A Good Man Is Hard to Find, Flannery O'Connor - Essay

Flannery O’Connor


(Short Story Criticism)

"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 Characters

The 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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

"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.

Flannery O'Connor (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 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...

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W. S. Marks III (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Marion Montgomery (essay date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

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


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Josephine Hendin (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 following excerpt, 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...

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C. R. Kropf (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Martha Stephens (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Michael O. Bellamy (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Kathleen Feeley (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Victor Lasseter (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Madison Jones (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Carter Martin (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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J. Peter Dyson (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Mary Jane Schenck (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Sheldon Currie (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Robert Donahoo (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Thomas Hill Schaub (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Frederick Asals (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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.


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