A Good Man Is Hard to Find (short story)

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"A Good Man Is Hard to Find"
Author Flannery O'Connor
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Short story, Southern Gothic
Publication type Collection
Media type Print
Publication date 1955

"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is a short story written by Flannery O'Connor in 1953. The story appears in the collection of short stories of the same name. The interpretive work of scholars often focuses on the controversial final scene.

Background[edit]

The short story was first published in 1953 in the anthology Modern Writing I by Avon Publications. In 1960, it was collected in the anthology The House of Fiction, published by Charles Scribner's Sons. "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," because of its publication in many anthologies, became the most well known of O'Connor's works.[1]

Summary[edit]

Bailey intends to take his family from Georgia to Florida for a summer vacation, but his mother, (referred to as "the grandmother" in the story) wants him to drive to Tennessee. She argues that his children, June Star and John Wesley, have never been to Tennessee and shows him a news article about an escaped murderer called The Misfit last seen heading to Florida. The next day, Bailey takes his family to Florida anyway. The grandmother wakes up early to hide her cat, Pitty Sing, in a basket on the floor in the back of the car. (She is worried that the cat would be lonely while they were gone.) Bailey finds her sitting in the car, dressed in her best clothes and an ostentatious hat; she says that if she should die in an accident along the road, she wants people to see her corpse and know she was refined and "a lady." The Grandmother talks continuously during the trip, trying to engage her two grandchildren in games and telling them jokes and a story, all of which they ignore with disdain. She recalls her youth in the Old South. She reminisces about how much better everything was in her time, when children were respectful and people "did right then." When the family stops at an old diner for lunch, she talks to the owner, Red Sammy, about The Misfit. He and the grandmother agree that things were much better in the past, that the world at present is degenerate, and she agrees with Sammy's remark that "a good man is hard to find."

After the family returns to the road, the grandmother begins telling the children a story about a mysterious house nearby with secret passages, a house she remembers from her childhood. This catches the children's attention and they want to visit the house, so they harass their father until he reluctantly agrees to let them take a side trip. As he drives them down a remote dirt road, the grandmother suddenly realizes that the house she was thinking of was actually in Tennessee, not Georgia. That shocking realization makes her involuntarily kick her feet which frightens the cat, causing it to spring from its hidden basket, onto Bailey's neck. He then loses control of the car and flips it over to end up in a ditch below the road. No one is seriously injured, the children are frantic with excitement, and the grandmother's main concern is dealing with Bailey's anger.

The family waits for help. When she notices a car coming down the road, the grandmother flags it down until it stops. Three men come out and begin to talk to her. All three have guns. The grandmother says that she recognizes the leader, the man in glasses, as The Misfit. The Misfit confirms this, saying it would have been better for them all if she hadn't recognized him, and Bailey curses his mother. The Misfit has his two men take Bailey and John Wesley into the woods, claiming that "the boys want to ask you something." After they leave, the grandmother speaks to The Misfit who says he's been falsely imprisoned for killing his father, when his cause of death was actually a flu epidemic. The Misfit mentions talking to a psychiatrist while in prison about why he did not remember what crime he had committed.

The men shoot Bailey and John in the forest, then come back to take the children's mother, the baby, and June Star for the same purpose. The grandmother begins pleading for her own life. When The Misfit talks to her about Jesus, he expresses his doubts about His raising Lazarus from the dead. As he speaks, the Misfit becomes agitated and angry. He snarls into the grandmother's face and claims that life has "no pleasure but meanness". In her growing confusion, she thinks that The Misfit is going to cry, so she reaches out and touches his shoulder tenderly, saying "You’re one of my own children!" His reaction is to jump away "as if a snake had bitten him" and he kills her with three shots.

When they finish murdering the family, The Misfit takes a moment to clean his glasses, saying that the grandmother would have been a good woman if "it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." The story ends with the Misfit chastising one of his sidekicks for claiming that the family's murder was good fun. The Misfit tells him to shut up, that "it's no real pleasure in life." [2]

Characters[edit]

Bailey
Atlanta resident with a wife and three children and his mother. He crashes their car on a family trip to Florida when he gives in to the grandmother's wishes to visit an old plantation.
Bailey’s wife
Quiet woman described as having a face that was "as broad and innocent as a cabbage." She is not identified by name.
Grandmother
Bailey's mother, who lives with the family. She is not identified by name.
John Wesley, June Star
Bailey’s children.
The Baby
Male child of Bailey and his wife. Not identified by name.
Red Sammy Butts
Restaurant operator who agrees with Bailey’s mother that the world is in a state of decline.
Red Sammy’s Wife
Waitress in Red Sammy’s restaurant. She observes that not a single person in the world is trustworthy.
The Misfit
Escaped prisoner who comes across Bailey's family after they have crashed.
Hiram, Bobby Lee
Prisoners who escaped with The Misfit.
Edgar Atkins Teagarden
Man referred to in a story told by Bailey's mother. He would have been a good man to marry, she says, because he owned Coca-Cola stock and died rich.
Pitty Sing
Pet cat of Bailey’s mother ("Pitty Sing" is a character in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, The Mikado).
Gray Monkey
Pet of Red Sammy Butts. The monkey is chained to a chinaberry tree.

Interpretation[edit]

There are varying opinions of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." Most of this discrepancy centers on the grandmother's act of touching the Misfit.

The dominant opinion is that the grandmother's final act was one of grace and charity, which implies that "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" was written to show a transformation in the grandmother as the story progresses. In the beginning, she was more concerned about looking like a respectable person than being one. This is shown by her selfish desire to go to Tennessee instead of Florida and, more importantly, by her attempts to save her own life, even as her family continued to die around her (made worse by the fact that if she had kept her mouth shut, none of them would have been killed). In the end, she realizes she has not led a good life and reaches out to touch her killer, the Misfit, in a final act of grace and charity. This "epiphany" resembles the grandmother's newly found redemption. Even though she fails, her attempt is not lost on the Misfit, who remarks that through enduring a constant of violence, she would have been a good woman if there had been someone to shoot her every day.[3]

A second opinion on the issue is that the grandmother's final act was not an act of charity and that she is yet again trying to save herself from being murdered. Some say that Flannery O'Connor uses the excuse as the grandmother's final "moment of grace" to save the story from the bloodshed and violence.[4] Frederick Asals argues that "one can easily pass over her [O’Connor’s] hope that the grandmother’s final gesture to The Misfit might have begun a process which would 'turn him into the prophet he was meant to become'; that, as she firmly says, is another story, and it would be a reckless piety indeed which would see it even suggested by the one we have".[5] It is also pointed out that by the time the grandmother touches the Misfit, proclaiming he is her son, he is wearing Bailey's shirt. Other opinions include that it is contradictory of her character or that she was simply again trying to save herself and that her selfishness was never overcome throughout the story.[6]

A third opinion is that the grandmother has many faults but unlike the rest of the family she tries to be a good person and treats her family with respect even when they ignore her. Even when she manipulates the children so they will want to go see the house she wanted to see it is stated that "She said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing that she were". The grandmother feels that to get anything she has to manipulate her family to get it, which is something she doesn't want to do. Additionally, the grandmother is the only one to provide both entertainment and discipline for the children while their parents simply ignore them.

Not every interpretation hinges on a moral judgment of the grandmother, though. For example, Alex Link considers how, until the family encounters the Misfit, the South is mainly something to ignore, forget, package in a movie or a monument, or remember with distorted nostalgia, such that the Misfit comes to stand for the persistence of what can't be bought, sold, or wholly understood, such as death, grace, and "the South."[7]

Religious overtones[edit]

It was O'Connor's habit to use the dark and morose to reveal beauty and philosophical prowess; in the case of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” it conveys divine grace. Divine grace is a concept fundamental to Christian theology as unmerited favor. Christians believe the imperfect is made perfect, i.e. people are saved by Jesus Christ. The grandmother in the story gains grace by acknowledging that she helped to create The Misfit and that they are bound by kinship.[8] She reaches out to him as if he were her own. Such religious overtones are common in O’Connor’s work. Related concepts include: Sola gratia, actual grace, and prevenient grace.

O'Connor explained that in her stories "violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace."[9] In the case of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," O'Connor explained in a reflection piece "A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable," published in 1969, that violence is her way to make her hard-headed characters, such as the grandmother, accept their time of grace.

At the end of the story, after The Misfit shoots the grandmother, he says to Bobby Lee, "She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." This quote is showing The Misfit's enlightenment to what the grandmother had experienced right before he killed her. He is saying that he noticed that she was trying to preach the gospel to him, but that it only happened because she was threatened by death. According to The Misfit, if the grandmother had lived her life held up at gunpoint, she might have lived a more righteous life.

Adaptations[edit]

A film adaptation of the short story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," entitled Black Hearts Bleed Red, was made in 1992 by New York filmmaker Jeri Cain Rossi. The film stars noted New York artist Joe Coleman[10] but the film does not depict the story or its characters well according to most reviewers.[citation needed]

An original modern chamber opera based on "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" was completed in 2003 by David Volk, a University of Georgia music doctoral student, as part of his dissertation requirements in composition. The chamber opera was performed at the Seney-Stovall Chapel in Athens, Georgia with grant funding from the University's Ideas for Creative Exploration (ICE). Later that same year, the work was performed at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia, and in Milledgeville, Georgia, at "Flannery O'Connor: the Visionary and the Vernacular," an interdisciplinary conference sponsored by Georgia College and State University (and home of the Flannery O'Connor Library). In 2007, the work was performed at the University of Virginia's College at Wise where Dr. Volk teaches as Assistant Professor of Music.

The American folk musician Sufjan Stevens adapted the story into a song going by the same title. It appears on his 2004 album Seven Swans. The song is written in the first person from the point of view of The Misfit.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Ann Kirk, Connie (2008). Critical companion to Katelyn Smith. Infobase Publishing. pp. 74–78. Retrieved April 24, 2011. 
  2. ^ http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~surette/goodman.html
  3. ^ Desmond, John (2004), Flannery O'Connor's Misfit and the Mystery of Evil, Renascence, pp. 129–138 
  4. ^ Ochshorn, Kathleen (1990), A Cloak of Grace: Contradictions in "A Good Man is Hard to Find", Studies in American Fiction, pp. 113–117 
  5. ^ Asals, Frederick. "The Limits of Explanation." Critical Essays on Flannery O'Connor. Melvin J. Friedman and Beverly Lyon Clark, eds. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1985, p. 52.
  6. ^ Bandy, Stephen (1996), 'One of my Babies': The Misfit and the Grandmother, Studies in Short Fiction, pp. 107–117 
  7. ^ “Means, Meaning and Mediated Space in ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find.’” The Southern Quarterly. 44.4 (2007): 125-38.
  8. ^ Wood, Ralph C. Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South. Grand Rapids, Mi.: Eerdman's Publishing, 2005, p. 41-42.
  9. ^ O'Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970, p. 112.
  10. ^ http://www.ubu.com/film/rossi.html

Further reading[edit]

  • Flannery O'Connor (1993). Frederick Asals, ed. A good man is hard to find. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 978-0-8135-1977-7.  Contains the original text as well as a collection of critical essays on it.
  • Jan Nordby Gretlund, Karl-Heinz Westarp, ed. (2006). Flannery O'Connor's radical reality. Univ of South Carolina Press. ISBN 978-1-57003-601-9.  Several essays discuss the story in the context of Flannery's work as whole.
  • George Kilcourse (2001). Flannery O'Connor's religious imagination: a world with everything off balance. Paulist Press. ISBN 978-0-8091-4005-3.  Focuses on the religious aspects of Flannery's writings, including those in this short story.

External links[edit]