Published in the collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find, “The Lame Shall Enter First” is O’Connor’s longest story. Many critics view the collection as a cycle of stories, each related to the theme of attaining a higher moral consciousness while focusing on a character whose egoism distorts his perception and blinds him to the transforming power of the divine. For O’Connor, this is often experienced through violence or an embodiment of evil. As in the story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” O’Conner’s “The Lame Shall Enter First” uses “lameness” as metaphor for the inability to apprehend grace, with Sheppard the most accurate representation of that.
Critics also pay attention to the irony and the ambiguity in O’Connor’s symbolism. Norton is “lame” because his father thinks he has limited understanding, Rufus is literally lame because of his clubfoot, but Sheppard is most grievously lame because he lacks an understanding of evil and his intellectual egoism prevents him from giving his son the love he needs.
Recent critical attention addresses O’Connor’s use of women and mothers in her stories. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Hulga/Joy is limited by her mother’s inability to love her for who she is, while in “The Lame Shall Enter First,” the total absence of the mother provides the conflict for Norton, suggesting that had she been alive she would have given him the love he needs. In both cases, mothers have the ability to give or withhold a love that is crucial to the well-being of the child, and in both stories fathers are either absent or ineffectual in providing love.