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A Good Man Is Hard to Find

by Flannery O’Connor

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Discussion Topic

The Misfit's interactions with and philosophical views about the grandmother in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."

Summary:

The Misfit's interactions with the grandmother reveal his nihilistic worldview and rejection of traditional morality. He sees life as meaningless and believes that no actions, whether good or bad, have any lasting significance. His philosophical views starkly contrast with the grandmother's superficial piety, ultimately leading to a tragic confrontation where he dismisses the value of her faith and life.

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What does the Misfit say about the grandmother in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

Of the grandmother, The Misfit says that "She would of been a good woman [...] if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." He realizes that she was not a very good person until her final moments. In those final moments, her "head cleared for an instant" and she seemed to acknowledge him as another human being rather than judge him. The grandmother kept telling him that she knew that he was a "good man" and that he would not shoot a lady, and this, perhaps, helped him to understand that she is precisely the sort of person who would have judged him harshly and thrown him in jail for a crime he did not commit, simply because he is not of the same class as she.

The grandmother only became interested in telling The Misfit what a "good man" he is when she understood that her life was in danger. She only seemed interested in speaking to him because he had power over her. She tries to manipulate him using the only currency she has, that of being a "good man," with all its implications regarding status and pedigree. However, in the end, she seems to recognize their similarities rather than their differences, saying that he could actually be one of her own children, and her real goodness comes out. This is when The Misfit shoots her.

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Why does the Misfit claim the grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" would be good if under constant threat?

At the end of "A Good Man is Hard to Find," the grandmother undergoes, in her terror and panic, a profound epiphany as to the shared humanity between herself and her murderer, reaching out to the Misfit even as he stands to kill her. This moment represents the moment of grace around which this entire story is structured: the grandmother, who had previously been characterized as selfish and judgmental, caring only for appearances and social pretenses, now experiences real empathy for another human being (and for her victimizer, no less). The Misfit's response represents a dark and cynical recognition of her change in character, on the part of the person who she was reaching out to (and who killed her).

It's an interesting line, when viewed from the perspective of the Misfit, who witnessed the grandmother's epiphany and whose own characterization displays the most extreme form of moral nihilism. As far as the Misfit is concerned, the universe and morality can be viewed along a binary: either Christianity is true (in which case, morality is true) or Christianity is false (in which case, there is no morality whatsoever). It is this binary vision, tying to religion and morality, that shapes his entire life of murder and crime.

However, at the same time, it is important to note that this binary also causes significant mental turmoil to the Misfit himself: he genuinely seems to struggle with this question and with the problem of God's potential existence, and he seems tormented by the fact that a clear answer does not exist. Seen from his perspective, the grandmother's change of heart, at the very end of her life, does seem to effect him as well: it provides him a glimpse into the kind of unconditional love which, Christianity holds, God represents. Seen from that perspective, underneath the cruel tenor of his words, his association of the grandmother as having had the potential of being a "good woman" seems to reveal a potential weakness (or weakening) within his own sadistic nihilism, which should not have allowed any such recognition at all.

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Why does the Misfit claim the grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" would be good if under constant threat?

The Misfit says that the grandmother would have been a good woman if she had had someone there to shoot her every minute because he feels abject disgust towards her. In the context of the Misfit's intensely negative feelings, his statement about the grandmother can be understood in two ways:

Firstly, the Misfit might mean that the grandmother would have been a good woman if she had lived every minute with her life under threat. Someone there to shoot her every minute might have given her reason to pause in her normal behaviors; if her life was in danger every minute of her existence, she may have have been more careful about how she spoke and to whom. Because none of her protestations had any effect at all on the Misfit, and in fact, they seemed to exacerbate his antipathy, the Misfit may have stated his dislike of her and her comments in a particularly violent way.

Another, darker reading of this statement by the Misfit suggests that he thinks that the the grandmother could have been a good woman only if she was dead. If this interpretation is true, it reveals a violent misogyny, or hatred of women, in the Misfit. "Someone to shoot the grandmother every minute of her life" might be another way of saying someone to ensure she is never alive, not even for a minute.

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Why does the Misfit claim the grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" would be good if under constant threat?

At the moment that the Misfit's face twists close to hers as though he were going to cry, the grandmother murmurs,

"Why you're one of my babies.  You're one of my own children!"

It is at this moment that the grandmother is redeemed, for she recognizes her own depravity and sin in the spiritually grotesque Misfit.  This black character then reacts by shooting her the spiritually three times through the chest.  As he orders her to be taken off, he says,

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

because he realizes that the grandmother's salvation requires an extreme situation since "Jesus thre things off."  While the title of O'Connor's story supports the satiric side of the author, the use of a depraved man is what is required before the grandmother recognizes her own sins.  Receiving grace in her martyrdom, the grandmother is shot the religious number and she collapses with her legs crossed--on the dark side of the cross where the experience of grace is violent, not sentimental. 

Flannery O'Connor's extreme use of violence as a catalyst for a greater vision of spiritual reality is illustrated in her story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Critic Patrick Galloway writes that according to this philosophy,

the person in a violent situation reveals those aspects of his character that he will taken with him into eternity; hence the reader should approach the story by looking to such mmoments as an oppotunity to peer into the soul of the character.

Such, indeed, is the case with the grandmother of the short story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

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Why does the Misfit claim the grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" would be good if under constant threat?

The misfit says that the grandmother needed to have a gun pointed at her head every day of her life, because that's the only thing that could have convinced her that she wasn't God's gift to the planet, in so many words. 

The grandmother is self-righteous and bigoted and unaccepting.  She thinks she is better than everyone else and lets them know it. 

Only violence can show her that she is not "all that," as we might say today.  If you interpret her final words--her acceptance of the Misfit as one of her children--as a genuine epiphany, then it is violence that brings her to it.  Nothing else could have changed her ways of thinking.  In typical O'Connor fashion, the story reveals God's grace working in the territory of the devil:  working in the territory of violence.  

The Misfit is, apparently, an astute judge of character.  The statement you ask about is perhaps proof that the grandmother's epiphany is genuine, and is recognized by the Misfit.  Or, perhaps, her last words are just a ploy to convince the Misfit not to kill her, and the Misfit is being facetious.  Either way, he has an accurate grasp of the grandmother's character.

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Why does the Misfit claim the grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" would be good if under constant threat?

Towards the end of the story, just before she's shot by The Misfit, the grandmother experiences a moment of grace (a recurring theme in the work of Flannery O'Connor). She recognizes that The Misfit is a human being, like one of her own children. Prior to this moment, she's lived a life marred by moral hypocrisy and a chronically judgmental attitude towards others, including her family. But now she shows true compassion and understanding for probably the first time in her long life.

The Misfit, however, provides a much-needed sense of perspective. His famous statement contains two important meanings. First of all:

“She would have been a good woman . . . ”

The implication is that the grandmother was never truly a good woman. The Misfit may be a psychotic killer but he has a remarkable degree of insight into the grandmother's true character. Then we have the rest of the statement:

“ . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” 

The grandmother only started to act like a good woman in her final moments on earth with a gun pointing at her. If only she'd lived like that every day of her life up until then she would've been genuinely good. And, perhaps, then her life wouldn't have ended the way that it did.

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Why does the Misfit kill the grandmother in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

When discussing the Misfit, it is important, first of all, to take into account the radical nihilism which shapes his perspective on the world. As he expresses in his conversation with the grandmother, the Misfit views all questions of morality in terms of a dilemma. Ultimately, as he sees it, Christianity is either true or it is false. If it is true, then it follows that human beings live in a moral universe and ought to act accordingly. If it is false, however, then moral reasoning can be dismissed, and people are free to act however they wish. In short, the Misfit (in his extreme nihilism) perceives the universe as fundamentally meaningless. Therefore, as far as he is concerned, moral reasoning no longer applies.

With that in mind, there are several considerations worth keeping in mind. First of all, as far as the Misfit is concerned, by his own logic, there is ultimately no reason not to kill the grandmother. He is unbound by any form of moral reasoning and any sense of right or wrong. That being said, there are two additional factors to consider. First, keep in mind that the Misfit is a sadist: he expresses this much when he says there is "no pleasure but meanness." Based on his own words and interactions with the grandmother, one gets the sense that he enjoys causing pain. Pragmatic self-interest also contributes to his decision. Remember that the Misfit has recently escaped from prison, and that the grandmother recognizes and identifies him. From that perspective, the grandmother's death (as well as the death of her family) becomes an execution, to eliminate witnesses and prevent word of his movements from getting back to the authorities.

With these factors in mind, it does seem that the grandmother's murder was inevitable: from the moment she recognized him, there was no other end that could ensue. The final murder, however, does have an element of abruptness to it, as the Misfit himself seems taken by surprise by the intensity of the grandmother's last epiphany, shooting her in what seems to be a violent and reflexive reaction to her efforts to imbue him with her own newfound sense of grace.

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Why does the Misfit kill the grandmother in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

The Misfit is aptly named. For here is a man who doesn't feel as if he belongs anywhere. No matter where he goes, no matter what he does, he'll always feel out of place. Not surprisingly, the Misfit feels a deep sense of grievance at his life situation, harboring considerable resentment towards the world and everything in it. During his conversation with the grandmother, he makes it perfectly clear that he's not prepared to take responsibility for his own actions, the implication being that it's somehow society's fault that he's a dangerous criminal.

In any case, the Misfit doesn't seem to believe there's anything wrong with killing. In his moral universe, there's no good or bad, right or wrong. As such, he feels no guilt for his actions.

The grandmother makes the big mistake of showing sympathy towards the Misfit, trying to humor him as a way of avoiding the same fate as her family and all the other people this crazed killer has murdered. But it's all to no avail. If the Misfit is motivated to kill by resentment towards the world, and as the grandmother is as much a part of that world as anyone, then there's absolutely nothing she could possibly do to placate him. There's a terrible sense of inevitability, then, when the Misfit shoots her dead.

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