“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
A Good Man Is Hard to Find
Interpretations of Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” are usually based on Christian teaching; largely due to the author’s own comments; however, it is more important to rely on the evidence, the text, to understand the theme and importance of each character. The focus of the action is mainly on two characters: the grandmother and the Misfit and their interactions with other characters and each other.
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Both are controversial and complicated individuals that are not truly revealed until they meet. They live in separate, unbalanced worlds that they each attempt to control through their individual time-tested methods. These worlds converge in order to allow the reader to truly understand the selfishness of these characters and how they are foils for each other, offering a few similarities in order to clearly identify their differences.
One of the foremost qualities that the Misfit and grandmother share is that the author does not identify them by name - “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” introduction. Their position is more important than who they are. The Misfit is a pseudonym he created to identify himself as someone whose punishment did not fit the crime. The grandmother’s identity is tied to her family and her place as the patriarch in it. Their identities are tied to their surroundings rather than standing independently. In the Christian interpretation, the grandmother is the sinner who does not realize that she is sinning and needs forgiveness prior to death; he is the grotesque and distorted Christ-like figure who passes judgment on others and exacts the necessary punishment.
The grandmother dresses herself in a manner not conducive to travel in order to portray herself as a lady if anyone accident occurs. She is all about appearances and does not let her a moment to pass where she does not convey the image that she is one of the better ones, above most other people. By contrast, the Misfit is carelessly driving in pants that are too small for him and without a shirt all together. He does not care about appearance but about substance.
The Misfit’s very pseudonym identifies him as someone who does not conform to society’s rules whereas she does her best to fit into them. She informs him that he should not use that name because he is a “good man.” She is in denial about his character as much as she is in denial about her own yet her desire to keep Bailey with her at all times stems as much from her desire to not being left out as her dim awareness of the situation they were in.
Both characters “persuade” other characters to do what they wanted, with the Misfit forcing the family go with his companions into the woods to meet their doom and the grandmother manipulating her family to do what she wanted. Her initial request, to travel to Tennessee instead of Florida is denied, though she uses the scare of the Misfit’s presence in society to frighten her family to consent. She later coerces the children to cry and whine to see the old plantation house and she uses a lie to achieve her desire. Ironically, her manipulations lead to the family’s fate: had they not taken the country road, had she not brought along the cat, had she not identified the Misfit, the family would be quietly driving to Florida.
The grandmother’s family does not appear to entirely understand her nature, though June Star hits upon a basic truth of her grandmother’s character when she states that the grandmother “wouldn’t stay home to be queen for a day” (O’Connor, 117). Bailey ignores his mother or is annoyed with her. In the Tower, she tries to persuade him to dance with her and he merely glared at her. He does not speak directly to her until after the accident when he whispers words designed to hurt after she seals their fate by recognizing the Misfit. John Wesley does not recognize his grandmother’s nature and is easily manipulated by her whereas June Star has been more influenced by the grandmother’s prejudice: the little girl actually puts a voice to her harsh opinion of people when the grandmother hides it under a polite façade. In the ditch, the children merely run around yelling, “We’ve had an ACCIDENT” and do not address their grandmother directly. This is similar to the way they treated her in the beginning of the story as they spoke about her rather than to her. The only words Bailey speaks to her are unidentified except to label them hurtful and her daughter-in-law does not speak at all. The grandmother’s family appears to tolerate her until the accident. Afterwards, Bailey is deeply angry with her for their predicament before the Misfit found them, but more so after.
One major way in which the characters of the Misfit and grandmother diverge is in their own sense of identity. She pretends, or actually believes she is a good person because of how she dressed, where she was from and the fact that she would not allow the children dump litter out the window. By contrast, the Misfit recognizes his own flaws, denying the grandmother’s description of him as a “good man.” He not only sees himself clearly, he sees the grandmother’s faults as well. She tries to use her identity as a “lady” to wiggle her way out of her inevitable fate. The Misfit already knows what he will do, yet allows the family, particularly the grandmother, to retain some level of hope. The grandmother was prone to exaggeration, but the Misfit does not let her get away with it, correcting her description of the accident that they had only turned over once rather than her claim of twice. She actually calls him Jesus, saying, “Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady.” She believes her claim as a lady should exempt her from the darker side of life (Bandy, 110). The grandmother sees herself as a pure, good woman, close to Christ-like yet she denies Christ in her attempt to save herself, reducing her own religious faith to worthless platitudes. The Misfit’s outlook on religion is clear in his contemplations. He is the only character to ask deep, penetrating questions on human existence, with the grandmother looking superficially backwards and merely planning how to achieve her own ends and save her own life. Even her desire for him to pray is self-centered whereas his moral contemplations have no specific agenda other than finding the truth (Bonney, 348). The Misfit’s demeanor changes from affable to snarling as he claims he does not believe in the message of Christ, saying that if Jesus did what He claimed then he threw everything off-balance and that people should throw their lives away to follow him. If the stories were not true then it was necessary to embrace life and do what he wanted in the time he had. As the latter was the path he chose, it is clear where his beliefs lie.
Both characters use others to achieve what they want, and though they care more about their own desires than those of others, the methods they use to achieve their goals is vastly different. The grandmother uses lies and manipulation to persuade people, mainly her family, to do what she wants (Irving, 114). She is blind to their desires or the consequences of her own actions. The Misfit uses a more direct approach by either asking or forcing people to do his bidding, luring Bailey and John Wesley into the woods and forcing the children’s mother and other children to follow. The grandmother does not directly state her desires, she manipulates others into asking for them. The Misfit takes what he wants in the moment, without planning ahead. She disguises her identity and her real character through lies and pretence; he blatantly goes against all the rules in life, doing only what he wants. She depends on others to determine her fate, he does not. She leans on Jesus and her family while he depends only himself. He does not believe in Christ or the power of prayer. She always wants to do what she wants and is usually humored. He defies tradition and takes what he desires, abusing people as though they were objects rather than living beings.
The innocence and outspokenness of children made the Misfit nervous because they were an entity he could not predict or control. On the other hand, the grandmother is able to manipulate her grandchildren into doing what she wants by deceit. The Misfit is used to asking for what he wants or forcing others to comply and children’s unpredictability unsettles him because they are less likely to easily comply with his wishes.
The Misfit sees murder as a means to an end rather than fun. He felt that the grandmother would have been a good woman “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” (O’Connor, 133). This means that he recognized the grandmother’s failings and felt that she would need constant reminding of those flaws in order to maintain a good life (Irving, 113). The grandmother attempts to give the Misfit false affection in order to gain his favor. He recognizes this deception and responds by shooting her three times. He clearly sees her for who she is rather than the persona she portrays to the rest of the world (Bonney, 348).
The Misfit and the grandmother are foils to each other, one blinded from the truth and manipulative and the other clearly seeing both his own and others’ flaws and taking direct action to achieve his desired outcome (Bandy, 107). Each have their own personal and somewhat selfish desires, yet it is in their differences that these characters come to light. By referring to them as character types rather than wholly realized individuals, O’Connor is able create the two figures which embody two aspects of human nature: the knowing and the blind. The grandmother is in denial of what kind of person she is while the Misfit clearly recognizes the flaws in himself and others.
Bandy, Stephen. “`One of My Babies’: The misfit and the grandmother.” Studies in Short Fiction; Winter96, Vol. 33 Issue 1. 107-118.
Bonney, William. “The Moral Structure of Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Studies in Short Fiction; Summer 90, Vol. 27 Issue 3, 347-356.
Irving, Malin. “Flannery O’Connor and the Grotesque.” In the Added Dimension: The Art and Mind of Flannery O’Connor. Melvin Friedman and Lewis A. Lawson, eds. New York: Fordham University Press, 1966. 113-114.
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The Complete Stories. New York: Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971. 117-133.