"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" Summary

Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" depicts a family road trip that ends in tragedy.

  • A selfish grandmother convinces her family to take a detour to go sightseeing.
  • On the detour, the car crashes into a ditch. The Misfit, an escaped convict, pulls up with his cronies, and the grandmother blurts out that she recognizes him.

  • The rest of the family is led into the woods to be murdered while the Misfit discusses religion with the grandmother. In a moment of Christian sympathy, the grandmother informs the Misfit that he is one of her children. The Misfit shoots her.

Summary

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1223

As “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” opens, a family prepares to embark on a trip together. The family consists of Bailey, his wife, their three children—John Wesley, June Star, and a baby—and a grandmother. Most of the family, including Bailey and his wife, want to go to Florida. The grandmother, who is Bailey’s mother and the protagonist of the story, wants them to travel to Tennessee instead so that she can visit her “connections” there. In an attempt to persuade them to change their plans, she reminds them that a dangerous criminal called "The Misfit" has just escaped from the Federal Penitentiary and is likely headed to Florida as well. This fails to garner any concern from the family, and they all prepare to leave for Florida the next morning.

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In preparing for departure, the grandmother takes special care with her appearance so that her clothing reflects her status as a proper “lady.” She wears a navy blue sailor hat, a matching navy blue dress with organdy trimming, and a spray of violets pinned to her neckline. She also hides her cat, Pitty Sing, in a basket to travel with her. Sitting between her grandchildren, John Wesley and June Star, the grandmother points out interesting scenery along the drive. As the car passes a Black child standing in the door of a shack, the grandmother finds the scene particularly endearing, yelling that he is a “cute little pickaninny” and confidently informing her grandchildren that he doesn’t have “things like we do."

After traveling and telling stories for some time, the family decides to stop for dinner at The Tower, which serves barbecue and acts as a filling station as well as a local dance hall. After ordering, the family is greeted by Red Sammy, the owner, who comes in from performing some mechanical work on a truck outside. He commiserates with the grandmother’s feelings that society has fallen to shambles. When he mentions that it’s hard to know who to trust, the grandmother once again mentions the Misfit. “A good man is hard to find,” Red Sammy concludes, and as the children play outside, he and the grandmother continue to chat about the better days of the past.

Back in the car, the grandmother naps periodically as the family continues their journey. When she awakens, she looks out the window and believes that she is in a neighborhood that she visited in the past. She shares her recollections of an old plantation with a secret panel in the house. This proves to be a compelling mystery for the children, who beg their father to take a detour to visit the old house. Bailey tries to refuse the side trip but eventually concedes after the children begin kicking his seat and loudly whining.

The grandmother directs Bailey to what she believes is the correct road, and they travel for some time as the grandmother recalls a time when all roads were dirt and it took all day to travel thirty miles. Suddenly, the grandmother realizes that her memory has failed her. This is not the neighborhood from her past; the place she visited was in Tennessee. Startled by this embarrassing realization, she jumps, which upsets the cat she’d hidden away. Pitty Sing emerges from the basket with a snarl and leaps onto Bailey’s shoulder. This shock causes Bailey to flip the car, ejecting his wife and their baby.

When everything settles, the family is surprisingly intact. The children are excited by the accident but disappointed that no one has been killed, and the grandmother is convinced that she has possibly injured an organ. A few moments later, the grandmother sees a car in the distance and desperately waves her arms to attract its attention. Slowly, the car approaches the family.

Three men are in the car. When the driver gets out, the grandmother has a feeling that she’s seen him somewhere before. As the kids begin rudely pelting the man with questions, the grandmother suddenly exclaims, “You’re The Misfit!” Bailey icily scolds his mother for her foolish comment, and she asks the Misfit if he’s going to shoot her. Avoiding a direct answer, the Misfit replies that he would hate to have to do so.

The grandmother begins a desperate attempt to beg for her life. First, she tries to flatter the Misfit, saying that she can tell he’s a “good man” who comes from “nice people.” The Misfit agrees with her and instructs Bobby Lee and Hiram, his traveling companions, to take Bailey and John Wesley into the woods. As her son and grandson disappear with these strangers, the grandmother again pleads for her own life, desperately telling the Misfit that he’s good and “not a bit common.” This time, he disagrees, saying, “Nome, I ain’t a good man . . . but I ain’t the worst in the world neither.” 

The grandmother then changes the subject to religion, asking if the Misfit ever prays. There is a loud pistol shot from the woods, followed quickly by a second. She begs the Misfit to pray, telling him that Jesus can help him. The Misfit agrees with this statement but tells her that he doesn’t want any help because he’s doing just fine by himself. He reveals that he can’t remember the crime for which he was imprisoned but relates that he was told by a “head-doctor” that he killed his father. Bobby Lee and Hiram, the Misfit’s accomplices, return from the woods and are now instructed to take Bailey’s wife, June Star, and the baby into the woods to join Bailey. After they all leave, the grandmother again urges the Misfit to turn to Jesus for help. Three more pistol shots ring out through the woods, and the grandmother urgently begs for her own life, telling the Misfit that he has “good blood.” The Misfit returns to their conversation about Jesus, reasoning that Jesus threw everything “off balance” when he “raised the dead.” He explains that he personally enjoys a life of cruelty: “No pleasure but meanness.”

Dazed and unsure how to respond, the grandmother comments that maybe Jesus didn’t raise the dead after all. The Misfit replies that he wasn’t there and can’t know with certainty either way, though he deeply wishes he could have seen it. Seeming almost as if he’s about to cry, the Misfit says, “if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” At this point, the grandmother’s head clears for a moment and she truly sees the Misfit for the first time. She looks into his face and shares her sudden realization, telling him that he’s “one of [her] own children” as she touches his shoulder.

Recoiling from her touch, the Misfit abruptly shoots the grandmother three times through the chest. After instructing his accomplices to throw her body in the woods with the rest of her family, he remarks that the grandmother would have been a good woman if there had been someone nearby to shoot her during every moment of her life. The Misfit concludes that there is actually no pleasure in life at all, amending his previous statement.

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