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

Start Free Trial

Discussion Topic

The characterization and values of the grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

Summary:

The grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is characterized as manipulative, self-centered, and hypocritical. She holds traditional Southern values, emphasizing manners and social status, yet fails to genuinely practice the morality she preaches. Her superficiality and stubbornness contribute to the family's tragic fate.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the character of the grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find"?

The grandmother in O'Connor's classic story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" has a complicated and not always pleasant character. She lives with her son Bailey—but lectures him about how he should act (and how he should raise his kids). She is dishonest in small things (she sneaks the cat into the car). She's self-important, showing the family what they should pay attention to. She's nostalgic for the past, when people were nicer (she says). She's dishonest (she doesn't admit she remembered the house in the wrong state), and she's impulsive, blurting out who the Misfit is.

Greg

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "A Good Man is Hard to Find," what defines the grandmother as a good woman?

The grandmother is seemingly irredeemable in O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find."  I suggest the previous answer misses the point.  There's nothing good or redeemable about the grandmother.  She is totally unlikeable.  She is racist, bigoted, superior, negative toward everyone.  I don't know about other readers, but I've never met anyone that sees her as redeemable at the end.  That is a misreading.

What would make her redeemable at the end?  The story tells you:  there's no reason for speculation and applying one's own sentimentality to her.  The story says:

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

That's what the story says.  Anything else is putting your own personality into the interpretation of the story and is absolutely irrelevant.

That's what it would have taken for this woman to have been a good woman.  She was absolutely worthless.  Only a man ready to shoot her every minute of her miserable life could have convinced her of the truth of existence.

And that's the point.  O'Connor did want to say that God's grace was for everybody--even this absolutely miserable and irredeemable woman.

How does The Misfit know this would have worked?  Because his putting a gun to her head brought about an epiphany in her.  That's what it took.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "A Good Man is Hard to Find," what defines the grandmother as a good woman?

The grandmother is an interesting character in this story.  She seems to be a good woman already, in many ways, but she is also quite racist, elitist, and manipulative.  Because she is a grandmother, though, this seems to make her redeemable in the end to most readers.  A reader cannot help but feel sorry for her because of her age and because she mistakenly leads her family to an incorrect location of her old childhood home that is actually in another state.

In the story, the grandmother displays many bad traits.  She is critical of her daughter-in-law and babies her son, even though he is a grown man.  She makes a negative comment about an African-American child she sees, which tells the reader she is a racist.  She is also an elitist (she feels she is better than others at times).  She also believes she is superior morally to others, but this is obviously not true, in part because of what is mentioned above.  eNotes states:

She demonstrates racist behavior by calling a poor Black child "a pickaninny ... Wouldn't that make a picture, now?" and she reveals a superior moral attitude.
In the end, the grandmother is "saved" after reaching out to touch the Misfit.  O'Connor wanted to show her belief that all are redeemable through God's grace (eNotes).
Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is the grandmother in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" truly a lady and a good Christian woman?

The grandmother in this story relies on her outer appearance to convey her ladylike qualities but totally dismisses her inner character, which neither reflects the characteristics of being a lady nor a Christian.

Notice how the grandmother chooses clothing that she believes designates her as a lady:

The old lady settled herself comfortably, removing her white cotton gloves and putting them up with her purse on the shelf in front of the back window. The children’s mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief, but the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.

Her hope is that her outer appearance will earn her preferential treatment should she encounter any difficulty on this trip. Thus, in desperation to save her own life, she relies on this same sense of outer appearances to try to convince the Misfit not to kill her:

“Listen,” the grandmother almost screamed, “I know you’re a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood."

The grandmother is a racist and an elitist. When they pass a young black child during the drive, the grandmother refers to him as a "pickaninny" and a "nigger," then notes how blacks "don't have things like we do." In this statement, the grandmother presents a clear division between herself and the world of this young child. She doesn't want to help; her motives are to paint a picture of this child's seeming struggles.

The grandmother believes herself superior. This reflects neither ladylike behavior nor Christian tenets. 1 Peter 2:17 calls believers to "honor all people." 1 Thessalonians 3:12 asks that "the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people." Romans 12:16 commands that believers "be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly." The grandmother's beliefs about herself, this child, the Misfit, and her opportunity for salvation demonstrates no proof that she is a believer in the commandments of Christ.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The grandmother thinks of herself as a lady, and a good Christian woman. Is she?

The answer to this question will depend, in part, on your definition of a good Christian woman. Were the definition charitable or forgiving, then the grandmother might well be described as a good Christian woman. She loves her family and strives to act according to what she believes is right. 

However, the grandmother's sense of right is highly convenient and selfish. She is deceitful, arrogant, manipulative, bitter and judgmental. As a person who seems entirely to lack generosity of spirit and who ultimately disavows the Christian miracle of Christ raising the dead, the grandmother does not seem likely to fit most narrow definitions of a good Christian woman. 

Early in the story, the grandmother demonstrates her negative traits. The text of the narrative overtly suggests that in telling her son, Bailey, that the family should go to Tennessee for their vacation instead of Florida she is attempting to manipulate her son. The family wants to go to Florida, but she wants to go to Tennessee. She does not admit this to be the reason she points to the newspaper story about the criminal/killer on the loose, the Misfit. Instead, she moralizes (with a quite false morality, as it were) and suggests that her son is putting his family in danger (and so he is being a bad parent). 

She says that if she were headed to Florida where the Misfit was thought to be,

"I couldn't answer to my conscience if I did."

A question arises here, early on, as to the primary or principal irony of O'Connor's story.

  • Is the irony that the grandmother claims to be a good Christian woman when she is not?
  • Or is the irony that her manipulations and schemes, which lead to the deaths of every member of the family, are initially presented as a way to avoid being killed by a roving murderer?

Perhaps these two ironies are very similar in the end. Yet, the inflections of each differ. If the irony is oriented by character, we have to see the grandmother as a false person hiding behind piety, who ultimately is confronted by a man who is explicitly and decidedly against piety and religion.

This reading puts the grandmother's essential falseness at the center of the story and contributes to an overall theme of the difficulty of finding a good, truly faithful person in the modern world. 

The second irony leans toward a broader statement on the folly of human intentions and allows us to read the character of the grandmother with less blame. She may be, in this reading, merely flawed - as all people are.

This reading easily incorporates the faults of the grandmother in terms of the cause of the car accident. It is her fault of memory that the family heads down the wrong road. It is her fault of honesty that leads her to bring the cat along on the trip (and the cat's release in the car then directly causes the accident). The deceit of the grandmother is thorough, though in some ways it is also simply childish.

"Her lie is selfish but by no means atrocious, yet the consequence for this lie is death, for herself and her entire family" (eNotes).

Seen in this light, the grandmother's character might be understood with some empathy. She is not the same kind of monster the Misfit is. Rather, her willingness to act selfishly and deceitfully are a quite pale comparison to his willingness to kill, rob and destroy. She wanted to get her way and so lied, almost innocently. Her false piety is, perhaps, similarly self-serving but also innocent and unenlightened.

Unlike the Misfit, the grandmother does not realize that she is not actually pious or "good." Like most people, she has a limited self-awareness and just happens to be superficial and haughty - flaws that might usually be forgivable. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What values does the grandmother represent in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

The grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” represents those who value personal gain, being selfish, and controlling others. She also represents those who associate self-worth with social status and virtue.

The grandmother is very concerned with how she appears to other people. For example, consider how she puts her gloves and her purse by the back window and is sure to wear her hat and pinned violets. “In case of an accident,” the narrator explains, “anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.” This of course foreshadows the grandmother’s eventual death on the road, but it also reveals her values. The fact that her foremost concern following her death is appearing to be a proper lady suggests that she represents an embrace of superficial values.

However, the grandmother’s most significant values are shown through her judgments and her lies. Consider how she critiques other people, such as the way the mother raises the kids and how she blames Europe for everything wrong in today’s society. The grandmother is the type of person to accept no personal responsibility, who instead finds fault with everyone and everything else. This way of acting represents self-centered values.

The grandmother is also focused on personal gain and control of others throughout the story. Consider how she lies about the secret panel in the house in order to get the children excited to visit. Telling this lie shows that she does not consider the consequences of her selfish actions, and she merely acts out of a desire to get what she wants.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What conventional social and religious values does the grandmother represent? How are they exposed over the course of the short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor?

The grandmother's behavior and her speech expose a number of social and religious conventions. The first is that she expects, being a senior citizen and a mother, that her son will listen to her and, out of respect, acquiesce to her suggestion that they travel to Tennessee. This request is, however, ignored even when she points out the danger of traveling to Florida.

Once they are ready to leave, she illustrates another old-fashioned social convention: to get all dressed up for a trip. She puts on attire that, she believes, will make her look like a lady if they should have an accident and she's found dead on the highway (this line of reasoning isn't quite as traditional). Another social practice she exercises is to point out the scenery while they are driving. The trip, to her, should be an educational venture and she makes a point of talking about the sights and pointing out places of relevance to her grandchildren.

In addition, it is clear that the grandmother believes in the principle of respect, not only for others, but also for the environment. She, for example, stops the children from disposing of their litter through the car window and also regularly complains about their lack of respect for her. She vents her frustration about this by admonishing her son, Bailey, about the fact that he does not show any respect for his state and saying that "children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else."

In their encounter with the Misfit, the grandmother displays the religious conventions she believes will convert him. She clearly believes that prayer would help him and that he would find redemption and therefore change his ways. She believes that if she can appeal to whatever goodness he still has left in him, he will reconsider. She is, though, made aware by the insidious criminal that he had already considered religion as a way out for him but could not find any solace or redemption. Her appeal has no effect.

Even the grandmother's appeal to courtesy (another social convention) has no effect on the Misfit. She cries out that a man "ought not to shoot a lady," but that doesn't work with him. He cannot be rescued or turned by convention, whether social or religious, for he is beyond anything. He is a hardened criminal and a remorseless, cold-blooded killer who forgets the wrongs that he has done.

It is markedly ironic that the grandmother is the one responsible for exposing herself and her family to this danger and, just like the Misfit, does not realize or acknowledge the huge mistake that she had made.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What conventional social and religious values does the grandmother represent? How are they exposed over the course of the short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor?

The unnamed grandmother in the short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor shows many elements of conventional middle-class southern values. 

Her first major social value is the importance of the concept of being a "lady." She laments the decline of good manners and the difficulty of finding people who follow the conventional codes of polite behavior, codes including speech, dress, and gesture (holding doors, etc.). She tends to identify following these external values with moral goodness, even though the two are not actually related. Particularly ironic is her concern for dressing well at all times so that if she dies she will appear a ladylike corpse, a gruesome concern made especially ironic by the end of the story.

Next, her conventional religious values emphasize outward conformity to religious ritual rather than inward goodness. This is especially brought to the forefront in her conversations with the Misfit, who actually takes Christianity somewhat more seriously than she does, in the sense of dealing with it as a real issue rather than a sort of social ornament.

Finally, she accepts conventional gender roles, on the surface accepting masculine power and superiority but simultaneously not listening to the advice of the male characters in the story.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What kind of conventional social and religious values does the grandmother represent in "A Good Man is Hard to Find"?

One way in which the grandmother reveals the societal values of her older generation is through her dress, juxtaposed through the comparatively lax values of her daughter-in-law.  While the grandmother sets out on the trip in "white cotton gloves" the "children's mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief" while the older lady "had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets...In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady."

Other ways the grandmother's societal values are "dated" is in respect to the roles of children and adults.  When John Wesley, her grandson, mouths off to her, she says, "children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then."

Not all of grandmother's values are laudable, especially in regard to race sensitivity.  Immediately after berating John Wesley, she exclaims, "Oh, look at the cute little pickaninny!"  Her affection for the South and the days of slavery are not at all disguised. 

Relgiously, there is not much in the story to suggest that the grandmother is overtly religious, other in her Christian-like belief in the innate goodness of man.  Appealing this belief to the Misfit, he replies:  "God never made a finer woman than my mother and my daddy's heart was pure gold."  And then he kills her. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How is the grandmother described at the end of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

The grandmother tries to save herself by pleading to the Misfit, "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!"

The Misfit responds, "Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead and He shouldn't have done it. He shown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can--by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness."

Just before it is her turn to be shot, the grandmother says, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" She touches the Misfit on the shoulder, and he springs back "as if a snake had bitten him and [shoots] her three times through the chest."

The Misfit tells his accomplice to throw the grandmother into the woods with the others, adding: "She would have bee a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How is the grandmother described at the end of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

In Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find," the grandmother collapses in death, a childlike smile upon her face with her legs folded into a grotesque cross, symbolic of her sudden honesty and consequent redemption in recognizing herself in the Misfit:  "Why you're one of my children."  When the Misfit responds to her urgings to pray, the Misfit responds with a nihilistic response.  He declares that "Jesus shown everything off balance."  That is, the Misfit feels that the punishment for Him was not equal to anything that He did, just as the Misfit's punishment did not balance with what he had done.

Through these and other religious motifs, such as the family's going through the dark woods as "a traditional theme in Christian exempla" (enotes), the mother's sin of selfishness is redeemed through her sacrificial death.  This unusually attained redemption is employed by O'Connor as a way of shocking the reader from what she called "religious complacency."

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How is the grandmother characterized in the first paragraph of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

In Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" she uses characterization as one of the major elements to build interest in the story's content. The grandmother is the character that is most heavily focused on. The story starts out with the family preparing to take a trip to Florida. However, it is stated that the grandmother did not want to go to Florida but instead wanted to "visit some of her connections in  east Tennessee". Therefore, she tried at every opportunity to change Bailey's mind. She starts by appealing to his sense of safety and scarring him out of the idea of Florida. She mentions how "this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Prison and headed toward Florida". She then tries to make him feel guilty for putting his children in danger. Then she appeals to the mother's sense of raising the children, hoping that she will change Bailey's mind. 

In this way the grandmother is shown to be manipulative and self serving. She is not as much concerned for the safety or proper upbringing of the children as she is in being allowed to visit her "connections".

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on