A comparison of protagonists in Flannery O’Conner’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” and “Greenleaf”
In both his works of fiction, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” and “Greenleaf”, Flannery O’Conner paints a rather grim picture. The protagonists in both the short stories share several common traits. In the story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, the Grandmother, who remains unnamed throughout, is a vile woman, who is also selfish and a complete hypocrite. Yet, she continues to judge other people for what she perceives to be their shortcomings. She is a woman who has seen hardships, and just the fact that she got through them, makes her feel morally superior to others. She feels she is a ‘lady’ which makes her better than the rest. She lacks the will and the ability to introspect and spends her time passing judgement on others.
Her hypocrisy is highlighted in the fact that she spends most of her time passing judgement on others even though she claims her conscious to be her guiding force. A glaring example of her selfishness is when she is afraid for her own life, but claims that her conscience would not allow her to take her family in the same direction as that taken by the criminal referred to as ‘the Misfit’. She passes judgement on her daughter-in-law for not taking her children to a place that she personally thinks would be beneficial for them. To further add insult to injury, she compares her daughter-in-law’s face to a cabbage.
The Grandmother has an opinion on everything and feels that her way of doing things is the only way to do them. She chastises another character from the story, John Wesley, for what she thinks is inappropriate amount of respect for his home state. At any opportunity, she makes it her business to judge other people and remark at the lack of their goodness, without evidently having any of her own. She gives little attention to her own behavior, convinced that being a lady is the only virtue, and she, by dressing as one is the only lady and therefore is the only one who harbors any virtues at all.
This lack of self awareness, and a tendency to dissociate herself from everything happening around her, to take a morally condescending stance, is a recurrent theme of her character. Though she is critical of everyone and everything that other people do, she continues to turn a blind eye to her own failings and shortcomings, believing herself to be above any character or personality flaws. She continuously talks about her conscience, citing it when it can get her her own way, while completely ignoring it when it comes in the way of what she wants. She sneaks Pitty Sing into the car and continues to lie to the children. If she made a mistake, she chooses not to reveal her and blame others for it. Even at the end of the story, when the family encounters the Misfit, and he systematically murders everyone – including the children that the Grandmother harps on initially, she never for once begs him to spare their lives. Instead, when the criminal finally turns his weapon towards her, she begs him and entreats him to spare her, citing the fact that she was a lady and therefore above the rest of the family that had been so mercilessly murdered in front of her.
Despite her overactive conscience, which had just witnessed the murder of her family, she entreats the Misfit to join her world telling him that she believed him to be a good man. Despite the heartlessness that the Misfit had just displayed, the Grandmother is sure of her moral code and that it would mean something to him. In fact, she even extends it to him, trying to make him see that he was a good man, albeit a misunderstood one. Unfortunately for her, though he does agree with her, he does not see this as a reason to let her go. Throughout this traumatic event, the Grandmother continues to be the conceited person that she started out to be in the story. It is only in her final moments, when she is just a blink away from death, does she realize her folly and admits that she is flawed like everyone else that she had criticized all her life. She finally sees the error of her ways and learns the truth about herself, only it is too late for her realization to be any good to her. As her last dying words, she admits to the Misfit that he was like one of her own children, finally showing the ability to feel compassion. Her last moment alive is also her moment of truth, one where she realizes who she is and understands others. This crucial moment of her life is immediately followed by her tragic death.
In Greenleaf, the author directs a similar protagonist. The protagonist, an elderly lady in this one too, is Mrs. May – the proprietor of a farm. She is a conceited woman who believes that her farm is profitable and sustaining only because of her efforts, discarding the efforts put in by the rest of the family and the farm help. Her rise from penury to the success of her farm makes her oblivious to the fact that she had help. Instead, she sees this as an opportunity to put on airs and tell the world of her prowess in business. She brags about herself being penniless and inexperienced when she first came about the rundown farm, and takes great pride in the fact that the farm is now successful. She not only forgets the contribution of the farm help, but blames them of being against her. She even goes on to the extent of blaming the elements of being against her. So engrossed is she in her own success that she forgets that it is only the elements of nature that allow the farm to be successful.
She also forget the help of Mr. Greenleaf, who stood by her and toiled with her to make her farm successful and profitable. It was only after Mr. Greenleaf had answered her ad for help that she had been able to set up a dairy for herself. Though the story does not rally on the particular contributions of Mr. Greenleaf, it does suggest that the farm was only established upon his arrival and therefore it can be inferred that he was instrumental in its success. She, with her half baked knowledge in farming, and her lack of experience, is certainly not a good farm keeper or a farm manager. It is only the experience and the wisdom of Mr. Greenleaf that continues to make her farm successful and profitable. Her good fortune has been because of the arrival of a farmhand who is not only knowledgable, but also hard working. This is something that she ignores through the course of the story. She places a lot of value on her own perceived virtues, in this case her efforts to pull the farm together. On the other hand, she complains about Mr. Greenleaf to everyone who would turn an ear to her. Most of her blessings are undeserved, but she fails to recognize it and is certainly not graceful in her rejection of Mr. Greenleaf’s contributions.
As the story continues to build, Mrs. May’s resentment towards Mr. Greenleaf increases. She is ultimately brought down and killed by a bull, who she wants to control. While Mr. Greenleaf views the bull as an unstoppable force of nature, Mrs. May sees it as an intruder on her property and something that she should be able to control, because of her position and her perceived abilities. In refusing to succumb to the forces beyond her control, she invites her own end. The bull finally attacks her and she is impaled by its horn.
A similar character theme to that of the Grandmother, Mrs. May cannot see the grace present in those that she believes to be socially her inferiors. Like the Grandmother, it is Mrs. May’s blind pride, and her inability to turn her eye inwards, that leads to the conflict between herself and those around her – in this case Mr. Greenleaf. She thought too highly of herself, and was pretentiously self righteous. As in most of her works, O’Conner gives her protagonists the characteristics of self righteousness, blind pride, tactlessness and conceit. Both the Grandmother and Mrs. May believe themselves to be ladies, and therefore above reproach. They both feel that if they feel, dress and behave the part, they can be ladies, who are in fact revered people of the society. They attach too much importance to their own selves and to their perceived social standing. Though they do not choose to act like ladies, they still believe themselves to be it. They both feel that if they continue to behave like respectable people of the society, they would be appropriate rewarded with good graces. Both of them have little patience or compassion.
Another similarity between the two characters is that though both of them continue to be conceited and hypocrites, they do understand their own follies during their dying moments. In the story ‘Greenleaf’ Mrs. May is impaled by a bull’s horn and as she is lying there, dying of her grievous injuries, she chooses to confess something to the bull. Her dying words are spoken in the bull’s ears. What these words were, we will never know because the narrator does not choose to do so. One can only imagine that when she does face the moment of truth, Mrs. May, like the Grandmother, chooses to finally acknowledge the error of her ways.
Another unfortunate similarity between the two protagonists is that none of them were able to admit their folly to the people they had wronged. While in “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, the Grandmother realizes her mistake only after the remainder of her family has been murdered, Mrs. May dies alone without having the chance to apologize for her behavior and her errors to their primary recepient, Mr. Greenleaf. In both the cases, self realization came too late, only when the women were moment’s away from death. The realization of their errors is quickly followed by their deaths in both the stories, giving them no opportunity to correct themselves or make amends to the people they had wronged by their actions.
Though it is not apparent in O’Conner’s style of narration, it seems that the protagonists of both the stories were undeserving of the attention, affection and blessings that they received in their life. Why the two choose to be the way they are or act the way they do, remains a mystery. Both of them are elderly women, but their youth is not discussed in the story, so one can only assume that the two had seen tough times which hardened them emotionally. Their insistence on being morally superior by virtue of being ‘ladies’ may have something to do with some experiences in their youth or their earlier life, of which there is no mention in either of the stories. At the end of each of the story, the principal characters, who remain smug and conceited throughout the narration, are shocked out of their self righteousness into humaneness. Unfortunately, the realization of their total inadequacy in the eyes of the supreme being, or God, comes too late – in their dying moments.