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A Good Man Is Hard to Find

by Flannery O’Connor

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How does the title "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" reflect the story's theme?

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One main point of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is that outer appearances can be deceiving. Another main point is that superficial faith will be exposed in moments of true conflict.

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The title points to the theme and style of Flannery O'Connor's story. O'Connor is known for her realism that veers into symbolism, and this story is no exception.

The grandmother is the type of Southern woman who believes in social decorum and being a "lady," even as her family falls down the social spectrum. Saying a "good man is hard to find" is a way to convey one's own higher status against a world of deficient characters. Others do not meet one's refined sensibilities, both in status and in morality. Good thus has a double meaning, and despite her pretension the grandmother falls short on both measures.

The title comes into play when the family stops to eat and the grandmother speaks to Red Sammy:

"People are certainly not nice like they used to be," said the grandmother.

"Two fellers come in here last week," Red Sammy said, "driving a Chrysler. It was a old beat-up car but it was a good one and these boys looked all right to me. Said they worked at the mill and you know I let them fellers charge the gas they bought? Now why did I do that?"

"Because you're a good man!" the grandmother said at once.

She reiterates the claim with The Misfit, who again she assesses based on appearance:

"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." When he smiled he showed a row of strong white teeth. "God never made a finer woman than my mother and my daddy's heart was pure gold," he said. The boy with the red sweat shirt had come around behind them and was standing with his gun at his hip. The Misfit squatted down on the ground. "Watch them children, Bobby Lee," he said. "You know they make me nervous." He looked at the six of them huddled together in front of him and he seemed to be embarrassed as if he couldn't think of anything to say. "Ain't a cloud in the sky," he remarked, looking up at it. "Don't see no sun but don't see no cloud neither."

"Yes, it's a beautiful day," said the grandmother. "Listen," she said, "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."

This becomes the running motif between The Misfit and the grandmother up until he shoots her, with the assessment that

"She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

The horrific encounter does shake the grandmother out of her shallow sensibilities and moves her to a moment of genuine introspection and compassion, however brief it is.

Three types of goodness (class, behavior, and inner morality) all combine to support the theme of genuine human virtue in a complex world.

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The Grandmother believes that "good people" are the ones who have "good character". She bases her opinion of the Misfit on the fact that he doesn't look "common", so he must be a "good" man. Her belief that a "good man" is hard to find comes from her own self-righteousness, the belief that she's better than others, her judgmental views, and her selfishness. She lives in the past and thinks it's much harder to find "good" people of "good" character than it was in her time. It isn't until the end that she realizes part of the reason for the Misfit's behavior is because of people like the Grandmother. The title is related to all of the themes of God and religion, violence and cruelty, the lack of a connection among people, and prejudice.

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The story's title points directly to the main theme. O'Connor believed that "a good man is hard to find," and therefore we are all in need of grace from God and forgiveness. In the story, all of the characters are terrible, selfish, and prejudice human beings. The only character who shows some positive qualties is the Misfit, and he, of course, is also a serial murderer. O'Connor uses this exposition to establish the theme of human depravity and the need for grace for all of us.

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How would you explain the title of "A Good Man is Hard to Find"?

The title of this excellent short story comes from Red Sam when he discusses what is going on in the world with the grandmother, who has just called him a "good man" because he let two strangers fill up their car with gas and promise to come back and pay. Needless to say, they did not return. Note what Red Sam says:

"A good man is hard to find," Red Sam said. "Everything is getting terrible. I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not so more."

What is fascinating about the "good man" is that the story really shows the grandmother's search for a "good man." She seems to think Red Sam is a "good man," but in this situation, the adjective "good" actually seems to imply over-trusting and naive. Likewise, she calls the Misfit "good" because she believes that he will not shoot her because she is a lady. She constantly judges whether somebody is "good" or not based on her own values and whether others agree with them. "Good" for her does not imply "moral" or "kind." Perhaps the real message of the story is based around the difficulties of separating our own values from any definition of what it means to be "good." As long as we continue to do this, we will never find a "good" man, the story implies.

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What is the main point of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

This is a wonderful short story which relies on complex characterization to generate conflict. There are numerous main points that you could focus on, depending on your own background experiences. Here are a couple to help you get started.

People are not always what they seem. The grandmother makes sure to dress in a way that will make people believe that she's a lady. She takes care in the details of her white cotton gloves, her navy blue straw sailor hat, and her white organdy collar. Yet internally, the grandmother harbors racist attitudes. She later meets the Misfit, who is wanted for murder. As she begs for her life, she tries to convince the Misfit to pray to Jesus. Surprisingly, the man is familiar with the story of Jesus, which the grandmother certainly doesn't expect. Both of these characters exhibit internal conflict that is unexpected based on their outer characterization.

True conflict exposes a superficial faith. When the grandmother encounters conflict with the Misfit, she is forced to examine her own faith. As she watches her family walk into the woods, she incredibly makes no plea for their lives, instead focusing on saving herself. She urges the Misfit to pray so that Jesus can help him, but the Misfit insists that he's "doing all right" by himself. The grandmother is speechless and finally says "Jesus" twice. She realizes that she is using the name as curse now, her faith depleted.

At this point, she abandons her faith, saying,

Jesus ... 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. I'll give you all the money I've got!

Jesus is no longer a name of salvation in this quote, but an exclamation of anger. The grandmother also reverts to her base sense of importance, trying to convince the Misfit not to murder her based on outer appearances. The grandmother's superficial faith is useless to her, and she struggles to find something else to replace that void. In the end, her recognition that she and the Misfit are ultimately connected in their humanity is an indication that she has found the faith that has eluded her.

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What's the theme of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

O'Connor was a Roman Catholic and the theme of her story is that God's grace can fall on any person, regardless of who they are or what they have accomplished.

The grandmother in the story is the last person one would expect to be rewarded by God's grace. She is difficult, manipulative, and judgmental. She puts her faith in her status as a Southern lady. She leads her family into grave danger by manipulating her grandchildren into insisting that their father take them down an isolated dirt road to a former plantation, and she even gets the road wrong. When the family car flips into a ditch, she makes the terrible mistake of revealing she knows that their captors are the Misfit and his gang. This seals her own and her family's fate: they will be killed.

Yet this woman, difficult, misguided, and silly, is visited by the grace of God in her last moments of life. As the Misfit is about to kill her, she is graced by being able to see him and love him for a moment as her own child, which is how God sees him. The implication, too, is that God's grace touches the Misfit, if very briefly, through the grandmother.

The theme is that God's grace is poured out on all of us, whether we deserve it or not, because God loves us.

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What's the theme of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

There are many possible themes in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find." One of the central themes is the conflict between good and evil. Throughout much of the story, the grandmother talks about finding a good man--the importance of a good man. She and Red Sammy talk about it, and later, when the Misfit holds them captive, she tries to convince him that he is a good man. 

There seem to be no real good men in this story. Bailey isn't a good man--he is not kind to his mother or attentive as a father. The Misfit is not a good man--he kills an old woman in cold blood. O'Connor emphasizes the importance of goodness here. In the grandmother's eyes, a good man is a kind man and a man of respectable class. He would never hurt anyone, especially a lady. While Bailey might not be good, in these terms, the Misfit goes far beyond this and is evil, a sociopath. The theme of good and evil is strong in this story, and is the driving force behind the conflict.

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What is the underlying message of "A Good Man is Hard to Find"?

The underlying message of this story can be summed up in the Misfit's final comment about the grandmother—"She would of been a good woman...if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." All in all, the tone of the story is pessimistic in its outlook on human nature. The grandmother is a selfish woman who, throughout the story, seems to care little for anything other than her own desires. Only when she is begging for her life, and the Misfit is speaking to her of Jesus, is she overcome with compassion for him, appealing to her as if he were "one of my own children."

There are two ways to interpret the grandmother's behavior here, but neither reflects particularly well upon her character. In one interpretation, the fear of her impending death and the discussion of Jesus fills her with genuine awareness of God and forces her to appeal to the Misfit based upon this sudden rush of compassion. In this interpretation, her human feeling is genuine, but it has taken her being in extremis to actually connect with it. The other, more pessimistic interpretation would be that, in keeping with the grandmother's behavior to this point, her appeal to the Misfit is actually a calculated attempt to curry favor and sympathy with him—so she is using his reverie on the works of Jesus to save her own life. In this interpretation, she is performatively, but not genuinely, a good woman when held at gunpoint.

Effectively, then, the moral of this story seems to be that only when we are in fear for our lives do we genuinely confront our own humanity. The grandmother could have been a good woman, the Misfit says, if she had been continually held, throughout her life, in the state of self-awareness and fear for her own life that she was in at the moment before her death. Without the tension of a moment like this, her primary concern is simply with herself and her own desires.

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What is the theme to "A Good Man is Hard to Find"?

In A Good Man Is Hard to Find, O’Connor explores several themes.  Here are the main ones.

Evil can exist where you least expect to find it.

The grandmother does not realize that the Misfit killer is one of her own children.  Right before he kills her, she realizes it is her son.  She believes in God and does not expect evil in her child.

Actions have consequences.

Granny is not just a harmless, confused woman, and it is clear that she did not treat her children well.  She is responsible for how the Misfit turned out.  With her selfishness, she also causes her death and that of her entire family by secretly bringing the cat that causes the accident.

The hypocrisy of the religious.

Religion is clearly important to Granny, but she uses it in a self-serving way.  She does not care about her children, only herself.   She thinks of religion in her final minutes, but only in terms of asking Jesus to save her.

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What is the theme of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

In any great piece of literature, there are multiple themes that develop. The task, therefore, is choosing one that applies well and which you can support with a variety of textual evidence.

One theme that is prominent as I read is the deceptive nature of evil. The grandmother believes herself to be a good lady because she dresses nicely with "white cotton gloves" and "a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print." She is a woman who believes that an outer polish equates to an inner grace. She is a dichotomy, however; as she passes by a black child as the family drives, she comments that he is a "cute little pickaninny" and that "little niggers in the country don't have things like we do." Clearly, her ideas of being a lady do not extend grace toward a diverse human population and instead focus more on being from a good family and utilizing good manners.

Later, she looks at the man who is killing her family and tells him, "I know you’re a good man at heart. I can just look at you and tell." The grandmother is again basing her sense of goodness on a physical representation, even when all evidence points in the direction of an evil heart. While she wants to believe herself a good woman, the grandmother's heart is racist and judgmental, allowing no grace for innocent children and trying to find grace for the murderer of her family.

The grandmother also seeks to save herself by attempting to lead The Misfit to spiritual salvation. Contrary to what she might have expected, The Misfit tells her that he was a "gospel singer" for a while and comments that "Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead." Although she believes that The Misfit acts gentlemanly and is thus capable of praying for salvation, he tells her that there is "no pleasure but meanness." While the grandmother believes that there is hope for The Misfit and thus for herself, he proves that his outward gentlemanly charm camouflages an entirely evil heart.

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What is the story concept of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

O'Connor's concept in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is to show that God's grace can touch even a difficult person like the grandmother. O'Connor want to show, too, that God's grace and redemption can shine through the most horrific of circumstances.

Briefly, the story opens as a light-hearted, comic tale of a 1950s family vacation. A mother, father, son, and daughter head out on a car trip with the annoying, meddlesome grandmother (the father's mother).

The grandmother manipulates the children into demanding their father go down a deserted road, where he flips the car into the ditch. The family is soon surrounded by the Misfit , an escaped murderer, and his gang. At this point, the tone changes from comedy to horror. The Misfit has his gang execute the entire family. As the Misfit is about to kill the grandmother, she has a moment of grace in which she is able to see him as her own son, as God might. She experiences love and compassion for him as he shoots her.

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