L. Sarhan has a B.A. in English and creative writing. She is currently working on an M.A. in English and creative writing.
Flannery O’Connor was a Southern Catholic writer that enjoyed writing stories with a deeper religious message. Oftentimes, her writing would address topics found in the degradation of religious values facing the south in the 1950s. To get the readers’ attention, she would employ the use of dramatic irony and gruesome shock factors.
“In my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.” Flannery O’Connor (1963)
The intent of this article is to bring to light some of the more commonly discussed symbolism and foreshadowing techniques that O’Connor brilliantly inserts in the short story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find", to give it a greater meaning.
The Misfit Makes Headlines
"Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn't take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn't answer to my conscience if I did." (Flannery O’Connor, "A Good Man is Hard to Find")
There is no doubt that The Misfit takes center stage in O’Connor’s story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The Grandmother makes for the perfect pre-show hype man. From the very beginning of the story, these two main characters are in play. The Grandmother tells Bailey, her son, that a serial killer has escaped the penitentiary and he calls himself the Misfit. Right there is blatant foreshadowing that the family will ultimately cross paths with the Misfit.
She continues by saying, “I wouldn't take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn't answer to my conscience if I did." However, in a motion of dramatic irony, that is exactly what she did. It was her idea to drive down the dirt road after a house that was actually in Tennessee. Even after remembering that the house was in Tennessee, she kept quiet. Therefore, it was because of the Grandmother that her son and her grandchildren were put in the path of the Misfit.
The Misfit plays a heavy role in blatant verbal foreshadowing as the grandmother sporadically mentions the Misfit at every opportunity throughout the story.
The Grandmother Wants to Visit East Tennessee
“THE GRANDMOTHER didn't want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey's mind.” (Flannery O’Connor, "A Good Man is Hard to Find")
The grandmother feels nostalgic for her ties to East Tennessee. From the first sentence, it shows the grandmother’s manipulative attempt to get her way. She takes the opportunity to try to convince the family to go to East Tennessee instead of Florida on account of the Misfit being on the loose but they ignore her request. Throughout the drive, the grandmother tells stories from her younger years in East Tennessee. Then, she remembers a house with a secret passageway. She gets the children excited about the house and badger Bailey until he begrudgingly decided to take the family down a dirt road toward this alleged house. After driving for a while, the grandmother is startled to remember that the house they were looking for was actually in East Tennessee.
The Grandmother's Hat
“…the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim…” (Flannery O’Connor, "A Good Man is Hard to Find")
Often overlooked is the symbolism and foreshadowing of the grandmother’s hat. The hat symbolizes the grandmother’s desire to be view by the public as a lady, despite her hypocritical moral code toward others. The grandmother justifies the way she dresses when the author clues us in with, “anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.” Again, the grandmother prepares for the exact incident that is going to happen later in the story.
The grandmother’s hat holds more mystery. As the grandmother dresses in a lady-like outward appearance, she doesn’t seem to be worried as to how anyone would perceive her family or if they would survive the hypothetical accident. As previously mentioned, the hat represents the grandmother’s perception of being viewed to a higher standard—as a lady with high moral values. However, when the actual accident occurs, the brim of the hat is in tatters—much like her self-righteous and judgmental moral code. As she drops the damaged hat, her deluded self-image falls away, much like the brim of the hat.
“They passed a large cotton field with five or six graves fenced in the middle of it, like a small island…"Look at the graveyard!" the grandmother said, pointing it out. "That was the old family burying ground. That belonged to the plantation."” (Flannery O’Connor, "A Good Man is Hard to Find")
As the family drives toward Florida, the family notices a graveyard fenced in on a hill in what used to be an old plantation field. This is to represent the family and their impending death. Note how the grandmother specifically points out that it is a “family” burying ground. What is also worth noting is that the text says, “five or six graves”. One grave for each of the family members.
1. The Grandmother
3. Bailey’s wife
4. June Star
5. John Wesley
6. The Baby
It is possible that the “or six” was meant to represent the baby. There isn’t much emphasis on the baby throughout the story. Even the static, flat character of the mother received more attention than the infant. Therefore, the “or” was more of an ‘oh, yeah…and the infant, too’ type of written gesture.
The family stops for lunch at Red Sammy’s barbecue restaurant named “The Tower”. This is intriguing for Flannery O’Connor to give the restaurant such a name. The author is known for being a Southern Catholic writer yet, after reading the entire story could the name of the barbecue restaurant symbolize the Tower tarot card? After all, O’Connor doesn’t give readers details without having a purpose or meaning behind them.
The Tower tarot card typically means an unforeseeable danger, accident, crisis of some sort, and potentially catastrophic destruction. This is usually followed by some sort of liberation. Even if the card was reversed it would signify obstacles, losses, and volatile situations.
Note how it relates to the story:
A warning – Just like the Tower tarot card serves as a warning Red Sammy tries to warn the family that The Misfit may be in the area after he let two men fill up their car with gasoline on “credit”. Back then “credit” meant a verbal agreement to come back to pay. Red Sammy also reminisced about how it isn’t safe to leave doors unlocked. Even Red Sammy’s wife tried warning them as she mentioned that the Misfit would most like target robbing the restaurant.
Unforeseeable danger – Here was a family taking a road trip to Florida when their trip comes to a halt when the Misfit and his goons murder the lot of them.
An accident – When the Grandmother’s cat attacked Bailey while he was driving, the car drove off a steep ravine known as a gulch. The car rolled and the mother and baby were thrown from the car.
Crisis – The accident itself is a crisis but it also attracted the attention of the Misfit and his goons. The kids were in a panic over the accident and the Grandmother made things worse as she verbally recognizes the Misfit.
Catastrophic destruction – The obvious correlation would be the death of the entire family. It could also symbolize the selfish, manipulative, hypocritical actions of the Grandmother. She claims to be a lady and a Christian from “good” people with high morals yet she continues to lie and deceive her own family. Even in the end, she cared more about saving herself than the rest of the family.
Liberation - "She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." It wasn’t until the end, right before the Grandmother’s death that she realized the error of her hypocrisy. Perhaps as she reached out to the Misfit in such a compassionate way, she experienced what it meant to extend God’s love and grace to another human being other than herself.
"A Good Man is Hard to Find": Red Sammy
"You can't win," he said. "You can't win," and he wiped his sweating red face off with a gray handkerchief. "These days you don't know who to trust," he said. "Ain't that the truth?"
"People are certainly not nice like they used to be," said the grandmother.
"Two fellers come in here last week," Red Sammy said, "driving a Chrysler. It was a old beat-up car but it was a good one and these boys looked all right to me. Said they worked at the mill and you know I let them fellers charge the gas they bought? Now why did I do that?"
"Because you're a good man!" the grandmother said at once.
"Yes'm, I suppose so," Red Sam said as if he were struck with this answer. (Flannery O’Connor, "A Good Man is Hard to Find")
It is in this scene we get the name of the title. However, a good man is hard to find considering how difficult it is to define exactly what a “good man” is. Just as many people will define different characteristics of what it means to be a “good man”, many literary critics analyze this passage differently.
Red Sammy’s warning – Red Sammy is trying to warn the family of the Misfit being in the area as he tries to hint around that the Misfit's goon potentially robbed them of gasoline and maybe more as Red Sammy’s wife chimes in with her own warning. Or, maybe Red Sammy did allow them to charge the gasoline to “credit” so as not to provoke any trouble. “Credit” back in the 1950s wasn’t like “credit” we have today. In the 1950s, it meant that someone could take a good or service and promise to return with money later, even if it meant days or weeks later.
His wife brought the orders, carrying the five plates all at once without a tray, two in each hand and one balanced on her arm. "It isn't a soul in this green world of God's that you can trust," she said. "And I don't count nobody out of that, not nobody," she repeated, looking at Red Sammy.
Red Sammy’s wife’s warning – Note that last part: “…she repeated, looking at Red Sammy.” This is an interesting clue the author may be letting Red Sammy’s wife give us. Although it appears that Red Sammy is giving the family a subtle warning and appearing to be a good man, that may not be entirely the case either. Red Sammy’s wife says, "It isn't a soul in this green world of God's that you can trust," she said. "And I don't count nobody out of that, not nobody…” directing her thought directly at Red Sammy. Could it be that she was giving the family a warning of her own that Red Sammy couldn’t be trusted either?
"Did you read about that criminal. The Misfit, that's escaped?" asked the grandmother.
"I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he didn't attact this place right here," said the woman. "If he hears about it being here, I wouldn't be none surprised to see him. If he hears it's two cent in the cash register, I wouldn't be a tall surprised if he . . ."
"That'll do," Red Sam said.
Red Sammy’s wife continues to give hints and clues, especially after the grandmother brings up the Misfit. It is as though Red Sammy’s wife is trying to tell the grandmother that the Misfit is not only in the area but has already come by the Tower, or at the very least his goons had. Perhaps what she is assuming isn’t an assumption at all but instead what has already happened.
What Type of Warning is it? – Although this is merely speculative, could it be that Red Sammy is in cahoots with the Misfit? Thus, this is the part of the story that the title originates, pointing out that although Red Sammy may appear to be good despite the fact that he may not be after all.
Religious Reference – Since Flannery O’Connor is known for being a Catholic writer who often writes with religious themes in mind, some believe that this scene in the story can be compared to the story Jesus told about the Good Samaritan in the bible. However, some literary theorists believe it relates to a passage in the Bible that states:
“A ruler questioned Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Luke 18:18-19 NASB)
How some Christian interpret this passage is that Jesus is acknowledging that this ruler just called him God. Therefore, Red Sammy acknowledges the grandmother’s compliment with, "Yes'm, I suppose so," Red Sam said as if he were struck with this answer,” impressed that the grandmother recognized that Red Sam was indeed a good man. Therefore, some literary critics believe this is a symbolic connection to Red Sammy not just agreeing with the grandmother but enforcing that Red Sammy sets a better Christian example, thus actually being a good man.
The Grandmother’s Nostalgia
It is often said that when one is close to death, their whole life flashes before them. Could it be that all of the tales from the grandmother’s younger years be merely a foreshadowing of her coming death?
- She starts the story by trying to convince the family to vacation in East Tennessee instead of Florida. Could she have been feeling homesick?
- Although thinking of her home state of Tennessee, she reprimands John Wesley and June Star for their disrespect of their own home state. Again, this reminds the reader that the grandmother reminisces about the time when she was growing up.
- She tells the children and the readers stories from her time growing up as a young lady. Perhaps she has some regret such as her story about Mr. Edgar Atkins Teagarden and how she would have done well to marry him.
- She remembers fondly a plantation house from her childhood. She lies to the family to get them to be interested in going there so she talks about secret passages and treasure as she spun the tale of the family hiding the silver when Sherman rode through. It is later, after the family turned down the dirt road to the alleged house, that she remembers the house was in Tennessee and they were in Georgia.
It is ironic that O'Connor chose the location of the family's demise to be just outside of Toomsboro, Georgia. Even today this small town is less than a two-mile square radius and has a population of fewer than 450 people. Could it have been a play on words? After all, it is pronounced like a tomb, which is a resting place for the dead. Imagine Toomsboro in the early 1950s, it may have resembled a ghost town with even few residents residing in the town. Could it be that this is to symbolize the family's own death and spirit leaving their body? Could the dirt road they traveled down symbolize the dirt in the ground in which most people are buried?
The Prison Cell
"...but somewheres along the line I done something wrong and got sent to the penitentiary. I was buried alive," and he looked up and held her attention to him by a steady stare.
"That's when you should have started to pray," she said. "What did you do to get sent to the penitentiary that first time?"
"Turn to the right, it was a wall," The Misfit said, looking up again at the cloudless sky. "Turn to the left, it was a wall. Look up it was a ceiling, look down it was a floor. I forget what I done, lady. I set there and set there, trying to remember what it was I done and I ain't recalled it to this day. Oncet in a while, I would think it was coming to me, but it never come." (Flannery O'Connor, "A Good Man is Hard to Find")
Throughout the story, O'Connor provides symbolism and foreshadowing of death and being physically in the grave. She also does this when the Misfit stares off in remembering what it was like to be in prison. Aside from the representation of the four walls of a grave, he initially ignores the grandmother's comment as he seems to visualize being back in the prison cell. As he explains that he has no memory of his crime, it is possible that this shows how prison killed any humanity he had left, whether he was guilty of his initial crime or not.
As the family drives down the dirt road to their doom, she remembers the house they are searching for is in Tennessee, not Georgia. This startling realization causes a jerk in her leg disrupting the suitcase and the basket that the cat had been hidden away. The cat springs into fright and attacks Bailey. They crash and tumble into a gulch. A gulch is a narrow and steep-sided ravine. This is important for readers to understand as O'Connor weaves symbolic meanings with the setting.
O'Connor tells readers that the dirt road has dense trees to the left of this dirt road. There is also a thicket of trees to the right of the gulch they are in. She also repetitively emphasizes the blue sky and how there is not a cloud in the sky nor is the sun within view. But how is this important?
Being down in this steep dirt gulch boxed in by dense trees symbolizes being in a grave. This is a foreshadowing of what is about to happen as soon as the Misfit and his goons arrive. Imagine standing in a freshly dug grave. As you look up, all you see is four dirt walls and the sky.
But, why emphasize the sky being blue with no clouds and the sun isn't visible past the canopy of the trees? O'Connor slides in a double meaning to the gulch scene. Many literary theorists speculate it is a baptismal scene. For Christians, baptism is a renewal of faith and washes away sins. For those that have been baptized, if they open their eyes during baptisms all they see is the top of the water. That is what the sky represents - the top of the water during baptism.
How is baptism significant to the story? Remember that the story exemplifies the rising hypocrisy of Christians through the 1950s. The grandmother's show of hypocrisy time and time again throughout the story gives way at the end when she realizes that she is no better than the Misfit. According to the Bible, "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 6:23, NASB). For many, this means all sin is equal because the verse does not separate one sin from another. However, through baptism and repentance, Christians believe they will attain eternal life upon their death. It is at the end right before the grandmother is killed that she realizes her sin and is remorseful.
"...for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me." (Exodus 20:5, NASB)
Notice how after the accident the Misfit has his goons, Bobby Lee and Hiram, kill the family before killing the grandmother, the one who first recognized him. Perhaps O'Connor did this for a reason. Throughout the story, the main character with the strongest voice is the grandmother. The rest of the family is seemingly insignificant compared to the grandmother and eventually the Misfit. Chances are this was deliberate on O'Connor's part as in the end, it is the grandmother's family who is killed first, thus referencing God's wrath for such a sinful nature as that of hypocrisy.
It is also worth noting that one of the Misfit's goons, Hiram, shares the same name as the king of Tyre mentioned in the Bible. He was considered a prideful king. Hypocrisy is often associated with pride, which is the major underlying theme of the story.
Flannery O'Connor masterfully wove a plethora of symbolism and foreshadowing in her stories, such as she did with "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Are there any other examples of symbolism and/or foreshadowing not listed here? Please share your thoughts, observations, and comments below.
© 2018 Linda Sarhan
Emily Peña Murphey on January 18, 2019:
"A Good Man is Hard to Find" is also the title of a ragtime/blues song recorded by Bessie Smith, probably in the 1920s. It tells of the faithlessness of men; how the rare good one should be treated well and the more typical bad ones can be controlled.