dotted outline of a black cat sitting within a basket in front of an older woman wearing a sundress

A Good Man Is Hard to Find

by Flannery O’Connor

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Style and Technique

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In remarks prefatory to a public reading of this story, O’Connor stated that “what makes a story work . . . 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 action, which is “both totally right and totally unexpected,” must operate “on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it.” O’Connor, anticipating a non-Catholic audience essentially hostile to her religious and philosophical position, manages to dramatize her views within the story: She shows a human being change and creates an effective scene in which God’s grace intervenes in the natural world. Thus, O’Connor makes it possible for the reader to focus on what she sees as crucial: “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.”

A balance for the seriousness, even sublimity, of this moment of grace is the black humor of the dialogue between The Misfit and the grandmother, which precedes the grandmother’s gesture. Much of this humor derives from the regional particularities of southern speech, which O’Connor’s sharp ear accurately registers. When the grandmother urges The Misfit to seek God’s help, he replies, “I don’t want no hep, I’m doing all right by myself.” Another source of humor is the bizarre logic of The Misfit’s outlook on the world: “I call myself The Misfit . . . because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.” Finally, there is the sardonic understatement of The Misfit himself, who declines the grandmother’s offer of money, noting, “Lady, . . . there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip.”

A brilliant mixture of horror and humor, compassion and tough-mindedness, this story epitomizes O’Connor’s greatest powers as a writer. Her bedrock of belief in the Roman Catholic faith made it possible for O’Connor to view that most horrifying representative of humankind, the serial killer, with sympathy and hope. Her tough, critical intelligence made her sensitive to the petty hypocrisy and smugness that sometimes accompany religious faith, but she was also able to see that these are at worst venial sins. It was this clear perspective that enabled O’Connor to note “that the old lady lacked comprehension, but that she had a good heart.” Thus, the reader may observe about O’Connor what O’Connor observed about the southerner: She “is usually tolerant of those weaknesses that proceed from innocence, and . . . knows that a taste for self-preservation can be readily combined with the missionary spirit.”

Literary Style

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Symbolism Symbols, elements in a work of fiction that stand for something more profound or meaningful, allow writers to communicate complicated ideas to readers in a work that appears to be simple. O'Connor includes several symbols in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." For example, skies and weather are always symbolic to O'Connor, and she often uses such descriptions to reveal a character's state of mind. In another story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," O'Connor ends the story with a man being "chased" by an ominous thundercloud, because the man is feeling guilty for abandoning his mentally and physically challenged wife at a roadside diner. In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," the sky at the end of the story is cloudless and clear, indicating that the Grandmother has died with a...

(This entire section contains 1258 words.)

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clear vision of her place in the world. Another symbol in the story is the old house that the Grandmother insists on visiting. It represents the woman's habit of wanting to live in the past, in a time she believes people were more decent and better than they are today. However, the house is not where she thought it was—it was in Tennessee, not Georgia—a realization that symbolizes that one's perception of the past is often distorted. This focus on a distorted past leads the family directly to their ruin; they have been sidetracked by a past that did not exist.

Point of View O'Connor was extremely interested in point of view, and she was careful to keep her point of view consistent. "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is told in third person, which means that it is not told directly by one of the characters involved in the action. The first sentence of the story indicates an "objective" narrator: "The grandmother didn't want to go to Florida." However, the reader is privy to the Grandmother's thoughts and no one else's. This point of view is sometimes called "third person limited," in which the author reveals only one character's emotions and thoughts to the reader. Even the names of characters illustrate the story's point of view; Bailey's wife—the Grandmother's daughter-in-law—is referred to genencally as "the children's mother." This reveals that the Grandmother thinks of her only in terms of being her son's wife and her grandchildren's mother. O'Connor is careful, however, not to enter completely into the Grandmother's thoughts; she keeps what is called "authorial distance." O'Connor is often praised for being "detached" in her narration, allowing readers to come to their own conclusions about the characters. Consistent with this idea of detachment is the fact that the Grandmother is never given a name in the story either, a technique that keeps readers from identifying too closely with her, or recognizing her as an individual. She is simply a "type" of person. This tactic allowed O'Connor to present characters who must be judged by their actions, rather than on some criteria that O'Connor would have deemed "less objective."

Foreshadowing Instances of foreshadowing, an indication of future events, occur several times in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." Many writers of short fiction include few superfluous details; every detail contributes to an overall effect that the story intends to produce. Thus, certain descriptive phrases or dialogue in a story that first appear to have no special significance often take on new meaning in retrospect. In the first paragraph of the story, O'Connor introduces the Misfit, the murderer who eventually kills the family. Similarly, as the family prepares to embark on their vacation, the Grandmother plans her outfit with an eye toward tragedy. Dressed in a polka-dot dress trimmed with organdy and decorated by a spray of violets, "anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.'' Later, as the family drives through the countryside, they pass a cotton field "with five or six graves fenced in the middle of it," a hint of approaching death for the six occupants of the car. Finally, as the Misfit and his gang approach, their car is described as "a big battered hearse-like automobile," a further indication that death will figure into the story.

Irony Irony is one of the most difficult elements to identify in a story because it is related to tone and the author's attitude toward the work. Irony is a literary device that is used to impart that things are not what they seem; the simple meanings of the story's words betray an idea that is actually contrary to what has been stated. "Ironic'' is not the same as "sarcastic" or "coincidental." Irony can occur in situations in which things happen which are unexpected given the circumstances; an example of this is that a family embarks on a summer vacation and winds up murdered. Or irony can occur through dialogue when a character's words have a meaning other than that intended by the person who utters them. Finally, there is "dramatic irony," in which the reader understands something that the characters do not. In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" O'Connor uses several kinds of irony to communicate her message about the human condition. At the beginning of the story, the Grandmother says "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." However, this is exactly what she does when she sidetracks the family to a desolate roadside. Verbal irony occurs after the car accident when June Star announces disappointedly, "But nobody's killed." The story's dramatic irony centers around the family's interaction with the Misfit, when readers understand the gravity of the situation, yet the characters do not; Bailey states "we're in a terrible predicament! Nobody realizes what this is."

Structure The story is structured to fall into two sections, each with a distinctive tone. The first half of the story, up until the car accident, is humorous and light After the accident, however, readers understand that a tragedy will occur. The tone turns dark, the subject matter becomes serious, and dialogue becomes more weighted with irony and symbolism. The conversation about religion between the Grandmother and the Misfit is deeply philosophical and in stark contrast to the story's prior petty exchanges about old boyfriends or poor children. The story moves from being a portrait of an unremarkable family to being a dialogue on the themes of death, forgiveness and injustice.

Tone In a work of fiction, tone can be discerned from an author's choice of words and action. The tone of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" combines humor, detachment, irony, and seriousness. Throughout O'Connor's stories, readers confront humorous descriptions or situations, such as in this story when the narrator describes the children's mother as having "a face as broad and innocent as a cabbage... tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit's ears." O'Connor approaches the characters in her story with detachment; in other words, her narrative voice does not help readers to become sympathetic to her characters. She presents them with all their faults and oddities so that readers may judge them honestly. Towards the end of the story, the tone turns more serious and tragic as the Misfit happens upon the family. O'Connor presents a situation in which average people confront a force of pure evil. The dark tone is established when the characters are unable to reason with the evil Misfit and must confront their own mortality.

Literary Qualities

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In A Good Man Is Hard To Find, O'Connor writes from a third-person narrator, telling the story from the perspective of the Grandmother. The point of view straddles the line between limited omniscience and total omniscience. O'Connor lets the reader know whose story this is in the first two lines, "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 omniscient narrator is limited in that she does not reveal any of the characters'— besides the Grandmother's—thoughts or states of mind but simply relates their words and actions.

O'Connor does provide background information about what happened just before the story started but, again, it is background provided only through the eyes of the Grandmother. In fact, the only action the reader learns about relates to the point of view of the grandmother: "Bailey didn't look up from his reading so she wheeled around then and faced the children's mother, a young woman in slacks . . ." And yet O'Connor never crosses the line to allow the Grandmother to actually narrate the story. The reader is kept at bay from any direct contact with the character's mind.

Throughout the story, O'Connor teeters between an omniscient and a limited omniscient narrator. The narrator will sometimes be explicit in describing the grandmother's motives:

She didn't intend for the cat to be left alone in the house for three days because he would miss her too much and she was afraid he might brush against one of the gas burners and accidentally asphyxiate himself. Her son, Bailey, didn't like to arrive at a motel with a cat.

However, through much of the story the narrator simply describes the events as they happen, from a relatively objective standpoint. O'Connor's use of both totally omniscient and limited omniscience allows the reader to envision the story as it unfolds but limits the reader to the grandmother's view of the action. It is the grandmother who curses the family by warning about "The Misfit." It is the grandmother who gets the family lost and eventually killed. Seeing the story from a panoramic god's eye view, without the grandmother's thoughts, allows us to interpret what is happening while adding to the drama. Keeping the narrative objective allows the reader to make their own conclusions about what the characters are thinking, and allows a wider view into the psyches of the other characters. With an omniscient narrator, even though the reader attains more understanding of the grandmother's thoughts than the other characters, he is not clouded by the grandmother's rendition of each of the other characters. In the end, the reader is able to gain a greater grasp of all of the characters rather than concentrating on the faults and virtues of one person, thereby seeing the greater picture of the story as a whole.

O'Connor's story is rich with foreshadowing, both in the dialogue and in the description. From the first moment, the grandmother does not want to drive to Florida because the Misfit is on the lam from the police. The next thing the reader knows, the grandmother is dressed in her holiday finest for the drive, lest she die in an accident along the way. She has snuck the cat into the car, a detail that leaves room for speculation that the cat will come into play later in the story. The cat, of course, is the cause of the accident that leads to the family's fatal encounter with the Misfit. The car that the Misfit and his compatriots drive is a "big black battered hearse-like automobile," which symbolically tolls the death knell. After the Misfit approaches the family, the son, John Wesley, sees a gun and asks, "What you got that gun for? . . . Whatcha gonna do with that gun?" The reader learns soon enough. O'Connor describes the woods behind the family as gaping "like a dark open mouth," creating a sinister backdrop for the events to come. Throughout the story, O'Connor allows suspense to build through foreshadowing, culminating in the moment that the Misfit kills the grandmother.

O'Connor has written a very dark tale; by infusing it with humor, however dark that humor may be, she humanizes both the horror of the situation and the characters within the situation. Through detail, O'Connor makes the reader laugh even as he/she are gasping in horror, surprisingly the reader with the undeniable confluence of humor and sorrow. Even the title is infused with humor: not only is a good man hard to find in this story, good men can only be discovered after performing acts of evil.

Other details provide humor. The grandmother has identified the Misfit, and her son Bailey is trying to wriggle out from under the family's death sentence. The grandmother does the only thing she knows to do: she tries to readjust her physical presence into a semblance of propriety and togetherness. However, as she attempts to adjust her hat brim, "it came off in her hand. She stood staring at it and after a second she let it fall on the ground." The whole hat just fell apart, leaving her disheveled, and leaving the reader with a terrible foreboding of a general falling apart. In another part of the story, June Star is about to be carted off to her death and still manages to be full of vinegar: when the Misfit tells his friend to hold June Star's hand, she whines: "I don't want to hold hands with him . . . He reminds me of a pig." It is more of a guffaw than a laugh that might be emitted by the reader as he laughs at the child's audacity even as he knows her immediate fate, or possibly because he knows it.

There is a well-known saying that there is a narrow margin separating laughing and crying, and in O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," the two become inextricably intertwined.


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The story is firmly set in the rural American South. The characters, particularly the grandmother, are imbued with classic Southern characteristics, and they display an intimate understanding of the landscape of which they are a part. As the family drives south from Georgia to Florida, the grandmother points out all along the way various things about the southern landscape—the kudzu, the plantations that are no more. The most important point about the setting is that it is representative of the decay of the Old South; the fact that the children have disdain for the state of Georgia, as well as Tennessee, is held in sharp contrast to the pride that the grandmother displays for her native state. The setting allows for a backdrop against which O'Connor can contrast the old values of the South with the decaying sense of pride exhibited in younger generations.


Key Ideas and Commentary


Historical and Social Context