Analysis of 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find' by Flannery O'Connor

A Road Trip Gone Awry

Gun barrel pointing at the viewer
(Geoffrey Fairchild)

"A Good Man Is Hard to Find," first published in 1953, is among the most famous stories by Georgia writer Flannery O'Connor. O'Connor was a staunch Catholic, and like most of her stories, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" wrestles with questions of good and evil and the possibility of divine grace.

Plot

A grandmother is traveling with her family (her son Bailey, his wife, and their three children) from Atlanta to Florida for a vacation.

The grandmother, who would prefer to go to east Tennessee, informs the family that a violent criminal known as The Misfit is loose in Florida, but they do not change their plans. The grandmother secretly brings her cat in the car.

They stop for lunch at Red Sammy's Famous Barbecue, and the grandmother and Red Sammy commiserate that the world is changing and "a good man is hard to find."

After lunch, the family begins driving again and the grandmother realizes they are near an old plantation she once visited. Wanting to see it again, she tells the children that the house has a secret panel and they clamor to go. Bailey reluctantly agrees. As they drive down a rough dirt road, the grandmother suddenly realizes that the house she is remembering is in Tennessee, not Georgia.

Shocked and embarrassed by the realization, she accidentally kicks over her belongings, releasing the cat, which jumps onto Bailey's head and causes an accident.

A car slowly approaches them, and the Misfit and two young men get out. The grandmother recognizes him and says so. The two young men take Bailey and his son into the woods, and shots are heard. Then they take the mother, the daughter, and the baby into the woods. More shots are heard. Throughout, the grandmother pleads for her life, telling The Misfit she knows he's a good man and entreating him to pray.

He engages her in a discussion about goodness, Jesus, and crime and punishment. She touches his shoulder, saying, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" but The Misfit recoils and shoots her.

Defining "Goodness"

The grandmother's definition of what it means to be "good" is symbolized by her very proper and coordinated traveling outfit. O'Connor writes:

In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.

The grandmother is clearly concerned with appearances above all else. In this hypothetical accident, she worries not about her death or the deaths of her family members, but about strangers' opinions of her. She also demonstrates no concern for the state of her soul at the time of her imagined death, but I think that's because she's operating under the assumption that her soul is already as pristine as her "navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim."

She continues to cling to superficial definitions of goodness as she pleads with The Misfit. She entreats him not to shoot "a lady," as if not murdering someone is just a question of etiquette. And she reassures him that she can tell he's "not a bit common," as if lineage is somehow correlated with morality.

Even The Misfit himself knows enough to recognize that he "ain't a good man," even if he "ain't the worst in the world neither."

After the accident, the grandmother's beliefs begin to fall apart just like her hat, "still pinned to her head but the broken front brim standing up at a jaunty angle and the violet spray hanging off the side." In this scene, her superficial values are revealed as ridiculous and flimsy.

O'Connor tells us that as Bailey is led into the woods, the grandmother:

reached up to adjust her hat brim as if she were going to the woods with him but it came off in her hand. She stood staring at it and after a second she let it fall on the ground.

The things she has thought were important are failing her, falling uselessly around her, and she now has to scramble to find something to replace them.

A Moment of Grace?

What she finds is the idea of prayer, but it's almost as if she's forgotten (or never knew) how to pray. O'Connor writes:

Finally she found herself saying, 'Jesus, Jesus,' meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing.

All her life, she has imagined that she is a good person, but like a curse, her definition of goodness crosses the line into evil because it is based on superficial, worldly values.

The Misfit may openly reject Jesus, saying, "I'm doing all right by myself," but his frustration with his own lack of faith ("It ain't right I wasn't there") suggests that he's given Jesus a lot more thought than the grandmother has.

When faced with death, the grandmother mostly lies, flatters, and begs. But at the very end, she reaches out to touch The Misfit and utters those rather cryptic lines, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!"

Critics disagree on the meaning of those lines, but they could possibly indicate that the grandmother finally recognizes the connectedness among human beings. She may finally understand what The Misfit already knows -- that there is no such thing as "a good man," but that there is good in all of us and also evil in all of us, including in her.

This may be the grandmother's moment of grace -- her chance at divine redemption. O'Connor tells us that "her head cleared for an instant," suggesting that we should read this moment as the truest moment in the story. The Misfit's reaction also suggests that the grandmother may have hit upon a divine truth.

As someone who openly rejects Jesus, he recoils from her words and her touch. Finally, even though her physical body is twisted and bloody, the grandmother dies with "her face smiling up at the cloudless sky" as if something good has happened or as if she has understood something important.

A Gun to Her Head

At the beginning of the story, The Misfit starts out as an abstraction for the grandmother. She doesn't really believe they'll encounter him; she's just using the newspaper accounts to try to get her way. She also doesn't really believe that they'll get into an accident or that she'll die; she just wants to think of herself as the kind of person whom other people would instantly recognize as a lady, no matter what.

It is only when the grandmother comes face to face with death that she begins to change her values. (O'Connor's larger point here, as it is in most of her stories, is that most people treat their inevitable deaths as an abstraction that will never really happen and, therefore, don't give enough consideration to the afterlife.)

Possibly the most famous line in all of O'Connor's work is The Misfit's observation, "She would have been a good woman […] if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." On the one hand, this is an indictment of the grandmother, who always thought of herself as a "good" person. But on the other hand, it serves as final confirmation that she was, for that one brief epiphany at the end, good.