Salvation, Humor, and Forgiveness in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find"
A first reading of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" will leave the reader shocked at its violent nature. Extremely unlikable characters that include a nervous and fussy grandmother, a grouchy father and two bratty kids, a bizarre plot so far-fetched it's shocking and an emotionless serial killer help to create this violent short story. Some may even question its place in the American literary canon.
But beneath the gore, the shock, and the obvious plot twists, O'Connor is poking fun at society, examining redemption and exposing the reader's own shortcomings and cravings for violence.
The Unrealistic Plot
The plot of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" seems ridiculously contrived upon a first reading, even for a story published in the mid-fifties. A family, complete with a grandmother, two kids, a baby, a father and wife all head out on a road trip to Florida. The grandmother has secretly sneaked her cat into a basket at her feet because she didn't want to leave it at home.
The grandmother who establishes herself as a nervous talker who is confused about why things couldn't stay the way they were back in the old days keeps trying to talk the family into going to Tennessee instead of Florida. She talks about a serial killer called "The Misfit" who is somewhere on the loose in Georgia and explains they'll be going right into his path.
After the family stops for lunch at a BBQ place owned by Red Sammy, another bit of foreshadowing occurs. Red Sammy explains that he had two guys come up in Chrysler and steal some gas from him just last week. He explains that "a good man is hard to find" and the grandmother is happy to have someone who can also lament about the good old days. As the family continues their drive, the grandmother convinces the father, her son, to go down this side road because she is sure that there is an old plantation with a secret panel and maybe treasure. Of course the kids latch onto the idea so the dad agrees to start driving down the road.
As they are looking for the plantation the grandmother claims to remember, she suddenly remembers that the place she is thinking of isn't even in Georgia; it's in Tennessee. The realization makes her jump, kicking the basket with the cat who then escapes, jumps on the father and causes the whole car to wreck.
The family climbs out of the car, dazed and hurt, to see another car approaching them over the hill. Of course it is the Misfit and his gang. Everything is okay until the grandmother points out that she knows who he is. The Misfit directs this cronies to take the family, a few at a time, into the woods where there are gun shots heard. Only the grandmother is left and she begins to try to talk him out of killing her. But just as she seems to be reaching him and reaches towards him, he shoots her three times and kills her.
The story ends with the Misfit calmly cleaning his glasses and stroking the cat, the lone suvivor of the incident.
Character List for A Good Man is Hard to Find
She drives the action of the story, causing the turning points of action.
The disgruntled father who tries to do the right thing.
Wife and Baby
Mostly silent characters who do not add much to the plot.
June Star and John Wesley
Mouthy, loud children who don't like their grandmother and are bored.
Red Sammy and Wife
Owners of the BBQ place where the family stops. Red Sammy lends us the title of the story.
Bobby Lee and Hiram
Cronies of the Misfit, do his bidding
Escaped serial killer on the loose. Brings an end to the family.
Plot Is Not the Focus
While the story plot seems contrived, the twists and turns and transparency of its movement are part of O'Connor's method. Her intention was not to build a suspenseful story to make you frightened---rather she asks her audience to examine each of the characters closely, to discover their faults, their weaknesses and their strenghts.
The characterizations are over the top and exaggerated, yet they examined the changing face of the South in the 1950s. The prejudiced, talkative grandmother who couldn't understand the changing south is still in search of that old plantation that she jokes to her grandson is "gone with the wind." Bailey, the father is overworked, tired and trying to bridge the gap between his mother and his children.
The two children are bored and loud. They have no qualms about telling adults exactly what they think, something that shocks the grandmother quite a bit on several occasions.
The transitions in the south at the time of this publication and the changing dynamics of the family are not the only focus. The understanding of religion and salvation is also dynamic as the old prejudiced south is beginning to make way for a more equal place to live.
Humor and Salvation
The whole contrived plot is meant to be O'Connor's own look at society and storytelling---a sort of deconstruction of the whole suspense genre. It's like Twilight Zone before there was a Twilight Zone. The interactions of the family, stopping at a BBQ where there's a monkey chained to a tree and the "of course" moment when the stowaway cat causes the wreck that causes the encounter with the Misfit, all fit with our expectations of how a story of this nature works. But the points are so transparent that the reader begins to deconstruct exactly what O'Connor is doing and why.
There are many religious symbols and plot points in the short story, particularly at their meeting with the Misfit. Up until this point all of the family is selfish, self-absorbed and fussy. After the wreck, they seem subdued. No one but the grandmother even fights against their executions.
As the grandmother talks to the Misfit about his life she herself begins to transform. She goes from begging for her life to a moment of redemption.
The Misfit notes "Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead....and He shouldn't have done it." The grandmother mumbles "Maybe He didn't raise the dead." Then the story notes that she crumpled to the ground.
Defeated and weary she sinks to the ground and is quiet for the first time in the story. It is at that moment that her transformation happens. She takes pity on the Misfit and reaches out to him noting that he's "one of my own children."
As she reaches out the Misfit panics and shoots her three times in the chest. As his crony notes that "she was a talker" the Misfit replies that "Should would have been a good woman...if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
The Misfit, who represents the emotionless side of someone with no soul clashes with the purity of the grandmother's redemptive moment. It is not a surprise that she has to be shot three times (a trinity reference) or that her reaching out to him was like a snake bite (a reference to the Garden of Eden).
This also helps the reader to understand what he means when he says that she would have been okay if someone had been there to shoot her every moment of her life. It took that situation for her to understand how selfish and trivial her life had been. O'Connor notes that her head finally cleared. She finally understood.
Why the Violence?
Some may wonder why a story with a message of redemption would contain such violence. However, looking at religion itself gives you the answer. Violence is the very foundation of the Christian religion with the crucifixion. Further, O'Connor's Catholicism and it's focus on that aspect of religion likely helped her make that connection.
Sacrifice is a part of much religious doctrine and very much a part of this story. In the end, the sacrifice of the grandmother and her reaching out signals forgiveness for the Misfit, even as she knows what he is about to do to her.
The violence gives way to peace as the grandmother lays there, looking childlike with a smile on her face.