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 1953

"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 story was first published in 1953 in the anthology The Avon Book of Modern Writing.[1] In 1960, it was collected in the anthology The House of Fiction, published by Charles Scribner's Sons. Because of its publication in many anthologies, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" became one of O'Connor's most well known works.[2]

Plot[edit]

A man named 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 East Tennessee, where the grandmother has friends ("connections"). She argues that his children, John Wesley and June Star, have never been to East Tennessee, and she shows him a news article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about an escaped murderer who calls himself "The Misfit" and was last seen in Florida. The next day, 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 die 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 constantly during the trip, trying to engage her two grandchildren in games and telling them jokes and a story, about which June Star makes disdainful comments. She recalls her youth in the Old South, reminiscing about her courtships and 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 outside of Timothy 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 and that the world at present is degenerate; she concurs 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 a secret panel, 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 allow them just one 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 realization makes her involuntarily kick her feet which frightens the cat, causing it to spring from its hidden basket onto Bailey's neck. Bailey then loses control of the car and it flips over, ending up in a ditch below the road, near Toomsboro. Only the children's mother is injured; the children are frantic with excitement, and the grandmother's main concern is dealing with Bailey's anger.

Shaking in the ditch, the family waits for help. When she notices a black hearse 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 quiet man in glasses, as The Misfit. He immediately confirms this, saying it would have been better for them all if she had not recognized him, and Bailey curses his mother. The Misfit's men take Bailey and John Wesley into the woods on a pretense and two pistol shots ring out. The Misfit claims that he has no memory of the crime for which he was imprisoned; when he was informed by doctors that he had killed his father, he claimed that his father died in a flu epidemic.

The men then return to take the children's mother, the baby, and June Star to the woods for the same purpose as Bailey and the boy. 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 "Why you're one of my babies. 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 through the heart.

When the family has all been murdered, The Misfit takes a moment to clean his glasses and pick up the grandmother's cat; he states 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, Bobby Lee, for making a comment "some fun!" "Shut up, Bobby Lee," he retorts. "It's no real pleasure in life."[3]

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 his mother's and children'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, only as "the children's mother."
Grandmother
Bailey's mother, who lives with the family. She is not identified by name.
John Wesley, June Star
Bailey's children, aged 8 and 7, respectively.
The Baby
Male child of Bailey and his wife. Not identified by name.
Red Sammy Butts
Restaurant operator who agrees with the Grandmother 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 the Grandmother. Bailey flings it against a tree after the accident. It is last seen rubbing against The Misfit's leg. ("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 of the story 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. She originally perceives herself as a righteous woman, making her able to "justify" all of her actions. She bribes the granddaughter and encourages the defiance of the children against the father; in the end, she even begins to deny the miracles of Jesus as she states "Maybe He didn't raise the dead".[4] Regardless of this, she still is trying to share the message of the Gospel with the Misfit. The reader sees how she, in the final moments of her life, tries to save one more soul after the Misfit has already killed her family, by calling out the Misfit's name.

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.[5] 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".[6]

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.[7]

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 cannot be bought, sold, or wholly understood, such as death, grace, and "the South."[8]

Theme of grace[edit]

O'Connor utilized the dark and morose in her writing to reveal beauty and grace. In the story, violence reveals divine grace. Divine grace, or God's unmerited favor, is a concept fundamental to man's salvation in Christian theology. Christians believe the imperfect can be reborn spiritually, i.e. people can be saved by grace through Jesus Christ. While the two seem to be different, the grandmother and the Misfit both are the same at their core: sinners in need of grace.[9][unreliable source?] Abbie Harris says in her short article "The Misfit is blatantly sinful and enraged at the concept of God's grace, and the Grandma masks her sinfulness with respectability and chooses to treat God as something that she can accept or ignore depending on her situation".[10]

From the beginning of the story, the grandmother repeatedly sins and uses God when it is convenient for her, a common practice of many southern Christians in O'Connor's time. The sins she commits throughout the story create her as a severely flawed individual in need of saving. Only at her death does she realize her faults. After he shoots her, the Misfit claims "she would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." O'Connor includes this line because she is not trying to convey the message that if someone has a traumatic experience, their life will be changed. She instead conveys a message of the sinful nature of humans; these experiences people may go through do not stick. The grandmother's life would have to be threatened everyday for her to become a good person.[11]

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,[12] but according to most reviewers the film does not depict the story or its characters well.[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. ^ Gooch, Brad. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor. New York: Little, Brown, 2009, p. 238.
  2. ^ Ann Kirk, Connie (2008). Critical companion to Katelyn Smith. Infobase Publishing. pp. 74–78. ISBN 9781438108469. Retrieved April 24, 2011. 
  3. ^ "A Good Man Is Hard To Find". Archived from the original on 2007-03-20. Retrieved 2007-03-26. 
  4. ^ Bonney, William. "The Moral Structure of Flannery O'Connor's a Good Man Is .." Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 27, no. 3, 1990, pp. 347.
  5. ^ Ochshorn, Kathleen (1990), A Cloak of Grace: Contradictions in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find", Studies in American Fiction, pp. 113–117 
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Bandy, Stephen (1996), 'One of my Babies': The Misfit and the Grandmother, Studies in Short Fiction, pp. 107–117, archived from the original on January 4, 2012 
  8. ^ "Means, Meaning and Mediated Space in 'A Good Man is Hard to Find.'" The Southern Quarterly. 44.4 (2007): 125-38.
  9. ^ Kelley, Sara (December 2008). "Flannery O'Connor's Duality in "A Good Man is Hard to Find"". Corridors. Retrieved 2018-05-17. 
  10. ^ Harris, Abbie C. "Jesus Thrown Everything Off Balance": Grace and Redemption in Flannery O'Connor's 'A Good Man is Hard to Find'," Papers & Publications: Interdisciplinary Journal of Undergraduate Research, vol. 3, Article 5.
  11. ^ Fassler, Joe. "What Flannery O'Connor Got Right: Epiphanies Aren't Permanent". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2018-05-17. 
  12. ^ "UbuWeb Film & Video: Jeri Cain Rossi". Ubu.com. Retrieved 2016-08-27. 

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 collect.
  • 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]