Last Updated on November 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1221
Human Morality as a Theme: Starting with its title—“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”—the story begs the question: What does it mean to be a good person? The grandmother takes on this question directly in her conversations with Red Sammy and the Misfit. Through imperfect characters and direct discussion of the theme, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” provides readers the opportunity to consider their own concepts of morality.
- For discussion: How does the grandmother define “goodness”? In her conversation with the Misfit, why and how does she define him as a “good man”? Does she live up to her own definition of goodness?
- For discussion: How do other characters in the story define what it means to be a good person? How do these views compare with the grandmother’s?
- For discussion: Are any of the characters in the story “good”? What moral compromises do they make over the course of the story?
- For discussion: What does the Misfit mean when he says “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life”?
Theme Revealed Through Characterization: During the climactic events of the story—the murders of Bailey, his wife, and the three children—the Misfit and the grandmother engage in a philosophical conversation about morality, Christianity, and their respective American experiences. Analyzing these two characters helps reveal complex themes surrounding morality, perspective, and faith.
- For discussion: Describe the conversation between the Misfit and the grandmother. What do they discuss? What motivates each character? What are their goals?
- For discussion: What are the Misfit and the grandmother’s attitudes toward religion? What are their attitudes toward American values?
- For discussion: How do these characters develop themes surrounding “good” and “evil” in the story?
- For discussion: To what extent are the Misfit and the grandmother character foils? How are the two similar, and how are they different? What do their characters reveal about themes in the story?
Identifying Southern Gothic Literature: Though “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is, at first, the comedic story of a family road trip, O’Connor foreshadows and maintains a dark, eerie tone over the course of the story: the Misfit is introduced as a villain in the first paragraph and the family spots graveyards on the side of the highway. The dialogue between the characters also addresses some of the cultural conflicts that plague American culture; namely, the relationship between race, gender, and empowerment within the US.
- For discussion: What are the children’s opinions of Georgia and Tennessee? What is the grandmother’s opinion of these states? Compare and contrast their attitudes toward the American South.
- For discussion: What details in the first half of the story foreshadow the violent events at the end of the story? (How) Does the story evoke a dark mood while describing the family’s road trip?
- For discussion: How does setting develop mood in the story? Consider Atlanta, Red Sammy’s barbecue restaurant, the imagined plantation the family wants to visit, the road on which the family has an accident, and the forest where the family members are killed.
- For discussion: How do characters’ physical descriptions reveal their character or world view? How does characterization develop themes in the story?
Themes Related to Social Class: As the family in the story drives south from Atlanta, Georgia, they see glimpses of the socioeconomic strata of the United States. From the grandmother who travels in a hat and gloves and sees herself as a “lady” to the impoverished laborers, restaurant owners, and derelict plantations they pass by, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” exemplifies the economic challenges facing the South and the US as a whole in the mid-twentieth century.
- For discussion: Consider the secondary characters that the family interacts with while they travel. How are they characterized? What details does the narrator describe, and what must the reader infer from the family’s observations?
- For discussion: What details does the story reveal about each character’s social class?
- For discussion: What are the grandmother’s attitudes toward secondary characters? What are the grandchildren’s attitudes? Are either of these attitudes objective? Why or why not?
- For discussion: Many of the viewpoints projected by the grandmother, and the language she uses, reflect racist, discriminatory, and dismissive perspectives. What flaws or contradictions in her are revealed by her views?
- For discussion: How do economic and social class develop as motifs? How do these motifs develop themes in the text?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- How does the grandmother manipulate others over the course of the story? What goals is she trying to achieve through her manipulation? Does she experience a true epiphany at the end of the story?
- Are any of the characters in the story sympathetic? Who? Why?
- What is the overall tone of the story? Is it cynical or is it hopeful? How do you know?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
The Story Ends with Brutal Violence: For first-time readers, the violent ending of the story can be surprising, shocking, and disturbing.
- What to do: Discuss violence as a motif in the story. What do the events in the story suggest about themes in the story and human nature as a whole?
Content Notice: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” contains racial slurs.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the story.
- Focus on setting. The family in this story is constantly in motion. What does setting reveal about characterization and theme in the story? What difference does it make that the grandmother is killed in the open and not in the forest?
- Focus on gender. Gender is a motif in the story, from the mother’s minimal characterization to the comments about June Star’s tap-dancing. Does the story treat women treated differently from their male counterparts? How does the grandmother embody the cultural expectations of her gender? Would the story end differently if the grandmother were a grandfather?
- Focus on the motif of religion in the story. O’Connor was a devout Catholic, and the final conversation between the grandmother and the Misfit has prominent religious subject matter. To what extent does Christian morality impact the reader’s interpretation of the story? Are the grandmother and/or the Misfit true believers? How do you know?
- Focus on the motif of family in the story. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” centers around the tragic misadventures of a nuclear, American family. Is the portrayal of the family realistic, or is it a caricature of a family? Do the family members care about each other, or are they more self-interested? What does the grandmother mean when she sees the Misfit as one of her “own children?”
- Focus on symbolism. Certain objects in the story, such Pitty Sing the cat, the house with the secret panel, and Bailey’s parrot-patterned shirt, carry symbolic weight. What might these—and other—objects in the story symbolize? What deeper or alternate readings of the story are unlocked by a symbolic analysis?
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