A Good Man Is Hard to Find (short story)
|"A Good Man Is Hard to Find"|
|Genre(s)||Short story, Southern Gothic|
"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.
The story was first published in 1953 in the anthology The Avon Book of Modern Writing. 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 best known works.
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 will die while they are gone. Bailey finds his mother sitting in the car, dressed in her best clothes and an ostentatious hat; 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 (the fictitious town of) Timothy, Georgia, 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 him to spring from his hidden basket onto Bailey's shoulder. 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 the grandmother notices a black hearse coming down the road, she 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 Jesus 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, the grandmother 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 Pitty Sing; he states that the grandmother would have been a good woman if there "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."
- 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. Although not much is revealed about Bailey's character, he struggles with being the head of the family. He has little to no control over his disobedient children, giving into their demands to stop and see the house with the secret panel. He also seems to put up with a lot of his mother's drama because in the beginning of the story it is noted that she seizes any chance to let him know what is on her mind. He is the first to be murdered in the family.
- 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." Much like her husband, not much is revealed about the mother. She does not have control over her kids and lets them do what they please. This causes her to receive criticism from her mother-in-law. However, she appears to be a strong woman because after the car crash she dislocates her shoulder and barely makes a fuss about it. She becomes very distraught about the deaths of her son and husband before she follows the men into the woods to be killed.
- Bailey's mother, who lives with the family. She is not identified by name. The grandmother is a very closed-minded individual. She has her own set ideals on morality and virtue which she believes everyone should uphold. Her values can be seen when she always dresses up to appear like a “lady” or when she criticises her grandchildren for not being respectful. She thinks of herself as superior because she's able to maintain her precious standards, however, she is actually extremely hypocritical. By becoming so wrapped up in her old fashioned mentality of others’ character, she becomes a selfish and judgemental woman. Her hypocritical ways can be seen when she becomes absorbed in pleading for her life and never once asking the Misfit to spare her family's lives. When she is trying to sympathize with the Misfit, she has a realization finally understanding her weaknesses. Right after this moment, she is murdered like the rest of her family.
- John Wesley, June Star
- Bailey's children, aged 8 and 7, respectively. These two children are very misbehaved. During the car ride, they are very rowdy and disrespectful to their grandmother. John Wesley says he dislikes his home state. June Star says she "wouldn’t live in a broken down place like this for a million bucks" about the diner they stop in. When they decide they want to go to the house with the secret panel, they scream until they get what they want. Even towards the end of her life, June Star is rude. She says that the man that leads her into the woods to be killed looks like a pig.
- 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
- A misguided, escaped prisoner who stumbles upon Bailey's family after they have crashed. He orders his fellow escapees to systematically murder the entire family and he personally shoots the grandmother multiple times after their conversation. In the last moments of the grandmother's life, the Misfit discusses his personal philosophies. First, he believes that he is innocent of the unknown crime he committed that put him in jail. This is why he calls himself the Misfit because he says his conviction was a mistake. The Misfit also has no spiritual beliefs, therefore he relies on himself to be his moral compass. When the grandmother tries to appeal to his mercy with religion he immediately dismisses her. He questions the meaning of life and is nihilistic.
- 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
- Male pet cat of the Grandmother. Bailey flings him against a tree after the accident. He 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.
- The Negro child
- A child that the family sees, at the beginning of their journey, standing in the door of a shack, while the grandmother is stating that, in her time, children used to be more respectful. The child does not have any pants on: the grandmother refers to him as a "pickaninny", and she adds that he would make the subject of a painting. She explains that "niggers" in the country do not have the things that they have. The scene seems to indicate the grandmother's indifference to other people's lives and needs. The child needs essential clothing, while on the contrary the grandmother wears her best clothes in order to appear a "lady", i.e. to signal her superior social status. In the final scene, the Misfit will need a shirt, and he will take Bailey's.
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". 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. 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".
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.
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."
Theme of grace
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 humanity'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, according to O'Conner's Catholicism the grandmother and the Misfit both are the same at their core: sinners in need of grace. 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".
The sins the grandmother commits throughout the story depict 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 every day for her to become a good person.
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, but according to reviewers the film does not depict the story well.
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.
- Gooch, Brad. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor. New York: Little, Brown, 2009, p. 238.
- Ann Kirk, Connie (2008). Critical companion to Katelyn Smith. Infobase Publishing. pp. 74–78. ISBN 9781438108469. Retrieved April 24, 2011.
- "A Good Man Is Hard To Find". Archived from the original on 2007-03-20. Retrieved 2007-03-26.
- O'Connor, Flannery (1969). Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Macmillan. p. 109. ISBN 0374508046. Retrieved 25 October 2019.
- 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.
- Ochshorn, Kathleen (1990), A Cloak of Grace: Contradictions in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find", Studies in American Fiction, pp. 113–117
- 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.
- 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
- "Means, Meaning and Mediated Space in 'A Good Man is Hard to Find.'" The Southern Quarterly. 44.4 (2007): 125-38.
- Kelley, Sara (December 2008). "Flannery O'Connor's Duality in "A Good Man is Hard to Find"". Corridors. Archived from the original on 2016-09-21. Retrieved 2018-05-17.
- 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.
- Fassler, Joe. "What Flannery O'Connor Got Right: Epiphanies Aren't Permanent". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2018-05-17.
- "UbuWeb Film & Video: Jeri Cain Rossi". Ubu.com. Retrieved 2016-08-27.
- N'Duka, Amanda. "Michael Rooker Reteams With His 'Henry' Director On 'A Good Man Is Hard To Find'". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved 22 January 2019.
- 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.