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A Good Man Is Hard to Find

by Flannery O’Connor

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Grotesque elements and images in "A Good Man is Hard to Find"


Grotesque elements in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" include the violent and disturbing imagery of the family's murder and the Misfit's philosophical musings on life and death. The story contrasts the grandmother's superficial beliefs with the brutal reality of their situation, highlighting the grotesque nature of human behavior and moral corruption.

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What is the grotesque element in "A Good Man is Hard To Find"?

In her 1960 essay, "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction," O'Connor defines the literary grotesque as follows:

In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.

In "A Good Man is Hard to Find," the experience we are not accustomed to observing in every day life is the encounter with a mass murderer and his gang. We are also not used to hearing gunfire in the distance that means a gang is murdering an ordinary family, including two children, nor are we used to seeing a man coldly shoot and kill an old woman.

This murderous encounter is both extraordinary and repellent. O'Connor highlights its strangeness by creating a scenario that is entirely ordinary up until the moment the car flips over and the family is confronted by the Misfit and his gang. Before that, the reader simply confronts a 1950s nuclear family and their grandmother taking a road trip vacation. The kids whine and are rude, the grandmother complains about how much worse everything has gotten since the good old days, and the family stops to eat at a roadside diner. The grandmother and the diner owner complain about the state of the world. They also  talk about the news, including the Misfit. Like most average Americans, the grandmother doesn't really expect to have any contact with a killer written about in the newspaper. 

When the Misfit appears, the family's whole world turns upside down. The Misfit himself, who finds no pleasure in life except being mean, and has no qualms about murdering people, is the most grotesque character in the story, although the difficult grandmother can also be called grotesque. As O'Connor says about her grotesque figures:

Even though the writer who produces grotesque fiction may not consider his characters any more freakish than ordinary fallen man usually is, his audience is going to; and it is going to ask him–or more often, tell him–why he has chosen to bring such maimed souls alive.

In O'Connor's case, the Misfit and the grandmother both point to the mysterious ways that God's grace can be revealed in the world. 

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What is the grotesque element in "A Good Man is Hard To Find"?

Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" contains many grotesque elements in which ordinary things are distorted so that they become disgusting. For example, there is a great deal of physical grotesqueness, including the description of Red Sam at the barbecue restaurant: "His khaki trousers reached just to his hip bones and his stomach hung over them like a sack of meal swaying under his shirt." Even the monkey in the tree outside the restaurant is grotesque in nature, as he catches fleas between his teeth and eats them.

The attitude of the main characters is also grotesque. For example, when the grandmother passes a poor African-American child on the road without any pants, she calls him a "pickaninny" and says that the boy would make a good picture. She fails to have any sympathy for the child. The characters seem devoid of moral responsibility. The woman in the restaurant says "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." In other words, she feels no responsibility for the United States to take care of Europe, which at the time the story was written was suffering from the after-effects of World War II.

The story ends with grotesque forms of violence, as the family encounters the Misfit who is at large, and he and his partner wind up killing them all. Even after the grandmother hears her family being shot, she keeps telling the Misfit that he is a good man—another example of a grotesque twisting of the truth. In the end, her praise doesn't help her, and she winds up dead, like her family. In the ultimate expression of moral depravity, the Misfit says, ""She would of been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." Even the words "good man" and "good woman" are distorted in this story, as they clearly don't signify that a person is good but instead is grotesquely bad.

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What is the grotesque element in "A Good Man is Hard To Find"?

Physically grotesque is the violence that is in the story; an entire family is brutally murdered.  It graphically describes the begging, pleading grandmother at the end being shot three times in the chest.  Pretty violent.

Morally grotesque is the nature of some of the characters:  The Misfit, Hiram, and Bobby Lee.  Less obvious though is the morally unlikable grandmother character, who whines and complains, sets the family off their beaten path to satisfy her whims, spouts class prejudiceness and racism, and seems only concerned about saving herself.

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What are three grotesque images used in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find"?

You are right in identifying O'Connor's emphasis and focus on the grotesque in this excellent story. There are certainly plenty of moments you could focus on, but you also might like to think about the way in which grotesque images are actually made to be rather humorous in some places as well. One excellent example comes in the second paragraph, when we meet Bailey's wife. Note how she is described:

...a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green headkerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit's ears.

There is something immensely amusing about this description of Bailey's wife's face as a "cabbage" and the way that she resembles a rabbit.

There is something grotesque in the way that the children's excitment about being in an accident is juxtaposed with the damage done:

She was sitting against the side of the red gutted ditch, holding the screaming baby, but she only had a cut down her face and a broken shoulder. "We've had an ACCIDENT!" the children screamed in a frenzy of delight.

And then lastly, you might like to think about the final image we have of the grandmother, dead on the floor, after she has been shot:

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.

There is something in the way that the smile of the grandmother and her the way that she is lying in a "puddle of blood" makes this image perhaps the most grotesque in the story.

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