Of Salvation and Damnation: A Review of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
Of Salvation and Damnation: A Review of Flannery O’Connor’s
“A Good Man is Hard to Find”
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In most stories by Flannery O’Connor, her major characters are always confronted by a struggle for redemption - Of Salvation and Damnation: A Review of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” introduction. This is particularly highlighted in the short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in the conversation between the grandmother and The Misfit. It is often debated by literary critics whether the grandmother has a moment of grace in the story, just after her family was killed and before The Misfit shot her. However, this essay argues that there is no salvation in this story since her final action might be interpreted as one more attempt on her part to deflect the criminal’s violence from herself.
In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”, a young father, Bailey, is about to take his wife and children – John Wesley and June Star – and the children’s grandmother from their home in Georgia on a vacation to Florida. The entire family is portrayed as uninspiring and eternally favoring conventional social values. Especially, the grandmother is portrayed as displaying a soul so empty that it seems to echo with the reverberations of her own nonstop chatter. Self-righteous, self-willed and fanatical with good blood and breeding, the grandmother is determined that the family go to East Tennessee to visit relatives, rather than to Florida. When attempts to persuade her son to alter his plans prove unavailing, she insists that at least they turn off the highway to investigate an old mansion she had visited as a child.
Remembering that the house they are searching for is in Tennessee the grandmother kicks over a valise, thus allowing her cat-hidden in a basket beneath-to spring onto Bailey’s shoulder. Bailey loses control of the car, which bounces off the road and overturns. As the family gets out from the wreck, they see another car from which emerge three escaped convicts. The grandmother blurts out the identity of the group’s leader, The Misfit, whose picture she has seen in a newspaper.
Starting here, O’Connor’s story moves swiftly to its tragedy: first Bailey and the boy, then the mother and her daughter, are led off to the woods and shot. Only the grandmother, rendered almost insane by fear, is left to confront The Misfit, a man who finds no pleasure in life but “meanness” and who claims that “’Jesus thown everything off balance’” (p. 151). The old lady faces The Misfit with nothing more than a mouthful of banalities such as “I just know you’re a good man…You’re not a bit common!” (p. 148) which reinforce the reader’s already established impression that, for her, refinement and goodness are just social counters to be employed whenever expediency demands it.
When The Misfit declares that he has assumed his name because he can not make “what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment” (p. 151), the grandmother responds by suggesting that perhaps he was only mistakenly committed to the penitentiary. This absurd statement, however, demonstrates how unable she is to comprehend either The Misfit’s belief that everything was once “thown off balance” or the mystery of evil which he himself puzzlingly embodies. That prejudice might be a permanent and irreducible component of human existence, that the world itself might be awry, that sham refinement offers no safe conduct through this life-all of these intimations, as they flood the grandmother’s consciousness, leave her panting and traumatized, in a swoon of disbelief.
Confronted with imminent death, the grandmother grasps at the only supports available to her: the commercial ideals of the society she so pitifully represents, her faith in good breeding, and her conventional piety. Since she cannot react violently to the expected terror, she uses commonplaces to meet a most uncommon situation:
“If you would pray,” the old lady said, “Jesus would help you.”
“That’s right,” The Misfit said.
“Well then, why don’t you pray?” she asked trembling with delight suddenly.
“I don’t want no hep,” he said.
“I’m doing all right by myself” (p. 150).
Having tried to tell the convict that he must pray, and having succeeded only in speaking the name of Jesus more as a curse than as a prayer, the grandmother makes one last effort to save herself: “Jesus! . . . You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady. I’ll give you all the money I’ve got” (142).
Nearing the old lady’s end, the readers feel that The Misfit is wanting salvation. In reading his final speech before he shoots the old lady, it seems that The Misfit’s struggle with whether all people can be saved is based on his view that Jesus needed to see for Him to believe it.
Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,…and He shouldn’t have done it. He thown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can-by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No. pleasure but meanness.” (p. 152).
In this part of the story where the convict clearly confesses his need for salvation, the old lady’s vision seemingly becomes clear as she reaches out to the Misfit and touches him on the shoulder. She whispers, “Why you’re one of my babies…one of my own children” (p. 152). Many commentators read this instance as the moment when the grandmother receives her own salvation since, at a first glance, this gesture is selfless and a move toward becoming “a good woman”. Many readers have often noted that in rejecting the grandmother’s extended sympathy, The Misfit turns his back on the opportunity of redemption; and the old lady’s final action has commonly been cited as her moment of grace.
However, one has to make it clear why this is the case, since the grandmother’s gesture might conceivably be viewed as one of her desperate attempts to ward off The Misfit’s violence from herself. It is clear that The Misfit does not believe the old lady’s adoption. To this point, The Misfit has communicated his “goodness”, but the old lady’s attempt at salvation has made him to become violent once again, instead of becoming a better person. Until the instant when her “head clears”, it is the grandmother’s inauthenticity which is being judged by The Misfit’s honesty and spirituality, perverse though they be. Furthermore, the grandmother fails to recognize the mystery of life and death. The Misfit and old lady are bound together by this mystery which, until this moment of extremity, she has been able to ignore. In many of O’Connor’s characters, they miss the opportunity to make some connection. In the case of the grandmother, her spiritual blindness keeps her from seeing truth.
The Misfit does not overlook the transformation that occurs in the grandmother’s life before she is killed: “She would have been a good woman,…if it had somebody to shoot her every minute of her life” (p. 153). Indeed, the readers notice the fact that old lady behaves much better while under the threat of terror, instead of being free to act without threat of violence.
As the title suggests, the theme of this tale is the question of what constitutes a good man. Thus, the grandmother’s insistence that The Misfit is an example of this rare species is both ironically appropriate and grotesquely inappropriate. The convict has no illusions about himself and responds to her desperate flattery with the matter-of-fact answer: “Nome, I ain’t a good man” (p. 148). What is noteworthy here, is it seems that The Misfit takes the question of good and evil seriously. While his self-appropriated name connects him to the world of popular psychology and textbook sociology, he himself sees his problem metaphysically and religiously. His final speech to the old lady summarizes his radical vision of man’s state. Overall, in O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, the grandmother and The Misfit come face to face with God’s mercy. However, there is no salvation.