"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" Themes
The main themes in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" are finding grace, prejudice, and family.
- Finding Grace: Extraordinary circumstances allow a selfish character like the grandmother to truly understand the meaning of grace.
- Prejudice: The grandmother’s worldview is shaped by her deep prejudices, which are ultimately challenged in her encounter with the Misfit.
- Family: The meaning of kinship is explored through the antics of this dysfunctional family and the grandmother’s epiphany that the Misfit is "one of my own.”
For most of the story, the grandmother believes that she is a socially and morally superior person, looking with scorn upon those who don’t measure up to her exacting standards. She takes great care to present herself as a proper lady by dressing the part, but her heart harbors ugly tendencies toward prejudice, selfishness, and deception. She frequently commands and judges others, criticizing her son’s parenting and attempting to force the Misfit to pray, convinced that the mere utterance of a prayer will change his heart and spare her life. Despite her many references to Jesus and Christianity, the grandmother's behavior suggests that she has no real understanding of Jesus’s teachings, which emphasize love, joy, generosity, and grace. The grandmother exhibits none of these qualities in her interactions with her family or the Misfit. Instead, she proves self-centered, never once begging for the lives of her family members to be spared as they are led into the woods by the Misfit’s accomplices. Just before hearing the shots signaling the death of her daughter-in law, granddaughter, and infant grandchild, the grandmother seems to attempt a prayer, murmuring “Jesus. Jesus,” yet nothing of substance follows. Indeed, this desperate attempt to converse with her savior comes out sounding more like a curse than the prayer she hopes for.
In the final moments of her life, however, the grandmother is stripped of her feelings of superiority. Realizing that she, like the Misfit, is flawed, she finally sees their connectedness and is thus compelled to love him like “one of [her] own children.” This is her ultimate point of grace and represents her one true moment of compassion in the story. Ironically, this brief flash of authenticity prompts the Misfit to kill her, yet she leaves the world with a smile, reflecting a self-realization which has eluded her until this moment.
Perhaps all is not lost in her death. While the Misfit earlier comments that there is “no pleasure [in life] but meanness,” the grandmother’s transformation seems to have changed the Misfit as well. His final words echo a different sentiment entirely: “It’s no real pleasure in life.” Perhaps it is therefore possible for the Misfit to find a redemptive grace as well.
Flannery O’Connor wrote “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” in 1953, and the southern setting adds an important dimension to the story. During this period, Jim Crow laws divided southern society along racial lines, and many whites still clung to an oppressive social structure that was in dire need of change.
The grandmother reflects these old, racist attitudes as she looks with amusement upon a Black child standing in the door of a shack, poverty shaping his reality. Instead of feeling compassion for this child, she treats him like a roadside attraction, calling him a “cute little pinkaninny” and commenting that the scene is so endearing that she would like to paint a picture of it. Soon thereafter, the grandmother alludes to Gone With the Wind, further highlights her yearning for the lost days of the Old South.
The grandmother’s prejudices are not just racial in nature; the grandmother is also class-conscious, priding herself on her heritage as a proper southern lady and making frequent references to "good blood." She takes care to dress the part, paying close attention to the details of her appearance before the family trip. She relies on this outward expression of class—indicated by her organdy cuffs and lace detailing—to differentiate herself from the “common” people of the world. And because of this distinction, she believes that she should receive preferential treatment.
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see evidence of the grandmother’s superficial values when she is faced with conflict; notably, her first attempt at flattering the Misfit is to remark, untruthfully, that she thinks he is of good stock, like herself:
You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!
It does not seem to occur to her that the Misfit may not share her worldview or values, and indeed, it seems absurd that he would. That the grandmother fails to realize this demonstrates the depth of her prejudice and obliviousness. Eventually, the grandmother’s certainty in her own superiority vanishes in her final moments, and she manages to see the world clearly and without prejudice for one instant before she dies.
From the story’s opening, the family’s dynamic is a bit dysfunctional. The grandmother attempts to manipulate her family so that they will travel to her destination of choice, and her young granddaughter sarcastically comments that her grandmother “wouldn’t stay home for a million bucks.” The grandmother sneaks her cat into the car against her son’s wishes, and when she later realizes that she’s led the family down the incorrect road, she conceals this information. The children are self-entitled and whiny, kicking their father’s seat to get their way and commenting rudely that “Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground.” There aren’t any particular signs of affection between any members of the family, and when the grandmother blurts out to the Misfit that she’s recognized his identity, her son harshly swears at her.
Yet in their final moments, this family demonstrates an affection for one another that they failed to exhibit in their ordinary lives. As Bailey is led away, it is his to mother that he calls out one final time, using the familiar term of endearment of “Mamma,” which conjures images of his relationship with her as a young boy. After hearing the gunshots ring out, the grandmother cries out “Bailey Boy,” perhaps remembering an earlier time when the bond she shared with her son was less fraught. Ultimately, this family’s fate is made all the more tragic by the fact they they appear to only truly comprehend their love for one another in their final moments.
Notably, the definition of family is also expanded in the final scene as the grandmother accepts the Misfit as a member of her family. In her final moment of clarity, she recognizes that she is as flawed as the Misfit, and her understanding of family is expanded to include humanity as a whole.