Historical Context

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The Civil Rights Movement Fueled with the speeches of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and with the deaths of several African-American activists, the civil rights movement was at its peak in 1955. Just the year before, the Supreme Court of the United States had struck down legal segregation in schools...

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The Civil Rights Movement
Fueled with the speeches of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and with the deaths of several African-American activists, the civil rights movement was at its peak in 1955. Just the year before, the Supreme Court of the United States had struck down legal segregation in schools in a landmark decision. In 1955, Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama, made her heroic and famous decision not to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. This single action engendered a widespread bus boycott which catapulted its organizer, Martin Luther King, Jr., to national attention. Georgia, where O'Connor lived and set the story, was filled with racial tension. The Grandmother's attitudes toward African Americans typify the beliefs of many in the state at the time. When she tells June Star that "Little niggers in the country don't have things like we do," she was expressing a sentiment many people in white society in 1955 held.

The Era of the Automobile
The 1950s saw a significant increase in the number of cars on American roads, a result of post World War II economic prosperity. In 1955 motorcar sales passed the 7 million mark in the United States, Chevrolet introduced the V-8 engine, and President Eisenhower submitted a 10-year, $101 billion proposal to build a national highway system to Congress. Family vacations by car, like that in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find'' became common as Americans took to the highways and embraced the freedom and independence that automobiles provided. Although New York's Long Island Expressway opened in 1955, it was unable to handle the volume of traffic passing over it. As American society became more mobile and independent, the culture changed. Drive-in restaurants and movie theaters proliferated in the 1950s, as did roadside motels and suburban shopping malls. Cars are important to O'Connor's fiction as both an element of realism in her work and as a symbol for a shift in the way Americans think about themselves and their sense of place.

The Silver Screen, the Small Screen, and Rock 'n' Roll
American popular culture shifted dramatically during the 1950s. The new prosperity allowed increasing numbers of families to buy television sets, and it became a central form of family entertainment. Shows like Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best presented an idealized and skewed picture of American life. Western movies, stories of good guys and bad guys like The Lone Ranger, reinforced the country's moral belief that crime does not pay. Many famous movies or musicals also debuted in the 1950s: Oklahoma!, Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Rebel without a Cause, and Blackboard Jungle, many of which hinted at problems festering just under the surface of American life. Movies often showed a darker side of American life, and many of the movies of the 1950s dealt with the social unrest that would break loose in the next decade. A new form of music, rock 'n' roll, debuted in the mid-1950s. Entertainers such as Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Bill Haley enjoyed tremendous popularity as they appealed to young people and often sang about issues that concerned them. Such overwhelming changes in many facets of American society prompt the Grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find'' to feel nostalgia for a lost past.

Social Sensitivity

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Flannery O'Connor was deeply concerned with the values and the direction of the youth of her time. She believed that Christ was no longer enough of a priority to the people of her generation. "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is representative of O'Connor's concern for the priorities and values of the 1940s.

In exhibiting her concerns, O'Connor paints fairly broad caricatures of the family members in the stories, and of the Misfit as well. The children never show a moment of remorse; they are relentlessly obstinate and impertinent, and none too intuitive. The young girl, June Star, sees her father and brother taken away from the rest of the family and led into the woods. She hears two shots, and sees the young man who led her father and brother away return, holding her father's shirt in his hand. Even after witnessing this, when that same young man tries to lead her away with her mother, June Star spits out: "I don't want to hold hands with him . . . He reminds me of a pig." The young man does not lash out at the child; rather, he is ashamed by her harsh words, and he blushes and laughs in response. Of course, a few minutes later he kills June Star, so there is certainly a comeuppance in the end, one that is hugely out of proportion with any moral injustice June Star may have committed through her insolent behavior. O'Connor never allows the punishment to fit the crime—she hyperbolizes the punishment in a way that many readers take as cruel and unfitting. It is fiction, and what O'Connor is doing is not making a mockery of death but making a very loud statement about life.

Death is a democratizer, but it is also a way of showing the true nature of a person. When faced with the ultimate stressful experience— death—how does each character respond? The answer to the question speaks volumes about the character of each person in life. The children go without a moment's comprehension about the way their words and actions affect others; the mother goes quietly; the father exhibits a near strength of character, but ultimately does nothing to try to save either himself or his family. It is only the grandmother who faces her death with a fierce hold on life; she comprehends the value of life and, in doing so, also has a flash of comprehension about the ultimate redemptive possibility inherent in all life. In the last moments of her life, she sees the Misfit as her child, taking on a Jesus-like role as forgiver of sins. She knows he intends to kill her, yet she turns to him and embraces him as one of her own children. Age extends the grace of forgiveness even as youth fails to reciprocate, until it is too late. O'Connor's hyperbole of grace in action belies a desire to teach the younger generations, in bold and bright strokes, of the importance of respect and tradition in the face of changing times.

At the end of the story, the question comes to the fore: could anything have saved the family, once they encountered the Misfit? Was it a matter of saying the right thing, or doing the right thing to convince him not to kill them? At first glance, O'Connor seems to indicate that the answer to this question is no, that evil is as evil is and nothing can change the mind of someone bent on evil. While his compatriots are murdering the rest of the family, the Misfit carries on some debate with the grandmother about the nature of evil. After she hears a scream and a shot, indicating that her daughter-in-law and grandchildren are being killed, she pleads with the Misfit that "you ought not to shoot a lady. I'll give you all the money I've got!" He responds, "Lady, . . . there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip," as though there had never been any real question that he would kill every one of them so as to leave no witness. However, after this exchange, the Misfit does not immediately kill the Grandmother, and the reader is left in suspense as to what will happen to her. Is he hesitating? Will he kill her? Will he have mercy on her?

In a strange, startlingly original twist of fate, he does both. He expresses some remorse for the evil turns his life has taken, blaming his on his inability to understand God or to see him in the flesh. When the Grandmother sees in him a flush of salvation through his expressed regret, she reaches out to him. Shocked by the human touch, the Misfit recoils and fatally shoots her, almost involuntarily. He looks at her and sees her smiling at him in death, and he experiences a rush of understanding into her life. He sheds his glasses, and his eyes are "defenseless-looking." With his defenses down, he speaks of the grandmother in generous terms: '"She would have been a good woman,' The Misfit said, 'if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.'" In his inarticulate manner of speaking, he is expressing a universal truth: that man, in the face of fear, often shows his truest face. That in affliction, we are all offered the opportunity for redemption.

Context

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While O’Connor died before the women’s movement of the 1960’s gained much momentum and never chose to identify herself openly with feminist concerns, her work itself is important to women’s literature for several reasons. In her depiction of strong, independent female characters with as much of a chance at redemption as their male counterparts, O’Connor was responsible for presenting a new, more realistic picture of white Southern women. As Alice Walker has written, “when she set her pen to them not a whiff of magnolia hovered in the air.” Walker was shocked and delighted at the humanity of O’Connor’s characters, “who are miserable, ugly, narrow-minded, atheistic, and of intense racial smugness and arrogance.”

Being a woman affected the way in which O’Connor was received during her time, particularly because the violence and general nastiness of her characters were often not admired coming from a “lady writer.” Even those critics who praised her sometimes did so in carefully couched language. Evelyn Waugh once said of O’Connor’s writing, “If this is the unaided work of a young lady it is a remarkable product.” O’Connor was the first woman to be compared to the great male Southern writer William Faulkner. By taking her art seriously, and working hard during her tragically short life to achieve the status of a great American writer, O’Connor set a standard and paved the way for women writers to come.

Compare and Contrast

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1955: Racial tensions run high as the Civil Rights Movement makes real changes in American society. Rosa Parks refuses to go to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Two African-American leaders, Lamar D. Smith and George W. Lee, are killed.

1996: Dozens of African-American churches, mostly in the South, burn down during the spring and summer months. Though the cause of some of the blazes is unknown, arson is suspected in many cases.

1950: According to crime statistics, approximately 7,000 murders were committed in the United States during the year.

1994: According to crime statistics, approximately 23,305 murders were committed during the year. Of these, 15,456 involved firearms.

1955: The U.S. census bureau reveals that the American population increased by 2.8 million, the largest 1-year advance on record. The generation born in the years between 1945 and 1960 are dubbed "The Baby Boomers."

1990s: The first Baby Boomers are turning 50, and the United States looks to ways to provide for the health care and social security of such a large number of aging individuals.

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