as during her lifetime, the single story by which Flannery O'Connor is best known. She herself may have had something to do with this: when she was asked to give a reading or a talk to students, "A Good Man" was the story she usually proposed. As she wrote to John Hawkes, she preferred a reading with commentary to a lecture because "It's better to try to make one story live for them than to tell them a lot of junk they'll forget in five minutes and that I have no confidence in anyhow." It was not, she claimed, her favorite among her stories (that honor she accorded "The Artificial Nigger"); she chose "A Good Man" for public readings (or so a friend told me) because it was the only one she could get through and not "bust out laughing."
Whatever force these readings had in establishing the story, she had already singled it out by making it the title piece of her first collection, published in 1955 (A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories). That alone might not have sufficed to give it preeminence (when the collection was published in England it bore, without authorial permission, the title The Artificial Nigger). In 1960, however, her friends Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon selected it for inclusion in the second edition of their enormously influential anthology, The House of Fiction, and thus began the history of "A Good Man" as a favorite of anthologizers. Its only rival among her work at the time was, once more, "The Artificial Nigger," which had been anthologized earlier, but in less powerful places. By 1966, W. S. Marks III could speak casually of "A Good Man" as "one of the more frequently anthologized of her pieces." More recently, other stories, including those from her second collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, have displaced it as an inevitable choice of anthologists, but it was established for long enough to remain the single tale most immediately associated with Flannery O'Connor.
That eminence is not entirely arbitrary or accidental. Its quality aside, the story probably makes available more rapidly and obviously than anything else she ever wrote the unsettling mix of comedy, violence, and religious concern that characterizes her fiction. Other stories may, arguably, be funnier, subtler, more moving, more resonant, but "A Good Man" brings before the reader, with a powerful shock, the main features of O'Connor's fictive world. Perhaps its place in her career helps explain why it seems to capture within its borders some essence of her vision.
"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" was first published in Avon's Modern Writing 1 in late September 1953. It was the last of the four stories she published that year, a group which, in turn, comprised her first crop of mature stories, works that she would consider worthy of putting between hard covers. Her master's thesis for the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop had been comprised of a half-dozen stories, but these she clearly viewed as apprentice pieces, and a section cut out of her novel-in-progress and published independently in 1949 would get heavily rewritten and retitled ("A Stroke of Good Fortune") before its later admittance to her collection. O'Connor rarely sat on completed work—her usual practice was to send a story out for responses from trusted friends, make any revisions in light of their commentary, then send it on to her agent—and her letters suggest that all the stories published in 1953 ("A Late Encounter with the Enemy," "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," and "The River" were the others) were written in 1952 or early 1953. It is unlikely any were written earlier, as 1951 was taken up almost entirely with two occupations: surviving the lupus erythematosus that had suddenly struck her down in December 1950 and preparing for publication the manuscript of her first novel, Wise Blood.
At first glance, Wise Blood (1952) seems radically different from "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." It is a severely stylized novel, populated by the grotesque denizens of a nightmarish urban landscape who engage in ironically rendered verbal and physical violence while approaching their absurd or dreadful ends. At its center is Hazel Motes, grandson of a fundamentalist preacher, so desperate to be rid of Jesus that he devises and preaches a backwoods version of nihilistic existentialism with a ferocious intensity usually reserved for more orthodox creeds. As Robert Fitzgerald has pointed out, existentialism was the "last word in attitudes . . . when Flannery O'Connor began to write," and it provides a thematic link between novel and story. Its postures reverberate in the rolling-stone experience of "A Good Man"'s Misfit: "I been most everything. Been in the arm service, both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twict married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive oncet. .. . I even seen a woman flogged." Existentialist accents sound even more clearly in his metaphysical questionings of "why it is"—why some suffer and others do not, why punishment and crime never match, why the very earth itself seems both devoid of significance and a prison. If The Misfit's stance of interrogation differs from Hazel Motes's blasphemous defiance, both postures are nonetheless assumed on a similar basis—the basis of the apparent meaninglessness of human existence in a neutralized cosmos from which the divine is absent. It is little wonder that echoes of "existentialist" writers from Dostoyevsky to Camus have been detected in The Misfit's speeches.
But if The Misfit glances back toward Wise Blood, his antagonist in the story, the grandmother, has no real predecessor there. She is the first of many O'Connor figures to ground the work (as Wise Blood never is grounded) in what Flannery O'Connor referred to as the realm of "manners," an everyday worldliness concerned with such matters as family relations, dress and appearance, etiquette, economic and social status. Complacent and self-satisfied, these characters—and they are usually women—may well pay lip service to conventional Christianity, but their eyes are fixed firmly on the imperatives of this world. Murderously polite criminals evolved out of O'Connor's imagination working on the more sensational news of the day . . . ; genteel ladies she had known since childhood. If The Misfit seems to emerge from the wildness that produced Wise Blood, the grandmother looks forward to the many stories that are rooted in a recognizable Southern social milieu, and their long confrontation, both comic and violent, in the second half of "A Good Man" may be what makes this seem the quintessential O'Connor story.
Whenever O'Connor worked on the story, it was virtually complete by late March or early April of 1953 when she sent it off to her friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald for their response. Apparently she got one, but it seems not to have survived, and on June 7 she wrote to inform them she had sold it to the Partisan Review Reader. Like all her fiction, the story bears the discernible traces of its time of composition, most of which were more local in time and place than The Misfit's existential musings. The advertising for Red Sammy Butts's short order house, "filling station and dance hall" includes the patriotic claim that the proprietor is a veteran (a role he plays right down to his "khaki trousers"), a reminder that the reverberations of World War II were still to be felt in the early fifties. These were the years of the Marshall Plan of aid to warravaged Europe, but in the xenophobic South, this policy was likely to produce the kind of conversation that takes place between Red Sammy and the grandmother.
He and the grandmother discussed better times. The old lady said that in her opinion Europe was entirely to blame for the way things were now. She said the way Europe acted you would think we were made of money and Red Sam said it was no use talking about it, she was exactly right.
The fifties are detectable in other touches as well: in June Star's tap dance lessons and her reference to the popular show of the fledgling medium of television, "Queen for a Day"; in the slacks and head-kerchief of the children's mother; in the country and western tune popularized nationwide by Patti Page, "The Tennessee Waltz." Perhaps the atmosphere of the times is nowhere more powerfully, if indirectly, expressed than in the following passage:
"In my time," said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, "children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then. Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!" she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack. "Wouldn't that make a picture, now?" she asked and they all turned and looked at the little Negro out of the back window. He waved.
"He didn't have any britches on," June Star said.
"He probably didn't have any," the grandmother explained. "Little niggers in the country don't have things like we do. If I could paint, I'd paint that picture," she said.
The grandmother's complacency, her reduction of the moral to the picturesque (poverty as aesthetic category?), and the brilliant non-sequitur of the verb "explained"—the old lady's explanation of course illuminates nothing but the imperviousness of her kind—all expose the automatic racism of the postwar South in those years immediately preceding the civil rights movement. It is frequently noted that O'Connor virtually never made the South's racial situation her central fictional subject; it is less frequently noted that virtually every story contains at least one trenchant passage like this one that epitomizes that situation. She knew what she was about: as she wrote a friend about a pending public appearance. "I am going to read 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find,' deleting the paragraph about the little nigger who doesn't have any britches on. I can write with ease what I forbear to read."
The local appears in other ways as well. The reference to "The Tennessee Waltz" not only fixes the temporal period of the action, but connects with the entire "Tennessee motif" in the story, which is itself part of a larger, typically Southern nostalgia. It is the note on which "A Good Man" opens: "The grandmother didn't want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee." When the song plays on the nickelodeon at Red Sammy's, the grandmother "swayed her head from side to side and pretended she was dancing in her chair"; shortly thereafter, she will "pretend" so successfully that she knows a plantation with white columns, twin arbors, and an avenue of oaks where, behind a secret panel "the family silver was hidden .. . When Sherman came through," that she will fool even herself. Not only does her deception lead the family down the fatal dirt road, but a sudden "horrible thought" produces the spasmodic reaction that precipitates the accident that leaves them all at the mercy of The Misfit—a chain of causation with the inflexibility of iron links. "The horrible thought she had had before the accident was that the house she had remembered so vividly was not in Georgia but in Tennessee."
That house, as the grandmother has joked about another antebellum plantation, is truly "Gone With the Wind. . . . Ha. Ha." The South's nostalgia for its own supposed glorious past, its glamorous lost cause is, in O'Connor's view, a form of sentimentality that is far from harmless, that can precipitate car accidents and is not divorced from a perception of poor black children as picturesque. Born in Savannah, Georgia, she had grown up there and in Milledgeville, and had spent a half-dozen of her adult years outside of the South, yet even when she was living elsewhere—in Iowa, New York, or Connecticut—it was her native region that occupied her and provided the material of her fiction. Unlike Faulkner and other southern writers of a previous generation, she was not fascinated by the Civil War, but she was fascinated by the South's own fascination (that fascination is the subject of another of the 1953 stories, "A Late Encounter with the Enemy") The ultimate result of this sentimental backward-looking, "A Good Man" implies, is such a figure as The Misfit, a man thrust into the moral and metaphysical vacuum that results in part from self-serving nostalgia. One of the story's nicer ironies is that down this road in an imagined "Tennessee," the grandmother has indeed come face to face with one of her "connections.". . .
[Her lecture delivered at Hollins College in 1963 offers] two of O'Connor's own anecdotes about the reactions of undergraduate students to "A Good Man," [and] it may not be inappropriate to add a third. Granted, these were not Southern students like those O'Connor was sure "all had grandmothers or great-aunts just like [the story's protagonist] at home"; my students were Canadian, and they were not at all convinced that this "old lady . . . had a good heart." They found this central female character not only "a hypocritical old soul," but the possessor of assorted juicy sins unforgivable to the minds of nineteen-yearolds—garrulous, insensitive, underhanded, pretentious, manipulative, self-serving, morally obtuse, out of touch with "reality," and so on. In short, they judged the grandmother, and they did so in part because they felt, and not incorrectly, that the story invited such judgment; they sensed, even if they could not always articulate it, the narrator's ironic tone, the element of caricature in the presentation (nor were they blind to the bratty children, the lumpish mother, the sullen father in this family). And if they were puzzled by the import of her last words to The Misfit and somewhat shaken by the wholesale massacre in the final part of the story, they did not find this old lady's demise entirely without moral justification. The wind moving through the trees "like a long satisfied insuck of breath" as the gunshots go off seems an expressive summation of their response.
Surely an important part of the story's effectiveness, of the pleasure we are able to take in what, outlined, would seem merely grim tabloid material, comes from such stylization, from the ironic comedy which distances the reader from this family and particularly from its chief member, the grandmother. Nevertheless, she is the "chief member" only because the story has so presented her, privileging her point of view over that of the others. Within the family itself, she is clearly a marginal figure, ignored (as we see in the opening scene) by her son and daughter-in-law, freely insulted by her grandchildren, powerless before all. If she is all the things my students claimed, surely that is because she has to be: her comically desperate attempts to assert a self that is denied by all around her, no less by the parents' silence than by the children's diminishing taunts ("She has to go everywhere we go"), testify to her lack of any essential role in the only context which age, sex, and widowhood have left open to her.
Failing to produce even a reconsideration of family vacation plans, she apparently capitulates with absurd rapidity: "The next morning the grandmother was the first one in the car, ready to go" (as the children claim, she is not about to be left behind, and she doubtless considers promptness a cardinal virtue). Nonetheless, the hidden presence of her cat, Pitty Sing, suggests a more complex response. Her reasons for taking the animal expose both her sentimentality and that melodramatic imagination which has already drawn her to newspaper reports of The Misfit—"he would miss her too much and she was afraid he might brush against one of the gas burners and accidentally asphyxiate himself"—but the paragraph's final sentence, which concerns not the inclusion but the secreting of Pitty Sing, hints at something more. "Her son, Bailey, didn't like to arrive at a motel with a cat" presents the animal as agent of rebellion, the grandmother's private refusal to acquiesce without at least a token of revolt against an order that denies her. If she has her way, Bailey will, like it or not, "arrive at a motel with a cat."
No such destination, of course, is ever reached, but the cat nevertheless plays a key role in the story's action. By that time, however, it has become a more problematic locus of possibilities. The grandmother has spun her tale of the plantation house, and for once, backed by the children (who first said grandparents and grandchildren naturally gravitate together to face a common enemy?), she has apparently finally got her way, moved the family in the direction of her desires. That archetypal Southern mansion both has and is a pseudo-secret—the grandmother knows there is no hidden panel in the house, and she is about to discover there is no house at all down that road—and with the sudden revelation to her of the truth, she uncovers the genuine secret of the cat. "The thought was so embarrassing that she turned red in the face and her eyes dilated and her feet jumped up, upsetting her valise in the corner. The instant the valise moved, the newspaper top she had over the basket rose with a snarl and Pitty Sing, the cat, sprang onto Bailey's shoulder." The cat, like The Misfit, identified through their common "snarl," will not be contained by the newspaper, and as a result the car flips over into a ditch.
This is the turning point of "A Good Man," the "ACCIDENT" that occurs precisely at the story's half-way mark. It is the moment in the tale that novelist T. Coraghessan Boyle recently approved [in The New York Times Magazine, December 9, 1990] because it "violate[s] the familiar comic balance": "It's very powerful when the safety net drops away from the comic universe where nothing can go wrong, and there's this overpowering, terrible violence." The sudden, unpredictable quality of the car accident is essential to the effect and implications of "A Good Man," yet so is the recognition that it has been precipitated, however obliquely, by the grandmother. But if her original smuggling aboard of the cat suggested her underground revolt against the family's suppression, the uncovering of that secret seems to imply a different focus of dissatisfaction. Despite the fact that Pitty Sing springs directly at Bailey, patriarch of the new order that diminishes her, the grandmother's release of the cat results from her visceral acknowledgement of her own failure, of the falsity of that sentimental symbol of the old order she believes she believes in, the plantation house. The cat thus comprehends the rejection of both social orders, the old and the new, as somehow inadequate; both Florida and the plantation house fail as possible destinations. If the story provides no justification for the grandmother's sentimental concern that the cat "would miss her too much" (note its final appearance in the closing paragraphs), it abundantly justifies her belief in a fatally melodramatic world where "he might accidentally asphyxiate himself" [italics added].
That world is most fully defined in the story by The Misfit, whom the accident seems to conjure up, as if the very incarnation of such a universe. His self-chosen title, he tells us, proclaims both his recognition of this world and his place in it, a paradoxically inevitable existence of radical contingency where "one is punished a heap and another ain't punished at all." I have argued elsewhere that while The Misfit claims to have lived this experience, the story in its very structure demonstrates it, breaking its action with the car accident and bringing down on all members of this family, even to the infant, the same lethal "punishment." Yet, in her heart of hearts, the grandmother recognizes this world too, even to the point of absurdly dressing for it. She is carefully groomed so that "In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady" [italics added]. In short, the gap between the grandmother and The Misfit, which closes with her fatal recognition of him as "one of my babies . . . one of my own children," is never as great as it may at first appear.
Nevertheless, the action of the story is precisely designed to uncover this awareness in her, to apply such pressure that all her unquestioned assumptions will be gradually denied until her physical collapse in the ditch manifests the loss of her accustomed inner supports. It is The Misfit's stripping away of her "social" ("good blood," "nice people"), materialistic ("You must have stolen something"), and conventionally religious (If you would pray . . . Jesus would help you") values that brings the grandmother to her moment of recognition, yet both the presence of the cat and the occasion of its catastrophic leap imply her readiness to undertake and respond to this cathartic process: the purging of the values both of a contemporary world which allows her no role and a nostalgic one which has built for her only a hollow, inauthentic self.
Meanwhile, her male antagonist is undergoing an analogous process whereby his apparent self-sufficiency and command is gradually revealed as a form of armor, a veneer which falls away to uncover the "baby" with a gun. For all the backwoods politesse and homemade existentialism which locate him in this particular time and place, The Misfit is in essence a variation on that enduring American type, the individualistic male whose violence both expresses and substitutes for inner incompleteness. Despite his assertion, he is not "doing all right by myself," but the only "hep" he might accept would be disembodied, intellectual—to have "known" whether or not Jesus raised the dead so that "I wouldn't be," as he at last admits, "like I am now." The messiness and disorder of life in the flesh, particularly the domestic flesh, is anathema to him: children make him "nervous," and the touch of a foolish old woman who sees him momentarily as "one of my children" triggers a visceral, defensive violence. If, as O'Connor said, "It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially," what is revealed in The Misfit is an anger and anguish never entirely assuaged by the "meanness" he visits on the world around him.
And what is revealed about the grandmother in her comparable moment of extremity? Taking the identification of The Misfit as "one of my babies" together with the gesture of reaching out to him as O'Connor says she intended us to, we can see the grandmother adopting for the first time an archetypal female role, one that she has denied, but that has also been denied her, in the family context so fiercely limned in the earlier part of the story. If we wish to press that maternal gesture in the direction of O'Connor's declared Catholicism, we can see glimmer through the grandmother the figure of the Grand Mother, a momentary imitatio Virginis—Our Lady of Sorrows, the Hope of Criminals, and so on. However, as other critics have shown, if we ignore O'Connor's comments, it seems possible to see this as one last self-serving grasp at survival, or as an ironically threatening identification (all her other "children" are dead), or as an attempt to "adopt" The Misfit into her smothering, diminishing superficiality.
But the story itself has more to say of the grandmother: two other roles here get pressed on her in a kind of double epitaph, one by The Misfit, the other by the narrator. Her corpse is described with its legs crossed under it "like a child's and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky" just before The Misfit pronounces, "She would of been a good woman .. . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." Both "child" and "woman," of course, ignore the grandmother's own social self-identification, "lady," and at first appear so antithetically matched as to raise the suspicion of irony. The dissonance may at first seem reconcilable by noting the gap between the living and the dead, between childlike corpse and living "woman"—until we realize that both designations must be applied to the very moment before death. We can, with a small stretch, give the passage a Christian reading in which the grandmother, stripped to her essential being as a genuine "woman," has, in her recovery of simplicity, become again as a little child. Yet it can also be understood more darkly, to suggest that the recovery of one's genuine female self is a dangerous business indeed, likely to reduce one to a condition of double and final powerlessness, the child-like corpse.
However we interpret the ending of "A Good Man," or indeed the tale as a whole, it seems to go on resonating in the imagination, perhaps the single story that has most compellingly captured that condition of modern American life where, in Boyle's words, "the safety net drops away" and we are suddenly confronted with an overwhelming violence, a violence that apparently chooses its victims randomly and before which they are helpless. That sense of impotence in the face of terror is the stuff of nightmares (one might note that, with terror lightened to "unpleasantness," it is also the stuff of the grandmother's daily life in the earlier part of the story), and as such it addresses some of our deepest fears. Such fears, as "A Good Man" itself implies, are hardly peculiar to women, yet it seems inevitable that the protagonist of such a story should be female, and that the prolonged confrontation with an armed male should end in her death. This much is all too familiar, yet O'Connor would have us note not simply the man's violent gesture—"The Misfit sprang back . . . and shot her three times through the chest"—but also the woman's motions, particularly those with which she begins and ends. Her opening gesture is an aggressive (but useless) "rattling the newspaper" at the bald head of "her only boy," who continues to ignore her; her final one is to reach out and touch on the shoulder the man she calls "one of my own children." He will certainly not ignore her, but the distance she has travelled in these twenty-odd pages places her with the figures of classic American stories—from Irving's Ichabod Crane, Melville's Benito Cereno, and Stephen Crane's Swede to those of Flannery O'Connor's contemporaries, Eudora Welty's Clytie, J. D. Salinger's Teddy, Ralph Ellison's "King of the Bingo Game"—whose initiations into a frightening world are both astonishing and lethal.