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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How does the narrator's style and tone differ from the characters in "A Good Man is Hard to Find"?

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The detached third-person narrator in Flannery O’Connor’s story is positioned as omniscient. The reader is thus encouraged to accept the narrator’s position as neutral or impartial, and by extension to question how the narrator learned the events that are presented in the story. All these factors seem to suggest that the narrator could be equated with the author. In contrast, however, the narrator often uses a wry, ironic tone which suggests disapproval of the characters and their actions. The descriptions of their appearance and the relation of their dialogue both indicate that the narrator positions themselves as having a superior education and coming from a higher class than the characters.

Although the Misfit and the people he victimizes clearly cannot be equated, the narrator’s lightly critical tone suggests that no one is blameless. The Grandmother, although she is a vulnerable elderly woman, is clearly a racist who deems it important to distinguish herself as superior to other white people as well, as in her concern that others identify her through dress as “a lady.”

Through the dialogue between Grandmother and Misfit, O’Connor suggests that many people may be identified as misfits, despite their best efforts to isolate themselves from society’s ills.

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"A Good Man is Hard to Find" is written in a very distant and detached form of third person voice. There is a great degree of separation between the narrator telling the story and the perspective of the various characters, caught up in their own perceptions and preconceptions.

I would say that there does seem to be a sort of sardonic awareness on the part of the narrator as to the absurdities within this small family that the narration follows (absurdities of which the individual members of that family, limited to their own subjective experience, would be largely unaware). To take one example, consider the grandmother's choice of clothing, which she selected in case they get into an accident and died, so that people "would know at once that she was a lady." From the grandmother's perspective, this is all a very serious and legitimate concern. From the perspective of the narrator, however, presented in such terms, a very different impression might emerge.

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The grandmother's speech is prolix—she talks all the time and at length—and she is largely unheeded by others in her family, probably because she is always offering her opinion and stories where neither is wanted. Her tone is often didactic and preachy. Her son, Bailey, and his children are largely disrespectful to her, and they speak to her with irritation and even mockery.

Despite the fact that almost all the characters seem to speak judgmentally to each other all the time, the narrator does not seem to judge—or condemn—the characters's actions, no matter how deserving they might be of judgment. When John Wesley and June Star disrespect their grandmother, the narrator reports on it without comment, though the grandmother comments with a huff. The narrator is quite matter-of-fact and nonjudgmental, while the characters are quite judgmental and unkind.

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This is a very interesting question to consider. When we think of tone we need to examine the diction or word choice and the action that a story contains. In a sense, this great story is a mix of different tones: it contains elements of bleak severity, humour and grim irony. The feuding between the grandmother and her son's family is hilarious, as is the description of the children's mother as having a face that 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.

Whilst smiling wryly at the mother's unfortunate fashion choice, we also see elements of irony in the tale. The grandmother uses the presence of the Misfit in the first paragraph to persuade her son into going to Tennessee rather than Florida. Of course, it is ironic that in spite of saying this it is she that leads her family into the hands of the Misfit when she takes them on a diversion. The tone of course darkens tremendously when we reach the Misfit and we understand the terrible danger the family are in.

However, these range of approaches always keep us at arms' length from the characters. Detachment is a key note of O'Connor's style. We are never allowed to become too intimate with her characters and they are all shown to us warts and all so that we are free to judge them without sympathy affecting our judgement in any way. Of course, at the end, we see these normal, average characters confront a terrible situation where the only escape for them is in death. O'Connor throughout makes stylistic choices so we can judge and assess these normal characters and see how they face this crucial understanding of their own mortality.

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