By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’ is one of the best-known short stories by Flannery O’Connor (1925-64), who produced a string of powerful stories during her short life. First published in the collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find in 1955, the story is about an American family who run into an escaped murderer at a plantation.
Before we offer an analysis of some of the key details of the story, here’s a brief summary of its plot.
‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’: plot summary
The story is about a grandmother, her son named Bailey, Bailey’s wife, and the couple’s three children, named June Star, John Wesley, and simply ‘the baby’. The family are going on holiday to Florida. At the beginning of the story, the grandmother points out to her son that a notorious criminal, known as the Misfit, is on the loose and she doesn’t think they should be going on vacation to Florida when the Misfit is rumoured to be heading there.
On their way to their destination, the grandmother tells the children a story of how she was courted by a wealthy man who used to leave her a watermelon every day with his initials, E. A. T., inscribed in it. However, one day a black boy saw the word ‘EAT’ on the watermelon and ate it. This story amuses the children.
The family then stop off for lunch a barbecue diner, The Tower, run by a man named Red Sammy, who talks to the grandmother about the Misfit. It is Red Sammy who remarks, ‘A good man is hard to find’, in reference to the dangerous convict on the loose.
When the family get back on the road, the grandmother persuades her son to take a detour to a plantation she remembers from her youth. She embellishes the story by inventing details, such as the idea that a secret panel concealed the family silver in the house.
However, she has misremembered where the plantation is: Tennessee, rather than Georgia (where the family are). When the grandmother’s cat escapes from his basket and frightens Bailey, he crashes the car into a ditch.
Another car approaches them. It contains three men, one of whom the grandmother recognises as the notorious Misfit. He seems familiar to her, as though she has known him for years.
When she blurts out that she recognises him, the Misfit tells them that it would have been better if she hadn’t recognised him. He talks to the grandmother while his two accomplices lead Bailey into the woods and shoot him. They then do the same with Bailey’s wife and the children. The grandmother tries to flatter the Misfit into sparing her life, telling him that she knows he’s a good man, but to no avail.
The story ends with the grandmother addressing the Misfit as one of her own ‘babies’ or ‘children’; the Misfit shoots her dead. The Misfit has the final word, observing that the grandmother would have been a good woman if she had had someone there ‘to shoot her every minute of her life.’
‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’: analysis
The character of the grandmother is central to the dramatic power of ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’. The first two words of the story are ‘The grandmother’; the story begins with her warning her son about the escaped Misfit and ends with her being shot dead by the Misfit; the story opens with the third-person narrator’s reference to Bailey as the grandmother’s ‘only boy’ but ends with her addressing the Misfit as one of her ‘own children’.
And although ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’ is narrated by an impersonal third-person narrator, in terms of the story’s focalisation we remain close to the grandmother’s perspective on events, seeing things through her eyes and gaining access to her thoughts and feelings as the story approaches its shocking and dramatic climax.
The skill of O’Connor’s writing lies in her ability to shuttle rapidly between comedic moments poking gentle fun at the grandmother and darker plot developments. The point is not that the shift between these two very different modes seems awkward or out of place, but that O’Connor lends the already shocking moments at the end of the story an even more alarming element, through juxtaposing them with lighter comic interludes.
A central theme of O’Connor’s story is, as the title makes clear, goodness: note how the grandmother and Red Sammy’s repeated references to a ‘good man’ meet their match in the Misfit’s statement at the end of the story that the grandmother would have been a ‘good woman’ if someone had been there to (threaten to) shoot her at all times.
This statement of the Misfit’s also highlights another theme O’Connor is exploring: that of crime and punishment. The Misfit tells the grandmother that the punishments he has undergone don’t match with the crimes he has committed. But the story contains a religious angle, too, as exemplified by the grandmother’s epiphany at the end of the story, in which – when confronted with her own imminent death – she reaches out and acknowledges her killer as one of her ‘children’.
This blessing is in stark contrast to the Misfit, who – in almost Dostoevskian fashion – characterises Christianity as a case of either giving up anything and following Christ or rejecting him and doing as one pleases. Anything – murder, burning down someone’s house – is permissible and constitutes the only true pleasure one can get from life.
The grandmother’s final act of blessing (forgiveness, or a last desperate attempt to save her own life?) raises this petty, racially prejudiced, and comical old woman far above the level of the nihilistic Misfit and all he represents.
Of course, it may also be significant that the Misfit – who was accused by one of the prison psychiatrists of killing his own father – personally kills the grandmother, who represents an old and outmoded America. Flannery O’Connor’s story is about a changing America, and the text is marked by the Grandmother’s continual reminiscences about a better, simpler life when she was younger.
The story’s title, taken from Red Sammy’s conversation with the Grandmother in which they lament that the world has become debased and degraded during their lifetimes, places this mood and tone at the centre of the story.
In this connection, the grandmother’s attitude towards African-Americans is already outdated, even in 1955 when the story first appeared.
Her racial stereotypes, such as associating African-Americans with watermelons, the offensive words she uses to describe the black boy they pass in the car, and her casual presumptions about the lives of black people all mark her out as a representative of an older American outlook which is about to be entirely laid to rest with the onset of the US Civil Rights movement. (The Montgomery Bus Boycott, for example, occurred at the end of 1955, the year the story appeared.)
Viewed this way, ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’ might be productively analysed alongside a another key American text from the 1950s: Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, also from 1955, similarly deals with the generational gap between an older America and the younger Americans who represent a new attitude, especially regarding race.